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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 2, page 21

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

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

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

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

My rating: 8.5 Jade Necklaces out of 10

-Sara

Book Review: Pet by Akwaeke Emezi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Emory

Book Review: Spin the Dawn by Elizabeth Lim

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

Publisher : Knopf Books for Young Readers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My rating:

7 “Make it Work” Moments out of 10

ARC Review: Shatter the Sky by Rebecca Kim Wells

Genre : YA Fantasy
Publication Date : July 30, 2019
Publisher : Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers

Somehow, 2019 has gone from Hot Girl Summer to Hot Dragon Summer. I don’t know HOW it happened, but at the start of 2019 I very firmly Did Not Like Dragons and yet, here I am, seven months into the year, with 80% of the books I’ve read having involved a scaly flying fire-breather in some capacity. And honestly – I kind of love it. (Thank you NetGalley and Simon & Schuster for the ARC!).

Dragons lie at the heart of Rebecca Kim Wells’ debut novel Shatter the Sky. The story opens in the mountains of Ilvera with Maren and Kaia, childhood sweethearts. Ilvera, once the land of the dragons, has been reduced to a shadow of its former glory ever since the emperor invaded and stole the dragons away. Kaia, the more bold and daring of the two, has grand plans of leaving Ilvera to travel the world. Maren, less certain of adventures, is reluctantly resigned to follow the love of her life wherever she goes. All of this changes, however, when the emperor’s band of Aurati come to Ilvera and steal Kaia away. Maren, usually timid and cautious, decides to steal a dragon from the emperor and use it to break Kaia out of the mysterious city of Lumina where she is imprisoned.

I really and truly adored the world of this story – Wells does a brilliant job at making her universe seem real and lived-in. I particularly loved all the small details of Ilvera culture, especially the focus on music and its connection to dragons. I was also super intrigued by the idea of the Aromatory and the use of condensed scents to control and communicate with dragons. Unique details like this are sprinkled throughout the book, keeping me interested and wanting to learn more and more about the characters and the world they live in. I can’t wait to learn more about the Aurati and the emperor going forward – Wells just touches the surface of these subjects in this first book, and I know things are going to get wild in the sequel!

Maren’s journey and character arc was such a delight to read, and rightly my favorite part of this book. She went from timid and cautious to fierce and independent in the span of 300 pages – and I believed every moment of it. Watching her become more and more self-confident throughout the book was so beautiful (I particularly loved all the scenes at the dragon training academy!). I can’t wait to see how her character continues to develop and grow moving forward, especially in relation to other characters like Kaia and Sev!

Shatter the Sky is 100% the kind of book I wish I’d had in middle school and high school – it has passionate and resourceful young women, beautiful world-building, DRAGONS, and of course a totally amazing and earnest love story between two girls (and a possible love triangle with a handsome prince???). Basically, this is everything I ever wanted as a kid, and I’m so delighted that young readers have access to books like this now! If you love amazingly queer YA fantasy, pre-order it now – we need to support more fantastic diverse fiction like this!!

P.S. ALSO OK I don’t know if Rebecca Kim Wells is familiar with Avatar: The Last Airbender but there was a scene involving a cabbage merchant that had me laughing OUT LOUD for way longer than was necessary…….so if you’re an A:TLA fan, keep an eye out for that lol

10 Angry Bisexual Dragon-Stealing Teenagers out of 10

March Bookshelf

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

Emory:

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

Sara:

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

Image Credit: Goodreads

Two Sisters. Infinite Books.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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