November DNFs

Posted 29th November 2023 by Sia in Fantasy Reviews, Reviews / 2 Comments

Five DNFs this month; mostly disappointing arcs.

To Cage a God (These Monstrous Gods #1) by Elizabeth May
Genres: Fantasy, Queer Protagonists
Representation: Sapphic MC
Published on: 23rd January 2024
ISBN: 0756418828

The 1st book of an epic new, Imperial Russia-inspired dark fantasy duology of gods, politics, and deadly magical powers from a Sunday Times bestselling author

As a child, Galina’s village was decimated in a battle between the alurea, a ruling class possessed by gods imprisoned in human bodies. A stranger offers her shelter—and justice against the empress who slaughtered her family. The bargain is Galina will become a vessel for a deity of her own. And when the time comes, she will be a weapon used to take control of the throne.

Twenty years later, the woman who invoked Galina’s god is dead, and she’s on the run with her foster sister, Sera. Both women are fugitives struggling to adapt to the deities within their bodies and forced to finally attempt the mission they were groomed infiltrate the palace and overthrow the cruel empress to end the brutal reign of alurea.

But their duty grows complicated when Sera’s ruthless former partner catches up with her, and Galina finds herself on the verge of losing her heart to an enemy princess. As secrets and lies come to light, both women will discover what they’re willing to do for their people—and how far they’ll go to occupy a blood-soaked throne.

For readers eagerly awaiting the next season of Shadow and Bone or those hoping to find similar reads with a more adult audience and more queer representation, These Monstrous Gods is the perfect new dark fantasy to fall in love with.

I received this book for free from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

I’ve been obsessively anticipating this book for over a you can imagine how crushing it was to find it simplistic, blunt, info-dumpy, and packed full of embarrassingly cliched tropes.

Red flags started waving in the opening pages, when words even my dictionary didn’t recognise showed up scattered at random throughout otherwise very normal – I’ll even call it ‘basic’ – prose. It read like May trying to make her writing sound smarter, or possibly more Adult, but the effect is jarring and annoying.

The extended winter had taken a toll on the iatric plants in her garden

Turns out ‘iatric’ means ‘medicinal’, but it’s such a rare word that even as I write this up, my browser is underlining the word in red, sure it must be a typo. Couldn’t you have just written ‘the medicinal plants’ or ‘the healing plants’?

Or, just a little later

Despite Sera’s best efforts, the night ended with a pair of vitreous eyes gazing into nothingness.

Listen, if you want to write your entire novel (or novella, or short story, or whatever) in 3-dollar prose, then go for it! But randomly sticking words my Scrabble app won’t accept as valid into otherwise very normal writing does not work. It sounds stupid. It’s confusing. You’re being ridiculous.

Who describes the eyes of a dead person as ‘vitreous’? Really? Really? You couldn’t just use ‘blank’ or ‘glassy’ or ’empty’, any of which are of the same level of vocabulary as the rest of your writing??? What are you doing?

So the prose annoyed me, but unfortunately the story is worse. Although the set-up of how exactly gods end up in the nobility is pretty interesting – people are born with the sigils summoning one specific god on their bones! How does that work??? – the magic itself is nothing special, and the plot. My gods, the plot. The great plan to infiltrate the empress’ household is dreamed up in approximately four minutes, begging the question of why these two MCs didn’t do this literal years ago (they’ve been trying to live on the down-low most of their lives), and is pulled off ridiculously easily. No one is the tiniest bit confused, or even very interested, in how a noble could possibly have been raised as a peasant all this time, while wielding literal god-fire.

And I’m not even going to start on how it makes no sense whatsoever for the leader of the rebellion to figure out how to summon gods into non-nobility – and not make an army of them. No. Just two little girls. Okay. Sure. That – yeah, that makes sense.


“But have you ever considered fucking someone who doesn’t have knives on him?”

Sera let out a low chuckle, her eyes still fixed on the colorful chaos unfolding before them. “Where’s the challenge in that?”

And the characters – I’m sorry, they couldn’t be more generic if they tried. Generically evil empress. Generically traumatised-by-what-she’s-done alcoholic. Generically snarky and Strong WomanTM older sister who doesn’t need a man. Which, never mind, let’s give her a love interest anyway who is such a generic Bad Boy stereotype I actually had to put the book down and close my eyes for ten minutes after reading his humiliatingly bad dialogue.

Sera sighed in exasperation. “I’ve forgotten you’ve never come by a single thing honestly.”

“That’s not true. I once won your sweet affection with nothing but a lethal blend of charm and well-sharpened blades.”

I. I don’t even know what to do with this. Sir, you are talking about yourself. Who describes themselves as a ‘lethal blend of charm and well-sharpened blades’? What is wrong with you?

“You should know by now that I can spot you in any crowd, whether it’s one hundred, one thousand, or one million.” He stepped closer, until his breath feathered over her cheek, and he murmured, “Hasn’t it always been that way?”

ABSOLUTELY NOT. What is this garbage??? I did not agree to read crappy Bad Boy paranormal romance, wtf? Did I fall into – I actually don’t remember the last time a book made me cringe this hard. Black Dagger Brotherhood? The Merry Gentry series? Vampire Diaries? I don’t know, BUT SOMETHING FROM THAT ERA.

Also, ‘I can spot you in any crowd, whether it’s one hundred, one thousand, or one million’ is not just a cringe line, it’s poorly phrased. It should be something like ‘any crowd, whether it’s one of one hundred people, one thousand, or one million’. Still not a good line, but at least that makes technical sense now.

“I suppose you have a certain deranged appeal.”

A slow smile crept across Vitaly’s face. “Is there any other kind?”

When it was revealed that the love interest’s – Vasily’s – presence is the only thing that calms Sera’s god – who otherwise hates her and refuses to let her use its power – I noped the fuck out.

This is just embarrassing, and a book/author combo that is being massively let down by its marketing – which is promising something To Cage a God absolutely cannot deliver. (Like being an Adult Fantasy, which – shoving as many curse words as possible into a manuscript doesn’t actually fix it reading like bad YA, thanks.)


The Dragons of Deepwood Fen (The Book of the Holt, #1) by Bradley P. Beaulieu
Genres: Fantasy, Secondary World Fantasy
Representation: Brown MC
Published on: 5th December 2023

This 1st book in a new fantasy series from the author of the acclaimed Song of the Shattered Sands series follows an unlikely pair as they expose the secrets at the heart of the mountain city of Ancris.

Lorelei Aurelius is the smartest inquisitor in the mountain city of Ancris. When a mysterious tip leads her to a clandestine meeting between the Church and the hated Red Knives, she uncovers a plot that threatens not only her home but the empire itself.

The trail leads her to Rylan Holbrooke, a notorious thief posing as a dragon singer. Rylan came to Ancris to solve the very same mystery she stumbled onto. Knowing his incarceration could lead to the Red Knives’ achieving their goals, Lorelei makes a fateful decision: she frees him.

Now branded as traitors, the two flee the city on dragonback. In the massive forest known as the Holt, they discover something terrible. The Red Knives are planning to awaken a powerful demigod in the holiest shrine in Ancris, and for some reason the Church is willing to allow it. It forces their return to Ancris, where the unlikely allies must rally the very people who’ve vowed to capture them before it’s too late.

Explore the mountain city of Ancris, where fast-paced adventure and intrigue abound. in this new offering from the author of the acclaimed Song of the Shattered Sands series.

I received this book for free from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

I really don’t understand how people keep fucking up dragon-rider stories, and yet here we are again.

First off, the dragons are really boring. Different things can be done with the ground-up scales of different coloured dragons, but the dragons themselves are somewhat intelligent animals, not sapient, and at least in the first chunk of the book (I read to the 20% mark) there was nothing magical about them. No sense of wonder attached to them at all, which was really disappointing. I did really like that the different cultures in this world have very different views on how to treat dragons, whether psychically bonding to them is okay or not, and which dragons are acceptable to keep (the dominant, coloniser culture hunts down many of the colours because they’re considered too dangerous/unholy), but the dragons felt very tacked-on to the story – maybe later they become a bigger part of the book, but as far as I could tell, the titular dragons of The Dragons of Deepwood Fen are barely part of the story at all.

Secondly – and honestly, the worse sin – Beaulieu does not. stop. telling. I’ve seen other early readers complain that the book is slow, and it is – but of course it is; this is the opening book in a secondary-world epic fantasy. There’s a lot for us to learn! It’s practically supposed to be slow, as we gradually learn about the world the author’s created and the people and creatures in it.

But Beaulieu doesn’t give us that time – everything is just infodumps, and it drove me up the WALL. Especially when, barely five minutes into the book, we’re casually told via infodump what the bad guys’ Threat To The World-level big plan is! That was just dropped in our lap like it was nothing, and it had no impact at all – how could it? I hadn’t been in the world long enough to even know about yet the evil god they were even talking about, but Beaulieu is already giving away their plans to set said god free??? Wtf?

Those other readers are not wrong, by the way; Dragons of Deepwood Fen is slow. So somehow, this book manages to be slow as hell and too rushed.

(Ironically, despite all the infodumps, info I actually needed to understand why everyone cared about the palisade was not forthcoming; I had no clue why it was driving so many different political forces. It was talked around, not talked about, and I get that sometimes you want to have the reveals later, but if your characters are interacting with a thing, and I don’t understand why they care so much about it, there’s a problem.)

There are maybe twice as many POV characters as the story actually needs, the villainous Hissing Man is so capital-e Evil he’s a caricature, and while the dialogue is mostly perfectly fine, whenever someone powerful is trying to be intimidating or whatever, the speech becomes incredibly awkward and fake; it comes across like actors trying to deliver a badly-written script.

And while I am willing to engage with political intrigue – which seemed like it was going to be a big part of the plot, albeit kind of clumsily – I did not sign up for a police procedural story about drug trafficking, which it really looked like Deepwood Fen was turning into.

The actual prose itself is not bad, and the worldbuilding is great when you scrape away the serious meh of the plot and most of the characters – so two point five stars it is.

Evergreen by Devin Greenlee
Genres: Fantasy, Contemporary or Urban Fantasy, Queer Protagonists
Representation: Achillean MC, M/M
PoV: First-person, present-tense
Published on: 16th January 2024
ISBN: 1649375379

The Secret Garden is gorgeously reimagined in this deliciously dreamy urban fairytale about a dryad who risks immortality for love, from debut author Devin Greenlee

All seventeen-year-old Quill wants is a break from the family business. Flowers, plants, the generations-old garden. What he wouldn’t give for a taste of the outside world. Normalcy. But his mom won’t let him out of the house, telling him he’s just not ready…

All because he’s a dryad. Well, not just any dryad, but a male dryad—the first ever. And unlike everyone else in his family, he hasn’t a lick of magic. Just a shock of green hair, matching green eyes, and a growing frustration that there’s an entire world out there waiting to be discovered. Until the night when the outside world—specifically his new neighbor—discovers him.

Liam Watson lives in a culture filled with electronics, mobile devices, and social media—where there is no magic or even the belief in it. And as much as Quill finds Liam irritating (he’s so cute it’s annoying), he can’t help himself.

Now Quill’s getting a taste of the outside world and of Liam…and he wants more. But all is not well in this magical, urban garden, and someone—or something—is changing the very essence of it.

And wherever Quill goes, the danger grows…

I received this book for free from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

This was just…really simple and basic in scope and execution, both. It reads to me like a Nanonovel – your first draft (minus, to be fair, all the typos etc you’d find in an actual first draft).

First-person present-tense is my most despised form of narration, and only works for me when a) the prose is gorgeous OR b) there’s something really interesting about the main character’s voice and perspective. And neither were the case here. Quill is actually an incredibly boring MC, with seemingly no curiosity – about himself, the magic garden he cares for, or the outside world in general – or ambition beyond getting out of the house. I would have expected him to be spending a lot of time watching documentaries or looking stuff up online, since he can’t go outside and interact with the human world – but there’s nothing like that at all.

There’s no wonder to the magic here – I was kind of stunned at how mundane and obvious all the magical plants were, and how they were described so plainly. The worldbuilding around the dryads themselves was embarrassingly (and mindnumbingly) simplistic, and the plot is so contrived no amount of suspension of disbelief would ever make me buy it. The ‘relationship’ was all very cringey dialogue and insta-lust, basically, and neither of the characters felt like PEOPLE – they just had a few traits each, rather than actual personalities.

No thank you.

So Let Them Burn by Kamilah Cole
Genres: Fantasy, Secondary World Fantasy, Queer Protagonists
Representation: Jamaican-coded setting & cast, asexual MC, sapphic MC
PoV: Third-person past-tense, dual PoVs
Published on: 16th January 2024
ISBN: 0316534846

Faron Vincent can channel the power of the gods. Five years ago, she used her divine magic to liberate her island from its enemies, the dragon-riding Langley Empire. But now, at seventeen, Faron is all powered up with no wars to fight. She’s a legend to her people and a nuisance to her neighbors.  

When she’s forced to attend an international peace summit, Faron expects that she will perform tricks like a trained pet and then go home. She doesn’t expect her older sister, Elara, forming an unprecedented bond with an enemy dragon—or the gods claiming the only way to break that bond is to kill her sister.  

As Faron’s desperation to find another solution takes her down a dark path, and Elara discovers the shocking secrets at the heart of the Langley Empire, both must make difficult choices that will shape each other’s lives, as well as the fate of their world.

I received this book for free from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

This is an absolutely amazing premise…let down by writing I couldn’t stand, and a flavour of stupid that is just EXHAUSTING.

It was an odd, but I don’t think bad or wrong, choice to set Let Them Burn after the big Mockingjay-esque war wherein San Irie – the Jamaica-inspired setting – fought off its colonisers, the Langley Empire. It would have been a difficult story to write, and it probably wouldn’t have stood out nearly as much from all the other rebellions we’ve seen in YA. But the downside is that Cole has to continuously info-dump us with past events, and it’s not done very skilfully.

I could probably have lived with that, though – there were decent odds it would only be an issue in the beginning and things would smooth out as the book went on. And I really liked that the two POV characters – Faron, a sort of Chosen One, and Elara – are sisters, who are very close and supportive of each other. We don’t get to see loving sibling relationships often enough, imo.

But the actual writing is just not great. It’s plain, it’s blunt, the phrasing often grates my internal sense of writing rhythm (I don’t know how to put it better than that, this is a problem I run into all the time). The dialogue is clunky and comes across as very false, very forced – aside from Faron and Elara, the dynamics between the characters were just so unconvincing, particularly the (very different) relationships both sisters have with Reeve, the son of the leader of the Langley Empire who switched sides during the war. Faron doesn’t trust him, and their meant-to-be-snarky banter is cringe-inducing; whereas Elara considers Reeve her best friend, which would be fine if not for lines like this.

His nightmares, his guilt, his trauma were different, but she had connected with the sorrow in his eyes that matched her own.

That is just so clunky.

More examples for you;

Port Sol was a powder keg. It would only take an ember for it to erupt.

There’s a reason that situations described as powder kegs are said to need a spark to erupt; a spark jumps into being when the right materials bang together, or from malfunctioning electrics, etc. A spark is easy to make and can come into being suddenly, without warning, is my point. An ember is what you get when the fire has already been burning for a while already – so it doesn’t make sense with this particular metaphor.

broad as a building

What – what the hell does this mean??? Buildings come in all shapes and sizes; this is completely unhelpful description. I might have let it slide if it were describing a human – you kind of vaguely understand what is meant if you describe a big person as being built like a building. But this is describing a dragon. And it’s kind of vitally important that I can picture your dragons the way you want me to – and size is a big part of that! Dragons of Deepwood Fen described the length of dragons in terms of horses; this one was six horses long, this one ten, etc. Even though horses are not all exactly the same length, they’re close enough that you can understand what the writer is going for. But broad as a building? I don’t know what that means!

Then we have passages like this

Aveline opens the airfield to the public.” It was a stupid idea, but Faron understood the politics of it. Aveline had taken the throne as a teenager, after all, and people wouldn’t allow for her to rule from the shadows. If her every action would be scrutinized, why not allow that scrutiny on her own terms?

For context, this is referring to the fact that the queen apparently allows the public to wander onto the military airfield as they please, so long as her guards are present. Which already strikes me as incredibly stupid. But I genuinely don’t understand what Cole is trying to say about the ruling from the shadows thing, or how it’s relevant to opening up the airfield. It reads like nonsense. People are always going to be watching what the queen is up to, so she…opens up the airfield? And this is somehow a kind of defiant thing, her exerting control on the situation? What???

But that was nothing compared to the sheer unbelievable idiocy of the riot control. See, there are trade talks going on, right? And the queen is worried about a possible riot, because a lot of her people aren’t happy about the talks. So she asks the military to step in.

Who do the military send in??? To help prevent, or manage if they can’t prevent, a fucking riot?




Apparently, security detail was a job for green cadets, not experienced soldiers

Hi, what the actual fuck??? What kind of reasoning is this?! No one with half a brain cell would EVER sign off on something like that! These kids – and they ARE kids – have had no training yet! They haven’t even been cadets for a full day at this point! AND you stuck them on horseback, despite the fact that at least some of them haven’t ridden horses very often! I can’t even count how many kinds of stupid and dangerous this is!

And it’s so obviously just to get Elara – who signed up that morning – into the capital. When I can think of half a dozen other, better ways to get her there without even trying.

Blatant and handwavey idiocy contrived because you couldn’t come up with a reasonable way of getting your characters where you need them is not something I can put up with.

I’m not even going to get into how forced and awkward the dragon-bonding scene was. Nope, nope, nope.

TL;DR: great premise written like a first draft, at best. I wish the editor or someone had asked for a few more rewrites, because damn, this could have been incredible – and instead, it’s just an incredible letdown.

The Scandalous Letters of V and J (French Letters, #1) by Felicia Davin
Genres: Fantasy, Historical Fantasy, Queer Protagonists
Representation: Nonbinary MCs

Paris, 1823. Victor Beauchêne has led a stifling existence, unrecognized for both his cleverness and his gender, except in the pages of his meticulous diary. Abruptly cut off from his family’s fortune, he takes the opportunity to start a new life in a shabby boarding house with his beloved spinster aunt Sophie. There, he stumbles upon two kinds of magic: a pen with eerie powers of persuasion and a reserved, alluring art student named Julien.

Brilliant, unconventional Julien is also Julie, a person whose magical paintings can transform their body or enchant viewers. Haunted by a terrible episode in their past, they’ve come to Paris for artistic success—the ordinary, non-magical kind. Victor, too handsome and far too inquisitive, is a dangerous distraction from their ambitions.

Drawn to each other, Victor and Julie strike up a cautious correspondence of notes slid under doors. It soon unfolds into a passionate romance. Outside the bedroom, their desires clash: Julie wants to distance herself from the world of magic and Victor wants to delve deeper. When the ruthless abuser from Julie’s past resurfaces, he aims to take control of her powers and ruin more lives. Victor and Julie are the only ones who can stop him. Do they trust each other enough to survive the threat to their love and their lives?

The Scandalous Letters of V and J is a historical fantasy romance with two nonbinary main characters, told primarily in letters and diary entries. It is approximately 100,000 words long and sexually explicit.

I started reading this in May when it was released, and I think I just have to admit that I’m bored with it and not going to finish. V and J are the sort of characters I would admire as people were they real – they’re both pretty virtuous in their own ways, though V would be horrified they heard me say it – but aren’t that interesting to read about. I didn’t feel their chemistry, was kind of unimpressed will the way in which V discovers magic, and I can’t really tell you much about the plot because my attention kept wandering away from it.

Having made it to the 60% mark, I could push on and finish it… but I just don’t want to. I don’t care. Thus, I’m done.

(Possibly petty, but: I love epistolary formats, and got a jolt when I ran into the first ‘normal’ scene, written in omniscient third-person. Noooo, don’t do that, it could have been a journal entry! Why wasn’t it???)

Better luck next month!

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2 responses to “November DNFs

  1. Levo

    Re: the first book, I like to describe that kind of writing as the author “being friends with the thesaurus.” It’s always obvious when it happens, but the passages you shared are outright egregious.

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