Book Review: Shatter the Sky

shatter the skyShatter the Sky
by Rebecca Kim Wells
Young Adult / Fantasy
294 pages
Published July 2019

I saw this described as “angry bisexual dragon riders” and while I didn’t know if the bisexual applied to the dragons or to the riders, I really didn’t care. Either way, I NEEDED THIS.

It’s fantastic. It’s a -little- simplistic, but I loved it anyway. Maren loves her girlfriend, Kaia, and when Kaia is abducted by the emperor’s prophetic servants to be inducted into their ranks, she gets mad. She would have been happy to live a quiet life with Kaia, but instead our girl’s going to BURN IT ALL DOWN. You’d think prophets could avoid this drastic misstep, but then we wouldn’t have a book!

Maren is biracial; her father is from down the mountain, from a more accepted ethnicity, while her mother is Verran. Verrans used to be dragon riders, but the emperor stole their dragons and refuses to let any Verrans near them for fear the dragons will go back to them. Maren is able to disguise herself as Zefedi, her father’s ethnicity, to get work in the fortress where dragons are hatched and trained. Her Verran ancestry gives her some advantages with working with the dragons, though.

There’s a bit of a love triangle, though it could turn into a polyamorous situation. I’m obviously hoping for the latter, but we’ll have to wait for the second book, Storm the Earth, to find out.

Sexuality in this book was very matter-of-fact – Kaia has two moms, absolutely no one has a problem with two women being together. Lovers/spouses are called Heartmates, rather than anything gender-specific. I love it so much when fantasy books do this! And Heartmates is a BEAUTIFUL term that I adore.

I really enjoyed Maren rediscovering dragon lore – I find it a little unbelievable that the Verrans didn’t keep some secrets passed around under the nose of the emperor, but I suppose even if they did, that doesn’t mean some random village girl would know about it. So Maren has to learn it all for herself.

To sum up: LOVE this book. Cannot WAIT for the sequel!

From the cover of Shatter the Sky:

Raised among the ruins of a conquered mountain nation, Maren dreams only of sharing a quiet life with her girlfriend Kaia – until the day Kaia is abducted by the Aurati, prophetic agents of the emperor, and forced to join their ranks. Desperate to save her, Maren hatches a plan to steal one of the emperor’s coveted dragons and storm the Aurati stronghold.

If Maren is to have any hope of succeeding, she must become an apprentice to the Aromatory – the emperor’s mysterious dragon trainer. But Maren is unprepared for the dangerous secrets she uncovers: rumors of a lost prince, a brewing rebellion, and a prophecy that threatens to shatter the empire itself. Not to mention the strange dreams she’s been having about a beast deep underground . . . .

With time running out, can Maren survive long enough to rescue Kaia from impending death? Or could it be that Maren is destined for something greater than she could have ever imagined?

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Book Review: New Suns

new sunsNew Suns: Original Speculative Fiction by People of Color
Edited by Nisi Shawl
Short stories / Sci-Fi / Fantasy
279 pages
Published March 2019

This was quite the collection! I disagree with the cover description’s use of “unexpected brilliance” – I think that’s actually slightly insulting, and possibly racist. (Who wrote that line?!) I fully expected the brilliance I got, and was very pleased with it!

From the forward by Levar Burton, through stories by Hispanic, Black, Asian, and Indigenous authors, all the way to the Afterword from Nisi Shawl, this was an amazing, fascinating, mind-blowing book. Rebecca Roanhorse is probably the most well-known of the authors, thanks to Trail of Lightning, but Indrapramit Das wrote The Devourers, which I’ve heard about and have on my Kindle but have not yet read, and Steven Barnes is married to another author I’ve read, Tananarive Due. Silvia Moreno-Garcia wrote the recently released Gods of Jade and Shadow, which I picked up through Book of the Month in July but have again, not yet read. Library books keep taking priority over things I own!

Going through the biographies in the back of the book makes me want to add EVERYTHING to my TBR – with titles like The Sea is Ours: Tales of Steampunk Southeast Asia, Will Do Magic For Small Change, and The Beast With Nine Billion Feet, how could I not?!

Back to the book itself, though! There are 17 stories in this book, ranging from 5 pages to 20-30 pages. I think my favorite was “The Freedom of the Shifting Sea” by Jaymee Goh, about an Asian mermaid, but the one just before it, “Burn the Ships,” about indigenous South Americans fighting back with blood magic against Spaniards, was also amazing. (Written by Alberto Yáñez.) Really all of the stories are spell-binding, though. And the variety is VAST. From a story retelling The Emperor’s New Clothes, in three variations, to Earth becoming a tourist destination for galactics (aliens), to a story imagining what we would be like with computers in our heads to keep us from having destructive emotions, these are wildly imaginative and thought-provoking.

I love reading short story anthologies because they always introduce me to new authors I want to read more of, which this book unequivocally did. I also have more reason to read Gods of Jade and Shadow now!

This should be on the reading list of every spec fic fan. I’m going to leave you with the quote that begins the book and inspired the title, from one of the mothers of modern science fiction, Octavia Butler:

“There’s nothing new under the sun, but there are new suns.”

From the cover of New Suns:

New Suns: Original Speculative Fiction by People of Color showcases emerging and seasoned writers of many races telling stories filled with shocking delights, powerful visions of the familiar made strange. Between this book’s covers burn tales of science fiction, fantasy, horror, and their indefinable overlappings. These are authors aware of our many possible pasts and futures, authors freed of stereotypes and cliches, ready to dazzle you with their daring genius.

Unexpected brilliance shines forth from every page.

Book Review: House of Salt and Sorrows

house of salt and sorrowsHouse of Salt and Sorrows
by Erin A. Craig
Young Adult / Fantasy
403 pages
Published August 2019

First off (and I know this is a minor quibble) I think the title should have simply been House of Salt. As is, it falls into the recent trend of “Noun of Noun and Noun.” Children of Blood and Bone, Daughter of Smoke and Bone, Queen of Air and Darkness, Girls of Paper and Fire, Ship of Smoke and Steel – it’s a common trope in Young Adult titles, it feels like, and House of Salt would have been a perfectly good title for the book.

Salt plays a heavy role in this tale; Annaleigh and her sisters, along with their father and stepmother, live in a manor house overlooking the sea, on one of several small islands that form her father’s duchy. The world as a whole has a pantheon of gods that are recognized everywhere – and often show up and interact with the people – but the islands mostly revere Pontus, the god of the sea. They call themselves the People of the Salt; from salt they came, and to salt they eventually return. Their religious rites involve ocean creatures and seawater – even to drinking a small swallow of it on First Night to remind themselves what they’re made of.

Past that, there is a lot of mourning in this book, so salt, by way of tears, is important too. The book opens with the funeral of Annaleigh’s older sister, Eulalie. She slipped and fell off a seaside cliff to her death on the rocks below. Her death follows Elizabeth, (dead from a fall off a library ladder), Octavia (drowned in the bath), and Ava (dead of the plague at eighteen). All four of them preceded by their mother, who died in childbirth of the youngest daughter.

The deaths, and the setting, contribute to make this tale a very gothic one, which I loved. Mysterious deaths, questions of sanity, stormy seas, rocky cliffs, foreboding manor full of secrets – this is my JAM, and I was utterly entranced by it. The author does a fantastic job of creating the slow-building horror, the creeping feeling of doom, the questions of what is actually real, ramping up the pressure until the last few chapters come out in a rush of activity and reveals and consequences. It is EXCELLENT.

The book is loosely based on the fairy tale of the dancing princesses, where the princesses wear out their shoes each night, to the befuddlement of their parents, who offer a reward to anyone who can solve the mystery. (They’ve been escaping to the fairy realm each night to dance the night away.) Mix that tale with gothic horror, and you end up with this gem of a book.

This book absolutely belongs on my Best of 2019 list. If you like gothic tales, pick this one up. You won’t regret it!

From the cover of House of Salt and Sorrows:

Annaleigh lives a sheltered life at Highmoor, a manor by the sea, with her sisters and their father and stepmother. Once there were twelve, but loneliness fills the grand halls now that four of the girls’ lives have been cut short. Each death was more tragic than the last – the plague, a plummeting fall, a drowning, a slippery plunge – and there are whispers throughout the surrounding villages that the family is cursed by the gods.

Disturbed by a series of ghostly visions, Annaleigh becomes increasingly suspicious that her sisters’ deaths were no accidents. The girls have been sneaking out every night to attend glittering balls, dancing until dawn in silk gowns and shimmering slippers, and Annaleigh isn’t sure whether to try to stop them or to join their forbidden trysts. Because who – or what – are they really dancing with?

When Annaleigh’s involvement with a mysterious stranger who has secrets of his own intensifies, it’s a race to unravel the darkness that has fallen over her family – before it claims her next.

Series Review: The Hundredth Queen

The Fire QueenThe Fire Queen
The Rogue Queen
The Warrior Queen
by Emily R. King
Young Adult Fantasy / Myth Retelling
~300 pages each
Published 2017 / 2017 / 2018

I reviewed The Hundredth Queen a short time ago, and mentioned it was possibly a little culturally appropriative for a book written by a white woman, but I was invested enough in the characters to finish the series. While the culture resembles some time periods in India, the religion is inspired by ancient Sumeria, and much of the fourth book is reminiscent of the Inanna myth. I’ve only included the description of the second book, below, because the descriptions are full of spoilers for the series, as is often the problem for series reviews!

So I can’t really say how much the series is or is not appropriative; I’m not Indian. I don’t get to make that call. Regardless, it is something to be aware of before you read.

The Rogue QueenThat said, I enjoyed this series more than I expected to! Kalinda and Natesa are both awesome female fighters, and both of their love interests, while capable, are definitely cast in the “supporting character” role, to help show how badass the girls are.

One thing I did not like is how much they emphasize “sisterhood” and “sister warriors” yet turn around and fight each other – to the death! – to win a man or a position. Somehow Kalinda is the only woman to see how contradictory this is?

Kalinda’s nickname is also Kali, and, for a series with a disclaimer right up front basically saying “THIS IS NOT INDIA” maybe she should have picked a different name for the main character?

So I have a lot of questions about this series. There are contradictions, and plot holes, and improbable coincidences. I enjoyed the magic system. At its heart, it’s your basic elemental magic – earth, air, water, fire – but what the bhutas (magic wielders) can actually do with their elements is intriguing. In particular, the four directly-damaging uses – winnowing, leeching, grinding, and parching – are unique. Burners – fire-wielders – can parch people – literally burning their soul, basically. Tremblers – earth – can grind peoples’ bones together. Galers – air – can winnow, pulling oxygen out of the blood, tissues, and lungs of an enemy, and Aquifiers – water – can leech, pulling the liquid out of a person. All four magic wielders can control their element to do various tasks, but it’s the directly offensive uses that seem original.

The Warrior QueenOverall the plot is – fine – but it actually goes to the other end of the extreme that I complained about in Queen of Ruin. Obstacle after obstacle after obstacle. Ridiculous speedbumps, stupid mistakes, people acting out of character in order to throw another wrench in the works. I think the story could have been condensed down to three books and been far better for it.

A Spark of White Fire is a far better book with a similar feel to it, written by an Asian author. Read that instead.

From the cover of The Fire Queen:

WITH THE POWER OF FIRE, SHE WILL SPARK A REVOLUTION.

In the second book of the Hundredth Queen series, Emily R. King once again follows a young warrior queen’s rise to meet her destiny in a richly imagined world of sorcery and forbidden powers.

Though the tyrant rajah she was forced to marry is dead, Kalinda’s troubles are far from over. A warlord has invaded the imperial city, and now she’s in exile. But she isn’t alone. Kalinda has the allegiance of Captain Deven Naik, her guard and beloved, imprisoned for treason and stripped of command. With the empire at war, their best hope is to find Prince Ashwin, the rajah’s son, who has promised Deven’s freedom on one condition: that Kalinda will fight and defeat three formidable opponents.

But as Kalinda’s tournament strengths are once again challenged, so too is her relationship with Deven. While Deven fears her powers, Ashwin reveres them – as well as the courageous woman who wields them. Kalinda comes to regard Ashwin as the only man who can repair a warring world and finds herself torn between her allegiance to Deven and a newly found respect for the young prince.

With both the responsibility to protect her people and the fate of those she loves weighing heavily upon her, Kalinda is forced again to compete. She must test the limits of her fire powers and her hard-won wisdom. But will that be enough to unite the empire without sacrificing all she holds dear?

Book Review: Wicked Fox

wicked foxWicked Fox
by Kat Cho
Young Adult / Romance / Fantasy
426 pages
Published June 2019

I loved everything about this book except the epilogue. But we’ll get to that. Wicked Fox is the story of Miyoung, a gumiho. Better known to most Westerners as a Kitsune, but this is Korea, not Japan. The difference is important, and evident. I really enjoyed all of the Korean culture included in this book; it’s not as common a setting as Japan or China. Americans often make the mistake of lumping all of eastern Asia together as far as culture, but they are very different. South Korea isn’t as unfamiliar to us as some East Asian cultures – like Mongolia, Taiwan, or North Korea – but China and Japan tend to overshadow the rest.

So in Seoul, we have Miyoung, whose nature drives her to absorb the life essence of humans to sustain her own. She tries to do this in the best way she can, by hunting evil men, but something goes wrong on one of her hunts, she saves a human boy’s life, and things unravel from there.

I loved Jihoon. The poor boy is thrust into the middle of an impossible situation, and tries to do his best by everyone involved. It’s easy to see why Miyoung is drawn to him, and I love the easy comradery between Jihoon and his friends, as well.

The book would easily be a perfect standalone were it not for the epilogue. I will probably just pretend to myself that the epilogue doesn’t exist, and be happy with the book as-is. I don’t think it needs a sequel, and it feels a little forced. Almost like the book was done and turned in and the publisher offered the author a sequel, and she decided she could make that happen and tacked on a few pages to lead us to the next book. It’s just – unneeded.

The epilogue aside, I adored this book.

From the cover of Wicked Fox:

Eighteen-year-old Gu Miyoung has a secret. She’s a gumiho – a nine-tailed fox who survives by consuming the energy of men. But she’s also half-human and has a soft spot for people. So she won’t kill indiscriminately. With the help of a shaman, Miyoung only takes the lives of men who have committed terrible crimes. Devouring their life force is a morbid kind of justice . . . or so she tells herself.

But killing men no one would ever miss in bustling modern-day Seoul also helps Miyoung keep a low profile. She and her mother protect themselves by hiding in plain sight. That is until Miyoung crosses paths with a handsome boy her age as he’s being attacked by a goblin in the woods. She breaks her mother’s cardinal rule – revealing herself and her nine tails – to save Jihoon from certain death. In the process, she loses her fox bead – her gumiho soul. Without it, she will die.

When Miyoung and Jihoon next meet, there’s no doubt they are drawn to each other. But their tenuous romance could be over before it even begins, as Miyoung’s efforts to restore her fox bead by the next full moon ensnares them in a generations-old feud, forcing Miyoung to choose between her immortal life and Jihoon’s.

 

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.