Friday 56 – Empire of Sand

empire of sandThe Friday 56 is hosted by Freda’s Voice. The rules are simple – turn to page 56 in your current read (or 56% in your e-reader) and post a few non-spoilery sentences.

This week’s quote is from Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri, a book I’m reading for the Year of the Asian Reading Challenge.

“I allowed your mother to keep her customs,” her father acknowledged. “But in raising you as I have, I have kept mine. Make no mistake, Mehr: You are my daughter. You have been raised in my household, fed with my food, clothed from my coffers. You are your mother’s daughter . . .” He faltered. “But you are also mine. And half your blood is Ambhan, noble and strong.”

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Book Review: Crown of Feathers

crown of feathersCrown of Feathers
by Nicki Pau Preto
Young Adult/Fantasy
486 pages
Published February 2019

Okay first, just gaze at that cover for a little while. Just – wow. We get dragon riders all the time, but phoenix riders? That is new. AND AWESOME. I have been ridiculously excited about this book, and then I received it just as we were really gearing up to move. I have FINALLY gotten around to it, and man. I need the second one now. And it’s not due out until 2020!

The book tells the story of Veronyka, a war orphan who wants to be a phoenix rider, like her parents and grandmother. It is mostly told from her viewpoint, but we also get a few chapters from the point of view of Sev, an animage hiding in the Empire’s army, Tristan, another phoenix rider, and one or two from Veronyka’s sister, Val.

Animages are, as the name implies, mages whose magical power involves talking to animals and making them do their bidding. All phoenix riders are animages; not all animages are phoenix riders. But the empire has outlawed animages anyway, unless they pay a heavy tax. If you’re found to have evaded the tax, you get enslaved as a bondservant until you pay off your unpaid taxes. Sev hid his magic and enlisted in the army to keep from being sold as a bondservant.

In between chapters of current events, we have letters and snippets from history books detailing the story of Avalkyra Ashfire, who was the last Rider Queen before the empire turned against the Riders.

The villain in this story is villainous indeed, but at the same time, I don’t -want- them to be villainous. I -want- them to be good, and noble, and I can see why they’ve done what they’ve done and – I HAVE FEELINGS. I don’t LIKE the villain. They’re quite unlikable. I kinda feel like Obi Wan here. YOU WERE THE CHOSEN ONE. We all had so much FAITH in you. So it feels like a betrayal. And I just – I want to be wrong. I want the villain to do the right thing in the second book and no longer be a villain, but I don’t know how exactly that would happen. I’m holding out hope though.

This book is good. I’m not putting it in my best of 2019 because I’m so torn on the villain. But it’s very good. I am eager to see where the story goes from here.

From the cover of Crown of Feathers:

I HAD A SISTER ONCE . . . 

In a world ruled by fierce warrior queens, a grand empire was build upon the backs of Phoenix Riders – legendary warriors who soared through the sky on wings of fire – until a war between two sisters ripped it all apart.

I PROMISED HER THE THRONE WOULD NOT COME BETWEEN US.

Sixteen years later, Veronyka is a war orphan who dreams of becoming a Phoenix Rider like the heroes of old. After a shocking betrayal from her controlling sister, Veronyka strikes out alone to find the Riders – even if that means disguising herself as a boy to join their ranks.

BUT IT IS A FACT OF LIFE THAT ONE MUST KILL OR BE KILLED. RULE OR BE RULED.

Just as Veronyka finally feels like she belongs, her sister turns up and reveals a tangled web of lies between them that will change everything. And meanwhile, the new empire has learned of the Riders’ return and intends to destroy them once and for all.

SOMETIMES THE TITLE OF QUEEN IS GIVE. SOMETIMES IT MUST BE TAKEN.

Crown of Feathers is an epic fantasy about love’s incredible power to save – or to destroy. Interspersed throughout is the story of Avalkyra Ashfire, the last Rider queen, who would rather see her empire burn than have it fall into her sister’s hands. 

Book Review: The Priory of the Orange Tree

priory of the orange treeThe Priory of the Orange Tree
by Samantha Shannon
Epic Fantasy
830 pages
Published February 2019

Holy COW, you guys. I keep saying “I haven’t read much epic fantasy lately” and “I don’t have time to read such long books/series” but I made an exception for Priory, and I’m SO glad I did. Just WOW.

So the basic premise of this world is that The Nameless One (some gigantic evil dragon) was locked away a thousand years ago, and all his minions with him. The exact details of how and who did it have been mostly lost to history. It’s said that as long as the House of Berethnet rules Inys, he’ll never rise again, and Berethnet queens always have one child, a daughter. The current queen, however, is unwed, and minions of The Nameless One have begun rising, and in fact have conquered a few neighboring nations. We have three main factions of countries; The East, who have dragon riders, but make a distinction between their dragons, who are aquatic and identify with the stars, and the evil minions of The Nameless One, who are full of fire. Then we have Virtudom, which is headed by Inys, and is a coalition of countries who have made a religion of the Knightly Virtues. This is the West, and they make no distinction between the draconic servants of The Nameless One and the water dragons of the East. This has forced a split between the West and the East, because Virtudom won’t have anything to do with countries that have anything to do with dragons, because most of what they see is the third faction – the Draconic countries. These are countries conquered by minions of the Nameless One, and they are full of chaos, fire, evil, and plague.

This is the world the book opens on. Most of our main characters – Queen Sabran, her handmaiden Ead, the dragonrider Tané – are women, but we also have Doctor Niclays Roos, an alchemist, and Lord Arteloth Beck, a friend of the Queen. In this world, women are just as capable as men, and are treated as such. There are female knights, and same-sex relationships are just as ordinary as opposite-sex ones. There is a bit too much moral emphasis placed on monogamy/sex within the bounds of marriage, but I guess that’s “Knightly Virtue” for you. Skin color is only mentioned a couple of times, but I seem to remember Lord Arteloth being described as very dark-skinned, and Ead as golden-brown. Rather nice to see a fantasy NOT all caught up in racial and gender differences. Not to say there isn’t a fair amount of bigotry, but in this book it’s based pretty much solely on nationality and religion. And when the biggest sticking point is “do you like evil dragons or not” that kind of makes sense!

I think the only thing I didn’t like about this book was its size. It’s unwieldy to read, at over 800 pages! I’m not sure why they didn’t break it into a duology. Regardless, if you have the choice, I’d read it on Kindle. It would be far easier to handle. I’m not complaining about the amount of text, mind you. Just the sheer physical size. I can’t imagine the story being told in less time. There’s So. Much. Here.

This book goes from Queen Sabran’s court to the dragonrider academy in the East, to the draconic kingdom of Yscalin, to the Abyss where the Nameless One sleeps. We see glittering courts, hidden islands, sweltering tunnels through volcanic mountains, and deep valleys with secret magic trees. We battle wyrms and cockatrices, swim through endless seas with dragonriders, sail through storms with pirate crews, and navigate the trickiest of diplomatic matters with courtiers. The Priory of the Orange Tree paints an elaborate, incredibly complex world and I am absolutely here for it.

Okay, so one tiny quibble – while I liked the romance, I feel like it started kind of oddly. I didn’t see any reason for the initial spark. From there, it progressed perfectly, but I just didn’t get the beginning.

This book has multiple queer couples! There’s at least one same-sex couple mentioned as attending a party; Doctor Roos spends a lot of time mourning his dead lover, and there’s the lesbian romance between a couple of main characters. And one character has at least strong affection for a man before falling in love with a woman; I think she was in love with both. No trans or ace rep, but plenty of gay, lesbian, and bi!

This is hands-down the best book I’ve read so far this year. It took me three days – it’s a big book – but it is absolutely fantastic.

From the cover of The Priory of the Orange Tree:

A WORLD DIVIDED.
A QUEENDOM WITHOUT AN HEIR.
AN ANCIENT ENEMY AWAKENS.

The House of Berethnet has ruled Inys for a thousand years. Still unwed, Queen Sabran the Ninth must conceive a daughter to protect her realm from destruction – but assassins are getting closer to her door.

Ead Duryan is an outsider at court. Though she has risen to the position of lady-in-waiting, she is loyal to a hidden society of mages. Ead keeps a watchful eye on Sabran, secretly protecting her with forbidden magic.

Across the dark sea, Tané has trained all her life to be a dragonrider but is forced to make a choice that could see her life unravel.

Meanwhile, the divided East and West refuse to parley, and forces of chaos are rising from their sleep.

Book Review: The Gutter Prayer

gutter prayerThe Gutter Prayer
by Gareth Hanrahan
Fantasy
518 pages
Published January 2019

Wow. So. Where to start. The Gutter Prayer is definitely epic fantasy, which I haven’t been reading much of lately as I didn’t think I had time. Epic Fantasy is usually big books in long series – and this book could stand completely on its own, though the author says there will be at least one more book.

The Gutter Prayer also does something that I’ve always enjoyed but is somewhat uncommon – the city ITSELF is very much a character here. I attended a panel at last year’s Baltimore Book Festival that talked about Cities as characters which, while not something I’d explicitly realized I liked, was a common thread in a lot of high fantasy/science fiction that I’ve loved. City of Brass and The Courier are good examples. So that was a selling point of The Gutter Prayer.

The book starts with a bang – literally – as the three main characters, Cari, a human thief, Rat, a ghoul, and Spar, a “Rock Man,” are robbing a building when it explodes. (Rock Men are humans who suffer from a magical disease that slowly petrifies them but makes them inhumanly strong.) The action doesn’t let up much, from Rat sneaking through the underbelly of the city, to Spar fighting for his life against his voracious disease while trying to unite the lowlifes of the city, to Cari trying to figure out where her weird visions are coming from. We bounce from monsters kept captive in the deeps, guarded by other monsters, to city politics, to wars between gods on distant shores and closer to home.

The city is central to all of it, hiding secrets and labyrinths and ancient gods and alchemical workshops that spew horrors of their own. The prologue chapter even seems to be from the perspective of the city itself, as if watching our heroes crawl around its streets from above.

For all the action, the writing felt a little slow – as if it wasn’t quite conveying the urgency with which things were happening. The actual events were quite fast-paced, I just think the language could have been more…I’m not sure. Intense, maybe? It didn’t suck me in as much as I would have expected. It didn’t quite come to life on the page. I’m absolutely going to read the next book, when it comes out; writing styles generally improve in the second book, in my experience reading trilogies.

From the cover of The Gutter Prayer:

ENTER A CITY OF SAINTS AND THIEVES . . . 

The city of Guerdon stands eternal. A refuge from the war that rages beyond its borders. But in the ancient tunnels deep beneath its streets, a malevolent power has begun to stir. 

The fate of the city rests in the hands of three thieves. They alone stand against the coming darkness. As conspiracies unfold and secrets are revealed, their friendship will be tested to the limit. If they fail, all will be lost, and the streets of Guerdon will run with blood.

 

 

Book Review: The Kingdom of Copper

kingdom of copperThe Kingdom of Copper
by S. A. Chakraborty
Fantasy
620 pages
Published January 2019

I….may have an unpopular opinion on this book. First, I LOVED the first book of this trilogy, The City of Brass. Absolutely loved it. It was one of my favorite books of that year. I like this one significantly less. I think that probably wouldn’t be the case if I had read this in quick succession, but I read City of Brass when it came out, and had to wait a year for this one, in which time I read around 200 more books.

I expected a certain amount of backstory explanation in Kingdom of Copper – and it wasn’t there. I think the book assumes you remember everything that happened in City of Brass – and I most certainly did not. I don’t remember why we have the division between the djinn and the daeva, or really which is which. I know the shafit are part human, part…djinn? Daeva? See that’s the problem. These are very politicky books and forgetting key parts of the political drama makes this book VERY hard to follow. I don’t know WHY there’s conflict between certain people, and I don’t recognize missteps when characters make them because I’ve forgotten who has which opinions.

All the worldbuilding explanations are in the first book, and they aren’t revisited in this one. Had I KNOWN that, I might have re-read City of Brass before this came out, as much as I dislike re-reading anything.

All of that aside, and despite my confusion, I mostly enjoyed this continuation of Nahri’s story. We delved a little more into murky bloodlines, the more recent past of Daevabad, and the more ancient past of Nahri’s healer ancestors, the Nahids.

I still love Nahri, I like Ali a little more, and I like Dara a little less. I am curious to see where the third book leads, especially after the cliffhanger ending of this one. I just might have to re-read both City of Brass and this one before reading the trilogy’s conclusion.

From the cover of The Kingdom of Copper:

Nahri’s life changed forever the moment she accidentally summoned Dara, a formidable mysterious djinn, during one of her schemes. Whisked away from her home in Cairo, she was thrust into the dazzling royal court of Daevabad – and quickly discovered she would need all her grifter instincts to survive there. 

Now, with Daevabad entrenched in the dark aftermath of a devastating battle, Nahri must forge a new path for herself. But even as she embraces her heritage and the power it holds, she knows she’s been trapped in a gilded cage, watched by a king who rules from the throne that once belonged to her family – and one misstep will doom her tribe.

Meanwhile, Ali has been exiled for daring to defy his father. Hunted by assassins and adrift on the unforgiving copper sands of his ancestral land, he must rely on the frightening abilities the marid – the unpredictable water spirits – have gifted him. But in doing so, he risks unearthing a terrible secret his family has long kept buried.

And as a new century approaches and the djinn gather within Daevabad’s towering brass walls for a great celebration, a threat brews unseen in the desolate north. It’s a force that would bring a storm of fire straight to the city’s gates . . . and one that seeks the aid of a warrior caught between worlds, torn between a violent duty he can never escape and a peace he fears he will never deserve.

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.