Book Reviews: Back in a Spell by Lana Harper, Lunar Love by Lauren Kung Jessen, The Daughters of Izdihar by Hadeer Elsbai

book reviews back in a spell lana harper lunar love lauren kung jessen the daughters of izdihar hadeer elsbai

It’s a review post full of powerful, headstrong women! I swear that was not planned. I just needed to get these reviews going and happened to read these three in this order. But I love that I went from a powerful witch coming to terms with her toxic family to a headstrong mixed race Chinese American woman who will do anything to protect her family business and not fall in love and finally to two very different women who, apparently, have the power to change a traditional society (but maybe in the second book). These were all great reads with fantastic settings and fun characters.

Back in a Spell by Lana Harper

back in a spell lana harper

Title: Back in a Spell (Witches of Thistle Grove #3)

Author: Lana Harper

Publisher: Berkley

Publication date: January 3, 2023

Genre: Paranormal, Romance, LGBTQ

Description and purchase link(s)

One Sentence Summary: When Nina unknowingly makes a wish to the goddess, she ends up with more power than she could have ever dreamed and an unexpected bond with an unexpected person.

My thoughts:

Back in a Spell is the third in the Witches of Thistle Grove series, and it’s a bit different from the first two. There’s still the expected diverse romance, but, instead of something like a tournament or a mystery where our couple of the book needs to work together, this one is more of a personal journey. Considering the author wrote this as something of a cathartic experience, it makes sense. It wasn’t what I was expecting, and I, unfortunately, found myself a little disappointed especially since I was looking forward to Nina Blackmoore’s story, but I can absolutely appreciate her journey and the family toxicity she was working through.

There isn’t much more depth given to the Blackmoore clan beyond what was offered in the first two books. They’re a powerful, vicious group who are literally out for themselves, even if it hurts their own offspring, like Nina. Their family laundry is laid bare, the toxicity evident and so clearly laid out I almost couldn’t understand why Nina wouldn’t just run away. But the power is hard to leave, even if she does have a certain magical ability that helps her maintain her connection to the lake they draw their powers from. But family is family, and Nina would do anything for her family and their business. But she wants more, so the lake gives her more, giving her power and options she never knew she might have. Thus starts her journey into figuring out herself and how her family really should function. It leads to a fascinating shift not just in the family dynamics, but also in the witch community. While I felt Nina’s journey was a little too drawn out and she aligned more with her mother and grandmother than she might have liked, I liked watching her grow and figure things out on her own, though it wasn’t really exciting until the end when everything came to a head.

Fortunately, the romance was lovely and warm, even if I felt it was shoved off to the side more than it should have, like there was supposed to be a romance, but this was really meant to be about Nina’s growth as a person and a witch, but there really has to be a romance. I loved Morty in the previous two books. Morty is a fascinating, colorful character who uses he/they (and if I get the usage wrong in this review, I’m very sorry!) whose family story is explored and ends up being a bit more complex than it appeared on the surface. But their handling of it all was sweet and full of love. There’s just something so wonderful about Morty, and they were the absolute perfect individual for Nina. I did think the pairing a little odd, and their started far too magical, but, watching them together just made me happy. Morty pushed and pulled her to be a better person, and that was lovely to see.

But my favorite part of this was getting to see Gareth and Emmy all grown up! I hated Gareth in the first book, as I think we readers were meant to. But he shows real growth in this book. He isn’t entirely likable, but he’s taken in real responsibility, even if it feeds into the family toxicity. But seeing Gareth and Nina work through it together and come out the other side as two members of a family that will hopefully redeem itself was amazing. They were clearly products of that toxicity, but were capable of pushing their way out of it. In the first book, Emmy wasn’t sure about staying in Thistle Grove and taking her place, but Back in a Spell had her morphing into so much more. She’s incredible and powerful and diplomatic, and, my goodness, Emmy has really matured into a force. I loved her in this book, though I was sorely missing out on the Thorns and Avramovs, because the Avramovs always make things more interesting.

Back in a Spell does more than grow the characters. It grows Thistle Grove and its history. We find out more about this little microcosm and a little more about where the magic might have come from. I don’t know what it means for future books, but I like that the setting isn’t stagnant. It grows and breathes just like the characters, and I’m excited to see what the revelations and all the other changes to the witch community will mean for future books. It knocked me off kilter a little bit since I was expecting it, but, if this series is going to continue for many more books, it makes sense that the town should evolve, too.

Back in a Spell is a lovely addition to the series. I wasn’t expecting something different from the first two books, so was disappointed it was all about Nina, and, honestly, that got a bit boring for me, especially in the middle. But the end was the best payoff ever. I adored everything about it. The characters were so true to themselves, there was some great character growth, there were amazing strides taken, and it all came together spectacularly. If I could rate just the ending, it would be a billion cups of tea, but it takes a lot of work to get there, and I just couldn’t get into all that slow, meandering work, even if Morty learning to use magic was kind of awesome.

My rating: 4 cups of tea

And now we’ll shift from a magical Midwest town to Los Angeles as a mixed race Chinese American matchmaker seems to meet her match in a mixed race Chinese American dating app developer in…

Lunar Love by Lauren Kung Jessen

lunar love lauren kung jessen

Title: Lunar Love

Author: Lauren Kung Jessen

Publisher: Forever

Publication date: January 10, 2023

Genre: Romance, Multicultural

Description and purchase link(s)

One Sentence Summary: Olivia is a mixed race Chinese American young woman who has recently taken over her family’s Chinese zodiac-based matchmaking business, but it’s threatened when a new dating app based on the Chinese zodiac pops up and Olivia decides to bring it down no matter how attractive and charming it’s developer is.

My thoughts:

Being Chinese American myself, I was intrigued by the idea of a matchmaking service that’s based on the Chinese zodiac, especially when I had a hope Lunar Love would take place in LA. Most fiction involving Chinese and Chinese American characters has been largely hit and miss for me considering I wasn’t raised with the most traditional parents and grandparents, but I hoped that this one having mixed race Chinese American characters would have more for me to identify with. On that front, I ended up very pleased, but, as this is also a romance, I was disappointed with the sheer predictability.

Olivia has just been handed the reins of her family’s matchmaking business in LA’s Chinatown, and she wants to do her best to keep it the same, to do things the same way her grandmother had when she first opened its doors decades before. But she can’t hide from the fact that, with modern devices offering modern solutions to dating, they’re losing business, no matter how much care and consideration they take in making matches. But this idea is also impacted by Olivia’s own history of dating someone who wasn’t compatible with her. Then she runs into Bennett, who, it turns out, has just released the beta version of his upcoming dating app, which is also based on the Chinese zodiac, but not as rigidly as Olivia’s matchmaking service. The two immediately butt heads over it, so they challenge each other to find a match for each other using their respective services.

It was undeniably fun watching them, but I could smell the story’s route from a mile away. Olivia tried to hide her tracks a bit by hiding behind her belief that matches must be compatible and by trying really hard to not actually fall for Bennett. But Bennett is really such a good guy and he’s almost perfectly transparent. I almost wanted to knock Olivia over the head and get her to see sense, but she’s quite a stubborn character almost right up to the end. I adored Bennett and everything about him, but I especially admired his flexibility and adaptability. Olivia was a bit harder to come to terms with. She’s so rigid and stubborn and will use any little thing to get out of falling for Bennett. It was almost annoying, especially towards the end. I mean, I absolutely understood her, but she just felt mired in the past when literally everyone else around her was catching up to the times.

Fortunately, everything else in the book made up for the fact that the romance was predictable and Olivia was annoying. Having been born and raised in LA County into a Chinese American family, I grew up going to Chinatown and exploring the larger area. It was fantastic to explore areas I knew and had visited in this book, and I loved there was a lot about food. Lunar Love spoke to my soul in these ways. It took me places I haven’t been in a long time, and gave me foods I had grown up with. But it also gave me traditions I both knew and wasn’t familiar with. Olivia and Bennett, having grown up in mixed families, are still learning the traditions themselves, just like I am. I felt a kinship with them as these traditions popped up in their lives. Some were familiar to me, and others were brand new. But it really made me feel like I could identify with this book despite not being mixed race.

Lunar Love is a sweet, fun romance. It’s cute, but predictable. I didn’t like that I could see it a mile away, and I disliked even more that Olivia just put up hurdles all over the place simply because she wanted to. Bennett was just such a good sport through the whole thing, and I got the sense he really preferred to have Olivia than win the bet, which was just so sweet. But the things I loved were really how the story blended the traditional with the modern, showing how each has its place even as time goes on; the LA setting; the food; and the absolutely delightful secondary characters. Their friends, co-workers, and families were all delightful, so this book was filled with some really fun personalities, and plenty of opportunities for Olivia to grow.

My rating: 4 cups of tea

From the very real Los Angeles, we’ll jump all the way into an Egpyptian-inspired fantasy where there’s magic, tradition, and women who will do anything they can to make their voices and needs and wants heard in…

The Daughters of Izdihar by Hadeer Elsbai

the daughters of izdihar hadeer elsbai

Title: The Daughters of Izdihar (The Alamaxa Duology #1)

Author: Hadeer Elsbai

Publisher: Harper Voyager

Publication date: January 10, 2023

Genre: Fantasy, LGBTQ

Description and purchase link(s)

One Sentence Summary: In a patriarchal Egyptian-inspired world, a noblewoman and a working class woman will do what they can, using what magic and connections they have, to create a world where women are treated more fairly, but war seems to be looming on the horizon, and most of the men don’t want to change tradition.

My thoughts:

I was very excited to see Hadeer share the news on her blog that her debut novel, The Daughters of Izdihar, was going to be published early this year, so I jumped on the chance to request it from NetGalley. I knew going in that it was the start to a duology, it’s Egyptian-inspired fantasy, and it’s taken a bit to get the second book going. Of course I expected an interesting fantasy full of magic and women. This definitely felt very feminist, though I was a little lost on how the magic works, exactly. But the world is incredibly, thoughtfully, built from the ground up. Every detail felt like it was tended to, so it offered an incredible springboard for our female leads.

The Daughters of Izdihar is set in an inland city in a country where women are considered second-class. They’re meant to be married off and to keep their household and raise their children. For anything else, they require permission from their father or husband or another male responsible for them. It spectacularly pins women down, but one woman named Malak refuses to bow down to the patriarchy, pulling women from all classes into her orbit, including our two leads, Giorgina and Nehal. Giorgina is a working class woman who wants to do something to help women, so is pulled towards Malak with some help from a friend. But she fears ruining her reputation as it would destroy her family and her own future. Her powers are not exactly under her control, so she holds herself even tighter, trying not to call attention to herself. She appears quite meek in this story, and more dependent on men than I would like, but her character experiences some true growth, which was absolutely wonderful. Nehal, on the other hand, is a noblewoman from an old family who is married off to settle her father’s debts. She’s headstrong and openly practices her powers. She’s very clearly a privileged woman who will use whatever she’s got without a thought. She’s gutsy, but she can afford to be, especially since her husband Nico is basically a doormat, and in love with Giorgina. I have to say I liked Giorgina better, though I appreciated that Nehal was capable of actually getting things done.

It’s the secondary characters who really stole the show for me, though. They were all so interesting, and I liked that they fell on either side of the line, some supporting the women and others supporting the patriarchy, whether male or female. But they were given personality and some of the more major ones had their own fascinating stories. They all blended so well together and with the main characters and had such an incredible world to work off of that I felt like this book came alive. There were also numerous undertones that kept things interesting and pieces and gears moving and turning. There are LGBTQ undertones and discussions related to classism, gender, and women’s rights. I could practically feel the push for reform and modernity, but could also feel the push back. And then there’s the hint of war on the horizon that could absolutely tilt this world on it’s head, especially after some major events in the second half. Parts of this world and these characters felt absolutely tattered by the end, but I could also almost feel them just picking up those pieces for a stronger push in the second book. I can’t wait to see what they do and are capable of next. I also hope the magic will be better explained because, while I found it fascinating, I really couldn’t conceptualize of how it worked.

The Daughters of Izdihar tells an interesting story. It’s rooted in a traditional society with people on the fringes who are pushing for something different. I definitely found the second half to be much more engaging, so I was a little disappointed during the first half because it was a little slow and all I really had to rely on were Giorgina and Nehal to get me to the second half. No one really seemed interested in actually doing anything outside of Malak and Nehal, and I so wish we had gotten Malak’s perspective, because I think there’s a lot that goes on in her head. She felt so complex, but we don’t know her outside of what Giorgina and Nehal experience. I also just had such a hard time with Nehal. Her characterization was fantastic and consistent, but her privilege was just so annoying.

The Daughters of Izdihar really shines when it comes to the world. It’s meticulously crafted and so consistent I wanted to cry. There were no loopholes so it could fit the plot; instead, the plot had to fit the world. It stood up so well, and I can’t wait to get back into it and find out how the events of the story end up changing it. The characters were not terrible, but I had a better time reading about the secondary ones than the main ones. I loved that they had their own personalities and I always felt the hint of a greater complexity to them. This book really speaks to women fighting for what they deserve, and I liked how it managed to sweep me up in that fervor while also offering a balancing viewpoint.

My rating: 4 cups of tea

Thank you to NetGalley and the publishers for review copies. All opinions expressed are my own.

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2 thoughts on “Book Reviews: Back in a Spell by Lana Harper, Lunar Love by Lauren Kung Jessen, The Daughters of Izdihar by Hadeer Elsbai

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