Book Review: The Girl King

the girl kingThe Girl King
by Mimi Yu
Young Adult/Fantasy
488 pages
Published January 2019

This is one of those books that I realized, far too late, wasn’t a standalone novel. Far too few pages left for everything that still needs to be wrapped up, and yep. Only the first book. I’m not sure why I hadn’t realized it wasn’t a standalone. The second book, Empress of Flames, isn’t due out until early 2020, which is far too long to wait! I need to know what happens to these characters!

The Girl King is mainly the story of Lu, eldest daughter of the Emperor of the First Flame. She is expecting to be named heir, and when she isn’t and her cousin (and bully) Set is named instead, she decides not to placidly accept the injustice. She runs away from court, intending to find allies to help her retake the throne. Lu is single-minded and selfish. She doesn’t really pay attention to how her actions affect other people – she doesn’t think twice about leaving her younger, more timid sister to face the court, their mother, and Set on her own. I know that we’re supposed to be cheering for Lu in this book, but in D&D terms, she’s a paladin. She might be right. She’s not very likable. I had far more sympathy for Min, her sister.

Actually, thinking back on it, almost none of these characters did much thinking about how their actions affect other people. The leader of the refugee Gifted did, she had her people to think about. And the triad of rulers of the mythical city were looking out for their people. But Lu really only thinks of herself. Set definitely only thinks about himself. Min is set up to be more sympathetic but is stuck inside her own head. Nok is too consumed with his own private pity party to think much about other people. I love Nok, don’t get me wrong, he was probably my favorite character, but he doesn’t think much about other people other than his mentor.

I feel like it’s reasonable to have one or two self-obsessed characters, but when it’s everyone, I think that might be a writing issue. The story was still great, and I will definitely be reading the second book, but I’m hoping for some character growth and learning about empathy as the story progresses.

From the cover of The Girl King:

IN AN EMPIRE OF FLAMES, THEY MUST RISE FROM THE ASHES.

Sisters Lu and Min have always known their places as princesses of the Empire of the First Flame: assertive Lu will be named her father’s heir and become the dynasty’s first female ruler, while timid Min will lead a quiet life in Lu’s shadow. Until their father names a new heir – their male cousin, Set.

Determined to reclaim her birthright, Lu goes in search of allies, leaving Min to face the volatile court alone. Lu soon crosses paths with Nokhai, the lone, unlikely survivor of a clan of nomadic wolf shapeshifters. Nok never learned to shift – or to trust the empire that killed his family – but working with Lu might be the only way to unlock his true power. 

As Lu and Nok form a tenuous alliance, Min’s own power awakens, a forbidden magic that could secure Set’s reign . . . or allow her to claim the throne herself. But there can be only one emperor, and each sister’s greatest enemy could very well be the other.

This sweeping fantasy set against a world of ancient magic and political intrigue weaves an unforgettable story of ambition, betrayal, and sacrifice. 

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Book Review: Slayer

slayerSlayer
by Kiersten White
Young Adult/Urban Fantasy
404 pages
Published January 2019

I am a Buffy fan. I’m not the biggest Buffy fan I know – that honor goes to a friend of mine, who I just gave a giant box of Buffy comic to, since we’re downsizing in preparation for the move to the new house. I haven’t seen anyone that happy in a while, and it made my day. (And hers, judging from the bouncing and squeeeeing and hugging!) But I am still a Buffy fan. I own DVDs of the entire show, plus Angel, plus the original movie. The box of comics I just gave away was Season 8 and some spin offs. Slayer takes place after all of that.

First I’m going to say, if you’re not a Buffy fan, seriously don’t bother with this book. You won’t understand a lot of what goes on, and while there are cursory explanations given in the book, it’s really not meant for people that haven’t watched/read the rest of the world. You’d be okay not knowing much about Angel, but you really do need to have watched the TV show of Buffy, especially that last season. While the book takes place after the comics, they’re not necessary to understand the plot as that, at least, is explained.

So, for the rest of us Buffy fans, this is a great continuation of the Buffy-verse. Nina is the daughter of Watchers – in fact the daughter of Buffy’s first watcher, the one before Giles. Given what befell the Watchers, the ones that are left are kind of antagonistic towards Slayers in general and Buffy in particular. So when Nina becomes a Slayer, her world goes sideways.

The world is mostly the same, but with a twist due to events in the comics. (It’s explained. You don’t need to have read them.) The book expands on how Slayer powers work, a bit, especially their dreams now that there’s more than one of them alive at a time. We do see mentions of familiar characters, with one notable scene where an old favorite appears briefly.

I really enjoyed the book, and I’m eager to read the second half of the duology when it comes out. I need to know how Nina’s story ends! The book ended on a subtle cliffhanger; the main conflict has been resolved, and the characters think it’s over, but we know it’s not. Similar to how many episodes of Buffy ended, actually.

So yeah. If you’re a Buffy fan, pick up this book, it’s pretty great. If you’re not – take a pass. Or start with the TV show and get yourself a new fandom if you’re feeling bored!

From the cover of Slayer:

Nina and her twin sister, Artemis, are far from normal. It’s hard to be when you grow up at the Watchers Academy, which is a bit different from your average boarding school. Here teens are trained as guides for Slayers – girls gifted with supernatural strength to fight the forces of darkness. But while Nina’s mother is a prominent member of the Watchers Council, Nina has never embraced the violent Watcher lifestyle. Instead, she follows her instincts to heal, carving out a place for herself as the school medic.

Until the day Nina’s life changes forever.

Thanks to Buffy, the famous (and infamous) Slayer that Nina’s father died protecting, Nina is not only the newest Chosen One – she’s the last Slayer, ever. Period.

As Nina hones her skills with her Watcher-in-training, Leo, there’s plenty to keep her occupied: a monster fighting ring, a demon who eats happiness, a shadowy figure that keeps popping up in Nina’s dreams . . .

But it’s not until bodies start turning up that Nina’s new powers will truly be tested – because someone she loves might be next.

One thing is clear: Being Chosen is easy. Making choices is hard.

Book Review: Blanca & Roja

blanca rojaBlanca & Roja
by Anna-Marie McLemore
Young Adult/Fantasy/Magical Realism
375 pages
Published October 2018

This is another enchanting tale from the author of The Weight of Feathers. She’s a little different from my normal fairy-tale retellings, as these are inspired by fairy tales, and have the atmosphere of fairy tales, but aren’t recognizably any particular tale, and definitely don’t follow the normal plot of an particular tale. We know the story of Snow White and Rose Red. This isn’t it. We know the story of the Swan Princess or Swan Prince. This isn’t it. It has elements of both stories. But it is something entirely new and absolutely enthralling.

The story also has minority representation; both girls are Latina, and we have a nonbinary love interest for one of the girls, who is a fascinating character in her own right. (She expresses preference for she/her pronouns in the book.) The other love interest is seeing-impaired. He’s not blind, but he has a lot of issues with depth perception, so he’s constantly running into things and misjudging where things are.

Blanca & Roja grow up in a family where there are always two daughters, and as soon as the youngest turns fifteen, a bevy of swans shows up and picks one of the sisters to become a swan and join them. When past sisters have resisted, the swans have taken both. Blanca & Roja love each other so much, though, that they can’t imagine living without the other. So they try to become as indistinguishable from each other as possible, in the hopes that the swans won’t be able to decide between them and leave them both alone. Blanca drinks bitter things and feeds Roja sweets, eats red rose petals and feeds Roja white ones, each doing the opposite of their personality to bring them closer together. That, of course, doesn’t work.

But when the swans finally do come, it’s after a local boy and his best friend have gone missing in the woods, and the two teens have gotten their lives entwined with Blanca & Roja’s. The magic surrounding them collides with the magic surrounding the sisters, and the story you expect is not the one you get.

At this point, I will read anything McLemore publishes, because she is outstanding. Her novels are magical, lyrical, and atmospheric, melding fairy tales into shiny new stories. I can’t rave about this author enough!

From the cover of Blanca & Roja:

THE BIGGEST LIE OF ALL IS THE STORY YOU THINK YOU ALREADY KNOW.

The del Cisne girls have never just been sisters – they’re also rivals and opposites, Blanca as obedient and graceful as Roja is vicious and manipulative. They know that, because of a generations-old spell, their family is bound to a bevy of swans deep in the woods. They know that, one day, the swans will pull them into a dangerous game that will leave one of them a girl and trap the other in the body of a swan.

But when two local boys become drawn into the game, the swans’ spell intertwines with the strange and unpredictable magic lacing the woods, and all four of their fates depend on facing truths that could either save or destroy them.

Blanca & Roja is the captivating story of sisters, friendship, love, hatred, and the price we pay to protect our hearts.

Book Review: Black Wings Beating

black wings beatingBlack Wings Beating
by Alex London
Young Adult/Fantasy
426 pages
Published September 2018

This highly-anticipated young adult fantasy was – alright. I’m a little disappointed, actually. I love birds. I grew up with a number of parrots, and crows are still one of my favorite animals. So a book where falconry is a central part of the culture, and they have to go hunt down a mythical bird? Count me in! Unfortunately this book suffers from the “reluctant hero” trope, which is far too common in YA and gets tiring.

The two main characters in this book are twins. We have Brysen, who was never good enough for their alcoholic father, and was beaten regularly. He’s also stubborn, irresponsible, and reckless. His sister has an ancient power to control falcons, but she refuses to learn how to control it because she doesn’t want to overshadow her good-for-nothing brother. (She also might be asexual, but it’s not explicitly stated in the book. It’s heavily implied, though.)

The two dysfunctional siblings set out to capture the near-mythical bird that killed their father, in order to save the life of Brysen’s lover, falconry trainer, and manipulator, Dymian. They’re joined by Nyall, a boy in love with Kylee who doesn’t care that she doesn’t love him back. (In the truly-good-guy way, not in the creepy way. I like Nyall. He’s good people.)

They of course run into dangers in the mountains that the bird lives in, and the book is about that journey. Interspersed with their story is the occasional scene of the invaders sweeping across the land elsewhere. I wish we had a better sense of time – both how long before the invaders near the Six Villages where Brysen and Kylee are, and how long their journey in the mountains takes. That could have been much better communicated.

Kylee frustrates me – she could be so badass, and if she’d use her powers, it could get her what she wants. She’s trying to earn enough money catching and selling birds of prey to get out of the business entirely. (She has to pay off their father’s debts first.) So why not use her powers to call down a few of the most valuable birds and BE DONE WITH IT? How does this not occur to her? As far as I can tell, the only real reason she doesn’t want to be a falconer is she knows she’d be excellent at it and she doesn’t want to overshadow her brother, whose dream it’s been to be a great falconer. News flash. Your brother is worthless, girl. If he wants to be great maybe he should buckle down and focus instead of blaming those around him for his misfortunes.

So I’m not sure what my overall opinion of this book is. The world-building is shaping up to be interesting, but needs more fleshing out. The writing itself is pretty good, it flows nicely but needs a better sense of time. The characters’ motivations are clear but occasionally frustrating. I am a little invested in seeing what happens in the next book, but I’m not sure I’m invested enough to spend the time to read it. I’ll make that decision when it comes out, I suppose.

From the cover of Black Wings Beating:

THEY’LL RISE TOGETHER OR FALL ALONE

The people of Uztar have long looked to the sky with hope and wonder. Nothing in their world is more revered than birds of prey, and no one is more honored than the falconers who call them to their fists. 

Brysen strives to be a great falconer, while his twin sister, Kylee, possesses ancient gifts for it but wants to be free of falconry altogether. She’s nearly made it out, too, but a war is rolling toward the Six Villages, with a rebel army leaving nothing in its wake but blood and empty sky. No bird or falconer will be safe from this invasion.

Together the twins must embark on a journey into the treacherous mountains to trap the near-mythic ghost eagle, a solitary killer and the most feared of the Uztari birds of prey. They each go for their own reasons: Brysen for the boy he loves and the glory he’s long craved, and Kylee to atone for her past and protect her brother’s future. But they both are hunted by those who seek one thing: power.

With this book, Alex London launches a soaring saga about the memories that haunt us, the histories that hunt us, and the bonds of blood between us.

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: To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before

to all the boys i've loved beforeTo All The Boys I’ve Loved Before
by Jenny Han
Young Adult
355 pages
Published 2014

I picked this up mostly because the trailer for the Netflix adaptation looked AMAZING. It’s the first book in a trilogy, and I really want to read the other two now! (Update: I’ve now read PS. I Still Love You.) Lara Jean is the middle daughter in a house of three daughters, being raised by their widower father. The relationships between the four of them play a large part in the book, as they are all adjusting to the eldest daughter being away at college. Everyone’s roles are changing, and in the middle of that, Lara Jean’s private love letters get mailed to the boys she wrote them to, throwing her love life into chaos as well.

I loved almost every character in this book – even Lara’s troublemaking best friend has a good heart. I definitely need to watch the Netflix show now, because I really want to see how Chris – aforementioned best friend – is represented!

The family scenes around Christmas really tugged at my heart – Christmas has always been my favorite holiday, and the author absolutely NAILED the nostalgic, slightly dreamy, loving holiday atmosphere.

To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before was a cute, sweet read, and really my only negative thing to say about it is the ending left me hanging! Which is part of why I really need to read the other two books, so I suppose it was a good strategy. But man I hate cliffhangers!

From the cover of To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before:

Lara Jean keeps her love letters in a hatbox her mother gave her. They aren’t love letters that anyone else wrote for her, these are ones she’s written. One for every boy she’s ever loved – five in all. When she writes, she can pour out her heart and soul and say all the things she would never say in real life, because her letters are for her eyes only. Until the day her secret letters are mailed, and suddenly Lara Jean’s love life goes from imaginary to out of control.