Never Trust Boys in Boxes: A Review of By a Charm and a Curse

I love whimsical fantasy that’s coated in glitter and smells like popcorn and sugar. I made a display at work featuring as many of these sort of books as I could find: Caraval, The Night Circus, Daughter of a Burning City. Circuses and carnivals are magical places — even if they happen to be the cheap traveling kind with rides that might kill you. I’d like some funnel cake and bright lights, please.

By a Charm and a Curse (2018)
Author: Jaime Questell
Genre: Teen Fantasy
Pages: 306 (Hardcover)
Publisher: Entangled Publishing

Disclaimer: I was offered a free NetGalley copy from Entangled in return for a fair review.

Why I Chose It: When I read the summary of the book and saw the publisher, I pretty much yelled, “YES, I WOULD LIKE TO READ THIS PLEASE.”

The Premise:

A kiss is never just a kiss.

Le Grand’s Carnival Fantastic isn’t like other traveling circuses. It’s bound by a charm, held together by a centuries-old curse, that protects its members from ever growing older or getting hurt. Emmaline King is drawn to the circus like a moth to a flame…and unwittingly recruited into its folds by a mysterious teen boy whose kiss is as cold as ice.

Forced to travel through Texas as the new Girl in the Box, Emmaline is completely trapped. Breaking the curse seems like her only chance at freedom, but with no curse, there’s no charm, either — dooming everyone who calls the Carnival Fantastic home. Including the boy she’s afraid she’s falling for.

Everything — including his life — could end with just one kiss.

Spoiler-free review below!


Discussion: As I said before, I’m a sucker for stories set in places like carnivals and circuses, especially when there is magic involved. Admittedly, I’m used to reading ARCs in hardcopy since my workplace receives them that way, so going to NetGalley was a little adventure for me. Likewise 90% of my reading was done on my tiny Samsung Mini, so my screen was the size of a deck of cards. Still, I was more than willing to make due for an ARC that sounded right up my alley.

And it was indeed.

The first sentence alone was enough to catch my attention, followed by an even better second sentence that really gives you Emma’s voice. By the fourth paragraph I was already giggling and knew I was in for a good time.

The book switches back and forth between two people: Emmaline (Emma), and Benjamin. Both are in first person, so you get to see the story unfold through their eyes. I don’t want to spoil anything, but when Emma is first cursed, it was much worse than I expected. The summary doesn’t explain at all what it means to be the Girl in the Box. At first it just sort of sounded like she was kidnapped (although she still essentially was). But once the curse wraps its ugly fingers around her, you realize things are much more serious that you thought. Questell does a good job providing readers reasons why Emma doesn’t try to get away from the carnival or contact her family, and even though I wanted Emma to be angrier (personal preference, since I know I’d go into rage mode), there’s a good time period of her freaking out before finally accepting the problem and switching into ok-let’s-do-this mode. Besides, she made up for it later by doing some well-deserved yelling at everyone and occasionally smacking down a few folk that deserved it.

Benjamin is a carnival hand, working under the direction of his head carpenter mother. He’s the love interest of the whole story (made obvious right away) and even though it may seem like a small thing, I love that he had glasses. Not that I’m into guys wearing glasses, but because I don’t think I see that a lot in the books I read. Those are the little details that make a character more real, and I appreciate it. His relationships with his friends, enemies, and mother made him more interesting as well, rather than just the boy who stumbles into Emma’s life and suddenly everything gets better.

There’s a lot more going on in the story than one might initially think. Given the nature of the charm and the curse — which are tied to one another, and one can’t exist without the other — it’s got some layers to it with more than one tale being told. There are several reveals and also a few shocking moments that I didn’t see coming. I enjoyed myself the entire way through, and more often than not found myself visualizing red and white striped tents with incandescent bulbs strung between them and wishing for cotton candy and the smell of funnel cake.

My only real quibble is that I wanted the Moretti brothers to have a more sinister side. Like be the descendants of the first cursed person to ensure it kept going out of sheer spite. Which would have made for an interesting dichotomy against two other characters who are the descendants of the folks who placed the curse and charm. Just something to make them more interesting than bullies who really escalated at the end. Which also reminds me — at one point they do something to Ben’s car, yet I don’t think he tells the owner of the carnival, Leslie. Why? Why would you not tell her something like that after all the other things these guys have done? And also since the brothers make it clear they know how the charm and curse work, they should have known that sabotaging the car would not have worked in their benefit at all.

There were a few other times where I wondered why Emma didn’t ask this or why Benjamin didn’t do that, but for all the things I posited questions to myself, I was able to explain away or simply use my suspension of disbelief to go with the flow.

But these are moot points, and ultimately my goal when I read is to enjoy myself and get a happy ending, which is what I got.

In conclusion: If you feel like going to a carnival and experiencing some true love, then by all means go for it — especially if you like YA. The only real downside is that once you’re finished, you’ll wish there was a nearby carnival so you could grab some funnel cake (although that might just be me). The best part? I may have gotten a copy of the book early, but you don’t have to wait because By a Charm and a Curse comes out today!

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