Book Reviews Books

Alicia Jasinska’s “The Midnight Girls” is every monster girl’s dream of a winter read

It’s no secret that I have a soft spot for villains. I, especially, adore villains who are bad for bad’s sake, who relish in wreaking havoc and showing off their dubious morals. Bonus points if these villains are women, and bonus bonus points if these villains are monster women. By my count, that means Alicia Jasinska deserves the highest of scores on her sapphic villain novel The Midnight Girls.

The Midnight Girls is a fast-paced young adult that fantasy readers will devour in one sitting. This is partly thanks to the main characters (have I mentioned they’re villains?) and their chemistry, and partly because of the whirlwind of a story Jasinska has drummed up for us. 

The story opens in a magical forest in the mythical country of Lechija. At twelve years old, Marynka has finally been given her first task by her adoptive witch grandmother, Red Jaga: steal a prince’s heart. And not in a figurative, romantic, lovey-dovey way. No, Marynka’s sole job is to rip princes’ hearts from their chests so that Red Jaga can feast on them for power. 

However, at twelve years old, Marynka gets her first taste of failure after her monster girl peer Zosia nabs the heart from right under her nose. This sets off a years-long rivalry that comes to a head five years later when both Zosia and Marynka are drawn out of their respective magical forests during Karnawal season. Amidst the revelry and festivities is the attendance of Prince Jósef, a prince with the purest of hearts (i.e. a powerful witch delicacy) and the target of both monster girls. 

During their hunt, Marynka and Zosia form an unlikely friendship, with neither knowing the other is her sworn adversary. Feelings take root. Shenanigans ensue. And sparks fly — the romantic and magical kind — as Marynka and Zosia clash in the fun kind of way wannabe girlfriends do in the very best enemies-to-lovers stories. 

Although to call The Midnight Girls enemies to lovers is putting it simply. The romance in this YA fantasy bounces from enemies to unbeknownst friends to friendly rivals, only to revert back to enemies and then finally — well, I’m not going to give it all away. Not to mention, Zosia and Marynka aren’t the only enemies readers will be shipping — wink wink hint hint. 

Will Marynka finally best her rival and deliver the most desirable heart to Red Jaga, whom she very much wants to please? Or will Zosia add to her tally of wins and continue to steal hearts from her own adoptive witch grandmother, Black Jaga, in favor of building her power? And how will the two fare on their journeys as their feelings toward each other blossom romantically? Trust me when I say The Midnight Girls is a thrill of a read!

The chilly world Jasinska has created in her sophomore novel is especially delightful. While the weather outside is frightful IRL for most of us, the setting is just as frightful in The Midnight Girls. Unlike us, though, Marynka and Zosia are the type of protagonists who aren’t afraid of the darkness of long winter days — especially because they’re what’s lurking in the shadows!

While readers will root for Marynka and Zosia, they aren’t exactly on the right side of their mythical country’s history. After all, their entire careers have been decorated with the murders of princes. In that regard, I really enjoyed how Jasinska flipped the trope of girls yearning for boys’ hearts on its head, taking it in a literal direction that is absolutely delectable. Finally, we dark souls have accurate representation for what it really means to yearn for people’s hearts.

If all of this wasn’t enough to convince you to add The Midnight Girls to your holiday TBR list, maybe this will: For those of us who watched Jennifer’s Body and interpreted the friendship between Jennifer and Needy as kind of sort of very much gay, The Midnight Girls will be much more satisfying entertainment. 

Two rivals, one heart, and a kingdom ready to watch them burn. What more do YA fantasy readers need?

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Book Reviews Books

‘The Violent Season’ is the next horror thriller you’ll chuck across the room

Iconic villainess Lady Macbeth once said, “Out, damned spot!” — subsequently acknowledging the blood on her hands despite never having lifted so much as a pinky during the string of murders in 11th century Scotland. Flash forward to the 21st century and Wyatt Green’s conscious appears to be saying something similar, though not in so many words. The question is why.

It’s rare for me to pick up a novel, experience every emotion ever, and yet not enjoy said novel. But The Violent Season is truly a rare find in the young adult genre. That’s not to say Sara Walters’ debut thriller is bad. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.

At first glance, The Violent Season has a vibe similar to The Purge with undertones of Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak — neither of which are fun, light-hearted, or enjoyable stories, and yet both of which have made memorable marks in their respective mediums. Such is what I anticipate will be the case with The Violent Season.

If Walters’ goal was to hold up a mirror to the ugly, oozing wound that is the human condition, then she succeeded. Much like its backdrop of late Vermont autumn, The Violent Season is bitter, biting, and brutal in its examination of violence, abuse, and toxic relationships.

However, should readers expect to come out on the other side of this novel with trite platitudes, think again. Walters isn’t interested in moralistic falsities and it shows in her cast of guilty characters — no one more so than protagonist and self-proclaimed “cigarettes and cuss words” personified Wyatt Green.

Wyatt is the type of main character you feel for. The Violence Season takes place almost a year after Wyatt’s mother was brutally murdered in their family home in small-town Wolf Ridge, Vermont. Along with the blood-soaked memory of discovering her mother’s body, Wyatt can’t get her town’s urban legend out of her head. As the possibility of bloodshed continues to loom, it becomes even harder for Wyatt to separate legend from reality when November after November she’s watched another teacher, neighbor, or classmate succumb to a violent death.

However, as sympathetic of a protagonist she may be, Wyatt is not without her flaws. Accountability is a crucial theme in the novel, with Wyatt struggling to hold her best friend Cash accountable for his abusive actions. But Wyatt fails to take responsibility for her own actions — even more so following the shocking twist at the end of The Violent Season.

This twist is where Walters really shines as an up-and-coming author in the horror-thriller genre as she concludes an already convoluted novel with an equally as convoluted ending that offers no easy answers. All that remains in the final pages of The Violent Season is confronting the fact that sometimes the demons you see in others are also in you.

Walters’ writing is emotional and eerie. The story she tells is complex and cryptic. The Violent Season is exactly the type of tale readers will want to stay up late flipping through on All Hallows’ Eve. Because monsters and ghouls can’t hold a candle to Sara Walters’ debut; because the dark isn’t as scary as what’s lurking inside.

Inside all of us, of course, is a mess of blood and bone. But deeper than that is the distinct ability to be both good and bad — and this is the tell-tale heart beating under the floorboards of every Wolf Ridge home. It’s the underlying conflict Walters has planted in the center of The Violent Season that’s sure to leave readers unsettled, unsatisfied, and demystified.

There isn’t much else to say about The Violent Season without giving away another crucial plot point. If anything else, don’t say I didn’t warn you because never have I meant it more when I say: read if you dare.

The Violent Season comes out on October 5. Support local bookstores and pre-order it on Bookshop or on Indiebound.

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Book Reviews Books Pop Culture

How The Nature of Witches pulled at my heartstrings in the best way

When I first started reading The Nature of Witches I made sure to avoid any summaries or blurbs. I wanted to fall in eyes wide open, and fall in love with its magical world. I have to admit, Rachel Griffin did not disappoint. If you are looking for a modern tale of witches and climate change, that makes you laugh out loud and cry along with the protagonist, then this is the right book for you.

Clara Densmore is an Everwitch. She is the first Everwitch in over a hundred years to be born. While most witches have their powers tied to one specific season, Everwitches change along with them, maintaining their powers throughout the year. In other words, Clara does not have to wait for the sun to shine on her during her season. But changing along with the seasons has an effect on Clara and her depth of feeling as well. When a new professor with his apprentice, Sang, moves to her Eastern magic school, Clara will have to face her deepest fears and her magic in a desperate attempt to fight against unnatural weather phenomena.

The Nature of Witches deals with climate change in a way that is very straightforward. The Shaders, or people born without magic, know that there is a balance with the earth that they should respect. However, even with the Witches all around the world cautioning against challenging the limits of what nature can do, Shaders keep on building. Everything has a limit. And in this world, as well as in ours, that limit has been reached. Very similar to what happens on our planet, strange heatwaves appear in the middle of winter in The Nature of Witches. Sudden spring tornadoes occur in the fall.

To say that this reminded me of the abnormal heatwave in late October last year is not a stretch. Even after a year of restrictions on traveling and movement of people, pollution levels remain high. The balance that is understood by witches in The Nature of Witches finds its broken echoes in the reality checks our planet keeps giving us. How many of us wish we could have a magical solution to climate change and melting polar caps. And certainly, this is one of the main themes in Griffin’s book, and the heartbreaking description of how nature is just out of balance rings true beyond the written pages.

The Nature of Witches tugs at your heartstrings in another, more personal way as well. Clara, as an Everwitch, is very powerful. But as Spider-Man would say, “with great powers come great responsibilities.” This is certainly true for the young protagonist of the book. Clara’s personal story is about facing herself and her deepest fears, learning from the past to look towards her future.

Clara changes with her seasons. Her powers shift something in her, and as she accesses a new type of seasonal magic, her feelings too, follow her change. As the novel begins in summer, we see Clara describe it as the season where she feels the most, in the most passionate way. She knows what is coming with the beginning of the fall season, and even as she wants to cling to the summer version of herself, time does not excuse her. Time waits for no one, and so Clara has to go on.

This coming-of-age part of the novel I think speaks directly to all of us who are afraid of change. And yet, life teaches us that change is inescapable. You cannot delay the passage of seasons, and what change they bring with them. Growing up, moving out of your parents’ house, going to college in another town. All of these experiences and more make you into a different version of yourself. When I first moved abroad for work, I thought I too wouldn’t change as much. Maybe I would learn to save some money or try new life hacks. Instead, as the warmth of summer transformed into the chill of autumn first, and the poignant stabbing of winter second, I knew I was wrong. Change is scary at times, but it is something we should all learn to embrace.

The author’s website describes the book as “about heartbreaking power, the terror of our collapsing atmosphere, and the ways we unknowingly change our fate.” I loved The Nature of Witches because it pulls and tugs at your heartstrings in just the right way.

The worrying about climate change and the future mixes well with Clara’s personal story, into a perfect cocktail of heartbreak and self-realization. A magical insight into the idea of change, and what it brings us, in the good and in the bad. That’s The Nature of Witches in a nutshell. And to anyone who has been struggling with changing, or seeing themselves as different from yesterday’s you, I cannot recommend this book more.

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