Tag Archives: Fantasy

Book Recommendation: The Shifter

8 Aug

by Vanessa Di Gregorio

When I pick up a book, I like to find myself immersed in a culture that is richly imagined and full of great characters. And with fantasy, I love when an author is able to make magic wholly unique. In Janice Hardy’s middle-grade novel, The Shifter (known as The Pain Merchants in the UK), that is exactly what is done.

And don’t let “middle-grade” fool you; while the book, if written for an older audience, could perhaps have been a bit darker, the book is by no means childish. It is well-written, complex, full of deceit, and ripe with betrayal; it is littered with political intricacies and so much cultural depth. So I hope none of you dismiss this book; this is the type of middle grade novel that can easily appeal to older audiences.

Hardy has imagined a world where pain can not only be drawn out of a person through touch, but where pain is a commodity. She has created a world so culturally, religiously, and historically rich; so full of colour and wonderful vocabulary. Hardy throws you right into this world; and while it might take you time to figure out the cultural slang, political situation, and how exactly magic works for Takers (those who draw pain out of others), you’ll find yourself absorbed nonetheless. Nya is a wonderful voice; she is conflicted, and is not a moral saint by any means. She finds herself often faced with difficult decisions that aren’t clear-cut; there are many gray areas that Hardy is able to explore in this novel. And that was one of the most enjoyable things about The Shifter.

So, want to know more? Here’s a description from Goodreads:

Nya is an orphan struggling for survival in a city crippled by war. She is also a Taker—with her touch, she can heal injuries, pulling pain from another person into her own body. But unlike her sister, Tali, and the other Takers who become Healers’ League apprentices, Nya’s skill is flawed: She can’t push that pain into pynvium, the enchanted metal used to store it. All she can do is shift it into another person, a dangerous skill that she must keep hidden from forces occupying her city. If discovered, she’d be used as a human weapon against her own people.

Rumors of another war make Nya’s life harder, forcing her to take desperate risks just to find work and food. She pushes her luck too far and exposes her secret to a pain merchant eager to use her shifting ability for his own sinister purposes. At first Nya refuses, but when Tali and other League Healers mysteriously disappear, she’s faced with some difficult choices. As her father used to say, principles are a bargain at any price; but how many will Nya have to sell to get Tali back alive?


The plot moves swiftly; it is well-paced, exciting, and just wonderfully imagined. Hardy’s premise is innovative; and it carries a lot of weight. Full of action and adventure, this story will keep the pages turning; and right from the first chapter, you’ll be thrown into the fray. We see the world through the eyes of Nya, whose voice is very engaging and realistic; written in first-person, every difficult decision she is faced with is all the more agonizing as we see her struggle with the choices laid out before her. She is headstrong, but not overly so. While some characters seemed a bit more flat than others, overall I was pleased with them; they all have their own varying opinions, and all of them are very memorable. The contrast between everyone’s differing personalities was wonderful; Danello’s little twin brothers, for example, just stole my heart as soon as I was introduced to them. Soek, who was quite possibly my favourite character, plays a minor role; and yet I felt that he was fleshed out perfectly – not too much (being more of a minor character), but not too little either (for it seems we’ll be seeing more of him in the next book). His lines were funny, he wasn’t perfect, and I just found him to be incredibly interesting.

Full of political intrigue and betrayals, it does get a bit confusing closer to the end; with the Pain Merchants, the Duke, the League, and the Luminary all working towards their own ends (which aren’t always obvious), it can get a bit convoluted. Some motivations aren’t as developed or as clear as I would’ve hoped them to be. However, a lot of it is eventually explained; and hints are dropped along the way. So there is lead-up; the twists don’t come out of nowhere, and yet are still exciting to figure out. It’s also nice to not be able to predict where the story will go. And there is action! Lots of it!

Plus, I love the cover; it immediately grabbed my attention when I first saw it.

The first of a trilogy, I’ll definitely be picking up the second book, Blue Fire (which comes out in October). I really want to see where Nya and the others will go; I want to explore more of the world Hardy has created, learn more about Nya’s powers, and find out what the Duke is really up to. There are mysteries that I would like to see unlocked, and details I would love to further delve into. This is one adventure I don’t want to miss out on.

So overall, The Shifter was an enjoyable read; especially if you’re a fantasy nut (like me)!


Book received from publisher.


Vanessa is a Sales Assistant at Kate Walker & Co., a book and gift sales agency located in Toronto. She is also enrolled in a publishing program. Currently, Vanessa is working on a YA fantasy novel and a Children’s non-fiction series.


Book Recommendation: The Poison Diaries

31 Jul

by Vanessa Di Gregorio

One word: breathtaking.

There is just something about those stories that just seem to slowly creep up on you – the ones that are quietly beautiful – that just takes my breath away. And Maryrose Wood’s The Poison Diaries does just that. I could not put this book down; it ensnared me right from the first page of its lyrical prose. And the ominous poison garden was just such a foreboding image; one that intrigued me as much as it does Jessamine, the protagonist. Full of vibrant imagery, romance, mystery, and even – at times – terror, I fell absolutely in love with this novel. There was even a touch of fantasy filling its pages, washing everything with a surreal beauty that is just captivating.

To start off, here is a quick summary of the novel from Harpercollins:

In the right dose, everything is a poison. Even love . . .

Jessamine Luxton has lived all her sixteen years in an isolated cottage near Alnwick Castle, with little company apart from the plants in her garden. Her father, Thomas, a feared and respected apothecary, has taught her much about the incredible powers of plants: that even the most innocent-looking weed can cure — or kill.

When Jessamine begins to fall in love with a mysterious boy who claims to communicate with plants, she is drawn into the dangerous world of the poison garden in a way she never could have imagined . . .


The entire premise is great; reminiscent of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story Rappacinni’s Daughter, the story is based on a concept by The Duchess of Northumberland – and her famous Poison Garden at Alnwick Castle. And yet, this story remains utterly unique. The story centers around Jessamine Luxton, whose father is an apothecary, and a strange and mysterious young orphan who stumbles into their lives. While her father leaves to heal others, Jessamine is alone with only the plants for companionship; but when that strange boy appears, Jessamine suddenly has someone other than the plants and her father to talk to. And Weed seems to be in possession of great knowledge when it comes to plants; a knowledge that will prove to be quite dangerous.

The plot moves quickly, though there is little in terms of physical action. No sweeping swords here or a tremendous amount of fighting; and yet, I was never bored. The plot is well-paced, and there is conflict between the characters and their surroundings. The entire story never strays far from the little cottage that Jessamine inhabits; or from the castle, garden, and fields surrounding it. And yet I was thoroughly immersed in the world that was built, and in the characters inhabiting it.

At the beginning of each chapter is a short journal entry; after, the story continues in first person. There is just something that I loved about reading the little snippet of a journal entry before the prose continued. The journal entries become integral to the plot, and are very cleverly used. And the prose! Absolutely lovely. I was completely enchanted. Jessamine’s voice is an absolute pleasure to read; thoughtful and curious and full of wonder. And her character was just as lovely. She is innocent, and wonderfully flawed. She doesn’t always do what she should, or what is right; and that made me love her character even more. Weed is just as fantastic a character. He starts off as a blank slate; a silent character who doesn’t speak, and a character so devoid of attachment to people. Everything about him is a mystery. But oh, how thrilling it was to see him grow! To see him fill up with emotion, and become a character of unbelievable loyalty.

Thomas Luxton was also a magnificently crafted character. There is always the sense that he is much darker and more cruel than he appears to be, and this ambiguity made him such a wonderfully dubious character. And I loved having no clear cut line between good and evil; he heals people for a living, and as such is good. But I always felt as though there was something untrustworthy about him at times. Which, in my mind, was brilliant on Wood’s part.

But quite possibly the most fascinating character of all became the plants. Maryrose Wood was able to make the flowers and trees and bushes come to life with such vitality and force. But she was also able to make them frightening; the poisonous plants exude a threatening presence that I felt throughout the course of the novel. This was the most unique aspect to this novel; the almost human qualities that the plants seemed to possess.

And that ending! When I finished reading it, I was still under the impression that this was a stand-alone novel, and that there were no sequels to follow. And I loved the ending. It was dark, and sad, and so absolutely brilliant. Some might complain that it isn’t satisfying; but I thought it suited the book so perfectly, and was such a brave and lovely ending. To know that it is the first of a trilogy makes me happy, for I’ve become incredibly attached to the world and characters. But the fact that it has a sequel is not the reason I first loved the ending; Maryrose Wood wrote an ending that fits the mood of the entire book.

So, I highly recommend The Poison Diaries. If you love fantasy, or tragedy, or romance, or lyrical prose, then you’ll probably love this book as much as I did. And you’ll probably want the sequel to come out as much as I do. So, pick this book up; I promise you’ll love it.


ARC Received From Publisher


Vanessa is a Sales Assistant at Kate Walker & Co., a book and gift sales agency located in Toronto. She is also enrolled in a publishing program. Currently, Vanessa is working on a YA fantasy novel and a Children’s non-fiction series.

Book Recommendation: Shapeshifter

26 Jun

by Vanessa Di Gregorio

I have always loved mythology, legend, and folklore. They are always so full of different cultures and colourful characters; of epic adventures and hard-won victories; of loss and heartache and the capricious whim of gods and higher beings; of magic and mystery and might. Perhaps that is why I was so enchanted by Holly Bennett’s Shapeshifter, which tells the tale of a little known character in Irish folklore.

When I first cracked open its pages, I was completely unaware that this was based off of any legend. But as soon as I read the introduction to the book and found out that Bennett had added the actual folktale at the back, I was excited and intrigued. And once I started, I could not put this book down. I read it voraciously, and it only took me a single day to finish. And that cover! Absolutely gorgeous! It’s the reason why I first picked up the book; how can you not find that absolutely enchanting?

So just what is this book about? Here’s a description taken from Orca Book Publishers:

A woman trapped in the body of a deer. A dark sorcerer in relentless pursuit. A mysterious child, found alone on the slopes of a great mountain.

This is the turbulent and heartbreaking story of Sive, a girl of the Otherworld who must flee her world of plenty to live as a hunted beast. Surviving hardship, danger and crushing loneliness, she finally finds refuge—and unexpected joy—with a mortal champion, Finn Mac Cumhail, the great hero of Irish legend. But Sive’s ordeal is far from over. She has a gift the Dark Man craves, and the smallest misstep will give him his chance to snatch her away from all she holds dear.

Set in the wild, magical landscape of Iron Age Ireland, Shapeshifter is a tale of rapacious evil, quiet courage and the healing power of love.


The Irish folklore itself that this book is based off actually centers around Finn Mac Cumhail, one of the great warriors and heroes of the Fianna. Sive is mentioned in his tales as his first wife, but not in great detail. The legend goes that she was a beautiful woman who caught the eye of a dark man. She had refused him, and in his anger he had changed her into a deer. She wanders until Finn mac Cumahil and his men come across her, and they chase her. Finn and his two dogs are the only ones able to keep up, and as he bursts into a clearing, he sees the doe lying with the two dogs in the glade peacefully. After sparing the doe’s life, she turns back into her human form. He then marries her; but one day he sets off to war, and the dark sorcerer named Far Doirche appears to take her back. After she is turned into a dear once again and taken away, she is never heard from again in Irish mythology; though her son’s story continues. Holly has taken a character whose life is a mystery, and has written her an incredibly compelling story.

There are two worlds in this story: the mortal world, or Eire (Ireland), and the Otherworld, or Land of the Never-Aging. These two worlds lie parallel to one another, with doorways that connect them. Sive is of the Otherworld; and her journey takes her from her home in the Otherworld into the much harsher world of the mortal realm. And the first change that Bennett makes to the story is that she gives Sive the ability to choose to change into a deer in order to flee the Dark Man. And what an absolutely brilliant change it is. Sive is forced to give up her humanity in order to survive, and to save everyone from the thrall of the Dark Man.

The book is more of an emotional journey than anything. Though the action is minimal, the tension and suspense remains throughout; and I was never once bored. The connection to Sive, her parents, to Finn & Oisen, and even to Oran is strong. They are complex and utterly compelling. The story is truly about Sive and the people around her, as opposed to the action that myth and folklore often entail. But their characterization is much more compelling than any epic battle could be.

Holly Bennett’s prose is lyrical and wonderful. She stays true to the language and style of folklore, and never once did I feel jarred out of the story. Though written in third person, the voice was undeniably great. Sometimes this voice would stop viewing Sive to follow others, but it was never confusing. And every now and then, often at the end of a chapter, there would be sections in first person which would switch between Sive and Finn and Oisen; bits of passages where the characters themselves would remember what had happened and add their own voices to the story. I loved hearing the characters remembering the events; hearing them look back and discuss all the emotions and feelings that had been going though their heads at specific moments of the story.

I was not expecting to enjoy this book as much as I did. There are so many beautiful moments in this story, and I think it is a brilliant addition of a story in Irish mythology that she was able to flesh out. There are often huge gaps in time, as they story spans across many long years; but that is what folklore does. Some might find the breaks in time to be disappointing, but I did not. Holly kept the feel of folklore alive in this way, by focusing on the important events involving Sive (for truly, the story is her own, and not Finn’s or Oisin’s). The roles they play in her life are the most important. Her story is the bridge between both the legend of Finn and the legend of Oisin.

I also know that some believe the ending to be anticlimactic; but as I said before, Bennett never strayed her focus from Sive, and the emotional journey that is her story under the terror of Far Droiche. It felt as though I were reading a legend itself, in the way that some details were left out. I loved the ending, and though there is some sadness in it, I closed the book feeling incredibly satisfied (and only wishing it had been longer!). And I am normally the type of reader who feels robbed if, at the climax, an epic battle that I expect doesn’t occur. But I was completely in love with this story from start to finish; I never once felt any disappointment.

I highly recommend this book to any fellow myth/legend/folklore enthusiasts, and to anyone who loves fantasy, great prose, and a wonderfully epic story. This book has been one of my favourite reads all year, and I promise that you’ll be just as enchanted by it as I was. Now, you’ll have to excuse me; I have all of her other books to read now!


Vanessa is a Sales Assistant at Kate Walker & Co., a book and gift sales agency located in Toronto. She is also enrolled in a publishing program. Currently, Vanessa is working on a YA fantasy novel and a Children’s non-fiction series.

Book Recommendation: Mistwood

19 Jun

by Savannah J. Foley and Jennifer Fitzgerald


Mistwood is our book of the month for June, and we thought we’d give you a little insight as to why! And in case you missed it, you can read the interview we did with the author of Mistwood, Leah Cypess, here!

Description from Mistwood’s Amazon page:

For centuries, the kings of Samorna have depended upon the immortal Shifter for protection. When the Crown Prince Rokan ventures into the Mistwood to find the Shifter, she again allows herself to be caught, to be tamed, and to be tangled into the deception and danger of the human court.

The Shifter is uneasy, though. First she woke with no distinct memory of the past and now she finds that she is unable to change shape. As she adapts to palace life and painstakingly hides her inability to embrace her past abilities fully, she seems to become more the Lady Isabel as she is known in court, unwittingly displaying human emotions and hesitating in her bound duties to the crown.

As Rokan becomes king, he is thrust into danger, seemingly from all sides. Isabel learns much more than she bargained for as she hunts among courtiers for conspirators and finds her loyalties divided. This story unfolds gracefully, mirroring the slow path Isabel must travel to begin understanding herself and her place in the world. Her journey in self-acceptance takes place within a country in turmoil.


The aspect I loved most about Mistwood was the same part that gave many readers pause: The constant shifts in plot and purpose, mirroring Isabel’s role as the Shifter.

When Isabel re-joins the human world she knows as much about being the Shifter as the reader. All the other characters have expectations for her abilities and ‘powers’  that she flat out doesn’t remember how to even use. All she (and we) know is that she is responsible for protecting the life of Prince Rokan, who is currently in the midst of the boring, month-long ceremonies required to officially take his place as King.

As Isabel gets re-acquainted with life in a castle, parts of her memory seem to come back to her; clothing, customs, and sometimes even rooms all seem familiar. Which makes sense… she was the Shifter once, right? So why isn’t it ALL coming back? Why exactly did she leave the castle in the first place? Isabel discovers that she ran off years ago after ‘failing’… but what had she failed at?

At this point I loved how the court system and even the magic system of this world were gracefully explained through a friendship with the current Magician’s Assistant. Isabel’s ignorance is the reader’s ignorance; and she asks questions that I would ask. Pieces of knowledge are revealed slowly, allowing both readers and Isabelt to draw connections that advance the plot and clarify the previous actions of courtiers.

There was also a journey of emotional growth here, as Isabel learns who makes her happy and who makes her want to smash things. Prince Rokan is a great character; initially a stereotypical prince (charming, handsome, smart, etc.), he develops into a man haunted by the actions of his father, trying to heal the region and do the right thing by his people, even if the rest of the court does not approve.

Multiple attempts on Prince Rokan’s life are made, and as Isabel’s influence over the castle grows her awareness of all sub-plots increase, but even she can’t predict the betrayals her Prince suffers. Soon Isabel can’t trust anyone, not even Prince Rokan or herself, and the sudden appearance of yet another assassin brings out the truth of what happened those many years ago, and puts Isabel into a terrible predicament: as the Shifter, she is bound to protect the royal family. But what if the royal family is in the wrong? What if the person she loves -despite the fact that the Shifter should feel no human emotion- is the person she is meant to destroy?

Each chapter of Mistwood offers a new twist and peels back the layers of these initially flat characters. By the end of the book I was amazed by the complicated motives of the players involved, and how it all fit together so well. Mistwood uses the concept of ‘unreliable narrator’ very well, and the ending is not something I would have expected.

I also love how this book ended on a positive note that didn’t get sappy. I didn’t feel that Mistwood ended ‘happy’ because the writer wanted it to be; the plot really resolved itself and the opportunity was there for Isabel to try and live the life she wanted.

I read Mistwood on my Nook when I was on vacation, and it made the miserable time on the airplane fly by. Whenever the flight attendants came by to check on our electronic devices I hid the Nook in my purse because I couldn’t wait to get back to the story. I thought about Mistwood when I wasn’t reading it, and long after it was over, and will probably be ready to read it again in a month or so. That’s the mark of a good book 🙂

I would definitely recommend this book to other readers.


Mistwood’s opening page completely hooked me. I was going through the YA section looking for books ‘for my little sister’ and the voice and atmosphere created in the first few lines pulled me right in to Isabel’s world. The setting of the Mistwood was delightfully eerie and the castle’s numerous winding hallways and towers were the perfect place for scheming and intrigue.

The twists and surprises throughout the book were great. They felt like the natural unwinding of so many people’s little plots, overlapping and interfering with each other. It also kept me on my toes, trying to figure out who was really loyal to which person, who were the double and triple crossers, and who was just feeding the fire to watch it burn. I love books that keep throwing my curveballs as long as they don’t come out of left field, and trying to figure out what was going on kept me reading for the six hours it took me to finish. I only stopped for dinner and that was because my family insisted.

Isabel’s frustration and confusion was palpable throughout as was Rokan’s fascination with her and the concerns weighing on him. The shifts in perspective were very well done and the use of third person meant the reader gets insight into what Isabel and Rokan are thinking without a change in narrators or any interruption. Rokan’s drive to be as good as he can in spite of his harsh father’s training makes him likeable and the kind of guy you want to be in charge. In fact, he’s pretty impossible to dislike, even when you discover the reasons behind the Shifter’s previous departure from the castle and Rokan’s current danger.

I am a sucker for happy endings. Not gooey, sparkly endings (though I sometimes like those too), but Mistwood’s ending wasn’t neatly packaged and sterilized like a Disney movie. It wasn’t all happy and it wasn’t morally clear, which made it all the more real. So, even if I was sad not everybody ended up with the love of their life and a pony, it worked well, and Isabel finally got to make her own decision about the course of her life.

I wish Mistwood had been twice as long. Well, maybe not twice as long, but at least another 30k words. Mostly because Leah Cypress does such an excellent job skipping scenes that aren’t crucial to the plot and summarizing them in the character’s dialogue or the narration that it makes me wish we could see those scenes too. These parts don’t feel like a brief summary to get the author out of having to write something, I had the impression that Leah Cypress knew exactly how each conversation went and I wanted to know too! At least I have a sequel or companion book to look forward to!