Book/Movie Review: Howl’s Moving Castle by Diane Wynne Jones

Title: Howl’s Moving Castle

Author: Diane Wynne Jones

Series: Howl’s Moving Castle #1

Genre: YA Fantasy

Rating: 2/5 stars

The Overview: Sophie has the great misfortune of being the eldest of three daughters, destined to fail miserably should she ever leave home to seek her fate. But when she unwittingly attracts the ire of the Witch of the Waste, Sophie finds herself under a horrid spell that transforms her into an old lady. Her only chance at breaking it lies in the ever-moving castle in the hills: the Wizard Howl’s castle. To untangle the enchantment, Sophie must handle the heartless Howl, strike a bargain with a fire demon, and meet the Witch of the Waste head-on. Along the way, she discovers that there’s far more to Howl—and herself—than first meets the eye. -Goodreads

The Review:

I may be the only person on the planet who hadn’t seen the Studio Ghibli adaptation of Howl’s Moving Castle, but in a way I’m grateful because it gave me the ability to tackle the book with an unbiased opinion. And I’m glad it did because the book was just okay.

And actually, after watching the movie and seeing all the story elements brought to life and enhanced, I found myself looking back on the book with more fondness. What surprised me is how closely the movie kept to the source material. All of the major elements were included, even down to exact quotes on occasion. All save one component: the romance.

In the book there was a connection between the main characters, but their focus was always on others and rarely on each other, lacking any sort of depth. It was kind of odd, and I think that lack of interpersonal connection is the reason I found the story a bit lackluster – it never felt like we were working towards anything meaningful, and so all of the smaller plot points felt, well, pointless. The movie did a brilliant job at adding in what was missing by giving the viewer a through-line to root for (i.e. are they going to end up together?).

I loved the movie. The visuals were stunning, the story components expanded on and enhanced, and the flow and momentum of the pacing perfectly on point.

And the dog. Omg.

In both versions I loved the main character, Sophie. She had a lot of depth and both formats did a great job highlighting certain aspects of her mannerisms. Particularly how her personality changed with different circumstances. The basic premise of the story is this young girl gets changed into an old woman. Watching Sophie deal with the ramifications of that and face her own mortality brought out this beautiful narrative of perspective – where she realizes life’s too short to be held up on petty concerns and starts to speak her mind, not worrying about what others think. It wasn’t a heavy-handed theme, but even so it resonated with me profoundly.

Overall, I think experiencing these two versions in tandem enhanced them both. Because I’d read the book and seen the components the film makers were working with, it make me appreciate their choices on what to adapt and how to make it better. So many brilliant decisions that honored the book and made the movie into the beloved classic it has become.

Recommendations: while the movie was easily my preferred format for the story, reading the book allowed me to appreciate it even more. If you’ve already seen the movie, the book probably won’t add any depth or interest to your experience. However if like me you’ve the new to both, reading the book first will make you appreciate the movie even more.

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by Niki Hawkes


Novella Review: Lost in the Moment and Found by Seanan McGuire

Title: Lost in the Moment and Found

Author: Seanan McGuire

Series: Wayward Children #8

Genre: Fantasy

Ratings: 4.5/5 stars

The Overview: Welcome to the Shop Where the Lost Things Go. If you ever lost a sock, you’ll find it here. If you ever wondered about favorite toy from childhood… it’s probably sitting on a shelf in the back. And the headphones that you swore that this time you’d keep safe? You guessed it…. Antoinette has lost her father. Metaphorically. He’s not in the shop, and she’ll never see him again. But when Antsy finds herself lost (literally, this time), she finds that however many doors open for her, leaving the Shop for good might not be as simple as it sounds. And stepping through those doors exacts a price. -Goodreads

The Review:

One of my favorite Wayward Children installments yet!

In an Absent Dream remains on a pedestal as my favorite of the series, but Lost in the Moment and Found made a strong case for itself. It was yet another one where the setup story (before the child finds her door) and the new realm exploration were perfectly balanced and I’d be hard-pressed to tell you which section I liked more.

I’d only intended to read a chapter a day, but was so struck by the author’s note at the beginning and absorbed by the story that it quickly turned into a binge-read. So much for my plans to savor these once-a-year gems. McGuire discussed in her author’s note some of the themes for the story and noted trigger-warnings for readers. Y’all know I hate spoilers for books, but in a rare instance, it didn’t bother me here, and in some ways made the story more poignant. It gave me the impression that the author infused a piece of her own past traumas into the book, making it more personalized and meaningful. Overall I found the entire thing heart-wrenching and continue to appreciate this series for putting some of these hush-hush childhood traumas into the limelight.

By focusing on the heavier aspects in my review, I might be giving the impression that these books are total downers, which is definitely not the case. They somehow manage to tackle difficult topics while still maintaining a good level of exciting adventure, fairytale whimsy, and charming characters. My favorite aspect is the sense of discovery as each child finds their door, and I especially loved what was behind the one in this story. It really appealed to my librarian/archivist nature – such a cool concept! My only lament is that we didn’t get to spend more time exploring the place, so I hope it makes an appearance in future books.

It amazes me how McGuire is able to pack so much substance into such a relatively short page-count. New books in this series are among my most anticipated releases each year. At this point I’ve no idea where the it’s headed next, but an overall arc is starting to take shape and I am SO onboard for the ride.

Recommendations: pick this up for bite-sized stories that pack a lot of punch!! It’s the perfect balance of meaningful themes and exciting discoveries.

I’d like to thank TOR and Seanan McGuire for the chance to read and review an early copy of Lost in the Moment and Found!

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by Niki Hawkes


Book Review: Ptolemy’s Gate by Jonathan Stroud

Title: Ptolemy’s Gate

Author: Jonathan Stroud

Series: Bartimaeus #3

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

The Overview: Nathaniel 17 treats Bartimaeus worse than ever. The long-suffering djinni is weak from too much time in this world, near the end of his patience. Rebel Kitty 18 hides, stealthily finishing her research on magic, demons, and Bartimaeus. She has a daring plan that she hopes will break the endless cycle of conflict between djinn and humans. But will anyone listen to what she has to say? Together the trio face treacherous magicians, a complex conspiracy, and a rebellious faction of demons. To survive, they must test the limits of this world and question the deepest parts of themselves. -Goodreads

The Review:

It’s official: Bartimaeus is a new favorite series.

I cannot believe I let this one collect dust on my shelves for so many years. I had an inkling I’d like it, so I saved it for a rainy day… [Note to self: stop doing that!!! Read the best books now!]. I imagine had it not won for book club, I would’ve continued passing it up for several more years. Almost 20 was long enough.

For me this series had a Harry Potter-level of addictive quality. I was completely absorbed. I loved the atmosphere Stroud created, and couldn’t get enough of the demons. Picture if you will a story of magic and mayhem set London – evoking nostalgia of the muggle-heavy sections of Harry Potter where you get to see how magic in the world affects us very sadly ungifted people. It’s “magical” quality was strong through all three books and one of the reasons I found it so compelling.

I liked this third book as much as the first one. It gave me backstory on a couple of characters that I’d been craving from the beginning. Beyond that the pacing was on point, the characters had arcs I found completely satisfying, and the action was gripping. And it all culminated into one of the best endings I’ve read in ages. Truly a slam-dunk!

Recommendations: if you want a great story that will make you feel like a kid again, this is the series for you. It has the added bonus of being presented in a sophisticated, completely accessible for adults format with great humor and witty dialogue. The footnotes are everything, so I’d recommend going the print or ebook route for this one.

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by Niki Hawkes


Book Review: Valor by John Gwynne

Title: Valor

Author: John Gwynne

Series: Faithful and the Fallen #2

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 4/5 stars

The Overview: The Banished Lands is torn by war as High King Nathair sweeps the land challenging all who oppose him in his holy crusade. Allied with the manipulative Queen Rhin of Cambren, there are few who can stand against them. But Rhin is playing her own games and has her eyes on a far greater prize… Left for dead, her kin fled and her country overrun with enemies, Cywen has no choice but to try to survive. But any chance of escape is futile once Nathair and his disquieting advisor Calidus realise who she is. They have no intention of letting such a prize from their grasp. For she may be their greatest chance at killing the biggest threat to their power. Meanwhile, the young warrior Corban flees from his conquered homeland with his exiled companions heading for the only place that may offer them sanctuary – Domhain. But to get there they must travel through Cambren avoiding warbands, giants and the vicious wolven of the mountains. And all the while Corban must battle to become the man that everyone believes him to be – the Bright Star and saviour of the Banished Lands. And in the Otherworld dark forces scheme to bring a host of the Fallen into the world of flesh to end the war with the Faithful, once and for all. -Goodreads

The Review:

I continue to see why this series has gained so much momentum in the SFF community. Valor was a solid installment.

What’s remarkable is that this chonker of a book manages to be both a slow-burn expansive story and a fast-paced page-turner at the same time. The overall arc of the story is a gradual build, and actually this sequel didn’t do a whole lot to advance the plot. But within each POV (there are about ten) chapter, the author takes care to make sure each passage has a significant change in status quo before each switch. And all within relatively short chapters to boot! That’s hard to do. It’s part of the reason I’ve come to love Gwynne as very concise and deliberate writer. And it’s also why I deem this classic-feel fantasy as a totally engrossing story. The composition here is incredible, easily one of the most well-done I’ve read.

One of my favorite things about the story is the wide array of compelling characters. With ten POVs it’s probable that you’re not going to like some as much as others, but with the exception of a single one, I found myself completely invested in everyone.

Bouncing around so much can also negatively affect the momentum of a story, but the placement of each switch was so good, sometimes the passages played off of each other and actually enhanced the momentum.

I also love the unexpected quality of Gwynne’s writing. Every time I think I’ve got the trajectory figured out, he switches things up (for the better). I loved the direction some of the POVs took in Valor. This also goes along with those high-stakes elements mentioned in my review of the first book. Most novels with this type of classical feel play at “dangerous” worlds full of peril, but this is one of the few that actually makes me feel any sort of stress for the characters. No one is safe, and I lovelovelove that aspect as much as I hate losing characters.

Recommendations: if you like classic fantasy but can also appreciate a more of a modern writing style, this is my top pick for you. Heck, even if you don’t like classic fantasy but just want a great story, this will win you over with its thoughtful pacing, great characters, and fun (gut-wrenching) story.

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by Niki Hawkes


Book Review: Transformation by Carol Berg

Title: Transformation

Author: Carol Berg

Series: Rai-Kirah #1

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 2.5/5 stars

The Overview: Seyonne is a man waiting to die. He has been a slave for sixteen years, almost half his life, and has lost everything of meaning to him: his dignity, the people and homeland he loves, and the Warden’s power he used to defend an unsuspecting world from the ravages of demons. Seyonne has made peace with his fate. With strict self-discipline he forces himself to exist only in the present moment and to avoid the pain of hope or caring about anyone. But from the moment he is sold to the arrogant, careless Prince Aleksander, the heir to the Derzhi Empire, Seyonne’s uneasy peace begins to crumble. And when he discovers a demon lurking in the Derzhi court, he must find hope and strength in a most unlikely place… -Goodreads

The Review:

Transformation was a mixed bag for me.

I liked the flowing writing style right away and found the basic premise of the book interesting. The characters showed some dynamics early on and there were a lot of interesting court politics to follow. I was sure this was going to be a 4-star read.

But ultimately I didn’t enjoy the execution of the characters and some of the plot points.

Inconsistency of character is probably my biggest criticism. One person in particular would swing wildly from one extreme to the other, and while I appreciate the duality of his profile, it was a bit overdone and not realistic in the slightest. Subtlety would’ve gone a long way here. He wasn’t the only one – a few of the characters flipped the switch on what had been established for them a couple times throughout the book and about the third time it happened, I lost investment in them completely. They just didn’t feel like real people.

As mentioned I also had trouble with the premise. It seems like the only reason for the heavy secrecy regarding demons was because it was convenient for the plot. Exposure by those fighting them would offer way too many solutions and then we wouldn’t have a plot. With some stories, if all the other elements are working for me I usually can just go with it and accept whatever premise I’m given, but because I was already not jazzed about some of the other plot points it was hard not to nitpick the whole thing.

I also don’t particularly like reading about metaphysical realms, and while that didn’t play a huge role in the book, during those parts I found myself dozing off.

Overall, despite how many people have told me they really enjoyed this trilogy, I’m coming in at a 2.5/5 stars – meaning I can grudgingly admit it was better than “just okay” but I’m not sure I liked it. For my personal tastes it was mediocre at best. I’m truthfully not sure if I’ll be reading on or not.

Recommendations: this story had a lot of ideas that were off the beaten path (to its benefit), however neither the overall premise, nor the character trajectories worked for me. That said, this was recommended to me by people who usually offer slam-dunks (they loved it), so take my underwhelming review with a grain of salt.

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by Niki Hawkes


Novella Review: City of Songs by Anthony Ryan

Title: City of Songs

Author: Anthony Ryan

Series: Seven Swords #3

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 3/5 stars

The Overview: ATHERIA—THE FABLED CITY OF SONGS THE SHINING JEWEL OF THE THIRD SEA WHERE THE MASKED EXULTIA CASTE HOLD SWAY AND VIE TO OUTDO EACH OTHER IN THEIR PATRONAGE OF THE ARTS, SOMETIMES WITH DEADLY CONSEQUENCES… (Nik’s Notes: copied from GR… why the caps? Don’t yell at me.) Guyime, wandering, dethroned King of the Northlands, is drawn to the Atheria by his quest for the Seven Swords, the demon cursed blades of legend. But to claim the next sword he must first solve a seemingly impossible murder—a puzzle that, once untangled, will unveil secrets so dark they could bring the City of Songs to utter ruin. Continuing the epic tale of The Seven Swords, City of Songs is an action-packed, darkly magical mystery from the New York Times bestselling author of the Raven’s Shadow and Draconis Memoria trilogies. -Goodreads

The Review:

This installment was a little different than the last two. It focused more on the plights of a third party, still relevant to the overall advancing plot, but felt more tangent as a result.

I still really like the trajectory of the series and think it massively creative. Because the page count is so small, things have to progress more quickly, and I think that’s why some of the happenings in this book seems a bit too easy or convenient. But I’m happy to go along with it because of how much I’m enjoying the journey. I’ll say it again – it amazes me how expansive and rich the world building is in this series considering how short the books are. It’s as full and imagined as any full-length fantasy series I’ve read, the only drawback being we don’t get to explore it in quite the same depth.

Overall, another good installment, and I can’t wait to see what adventures await in the next book.

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by Niki Hawkes