YA Fantasy

My Review: Where Dreams Descend (Kingdom of Cards #1): by Janella Angeles

Publish Date: August 25th, 2020

Number of Pages: 464 Pages

Publisher: Wednesday Books

Genre(s): YA Fantasy

Total Star Rating: 3 Stars

It was William Shakespeare who made this quote:

All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players: they have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts, his acts being seven ages.”

I fully am always behind it whenever I come across it; we all really do have our parts to play, and our character can change over time along with the company we share it with in a specific moment of time. So, who are we, really? How many people can say they truly know themselves when they take the masks off, when they exit stage left, and they no longer have the spotlight shining on them or have to put on a performance for an expectant audience?

One thing I’ve always been curious about is the idea of being in the audience of a live production, and while I’m sitting back and enjoying the show, I never get to glimpse what’s going on behind the curtains, backstage, in the dark recesses of the unlit hallways and what the performers are all up to back there when all eyes are not on them. How is the whole show put together? How were they able to pull it off? I feel like there’s the possibility of many stories to be formed by playing with that idea and taking it many different ways in order to procure an incredibly riveting and exciting story. Also, being someone who’s been on both sides of said curtain, it’s certainly given me a newfound respect for the performing arts and what all goes into any sort of production in the theatre.

Where Dreams Descend is a mysterious, magical, romantic, daring, and dark tale that will fill most reader’s hearts with glee and satisfaction if they loved tales such as Caraval by Stephanie Garber or The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. Its being advertised as a mix of “The Phantom of the Opera” along with “Moulin Rouge,” and this published debut has everything readers who loves about those titles with two people with everything stacked against them end up falling in love and facing a mysterious and unseen evil that threatens their world. It’s got the splendor, the glamour of the circus and the theatre, and the whole “The Show must go on!” mentality that we’re all familiar with.

I will be honest though, I only thought this book was okay… I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t love it either. The prose were absolutely spectacular and seemed like they were written by someone who has many years of the craft under their belt, and I was also a fan of the romance, but I was just never fully invested into the story or really blown away by it. Nothing in the plot really gave me those “Oh yeah… now it’s really getting good!” chills down the spine. I feel like the author just played it too safe, and could’ve gone further with the dark & creepy vibes with the mirrors and threatening messages written in riddles in order to make it a more memorable read.

I’m also very much not the target audience for this book, so the fact I thought some aspects of the book seemed juvenile can be taken with a grain of salt.

The beginning opened up on a fine note with introducing us to the main protagonist of the story: Kallia. She’s a showgirl who wows every night as she performs under the employment of Jack, a young and rather charming man with a dark shadow trailing behind him. He’s got a nice enough smile, but you feel like there’s a few cracks along the edge and possibly something rather unsettling swirling behind it. The author introduces Kallia’s predicament in a straightforward way despite how Kallia’s small world is anything but. One thing I want to point out at this point is the relationship between Jack and Kallia. It’s a rather interesting one that is never fully revealed what it exactly is, but my impression is they might’ve been exes or at least former lovers; there’s an intimacy there that drew my eyebrows together, but like I said, it’s never explained and is left up in the air.

The middle expanded way farther as Kallia enters a competition, gets an assistant in a street thief named Aaros, and she meets Demarco, who is one of the judges but has a reputation that’s also cloaked in mystery as being a former showman himself. The story becomes more eventful by this point, as any novel should, but there are also plenty of slower moments that diminish the faster paced plot points. More and more develops and I should be enthralled by now, but it just never fully happens except for scenes with Demarco and Kallia. I found myself antsy only to read scenes where it’s the two of them and their relationship develops.

The end was obviously the most exciting part of the whole book—I’d second guess any book where it isn’t—and the most shocking events occur here, and leaves a lot up in the air with quite a cliffhanger of an ending… Not as much was explained as I’d hoped there’d be, and you’re really left with a whole lot of “What does this mean? Why is this happening?” type of questions. That’s all I can really say on it without revealing too much; it certainly leaves room for a lot more reveals to occur in the next book of this duology; hopefully those who read this book can withstand that doozy of a cliffhanger and be able to wait for next book that’ll most likely to be released August 2021…

Also, I want to personally thank Owlcrate, the monthly YA Fantasy subscription box, for my own exclusive copy of this title! I didn’t just receive a copy for an honest review like if I were to have received an ARC from the publisher, but Owlcrate did get some sort of sweet deal where they were able to include this book in their July box themed “The World’s a Stage,” and release it a month earlier than the actual publication date! Here’s an image of their exclusive design:

The foiled design is etched into the actual book with no dust jacket

What It’s About:

The Official Blurb:

In a city covered in ice and ruin, a group of magicians face off in a daring game of magical feats to find the next headliner of the Conquering Circus, only to find themselves under the threat of an unseen danger striking behind the scenes.

As each act becomes more and more risky and the number of missing magicians piles up, three are forced to reckon with their secrets before the darkness comes for them next.

The Star: Kallia, a powerful showgirl out to prove she’s the best no matter the cost

The Master: Jack, the enigmatic keeper of the club, and more than one lie told

The Magician: Demarco, the brooding judge with a dark past he can no longer hide

Where Dreams Descend is the startling and romantic first book in Janella Angeles’ debut Kingdom of Cards fantasy duology where magic is both celebrated and feared, and no heart is left unscathed…

What I Liked:

  1. Four Royal Families Represent the Suits of Cards in a Deck! It’s a small detail within the world the author created for the story, but I liked it enough to want to point it out. In the city of Glorian, the architecture has four different designs that are representative of the four royal families, who also are fashioned after the four suits of a deck of cards. I wish the author went further with this to be honest! Maybe more will happen in the second book.
  2. Kallia and Demarco’s Relationship Development! Perhaps the biggest highlight of this book—no surprise—was the romance that developed between the two main characters. I thought it developed rather organically and was a nicely drawn out development that had me happy when they finally got together. Demarco and Kallia are more similar than they both would care to admit, and both carry such heavy baggage when they both arrive for the competition, and both felt neither were able to be viewed as desirable to anyone else so they’re both so scared of being vulnerable around each other, plus they were both so focused so solely on their own ambitions towards the plot. You know Kallia’s side of the story much more from the very beginning, but even though you get inside Demarco’s head, you never really know what really happened to him until the end, and I feel like that was a reveal that should’ve happened earlier since it wasn’t really all that big of a twist. Either way, the romance was very well done! I personally am becoming a huge fan of the stiff, uptight guy who lets loose and gets all sexy when he’s macking on his love interest; it’s a verryyy nice aesthetic 😉

What I Didn’t Like:

  1. Very Little WorldBuilding…World-building was definitely not the the heavy focus of this author’s magical tale, and to be honest it’s also not entirely the end of the world. Quite honestly, the story doesn’t necessarily need more work done besides what you learn within the pages, but I’m more focusing on the Magic System that is not ever explained, nor is there much else to it other than one who is able to can just do it before it drains them if they use too much at one time. It’s just there, and I really wish more was explained about it.
  2. Strong Sexism…It’s probably more annoying than a mosquito buzzing in your ear that just won’t go away no matter how many times you swipe at it… the sexism and misogynistic behavior of a lot of the older male characters in this book is just plain old yuck as they continuously try to tear down Kallia simply because she’s a woman trying to make something of herself. I’m not sure if this book heavily exaggerates this behavior or if women really deal with this behavior in such an outward way, but either way, I’m so sorry for it and am glad how today’s world has changed so much from similar behaviors like the ones exhibited in this book. We still have a long way to go, but we’re moving in the right direction.
  3. Purple Prose…Normally I actually don’t mind this style of writing when it’s used effectively, but in this case, I’m going to sound like all the other reviewers who complain about it. The author’s writing was absolutely gorgeous and spectacular, but it was a little too over the top and overly expressive for when the characters were doing extremely mundane things like simply sipping on coffee or standing near the bottom of a staircase. I’m all for the beautiful prose when the story is more high octane or the characters are doing something important, but there’s no need to glamorize simple everyday tasks, I think. It just seemed excessive at some points in the story.

Conclusion:

Since this book has been advertised as “Moulin Rouge + Phantom of the Opera + The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern,” I’d definitely recommend Where Dreams Descend to anyone who’s a fan of those whimsical, magical, romantic, adventurous and utterly enchanting tales with just a hint of dangerous thrills. I feel like many fans of the Caraval trilogy by Stephanie Garber will also enjoy this book even though Kallia is a very different protagonist from Scarlett Dragna, but that might be what makes people actually enjoy this one.

Overall, it was an okay read for me; I didn’t hate it but I wasn’t exactly blown away by it either. It’s excellently written and the prose are top notch along with a nice slow-burn romance, but I just never got fully into the story and it didn’t make me overly excited. I can see this book being super popular with the much younger readers and for anyone who has a sudden kick for a circus/theatre type of novel with a magical twist to it. I may or may not read the second part when it comes out; I guess I’ll wait and see what other reviewers say before I give it a go…

Thanks for Reading!

— Nick Goodsell

YA Fantasy, YA romance

My Review: Caraval (Caraval #1): by Stephanie Garber

Publish Date: January 31st, 2017
Number of Pages: 407 Pages
Publisher: Flatiron Books
Genre(s): YA Fantasy, Romance

Total Star Rating: 4 Stars

Your running through the streets of Venice, Italy at night with thousands of colorful lights dancing on the edge of your vision. The gondolas are traipsing through the canals, and a menagerie of people in glamorous costumes walk past. The sweeping feeling of adventure and slight danger as you turn towards the sailor that brought you there, the one that you know is hiding something, but you’re curiosity to find out overpowers the dread of the unknown. They take your hand, your heartbeat accelerates with attraction mixed with distrust as you run towards what you think may be the answer to the next clue on the list, and you forge on because it means getting that much closer to whatever it is you want most…

Thats some pretty cool sounding visuals, right?

This title is filled with aesthetically pleasing images and beautiful words that sweep you off your feet, take your breath away, and bring you on a magical adventure that so many readers, authors, and reviewers have praised since it’s initial release back in 2017.

I’d actually owned this book twice to be completely honest; I bought a copy earlier on, but gave up before I even opened it and sold it to a used book store, thinking that it sounded too juvenile for me and not worth my time, so that was it and I’ll never open those pages or even think about them ever again. But as time went on, and the other titles of this trilogy, Legendary & Finale, released and more and more praise rang out. That, plus a personal recommendation from my old store manager, I reluctantly bought another copy and decided to give it another chance, and was happy with that decision upon finishing this book!

This book was escapism literature in some of its finest form. I so easily got lost inside the pages; letting the imagery overtake my senses, and give me excitement over what would happen next, even as it got late into the night and I had to get up early for work the next day. It was nothing too dark or too serious of a read, and I think that’s what made it so much fun, honestly. There was danger, but nothing too dramatic or gritty as its essentially people playing this scavenger hunt in order to win an ultimate prize from its mysterious host.

What It’s About:

Our main protagonist’s name is Scarlett Dragna, and she lives on a tiny island somewhere what feels like some land thats similar to Italy or Greece, and she has one younger sister as they are the daughters of the Governor. Over the years, she’s dreamed of escaping his harsh rule, and has imagined going to Caraval, a once-a-year event where the audience is specifically chosen to arrive and to participate. She’d written letters to its mysterious host, Legend, at least once a year for many years, but to no response every time. Those dreams suddenly evaporate into a cloud of mist as the wedding day of her arranged marriage draws closer, but then the unthinkable happens…

She receives a letter from Legend. Inside, she finds three personal invitations to this years Caraval; one for her, her sister, and her betrothed.

Her younger sister, Tella, has always been the exact opposite of her. While Scarlett is cautious and sheltered, Tella is much more bold and impulsive. She allows herself to have more fun and to give into her desires. When Scarlett goes searching for her with the news of the letter, she discovers her down in the whiskey cellar in a compromising position with a handsome stranger. Fed up with their father’s unfairness, they decide to escape into the night and go towards their dreams, towards Caraval

Plans quickly change, and Tella ends up being kidnapped as soon as they set foot on the island where the magical event takes place, and it turns out that that she will revolve around this season’s contest as the winner will be whoever can find her first. With the help of a charming but aloof sailor, Julian, Scarlett races across the coastal town in search of her missing sister, swept up into the elaborate performance of it all. She will find out that things are NEVER as they appear to be, secrets are the way of currency, that everyone has some sort of motive and should be weary of being trusted.

How much of a game is it all, really?

What I Liked:

  1. The Aesthetics! Like the image I painted in the very first paragraph, the visuals this story paints for you are so incredibly gorgeous; I imagined Venice Italy celebrating Mardi Gras with Cirque du Soleil performers running around. Plus, coastal towns right on the ocean back in what I imagined as 17-1800 era Europe, and dress-wear that changes form and color with your emotions make for the overall setting of this story quite memorable.
  2. The Romance! Some people would say they didn’t like it or that it cheapened the story a bit, but I personally was a fan of it. A huge part of the book was the developing love story that was taking place while the game was escalating, and the mystery surrounding it along with everything else. I thought it developed rather well and I became invested with it as it was a great addition towards the enemies-to-lovers trope.
  3. Julian! I have to give him then MVP award of this book, because he was probably my favorite character out of everyone. Scarlett kind of took the heroine protagonist spot a little backwards, as she constantly got into trouble and needed a man, usually Julian himself, to come rescue her. It’s true its a part of her character arc, but I’d read too many badass female characters already to revert back to the damsel. Julian is bold, rugged, charming, secretive, and it was good to see him become a more important role to the overall plot instead of just being eye-candy. He’s constantly grappling with what he wants to do versus what he should do, and it’s great to see him usually choose the later, especially when it came to Scarlett.
  4. The Mystery/Lore of Caraval! It’s never really explained how the annual event came to be or how it disappears every year, along with the rumors and stories that surround the host, but the lore behind it all did add a whole lot to the story, making it more intriguing and fun to read! Hopefully, more answers come in the next books!
  5. Scarlett’s Terrible Decisions! The girl makes a ton of bad calls, no joke…if anyone’s seen the first Scary Movie, where Carmen Electra comes to a fork with two signs that point towards safety or death, I think you know which one Scarlett would probably take. I know A LOT of criticism towards this book is because of that, but honestly, I found it actually pretty realistic. She’s never done anything like Caraval before, she has a hot-but-distrustful sailor working with her and she’s constantly worried about her sister…whose mind would be in the right place during all that?! I’d for sure be making those bad calls too, and I thought it was endearing how she makes a lot of mistakes but still learns from some of them and finds an alternative path towards what she’s after.
SCARY MOVIE, Carmen Electra, 2000, ©Dimension Films/courtesy Everett Collection

What I Didn’t Like:

  1. It Needed More Danger…While her sister is taken from her and the threat of what may happen drives Scarlett forward towards finding her, I still felt like the stakes could have been raised even higher with this story. It hardly felt like there was any actual danger as it’s supposed to be one big show/game/performance, but I can say there are a couple scenes that change this around. I wished the author added more scenes like those ones to give this book an even sharper edge.
  2. The Abusive Father…With all the lore, all the mystery, all the magic, I still found having an abusive father like Scarlett and Tella’s to be a little more ridiculous part of the story. It made their decision to run away almost too easy, but what really made me scoff was how he didn’t even try to hide the fact that he was abusive…Usually, abusers try to hide that little tidbit towards the public or anyone else; he’d only leave bruises on areas of the body that wouldn’t be seen, he’d try to keep up the persona that everything’s okay and normal, and wouldn’t dare try to strike anyone else in front of others either. Nope, he smacked his daughters around for everyone to see; he even struck other characters later on in the story, and it felt like cheap plot manipulation just to easily makes us hate him, and we do, but it could’ve been done better.

Conclusion:

Overall, this book was a fun, entertaining, magical, escapist read that is safe, but a great addition to the YA Fantasy genre nonetheless. I haven’t read this other title yet, but it has what I imagine to be a similar vibe to Erin Morgenstern’s Night Circus. Even just reading the blurb, I feel like they have similar themes, aesthetics and story arcs (Not a bad thing, and I do plan on reading that title as well some day!)

I will definitely be reading the next books in this trilogy because while the ending was satisfying, it left some things open ended and hints at much more to come, and I want answers! This title isn’t too dark, ominous or creepy, and even the romance is pretty tame, but that’s totally okay! It’s supposed to be not be taken so seriously; a little more lighthearted, fun, fairytale-like and dreamy as it left images of lights, cobblestone streets at night, laughter in the air, and the chills that creep onto your skin as you sneak away into the night about to do something you know is wrong, but it feels so right!

Thanks for Reading!

— Nick Goodsell