Book Review | King of Scars by Leigh Bardugo

Genre : Fantasy, Young Adult
Date Published : January 29, 2019
Publisher : Macmillan

I first heard of Leigh Bardugo when I attended the amazing Sirens conference in October 2018. Bardugo was one of four amazing keynote speakers at the conference, and I immediately fell for this extremely witty, badass, and inspiring writer. She talked about Mediocre White Men, the extra work that women have to put into the world in order to be seen and heard, and how it’s never too late to chase your dreams of being a writer. I was (and continue to be) blown away by her honesty and openness about the writing and publishing world ~ and if you don’t follow her already on Twitter, you absolutely should.

During Bedtime Stories on the first night of Sirens, Bardugo read an excerpt from her (then) forthcoming book, King of Scars, the first installment in the Nikolai Duology. It was HILARIOUS and cheeky and I was just so taken with her that I vowed to read everything Bardugo had ever written. In the talkback after her keynote, someone in the audience asked what order they should reader her books in if they were new to the Grishaverse. Bardugo responded: Start with Six of Crows, then Crooked Kingdom, then King of Scars – and if you’re still in love after reading those books, go back and read the Shadow & Bone Trilogy. Following her suggestion, I devoured Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom in just a few weeks (they were SO GOOD!!), then waited (im)patiently for King of Scars to release in January.

Like the Six of Crows duology, King of Scars is written in shifting POVs, this time following the stories of Nikolai Lantsov (King of Ravka/monster boy), Zoya Nazyalensky (Grisha general/general badass), Nina Zenik (Waffle-lover/Death witch/My One True Love), and Isaak (Ravkan soldier/total sweetie pie). Nikolai and Zoya’s storylines flow together, following them as they work to maintain peace, stability, and power in Ravka – all while searching for a cure to the curse that turns Nikolai into a bloodthirsty monster when he falls asleep at night. Nina’s storyline is a bit disconnected (physically and thematically) from the others, following her on her mission as an undercover agent in Fjerda, where she is helping Grisha refugees flee to Ravka.

“The monster is me and I am the monster.”

Chapter 30, page 446

King of Scars is a hefty book – at just over 500 pages, it was the longest book I’d read in awhile, and it took me about two weeks to get through. I was a bit intimidated by the length at first, but Bardugo paces the novel so expertly that it never felt like it was dragging (if anything, by the time I was finished I was wishing there were even more chapters to read!). There were a few moments while reading where I wondered if it would have been better to start with Shadow & Bone trilogy first, making the moments dealing with Ravkan history and the Darkling a bit more more digestible. Luckily, Bardugo does such an excellent job at positioning us in the story that I never felt truly overwhelmed by the worldbuilding (looking at you, Lord of the Rings).

The one issue I had with King of Scars was the sometimes overwhelmingly large cast of characters (I still can’t keep the twins Tolya and Tamar straight) but each character is so lovingly constructed that, in the end, I was OK with it. Bardugo makes everything so goddamn enjoyable to read that any issues I had quickly faded into the background as I read on to find out what happened next.

We briefly met Nikolai and Zoya in Crooked Kingdom, and I loved learning more about these characters up close. Zoya is so fierce and amazing and I loved watching her come into her power and learn more about her backstory. Nikolai is such an absolute doll, and all of his interactions with Zoya were a delight to read. Even though Nina’s chapters sometimes felt separate from the story as a whole, they were probably my favorite chapters to read – they made me so nostalgic for Six of Crows! I loved watching Nina learn more about her new Grisha powers – and I am so very excited about her blossoming crush and friendship with Hanna.

The tension in Nina’s storyline was heightened by the reintroduction of Jarl Brum – the baddie from Six of Crows, and one of the most terrifying villains I’ve read in awhile (even moreso than the Darkling). I’m eager to see how Nikolai, Zoya, and Nina’s storylines converge in the next installment in the series – I can already tell it’s going to be amazing. While I wait for the second book, I definitely plan on catching up on the Shadow & Bone trilogy and then snatching up Bardugo’s new thriller Ninth House when it comes out this October!

If you’re already in love with the Grishaverse, King of Scars definitely does not disappoint. If you’re looking for a new series to read, I highly recommend starting first with Six of Crows and then working your way to King of Scars. Trust me – it is so very worth it.

My rating:

9 Ketterdam waffles out of 10

-Emory

Book Review | The Kingdom of Copper by S.A. Chakraborty

Genre : High Fantasy, Historical Fantasy
Date Published : January 22, 2019
Publisher : Harper Voyager

For my first ever book review, I chose S.A. Chakraborty’s The Kingdom of Copper. It is the second book in her Daevabad Trilogy, an epic fantasy series set in an alternate eighteenth century Egypt. I read the first book, The City of Brass, after my sister Mary loaned it to me, and I fell in love with it immediately. After finishing, I loaned it to my mom, and as soon as she was done, I took it back and loaned it to Emory. And then, to complete the circle, Emory gave it back to Mary this past Christmas in preparation for The Kingdom of Copper being released. So it was that kind of book – the kind of book that you pass around, shoving it into someone else’s hands while saying, “You have to read this!” And The Kingdom of Copper did not fail to make me feel the same way. I reached out to all the people I knew had read the first book and asked for their thoughts – I needed to talk someone about this amazing series that reminded me of all the reasons I love fantasy so much.

The book begins right where the story left off, using the same alternating POV form that the first book introduced. If, like me, you haven’t read The City of Brass since it initially came out, you may find yourself a tad confused/unable to remember some key world-building details. Luckily, Chakraborty includes a glossary of people and terms in the front and back of the book, which I highly recommend for refreshing your memory. It brings you up to speed on the history of the six tribes of the djinn, as well as the reigns of different rulers in Daevabad – ranging from the human prophet Suleiman (who used a magic seal to subdue and control the djinn) to the current ruler, King Ghassan, who, well, is not a nice guy, to put it frankly. Now, onto the book! (Warning for slight spoilers for The City of Brass).

Chakraborty immediately catches you up with our three main characters, Nahri, Ali, and (kind of a spoiler alert, but also not, since it was heavily hinted that he’d be back) Dara. But as soon as you get re-introduced to everyone, the book jumps five years into the future, forcing the reader to quickly adjust to the new (and very bleak) realities facing the characters.

After a failed escape that resulted in losing both her lover and her closest friend (with one ‘killing’ the other), Nahri has been forced to marry the crown prince Muntadhir, aligning herself with the royal family that de-throned her own. Every move she makes is under scrutiny, and this makes her desire to help and protect the Shafit (beings of both djinn and human ancestry, who are treated as less than second-class citizens) near impossible. But of course that doesn’t stop her from trying. Ali, who has been exiled for treason, finds a new home deep in the desert where he explores the mysterious and increasingly dangerous powers he gained at the end of the first book. Dara, who now has his own chapters, has been brought back by Manizheh (the original Nahid) to help train an army to take back Daevabad from King Ghassan. This puts him once again at odds with Ali – since, you know, he’s the exiled prince and all.

We see the characters grow in their individual plots, making new alliances and friendships with beautifully developed side characters that we only got glimpses of in the first book. The alternating POV form allows us to see how none of the original three characters seem to be on the same side when it comes to the future of Daevabad. This forces the reader to question who is right and who is wrong, while simultaneously wanting all of them to be happy. I’m still not sure who I was rooting for! The three plot lines can feel like a lot to keep up with, and at times it feels like Chakraborty keeps the main characters apart (and unaware of each other’s fates) for too long – but when their storylines finally converge after all the build up, the payoff is worth it.

“Rage ripped through her. And just like that, her magic was there. The smoky binds that had dared to confine her – her, in her own damned palace – abruptly burst apart, and Nahri inhaled, suddenly aware of every brick and stone and mote of dust in the building around her. The walls erected by her ancestors, the floors that had run black with their blood.” (Chapter 38, page 565)

Keeping with the theme of familial bonds and betrayals, as well as exploring colonization, genocide, and the racial and ethnic prejudices present in her first book, Chakraborty raises the emotional stakes even more in The Kingdom of Copper to bring out the best and, unfortunately, the worst in her characters. At almost 650 pages, there’s a lot to take in, and it can feel overwhelming at times, but what kept me turning the pages was how invested I was in all of the characters. Nahri, in a refreshing development, is learning how to play the game of politics that is always afoot in Daevabad. We see her start to come into the full potential she has as the Banu Nahida (the title bestowed upon the female healer of the Nahid), while also discovering the true strength of her magical abilities. Ali flounders at times, still showing a lot of the naïveté that Nahri has lost since the first book, but he is endearing and has come into his own in a way that I want to see more of. Dara is the wild card in this book, making the most questionable choices, and yet the emotional turmoil he experiences and his feelings for Nahri keep him from becoming entirely unsympathetic.

Chakraborty ends her second book with what might just be her most noticeable trademark – an agonizing cliffhanger that leaves readers needing the next book in their hands as soon as possible. But with the third and final book, The Empire of Gold, not hitting shelves until 2021, readers will have a long time to wait. My suggestion until then? Pick up The City of Brass if you haven’t already, and then grab The Kingdom of Copper as soon as you finish. The books don’t disappoint.

My rating:

7.5 Suleiman Seals out of 10

-Sara

Book Review | Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

Genre : Magical Realism, Horror
Date Published : October 3, 2017
Publisher : Graywolf Press

For my first ever book review for Sister Shelf, I decided to review a short story collection that means a lot to me: Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado. I first picked up this collection in October 2018, right around the time I was getting back into writing short stories myself, and it reopened my eyes to how joyously weird writing can be. When the Feminist Sci Fi Book Club I recently started attending chose this collection as its February 2019 read – the same month Sara and I decided to start this blog – it seemed like the universe was shouting at me: review this strange and unsettling little book!!!

I knew only two things going into this collection: it was supposed to be 1) Super Spooky and 2) Super Queer. Machado did not disappoint. Through the lens of magical realism, Machado explores the many ways in which women’s bodies (in all their forms) are mistreated, exploited, and controlled. The stories in this collection are unique and expansive – a woman inventories her past lovers to keep herself sane during the apocalypse; two women make a baby (or do they…???); an epidemic causes all women on the earth to slowly fade away; and, of course, there’s the 272 (yes, that’s two hundred and seventy two) vignettes inspired by every single episode of Law & Order: SVU.

My favorite story in the collection is “The Husband Stitch” – a retelling of the classic folktale about the girl with the green ribbon around her neck. This story felt like it was being whispered to me by my best friend at a middle school slumber party while I, being the whimp that I am, alternated between telling her to stop when it got too scary and begging her to finish the rest. Machado seamlessly weaves countless fairytales and urban legends into this piece (the hook-handed man, the girl raised by wolves, the girl who dies of fright in cemetery) and by the end they all begin to run together with one common theme: women are punished for simply existing as women.

“He is not a bad man, and that, I realize suddenly, is the root of my hurt. He is not a bad man at all. To describe him as evil or wicked or corrupted would do a deep disservice to him. And yet – ” (The Husband Stitch, p. 30)

On my reread of this collection, what I enjoyed most was the unabashed queerness of each and every story (on the first read, I enjoyed having my pants scared off me!!). The queerness present in Machado’s stories breathes life back into the sometimes unbearably violent collection. For all the horrible and unthinkable things that happen to women in this collection, Machado also gives them the ability to feel pleasure and joy. And, let me tell you, these stories are sexy. Super spooky, yes, but so so sexy (which, honestly, is such a #LifeGoal).

When we discussed this collection at book club in February, our usual hour-long meeting extended to over two hours, and we still had more to talk about. That’s how Her Body and Other Parties leaves me feeling each time I pick it up – that maybe, just maybe, if I read it again I will find some answers to life’s many questions. Or, at the very least, give myself a very good scare.

My rating:

9 Madwomen in the Attic out of 10.

-Emory

March Bookshelf

Happy March! (There is actually sun outside my window as I type this…that means winter is officially over, right? Right…?). At the beginning of every month, we’ll reveal the books that are on our radar for the next 30 days. Here’s the Top 5 books on our shelves for the month of March!

Emory:

  1. Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado – Just finished this for Feminist Sci-Fi Bookclub in February – now it’s time to reread it in preparation for my very first book review!
  2. King of Scars by Leigh Bardugo – After hearing Leigh Bardugo speak at Sirens in October, I’ve slowly been working my way through the Grishaverse. So excited to read the next installment! 
  3. A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab – I really need to read V.E. Schwab before she comes to Columbus for her author event in March. Also, I just really need to read V.E. Schwab!
  4. Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James – I have a confession: I get super intimidated by epic fantasy. But when EVERYONE is talking about how amazing Marlon James is…how could I not pick this up at my local bookstore?!
  5.  The True Queen by Zen Cho – Finally!!! The sequel to Sorcerer to the Crown!! I fell completely in love with Zen Cho’s 2015 novel the moment I picked it up (regency era magic?!?! yes please!) and I can’t wait to find out what happens next.

Sara:

  1. Kingdom of Copper by S. A. Chakraborty – I’m only 100 pages into the second installment of the Daevabad trilogy, and I’m already terrified of what kind of cliffhanger is waiting for me at the end. It can’t possibly be worse than the first book’s cliffhanger, right? (Right???)
  2. The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers – This one was a Christmas present from Emory (and, in a not-so-surprising twist, cause our minds think alike, I got her the exact same book for Christmas, too). Seems like the perfect starting point for my dive into the Sci-Fi genre.
  3. What it Means When a Man Falls From the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah – I’ve only read the first couple of stories from this collection, but w o w!! I haven’t even finished the collection and I’m already looking forward to re-reading each story to pick out things I missed.
  4. Gingerbread by Helen Oyeyemi – Releasing on March 5th, Oyeyemi’s new book explores the role of gingerbread in children’s fairy tales and makes a new place for it in a modern setting (and I’m sure there will be a cool, Gothic twist in there somewhere).
  5. Binti by Nnedi Okorafor – Okorafor’s Binti trilogy (all three books are out!) blends Sci-Fi and Afrofuturism. Each book is a novella, just around 100 pages, but based on the amount of praise and awards directed at this trilogy, every page holds something great. This might be the book I’m most excited to start!

Image Credit: Goodreads

Two Sisters. Infinite Books.

I’m Emory – I currently live in Columbus, Ohio, where I put my Shakespeare Studies MA to good use as an ice cream scooper/jewelry maker and Sci-Fi/Fantasy writer. When I’m not working, I volunteer at visiting author events, attend monthly Feminist Sci-Fi Bookclub meetings, and co-run a local writing group. My ideal book contains robots, magic, and a whole lotta bisexuals!

I reached out to my sister Sara about starting a book blog because, I’ll be honest, my master’s degree drained all the joy of reading right out of me. After graduating in 2016, I floated aimlessly from job to job until one day I realized what was missing from my life – my love of writing and reading. This past spring, I was lucky enough to get a grant from my city’s arts council to attend Sirens, an AMAZING conference dedicated to women/nonbinary folks who read and write SFF. This conference reignited my passion for reading and inspired me to get more involved in the writing/publishing/book-blogging community.

As a writer and reader, I am on a never-ending journey to diversify what I create and consume. My book choices for this blog will feature Sci-Fi/Fantasy books written by women, writers of color, LGBTQ+ writers, writers with disabilities, and all of the varying intersections of these identities. I’m so excited to broaden the scope of my reading and challenge myself with new perspectives and ideas.

Aside from reviewing books, I’m also interested in writing about building community as a reader and writer (online or in person). I recently co-founded a local writer’s group and began regularly attending a monthly book club – these two additions to my life have changed so much about how I approach writing and reading. I’m excited to talk more about the idea of creating ‘literary communities’ and how they can change and evolve over time!

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I’m Sara, currently living in the DMV area where I am working towards my MA in Publishing at George Washington University. Why publishing, you ask? Well, as I told my professor when he asked me the same question – I love books, I love talking about books, and I have pretty good taste in books, so the publishing industry seemed like the natural route to take. On top of school, I’m also interning at Oghma Creative Media as an editorial intern, where I do everything from working with authors on plot and character development in the early stages of their manuscript, to the final galley edits of a novel where I see if there’s any missing commas. To fill the rest of my free time, I also work in retail!

When Emory reached out to me asking if I wanted to do a book blog, my immediate reactions were excitement and a weird sense of relief, because I knew this was an opportunity that would get me back into the habit of reading. After completing my BA in English last summer, I felt unmotivated when it came to reading and writing. And now that I’m doing my MA in Publishing, when I find myself with free time I’m usually playing video games or binging a new Netflix show. I work best on a schedule, so a book blog seemed like the perfect way to get back into my love of reading and writing.

One of the other reasons I’m excited to begin this book-blogging journey is to further expand on the types of books I read. I’ve always been into YA Fantasy and Gothic fiction, but have only dipped my toes into the Sci-Fi genre. When it comes to Fantasy, nothing hooks me faster than a group of unlikely heroes with magical abilities roaming their world on a destiny-filled quest. As for Sci-Fi – I’m not sure what I like, but if there’s space and robots (think Pacific Rim), then I’m all in.

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There’s so many glorious books out there to be read – and we can’t wait to start this blogging adventure with you!