Book Review: Song of the Crimson Flower

song of the crimson flowerSong of the Crimson Flower
by Julie C. Dao
Fantasy / Romance
272 pages
Published November 2019

This is a companion book to Julie Dao’s duology, after Forest of a Thousand Lanterns and Kingdom of the Blazing Phoenix. I really enjoyed the three books as a whole; the stories in each book were connected but standalones at the same time. In Forest of a Thousand Lanterns we had the rise of the evil queen from Snow White (but Asian) and Kingdom of the Blazing Phoenix was Snow White (but Asian). Kingdom could stand alone fine, but knowing the back story of Xifeng made the ending that much more heartbreaking. Similarly, Song of the Crimson Flower could also stand alone just fine, but knowing the background of Commander Wei made his small part in the story much more worthwhile, and lent more weight to the cameo by Empress Jade.

But Song of the Crimson Flower isn’t about Empress Jade, or Commander Wei. Song is about Lan, a nobleman’s daughter of no real import, and Bao, the poor orphan boy who loves her. Bao reveals an elaborate deception to Lan, and in her heartbreak, she is cruel to him and sends him away. He flees their village and happens across the river witch, who thinks he came to her for some malicious purpose, curses him, and sends him back to where he came from. Which happens to be Lan, who is already regretting her actions towards him. Lan agrees to help break his curse, and we’re off on the adventure.

The book is actually quite short – under 300 pages – and a LOT happens. Dao has a rare talent for description and action, together in a succinct way that makes it a lush tale that doesn’t FEEL like it’s hurried along, but is still over before you know it. (For an example of her beautiful prose, see my last Friday 56!) This is a lovely addition to Forest and Kingdom, and I’m curious if Dao plans to write more in this world or not.

From the cover of Song of the Crimson Flower:

WILL LOVE BREAK THE SPELL?

After cruelly rejecting Bao, the poor physician’s assistant who loves, her, Lan, a wealthy nobleman’s daughter, regrets her actions. So when she finds Bao’s prized flute floating in his boat near her house, she takes it into her care, not knowing that his soul has been trapped inside it by an evil witch, who cursed Bao, telling him that only love will set him free. Though Bao now despises her, Lan vows to make amends and help break the spell.

Together, the two travel across the continent, finding themselves in the presence of greatness in the forms of the Great Forest’s Empress Jade and Commander Wei. They journey with Wei, getting tangled in the webs of war, blood magic, and romance along the way. Will Lan and Bao begin to break the spell that’s been placed upon them? Or will they be doomed to live out their lives with black magic running through their veins?

In this fantastical tale of darkness and love, some magical bonds are stronger than blood.

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Book Review: The Storm Crow

the storm crowThe Storm Crow
Kalyn Josephson
Young Adult Fantasy
352 pages
Published July 2019

There is so much to love about this book. In some ways, it’s your typical young adult fantasy. The actual plot isn’t anything outstanding; but the characters – oh, the characters.

The book opens on the crippling of Rhodaire and the slaughter of its main strength, the magical, elemental crows that are woven into the fabric of Rhodairian life. The crows help plow, bring rain, bring sun, help heal, and even help man the forges and supply the materials worked therein. In one fell swoop by Rhodaire’s enemies, the crows are erased, and the kingdom struggles to stay afloat as a society. The queen is killed in the same cataclysm that kills the kingdom’s crows, leaving her two daughters to rule in her stead. Princess Caliza, the elder of the two, steps into her new role as queen while Princess Anthia, who was about to be a crow rider, falls into a deep depression. Her depression is named on the page, but I think she also has some PTSD going on.

Thia’s depression and PTSD are core parts of her character, and it’s wonderful to see that kind of representation in heroic fantasy like this. Thia eventually finds a reason to struggle forward, but her fear of fire continues to haunt her and give her flashbacks.

Thia’s best friend/sister of her heart (and bodyguard) is also into women, so that’s another bit of representation. She’s also just incredibly amusing.

I’m a little worried about the love triangle that’s forming; the person Thia falls in love with is just – it’s too easy. Too convenient. I don’t like it. I prefer the other option – the boy who loves Thia but is far too complicated. He is so conflicted, torn between actively opposing the rule of the evil Empress or more subtly staying in her good graces to try to take power peacefully. The book ends with the triangle still unresolved, though, so I’m definitely going to need the sequel to this.

I love how the crows were explained; that they’re more reptilian than bird-like, with anatomy that allows for riders. The author definitely thought through how this could work. I do think it’s a little unlikely that not a single adult crow survives the purge at the beginning of the book; I know the plot requires it, but it seems -really- unlikely. Just – come on. Not a SINGLE crow escapes? But it’s fantasy, so we need to suspend disbelief I suppose.

Ultimately, I loved this book. I definitely have a thing for riders – whether they’re riding phoenixes, dragons, horses, crows, or other magical creatures, I like riders. I will always pick up books with this trope. I can’t wait for the sequel, The Crow Rider!

From the cover of The Storm Crow:

A STORM IS RISING

In the tropical kingdom of Rhodaire, elemental crows are part of every aspect of life . . . until the Illucian empire invades, destroying all the crows and bringing Rhodaire to its knees.

That terrible night has thrown Princess Anthia into a deep depression. Her sister, Caliza is busy running the kingdom after their mother’s death, but all Thia can do is think of everything she has lost, including her dream of becoming a crow rider.

When Caliza is forced to agree to a marriage between Thia and the crown prince of Illucia, Thia is finally spurred into action. And after stumbling upon a hidden crow egg in the rubble of a rookery, she and her sister devise a dangerous plan to hatch the egg in secret while joining forces with the other conquered kingdoms to ignite a rebellion.

Book Review: Serpent & Dove

serpent & doveSerpent & Dove
by Shelby Mahurin
Young Adult / Fantasy / Romance
519 pages
Published September 2019

This was Barnes & Noble’s Young Adult book club book for October, so I read it because I was planning to go. I ended up feeling particularly introverted that entire week, so I stayed home, but I’d read the book anyway, so here we are!

So first off, there’s some debate over whether the book is young adult or new adult. Lou, the heroine, is 18, and Reid is a little older, but it still feels very young adult-ish. There is one sex scene which, while explicit, is still fairly tame as sex scenes go. So I’m calling it young adult, but it’s definitely right on the line where it could go either way.

The book begins with an example of why witches are so reviled in this land, but quickly segues into an entirely unlikely sequence of events that ends with Lou, our witch, married to Reid, our witch hunter, to save face for the witch hunting society known as the Chasseurs. Reid doesn’t know she’s a witch, and she has to keep that hidden while living with her mortal enemies. We soon learn that Lou has enemies of her own, and living with witch hunters might actually be the safest place for her, if she can keep her own secrets.

Lou is not the only one that knows her secrets, however, and the war between witches and the Church soon heats up with Lou and Reid caught in the crossfire.

There are twists and turns aplenty in this plot, and reveals that I did not see coming. It definitely keeps you on your toes. I’m not completely sold on the romance between Lou and Reid. It seemed a little contrived, to me, but the rest of the plot was interesting.

Magic in this world has a very literal cost that the witch must pay if she wants the spell to work. Sometimes it’s fairly small – a broken finger for a broken lock – sometimes it’s bigger – all your fond memories of a person, for example. Someone’s life. If you’re willing to pay the price, the magic lets you do extraordinary things. At least it shows you the cost first, instead of simply taking it after the fact. You’re given the choice.

Blood & Honey is the sequel, due out this summer, and I think I’ll probably pick it up and give Reid and Lou another shot at convincing me their love is real. I do want to know how the rest of the story plays out, their relationship aside!

From the cover of Serpent & Dove:

BOUND AS ONE TO LOVE, HONOR, OR BURN

Two years ago, LOUISE LE BLANC fled her coven and took shelter in the city of Cesarine, forsaking all magic and living off whatever she could steal. There, witches like Lou are hunted. They are feared. And they are burned.

Sworn to the church as a Chasseur, REID DIGGORY has lived his life by one principle: Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live. His path was never meant to cross with Lou’s, but a wicked stunt forces them into an impossible union – holy matrimony.

The war between witches and Church is an ancient one, and Lou’s most dangerous enemies bring a fate worse than fire. Unable to ignore her growing feelings, yet powerless to change what she is, a choice must be made.

AND LOVE MAKES FOOLS OF US ALL.

A witch and a witch hunter bound in holy matrimony.

There was only one way such a story could end – 

A STAKE & A MATCH.

Book Review: The Rage of Dragons

rage of dragonsThe Rage of Dragons
by Evan Winter
Fantasy
535 pages
Published July 2019

You know how so many fantasy books have reluctant hero protagonists? This is not that. Well. The first couple of chapters are. But then Tau decides he’s going to be the BADDEST MOTHERFUCKER IN THIS LAND. Tau is, hands down, one of the most hard-core protagonists I’ve read in a very long time.

Content Warning: Brutal book. I’ll be talking about some of the imagery.

The Rage of Dragons is about determination, combat, and the will to live. I’ve always been wary of books based on “endless war” but this was actually very well thought out, and it makes sense. The Omehi were a people exiled from their homeland; they sailed across the sea to find a new land, and became colonizers. They are thoroughly outnumbered by the native Hedeni, but they have magic. They settle on a peninsula but are unable to push further into the mainland, even with their magic and dragons. The jacket copy says “a hundred thousand years” but the text picks up 186 cycles after the prologue (which covers the initial landing) and I assumed cycles meant years. Jacket copy often exaggerates things, so I’m going with 186 years, not a hundred thousand. It seems more likely.

So in two hundred years, neither side has managed to score a decisive victory over the other; the Omehi have held the territory they carved out for their people, built cities, and farmed land. The Hedeni continue to raid the edges, occasionally pushing further in and wreaking havoc.

The Omehi also have a rigid caste system; the only hint of upward mobility is the Gifted, who come from all castes, and the military, which glosses over some caste restrictions but not all. Tau is a Common who is tired of being shat on by the Nobles, and he sees the military as his ticket to getting vengeance. (Military members can challenge each other to blood duels without repercussions for defeating those of higher castes.)

An interesting point I’d like to make is though several people died to further the main character’s plot, which is usually known as fridging – they weren’t -killed-, exactly. They all had agency. They all took actions they knew could or would end in their deaths, and they did them anyway. So while it is death to motivate the main character, it did not rob them of agency in doing so, so I’m not sure it technically counts as fridging. Even if it does, it was masterfully done and I don’t actually mind it in this context.

There is A LOT of combat and gruesome death in this book. This is a BRUTAL society. People get hurt and even killed in training – hell, they get killed in the TRYOUTS for the military. In one of the first few chapters there is an off-page rape, then victim-blaming and revenge-killing. It’s also rape of a lower-caste by a higher-caste, so there is some brush off there of “oh it’s just a servant” variety. The book does NOT pull punches.

But it’s a truly great book. More than once I stared at the page and said, ALOUD, “Holy SHIT, Tau!” It was easy to see why something snapped in Tau’s soul, and I’m eager to see his character development in book two.

Brutal, vivid, hardcore book that grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go until the last page.

From the cover of The Rage of Dragons:

The Omehi people have been fighting an unwinnable fight for a hundred thousand years. Their society has been built around war and only war. The lucky ones are born gifted. One in every two thousand women has the power to call down dragons. One in every hundred men is able to magically transform himself into a bigger, stronger, faster killing machine.

Everyone else is fodder, destined to fight and die in the endless war.

Young, gift-less Tau knows all of this, but he has a plan of escape. He’s going to get himself injured, get out early, and settle down tot he simple life: marriage, children, land.

Until those closest to him are brutally murdered, and his grief swiftly turns to anger. Fueled by thoughts of revenge, Tau dedicates himself to an unthinkable path: He’ll become the greatest swordsman to ever live. A man willing to die a hundred thousand times for the chance to kill the three who betrayed him.

Book Review: Gideon the Ninth

gideon the ninthGideon the Ninth
by Tamsyn Muir
Fantasy / Sci-Fi
448 pages
Published September 2019

OH. MY. GOD. This book, I just – oh my god. It’s the first in a trilogy about “lesbian necromancers in space” (yes, you read that right) and I just CANNOT EVEN with the ending of this book. Which makes this really really hard to write because the thing I want to talk about is a MAJOR SPOILER so I can’t even mention it!!! But like, the author broke one of the MOST MAJOR RULES OF STORYTELLING AND YET IT WAS SO GOOD AND I JUST CAN’T BELIEVE HOW MUCH I LOVED THIS AND JUST

mind if i scream
AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

*deep breaths*

Okay. So. If you’ve already read the book, you know exactly what I’m screaming about; when you read the book, there will be no mistaking what it is. MAJOR RULE BREAKING ASIDE, this book is enthralling, but not in that magical “you’re beautiful” way – it’s a little bit more like you’re afraid the author’s going to kill everyone you care about if you look away, kind of way. (Everyone in the book, I mean! I don’t think she’s going to come hunt down my family!)

My only tiny complaint is I wish there’d been a four or five page prologue on how the Empire came to be, well, the Empire. Everyone in the book knows their history, or knows a story of their history, but the reader is left to piece it together. They know who The Emperor is, and what “The Resurrection” was, but we have no idea. I’m sure that was a conscious choice, but I disagree with it. I think I would have enjoyed it a lot more had I understood those references. (Hopefully Books 2 and 3 will explain that in more detail.)

That aside, Gideon is our viewpoint character, and she is a snarky, bad-mouthed rebel who just wants her freedom away from the Ninth House. Though there is no real romance in this book, it is made obvious that Gideon is a lesbian. (Also, the author has said so.)

A quick overview of the setup to the plot: There are nine houses in the Empire; The Emperor is the First House. The other eight have all sent their heirs (+their heirs’ cavaliers, a cross between a bodyguard, bosom companion, and servant) to the First City at the behest of the Emperor. The Ninth House’s cavalier was not up to the task, so Gideon has been asked to step in for him, with her freedom promised as the prize for doing so. She HATES the heir to the Ninth House, but has little choice but to go.

And then things start getting dicey.

I’m not going more into the plot than that, but there is murder, deception, LOTS of necromancy, and immortality as the prize. Unlike my typical lady necromancer books, (check my Necromancy tag!) the lady necromancer is not the main character of this book, but she is a major character. (All the heirs are necromancers, not just Harrowhark, the Reverend Daughter of the Ninth House.)

The ending of the book is a MAJOR shock, but at the same time, it’s not a huge cliffhanger either. Somehow it manages to both sum up the book’s plot satisfactorily, set up the next book, AND still have me screaming WHAT?! WHAT! at the pages. This is a PHENOMENAL book, from an amazingly talented writer, and I cannot wait to read the rest of the trilogy. Definitely going on my Best of 2019 list!

Do be aware there is murder and gore and necromancy. No sexual violence. No issues around being LGBT. But some dark themes nonetheless. It is definitely Adult SFF.

From the cover of Gideon the Ninth:

Brought up by unfriendly, ossifying nuns, ancient retainers, and countless skeletons, Gideon is ready to abandon a life of servitude and an afterlife as a reanimated corpse. She packs up her sword, her shoes, and her dirty magazines, and prepares to launch her daring escape. But her childhood nemesis won’t set her free without a service.

Harrowhark Nonagesimus, Reverend Daughter of the Ninth House and bone witch extraordinaire, has been summoned into action. The Emperor has invited the heirs to each of his loyal Houses to a deadly trial of wits and skill. If Harrowhark succeeds she will become an immortal, all-powerful servant of the Resurrection, but no necromancer can ascend without their cavalier. Without Gideon’s sword, Harrow will fail, and the Ninth House will die. 

Of course, some things are better left dead.

Book Review: Of Ice And Shadows

of ice and shadowsOf Ice And Shadows
by Audrey Coulthurst
Young Adult / Fantasy
452 pages
Published August 2019

Of Ice And Shadows is actually the third book in this series; Of Fire And Stars is technically the first book but second chronologically, with Inkmistress being a prequel, so first chronologically. It’s a little confusing. I strongly recommend reading Inkmistress first; it builds the world in a way that makes Of Fire And Stars make a lot more sense.

Of Ice And Shadows takes the main characters from Of Fire And Stars and brings them to the country from Inkmistress. (Zumorda). It’s something like two hundred years after the events of Inkmistress, but the queen is still the same. Binding to a dragon seems to have increased her lifespan by a lot.

My only big complaint about this book is the Queen of Zumorda, actually. In my review of Inkmistress, I mentioned I found her to be kind of a bitch. She was portrayed as slightly evil, but in this book she’s a lot more gray. She’s ruthless, and can be cruel, but her motivations towards Denna are….hazy and not resolved by the end of the book. I feel like the Queen and Denna’s plotline is yet to be concluded, which makes me think (and hope) there will be another book. The author has stated on Goodreads that she knows what happens to Denna and Mare after this book, but sales will determine if there is another book in the series. Here’s hoping!

My second, and much more minor, complaint is the chapter headings. The book alternates between Denna and Mare’s viewpoints, but the chapters are headed by their full names – Dennaleia and Amaranthine. With Amaranthine always going by Mare, and Dennaleia alternating between Denna and Lia, I didn’t always connect their full names to the characters, so it pulled me out of the story for a few seconds when I saw their full names.

The book left a lot of mysteries still unexplained – Why is Sonnenborne, the third country in this setting, such a wasteland? What happened to the gods in Zumorda since the events of Inkmistress? One of Denna’s friends mentions his adoptive demigod mother – is that the same as the demigod from Inkmistress? It sounds right, location and ability wise. Does she still have a part to play in all of this? I really hope we get one last book tying up all the loose threads, because there are so many of them!

To sum up, I quite enjoyed this book, but you definitely need to read the other two books first, and be prepared to not get answers to all of your questions. I really, really need one last book in this series!

From the cover of Of Ice And Shadows:

Princesses Denna and Mare are in love and together at last – only to face a new set of dangers.

Mare just wants to settle down with the girl she loves, which would be easier if Denna weren’t gifted with forbidden and volatile fire magic. Denna must learn to control her powers, which means traveling in secret to the kingdom of Zumorda, where she can seek training without fear of persecution. Determined to help, Mare has agreed to serve as an ambassador as a cover for their journey.

But just as Mare and Denna arrive in Zumorda, an attack on a border town in Mynaria changes everything. Mare’s diplomatic mission is now urgent: She must quickly broker an alliance with the Zumordan queen to protect her homeland. However, the queen has no interest in allying with other kingdoms – it’s Denna’s untamed but powerful magic that catches her eye. The queen offers Denna a place among her elite trainees – an opportunity that would force her to choose between her magic and Mare.

As Denna’s powers grow stronger, Mare struggles to be the ambassador her kingdom needs. By making unconventional friends, she finds her knowledge of Zumorda and its people growing, along with her suspicions about who is truly behind the attacks on Zumorda and her homeland. As rising tensions and unexpected betrayals put Mare and Denna in jeopardy and dangerous enemies emerge on all sides, can they protect their love and save their kingdoms?