Book Review: The Candle and The Flame

the candle and the flameThe Candle and The Flame
by Nafiza Azad
Young Adult / Fantasy
391 pages
Published May 2019

The setting of this book reminds me of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. Fatima survived the slaughter of the entire population of her city, and since then it has been repopulated by people from many countries, walks of life, cultures, and languages. The city is a complete melting pot, and I wish more had been made of that fact, honestly.

I wish more had been made of a lot of things in this book. I liked it – but it wasn’t as spectacular as I’d hoped. It’s possible it’s because I read it right after We Hunt the Flame, which any book would have trouble standing up to; it’s possible it’s because I was coming down with a cold when I read it and my brain wasn’t throwing itself into the story as much as it normally does. There’s a lot of possible reasons – but I just didn’t love it. It wasn’t bad. But it wasn’t great.

I mean, it’s djinns and humans working together – that’s usually my catnip – but I just couldn’t lose myself in this story. I was annoyed at the main character a LOT. For insisting on going by two names the entire book, which were a mouthful. For agreeing to things she should have fought. For fighting against things that were in her own best interests.

The changes that the description speaks of – that change Fatima in ways she can’t fathom – effectively turns her into a different person. Something about that sat very wrong with me. Her sister recognized she was no longer the sister she knew, but she wasn’t allowed to grieve. That bothered me quite a lot. I can’t explain exactly why without spoiling plot, but the book didn’t treat it like an issue, and it definitely was.

Honestly, I’d skip this one and go read We Hunt The Flame or Rebel of the Sands instead.

From the cover of The Candle and The Flame:

A GIRL WITH THE FIRE OF A DJINNI. A CITY SCARRED BY VIOLENCE.

Fatima lives in the city of Noor, a thriving stop along the Silk Road. There the music of myriad languages fills the air, and people of all faiths thread their lives together. However, the city bears scars of its recent past, when the chaotic tribe of Shayateen Djinn slaughtered its entire population – except for Fatima and two other humans. Now rules by a new maharajah, Noor is protected from the Shayateen by the Ifrit, Djinn of order and reason, and by their commander, Zulfikar.

But when one of the most potent of the Ifrit dies, trouble brews and Fatima is changed in ways she cannot fathom, ways that scare even those who love her. Oud in hand, Fatima is drawn into the intrigues of the maharajah and his sister, the affairs of Zulfikar and the Djinn, and the dangers of a magical battlefield.

Nafiza Azad weaves an immersive tale of extraordinary magic and the importance of names; fiercely independent women; enticing food; and, perhaps most importantly, the work for harmony within a city of a thousand religions, cultures, languages, and cadences. 

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Book Review: With The Fire On High

with the fire on highWith The Fire On High
by Elizabeth Acevedo
Young Adult / Contemporary Fiction
388 pages
Published May 2019

With this book, Elizabeth Acevedo has solidified her position as one of my must-read authors. The Poet X was EXCELLENT, and this one is every bit as good, which is awesome, considering the wildly different formats of the two books. The Poet X was a novel in poem form, being the collected poems of a teenage girl. This book is a more traditional novel, written in prose. It loses none of the lyrical, enchanting quality of Acevedo’s writing, however.

With The Fire On High centers on Emoni Santiago, a teenage mother struggling to graduate from high school on time. When a culinary arts elective is offered during her senior year of school, she takes it despite feeling like she should be spending her energy on her daughter’s future instead of realizing her own dreams. The elective opens up an entire world for her, however, taking her from whipping up magic alone in her own kitchen to being recognized by talented chefs as having something special. The added hours spent on cooking begin to affect her other responsibilities, however, and Emoni struggles to balance everything in her life, a fight that is very nearly upended by the new, very cute boy who just transferred to her school.

Emoni deals admirably with the vast responsibilities of being a parent, the complications of her own somewhat unusual home life (she’s been raised by her grandmother after her mother’s death and her father’s absence), and the pressures of high school. Especially a school where she spent freshman year pregnant. Rather luckily, her daughter’s father goes to a different school, so at least she doesn’t have to deal with him every day.

Similar to The Poet X, the book deals with the intersection of black American culture and Puerto Rican culture, a combination I’ve been seeing more and more in Young Adult. (Well, The Poet X was Dominican, but they have very similar worries, mostly revolving around feeling “not black enough.”)

I loved Emoni, I loved Malachi (the cute transfer student), I loved Abuela and Baby Girl/Emma. I even didn’t mind Tyrone too much. For being a player, he was trying to do right by his daughter. Acevedo has such a talent for characters. Angelica (Emoni’s best friend) and her girlfriend were a delight, too.

If you see a book by Elizabeth Acevedo, pick it up. You won’t be disappointed. I can’t wait to pick up her next book, which appears to be another novel in verse called Clap When You Land, due out next year!

From the cover of With The Fire On High:

Ever since she got pregnant freshman year, Emoni Santiago’s life has been about making the tough decisions, doing what has to be done for her daughter and her abuela. The one place she can let all that go is in the kitchen. There, she lets her hands tell her what to cook, listening to her intuition and adding a little something magical every time, turning her food into straight-up goodness.

Even though she’s always dreamed of working in a kitchen after she graduates, Emoni knows that it’s not worth her time to pursue the impossible. Yet despite the rules she’s made for her life – and everyone else’s rules, which she refuses to play by – once Emoni starts cooking, her only choice is to let her talent break free.

From the author of National Book Award winner The Poet X comes a dazzling story of a girl with talent, pride, and a drive to create that keeps her fire burning bright.

Book Review: We Hunt The Flame

we hunt the flameWe Hunt The Flame
by Hafsah Faizal
Young Adult/Fantasy
472 pages
Published May 2019

This is the first book in a planned duology, and I NEED THE SECOND ONE RIGHT NOW. Zafira is a firecracker, and Nasir is a precious gumdrop, and Altair is a mystery, while I can’t help but read Kifah as Valkyrie from Avengers. (Seriously, if this ever gets made into a movie and Tessa Thompson DOESN’T get cast as Kifah, I’ll be upset.)

These characters, and this setting, and this worldbuilding, and this plot…Faizal has blown me away with this book. There are twists I saw coming, and some I did not, so I’m not going to go into much detail about the plot, but Zafira and a few other people are searching for a magical artifact to restore magic to their kingdom, after it was locked away many years ago. I don’t remember exactly how long it’s been; Zafira can’t remember having magic, but she does mention at one point that her mother was a healer. So sometime during her mother’s lifetime? The kingdom has been cursed in the absence of magic, different curses for the different districts, and the Arz is a magical forest encroaching on the borders. Almost no one who goes into the Arz ever comes out again, so it’s incredibly dangerous for anyone who isn’t Zafira. Zafira has the unique ability to always know which direction she needs to go to reach her goal, and it’s this ability that brings her to the attention of the Silver Witch, who sets her on the path to find the artifact. The artifact is, of course, on the enchanted island that serves as a prison for all the magical objects and creatures, so Zafira and her companions face all kinds of unknown dangers.

I really enjoyed basically everything about this book. There was character development, a touch of romance, a team learning to work as a team, secrets, magic, ancient evils, trauma and emotional work…just a lot. (Also enemies-to-lovers, if you’re into that.) It is a brilliant epic fantasy, and I cannot WAIT for the second book. I need to know what happens! (It doesn’t end on a cliffhanger, exactly, but things are definitely NOT. RESOLVED.)

From the cover of We Hunt The Flame:

PEOPLE LIVED BECAUSE SHE KILLED.

PEOPLE DIED BECAUSE HE LIVED.

Zafira is the Hunter, disguising herself as a man when she braves the cursed forest of the Arz to feed her people. Nasir is the Prince of Death, assassinating those foolish enough to defy his autocratic father, the sultan. If Zafira is exposed as a girl, all of her achievements will be rejected; if Nasir displays his compassion, his father will punish him in the most brutal of ways. Both Zafira and Nasir are legends in the kingdom of Arawiya – but neither wants to be.

War is brewing, and the Arz sweeps closer with each passing day, engulfing the land in shadow. While Zafira embarks on a quest to uncover a lost artifact that can restore magic to her suffering world and stop the Arz, Nasir is sent by the sultan on a similar mission: retrieve the artifact and kill the Hunter. But an ancient evil stirs as their journey unfolds – and the prize they seek may pose a threat greater than either can imagine.

Set in a richly detailed world inspired by ancient Arabia, We Hunt The Flame is a gripping debut of discovery, conquering fear, and taking identity into your own hands.

Book Review: Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors

pride prejudice and other flavorsPride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors
by Sonali Dev
Contemporary Fiction / Retelling
481 pages
Published May 2019

This is yet another Pride and Prejudice retelling, as evidenced by the title. It seems to be a popular thing to do of late, but they’ve all been very good, so I’m not complaining! This one, more than the others, really deconstructed the story and put it all back together in a unique way.

Probably the biggest change here is that while Darcy is still a man with a younger sister and no other family, the roles of the two families have been switched. Darcy is the poor one, and Trisha (Lizzie Bennett) is the rich one. Wickham still plays the villain, though in a slightly different manner, and Darcy is not the friend of Trisha/Lizzie’s elder sister’s beau. (Though the elder sister does still have romantic problems!)

I really liked the swapped roles; it made for a radically different plotline than the story it’s based on. What I did not like is the lack of sparks between DJ/Darcy and Trisha. They butted heads like they should, but unlike the original and most of the retellings, I didn’t feel the underlying sexual tension. Trisha seemed more enamored of DJ’s cooking than of DJ, and I don’t know what DJ saw in Trisha at ALL.

The author also kept pulling me out of my immersion in the story with her repeated use of “XXXX” was what I WANTED to say, but of course I didn’t say it, instead I simply replied “YYYY.” Just – over and over, with multiple characters. I appreciate you’re trying to show us what they’re thinking vs. what they’re saying, but change it up.

I did enjoy the book overall; I love seeing other cultures take on this trope, from the Pakistani Unmarriageable to the Brooklyn African-American Pride, to this mix of Indian-American and British-Indian. I think Unmarriageable was my favorite of these three, but it really was excellent.

So this was good, but not outstanding.

From the cover of Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors:

It is a truth universally acknowledged that only in an overachieving Indian American family can a genius daughter be considered a black sheep.

Dr. Trisha Raje is San Francisco’s most acclaimed neurosurgeon. But that’s not enough for the Rajes,  her influential immigrant family, who have achieved power by making their own nonnegotiable rules:

  • Never trust an outsider
  • Never do anything to jeopardize your brother’s political aspirations
  • And never, ever defy your family

Trisha is guilty of breaking all three rules. But now she has a chance to redeem herself. So long as she doesn’t repeat her old mistakes.

Up-and-coming chef DJ Caine has known people like Trisha before, people who judge him by his rough beginnings and who place pedigree above character. He needs the lucrative job the Rajes offer him, but he values his pride too much to indulge Trisha’s arrogance. And then he discovers that she’s the only surgeon who can save his sister’s life.

As the two clash, their assumptions crumble like the spun sugar on one of DJ’s stunning desserts. But before they can savor the future, they need to reckon with the past . . . .

A family trying to build a home in a new land.
A man who has never felt at home anywhere.
And a choice to be made between the two.

Book Review: The Tiger At Midnight

tiger at midnightThe Tiger At Midnight
by Swati Teerdhala
Young Adult / Fantasy
484 pages
Published April 2019

I’m posting this during AnthroCon; I thought it was fitting given the nature of the royal family’s magic; they can turn into humanoid animals. Or complete animals. I’m not actually completely clear on that point. It’s not explored much in this volume, but I think it will be in the next book.

The Tiger At Midnight as the first in a fantasy trilogy, set in two countries. The two countries were founded by two fraternal twins. They bound themselves to the land, and that blood bond has to be renewed every… year? some period of time – by the rulers of the two countries – a woman from one royal family, and a man from the other. In this manner the countries have been prosperous for centuries, until about fifteen years before this book begins. There was a coup against the queendom. The royal family was slaughtered, and the military has propped up a king since then. In the ensuing years, that country has begun to deteriorate; there have been droughts, animal attacks, forests have gotten darker and more dangerous – the bond is dying with no royal blood to sustain it. The other country can only sustain it so long before it will start affecting them, too.

So this is the setting. There’s rumors of a lost princess, but how much of that is truth and how much is foolish hope is yet to be determined. Into this strife we have Esha, a rebel also known as The Viper. The Viper is a mythical assassin who everyone thinks is a man, mostly because the imposter king disenfranchised his country’s women, so obviously someone so accomplished must be a man. Kunal is a soldier raised by his uncle who can’t remember his father at all, and only knows that his mother was one of the queen’s ladies-in-waiting who died in the coup. Kunal, the only one who realizes The Viper is a woman, winds up chasing her across the country, and the cat-and-mouse style of their chase makes up most of the book and is incredibly entertaining. The two are well-matched in skills and wits, and the way they spark off each other is great. Every time he catches up to Esha, she pokes another hole in his belief system, and Kunal begins to see how much the soldiers have been lied to about what is happening out in the country they are fighting for.

I really enjoyed the worldbuilding here, and I really hope the glimpse we saw of the royal family’s magic gets expanded on in the rest of the trilogy. It is otherwise a pretty low-magic world; there are no wizards or spells or enchantments or anything. The dichotomy of the two kingdoms is interesting, and I can’t wait to see if they can salvage the bond to the land somehow, or reforge it. But the next book isn’t due out until 2020 and doesn’t even have a title yet!

This is a great action-oriented Young Adult light fantasy book, with a touch of romance, politics, and just a pinch of magic. Highly recommended!

From the cover of The Tiger At Midnight:

A BROKEN BOND. A DYING LAND. A CAT AND MOUSE GAME THAT CAN ONLY END IN BLOODSHED.

ESHA is a legend, but no one knows. It’s only in the shadows that she moonlights as the Viper, the rebels’ highly skilled assassin. She’s devoted her life to avenging what she lost in the royal coup, and now she’s been tasked with her most important mission to date: taking down the ruthless General Hotha.

KUNAL has been a soldier since childhood, training morning and night to uphold the power of King Vardaan. His uncle, the general, has ensured that Kunal never strays from the path – even as a part of Kunal longs to join the outside world, which as been growing only more volatile. 

Then Esha’s and Kunal’s paths cross – and an unimaginable chain of events unfolds. Both the Viper and the soldier think they’re calling the shots, but they’re not the only players moving the pieces. As the  bonds that hold their land in order break down and the sins of the past meet the promise of a new future, both rebel and soldier must make unforgivable choices. 

Drawing inspiration from ancient Indian history and Hindu mythology, the first book in Swati Teerdhala’s debut fantasy trilogy captivates with electric romance, stunning action, and the fierce bonds that hold people together – and drive them apart.

Book Review: Superman: Dawnbreaker

superman dawnbreakerSuperman: Dawnbreaker
by Matt De La Peña
Young Adult / Superhero
288 pages
Published March 2019

I mulled over which book to review today – it’s the Fourth of July, or Independence Day if you’re in the United States. I think the only superhero more all-American than Superman would be Captain America, but it’s Superman that I recently read! This is the fourth in the DC Icons series, all of which I have now reviewed. It started with Wonder Woman, then moved through Batman and Catwoman before culminating in Superman. All four books have been written by popular young adult authors, from Leigh Bardugo to Marie Lu to Sarah J. Maas. Superman went to Matt De La Peña, who I had not actually heard of before. He apparently wrote a book called Ball Don’t Lie that was made into a movie in 2011, and another book titled Mexican Whiteboy. What I’m trying to say is that De La Peña’s Hispanic background makes him a perfect choice for this book. Because whatever else can be said about Superman, his is the ultimate immigrant story.

And this book not only tells Superman’s immigrant story, but deals heavily with immigrant issues around him as well. Smallville is deliberating a new law that is basically stop-and-frisk; Hispanic people are going missing; undocumented immigrants are getting beaten in the streets. Clark is rightly horrified, and vows to get to the bottom of the disappearances.

The book is very timely, and I like what it says about one of our country’s greatest fictional heroes. It reminds me of Justice League: Gods and Monsters, in which Superman is the son of General Zod, and was raised by illegal Mexican immigrants instead of the all-American Kents. (It’s a fantastic animated movie, and well worth watching.)

Lex Luthor makes an appearance, and for a while I thought Clark’s best friend, Lana, was a stand-in for Lois, but Lois is mentioned ever-so-briefly late in the book.

This is the fourth and final book in the DC Icons series, and taken as a whole, they’re quite good. I wish they were a little more entwined with one another, but I understand that would be difficult with four different authors. But they are a very neat re-work of the four characters’ origin stories.

From the cover of Superman: Dawnbreaker:

HIS POWER IS BEYOND IMAGINING.

Clark Kent has always been faster, stronger – better – than everyone around him. But he wasn’t raised to show off, and drawing attention to himself could be dangerous. Plus, it’s not like he’s earned his powers . . . yet.

BUT POWER COMES WITH A PRICE.

Lately it’s becoming more difficult to hold back and keep his heroics in the shadows. When Clark follows the sound of a girl crying, he comes across Gloria Alvarez and learns that a dark secret lurks in Smallville. Turns out, Clark’s not the only one hiding something. Teaming up with his best friend, Lana Lang, he throws himself into the pursuit of the truth. What evil lies below the surface of his small town? And what will it cost Clark to face the truth about his past as he steps into the light to become the future Man of Steel?

BEFORE HE CAN SAVE THE WORLD, HE MUST SAVE SMALLVILLE.