Book Review: Song of the Crimson Flower

song of the crimson flowerSong of the Crimson Flower
by Julie C. Dao
Fantasy / Romance
272 pages
Published November 2019

This is a companion book to Julie Dao’s duology, after Forest of a Thousand Lanterns and Kingdom of the Blazing Phoenix. I really enjoyed the three books as a whole; the stories in each book were connected but standalones at the same time. In Forest of a Thousand Lanterns we had the rise of the evil queen from Snow White (but Asian) and Kingdom of the Blazing Phoenix was Snow White (but Asian). Kingdom could stand alone fine, but knowing the back story of Xifeng made the ending that much more heartbreaking. Similarly, Song of the Crimson Flower could also stand alone just fine, but knowing the background of Commander Wei made his small part in the story much more worthwhile, and lent more weight to the cameo by Empress Jade.

But Song of the Crimson Flower isn’t about Empress Jade, or Commander Wei. Song is about Lan, a nobleman’s daughter of no real import, and Bao, the poor orphan boy who loves her. Bao reveals an elaborate deception to Lan, and in her heartbreak, she is cruel to him and sends him away. He flees their village and happens across the river witch, who thinks he came to her for some malicious purpose, curses him, and sends him back to where he came from. Which happens to be Lan, who is already regretting her actions towards him. Lan agrees to help break his curse, and we’re off on the adventure.

The book is actually quite short – under 300 pages – and a LOT happens. Dao has a rare talent for description and action, together in a succinct way that makes it a lush tale that doesn’t FEEL like it’s hurried along, but is still over before you know it. (For an example of her beautiful prose, see my last Friday 56!) This is a lovely addition to Forest and Kingdom, and I’m curious if Dao plans to write more in this world or not.

From the cover of Song of the Crimson Flower:

WILL LOVE BREAK THE SPELL?

After cruelly rejecting Bao, the poor physician’s assistant who loves, her, Lan, a wealthy nobleman’s daughter, regrets her actions. So when she finds Bao’s prized flute floating in his boat near her house, she takes it into her care, not knowing that his soul has been trapped inside it by an evil witch, who cursed Bao, telling him that only love will set him free. Though Bao now despises her, Lan vows to make amends and help break the spell.

Together, the two travel across the continent, finding themselves in the presence of greatness in the forms of the Great Forest’s Empress Jade and Commander Wei. They journey with Wei, getting tangled in the webs of war, blood magic, and romance along the way. Will Lan and Bao begin to break the spell that’s been placed upon them? Or will they be doomed to live out their lives with black magic running through their veins?

In this fantastical tale of darkness and love, some magical bonds are stronger than blood.

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Book Review: Slay

slaySlay
by Brittney Morris
Young Adult
321 pages
Published September 2019

So I need to begin this review by saying this book was not meant for me. It was written for black teens. Black gamer teens, specifically, but it is 100% about being black, and all the beautiful variety that entails.

I have never seen so many Black issues combined in a single book, and done so beautifully and cohesively. From being the “Black friend” expected to speak for all black people, to dealing with racial bigotry in video games, to wondering if you’re “Black enough,” to refusing to call the cops on a black man, to misogynoir, to the occasional belief that if black women don’t date black men they hate their own race, to whether AAVE is respectable or not, to simply wanting your own space to be black in without being judged – Morris hits SO MANY POINTS and does it in a natural way.

My ONLY complaint about the book is that Kiera is somehow juggling being an honors student, tutoring friends, having a boyfriend, and somehow also hiding the secret that she’s one of two developers for an online game with hundreds of thousands of users? They’re aren’t enough hours in the day! I feel like the author doesn’t realize how much work goes into coding that kind of environment. So I had to suspend my disbelief when it came to that part of the story. Everything else, though, is just fantastic.

The video game itself is fascinating – it’s a VR-based game, so you slip on a headset, gloves, and socks, and walk around as your character, collecting items and using in-game coins to buy cards to duel with. The cards are inspired by all manner of Black culture, from Fufu, a staple food in many African countries, to “That One Auntie’s Potato Salad” and “Reclaiming My Time” (which makes you go REALLY FAST). Each duelist gets to pull, at random, six cards from their decks to duel with, and they have access to every card they personally have bought. Better cards cost more in-game money, or rarer in-game materials to make. It’s a really, really cool idea for a game, and I kind of want somebody to make it now.

The book does need a few content warnings – there’s emotional abuse and cyber-stalking. It’s pretty impactful when it happens.

I loved the book, but as I said, I am absolutely not its intended audience. For that, read this glowing review over at Black Girl Nerds.

I think the book is a good look at the pressure black people – especially black girls – are under. Because it’s never just one issue, even if books like to concentrate on one or a few. It’s always all of them, every day. We’re not always aware of that, as white people – and we should be.

From the cover of Slay:

By day, seventeen-year-old Kiera Johnson is an honors student, a math tutor, and one of the only Black kids at Jefferson Academy. But at home, she joins hundreds of thousands of Black gamers who duel worldwide as Nubian personas in the secret multiplayer online role-playing card game SLAY. No one knows Kiera is the game developer – not her friends, not her family, not even her boyfriend, Malcolm, who believes video games are a “distraction to keep the Black man from becoming great.”

But when a teen in Kansas City is murdered over a dispute in the SLAY world, news of the game reaches mainstream media, and SLAY is labeled a racist, exclusionist, violent hub for thugs and criminals. Even worse, Kiera faces potentially being sued for “antiwhite discrimination,” and an anonymous troll infiltrates the game, threatening to harass all the players and take over.

Driven to save the only world in which she can be herself, Kiera must preserve her secret identity and harness what it means to be unapologetically Black in a world intimidated by Blackness. But can she protect her game without losing herself in the process?

Book Review: Girl of Nightmares

girl of nightmaresGirl of Nightmares
by Kendare Blake
Young Adult / Horror
332 pages
Published 2012

This is the last of my spooky reads; it’s a little late because I had to get it through the statewide lending system instead of my county’s library, so it took a little longer to get to me. It’s the sequel to Anna Dressed In Blood, which I reviewed last week.

It is impossible to begin to discuss this book without a MAJOR SPOILER for the first book, so if you haven’t read Anna Dressed In Blood, and don’t want to be massively spoiled, STOP READING.

****SPOILERS FOR THE FIRST BOOK AHEAD****

(and minor spoilers for this one)

I normally hate to spoil earlier books in series, but you can’t talk about this book without knowing that Anna dies – again – sort of – at the end of the first book. In an act of self-sacrifice, she opens a door to hell and dives in. THIS book is about Cas mourning her and deciding to bring her back.

In the course of his quest to get Anna back, we learn about the origins of Cas’s dagger, what really happened to his father, and the mysterious cult behind it all. Like most cultists, they’re dicks.

There’s a lot in this book that could have been expanded on; some things were glossed over for ease of plot, I’m sure, but certain things at the end felt very anti-climactic. More time – ANY time – should have been spent with Cas’s father’s ghost, for instance. There was a lot of build up to it and then – nada. Basically I don’t like the ending of this book at ALL. It was good for most of it – and then I feel like it just fell apart and didn’t deliver on what it had been promising for the entire book.

These are the only two books I’ve read by Kendare Blake, but I have to wonder – does she make a habit of ripping her readers’ hearts out at the ends of her books? Or just this series? Because wow. Both of these books ended in very unexpected ways.

I guess, if you liked the first book, this is probably worthwhile for the history of the dagger alone, but be prepared for a disappointing ending. It’s strong right up until the last couple of chapters, it’s really too bad.

From the cover of Girl of Nightmares:

It’s been months since the ghost of Anna Korlov opened a door to Hell in her basement and disappeared into it, but ghost hunter Cas Lowood can’t move on. 

His friends remind him that Anna sacrificed herself so that Cas could live – not walk around half dead, pining for her. He knows they’re right, but in Cas’s eyes, no living girl he meets can compare to the dead girl he fell in love with.

Now he’s seeing Anna everywhere: sometimes when he’s asleep, and sometimes in waking nightmares. But something is very wrong . . . These aren’t just daydreams. Anna seems tortured, torn apart in new and ever more gruesome ways every time she appears.

Cas doesn’t know what happened to Anna when she disappeared into Hell, but he knows she doesn’t deserve whatever is happening to her now. Anna saved Cas more than once, and it’s time for him to return the favor.

Book Review: Ayesha At Last

ayesha at lastAyesha At Last
by Uzma Jalaluddin
Contemporary Fiction / Retelling / Romance
348 pages
Published June 2019

Ayesha at Last is yet another Pride and Prejudice retelling – I might need to make a book list of these! Pride and Prejudice through an Asian lens seems to be really popular, between the Pakistani Unmarriageable, the Indian-American Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors, and now this Muslim-American version. (The characters here are from a mix of countries.) The Muslim and Asian custom of arranged marriage fits well with the original plot of Pride and Prejudice, so it’s no real surprise.

Ayesha is a really strong character here, as she should be to be the stand in for Elizabeth Bennet. I disliked Hafsa; yes, she’s flighty like Lydia, but Lydia was never intentionally mean, and Hafsa is. There is no elder perfect sister in this version; Hafsa and Ayesha aren’t even sisters, but cousins, and Ayesha’s best friend is already in a long-term relationship. There’s a lot of parts of the original that are shaken up and mashed together in different ways in this retelling, but the core plot of “awkward rich dude keeps younger girl’s reputation intact and gets revenge on the man who would have ruined it while falling in love with the slightly-older spinster” is intact.

A lot of the action in this book takes place in the mosque; the mosque’s daily operations are a fairly big plot point in the book. I enjoyed the peek into the mosque-as-community-center. The other big aspects of this retelling are the family dynamics, from the Aunties brokering marriage offers to the adult children struggling with their elders’ relationships – in some cases, revering them as relationships goals, in some cases being completely in the dark as to what their marriages looked like at all! Ayesha’s grandparents are totally goals, but it takes most of the book to learn the mystery of her parents’ relationship.

This book lacked the lush descriptions of fashion that characterized Unmarriageable, and the mouth-watering descriptions of food that were the specialty of Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors, but I would still rank it somewhere between those two – above the latter but below Unmarriageable. All three are excellent, though.

So. Another excellent addition to the Pride and Prejudice pantheon, but very similar to both Unmarriageable and Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors. I do have to say the manner in which our Wickham is taken down is hilarious, and VERY modern. I laughed out loud and read much of the chapter aloud to my spouse to explain why I was so amused.

From the cover of Ayesha At Last:

Ayesha Shamsi has a lot going on. Her dreams of being a poet have been set aside for a teaching job so she can pay off her debts to her wealthy uncle. She lives with her boisterous Muslim family and is always being reminded that her flighty younger cousin, Hafsa, is close to rejecting her hundredth marriage proposal. Though Ayesha is lonely, she doesn’t want an arranged marriage. Then she meets Khalid, who is just as smart and handsome as he is conservative and judgmental. She is irritatingly attracted to someone who looks down on her choices, and dresses like he belongs in the seventh century.

When a surprise engagement is announced between Khalid and Hafsa, Ayesha is torn between how she feels about the straightforward Khalid and the unsettling new gossip she hears about his family. Looking into the rumors, she finds she has to deal with not only what she discovers about Khalid, but also the truth she realizes about herself.

Book Review: Meddling Kids

meddling kidsMeddling Kids
by Edgar Cantero
Young Adult / Horror
322 pages
Published 2017

Happy Halloween! Today I’m reviewing the spookiest book I’ve read this month. Probably my scariest book since Into The Drowning Deep! I knew I was in trouble with this one when I was sitting up late, reading in the dark on my Kindle, and my cat reached out and touched my bare foot with her toe-pads, and I jumped so hard I almost fell off the couch! I decided at that point that this was clearly a daytime read, and further that I should not be alone in the house while reading! I’m a wimp when it comes to spooky reads, though, so I’m sure this would not be that scary for someone who regularly reads horror.

As it is a horror book, it should probably go without saying that there are some triggering issues discussed – the biggest of which is probably suicide, but there’s also an insane asylum, sexual assault, a fair bit of alcohol, some adventures in VERY tight cave spaces, and Cthulhu-esque horrors. I might be forgetting some, but that’s the main gist.

OH. Andy is a tomboy lesbian, and a good example of being cis but rejecting gender roles, but the villain is coded as trans. I thought it was well done, but a trans person may think otherwise. So that probably deserves a warning as well.

So in Meddling Kids, we have a version of the Scooby gang. In this take, the Blyton Summer Detective Club operated when they were – thirteen-ish. They solved several small mysteries, then got the absolute bejeezus scared out of them on their last case. They “solved” it – but they all think things were unresolved, and they were all haunted with nightmares, flashbacks, and other traumatic symptoms. So thirteen years later, Andy, the tomboy, decides to get the gang back together to go really find out what happened in Blyton Hills. The gang, sans Peter, who killed himself years ago, fairly readily agrees, and back to Blyton Hills they go.

There are so many twists and turns from here on that I can’t say much. The adults in Blyton Hills are surprisingly helpful, in a way that they never would be in real life. We do get a fair amount of “wow this isn’t nearly as large as I remembered it from when I was a kid” which is pretty realistic, and amusing.

The book is very funny. It captures the spirit of Scooby Doo almost exactly, just injected with an extra dose of spooky. Despite being creeped out, I enjoyed it immensely, and would highly recommend it as a spooky read!

From the cover of Meddling Kids:

1990. The teen detectives once known as the Blyton Summer Detective Club (of Blyton Hills, a small mining town in the Zoinx River Valley in Oregon) are all grown up and haven’t seen each other since their fateful, final case in 1977. Andy, the tomboy, is twenty-five and on the run, wanted in at least two states. Kerri, one-time kid genius and budding biologist, is bartending in New York, working on a serious drinking problem. At least she’s got Tim, an excitable Weimaraner descended from the original canine member of the team. Nate, the horror nerd, has spent the last thirteen years in and out of mental health institutions, and currently resides in an asylum in Arhkam, Massachusetts. The only friend he still sees is Peter, the handsome jock turned movie star. The problem is, Peter’s been dead for years.

The time has come to uncover the source of their nightmares and return to where it all began in 1977. This time, it better not be a man in a mask. The real monsters are waiting.

Book Review: The Witch Who Came In From The Cold

witch who came in from the coldThe Witch Who Came In From The Cold (The Complete First Season)
by Lindsay Smith, Max Gladstone, Cassandra Rose Clarke, Ian Tregillis, and Michael Swanwick
Magical Realism / Historical Fiction
616 pages
Published 2016

The Witch Who Came In From The Cold was originally published as a serial novel, so it’s divided up into distinct episodes, written by different authors. It’s still very coherent as an entire novel, though. This is Season One; there’s a Season Two that I absolutely have to get my hands on. Because this was great.

So it’s Prague, 1970, height of the Cold War. There’s lots of KGB vs CIA secret squirrel stuff going on, but our main CIA spy discovers there’s a second struggle happening behind the scenes, between Ice and Fire, two sects of magic-wielding sorcerers. This makes things incredibly complicated, because Ice and Fire are philosophical groups; Ice likes the world the way it is, Fire wants to change it, even if that change comes at the cost of destroying the world. Because these differences are philosophical, they cross national loyalty lines. So a CIA agent and a KGB agent might find themselves on the same side of a magical problem, and risk their careers and lives to work with each other to solve it.

It’s a fascinating skewing of a the spy genre, and I really enjoyed it. Most of the problems center around Hosts – mortals who have (usually unknowingly) bonded with an elemental spirit, and so have incredible, earth-shattering powers. Fire wants to use these Hosts to change the world, even if it means bring about the Apocalypse. Ice wants to prevent this, and so struggles to keep Hosts out of the hands of Fire. And when a Host is also a key player in the struggle between Russia and the US, things get VERY complicated.

I really want to learn more about the Hosts and their powers; I’m hoping Season Two gets into that more. The magic is mostly charms and ley lines, with chants and Elemental spirits mixed in. I’m also hoping Season Two gets more into the conflict between Ice and Fire, and maybe explains how it started? I’d love to learn that.

All in all, it was a great book, and I need to track down the second.

From the cover of The Witch Who Came In From The Cold:

PRAGUE, 1970

Great powers eye each other across the Iron Curtain. Secret warriors wage secret wars – some with guns, some with words, and some with magic.

CIA officer Gabe Pritchard has a mission: to transport a critical defector back to the US. But Gabe also has a secret. On a job in Egypt he stumbled into what he thought was a Soviet cell meeting – but Soviet cells don’t have altars or sacrificial knives. Now Gabe has splitting headaches, like there’s something burrowing inside his skull, and finding help means joining a different, and much colder, war.

Tanya Morozova works for the other shop in town – at least, when her KGB bosses are watching. But the young intelligence officer has a second secrete life as an agent of the Ice, an ancient order of sorcerers fighting for control of elemental Hosts who have the power to change the world – or destroy it. As Tanya’s enemies catch a critical Host in their web, she’s running out of options. Gabe Pritchard may be her only chance – or the  bait of one last deadly trap.