Book Review: The Star-Touched Queen

the star-touched queenThe Star-Touched Queen
by Roshani Chokshi
Young Adult/Fantasy/Romance
342 pages
Published 2016

I’ve had this on my TBR shelf for quite a while, but only got around to reading it because the library finally really wants it back. Oops! And now I’m regretting not reading it sooner because it is OH MY GOD FANTASTIC. This is one of those books that’s going to be hard to talk about without giving things away about the plot, but I’m going to try. Maya is the main character, a princess with a horoscope full of doom for whoever marries her.

She’s in for a surprise when she does marry, though, as she is whisked away from her father’s kingdom to a palace full of hidden doors and a husband who is more than he seems. She’s quickly embroiled in a mystery to find out not only the secrets her husband’s kingdom is hiding, but the secrets behind her own history.

I absolutely love reading non-western fantasy because there are NEW fantasy elements to discover. This book makes heavy use of reincarnation, which is not a common trope in western fantasy. Not reincarnation as karma, anyway. There is fate, and horoscopes, and choosing your own destiny despite those things, and spirit worlds, and OH IT’S JUST SO GOOD.

The second book, about Maya’s sister, came out last March, so I need to read that too.  The same author has written another book set in Paris, The Gilded Wolves, which came out in January and immediately hit the bestseller list. I’m glad, this author is fantastic. I’m not sure I’ll read it though, as the description doesn’t really intrigue me. But The Star-Touched Queen and its sequel, A Crown of Wishes – these are just my cup of tea!

From the cover of The Star-Touched Queen:

FATE AND FORTUNE. POWER AND PASSION. WHAT DOES IT TAKE TO BE THE QUEEN OF A KINGDOM WHEN YOU’RE ONLY SEVENTEEN?

Maya is cursed. With a horoscope that promises a marriage of death and destruction, she has earned only the scorn and fear of her father’s kingdom. While Maya is content to follow more scholarly pursuits, her whole world is torn apart when her father, the Raja, arranges a wedding of political convenience to quell outside rebellions. Soon Maya becomes the queen of Akaran and wife of Amar. Neither roles are what she expected: As Akaran’s queen, she finds her voice and her power. As Amar’s wife, she finds something else entirely: Compassion. Protection. Desire . . .

But Akaran has its own secrets – thousands of locked doors, gardens of glass, and a tree that bears memories instead of fruit. Soon, Maya suspects her life is in danger. Yet who, besides her husband, can she trust? With the fate of the human and Otherworldly realms hanging in the balance, Maya must unravel an ancient mystery that spans reincarnated lives to save those she loves the most . . . including herself.

A lush and vivid story that is steeped in Indian folklore and mythology, The Star-Touched Queen is a novel that no reader will soon forget.

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Book Review: Kingdom of the Blazing Phoenix

kingdom of the blazing phoenixKingdom of the Blazing Phoenix
by Julie C. Dao
Young Adult/Fantasy/Fairy Tale Retelling
356 pages
Published November 2018

This is the sequel to Forest of a Thousand Lanterns, and where Forest was about the rise of the Empress – or the evil stepmother from Snow White – this book is solidly about Snow White. Or Jade, in this case. I enjoyed Forest, but Kingdom is spectacular! It’s hard to like Xifeng in Forest, where she continually makes the decisions that drag her deeper into the evil god’s clutches. Jade, however, is sweet and determined and loyal and good. She is easy to love, and worthy of it. We see a few characters from the first book coming back to help Jade in her quest, and I loved seeing how they had grown in the intervening years.

I do feel like the romantic storyline was kind of shoehorned in. Jade falls in love with no real reason for it. We don’t see what’s so fantastic about her love interest, he isn’t shown as doing anything outstanding, he’s just kind of there and the first male person she’s spent time with. I get why he fell in love with Jade, Jade is amazing. He’s just so bland. So that felt a little odd.

I did enjoy the magic cloak and the quest and the final battle. The scene between Ming and Xifeng at the end was absolutely heartbreaking and made me love Ming even more. He might be my favorite character from both books.

Bottom line, this is an excellent sequel to Forest of a Thousand Lanterns, and I think it’s better than the first book. You could probably read it without reading Forest, but some of the reveals won’t mean nearly as much, and you’ll miss all the background that makes Xifeng so interesting.

From the cover of Kingdom of the Blazing Phoenix:

Princess Jade has grown up in exile, hidden away in a monastery, while her stepmother, the ruthless Xifeng, rules as Empress of Feng Lu. But the empire is in distress, and its people are sinking into poverty and despair. Even though Jade doesn’t want the crown, she knows she is the only one who can dethrone the Empress and set the world right.

Ready to reclaim her place as rightful heir, Jade embarks on a quest to raise the Dragon Lords and defeat Xifeng and the Serpent God once and for all. But will the same darkness that took Xifeng take Jade, too? Or will she find the strength within to save herself, her friends, and her empire?

This follow-up to Forest of a Thousand Lanterns brings to a close Xifeng’s dazzling saga and gives readers a satisfying ending to the story that gripped their hearts from its very beginning.

Book Review: Empress Of All Seasons

empress of all seasonsEmpress Of All Seasons
by Emiko Jean
Young Adult/Fantasy
375 pages
Published November 2018

I am so torn on this book. I’m really tired of the trope of “batch of girls competing to win a dude” that seems to be so popular lately. But this is an Asian take on the trope, so I don’t want to come down too hard on it for that. I attended a panel at the last Baltimore Book Festival about old tropes being resurrected by minority authors, and I agree that just because a trope might seem old and played out, putting a new spin on it with minority characters and themes deserves its own time. That is definitely valid. But they were talking about tropes like vampires and zombies and retold classics like Pride and Prejudice and Alice in Wonderland. I’m not sure the trope of “girls competing to win a dude” deserves more time in any form. (To be fair, I kind of equally hate guys competing to win the hand of the princess. No one should be obligated to marry someone just because they won an arbitrary competition. There are all kinds of consent issues there.)

Despite that, I really enjoyed this book. I loved the characters, the variety of yõkai, the bits of myth interspersed throughout the book. I do question Akira being trained to be a master of shuriken in a matter of days – like, really? And I wish instead of summarizing a ton in the epilogue, she’d just written a sequel, because I think there’s enough material to do it. You’d think, with so much I didn’t like about the book, that my overall opinion would be negative – but it’s not. Even with all of those bad points, this book was enthralling and kept me reading right to the end.

Empress of all Seasons is a great Japanese-inspired fantasy that relies a little too much on old tropes. Set your inner critic to the side and just enjoy the ride, because the story is fantastic.

Empress of all Seasons also hits the “trope” theme for Year of the Asian’s February challenge!

From the cover of Empress Of All Seasons:

IN A PALACE OF ILLUSIONS, NOTHING IS WHAT IT SEEMS.

Each generation, a competition is held to find the next empress of Honoku. The rules are simple. Survive the palace’s enchanted seasonal rooms. Conquer Winter, Spring, Summer, and Fall. Marry the prince. All are eligible to compete – all except yõkai, supernatural monsters and spirits whom the human emperor is determined to enslave and destroy.

Mari has spent her life training to become empress. Winning should be easy. And it would be, if she weren’t hiding a dangerous secret. Mari is a yõkai with the ability to transform into a terrifying monster. If discovered, her life will be forfeit. As she struggles to keep her true identity hidden, Mari’s fate collides with that of Taro, the prince who has no desire to inherit the imperial throne, and Akira, a half-human, half-yõkai outcast. Torn between duty and love, loyalty and betrayal, vengeance and forgiveness, the choices of Mari, Taro, and Akira will decide the fate of Honoku in this beautifully written, edge-of-your-seat fantasy.

Book Review: A River of Stars

river of starsA River of Stars
by Vanessa Hua
Contemporary Fiction
292 pages
Published August 2018

I’ve said many times I don’t tend to like contemporary fiction, but for all that, I’ve been reading a decent amount of it. And liking some of it. In trying to read inclusively, I’ve come across books like this one and Number One Chinese Restaurant. Both books were on my summer TBR/beach read list, but having read them, I’m not sure I’d classify them as such. They are both quite good, though!

Scarlett falls in love and gets pregnant by her boss, the owner of the factory she works in, and he sends her to the US to give birth so their son will have citizenship. Which is a little shady, but I can totally believe it’s done among wealthier families. She’s one of only two unwed mothers at the secret maternity home in LA – the rest are wealthy wives there to get the same benefits for their children. When one woman goes into labor unexpectedly, Scarlett turns out to be one of the few people in the home that know how to drive, and is charged with driving the laboring mother to the hospital. After dropping her and the head of the house off, she simply drives away in the van.

Her first stop is McDonald’s, which is quite believable, from what I understand. (I’ve never been pregnant myself, but I’ve seen the cravings of my friends!) On her way back to the van from the restaurant, she finds Daisy, the other unwed mom-to-be, getting out of the van. The two women make peace with each other and wind up heading for San Francisco, where they get an apartment in Chinatown.

In Chinatown, they dodge private investigators, scratch together rent money for the tiny room they share, and take care of each other through delivery and raising their newborns. Daisy was born in the US, but Scarlett lives in fear of being deported.

The book is a fascinating look at the perils immigrants face, and especially immigrant women, who don’t always move of their own free will but then have to make the most of their situations while taking care of children and loved ones.

The ending seemed a little too…neat. I actually liked the way things were going before the last couple of chapters, even if the way it ends is a happier ending for the two women. I still enjoyed it, but I think it would have been more interesting to end the book in a slightly different way. That’s about all I can say without spoiling things!

From the cover of A River of Stars:

Holed up with other mothers-to-be in a secret maternity home in Los Angeles, Scarlett Chen is far from her native China, where she worked in a factory and fell in love with the owner, Boss Yeung. Now she’s carrying his baby. Already married with three daughters, Boss Yeung is overjoyed because the doctors have confirmed that he will finally have the son he always wanted. To ensure that his child has every advantage, Boss Yeung has shipped Scarlett off to give birth on American soil. U.S. citizenship will open doors for their little prince.

As Scarlett awaits the baby’s arrival, she chokes down bitter medicinal stews and spars with her imperious housemates. The only one who fits in even less is Daisy, a spirited teenager and fellow unwed mother who is being kept apart from her American boyfriend.

Then a new sonogram of Scarlett’s baby reveals the unexpected. Panicked, she escapes by hijacking a van – only to discover that she has a stowaway: Daisy, who intends to track down the father of her child. The two flee to San Francisco’s bustling Chinatown, where Scarlett will join countless immigrants desperately trying to seize their piece of the American dream. What Scarlett doesn’t know is that her baby’s father is not far behind her.

A River of Stars is an entertaining, wildly unpredictable adventure, told with empathy and wit by an author the San Francisco Chronicle says “has a deep understanding of the pressure of submerged emotions and polite, face-saving deceptions.” It’s a vivid examination of home and belonging, and a moving portrayal of a woman determined to build her own future.

Book Review: The Poppy War

poppy warThe Poppy War
by R. F. Kuang
Asian Military Fantasy
530 pages
Published May 2018

Have you ever read a book that is so good you don’t know what to say about it? It’s taken me almost two weeks to even attempt this review because I just don’t know what to write. The Poppy War is your typical story of downtrodden, disadvantaged girl testing into the highest school in the land and gaining the opportunities and privileges that come with that, but then the book takes a sharp twist into war. Rin doesn’t exactly get the most typical of educations, even before war breaks out. And when war breaks out, the school is disbanded, the students getting flung all over the land to where the government thinks they will help the most. For Rin, that’s joining The Cike. The Bizarre Children. The division of people who can do….things. Things the rest of the military isn’t comfortable with. The Cike can call on the powers of gods, and doing so makes them not-quite-untouchables. Rin, who was never short on resentment before this, grows ever more resentful.

Rin is an interesting character; she’s been hard done by, yes, but she makes decisions that only make things harder on herself. So I feel for her a little, but at the same time, girl. Check yourself. What’s been done to you doesn’t justify what you plan to do to others. I am hoping she comes to see that in the next book, because her rage and need for vengeance definitely gets the best of her in this one.

The Poppy War is an excellently written blend of military fantasy, epic fantasy, and coming-of-age novel. Unlike some books, where the military aspect far overshadows the characters, leaving them flat, Poppy War doesn’t ignore the characters to focus on the bigger picture. It’s a very good mix of both close-up focus on characters, fights, battles, and zoomed-out strategy and war. It’s probably the best military fantasy I’ve read, and the Asian aspect of it makes it even better. So much military fantasy is western European, or Steampunk, or both. I’ve been finding more and more Asian and African fantasy, and I am SO HERE FOR IT. I need to try to find more South American fantasy. I know it’s out there.

I will definitely be watching for the next book in this series, because it’s awesome.

From the cover of The Poppy War:

She is a peasant.
She is a student.
She is a soldier.
She is a goddess.

When Rin aced the Keju – the Empire-wide test to find the most talented youth to study at the academies – it was a shock to everyone: to the test officials, who couldn’t believe a war orphan from Rooster Province could pass without cheating; to Rin’s guardians, who always thought they’d be able to marry Rin off to further their criminal enterprise; and to Rin herself, who realized she was now finally free of the servitude and despair that had made up her daily existence. That she got into Sinegard – the most elite military school in the Nikara Empire – was even more surprising.

But surprises aren’t always good.

Being a dark-skinned peasant girl from the south is not an easy thing at Sinegard. Rin is targeted from the outset by rival classmates because of her color, poverty, and gender. Driven to desperation, she discovers she possesses a lethal, unearthly power – an aptitude for the nearly mythical art of shamanism. Exploring the depths of her gift with the help of a seemingly insane teacher and psychoactive substances, Rin learns that gods long thought dead are very much alive – and that mastering control over her powers could mean more than just surviving school.

For even though the Nikara Empire is at peace, the Federation of Mugen still lurks across a narrow sea. The militarily advanced Federation occupied the Nikara Empire for decades after the First Poppy War, and only barely lost the continent in the Second. And while most of the people in the Empire would rather forget their painful history, a few are aware that a Third Poppy War is just a spark away.

Rin’s shamanic powers may be the only way to save her people. But as she finds out more about the god who has chosen her, the vengeful Phoenix, she fears that winning the war may cost her her humanity.

And it may already be too late.

Book Review: A Thousand Beginnings and Endings

a thousand beginnings and endingsA Thousand Beginnings and Endings
Edited by Ellen Oh and Elsie Chapman
Retold Asian Mythology Anthology
328 pages
Published June 2018

This is one of the many new releases I have been eagerly awaiting from the library, and it did not disappoint! There are fifteen stories here, reimagining Asian myths, legends, and fairytales. Each story has an author’s note following it, giving a little bit of background information on the inspiration for the story. I didn’t realize until reading the author bios in the back of the book that three of the authors (including the two editors) are from the We Need Diverse Books team, which is one of my favorite book twitters! (@diversebooks) Their book recommendations are always fantastic. One of the editors is actually local to me, so that’s pretty neat, too!

I think my favorite stories were the last two in the book – Eyes Like Candlelight (by Julie Kagawa), about a Kitsune falling in love with a mortal, and The Crimson Cloak (Cindy Pon), about a goddess falling in love with a mortal. Stories range from Japanese mythology (Eyes Like Candlelight) to Filipino, Hmong, and Punjabi-inspired tales. The diversity in both culture, style, and time period of these tales is fantastic. I really enjoy Asian mythology, and I love seeing more and more books exploring it. (Forest of a Thousand Lanterns was another semi-recent one.)

Because it’s a bunch of short stories, it’s an easy book to take in small bites – a story here, a story there. I like mixing short story collections in with my longer reads; they make for nice breaks. I highly recommend this book, and I’ll be looking up the authors to find some of their other works! (That’s another reason I love short story collections – they introduce me to authors I might not otherwise read!)

From the cover of A Thousand Beginnings and Endings:

Star-crossed lovers. Meddling immortals. Feigned identities. Dire warnings.

These are the stuff of myth and legend. Add a dangerous smile, a game that pulls players out of one world and into another, a ghost town, a never-ending war, a night of dancing . . . and this collection of inspired and original retellings is only just beginning. Fifteen acclaimed authors reimagine tales from their own East and South Asian cultures. Classic epics, lush fantasy, inventive science fiction, sparkling contemporary – there is a story here for every reader to devour.

But beware . . . not every tale has a happy ending.