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

Book Review | Mouthful of Birds by Samanta Schweblin

Genre : Fiction
Date Published : January 18th, 2019
Publisher : Riverhead Books

In what is clearly becoming a pattern, I once again heard about this book in one of my classes. My professor described it as a collection of very unsettling, but beautiful short stories, and one of my classmates turned around to look at me and said, “Sara, that book is perfect for you!” And reader, she was 100% correct.

Samanta Schweblin’s Mouthful of Birds, translated by Megan McDowell, is just as beautiful as it is unsettling, with each and every of the 20 stories in the collection coming to a sudden end that made me exclaim, “Wait, what? But what happened?” And it’s not that I didn’t understand the stories (although a lot of them are definitely mind-bending), but it’s more that Schweblin leaves you wondering the fates of the characters in almost every story. Beyond that, she surrounds you in a reality that feels like the world we live in, but then drops you into something you never would have expected, and you come out on the other side with a lot to think about.

The stories in the collection have a common thread of showing the disturbance of a natural reality. Schweblin takes seemingly normal topics – parent-child relationships, traveling, pregnancy, dreams – and doesn’t so much as twist them into surprising narratives, but instead turns them completely inside out. Nothing is what it seems in this collection, and the reader, as well as the characters, are left to struggle with that and figure out a world that isn’t just confusing and baffling, but that can also be cruel.

It’s always hard for me to choose a favorite story out of a whole collection, but the ones that stood out in Mouthful of Birds were The Merman – the merman that is featured has a pompadour, some killer abs, loves eating mints, and says ridiculous things like “Stop suffering, bay, no one’s going to hurt you anymore”; Headlights – the first story of the collection that follows a jilted bride left by the roadside where she meets other women who have also been left behind, along with some other very eery, very disconcerting beings that never get faces to match their voices; and the titular story Mouthful of Birds, which, well… is exactly what it sounds like. But even with that information beforehand, you still won’t be prepared to read about a girl who eats birds.

“When she reaches the road, Felicity understands her fate. He has not waited for her, and, if the past were a tangible thing, she thinks she can still see the weak reddish glow of the car’s taillights fading on the horizon.”

Headlights, page 1

What I loved most about the stories was how Schweblin didn’t waste any time trying to explain anything to the reader. You get dropped into each story immediately, with no time to catch up to what is already happening in the first sentence. Sometimes even the setting is unclear, as well as the relationships of the characters to each other. It’s like you are dropped into a story that has been in motion years before you flipped to the page. Again, everything feels unsettling, like when you wake up from a nap and need to take a few seconds to reorient yourself to where you are, and sometimes even who you are.

There are a few misses in the collection, but that’s to be expected when there are 20 stories in total. Overall, Schweblin creates a universe out of her stories, one that is connected by characters who seem to talk themselves out of reality and into a new – and pretty disturbing – reality. Some of the stories are a little too violent and dark for my taste (and be warned, some of them are pretty violent), but the majority of them are still lodged in my mind days after reading them for the first time, and that is what was so impressive about the collection – Schweblin doesn’t spoon feed you solutions or explanations to her stories, you have to navigate them on your own, even if they kind of creep you out along the way. The only thing I can think to compare the feeling of reading Schweblin’s stories to is when you’re having a nightmare. But I mean that in a good way, if that can even make sense.

My rating:

7.5 Birds out of 10.

-Sara

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

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

Review | Jumping Monkey Hill by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Genre : Short Story
Published : October 2, 2006 / June 1, 2010
Publisher : Granta / Anchor

When Emory and I came up with the idea to recommend a short story to each other for this week’s post, I was at a loss for a while. It was like every short story I had ever read and loved flew out of my mind. Then I started thinking back to the Advanced Fiction class I took during my final year of undergrad, and Jumping Monkey Hill stuck out in my memory. There’s so much to dissect in the story – colonialism, racism, sexism, family dynamics, and lastly, it’s a short story about writing short stories, and about how some people will try to dictate what a good, believable story is while diminishing other kinds of stories and experiences and deeming them unrealistic.

While I absolutely loved my fiction class and the writing workshops we had, this was a topic that always seemed to pop up, whether it was someone commenting on my story or someone else’s. “That just doesn’t seem believable” or “Oh no, that wouldn’t happen. This is what you should write instead”. And sure, the suggestions were part of the editing process, sometimes they were even good, but sometimes you were also left with the feeling of everyone just not understanding what your story was conveying, or feeling hurt that your peers deemed something that may have happened to you as “unrealistic.” Jumping Monkey Hill weaves this critique into the protagonist’s life, connecting it to themes of identity and creating a story that contains so much power. I can’t wait to read about what Emory thought of it!

-Sara

I’m so glad Sara recommended I check out Jumping Monkey Hill by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie! It’s been awhile since I’ve read a really impactful piece of realistic short fiction, and I’m so grateful I had the pleasure of reading this story for this week’s blog post.

Jumping Monkey Hill is about a young woman named Ujunwa who is invited to participate in the African Writers’ Workshop – a weeklong writing workshop founded and facilitated by Edward Campbell, an old white man from England. The workshop starts off harmless enough – though Ujunwa finds it odd that the workshop is taking place at a fancy, mostly white seaside resort in South Africa, she still begins to form small bonds with the other workshop members. But tensions soon rise as it becomes apparent that Edward does not have any of the workshop participants’ best interests at heart. Instead, he seeks to mold them into his colonialist vision of what an “African writer” is supposed to be.

The uneven power dynamic between Edward and the writers is established the moment Edward does the workshop introductions – he introduces each writer by the country they’re from, reducing them to mere representatives of “Africa.” We soon come to find, of course, that Edward’s understanding of “Africa” is racist, sexist, and homophobic, and that he expects the stories the participants submit to fit into his colonial view of Africa. While some workshop participants write off his behavior as “harmless” because he is an old man, it soon becomes evident that Edward’s behavior is an extension of a violent and insidious racist colonial history.

In addition to reducing workshop participants to their race, Edward also begins to hypersexualize the women of the group. This, unfortunately, is nothing new for Ujunwa. For her workshop story, she writes about her experiences with sexual harassment while searching for a job. These moments in Ujunwa’s short story mirror the sexual harassment she experiences at the hands of Edward throughout the workshop. For me, one of the most heartbreaking moments in this story is when Ujunwa realizes that all of the other participants had noticed the ways in which Edward sexualized her, but none of them had done anything to stop him.

She should not have laughed when Edward said, ‘I’d rather like you to lie down for me.’ It had not been funny. It had not been funny at all. She had hated it, hated the grin on his face and the glimpse of greenish teeth and the way he always looked at her chest rather than at her face and yet she had made herself laugh like a deranged hyena.

The workshop participants silently accept Edward’s increasingly vile microaggressions because they are afraid that speaking up will lose them money or future opportunities as writers. Ujunwa herself takes Edward’s words and actions with a silent resentment until the very end of the story, when Ujunwa finally refuses to take anymore of his bullshit. (This moment made me want to cheer and scream and lift Ujunwa up on my shoulders).

One of my major takeaways from Jumping Monkey Hill was the mental toll writing workshops take on marginalized voices when white, cis, heterosexual male experiences are centralized. When Edward doesn’t like a story (because it didn’t fit into the neat, colonial box of what he understood “Africa” to be) he says the dreaded workshop phrase: “The story itself begged the question ‘So what?'” Jumping Monkey Hill almost seems to be a direct response to this question. The answer? Because marginalized voices demand to be heard and listened to. Just because a white man or a white woman doesn’t understand a story doesn’t mean it doesn’t hold value – rather, it means white writers must work even harder to de-center whiteness as the “default” and continue to listen to and uplift marginalized voices without expecting a cookie in return.

I loved this story SO much and I can’t wait to buy Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s short story collection! Read Jumping Monkey Hill online here !

My Rating:

10 Excruciating Writing Workshops out of 10

-Emory

May Bookshelf

It’s MAAAAAAY! Here are all the amazing and delicious books we are reading this month.

Sara:

  1. Orange World and Other Stories by Karen Russell – Out on May 14th, Karen Russell’s new book of short stories looks like it will be just as brilliant as her other works! Seriously, if you’ve never read anything by Karen Russell, you need to change that asap. Her prose is vivid, funny, and never what you expect. I’ve loved everything she’s written so far, and I am beyond excited to read her new short stories!
  2. We Hunt the Flame by Hafsah Faizal – The first installment of Faizal’s Sands of Arawiya also debuts on May 14th, following the stories of two characters, Zafira and Nasir, who are both legends throughout the kingdom, though neither of them wants to be. Things promise to get complicated when Zafira and Nasir are sent on the same quest to retrieve and special artifact – with Nasir instructed to kill Zafira.
  3. Captain America, Vol. 1: Winter in America by Ta-Nehisi Coates and illustrated by Leinil Francis Yu – In celebration of Avengers: Endgame releasing a little over a week ago (don’t worry, I won’t spoil anything), I thought adding a comic to my bookshelf for this month would be fitting. Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of works like The Beautiful Struggle, Between the World and Me, and a series of Black Panther comics, takes Steve Rogers and places him in the aftermath of Hydra’s takeover of the nation. The government doesn’t seem to trust Cap anymore, and the feeling appears to be mutual. I can’t wait to start reading this new installment in Cap’s story!
  4. Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett – With the new TV series airing at the end of this month, I figured I should re-read the amazing book it is based off of. Basically, an angel and a demon work together to stop the anti-christ from starting the apocalypse. If you haven’t read Good Omens already, get your hands on a copy immediately!!! It is a wild ride from start to finish, and I promise you will love every second of it.
  5. Mythic Journeys: Retold Myths and Legends edited by Paula Guran – Once again out on May 14th (I’m going to buy SO MANY books that day), this anthology collects stories from authors like Ken Liu, Neil Gaiman, and Ann Lecki that reinvent classic myths and legends and place them in a modern setting! That idea in itself is more than enough to get me interested!

Emory:

  1. The Tiger’s Daughter by K. Arsenault Rivera – I get easily overwhelmed by epic fantasies, but this one is high on my list!! Queer protagonists, warrior ladies, divine empresses, and of course, the tagline: Even gods can be slain…
  2. The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon – This book has been popping up all over my timeline lately! A very large book that I probably won’t get to until the summer, but it’s on my buying list now! Another great queer read ~ one of my friends called it a feminist takeover of the epic fantasy genre (looking at you, GoT).
  3. Wicked Saints by Emily A. Duncan – Already a New York Times Bestseller – and written by an OHIOAN!!!! A bloody fairytale-inspired read. Can’t wait to get my hands on this gorgeous book!
  4. Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal – This book was a birthday present from Sara (THANK YOU!). After reading Sorcerer to the Crown and The True Queen in the span of a week, I needed more Regency fantasy!
  5. The Dragon Republic by R.F. Kuang – My very first read for Netgalley! I’m taking The Poppy War with me this week (I’m halfway through it right now and it’s so goddamn funny and bloody and adorable and messed up and I can’t wait for the sequel!).