Book Review: Empire of Light

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I received a free copy of Empire of Light from the author, Alex Harrow, in exchange for a fair and honest review. Empire of Light was an action packed read that was challenging to review without giving away, but I think I’ve manage to come up with something spoiler free.

There was no shortage of action in this book. There were gun fights, fist fights, explosions, and even some of the steamy scenes were a little violent (because the mc and his love interests were into that). Sometimes in books, big action sequences can get confusing, but I didn’t have any trouble with these. The blocking was clear and well executed. I never lost track of who was who and where everyone was.

The downside to all the action was that it distracted me from the characters. Despite all the excitement, I was at least third of the way into book before I really became invested in the characters. They were so busy fighting, never coming up for air, that it was hard to see past their snark, outer shells, and shooting skills to see what growth they needed and were experiencing.

Once I was half way through the book, I couldn’t put it down. When Damian had lost so much and had his back against the ropes and was forced to rest a little because of the injuries that kept battering his body, then I finally got to know and like him a little more. Despite the ease with which killed people and a high tolerance for gore, he was a complex character who grew and matured throughout the book.

The rest of the cast was fascinating, but because of all the action, I felt like I didn’t get to spend quite enough time with them. A lot of these fascinating side characters die, so I guess not getting too invested in them was a blessing, otherwise I would’ve gotten grumpy at the book right around when I ended up getting more invested in it.

I was a little concerned with how violent some of them were towards people they cared about. It seemed standard for the Shadows to beat each other up when they got mad at each other and snippets of flashback and backstory showed their leader/mother figure beating them up when they made mistakes. However, their almost pirate-like status seems to give permission to this and make it acceptable to readers. I don’t necessarily have a problem with it as sometimes I write characters like this too. It just makes me think about what kind of violence and abuse readers tolerate in certain kinds of settings.

The plot and setting were not quite what I expected, but they were still good. Harrow had described this as a gay Firefly with magic, but I found Empire of Light  had little in common with Firefly. Empire of Light  was more dystopian than space western. Still, the plots, assassination attempts, rescue missions, and the romance were well executed and  nicely built to the end and I could never quite predict what was going to happen next. I just knew that no one was going to give up, and that there would be plenty more explosions.

The city Empire of Light  was set in was fascinating and very much a character in the story, though until a few  hints near the end of the book, I was wondering what was in the world beyond this two sided city, where the food came from, and where things were manufactured because the wealthier people in this story did seem to have new things. Because this world was so interesting, I wanted a few clearer hints about the bigger picture of it.

There was a love triangle in this book. I’m not generally a fan of these because they never end well, but I really didn’t mind this one and it was wrapped in a far less painful way than most other love triangles. I actually kind of liked this one.

This may sound like a lot of criticism for a four star review, but in spite the problems I pointed it out, I really did enjoy Empire of Light  and suspect the sequel (assuming there is one) will be even better.

If you are looking for a dark future with plenty of action, a side of romance, and a glimmer of hope, buy your self a copy of buy your self a copy of Empire of Light  .

Book Review: A Blade So Black

A Blade so Black is my new favorite Wonderland story! Instead of simply regurgitating a version of Lewis Carroll’s tale or taking elements of it and twisting them into something far more gruesome, it’s more of a “what happened way later” type of story blended with what I’ve come to think of as classic YA urban fantasy tropes.

Yes, certain tropes are used a lot in YA urban fantasy, but those tropes are what made me fall in love with YA to begin with. As long as the characters are fresh and the plots mix things up enough, I have no problem with tropes.

In A Blade so Black , the two main  tropes are we get tough 17-year-old girl learning to fight  monsters after nearly getting eaten by one and getting a crush on her supernatural mentor who is way older than any human but the age difference is tolerable because the mentor looks young, and his age is sort of rendered irrelevant anyway because it exceeds anything a human could live to. Like Tithe meets City of Bones, but instead of  demons and faeries, there is a world and beings drawn out of / inspired by Lewis Carroll’s tales.

I loved the balance between showing Alice tough and vulnerable. She was competent fighting monsters, but not so competent that I didn’t feel the need to worry and root for her at times.

When she first saw one of the nightmares, I was thrilled that she didn’t automatically assume she was having some kind of psychotic break. It didn’t take her very long to accept it was real and not a literal nightmare.

At first, the crush on Hatta annoyed me, but then it grew on me as Hatta became more complex of a character.

The plot was less predictable than I thought it was going to be — a couple things actually surprised me.

A Blade so Black wasn’t a “so intense I must read the whole thing in one sitting book” but not every book has to be.  Had half stars been a thing on Amazon and Goodreads, I might have called this 4.5 instead of 5, but they aren’t, so I just rounded up.  Plus, I liked this better than the last two Wonderland adaptations I read. The characters and pacing were much better than Gregory Maguire’s After Alice, and the world was far less disturbing than Christina Henry’s Alice. 

I’m looking forward to the sequel.

Book Review: The Year of the Knife

A few months ago, Meerkat Press had giveaway running: sign up for their newsletter and get a free ebook. I signed up and got a copy of The Year of the Knife  It sat on my kindle for a while, on my growing list of things to read. After a big stretch of reading YA, I finally wanted to read something “adult” again, so I picked up this. I started it just before dinner and finished a little after midnight. I loved the explosive magic, a hard boiled lesbian witch main character, and the fast paced plot with a mostly well set up twist.

The magic system in the book was my favorite kind.It had well established rules, limits and costs, and an almost mathematical set up, but the way the author showed it on paged in a way that didn’t bore me with the technical details of actually showing all the calculations. There would be a sentence or two more focused on what was going through Sully’s head while she did calculations, but the reader didn’t actually see the numbers or symbols.  

Speaking of the main character, Sully, is quite the badass. If you ever read the Dresden Files, picture if Harry Dresden and Karin Murphy were actually one character only more Irish and queer.

Throughout the book, Sully is following a string of murders where victims don’t stay dead. The middle of the book, when Sully is knee deep in zombies and demons, was my favorite part. Sully was strongest when her back was against the ropes and she was grasping for leads. 

The opening wasn’t fantastic, but it did its job. It showed Sully’s strength and battle madness with one serial killer hunt, set something up for the end, and then introduced the case shortly after. 

I was a little disappointed that the one non-binary character, the only character with a they/them pronoun, was in the book for a few pages then died.

There were frequent mentions of the sexism the Sully faced, but it never seemed to affect her much, and just seemed there for the sake of being there.

Most pieces of the twist and the end were well set up for, but a couple things seemed a little too convenient, and one thing I was expecting never happened, even though a few things early on almost promised me it would. Still, there are two more books in the series, so perhaps some of the breadcrumbs left uneaten are just setting up for things yet to come. I’m willing to wait and see.

I really am looking forward to the next installment in this series, which comes out later this year. 

So if you read Year of the Knife now, you won’t have too long to wait!

Book Review: The Winter of the Witch

The worst thing about The Winter of the Witch by Katherine Arden  is that it means the series is over. I could read another trilogy about Vasya and Morozko even though this book clearly wraps up the conflicts that began in the Bear and the Nightingale.  Now, before I wind up spoiling something, I’ll get on with my review.

The strongest features of The Winter of the Witch are definitely the characters and world building.

I love how Vasya resists the gender roles of her time, how she grows into herself and figures out who she really is. Her persistence, pain, wildness, courage, and dedication are tangible things. I loved struggling and succeeding and navigating a myriad of complicated relationships through her point of view. Morozko was my second favorite character, perhaps made more intriguing by the fact that readers really did not get to see much from his point of view. The others were okay, but every time the narrative shifted to them, I just wanted to get back to Vasya.

I did find myself annoyed at the way the book shifted point of view. This varies from reader to reader, but I prefer to read from one point of view for a whole chapter and get annoyed when scene breaks indicate a switch in point of view. On more than one occasion, I found myself rereading to remind myself which character’s eyes the world was being filtered through.

The world building was fantastic. I was smelling, tasting, touching, seeing, and hearing right along with the characters. And it wasn’t boring or overwhelming. Every detail Arden chose to focus on was relevant and added to the tone or mood of the scene. I loved that the magic system and creatures were based off of actual myths, and that some of the characters were named after people who actually existed and fought in a battle the one in the book was based off of.

One downside of historically accurate fiction is that it is often loaded with sexism and misogyny the contemporary world is struggling to shake. Throughout this trilogy, were there was no shortage of sexist men treating woman like inferior beings or objects. However, I was happy  that there were less of those in this book and that Vasya had earned the respect of men who previously looked down on her.

As much as I enjoy escaping to worlds without sexism, to worlds where gender isn’t a rigid binary thing people are judged by, I do believe there is plenty of room for those books to co-exist with novels like this that don’t censor the shitty parts of history. Historical fantasy has it’s value too. It makes me appreciate how far society has come.I’ll certainly miss Vasya, Morozko, and their complex, slow burn romance, but I’ll look forward to reading whatever Arden writes next.

Click here to buy The Winter of the Witch by Katherine Arden

Book Review: The Disasters

The Disasters  is a treasure. After the last future-set, sci-fi book I read, The Disasters was like a breath of fresh air.  The Disasters had  a narrative kept me glued to kindle, only taking a breaks to do necessary things like eat, use the bathroom, and walk the dog until the book was done.

Thankfully, I’m a fast reader, and this was a fast book (in a good way).  

So, what is the story?

A group of teens who just failed out of an elite space academy survive a attack that takes out their classmates, flee the system, and fight to stop the terrorists from killing more people.

Said group of teens is pretty awesome.

The narrator, Nax,  is a bi pilot coping with anxiety from a wreck he was in a few years ago. I loved seeing how he decided to say things that made him seem like a classic, cocky, hotshot pilot while being very scared and insecure.  I was rooting for him from the start, and loved his interactions with a crew that was diverse in terms of gender, sexual orientation, race, and nationality.

Terrorist attack aside, this future was super optimistic.

For the most part, humans weren’t fighting each other. There was peace on Earth and in the “the colonies.” Most people were getting along…except for this one group that wanted to kill everyone…but that group was a small portion of the population. Most groups got a long way better than they do today.

The word “colonies” made me cringe a little the first time I saw it on the page, however, it’s un-inhabited planets, not cultures and people, that are being colonized. This universe is similar to the one Firefly was set in, where humans have found habitable worlds and terraformed others to make them habitable, but have not yet discovered other sentient life in the galaxy.

I also loved how the book handled diversity. It wasn’t about diversity. It wasn’t about being bi, muslim, trans, black, gay, white, or straight. It was about teens trying to save the galaxy. Their identities were part of them, added richness to their personalities, made them unique, and made them feel real. The book gave me hope that one day, things like racism, transphobia, islamophobia, and  homophobia will be things of the past. This future is the kind I seek out in science fiction.

I’ve read books like this before, that do all the amazing this one does, but most of them have been from small presses. I’m happy to see that larger publishing houses are finally catching on.

Next time you are in the mood for some great science fiction,  read The Disasters! 

2018 Publication Round-up

2018 is just about over, and while it may not have been my most fruitful year for producing new work, it was a fantastic year for publishing. My first novel was published. My short fiction and poetry appeared in nineteen publications

Of all of these, my favorite is my novel, Power Surge. For short stories, I’m most proud of “Ink and Ash” in The Society of Misfit Stories.

For flash fiction, it’s a tie between “You Won’t Believe How This Creature Changed Their Lives!” in Vulture Bones and “Roots” in The Cascadia Subduction Zone.

“Butter is Not a Dress” in Hashtag Queer Anthology Series is the best poem I have ever written!

If you’re looking for pieces to nominate for awards, check those out! Below is a roundup all of my 2018 publications, including cover art when applicable, links, and a short blurb for each story.

January 22:

“It Sucks to Be a Succubus” in Unnerving Magazine.

A succubus tries to have a fun night out without killing anyone.

February 6:

“Snow Fox” in Once Upon a Rainbow Volume Two

 Jealous Queen E’s attempts on Snow Fox’s life are trending.

March 5:

“The Blind Girl and the Troll” in Asymmetry.

A troll hungry troll decides to aid a refugee instead of eating her, and it alters the state of his existence. 

Screen Shot 2018-12-29 at 8.25.23 PM.png

March 21:

“Thunder Cars” in (Dis)Ability Short Story Anthology

Food shopping with anxiety is like weathering a storm.

April 3:

“Liberty Underground” in Teach. Write.

There is more to this seemingly haunted house than meets the eye.

Screen Shot 2018-12-29 at 8.31.16 PM.pngMay 1:

“You Won’t Believe How This Creature Changed Their Lives!” in Vulture Bones

Two siblings find a magical creature. 

May 31:

Dragon’s Bane” in Menagerie de Mythique Anthology.

Not your average dragon hunter

June 20:

“Gala Down” in Drabbledark

Politics and food don’t mix well.

June 22:

“Butter is Not a Dress” in Hashtag Queer Anthology Series

A poem about gender identity and clothing.

Screen Shot 2018-12-29 at 8.44.12 PM.pngJuly 23:

“Roots” in The Cascadia Subduction Zone

Home isn’t always the house you live in.

July 31:

“The Debutante” in Fantasia Divinity Magazine

A steampunk match-making AI. 

August 30:

“Djinn and Tonic” and “Surviving Seaglass” in Chronos

Two speculative drabbles that explore how supernatural being perceive time.

September 19:

“The Omen” in UnSung (Better Futures Press)

*There is no link to this one because shortly after publication, the publisher appeared to have folded.

September 20:

“A Kitten for the Kelpiecorn” in Four Star Stories.*

A kelpiecorn adopts a kitten.

*The issue it appeared in is no longer available and has yet to appear on the sites archives page.

October 1

Power Surge (The Evanstar Chronicles)

Being hunted by demons isn’t the worst part; it’s the lies.

October 14:

“A Curious Case in the Deep” in Broadswords and Blasters.

Two brave ocean explorers make an unexpected discovery.

Screen Shot 2018-12-29 at 9.17.20 PM.pngNovember 6:

“Piggish Persistence” in Empyreome Magazine

One magician tries to subvert the pharma-guild’s control on the medical. potions industry

November 1:

“Denial and Acceptance” in Trump Fiction: ECR Special Edition

Aliens invade in the final days of the Trump administration.

Screen Shot 2018-12-29 at 9.21.06 PM.pngNovember 12, 2018:

“Ink and Ash” in The Society of Misfit Stories

When the government outlaws the use of wands in magic, two siblings find themselves on opposite sides of the law.

November 30, 2018:

“Behind the Scenes” in Unrealpolitik

Werewolves play an important role in the National Park Service’s future.

 

Book Review: Seven Things Not to Do When Everyone’s Trying to Kill You

Screen Shot 2018-12-21 at 12.02.24 AM.pngI received a free copy of this from the author in exchange for a fair, honest review.

If you are looking for a quick, fun read, then I highly recommend reading Seven Things Not to Do When Everyone’s Trying to Kill You. 

Bryant Adams is a goofy narrator who likes to break the fourth wall. In Book 1 (How I Magically Messed Up My Life in Four Freaking Days) he gets a magic smart phone, finds out he is a wizard and and wrecks awkwardly funny teenage havoc in New York City. Now, in book 2, ( Seven Things Not to Do When Everyone’s Trying to Kill You) he has learned a thing or two about magic and had plenty of time to recover from his first ordeal. Of course, that quiet can’t last forever.

Someone, or several someones, are out to get Bryant. He has to figure out who is trying to kill them while dealing with parents who have united for the first time in a long time because they both want to keep him away from magic. Except his enemies will come for him grounded or not.

Saying anything more specific than this about the plot might become a spoiler. With the book moving so fast, I didn’t really notice the plot building. There were plenty of battles, but it all blended together and then all of a sudden it was the final battle, which seemed to easy. This was fun to read, but it was also a bit anticlimactic.

Everything else about the book was great. The voice is sweet and goofy.  The dynamic between the characters was energetic. I love how light-hearted this is even with life or death stakes. I read a lot of angsty, drama ridden stories (and maybe write them to). This was a nice break from those.

The characters may not change a whole lot throughout the book, and it may not have an in-depth exploration of any serious social issues, but I’m okay with. Not all books need to be deep, dark, and philosophical.

There is something optimistic and innocent about Bryant Adams. If you want a cheerful, laugh out loud romp of a read with plenty of magical battles and a teeny tiny little bit of kissing, read this.

It doesn’t come out until April 16th 2019, so you’re probably going to have to a wait a little to read it. So if you haven’t read the first book in the series, How I Magically Messed Up My Life in Four Freaking Days

Book Review: The Razor

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I received a free copy of this through NetGalley in exchange for a fair and honest review.

The Razor is both the title of the book and the setting. It’s a small strip of habitable land on an otherwise inhabitable planet: one side is firestorms and radiation, the other is ice and cold that will kill you as quick as the fire. It’s also a hard labor prison planet where criminals were inmates mine for an a material that is used to power most technology in the galaxy. The entire story is set in the Razor, but throughout the story, I gathered the galaxy was a lot like the one firefly happened in: colonized and terraformed by humans, lacking in extraterrestrial life.

The plot was loaded with puzzles and survival. An “innocent” man framed for murder and condemned to a life sentence, a former guard imprisoned for a murder he did commit (the victim deserved it), a badass female pirate, a female doctor, and an enhanced human all word together to survive and achieve their own goals.

All the characters had colorful personalities, clear wants, and plenty of growth throughout the book, they also fit too neatly into little boxes. For example, Key, the badass lady pirate who tough on the outside, soft on the inside, could’ve been Zoë from Firefly or Fiona from Burn Notice. Each character seemed to fit a mold or trope that had been done before. Still, it was fun to watch their stories intertwine as they all fought to survive, changing and falling in love in the process.

While I mostly enjoyed the elements in the foreground of this book, there were little things in the background that bothered me. Just about all the guards seemed like they were white men. Unless I misread, the diversity was all among the prisoners. Like it probably does in most cultures, rape culture ran rampant among both prisoners and corrupt guards. There was no LGBTQ+ rep at all. I expected a lot of this since it was a prison planet for the galaxy’s “worst” criminals, but with future science fiction, if it isn’t outright dystopia, I prefer a little more optimism. Not more of the same.

At least with dystopias, the problematic content has a purpose. It may be worse than present day, but it has a clear link to something contemporary, and it screaming “Look at this problem! Fix it before it gets out of control.” That was not what this book was doing. It was more like “here is exactly what most people expect from a prison full of killers, thieves, smugglers and sex-offenders. It isn’t any different in the future than it is now, except maybe a little worse because there is not getting out and they’re pretty much slaves.”

The end was satisfying, even though parts of it got a little cliche. It set up for a sequel, which I will read. Despite of my complaints, I got attached to these characters and want to read more about them.

Click here to buy on Amazon

Book Review: The Outlaw and the Upstart King

4/5 Stars: Untitled design (2)

With the Outlaw and the Upstart King, Rod Duncan veered away from steampunk style plot and setting. The feudal, political coup plot that seemed like it belonged in a fantasy novel, only it had no magic. It was a great story in a very well-developed land with a fascinating political system. It just wasn’t what I expected when I started reading.

The story more or less picked up where the previous book, The Queen of All Crows, left off, but Outlaw and the Upstart King hardly felt like part of the series. There were tie-ins, but a reader could also pick up that book and read it as a stand-alone, or without having read any of the other books in the series and still appreciate. They only things they might not get were the importance of the “big reveal” of Elizabeth’s identity, fleeting references to other characters, and vague hints at how this connected to plots to bring down the Gaslit Empire. These things were subtle enough that they wouldn’t ruin the story for a new reader, but they reminded those of us who have read the whole story that this book was indeed part of it.

The Outlaw and the Upstart King followed two characters, Elias and of course, the heroine of the series, Elizabeth Barnabus. The first part of the book was from Elias’ point-of-view, though there was a character who came in and out of the picture that I suspected was Elizabeth. At the end of Part 1, I learned I was right. Elizabeth was indeed that character. Up to this point, I’d been frustrated that I hadn’t seen anything from Elizabeth’s point of view. And while it was interesting to see the next chapter recap what had happened so far from her point of view, it was a technique I think works a little better in movies than books.

Elias is a fascinating character for sure. He has clear motives and through a balance of flashbacks, action, and internal thought, the reader knows why he has those motives and how they formed. I loved how he wasn’t a “good guy”  but I still wanted him to succeed, to grow, and learn to see himself how others saw him. Watching him intellectually spar with Elizabeth was also entertaining.

However, I wanted a little more from some of the other characters. Julia was mentioned, but kept passive and out of sight for the whole book. She didn’t really do anything other than be one of Elizabeth’s motivations until the the climax had passed and she was assisting in the resolution. Tinker was there more, blending in mostly, but he didn’t do anything of importance. In previous books, he used his ability to move around unnoticed to help with whatever Elizabeth plans in some significant way. This time, he didn’t, at least not in any way I noticed.

In the end, it was clear how this did connect to some of the larger, political movements that were happening between the Gas-Lit empire and the nations outside it, however, that felt much further in the background than in previous books. The benefit of it was that it did allow more of a focus on character development and the more immediate action.

One thing I’ve always loved about this series is how it explores gender and gender roles. Back in England, within the Gas-Lit empire, society certainly was male dominated. However, it was social norms, laws, and a sense propriety that suppressed woman. Elizabeth grew up in a circus, outside the some many social and cultural norms, so she was less influenced by them and more independent than other woman around her. Her resistance to the role women were forced into and a need to live independently drove Elizabeth to use skills  she developed in her father’s show to create a second-male identity: a brother she pretended to live with.

Watching Elizabeth slip back and forth between man and woman was what originally helped me connect with her. I always read her as genderfluid even though as the books went on, her male identity was used less and less.

In this book, it was non-existent.

In the culture this story happened in, women were oppressed as much as London, though in different ways. In the Outlaw and the Upstart King , a single woman owned and ran an inn/tavern and promiscuity seemed more acceptable. However, here, perhaps more than in any other place Elizabeth has been, women were objects subject to the whims of physically stronger men.

Elizabeth was dependent on and/or under the control of men throughout the book, forever playing the part of a woman, and really feeling like a side character in her own book. This was Elias’ story, not Elizabeths.

If I was a new reader with no attachment to Elizabeth, I would give this book five stars because it was beautifully written and clearly well researched. The plot was well executed. The world richly developed.

However, I’m used to seeing Elizabeth in control and in charge not matter how bad the situation got, and it killed me to see her with so little agency, only able to influence the outcome of events in subtle, typically female ways.

Book Review: Hiddensee

Hiddensee: A Tale of the Once and Future Nutcracker definitely gets five stars.

I’ve been reading Gregory Maguire’s novels since I was in high school.  I picked up Wicked in a time when I was just starting rediscover a love of books that had been lost when I got “too old” for picture books. That feeling of being wholly absorbed in a fictional word was still new then. Since then, I’ve read almost all of the books that he’s published, but none had compared to the experience of reading Wicked until now when I picked up Hiddensee: A Tale of the Once and Future Nutcracker.

In most of Maguire’s works, the protagonist was a side character or antagonist in an existing tale. In Hiddensee, it was Drosselmeier from the Nutcracker. The narrative begins when he was boy named Dirk with no surname. After dying in the forest and being brought back by a mystical being, he leaves his adopted family (who seem to be myths themselves) and sets out on the long adventure that becomes his life.

Dirk, who eventually becomes Dirk Drosselmeier, is a fascinating,  frustratingly flawed character who I cheered for throughout the whole book, drawn in further by each of his mistakes and missed opporturnities.

While the magic didn’t play as large a role in this as it would a fantasy novel, myths and mysticism were forever in the background, not fully noticed by Drosselmeier, but not gone either. It gave the historic setting a layer of enchantment, further drawing me into the world Maguire built.

Sometimes I found myself frustrated, wishing he’d see the magic and beauty in front of him before it was too late, but that just pushed me to keep turning the pages.

It’s not an entirely new concept, but I loved how myths and Christianity intersected in this book.  Early in the narrative, when Drosselmeier was freshly resurrected, he spent a few years working in a church where the voices of the mice and thrushes first went silent. Christianity, particularly the protest branch emerging in the time period,  was a mystical force of it’s own, conquering and exiling the folklore that proceeded it. Neither is portrayed as inherently good or bad, but one is coming and the other is going, and like anytime something leaves, there is a sense of melancholy and grief that accompanies it.

Grief and loss were as constant presence in Hiddensee. 

Drosselmeier’s relationships and romances, particularly with a man he first met while working in the kitchens at a wealthy family’s estate, were as heartbreaking as they were beautiful. I can’t say much more without giving away the plot. However, I warn you: if you decide to read this, keep the tissues near by.

Hiddensee is beautiful and sad and definitely worth reading, especially if you are looking for something enchanting to read around the holidays.

Buy links: 

Amazon: https://amzn.to/2QxLlhP

Barnes and Noble: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/hiddensee-gregory-maguire/1126007372#/

Indie Bound: https://www.indiebound.org/book/9780062684387