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Book Spotlight: House of Salt and Sorrows by Erin A. Craig

Once, there were twelve sisters at Highmoor Manor.  Now, there are only eight.  With each death worse than the one that came before, Annaleigh and her remaining sisters cannot help but wonder if the rumors in the village of a curse on their family could possibly be true.  Exhausted by grief, and afraid another of them may be next, they are all desperate for hope, life, color, and company that is not in mourning.

Although Ava, Octavia, and Elizabeth’s deaths were all tragic, Annaleigh cannot help but feel that Eulalie’s plunge over the cliffs near their home was more sinister than her three older sisters’ deaths through illness and accident.  As she begins to ask questions, it becomes clear that her sister was not alone on the cliffs that night – and that she was hiding something.  When the youngest of the sisters, Verity, tells Annaleigh the ghosts of all four dead sisters still inhabit their manor, and she can see them, it becomes clear that something is very, very wrong.

Still, the sisters are desperate for light and fun and dancing and so, as triplets Rosalie, Ligea, and Lenore’s 16th birthdays approach, plans go forward to celebrate with a glorious ball, in spite of the spirits and shadows haunting Highmoor.  No expense is spared – especially not on stunning new gowns and the most exquisite, delicate new dancing slippers, a pair for each girl.  Slippers so lovely the sisters decide they are fairy shoes.

But when the ball does not succeed in pulling them from their grief and fear, Annaleigh tries to distract her younger sisters with a hunt for a hidden, magical door on their island home – a door said to lead anywhere in the world, a door used by the gods.  She does not quite believe in the door’s existence – until they discover it.  Night after night, the sisters sneak out and pass through the door to find ever more enchanting balls in wondrous palaces, until their shoes are quite danced through.  It is a glorious, decadent escape from grief – but, if they can go through with the merest whisper of desire for dancing, what other manner of person – or creature – might be using the door to hunt for them?

Eerie and deeply atmospheric, this decadent twist on The Twelve Dancing Princesses has it all – phenomenal world-building, layers of tangled mystery, old magic, ghosts, glittering midnight balls, more than a twist of horror, and sweet starlit kisses.  If you love your fairy tails with plenty of glitter and a razor sharp edge, make sure you add House of Salt and Sorrows to your list!

Book Spotlight: Spin the Dawn by Elizabeth Lim

Maia Tamarin is a seamstress, living and working with her father and three brothers in the family’s tailor shop – until the Emperor’s war with the shansen, A’landi’s most powerful warlord.  The youngest of the three, Keton, came home unable to walk – and Finlei and Sendo did not come home at all.  In the wake of her father’s grief, it is Maia who holds her shattered family together, and Maia who takes over the family business, even though no girl can ever aspire to become a master tailor.

The bloody civil war concludes with a treaty and a marriage contract between the Emperor and the shansen’s daughter, Lady Sarnai.  And with the engagement, the Emperor summons the twelve most talented tailors in A’landi to the summer palace to create a wardrobe for his reluctant bride-to-be.  The catch?  There is only one imperial tailor, and the twelve must compete for the position.

Maia’s Baba is one of the twelve tailors summoned, but he is much too weak to travel.  Keton cannot walk, and besides, he can barely sew on a button, much less design a royal wardrobe.  But Maia?  She knows her skills with the needle are unmatched.  But women are not allowed to compete, so, disguising herself as her brother, and with Baba’s gift of her grandmother’s possibly magical scissors, she sets off to the palace, knowing that if her secret is discovered, she will surely be executed.

What awaits her there is more splendid, and more dangerous, than anything she could have ever imagined.  Political alliances and court rivals are nothing compared to the brutal competition between the tailors as each rushes to satisfy Lady Sarnai’s almost impossible demands in the most stunning, unique way possible.  There’s also the ever-present form of Lord Edan, the Emperor’s Lord Enchanter, who Maia is sure must know her secret.  There is something so piercing about his yellow eyes – or are they blue? – that discomfits Maia, and it’s not just the fact that he is rumored to wield the magic of the gods.  But it is when Lady Sarnai makes the most impossible of demands – that Maia make her the three fabled dresses spun from the laughter of the sun, the tears of the moon, and the blood of the stars – that Maia’s dedication to her family, her craft, and her belief in herself will truly be tested.

Spin the Dawn has been described as Mulan crossed with Project Runway, and it did not disappoint on either front!  This book has it all – an epic quest to impossible places, gorgeous gowns, cutthroat palace politics, heart-pounding danger, more than a touch of magic, and a deliciously swoony romance.  Maia is brave, determined, completely devoted to her family, and never backs down, even when all seems lost.  She’s also amazing with a needle and her grandmother’s magic scissors – I only wish I could have her on hand for my next formal event.  Fantasy readers, rejoice – your next adventure is here!

And, if you can’t get enough East Asian-inspired fantasy worlds, don’t forget to add Renee Ahdieh’s Flame in the Mist duology to your reading list – more girl-in-disguise fabulousness!

Stepsister by Jennifer Donnelly

This story begins where the familiar one ends – with two ugly stepsisters, each rejected by the prince, each missing pieces of a foot in a last, desperate effort to fit themselves into a shape that isn’t their own, and a life they only think they should want.

Isabelle, Tavi, and Ella used to be friends, like sisters are, until they realized that the world, and their mother, saw them in very different lights.  With moonbeam hair and a quiet smile, and a little help from the fairy queen, Ella is destined to sit on a throne, despite all her stepmother’s maneuverings.  Isabelle, more interested in riding her wild stallion Nero in the fields with her best friend Felix, reading about famous generals, and fighting pirate battles with a mop handle for a sword than she is in dresses, parties, and flirtations, and Tavi, who rarely emerges from her beloved books, numbers, and scientific experiments, have never fit the the mold of what their mother, and the village, believes girls should be.  Girls like Isabelle are too hungry, too fierce, and too strong.  Girls like Isabelle are destined for dark endings in grim tales.  Girls like Isabelle are not meant to be at all.  So when the prince comes to the door, searching for a girl to make his queen, Maman orders Isabelle to lock Ella away while they try on the shoe.  Already having cut away so many pieces of their hearts to become who they think they have long been told they should be, it is, really, no more difficult to cut off a heel or some toes.  We, of course, know how the story ends – Ella is freed and her lovely foot fits the dainty slipper perfectly – but what becomes of the stepsisters?

Her family outcasts, decried by all for their ugliness, Isabelle knows that, in trying to reshape herself into someone she is not, she has become what everyone calls her – ugly.  Still, she does her best to keep things going for her mother and sister – shopping, gathering eggs, caring for their one remaining old horse, Martin, and protecting what little they have left.  But war looms close on the horizon – a marauding army draws closer to her village every day, led by bloodthirsty general Volkmar.  Lovely Queen Ella works to spirit away orphans to safe houses, while the prince fights in the fields.  Refugees and wounded soldiers fill the roads, and Isabelle does not know what she, only a girl, an ugly stepsister, can do.  But with a little help from a wish, a quest, new friends, Fate, Chance, a fairy queen, and the lost pieces of her heart, she begins to believe that perhaps being beautiful is more than what everyone has always told her it is.

Fairy tale retellings are some of my absolute favorite books to read, and Jennifer Donnelly’s Stepsister did not disappoint!  Isabelle is one tough cookie, and I loved how everyone from the fairy tale is fully rounded out into real people with many faults – even the lovely Ella (and the prince even gets a name that isn’t Charming!).  There are new characters and old, an age-old battle between Chance and Fate, some seriously smelly cheese, brave steeds, daring deeds, pearl-stealing monkeys, a lot of cabbage, and plenty of magic to go around.  If you love Marissa Meyer’s The Lunar Chronicles, binge-watched Once Upon a Time on Netflix, or can’t stop singing “Into the Woods,” then this one’s for you!