Saturday, May 25, 2019


Rating: A large scoop of gourmet vanilla bean ice cream in a waffle cone

Highlight of note: The main character freezes things, something I liked well before Elsa ever appeared. :) And she's followed around by a remarkably intelligent eagle, which is just nifty. Not as good as being followed by a dragon, sure, but still interesting.

Will you read more by this author? Most likely, yes. There is a previous work that centered around two of the secondary characters in this book that is on my to-be-read list.

This is another fantasy set in a historical Russia. It seems like there have been a fair number of these recently. In this case, the time is approximately a thousand years ago and the place mostly Kiev.

The action starts with our main character, Katya, tied up by her village. The local prince's representatives sweep in and whisk her away to the capital. Despite the fact that they treat her very nicely, even to the point of welcoming the eagle who always follows her around, she assumes she's be taken to her execution. Why execute her? She has magic powers, the power to turn things to ice. It's soon revealed she has used this power on people in her village, so execution would seem fitting if one believed she was truly in control of her power and knew what she was doing. But she wasn't and she didn't.

At this point, I rather wished I hadn't read the description of the book because I would have had no idea where things were going. So in that spirit, I will go ahead and tell you that I recommend this book. The writing is lush and engaging, the characters likable and strong, and the plot engaging. If you want to start it with no spoilers at all, I wouldn't blame you for ignoring the rest of this write-up and finding a copy without knowing anything else.

So... Let's get a little more spoilery....


Okay. They're not leading her to her execution. Which you probably guessed because that would make this book really short considering that our MC is also a first person narrator. The people who were sent after her are knights in the prince's court. They can't freeze things, but they have their own magic powers and are tasked with helping her to understand and control hers. One of them can travel through shadows. One can block magic users from their powers. One can manipulate plants. Eventually, we meet people who can control earth and fire.

The knights are detailed characters and their interactions with each other, the prince, and Katya all seem very genuine. The prince is intriguing and I found myself really pulling for him and understanding why the others follow him. Katya herself is also likable and plagued by personal mysteries that I found myself intrigued by, even though a few of the answers were obvious to me well before she figured them out.

The romantic arc was cute and heartfelt. Was it realistic? Depends on what you mean by that. But it played out well I thought.

The conclusion was satisfactory. It was solid enough to make this very much a stand alone novel, but leaves plenty of opportunity for a sequel. The fact that we saw characters from one of Leake's previous works in this one makes me suspect we may see more of Katya even if she isn't the star of another book.

I did find the villains to be a little too simplistic, which I think may be what made this a book I liked rather than a book I loved. I would have loved to have seen better motives out of them and more conflict with the character who was once close to the prince but betrayed him.

Overall, I found Through the White Wood enjoyable and will be looking for other works by Leake.


Below you'll find the notes I took as I read. Clearly, they contain major spoilers.



6% I really like this bird. The only way to make her more awesome would be to turn her into a dragon

8% I really wish I hadn't read the cover copy and this didn't know this mysterious prince has similar powers to Katya. It would add a bit more suspense not to know that 

18% Whoever selected these tapestries was certainly morbid.

22% Keeping birds of prey on hoods all the time has always struck me as cruel. That puts a damper on this scene, which I assume is meant to humanize the prince by showing him caring about his birds.

28% So fire and ice must work together to save the land. I'm guessing the prince is a fire elemental.

32% Yep, the prince wields fire.

34% This secret exit, which is presumedly also an entrance, does not seem at all secure.

38% The destruction of the village is really gory. Also, our girl should have stolen a horse. Or, hell, asked for one. The prince was begging her to fight these invaders, so he would presumedly have helped.

44% How does this party not have a healer? I mean, I guess maybe the healers died, but they should have been keeping to the back. And, really, shouldn't most of the soldiers have basic first aid if not something better? And shouldn't there be a pack of clean strips for wounds even if the healer did die? These people seem very poorly prepared for arm conflict considering that they were riding out because of an invasion force.

45% I had assumed that Gosudar was a title or honorific people used for addressing the prince, but now they're using it as though it's his name. As in, "Take this to Gosudar." The absence of an article there is confusing me. Google says the word is Russian for prince, so it doesn't seem likely that it really is his name, but then shouldn't people be saying THE gosudar?

 47% The prince's name is Alexander. And Grigori isn't just a jerk but actively a bad guy.

54% All this talk of never seeing someone transform into an animal combined with the disclosure that Katya has never seen Elation poo had me convinced the bird isn't really a bird. But it she Katya's mother, her father, or someone else?

63% So... Elation may be her dad. Because apparently Spring could not return his human life and that he's a shadow of what he was and being a bird of prey would fit that.

72% Everytime Katya talks about riding with Elation on her arm, I wonder how hard that is. Just holding your arm out for more than a hours would be really hard, but with an eagle on it? That seems extreme.

75% The Emperesses are pretty dang hurtful. I don't know they really think Sasha killed his folks, though. I suspect they just want an excuse to brush him off.

78% There's something really sexy about the prince's new power.

83% Nice battle scene. Nicer kiss.

85% Elation is male and had more advanced thoughts than animals ever do. So, yeah, pretty sure he's Katya's dad.

86% Yep, confirmed by mindmeld.

I'm not sure why Katya even tried to leave without Sasha. He knew where she was going and would obviously have followed her. 

The ending is sweet. And solid enough that it doesn't require a sequel while being open to one.

Monday, May 20, 2019


Rating: A tiara decorated with constellations

Highlight of note: This is a fantasy inspired by Hindu myth. I've always thought there should be more of those.

Second Highlight: There's a demon horse that goes around asking to nom on people the way regular horses look for apples and sugar cubes. I simply adored her.

Will you read more by this author? Yes! In fact, the companion novel to this one is on my To Be Read List already.

(Note: I had thought I wrote about another novel by Ms Chokshi, The Gilded Wolves, when I read and loved it, but apparently that was just before I started this blog rather than just after. It was a magical realism set in 1800's Europe and I highly recommend it.)

Maya was born with a horoscope that said her marriage was linked with death. You might think that would mean she'd never be married. And it did for many years, but then her father, the local raja, decides it's politically important to hold a wedding. He's going to hold a big ceremony with a long list of potential husbands appearing. Maya will get to pick one. Which is better than any of her sisters were afforded as their marriages were completely arranged.

At the wedding, an unexpected suitor appears. As violence breaks out, Maya chooses the mysterious stranger, Amar, and is whisked away to another realm. He tells her that due to some magic regarding the phase of the moon, he can't tell her who he is or give her any of the details about his country. She's not happy about this, but his throat visibly seizes up when he says too much, so there doesn't seem to be much to do about it.

Over the next month, the couple grows to know one another, but a mysterious voice seeds doubts about her husband's goodness in Maya's mind. Is it possible that she is but one in a series of doomed brides? Could this be a Vedic version of the story of Bluebeard?

The setting is the ancient India of myth, and I cannot express how happy I was to see that. Hindu mythology is fascinating to me and is rife with amazing stories, characters, and mythic beings. It is, honestly, a setting I would love to write in if it didn't feel like cultural appropriation, so I'm obviously happy to read things set here.

Maya is highly likable, as is Amar. In fact, I almost found Amar too likable because when Maya started to doubt him, I didn't share her concerns. In fact, I spent quite a bit of time silently lecturing her for acting like a silly twit. Also, I felt she acted a bit too much like a twenty-first century girl dropped into an ancient epic rather than someone who grew up being treated like property and led to expect constant disrespect from men.

The villain of the piece is, to me, the weakest point. Quite frankly, I found their motivation to be flimsy and boil down to "Something bad happened and drove me insane for revenge on the person I image wronged me." But it worked alright within the context of myth, as the bad guys in mythology are frequently ruled by such motives.

And the story moves along well. It's adventurous and fun and frequently funny. The conclusion is both emotionally satisfying and solid. Maya's story is over now and the sequel is about her sister rather than her.

Overall, it was a highly enjoyable book and I look forward to reading more from the author.


Below you'll find the notes I took as I read. Clearly, they contain major spoilers.



3% Maya's shadow is missing. That's interesting. Although she seems to find it merely odd rather than incredibly freaky.

7% I'm a little confused that Maya's to be married for political reasons but gets to pick who to. Presumedly who of a preselection, but who did the preselecting?

8% I have no idea where she's thinking to run away to... This doesn't seem like a great time/place to be a young single woman.

13% Locked up and now told to poison herself. And seeing demons. This is fun.

15% I am incredibly intrigued as to who/what Amar is. A shinagami maybe? (I'm sure there's a Hindu version of those.)

20% I'm now sure why she hasn't pegged Amar's kingdom as death. He's a guardian who most people think take things and you get to his kingdom through the Night Bizarre just like she told her sister is how you get to the land of the dead. (Yes, she made that up, but other things she made up have been proven true so it's more like she just knows things.) AND she was prophesied to marry death. Or that her marriage would lead to death or something like that. Seems logical to assume her husband is the lord of death.

20% Although I do wonder why he took her JUST AFTER the new moon if he can only talk about his role on that one night. Does he hope she'll react better if she's used to him before he can explain? Could he not take her to his kingdom until she was on the brink of death? (Did she actually take the poison and is actually dead without knowing it?)

22% Servant guy reminds me of Alfred from Discworld. I wonder if he's secretly human...

23% If I looked at something that was shaped like a mirror which did not show reflections, then I would call it a window and not at mirror.

24% "You look like edges and thunderstorms. And I wouldn't have you any other way." DAMN! The assertion that this guy sucks at flattery is WAY off.

34% VERY nice kissing scene.

39% I'm really not sure why Maya is so angry with Amar here.

40% I mean, really. She's apparently angry because he's kept stuff from here BUT SHE ALREADY KNEW THAT. She even knew that he CAN'T tell her everything. He has, in fact, choked trying to tell her more than he's allowed to. Not to mention the fact that he's treated her roughly a thousand times better than she had any reason to believe a husband would. So why is she trusting some stupid malicious door over him? It's even a locked door, which we have very no reason to believe aren't really dangerous like she was told they are. She's really seeming like an immature brat here. And also like a modern girl dropped into what I'm guessing is the Late Vedic Age.

41% Ok... I am officially curious who the hell Nritti is. Is she from a different thread line? Or is our narrator unreliable did to amnesia?

41% Well, she's finally seen dead people. Will this clue her in that she's in the world of death? ... Yes, she has figured it out. Akaran is Naraka. Not a very clever means of hiding a name. I expect Amar honestly thinks of it backwards. Or maybe the humans write is backwards to avoid bad luck or somesuch.

42% Ok, she's figured out Amar is Death. I still don't think he's betrayed anything since HE IS PHYSICALLY UNABLE TO EXPLAIN YET. Unless he could have taken her on the new moon and deliberately waited to manipulate her, I'm still not sure what she thinks he's done wrong. (Unless maybe he forced her to forget her friend/sister/lover/whoever.) And why does she assume Death is evil?

45% I don't trust Nritti at all. I think the other woman was in Maya's memories because that was her previous incarnation. I think Maya is buying all of this insistence that's she's one of hundreds and not important because she's afraid it's true.

46% Surely if Amar was tricking Maya into thinking she had power he would have told her she had power early on rather than waiting for her to discover it herself. I repeat that I really don't trust Nritti. I think she was the scary voice from early on and that she's a threat. She admits she's an aspara, which doesn't seem like something particularly trustworthy.

47% Hmmm.  Okay, so Gumpta saying "Now that she's here, you can get rid of her like you've always wanted," does sound ominous unless he means two different she's. As in, "Now that Maya is here, you can get rid of Nritti like you always wanted."

48% Amar refuses to have sex with Maya until she knows everything. This is not the mark of someone running a con or trying to hurt her.

50% Yeah... I was right. Amar adored her and was keeping secrets because of a divine limitation. (Not waiting for the new moon, waiting for sixty moons to pass in the human world. Still, something he had no choice about because he would have told her immediately if it wouldn't have killed her.) Maya is the reincarnation of his wife. And Nritti is Bad News. Maya's seriously messed things up.

6?% Kamala saying she wants to eat anyone who upsets Maya is just really sweet.

78% So distrusting Amar is something she did in her last life too. I thought you were supposed to learn as you went through lives, but I guess that only works when you remember them 

It's a good ending. Very sweet. Especially Kamala saying she won't eat anyone if she's allowed to stay. But why are we still at 82%?

Wednesday, May 8, 2019


Rating: A loaf of fresh challah bread

Highlight of note: Jewish shapeshifters. Need I say more?

Will you read more by this author? Absolutely!

Warning: The main characters face a lot of antisemitism, the depiction of which is vital to the plot but which may be disturbing to some readers.

It's been a while since I finished this book and I'm not sure why I took so long to sit down to review it. I think part of what happened was that the day after I finished reading, while my mind was composing something that would discuss the irrational hatred the Jewish characters in this book face, a man walked into a synagogue and attacked the people worshipping there, very much bringing hope the heartbreaking and infuriating fact that the world is still full of dangers for those of Jewish persuasion.

Clearly, the faith of the main characters is part of what is sticking with me about this book. I felt Judaism was portrayed in a loving light, which is appropriate as the author is herself Jewish. I was reminded more than a bit of Niomi Novik, who also writes strong Jewish leads in magic-touched historic European settings. It makes me happy to see an uptick in this sort of Jewish magical realism.

The tale is told in alternating chapters by two sisters, one of whom inherited her their father's ability to shift into the form of a bear and the other of which takes after their mother and can become a swan. The swan-sister's chapters are told in poetry, which makes it really easy to see who is speaking when.

Early in the story, the sister's parents are called away to another town. Lacking travel permits means that the journey is inherently dangerous, so they leave the children at home. Almost immediately, both of the girls are thrust into romantic arcs. The bear-sister is courted by a boy who is properly Jewish but of whom she doesn't think her father will approve while the swan-sister becomes involved with a mysterious fruit seller. Despite the horrible antisemitic things the fruit seller and his brothers say, the girl becomes obsessed with him to a degree that is clearly unnatural.

I found both sisters to be well portrayed and sympathetic. I really liked the character of Dovid, the bear-sister's love interest, who was very supportive and understanding. The swan-sister did a few things that didn't make much sense, but it's easy to explain them with the magic that was clearly going on the entire time.

The plot was engaging and ended in a satisfactory way. I did feel the ending was a little open for something that doesn't seem like it would have a sequel, but it wasn't upsettingly so. It was more in a way that makes it clear life is going to continue and lets you decide how that will happen yourself.

The antisemitism goes beyond unkind words. The Jewish characters are actively targeted by multiple people in multiple situations due entirely to their religion. It's alarming, to say the least, but most certainly an accurate portrayal of history. And, as we saw this Passover, of the present. I don't feel that the book dwelled overly much on these issues though, but rather treated them as something that the characters were forced to accept and live around. 

All in all, I recommend this book to people who enjoy a good historical setting for fantasy tales. The only thing I would change would be to put the guide to Yiddish at the front of the book rather than the back as there were multiple words I couldn't get from context and felt compelled to google as I didn't realize there was a glossary in the book.


Below you'll find the notes I took as I read. Clearly, they contain major spoilers.


2% I liked the opening about the cemetery. It was a nice piece of mood setting. Not sure about the second chapter. Is everything from Laya's viewpoint going to be poetry?

8% Whoa. Their mother is a were-swan? That's cool. And their daddy is a bear! Even cooler! I had thought it was the converted-to-Judiasm thing his family was being snoby about, but apparently she's the wrong kind of shifter.

12% I don't like this "he's not your real father" wording. He raised her and clearly loves her. She's his daughter. He just wasn't the one who sired her.

28% I wonder why the otherworldly fruit sellers care of girls are Jewish or not.

31% It's the next day? Did Dovid come over or not? Why isn't this established in the opening paragraph?

42% I really want to know who/what these fruit sellers boys are. Golblins maybe? They remind me of goblins from another book I read recently.

48% I'm curious about the bear that came into the house. Could he be tryings tonpqrotect the girls while their parents are away or is he a threat?

51% the swan's shadow breaks the illusion. Interesting. Too bad Laya's too far gone to notice. I wonder why the swan doesn't interfere more.

55% Laya's realizing the fruit boy doesn't love her. That's good. Will it lead to her seeing through the enchantment?

56% Is this vision in Laya's head or really happening? Is this young male swan her mate?
... I'm going to go with it was in her head but the male swan is real.

59% I really do wonder what's up with the fruit boy's antisemitism. Perhaps Jewish people have special powers they can use against whatever these guys are? Wouldn't that be cool? Special Jewish anti-goblin magic?

59% Fedir will help her? Really? He doesn't seem to want his brothers to know he said that, so maybe? He does seem sad, presumedly about Laya.

62% Holy shit. Fedir turned into a cat. I did not expect that.

63% Koroleva? Google says that's a name. Does Laya have a different name in Swan?

67% Ok, I can get why no one's thinking, "This is the work of vampire cats!" But how are the justifying thinking it's a bear?

77% The cat shifters don't just hate Jews; they hate humans. I didn't actually expect they were trying to get humans to destroy themselves.

82% "In general, I find that when you want to get to know a girl, it's best not to kidnap her first." Excellent observation.

85% Huh. I guess Fedir really does love Laya.

88% So Fedir died because he let Laya go? Whoa.

89% And the parents are suddenly back! Yay?

90% Wow. The genocide has started. :(

94% I wish we'd gotten to know Sasha better.

I'm curious how the Rebbe is going to react to Dovid, but I guess he already didn't kick the boy out of the house during all this resolution.

I'm worried about where things left off, but I guess it's a good enough stopping point. I would have liked a last poem from Laya, perhaps in America or at her wedding.

AUTHORS'S NOTE: The afterword is interesting and provides historical context. Apparently not only is the town, Dubossary, real, but the Christian kids who died were too and one of them was drained of blood before being left in a fruit orchard. Apparently Jews were blamed because of a belief that they use goy blood in matza. (WTF? How could anyone believe that?) The local Jewish community successfully fought off a murderous mob, but in several twins nearby the Jewish communities were slaughtered.

35 years later, the Nazis arrived and slaughtered the entire Jewish population of Dubossary. All six thousand of them.

The author mentions this because she didn't chose her setting at random. This is where her family was from. Her great-uncle immagrated to try US in 1905 and convinced most of his family to join him, including the author's grandfather.

...And then there's a Yiddish guide that I rather wish had been linked from the words used in the novel. Most of the usage was followable by context, but there were a few u wanted defined and wound up googling since the onboard dictionary didn't know them.