Book Review | Wicked Fox by Kat Cho

Genre : YA Fantasy
Date Published : June 15, 2019
Publisher : Putnam Books

In her debut novel, Wicked Fox, Kat Cho centers her story around a classic Korean Folktale, but places it in the contemporary setting of modern-day Seoul. Gu Miyoung is a seemingly normal eighteen year old girl, except for, you know, the fact that she’s really a gumiho – a nine-tailed fox demon that needs feed on the gi – life force – of men in order to survive. If that’s not enough to immediately hook you in, Cho complicates Miyoung’s life even more when she stumbles across a human boy – Ahn Jihoon – during a routine hunting night. In a surprising twist, Miyoung saves the Jihoon from a goblin, but loses her yeowu guseul (her fox bead, aka her soul) in the process, and ends up linking herself to Jihoon when he picks it up and discovers what Miyoung is. And that’s just in the first 30 pages of the novel! Throughout the rest, Cho weaves together an intense and emotional story that follows these two characters as they learn to navigate the new challenges that face them after this fateful meeting. And I had such a great time following them on that journey!

Understandably, being a nine-tailed fox demon brings a lot of angst to Miyoung as a character, but what I really love about her is the compassion and silliness that breaks through her seemingly rough exterior from time to time. We learn that she binge watches Korean dramas, and knows the tropes of them so well that she can predict what will happen in almost every episode of one. She likes the reprieve they bring from her day-to-day life, because, let’s be honest, her life is pretty stressful. She’s had to move from place to place to keep her true identity a secret, and the fact that she has to kill in order to survive keeps her from wanting to form attachments to people. Even her relationship with her own mother is cold and distant for most of the novel. Cho does an amazing job of showing how detached Miyoung needs to be, while also showing how much she craves companionship and connection – all of which she finds in Jihoon.

Cho gives Jihoon his own chapters, alternating them with Miyoung’s, which is a choice that I loved! Getting into Jihoon’s mind was one of the most enjoyable aspects of the novel! Jihoon has a tight-nit friend group made up of Somin and Changwan (two amazing side characters!!!), contrasting Miyoung’s solitary life, and his relationship with his halmeoni (grandmother) was the relationship that got me the most teary-eyed. But even with this seemingly charmed life, Jihoon is not without his own demons (metaphorically speaking). Jihoon is kind and funny and so naturally open and caring with those he values, but he’s also such a typical teenage boy who makes stupid mistakes and holds grudges. I am so so impressed by how well-crafted he and Miyoung are, and their relationship throughout the story was definitely a strongpoint.

“Miyoung didn’t like how Ahn Jihoon talked to her. Like he was her friend. He’d fallen into the casual speech of banmal without her permission. She wondered if he even realized it. But more important, she wasn’t sure why she hadn’t put an end to it.”

Chapter 12, page 113

What I loved most about Miyoung and Jihoon was how Cho flipped the typical trope of “angsty boy and the girl who changed him”. In Wicked Fox, it is Miyoung who is mysterious and detached and complicated, whereas Jihoon is goofy and kind and often takes on the caretaker role. What’s even more impressive is that Cho also managed to steer clear of the manic pixie dream girl trope by making Miyoung a main character and giving her a voice, and making sure readers know that, despite being a gumiho, she is still a person. While Miyoung and Jinhoo’s stories certainly center around each other and their growing relationship, Cho also creates space for each of them to tackle their own problems. We get to see them both struggle with wanting to chase after their own desires, while at the same time wanting to stay respectful towards their families and honor the bonds they already have formed.

The plot of Wicked Fox overall is fantastic! There are unexpected alliances and betrayals, and the perfect amount of plot twists that keep the story exciting without it ever feeling Cho is tricking the reader by hiding facts from them. Cho also does an amazing job of slowly piecing together the pasts of the characters so that, when the time is right, everything clicks into place in a satisfying conclusion. My only complaint is, at times, it felt like issues/conflicts got resolved a little too quickly. Without spoiling anything, Miyoung and Jinhoo experience events and losses that would definitely leave lasting effects, but not enough time is given to working through them. While I really did love the book (so so much!), I think the pacing towards the end was a little rough, and I found myself wishing that Cho had split this book into two so that more time could be spent on some revelations that occur towards the end.

The good news is, there will be a sequel! The second book in this series is slated for summer 2020, and I already can’t wait! Cho sets up a nice cliffhanger at the end, and I know that I will definitely be in line to grab the sequel as soon as it comes out. I recommend this book to anyone who loves fantasy, but who wants something new and exciting from the genre.

My rating:

8 Fox Beads out of 10.

-Sara

ARC Review: This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone

Genre : Science Fiction
Date Published : July 16, 2019
Publisher : Saga Press

In honor of Pride month being over but continuing on in our hearts forever and ever and ever, this week I’m reviewing the delightful ARC of This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone. Amal Eh-Mohtar is one of my all time favorite short story writers (see: The Truth About Owls ) and I had the pleasure of taking part in Max Gladstone’s class for a Writing the Other workshop this winter. Needless to say, I was over the moon when I heard these two brilliant writers were collaborating on a queer time-travel story! Thanks NetGalley and Saga Press for the opportunity to read this amazing ARC.

This beautiful little novella is set far in the future (and the past, and the present, and the alternate timelines of all three) where two warring civilizations – Garden and The Agency – are trying to gain control over the universal timeline. Garden is an ecological society, controlled by a plant-based organism called Garden that grows the organization’s agents. The Agency, in direct contrast, is a technological society lead by Commandant and comprised of cyborg and robotic agents.

Red, one of The Agency’s most prized agents, first encounters a rival from Garden early in the book. Her name is Blue, and she leaves behind a letter for Red that reads “Burn before reading.” This delightful exchange kickstarts a series of encounters between Red and Blue in which they thwart one another’s missions and leave behind increasingly playful (and serious) letters to each other along the way.

This novella is comprised of short scenes from the POV of both Red and Blue and the letters they exchange with one another throughout their rivalry, friendship, and (eventually) loooooooove. The prose was unbelievably beautiful – each chapter read like a sort of poem! I found myself putting this book down every chapter or so. Each scene felt like eating a really delicious slice of cake – I had to sit in silence afterwards to digest how brilliant it was!

I truly LOVED this book. Red and Blue’s relationship was such a delight to watch unfold – Enemies to Lovers is the trope I will stand behind ’til the day I die, and I’m so happy I got to read it here! Beyond Red and Blue, the universe that El-Mohtar and Gladstone created here is unbelievably delightful – from the Napoleonic Wars to Victorian London to the Mongol Empire to the time of the dinosaurs and beyond, this books takes you on a mind-boggling journey through both time and space. I loved how some scenes, like the one set in the fancy tea shop in Victorian London, felt so familiar and tangible. These scenes contrasted brilliantly with other more unusual settings, like the one set in Garden, which was the most otherworldly and alien setting I think I’ve ever read (it was also one of my favorite scenes from the entire book!).

If you’re as excited about this queer time-traveling ladies as I am, I definitely recommend pre-ordering your copy of the book ASAP! It’s out in North America on July 16 and the UK July 18 (only a few weeks away!!) ~ I can’t wait to fangirl with y’all about Red and Blue it when it comes out!

10 Queer Time Traveling Ladies out of 10

-Emory

Book Review | Orange World and Other Stories by Karen Russell

Genre : Literary Fiction
Date Published : May 14, 2019
Publisher : Knopf Publishing

For this week’s review, I changed what book I wanted to tackle so many times. First it was G. Willow Wilson’s The Bird King (which, so far, is amazing, but is close to 400 pages, and I decided to put it down until I could give it my full attention). Then it was my ARC for The Beholder by Anna Bright, which also has a strong beginning, but I just couldn’t seem to focus on it. Then I stumbled upon Karen Russell’s Orange World and Other Stories on Friday, and I finished the whole thing in one day. My fixation on it was a combination of my attention span needing to focus on short stories instead of a novel, and Russell’s amazing, weird, and beautiful story telling.

Orange World is built up of eight short stories, each weirder and more fascinating than the one preceding it. One story, “Bog Girl: A Romance”, centers around a boy who happens to have a crush on a 2,000 year old girl he uncovered in a peat bog who, you know, isn’t exactly alive (exactly being the key word here). Then, in “The Bad Graft”, the soul of a Joshua Tree “leaps” into one of the characters, their souls intertwining. If none of that seems weird enough to you yet, the title story is about a young mother who agrees to breast-feed the devil. What’s even more impressive than these strange, fascinating ideas is that Russell manages to fill them with a surprising amount of emotion. After finishing each one, I found myself having to take a moment to collect my thoughts and prepare myself for whatever the next story had in store.

My favorite story of the collection was the first one, “The Prospectors”. The setting is the Great Depression, and the story follows two young women, Clara and Aubby, who think they are taking a chair lift up to the Evergreen Lodge to attend a party (and maybe steal a few things from it). Instead they find themselves at the Emerald Lodge, attending a different kind of party – one where only dead men are dancing.

“The cage was a wrought-iron skeleton, the handiwork of phantoms, but the bird, we both knew instantly, was real. It was agitating its wings in the polar air, as alive as we were. Its shadow was denser than anything in that ice palace. Its song split our eardrums. Its feathers burned into our retinas, rich with solar color, and its small body was stuffed with life.”

Page 36

The prose in this story (and in all of the stories) was so, so beautiful. Russell strings words and sentences together to create such profound pictures and moments, and the relationship between Clara and Aubby was my favorite part of “The Prospectors”. You feel the love they have for each other, especially when the two of them are in grave danger at one point, and it is only the worry for the other that pulls them back into their own minds and allows them to make their escape from what surely would have been their own deaths.

What I found most amazing about this collection of tales is how much each one contained. They were love stories, horror stories, satirical stories, stories about the bizarre and the grotesque, and about how none of us are impervious to the terrors that life sometimes contains. Sometimes those terrors lodge themselves inside of us, but Russell – in her own unique and formidable way – also shows us the importance of humor in relationships, and the power it can contain, especially when it that humor is found and shared with someone else.

Author of Swamplandia, Vampires in the Lemon Grove, and another collection of short stories, Karen Russell has been a big name in the literary world for a while now, but Orange World still surpassed my expectations. I couldn’t put it down, and I’m already wanting to re-read it so I can start to pick out all the details that I missed during my first read through.

My rating:

9 Bog Girls out of 10

-Sara

ARC Review | The Dragon Republic by R.F. Kuang

Genre : Historical Fantasy
Upcoming Publishing Date : August 6, 2019
Publisher : Harper Voyager

SPOILERS BELOW – READER BEWAAAARE!

This is my very first ARC review (yeehaw!) – thank you Netgalley for the ARC in exchange for an honest review!

As with so many other amazing authors, I first heard about R.F. Kuang while attending Sirens Con this year. People were raving about her first book – The Poppy War – and I finally had the chance to start reading the series in April. On GoodReads, Kuang describes the series as: “If you liked Avatar: The Last Airbender but always wished it were a little darker and more fucked-up, you might like this.” And fucked-up it is!

Grimdark wartime fiction isn’t usually my ideal genre, but Kuang is just so good at constructing the world of her story and the characters that inhabit it. I didn’t find The Dragon Republic to be as overwhelmingly violent as The Poppy War (which grapples with The Rape of Nanjing, an extremely violent massacre during the Second Sino-Japanase War) but the sequel definitely doesn’t shy away from the violence and horrors of war. Kuang does an excellent job of balancing the fucked-up things with a lot of darkly funny dialogue, which I appreciated so much (the character interactions were really what kept me going when I got too overwhelmed by the violence).

The first half of the book took about two weeks for me to get through – there’s a lot of necessary fallout from the ending of The Poppy War that Kuang has to deal with before moving us forward in The Dragon Republic. The Third Poppy War is over, but no one is satisfied by its conclusion. Vaisa, the Dragon Warlord (and Nezha’s father), wants to conquer Nikara, unseat Empress Daji, and turn the country into a Republic. Rin and the Cike have been trying to assassinate Daji on their own, and so after a bit of convincing they join forces with Vaisa and begin their military campaign against the Empire. As this unfolds, we learn two very important things: 1) the Mugenese army is still alive and 2) the Hesperians (the verrrrry untrustworthy Western powerhouse mentioned briefly in the first book) arrive and may/may not agree to assist Vaisa’s army.

While all of this geopolitical maneuvering is happening, Kuang also forces Rin to grapple with her addiction to opium, come to terms with the destruction she wrought on Mugen, and deal with her grief from Altan’s death. I’ll admit it – I really hated Rin’s character in the first half of the book (though I think we’re supposed to!!). She’s impulsive, irresponsible, and sooooo self-centered. There were quite a few times where I felt like throwing my ereader across the room, because she was being so freakin’ reckless!! But, this being said, all of this made me love her so much more in the latter half!

When I reached the 60% mark (thanks ereader) the pacing of The Dragon Republic really picked up again and I had such a hard time putting it down! Rin has a truly breathtaking character arc in this book, and it was beautiful watching her evolve throughout the story. I particularly loved the way Rin’s relationship to the fire/the Phoenix (and, in effect, her own anger/rage) matured in this book – there were quite a few moments where I got all teared up thinking about how much Rin had changed since The Poppy War.

Of course, Rin couldn’t have done any of this without the help of the Cike, Kitay, or Nezha (!!!), all of whom I was soooo excited to have back on the page. Ramsa, Baji, and Suni were such a delight to read, and I was so thrilled to get more backstory for Chagan and Qara. Nezha and Kitay in particular take center-stage in The Dragon Republic (both in terms of plot and their relationship to Rin), and I’m very excited to see what happens with them next.

The Dragon Republic is such an amazing follow-up to The Poppy War. While it was a bit of a slow burn at the beginning, I was internally screaming throughout the entire final quarter of the book. (Seriously – shit gets WILD). I’m so excited for the third installment in the series (whenever that is!). But for now, I’m content with filling that void by crying about Rin/Nezha and daydreaming about firebending. Pre-order your copy of The Dragon Republic ASAP!!

9 Tiger’s tits out of 10!!!

-Emory

Book Review | Descendant of the Crane by Joan He

Genre : YA Fantasy
Date Published : April 9, 2019
Publisher : Albert Whitman and Co.

I read Joan He’s debut novel, Descendant of the Crane, for this week’s blog post and (spoiler alert) I absolutely loved it. It came to my attention when I was searching up-and-coming YA novels, and the cover – which is so beautiful – immediately caught my eye. Then there was the plot description – magic, assassinations, secrets and lies, political turmoil. You name it, this book has it, and it accomplishes everything that it sets out to do.

I almost don’t even know where to start for this review, because there are so many good things to talk about, but He’s ability to weave words together and create a story and a picture to go along with that story deserves to be praised first and foremost. I started reading the book while I was at the pool, lounging in the sun, and He’s prose pulled me in so effectively that I sat there reading for an hour without even realizing it (and got an impressive sunburn on my leg as a result). In just the first couple of chapters, He introduces the plot, the characters, builds the world and the history of that world, and does it all in such a seemingly simple way. Everything flows together beautifully, and I felt as if I knew the characters so well even though I had just met them a page or two ago.

Speaking of the characters, the ones that are brought to life in this book are some of my favorite characters to date. They all feel so real and so alive, and each of them have their own distinct personalities that you come to depend upon and look forward to throughout the story. At the forefront is Hesina, the protagonist of the novel and whose POV the book is told from. Then there is Sanjing, Hesina’s younger brother who commands the Yan military. Caiyan and Lilian, two twins that Hesina’s father adopted when they were young, are two of the most delightful characters of the story, with Lilian never failing to make me laugh out loud, and Caiyan having one of the more surprising character arcs in the book. Then of course there is Akira, the convict turned representative as he tries to assist Hesina solve the mystery surrounding her father’s death. And these are just the main characters – there are countless side characters who have just as much depth and importance to the plot!

The death of Hesina’s father is what drives most of the story. He was ruler of the kingdom of Yan, and when his death appears more suspicious than natural, Hesina sets out to find the true cause, and the person behind it. And she has to do all of this while preparing to become queen. If that doesn’t sound stressful enough, it quickly becomes clear that the royal court is full of liars and power seekers who do not have Hesina’s best interests at heart, and Hesina finds that she can’t even trust those who are supposed to be closest to her. And her conflicted feelings over the sooths – people who can use magic to see the future, and are therefore scorned and feared for their abilities (asking for their aid is a treasonous act in itself) – makes all of this even more complicated for Hesina.

Her father had filled her nights with shadow puppets, dress-up, and maps of secret passageways. Year after year, he boosted her onto his shoulders – her very own throne – and together they’d watch the queen’s carriage fade into the mist.

Chapter 3, page 35

While the plot of Descendant of the Crane revolves around politics and morality, there is the underlying plot of family and loyalty that is just as impactful. Even though we never get to see Hesina and her father interact, He does an amazing job of utilizing flashbacks or brief memories to show readers the deep bond the two shared, and how losing him has affected Hesina greatly. That loss is what makes Hesina’s remaining family so important to her. It was reading about those relationships that really kept me turning the page (and of course the couple of plot twists that occur throughout the story), because I couldn’t wait to get more background on these characters and what they mean to each other. Whether it was seeing how Hesina’s somewhat broken relationship with Sanjing would turn out, or experiencing more comedic scenes between Liliana and Caiyang, or seeing if Hesina and her half-brother, Rue, would ever move beyond the bitterness that Hesina felt towards him for being a reminder of her father’s infidelity.

As I said before, there are endless things to praise about this book, and I wish I had endless time to talk about all of them. Joan He constructs a beautiful and detailed world, and fills it with characters I couldn’t get enough of! I almost wish that the book had switching POVs, just so I could get into everyone’s heads, but then again, following Hesina on her journey step by step is not something I would want to miss out on – she’s such a strong character, and I was rooting for her the whole way through. And I suppose multiple POVs might give away a few of the major plot twists that had me gasping out loud.

Descendant of the Crane is a masterful debut from Joan He, and while it doesn’t seem like she has a sequel in mind for it, I would definitely be one of the first in line to buy it if she does (especially with that ending, I mean come on!). However, He does have a second book set to be published in the fall of 2020, The Ones We’re Meant to Find, which follows the story of two sisters – one stuck on an island with little memory of who she is, and the other fighting to save the earth with no clue that her sister is alive. It sounds like it is going to be just as big of a hit as Descendant of the Crane was, and I can’t wait to get my hands on it!

Rating: 9 Crane Hair Pins out of 10.

-Sara

Book Review | His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik

Genre : Alternate history/Fantasy
Date Published : March 28, 2006
Publisher : Del Ray

For this week’s blog post, I’m doing a bit of a throwback ~ His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik (the first in the Temeraire series!). The past few months I’ve been reading quite a lot of Regency fantasy novels (Sorcerer Royal series by Zen Cho and the Glamourist Histories by Mary Robinette Kowal to name a few others!) as research for the Regency fantasy novel I’m currently working on. It’s been so wonderful seeing the many different approaches writers take to the genre. I was pleasantly surprised at how quickly I fell in love with His Majesty’s Dragon.

Growing up, my mom loved (LOVED!) the Horatio Hornblower television series, and so from the very start this book felt so nostalgic and familiar. I remember watching this show with my mom a lot as a kid, but most my memories of it involve 1) Lots of Big Boats and 2) Very Proper English Captains. The Temeraire series starts off in a similar vein – Will Laurence, our MC, is a captain in the British Navy during the Napoleonic Wars. After a grueling naval battle, Captain Laurence’s ship takes a French vessel under their control and are lucky enough to find a dragon egg aboard the ship. Life in the Aerial Corps is generally frowned upon by polite English society, and so the crew draws lots to see who will harness the dragon when it hatches (and thus be bound to the dragon for life). All their preparation is for naught, however – when the dragon hatches, he takes an immediate liking to Laurence, who is then forced to harness and name him (Temeraire!). The rest is history!

I felt so connected with Laurence throughout the book – I even shared his apprehension towards dragons in the beginning! My truth is that before this book, I was not a dragon girl (I’m a unicorn gal through and through). I am ashamed to admit it, but before reading this book, I thought dragons were, dare I say, kind of corny. But from the moment Temeraire hatched from the egg, I was as smitten with him as Captain Laurence came to be! Every time he called Temeraire “my dear,” I had to put the book down so I could smile. It was so adorable. This series made me a Dragon Girl convert, which really is saying something.

What I loved most about this book was just how well integrated dragons were into the world. At first I thought the first half of the book was going to deal with Laurance learning about/coming to terms with the fact that dragons existed. I was pleasantly surprised that everyone in Novik’s world already knew about dragons – the big thing that Laurence had to learn was how to be a good friend/dragon companion and how to navigate his shifting position in society as a result of joining the Aerial Corps.

“I should rather have you than a heap of gold, even if it were very comfortable to sleep on.” 

I also loved the ways in which Novik involved women in the story – it was such a brilliant move to have some dragons only take female handlers, thus forcing the Aerial Corps to secretly take women on as captains (a practice that is completely unheard of in the Army and Navy!). Watching Laurence grapple with the idea of women being more than swooning maidens was truly a delight to read – I can’t wait to read the next two books in the series and see more of Captain Roland and Captain Harcourt.

I was also so impressed with Novik’s ability to write captivating battle scenes. In general, I don’t enjoy war stories, and so I was super impressed by how engaging the battles were to read. Novik was so knowledgeable about battle strategy and aerial/naval terminology – even though I sometimes had no idea what she was talking about, she wrote these scenes with such conviction that I didn’t struggle with visualizing any of the battles. I even cried while reading one of the battles (COMPLETELY UNHEARD OF!!!).

My biggest takeaway from His Majesty’s Dragon was just how fun it was to be pushed out of my reading comfort zone. Dragons, war, and men are pretty low on my reading list requirements right now, but Naomi Novik is such a genius that I found myself actually enjoying all three of these subjects! I can’t wait to read the rest of the series and see what happens next ~

Rating: 10 adorable talking dragons out of 10.

-Emory

Book Review | Here and Now and Then by Mike Chen

Genre : Science Fiction
Date Published : January 29, 2019
Publisher : MIRA Books

I first heard about this book in one of my grad school classes, my professor pulling up the Amazon page for it to show us the “front matter” – the copyright info, the publisher, the ISBN, date of publication, etc. We didn’t even talk about the plot of the book – but the cover caught my eye and I immediately googled the book for more information. When I found out it was a book about time travel and secret agents, I knew that it wouldn’t be long until I went out to buy it. And while Mike Chen’s debut novel is indeed about time travel and secret agents, it also deals heavily with themes of family and sacrifice – and all of these elements come together in an exciting and emotional story.

The book kicks off with a prologue, quickly catching you up to how the protagonist, Kin Stewart, a secret agent for the Temporal Corruption Bureau (TCB) from the year 2142 ended up in San Francisco in 1996. He got injured on the mission, but that’s not the bad part – the really bad part is that his retrieval beacon was broken, meaning his ticket back home has been destroyed. What I really appreciated about this section was how smoothly Chen teaches the reader the rules about this universe. There’s explanation about the time travel and who Kin really is, but it isn’t overdone or overly wordy – he gives you enough information to situate yourself in the story, and then pushes the plot forward.

Chapter One begins eighteen years later, and while I don’t usually like big time jumps, for this story it makes sense. Kin, with no way back home to his own time, has made a life for himself. He’s married to a woman named Heather, and they have a fourteen-year-old daughter together – Miranda, whose relationship with Kin is at the crux of the whole story. Chen does a great job of sprinkling in details about this new life, telling readers that Kin dreams of being on the TV show Home Chef Challenge, and that his family has a tradition of first-Monday-of-the-month TV nights where they all gather together to watch various sci-fi movies or shows. It’s details like this that I loved – and I wished we’d gotten more of these lived-in moments before the next act of the story began. On the same day that the first chapter starts out on, another time traveling agent finally shows up to rescue Kin and take him back to the year 2142, where a whole other life that he can no longer remember is waiting for him.

“Pressure returned to Kin’s temples, a grip that took hold across space and time. This one was different; he knew it from the very feel. It had nothing to do with time-jump damage to the frontal cortex or memory triggers that pushed his brain too hard. No, this was the silent grind of his jaw, the increase in blood pressure, the panic-turned-anger in his heart. ‘What have you done to Miranda?’”

Chapter 30, page 179

While I wanted more time to be spent building up Kin and Miranda’s relationship, the brief glimpse we get of them at the beginning of the book is enough to cement the idea that Kin loves his daughter, and would do anything to protect her. This makes his being forced back to his own timeline all the more heartbreaking, especially since he doesn’t even get a chance to say goodbye. And when he learns that Miranda’s very existence is a timeline corruption, and that her life is in danger because of that, it comes as no surprise that Kin decides to break even more time travel rules in order to save her.

Here and Now and Then is heartfelt, fun, and suspenseful, and Chen does a masterful job at playing out the reality of the situations each character is in, making the reader feel sympathetic towards just about everyone in the story. And while the pacing did feel a little off, with some things happening too quickly, this could be connected to the main obstacle that Kin faces throughout the book whenever he attempts fix everything before anyone gets hurt – the fact that he needs more time.

I think that Mike Chen is an author we can definitely be excited about! He describes his books as “tales of family and friendship and humor that just happen to have some time travel or an apocalypse.” His next book, A Beginning At The End, is set to come out in January 2020 and tells the story of a group of four people who come together six years after a global pandemic hits the world. I can’t wait to get my hands on it, and I’m so happy to have a new author to keep up with!

My rating:

7.5 Broken Retrieval Beacons out of 10.

-Sara

Book Review | The True Queen by Zen Cho

Genre : Historical Fantasy
Date Published : March 12, 2019
Publisher : Ace Books

I picked up Zen Cho’s first novel The Sorcerer to the Crown waaaaay back in 2016. I was living in London, finishing up my dissertation, and in desperate need of a light-hearted book to get me through the week. A Waterstones employee handed me a copy, describing it as “Harry Potter plus Jane Austen…but better….” and so of course I had to buy it! I fell completely in love with Zen Cho’s beautiful prose and exceptional world-building, and I was so excited to hear that its companion novel The True Queen was coming out this year!

The True Queen is technically a stand-alone novel with only a few spoilers for Sorcerer to the Crown (I didn’t know this going into it, so I frantically reread Sorcerer the week before The True Queen came out – but literally no regrets!). It follows sisters Muna and Sakti, who survive a terrible storm off the coast of Janda Baik and wake on the beach to find that they have no memories. All they know is that Sakti has magic and Muna has absolutely none at all. They’re taken in by the witch Mak Gengang (ARGUABLY THE BEST CHARACTER OF ALL TIME) who tries to restore their memories to no avail. After discovering that Sakti is under a dangerous curse, Muna and Sakti are sent to England for safe-keeping. On their journey, Sakti mysteriously disappears into the world of the Unseen (aka Fairy) leaving Muna on her own in England to discover a way to save her sister. Regency hijinks ensue. (Said hijinks includes two – yes TWO – glamorous balls this time around, so put on your dancing shoes, y’all).

Much like Sorcerer to the Crown, The True Queen deftly deals with issues of race, gender, sexuality, religion, and imperialism. In order to find and save her sister Sakti, Muna is forced to navigate an inherently racist and sexist “high society” on her own – all while keeping up the illusion that she has magical powers. The magic in this novel is also particularly thrilling – I loved seeing Cho expand on the mythos of Janda Baik, and the different ways in which characters from different parts of the world viewed the same thing (the Unseen VS Fairy // Malaysian approaches to magic VS English approaches to magic) and how these worlds intertwine.

“I don’t dislike cabbage,” Muna found herself saying, “but I should not consider marrying it. Not disliking seems a poor foundation for future happiness.” 

I went into The True Queen expecting it to start where Sorcerer left off. I was a teeny tiny bit disappointed that we didn’t see more of Prunella and Zacharias, BUT once I was a few chapters in, I really became immersed in the story. I loved how democratic Cho was with her POV choices – the majority of the story takes place from Muna’s POV, but we also get to see into the minds of Prunella, Rollo, Henrietta, Clarissa, Georgiana Without Ruth, and even Henrietta’s father (which is probably the most hilarious scene in the entire novel). Seeing all of these brilliant side characters more fully fleshed out was such a pleasure, and makes me very excited for the as of yet untitled third book in the series!!

Also, SPOILERS, but my favorite part of The True Queen is the love story we get at the end between Muna and Henrietta! I wish it had been incorporated a bit sooner and that we’d gotten to see more of Muna’s affections for Henny, but I was SOOOO stoked that we got a F/F relationship in this book!!!!! Queer Regency Fantasy is truly the only thing I want in my life right now, and I was so delighted by this literal gift from Zen Cho! The last few pages made my heart sing, and I am going to be recommending this book for the rest of my life.

My rating:

8.5 Queer Dragon Sisters out of 10

-Emory

Book Review | Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo

Genre : Young Adult Fiction, Fantasy Fiction
Date Published : September 29, 2015
Publisher : Henry Holt and Company

Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows (the first in a duology) was lended to me by Emory when she came down to visit in February, because, as she put it many times, “You’re going to love it!” (And spoiler alert, I 100% did). Reading Six of Crows made me so grateful that Emory and I started this blog, because I honestly don’t know when I would I have read the book if we didn’t. When she initially lent it to me, I was still in my spring semester of classes, then after that I started a new job and internship, and I think if I didn’t have a deadline to stick to, I wouldn’t have been motivated to pick up a book and read it. But once I picked up Six of Crows, I didn’t want to put it down, and I sped through it in a span of four days and already want to read it again!

When I first started the book and found out that it was told through a total of six different viewpoints (with the opening and closing chapters being told through the POV of two minor characters) I did have an “oh no” moment, because getting into the minds of even more than two characters can sometimes be difficult. But Bardugo more than pulls it off, and utilizes the shifting POV to show that characters are not only keeping secrets from each other, but from the reader as well. And what is even more impressive is that I found myself equally invested in everyone’s chapters, never wanting to speed through one character’s chapter to skip to the next one (which I often find myself doing in multiple POV books).

The six main characters are made of up Kaz, an infamous thief known as Dirtyhands, Inej, a spy who is known as “The Wraith” because of her incredible stealth, Wylan, the rich kid of the group who also has impressive engineering skills, Jesper, a sharpshooter who spends a lot of time gambling or flirting with Wylan, Nina, a Heartrender in the Grisha army, and Matthias, a Grisha hunter (who, you know, of course has a crush on Nina). It’s an eclectic and diverse group, and Bardugo not only includes LGBTQ+ characters and characters with disabilities within it, but showcases them (which is something that is severely underused in the fantasy genre). I was worried going into the book that there were going to be too many characters to juggle, but Bardugo’s knowledge and love of her characters is clear throughout the entire novel, making it easy for a reader to care about the characters just as much.

This group of six criminals are pulled into a plot that sets up a classic heist story that I am 100% on board for. There a secrets and betrayals and plot twists, but also banter and romance and action, and none of it ever felt overwhelming or unnecessary, because Bardugo goes to great lengths to give each character depth and a backstory that explains their actions. What’s even more impressive is how amoral all of the characters are, and yet, you still care about them! And the prose is just as good as the plot – Bardugo is a master storyteller, and I was honestly blown away by this book in almost every aspect.

“Nina made herself face them. She had her reasons, but did they matter? And who were they to judge her? She straightened her spine, lifted her chin. She was a member of the Dregs, an employee of the White Rose, and occasionally a foolish girl, but before anything else she was a Grisha and a soldier.”

Chapter 30, page 244

It’s almost hard for me to pick a favorite character, but I have to say that Nina was the standout for me (with Kaz and Inej close behind). While her storyline did revolve around romance a little too much for my taste at times, Nina is still the character I wanted to follow into another adventure after finishing the book. She’s complex and she’s tough and, as the above quote shows, she can also be “a foolish girl” sometimes. She’s also one of the funnier characters in the book, with lines that had me laughing out loud. Her love of food (especially waffles!) and her terrible singing voice were additional traits that made her super relatable to me. It was so refreshing to meet a character that is made up of all of these things, because it made her feel incredibly real. I definitely wouldn’t complain if Bardugo were to do a spin-off with Nina as the main character!

Six of Crows technically takes place in the same world as Bardugo’s Grishaverse books, but in a different time frame and location, so it can be read as a standalone. There were a few worldbuilding details and language/vocabulary that I was confused by, but overall you don’t need to be familiar with Bardugo’s other works to love this one. And I did love it! When a book has a big, dysfunctional group of amazing characters going on one big adventure together – there’s nothing that hooks me faster! I can’t wait to get my hands on the sequel, Crooked Kingdom (Hey, Emory, mail it to me!!! Lol).

My rating:

9 crows out of 10

-Sara

Book Review | Gingerbread by Helen Oyeyemi

Genre : Fairy Tale, Fantasy, Magical Realism
Date Published : March 5, 2019
Publisher : Riverhead Books

I was first introduced to Helen Oyeyemi during my junior year of undergrad in a course titled “The Novel and its Secrets.” We read a short story from her collection, What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, and I knew after that singular story that this was an author I needed more of. So I bought her entire collection of short stories, along with two of her novels, White is For Witching and Boy, Snow, Bird and devoured them all within a couple of months. If someone were to ask what I look for in a story, I would shove all of Oyeyemi’s books into their hands.

If you talk to me long enough about books or publishing in general, I will eventually get to the topic I tackled in my thesis – that the Horror/Gothic genre has the capacity to do more than simply scare you; it can also heal you. (Not that it always needs to do that – sometimes it’s good to have an old fashioned scare every now and then). This is something that Oyeyemi not only exemplifies in her work, but something that she excels at. In White is for Witching, Oyeyemi starts off with the classic haunted house set-up, but then gives the house its own narrative chapters which helps to tie its appetite to entrap its occupants to one of the characters, Miranda, who has an eating disorder called pica. In Boy, Snow, Bird, she takes the fairy tale of Snow White and adapts it into a story about the lasting effects of parental abuse. Oyeyemi has a strong grasp on the what the Gothic has the potential to do, and she manages to pour something new into the genre with each book she writes.

Keeping with Oyeyemi’s trademark, Gingerbread takes a recognizable element of a fairy tale and twists it into something even more unsettling, while breathing new life into it at the same time. In the original Hansel and Gretel tale, the parents leave their two children out in the woods because they don’t have the resources to feed them. In Oyeyemi’s take on the tale, she writes a story that, beneath the various descriptions and manifestations of gingerbread (which are more than unnerving at times), looks at how a family could be put into that kind of situation in the first place.

The book details the lives of three generations of women – Margot, Harriet, and Perdita Lee, a family whose gingerbread recipe is passed down between them, although it quickly becomes clear that it is not a simple recipe. At times it seems more like a curse, especially when, early on in the book, Perdita re-creates the recipe with a mysterious ingredient that sends her into a coma. And this is where the book morphs into something readers won’t see coming, especially if they’ve never read Oyeyemi’s work before.

Upon waking, Perdita swears to her mother that what occurred was not a suicide attempt, but rather an attempt to reach Druhástrana – Harriet’s home country, which, you know, may or may not exist. Begged by her daughter and the dolls at her bedside (oh yeah, the dolls talk, ’cause why not?) Harriet launches into a story she has never told Perdita – how she escaped Druhástrana and made it to England. It is a story made up of a mysterious girl in a well, changelings, gingerbread shivs, and a corrupt gingerbread factory owner that pay workers with fake money.

“Harriet ate a piece of gingerbread and tingled all over. It was a square meal and a good night’s sleep and a long, blood-spattered howl at the moon rolled into one.”

– Chapter 6, page 73

Actually trying to detail Oyeyemi’s plot feels like an impossible task. She has a talent with her storytelling and her prose that not only gets you to suspend your disbelief, but manages to get you to disregard it completely and allow Oyeyemi to lead you down the rabbit hole of a strange and bewildering adventure that, when you really think about it, doesn’t always make sense. But that’s what is so extraordinary and breathtaking about this book – the fact that it reads almost like a fever dream at times, and yet you find yourself nodding along and flipping to the next page with your breath held in suspense anyway.

It can be easy to fall into the cliches of Gothic Fantasy (although, give me a classic haunted house story and I am always 100% on board), but Oyeyemi manages to avoid this by twisting the typical themes and tropes into another shape, and by adding an element to her story that a lot of people don’t normally associate with the Gothic – light-heartedness. While the book is strange and dark at times, it’s impossible to not have affection for the characters. Readers learn that Harriet has adopted a habit of leaving five star reviews on books she hasn’t read simply because she likes the author photo, and she started doing this after learning her students do the same thing, but with one-star reviews instead. “Opposing random negativity with random positivity,” is how Harriet classifies the act in her mind. And then there’s one of the underlying messages of the story – that a person holds the power to create their own family. “Not some sham family, politely avoiding having to care about one another,” Oyeyemi writes, “but people who would share a surname and the task of weaving a collective meaning into that name. People would support and protect and staunchly cherish one another.”

This book proves that Oyeyemi is an author we can continue to expect greatness from. She’s creating a recipe of her own when it comes the Fantasy genre – and I for one will be along for the ride, purchasing whatever book Oyeyemi writes next. While Gingerbread might not be the best starting point for new readers (I would recommend starting with her short stories to get a feel for her storytelling that’s a little easier to navigate), it is more than worth any resulting confusion from all of the delicious reality bending.

My rating:

9 Gingerbread Recipes out of 10

-Sara