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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 2, page 21

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

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

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

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

My rating: 8.5 Jade Necklaces out of 10

-Sara

Book Review: An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Laia, Chapter XIX.

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

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

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

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

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

My rating:

7.5 Silver Masks out of 10

-Sara

Book Review: Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

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

Publisher : Tor.com Publishing

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

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

Of course, some things are better left dead.

Tor.com Publishing

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

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

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

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

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

My rating:

10 queer skeletons kisses out of 10

-Emory

Book Review | 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 | 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

Review | The Truth About Owls by Amal El-Mohtar

Genre : Young Adult Fiction, Fantasy Fiction
Initially Published : August 2014, Reprint: January 2015
Publisher : Twelfth Planet Press/Strange Horizons

With a busy next few weeks ahead of us, Sara and I decided to switch things up a bit for our next two blog posts! This Sunday and next Sunday, we’ll each be reviewing a short story recommended by the other. This week, I recommended that Sara read The Truth About Owls by Amal El-Mohtar, a beautiful and heartbreaking coming of age story that deals with identity, loss, magic, and, of course, owls.

I stumbled upon this story a year ago while listening to the Levar Burton Reads podcast at the gym – I immediately fell in love with the voice of this piece. In this story, El-Mohtar effortlessly weaves the magical into the mundane. I love how she makes the smallest things in life (like a little girl and an owl!) seem so very big and meaningful. I hope you enjoy, Sara!

-Emory


The first thing I want to talk about for this story is its structure, which I found so cool and so fun to read. Each small section of the story is preceded by a fact about owls – their eye color, their personalities, how they look when they fly, etc. These are then followed by plot (obviously) and bits of information about the protagonist of the story – Anisa, effectively connecting her appearance, her personality, and her identity to various species of owls. I love how the random facts about owls give you clues to what you’re going to learn about Anisa, and how going back and re-reading the story makes you tie even more similarities between them!

We meet Anisa at the Scottish Owl Centre, where she is on a school field trip and finds herself having to correct her teacher’s pronunciation of her name while also noting how the teachers don’t try to herd her together with the other children. The owl fact preceding this section is about the coloring of owl’s eyes, and how this corresponds to what time of day they hunt (black-eyed owls hunt at night). Anisa reflects on how she no longer hates that her eyes are black, even though she used to wish that her eyes were a lighter color like her father’s, which “people were always startled to see in a brown face.”

“But she can’t remember—though she often tries—whether she felt, for the first time, the awful electric prickle of the power in her chest, flooding out to her palms.”

The story continues to weave facts and plot together, revealing that Anisa grew up in Lebanon and lived there when Israel bombed the country. Her re-location to the UK resulted in a lot of othering by her new classmates, and in an anger and a sense of loss building inside of Anisa that she believes is a dangerous power that makes bad things happen when she thinks of them. This is another part of the story that I absolutely loved – seeing how this “power” manifested itself in Anisa, how it reached a breaking point, and how it slowly transformed into something else entirely by the end of the story.

Anisa’s anger and her guilt at that anger ebbs away the more time she spends at the owl centre. She meets a woman named Izzy who works there and handles one of the owls, Blodeuwedd. Izzy tells Anisa the Welsh story of Blodeuwedd, a woman made of flowers who turned into an owl, and this story is what pushes Anisa into learning more about Welsh mythology and magic – and as a result, more about herself. This combined with the friendship that starts to build with Izzy helps Anisa begin to blossom into something new.

There is so much I want to talk about with this story, so much I want to dissect, but I feel like talking about it more than I have will spoil the magic that it contains (and there is so much that is magical about this story!). El-Mohtar uses language in The Truth About Owls to create this magic, defining what words mean and what certain feelings are called and then tying them into the story and the characters in a way that is seemingly simple, but also extremely beautiful. For example, Anisa sometimes feels like a collection of random bits and things thrown together, and Izzy tells her that feeling can be described as a florilegium – a gathering of flowers. I can’t even begin to say how much I love how El-Mohtar takes Anisa’s doubts and fears and gives them a name, like a gathering of flowers, showing that having doubts and fears doesn’t have to be an ugly thing that you should hide.

The Truth About Owls is beautifully written, and I feel like I catch new details each time I go through it. The descriptions and the way Anisa’s changes and grows makes me want to re-read this story over and over (I’m already on my fourth reading of it!!!). So, thanks for recommending it, Emory! It has definitely taken its place on my list of favorite short stories! If you all are interested in reading it after hearing my review, it is available to read for free on Strange Horizons: http://strangehorizons.com/fiction/the-truth-about-owls/

My rating:

9 Random Owl Facts 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