Book Review: Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Genre : Magical Realism, Fairy Tale
Date Published :
July 23rd, 2019
Publisher : Penguin Random House

The Jazz Age is in full swing, but Casiopea Tun is too busy cleaning the floors of her wealthy grandfather’s house to listen to any fast tunes. Nevertheless, she dreams of a life far from her dusty small town in southern Mexico. A life she can call her own. 

Yet this new life seems as distant as the stars, until the day she finds a curious wooden box in her grandfather’s room. She opens it—and accidentally frees the spirit of the Mayan god of death, who requests her help in recovering his throne from his treacherous brother. Failure will mean Casiopea’s demise, but success could make her dreams come true.

As per usual, I first heard about Gods of Jade and Shadow during one of my grad school classes. But the thing is, I didn’t know that it was the book being discussed. We were sent off into pairs to read a description of a book (given no author name, no title, no clue as to if it was an actual, published book) and were tasked with coming up with an elevator pitch for it – a 30 second speech that would convince someone to buy it. So my partner and I eventually came up with something along the lines of, “It’s like Percy Jackson, but set in 1920’s Mexico with Percy accidentally teaming up with Hades.” However, after reading Gods of Jade and Shadow (once discovering it was, in fact, a real book), all I can say is that Moreno-Garcia has created something that stands entirely apart from other mythological-themed books, and her story was a delight to read!

The story starts out rather simply, introducing us to Casiopea – a girl who dreams of having more and being more. Her mother married for love, rather than money, but once Casiopea’s father died, the two had no choice but to return to her grandfather, who has oh so graciously given them room and board under the agreement that they heed his every whim. This, along with her evil cousin Martín watching her every move, makes Casiopea’s life seem like every part of a Cinderella-esque fairytale. Where it diverges, however, is when Casiopea opens her grandfather’s locked chest and reaches inside, unknowingly releasing the Mayan god of death – Hun-Kamé.

“With a furious clacking, the bones jumped in the air and began assembling themselves into a human skeleton. Casiopea did not move. The pain in her hand and the wave of fear that struck her held the girl tight to her spot. In the blink of an eye all the bones clicked into place, like pieces of a puzzle. In another instant the bones became muscle, grew sinew, In a third blink of an eye they were covered in smooth skin.”

Chapter 2, page 21

That exact moment is when I knew that this book was going to be everything that I needed it to be. I mean, where else will you find a book where a skeleton puts itself back together, grows muscle and skin, and then introduces itself as the god of death (and a very ~attractive~ god of death, as Moreno-Garcia quickly clues us into)? Upon awakening Hun-Kamé, Casiopea finds herself with a piece of his bone lodged into her finger, and this is what forces the plot into action. Hun-Kamé tells her that it will drain her life force unless he pulls it out – which of course he won’t do until she helps him retrieve his jade necklace, his left eye, ear, and index finger (which, er, yeah, he doesn’t have, cause his evil brother Vucub-Kamé stole them before imprisoning him).

And thus Casiopea and the reader embark on a dazzling journey of magic and demons and gods. And it is not the typical, expected European mythological landscape that has pervaded much of fantasy literature. Moreno-Garcia fills the world with indigenous American legends, and the magic that exists is given a rich history that has been changed by colonization and modernity. The world-building, plot, and language of the book are all spectacular, and I promise that you won’t know what to expect whenever you turn the page.

And of course, what would the story be with the evolving relationship between Casiopea and Hun-Kamé? This too, was fantastically done by Moreno-Garcia. The added detail that not removing the bone shard from Casiopea’s thumb also has an affect on Hun-Kamé – making him less of a god, and more of a human man – was a more than welcome addition to the story. I don’t want to give too much away in regards to this aspect, but I loved their relationship throughout the book, and I loved Casiopea’s final choice about it at the end!

I cannot recommend this book enough. And if you pick it up and like it as much as I did, Moreno-Garcia also has two other novels – Signal to the Noise (about magic and music), and Certain Dark Things (about vampires in Mexico City) – as well as a short story collection titled This Strange Way of Dying. I for one, will definitely be grabbing one – if not all – of these!

My rating: 8.5 Jade Necklaces out of 10

-Sara

Book Review: Pet by Akwaeke Emezi

Genre : YA, Speculative Fiction
Date Published :
September 10, 2019
Publisher : Penguin Random House

There are no monsters anymore, or so the children in the city of Lucille are taught. Jam and her best friend, Redemption, have grown up with this lesson all their life. But when Jam meets Pet, a creature made of horns and colors and claws, who emerges from one of her mother’s paintings and a drop of Jam’s blood, she must reconsider what she’s been told. Pet has come to hunt a monster, and the shadow of something grim lurks in Redemption’s house. Jam must fight not only to protect her best friend, but also to uncover the truth, and the answer to the question–How do you save the world from monsters if no one will admit they exist?

Pet by Akwaeke Emezi was hands down my favorite read of 2019! In December, the library where I work held a staff event where we all shared our favorite 2019 books for kids and teens, and my coworker and I pitched Pet as the best book of the year (School Library Journal, NPR, and New York Public Library seem to agree)! If you have yet to read it, I highly suggest you spend the rest of your Sunday afternoon doing so – at only 208 pages, Pet is a quick read, though it packs quite a punch in a short amount of time.

Where to start? I absolutely LOVED Jam – she is so sweet and determined and real. Jam is black, trans, and selectively verbal, and while these parts of her identity are important, she did not face any hardships in the story as a result of her identities. Emezi populates the town of Lucille with an all-black cast of characters who unabashedly support Jam in her transness and learn sign language just for her. I loved that Emezi allows Jam to simply exist as she is and go on a life-changing adventure. That doesn’t happen very often in fiction these days, and it was super refreshing.

I also LOVED Pet as a character. Its emergence from the painting was so weird and beautiful, and really solidified the whole visual tone of the story for me. Lush, bright, and strange. I would pay so much money just to see this moment turned into an animated feature (and, let’s be honest, the entire story deserves to be made into a movie, animated or otherwise).

I think Pet is an essential read for our current political climate. Though Lucille is a “Utopian” society that is much better off than we currently are in terms of equality, the core message of the story is that humans must constantly be vigilant our fight against evil. Even when we think we’ve made it to “Utopia,” there will always be monsters lurking where we least expect them. Emezi also challenges us think about the different weapons we employ in our fight against evil. Violence is sometimes necessary, but so is restraint and forgiveness.

When I have kids, you better believe this book will be on their shelves. In the meantime, I am on a mission to make all of my friends read this quirky, delightful, powerful little book. I can’t wait to see what Emezi has in store for us next with The Death of Vivek Oji (August 4, 2020 from Riverhead Books. Preorder here.)!

-Emory

Our Favorite Books of 2019

Wow! So much happened in 2019. The past few months have been full of ups and downs and we kind of fell out of the blogging habit! But we are back in 2020 and can’t wait to see what great books we read next. Below are some of our favorite reads of 2019 – have a safe and happy New Year!

Emory’s Favorite Books of 2019:

  • This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladwell
  • The True Queen by Zen Cho
  • Pet by Akwaeke Emezi
  • King of Scars by Leigh Bardugo

Sara’s Favorite Books of 2019:

  • Descendant of the Crane by Joan He
  • Gingerbread by Helen Oyeyemi
  • Wicked Fox by Kat Cho
  • Orange World and Other Stories by Karen Russell

Book Review: An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

Genre : YA Fantasy
Date Published : February 9th, 201
6
Publisher : Razorbill, an imprint of Penguin Random House

Laia is a slave. Elias is a soldier. Neither is free.

When Laia’s brother is arrested for treason, Laia is forced to make a decision. In exchange for help from rebels who promise to rescue her brother, she will risk her life to spy for them from within the Empire’s greatest military academy.

There, Laia meets Elias, the school’s finest soldier—and secretly, its most unwilling. Elias wants only to be free of the tyranny he’s being trained to enforce. He and Laia will soon realize that their destinies are intertwined—and that their choices will change the fate of the Empire itself. 

An Ember in the Ashes was one of the many, many books that were pitched to me at this year’s Siren’s Conference during their book speed dating shindig (not kidding when I say going to that made me buy 5 books, and I would have bought more if my suitcase had been bigger). It was pitched to me as a story about a girl who is forced to spy for the resistance on the big bad Empire, where her unlikely ally turns out to be the best soldier the Empire has ever trained – who just so happens to despise everything that the Empire stands for.

Some quick background on the plot before diving in. Laia is a Scholar – the class of people who have been oppressed and enslaved by the Martials, the class of people who have pledged themselves to the Empire. Within the Empire is a school called Blackcliff, where young boys (and the occasional girl) are trained until they become ‘Masks’ – the most fearsome soldiers of the Empire, discernible by the silver masks that literally meld to their faces. While the majority of the scholars are forced to endure raids on their houses and being forced into enslavement, there is a group that has formed a resistance, which once included Laia’s parents before their death.

The overall plot is very Hunger Games-esque, especially once the trials are introduced at Blackcliff – four grueling tests that Elias, his best friend Helene, and twin brothers Markus and Zak are chosen to participate in in order to determine who the next emperor will be. This of course throws a twist in Elias’s plan to desert the Empire, a feat that no Mask-in-training has been able to achieve without being caught and then publicly executed. What makes things even more complicated is that the runner up of these trials will be named the Blood Shrike – who must pledge loyalty to the new emperor – while the two losers will be put to death. And Laia is caught in the middle of all of this since she is undercover as a slave to the Commandant – who just so happens to be Elias’ evil and murderous mother. Talk about high stakes.

“Like all Scholars, I learned to lower my eyes before the Martials, but at least I never had to bow and scrape before them. At least my life was free of this torment, this waiting, always, for more pain. I had Nan and Pop, who protected me far more than I ever realized I had Darin, who loomed so large in my life I thought him immortal as the stars.”

– Laia, Chapter XIX.

I have to say that I enjoyed Laia’s chapters far more than Elias’. She was more likable, and her plot of unwillingly joining the resistance in order to save her brother was endearing and compelling in ways that Elias’ never was for me. The people she met – the kitchen girl Izzy, Cook, the blacksmith, Sana, and Keenan (who we’ll get back to in a moment) – were so interesting, and the main thing I’m bummed about is that we didn’t get as much of these side characters as I wanted. I almost found myself wishing that Laia would spend more time with them than with Elias. Which brings me to my next topic – the love triangle (or love square? I don’t know, it was complicated).

We pretty much know from the get-go that Elias and Laia are going to have a thing for each other. But when they meet, it just felt….weird. For starters, Laia is undercover at the time, and Elias registers that she is enslaved, but his second thought is about how sexy she looks and how that is going to cause trouble for her, so he tells her to dress differently. I think that was supposed to be endearing, but I found it to be, well, creepy and bleh. He also constantly compares his hardships (which yes, he does have) to Laia’s despite them being vastly different. Elias overall kind of gave me bleh vibes – especially in one pivotal scene where it is made clear that he cares more about Laia, a girl he barely speaks to over the course of the book, than Helene, his best friend of 14 years who, you guessed it, is in love with Elias.

That’s the first love triangle. Now enter Keenan – one of the resistance soldiers. With flaming red hair and a grumpy personality that sometimes gives way to true concern, his relationship with Laia was more what I was expecting from the book. And yes, I know this book is part of a bigger series, and I’m sure that Keenan is going to do something awful (I have my theory on who he is), but at the moment, I’m rooting for him over Elias, and I can’t wait to learn more of his backstory.

Overall, I did really enjoy An Ember in the Ashes. And I knew I enjoyed it when I was getting closer to the end, not initially realizing that it wasn’t a stand-alone book, and thought to myself, “Wait, this can’t be how it ends! There has to be more! I need there to be more!” And thank goodness there is more! A Torch in the Night and A Reaper at the Gates are book two and three (and I believe book 4 is on its way in 2020), so there is a lot more to this story that I can look forward to, and I get to read more of Tahir’s beautiful prose! (I should mention that I did get through this book in a singular day, because Tahir knows how to tell a story and keep you hooked!)

What I’m most looking forward to is the fates of certain characters, especially Darin – Laia’s brother – and Helene (she deserves so much better!!!). There were also quite a few little hints at what could be coming next (such as the introduction of some supernatural elements that will play a huuuggeee role in the future), as well as some prophesied destinies being fulfilled. And I can’t wait to see how Laia is going to continue to grow, because she underwent a lot in this book, and the ending gave us a quick glimpse on how strong she is going to become.

My rating:

7.5 Silver Masks out of 10

-Sara

Book Review: Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

Genre : Fantasy/Sci-Fi/Gothic
Date Published : September 10, 2019

Publisher : Tor.com Publishing

Brought up by unfriendly, ossifying nuns, ancient retainers, and countless skeletons, Gideon is ready to abandon a life of servitude and an afterlife as a reanimated corpse. She packs up her sword, her shoes, and her dirty magazines, and prepares to launch her daring escape. But her childhood nemesis won’t set her free without a service.

Harrowhark Nonagesimus, Reverend Daughter of the Ninth House and bone witch extraordinaire, has been summoned into action. The Emperor has invited the heirs to each of his loyal Houses to a deadly trial of wits and skill. If Harrowhark succeeds she will be become an immortal, all-powerful servant of the Resurrection, but no necromancer can ascend without their cavalier. Without Gideon’s sword, Harrow will fail, and the Ninth House will die.

Of course, some things are better left dead.

Tor.com Publishing

Gideon the Ninth was pitched to me as LESBIAN NECROMANCERS IN OUTER SPACE and I am confident in my assertion that this book not only lived up to this pitch but far exceeded it in literally every way possible.

Let’s start with the LESBIANS! For all the SFF books I’ve read this year, I’ve been overall disappointed in the lack of queerness (a lot of the more popular SFF titles that I’ve been trying to ‘catch up on’ all seem to exclusively feature side character m/m relationships, which honestly got pretty bland after awhile). But Gideon the Ninth?! I literally cannot get over the queerness of this book. It was just so unflappably gay. Gideon is the snarky, butch, sword-fighting heroine I always knew I needed. Harrowhawk Nonagesimus (say that ten times fast) is the goth gay girl I never knew I wanted. And Dulcinea…oh Dulcinea…is the tragic lipstick lesbian of my (and Gideon’s) dreams. So, Lesbians? Check.

Now…the NECROMANCERS! Muir does a fabulous job of building her magic system throughout the story. Early on, we see the many ways in which Harrow is a talented bone necromancer – she raises the dead to do her bidding (which usually involved kicking Gideon’s ass) and can create entire skeletons out of a teeny tiny metacarpal. But even Harrow has her necromantic limits, literally sweating blood when she overexerts her abilities – a small but badass detail that I loved reading. If that isn’t cool enough, we soon learn that each of the nine Houses have their own necromantic specialty, ranging from soul-siphoning to psychometry. (I found this really neat article from Tor that breaks down each House’s necromantic specialities, which I highly recommend checking out). Necromancers? Check.

And, of course, the OUTER SPACE! If Muir had simply written a story of lesbian necromancers, I would have been satisfied. But she goes above and beyond and sets this story in an entirely different galaxy. There are a few ways to interpret the setting, but I read it as: eons ago, humanity fled the Milky Way and ended up in a new galaxy, where the primary energy source has become thanergy/thalergy (basically life energy/death energy). Each House literally has its own planet on which it resides, which opens up so many possibilities going forward in the next two books (Gideon the Ninth gives us glimpses of the Ninth House and First House planets, but the rest remain a mystery!). Without giving too much away, the book ends on a space ship headed to God knows where (hehe), which makes me even more excited for the possibility of deep space necromancy and all that could entail! Outer Space? Check.

So, yeah. Gideon the Ninth blew me away. I can very confidently say that is my favorite book of 2019. Gideon is the most snarky, loyal, lovable, and badass character I’ve read in awhile, and my heart broke into tiny little pieces when I realized the story was over. I don’t want to spoil much (the ending is WILD and UNEXPECTED and left me with SO MANY QUESTIONS!) but I am very excited to see what comes next in this trilogy – I am just very sad that I can’t read it right now. But, for the time being, I will have to satiate my need for more lesbian necromancers in space by plotting my Halloween costume, which will definitely involve aviators and skeleton paint.

My rating:

10 queer skeletons kisses out of 10

-Emory

Book Review: The Bird King by G. Willow Wilson

Genre : Fantasy Fiction
Date Published : March 12, 2019

Publisher : Grove Press

HAPPY MONDAY! Following in Emory’s footsteps, I’m starting off my review with a synopsis provided by the publisher:

Set in 1491 during the reign of the last sultanate in the Iberian peninsula, The Bird King is the story of Fatima, the only remaining Circassian concubine to the sultan, and her dearest friend Hassan, the palace mapmaker. Hassan has a secret—he can make maps of places he’s never seen and bend the shape of reality with his pen and paper. His magical gift has proven useful to the sultan’s armies in wartime and entertained a bored Fatima who has never stepped foot outside the palace walls.

When a party representing the newly formed Spanish monarchy arrives to negotiate the terms of the sultan’s surrender, Fatima befriends one of the women, little realizing that her new friend Luz represents the Inquisition, and will see Hassan’s gift as sorcery, and a threat to Christian Spanish rule. With everything on the line, what will Fatima risk to save Hassan, and taste the freedom she has never known.

Y’all. This book…. was SO GOOD. Wilson (author of Alif the Unseen and a series of the Captain Marvel comics) blends medieval historical fiction with adventure fantasy and the end result is a truly magical book. It has the expected elements of dangerous politics, government spies, religious oppression, and secret identities, but Wilson also adds something so special to the story through her prose and the characters she’s created.

Fatima is an a m a z i n g character. She is stubborn and fierce and acts as the moral center of the novel for most of the story, and her bravery never seems to waver throughout the book – and there are a lot of instances where that bravery is tested. Whenever she was facing a hardship or being tested, I always found myself looking forward to how she would react, because she’s such a strong character. I felt like I never had to worry too much, because of course Fatima was going to be all right. I loved loved loved her as a character so much.

At the beginning of the book, Fatima spends most of her time escaping her reality for made up ones – something she can literally achieve due to her friendship with Hassan, who can create new realities for both of them. by drawing maps that come to life. Much of their inspiration for the stories they make up come from the pages they have of Farid ud-Din Al Attar’s The Conference of the Birds (which plays a very significant role at the end. Like seriously, the ending of this book is G R E A T). And this is another thing I really, really loved about this book – the fact that Fatima and Hassan spend their time together taking brief respites into fake worlds, only to end up having to escape their lives for real in the hopes of finding a happiness that has eluded them so far.

The friendship between Fatima and Hassan was the strongest point of the entire novel for me. They bond with each other over the limits of their freedom – Fatima is limited by her role as a concubine, and Hassan by his queerness. Their status as outsiders is what draws them to each other initially, but the the care and concern that they feel for each other is clear. When Hassan is put in danger, you can viscerally feel Fatima’s fear over it. Their platonic love for each other is so beautifully written, and I don’t really have the words to describe just how much I appreciate Wilson creating these two characters and the journey they go on with each other, and for each other.

If this book wasn’t already amazing enough, the side characters are all brilliantly written as well, whether they are friends, foes, or someone in-between. Perhaps one of the coolest characters in the book is the vampire djinn Vikram, who helps Fatima and Hassan escape Luz and the Inquisition. And the introduction of the fourth member of their group – the monk Gwennec – is one of my favorites, seeing as he just so happens to be on the boat that they steal, inadvertently bringing him in to join them on their escape. Even Luz, arguably the villain of the novel, is so well written, and is such an intriguing character.

There is so much to admire about this book, and one of the highlights is how Wilson tackles the theme of perspective and choice. The book is full of characters who choose who their family is, and who choose where their loyalties lie, despite having bonds or duties to other people or institutions. Religion and politics play such a huge role in the novel, and Wilson spins a beautiful and almost tragic message of how the world is sometimes what our perspective makes it out to be. There is never just one real world with one set of truths, and Fatima and Hassan’s journey throughout the story proves that to not only themselves, but to the reader as well.

The Bird King is Wilson’s second full length novel, and I think I can say it is a wild success. It hits so many marks – the characters are fleshed out and interesting, the plot is complicated and thrilling and keeps you on your toes, and the language is beautiful and vivid. I really can’t say enough good things about the story. It is one of the books that you don’t want to put down because it is so good, but you also don’t want it to ever end, so you try to pace yourself so you can stay in the world just a little bit longer. At its core, The Bird King is a story about stories, and about how they have the power to both hinder us or free us, depending on what we choose to take from them.

-Sara

My rating:

10 Map-Drawn Realities out of 10

Book Review: Spin the Dawn by Elizabeth Lim

Genre : YA Fantasy / Romance
Date Published : July 9, 2019

Publisher : Knopf Books for Young Readers

Hello! This week I’m trying out a slightly different review format. Writing book synopses always gives me major anxiety, so this week I’m starting out with the synopsis provided by the publisher, then jumping straight into my review!

Maia Tamarin dreams of becoming the greatest tailor in the land, but as a girl, the best she can hope for is to marry well. When a royal messenger summons her ailing father, once a tailor of renown, to court, Maia poses as a boy and takes his place. She knows her life is forfeit if her secret is discovered, but she’ll take that risk to achieve her dream and save her family from ruin. There’s just one catch: Maia is one of twelve tailors vying for the job.

This book was a delight to read. It is beautifully written, inventive, and so lush – when I was reading, I felt like I was awash in the vibrant colors, fabrics, and magic that Lim fills this book with. While at times I had a hard time staying invested in the story, I found myself thinking that if I was younger I probably would have liked it a lot more. But overall, it was an enjoyable and gorgeous read.

I really love how much time Lim spends on introducing us to Maia’s family and home life. This is so central to who Maia is as a character, and it really helped me understand who she was and why she was so motivated to become the imperial tailor. Maia is also just a great MC – she’s passionate and determined, but also very much a regular teenage girl, and I loved the balance of this throughout the book. She felt like such a real character, and it was wonderful watching her grow!

I also LOVED Edan and Lady Sarnai, and I’m very excited to see them fleshed out a bit more in the sequel! Edan went from being the snarky sorcerer to the charming love interest in the blink of an eye, and even though there’s a 500+ year age difference, it somehow works. Lady Sarnai has a lot of room to grow in the sequel, and I can’t wait for Lim to give us a closer look into Lady Sarnai’s magic-impervious mind! Edan and Lady Sarnai’s (very different) approaches to magic were very exciting to read, and I’m intrigued to see where Maia ends up falling on the Is Magic Good or Bad? spectrum in the next book.

In addition to the characters, I also just really adored the plot – I am a SUCKER for Project Runway, and so having the first half of the book consist of a series of high-stakes design challenges was so delightful! There is a slight disconnect between the first half of the book (the design challenges) and the second half (the quest for the sun, moon, and stars), but overall these choices kept the plot moving forward and the story interesting! There were also some very unexpected plot twists towards the end that made me very excited for the next book – I can’t wait to see what happens next with Maia (and Edan!!).

As much as I enjoyed Spin the Dawn, there were two major things in the book that I found a bit off-putting:

  1. Maia posing as a boy. I am a HUGE FAN on cross-dressing tropes (especially in historical fiction). But – and this may just be me – I am always severely disappointed when there is zero romantic tension caused by said cross-dressing. Spin the Dawn doesn’t shy away from sex/romance, which is why I was so disappointed that there was not an ounce of sexual tension between her or another character while she was posing as Keton. (There is a very brief moment with a maid, but she doesn’t play a major role and it’s played off as a silly interaction). If you’re going to have your MC cross-dress, at least play around with sexuality? A lil bit? Instead of Maia’s relationships becoming more interesting/complex because of her cross-dressing, the book seemed to just reinforce heteronormativity and it left me feeling a bit disappointed.
  2. Maia pretending to have a disability. This was a major yikes for me. It didn’t seem necessary to the plot or characters. This left a bad taste in my mouth throughout the story, and I wish it hadn’t been there at all.

Overall, Spin the Dawn is a strong first book. I hope, going forward, Lim does more interesting things with Maia’s crossdressing and does something to address the cringe-worthy ableism. But, ultimately, I think Elizabeth Lim has a really creative world and interesting set of characters, and I can’t wait to see what’s in store for us in the sequel, Unravel the Dusk.

My rating:

7 “Make it Work” Moments out of 10

Book Review | Chronicles of Chrestomanci, Book 1, by Diana Wynne Jones

Genre : Fantasy Fiction
Date Published : 1977
Publisher : Macmillan Publishers

Now that September is here (even if it is still 85 degrees in DC), I found myself wanting to read a book for this week’s review that made me think of Autumn. I was browsing my bookshelf when the perfect book jumped out at me – Diana Wynne Jones’s Chronicles of Chrestomanci. With the first book being published in 1977, this series is long overdue for the recognition it so richly deserves, and I always find myself going back to it just to spend some time in the world that Jones created. If you haven’t read the series before, please go to your nearest local bookstore and grab it because w o w it is such an underrated and beautiful story!!!

As Jones explains on an introductory page, “There are thousands of worlds , all different from ours. Chrestomanci’s world is the one next door to us, and the difference here is that magic is as common as music is with us.” In book one, Charmed Life, not only is there magic, there are also castles, dopplegangers (kind of??? it’s complicated, okay?), apple picking, good and evil witches/warlocks, cats that used to be fiddles, necromancers, fabulous outfits, and so much more! It is a wild ride from start to finish, and I can promise that you will love every second.

The basic plot of the book is as follows: Siblings Cat and Gwendolen Chant are orphaned after a freak boating accident, and are sent to live with Mrs. Sharp, a local witch who can only do the most basic of spells. This is a source of ridicule for Gwendolen – who has some crazy powerful magic – and she spends much of the early pages of the novel turning her nose up at Mrs. Sharp. Her magic, which she is learning to hone under the tutelage of the clearly nefarious Nostrum brothers – soon attracts the attention of Chrestomanci, the most powerful enchanter there is. Soon enough, both Gwendolen and Cat are sent off to Chrestomanci Castle, and that is where things really get interesting.

The whole book is told through Cat’s point of view, giving the story a sort of naïveté that can only be accomplished when told through the eyes of a young boy. What’s even more interesting is that, for most of the story, Cat has no desire to be the center of attention, or to even be noticed at all! And whenever someone does focus their attention on him, Cat usually turns into a flustered mess. The POV also accomplishes adding a lot of mystery and tension to the story, because the readers, along with Cat, have no idea what Gwendolen is really up to, but just like Cat, we keep hoping for a happy ending even if all the warning signs are there. And when one of the major plot twists happen – I can’t even hint at what it is, it would give too much away!!! – the readers are just as surprised and heartbroken as Cat.

The world as a whole is made up of amazing characters, and you find yourself growing attached to everyone, even if you only spend a couple of pages with them. The crux of the book is built upon Cat and Gwendolen’s relationship. From the very first page, Jones lets you know that Cat clings to Gwendolen because he has no one else left. There are times where their relationship seems like the typical sibling relationship – like when Gwendolen uses her magic to levitate wall mirrors for them to fly around on when Cat is feeling down – but then there are times when Gwendolen is so terribly cruel to Cat that you can’t understand why he stays by her side. But then you remember that she’s all he has – which makes some of her choices all the more repulsive. And that’s also why Gwendolen trying and usually failing to go up against Chrestomanci in a battle of wits, sarcasm, and magical prowess, is so satisfying.

“She said Mr. Nostrum would give his eyes for your letters.”

Has Mr. Nostrum given his eyes for my letters?” asked Chrestomanci. “It hardly seems worth it.”

“No. He just gave Gwendolen lessons for them,” said Cat.

“What? For his eyes? How uncomfortable!” said Chrestomanci.

Chapter 2, page 28

Chrestomanci is one of the best literary characters ever created. There. I’ve said it. And while several versions of him appear throughout Jones’ series, the iteration of him in Charmed Life is my favorite. For most of the book, he spends most of his time suddenly appearing without warning, always dressed to the nines (usual in floral dressing gowns of varying colors) and in a seemingly constant state of bewilderment and confusion. And honestly…. that’s a mood. The level of sarcasm he achieves is also astounding, and he has one-liners throughout the book that have stuck with me for years, and are always enjoyable to revisit. Jones does an amazing job of slowly revealing more and more of Chrestomanci’s backstory and history of the course of the book, and by the end, ties up so many questions and things I was wondering about in the most satisfying way.

I wish I could talk more about the plot of the book, but I don’t want to give anything away, because if you are reading it for the first time, it’s so important to go in with no spoilers. I remember the first time I read it, I was so unsure of who the good guys were, and what everyone’s true motives were. So I refuse to spoil even the tiniest thing. All you need to know is that Gwendolen does not have good time at Chrestomanci Castle, and she makes sure everyone knows that by performing spells that bring a reign of terror to the castle, and everyone inside of it. For real, she does some spooky shit, and Jones does a great job of showing how greed and power can drive someone to do terrible things.

But Jones also shows us that there will always be people who make it their duty to stand up to those terrible things. And that – along with many, many other things – is why I love this book so much, and why I think it still holds up as such an amazing story. Because sometimes we need that reassurance that there is always someone looking out for the well-being of the world. Or, in this case, all of the worlds that are out there. And then there’s also the fact that Chronicles of Chrestomanci as a whole is just so damn cool and magical and everything that a fantasy fiction fan could ever want. If you’ve read the series, tell me about how much you love it! If you haven’t, then what are some of your favorite fantasy reads that only get better with age?

My rating:

10 Fancy Dressing Gowns out of 10.

-Sara

September Bookshelf

HAPPY SEPTEMBER!!!! (shhh, we skipped July and August, but that’s okay!!!)

Sara:

  1. The Calculating Stars – I visited Emory in Columbus last week (hi, I miss you already!) and she grabbed this book when we were out shopping and told me to get it, so of course I got it! The book takes place in 1952, following the events after a meteoroid hits Washington, D.C. (where I am, gasp!) Elma York is the protagonist, a WASP pilot and mathematician who wants to earn her own spot on the moon.
  2. Circe by Madeline Miller – Circe was published over a year ago, but it popped back up on my radar when I heard it was going to be an eight-episode mini series on HBO! I’ve also been on a bit of a mythology binge lately, so it seems like this is the perfect time to read a re-telling on the original Greek myth!
  3. The Twisted Tree by Rachel Burge – Keeping with my theme of mythology, Burge’s debut YA novel borrows from Norse mythology and tells the story of a girl named Martha, who can tell things about a person just by touching their clothes – an ability she did not posses until after falling from a tree and becoming blind in one eye. The reviews make it sound very spooky, so I am, of course, very very excited to read it!
  4. Silver in the Wood by Emily Tesh – As weird as it might sound, I’ve also been on a sort of tree binge when it comes to the books I’m reading (it all has to do with a story I’m trying to write. Also, trees are pretty cool), and Emory recommended this one to me! Honestly, the cover itself was enough to grab my attention!!! The plot of magic forests, old secrets, and grappling with one’s past is an added bonus!

Emory:

  1. The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow – I’m super excited to read this for NetGalley this month! This book has everything I look for in a good Edwardian fantasy novel: a young ward, a strange mansion, a mysterious book, and – yes, you guessed it – a MAGICAL PORTAL!!!
  2. The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates – Another book that I’m super grateful to NetGalley for. This book follows a young enslaved Hiram Walker, who discovers his magical powers when they save him from drowning in a river. From that moment forward, Hiram decides to use his magic to escape his enslavement and then to rescue the family he leaves behind.
  3. Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir – I’ve been WAITING for this book to come out for the better part of a year – queer skeletons in SPACE?! What more could a girl wish for?! Admittedly, I haven’t done too much research on this book because I want to go into it with a fresh mind, but I am very very excited for it.
  4. Spin the Dawn by Elizabeth Lim – Goodreads compares this book to Project Runway, and I am 100% down for it. It’s about a young girl who must pose as a young boy to compete for the role of imperial tailor by sewing 3 magical dresses from the sun, the moon, and the stars.

Book Review: The Taiga Syndrome by Cristina Rivera Garza (translated by Suzanne Jill Levine & Aviva Kana)

Genre : Speculative Fiction
Date Published : October 1st, 2018
Publisher : Dorothy

Whew! Summer is winding down and because of the holiday weekend I finally feel like I can breathe a little. The last few months have been fairly chaotic – I started another part-time job, moved houses, visited family, and got a promotion at the library (!!!) all in a very short span of time, and so this year I am very grateful that I don’t work on Labor Day. Because August was so busy, I didn’t have a steady reading schedule (and I’m still slogging through Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and…….it is going very, very, very slow), and so this week I’ll be reviewing the book I read for Feminist Sci-Fi Book Club this month at my local indie book store. This post is going to be a little bit about book clubs and a little bit of a review, all mashed into one. Enjoy!

The Taiga Syndrome follows a detective/murder mystery novelist on her journey into the taiga, where she has been sent to find her client’s estranged wife and the wife’s new lover. The taiga is a place of wilderness, magic, and uncertainty, and as the longer the detective remains in the taiga, the more we begin to doubt her sanity. Many strange and inexplicable things happen on our detective’s journey into the wild northern forests – the more truth she uncovers, the weirder things get, and by the end there are more questions than answers. When the book finally came to a close, I was left feeling like I had just read a particularly chilling Grimm’s fairytale.

The overall vibe of this book is very folkloric in nature – it’s very lyrical and poetic, strange and unsettling, and a very quick read (it took me about 2 hours to finish). But Rivera Garza not only captures the feeling of fairytales – she also includes mentions of them throughout the story. The detective ruminates frequently on Little Red Riding Hood and Hansel & Gretel, tying her experiences with the taiga back to the foreboding forests of these stories. A prominent and recurring image is that of a wolf – this wolf, real or imagined, follows our detective both into and out of the forest, and left me with chills when I finally put the book down!

Overall, The Taiga Syndrome was such an odd and unsettling reading experience (in the best way possible). I was left with SO MANY QUESTIONS and am happy to say that none of them were answered during our book club discussion – in fact, I left our monthly meeting with even MORE QUESTIONS! (The big one being – WHAT THE HECK were those tiny elf creatures?! And were they real?!?). It’s been a while since I’ve felt so challenged and invigorated by a book, and I’m so grateful that Feminist Sci-Fi Book Club is constantly bringing new and strange speculative works like The Taiga Syndrome to my attention.

With my new library promotion (woohoo!!!!) I’m unfortunately going to have to take a mini-break from book club because it won’t fit with my new work schedule. But I am SO GRATEFUL for the amazing people I’ve met and the amazing books I’ve read with Feminist Sci-Fi Book Club this year – and I can’t wait to see what books we read next!

My rating:

9 Unsettling Lumberjacks out of 10

-Emory