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: All Out

all outAll Out: The No-Longer-Secret Stories of Queer Teens Throughout the Ages
Edited by Saundra Mitchell
Short Story Anthology/Young Adult/Historical Fiction
353 pages
Published 2018

I have no explanation for why young adult story anthologies are SO. GOOD. But they are. This particular one revolves around queer teens in historical times. That’s about the only commonality; the genres vary from normal fiction to fantasy to magical realism. There are gay, lesbian, transgender, and asexual teens represented. I am a little annoyed that there don’t seem to be any bisexual teens in the anthology; it could be argued that at least one if not more are bi simply because they had opposite-sex relationships before the same-sex romance in the story, but that’s also common before realizing your sexuality/coming out. No one is explicitly bisexual in this book. There were also two transmen but no transwomen.

There was a decent amount of cultural diversity while remaining mostly centered in the US; Chinatown in 1950s San Francisco, 1870s Mexico, Colonial New England, 1930s Hispanic New Mexico, Robin Hood-era Britain.

The stories were really good, I just wish they’d included a bisexual story and a transwoman. They did have an asexual girl, which is a sexuality often overlooked, so that was nice. (I posted an excerpt from her story on Friday.)

It’s a great collection of stories, just limited in scope. They could have cut a few F/F stories and added in bisexual, nonbinary, and transwomen, and lived up to the open umbrella of the “queer” label a bit more. I really enjoyed it, I think I’m just a little disappointed because I was expecting more of the spectrum.

From the cover of All Out:

Take a journey through time and genres and discover a past where queer figures live, love, and shape the world around them. Seventeen of the best young adult authors across the queer spectrum have come together to create a collection of beautifully written diverse historical fiction for teens.

From a retelling of Little Red Riding Hood set in war-torn 1870s Mexico featuring a transgender soldier, to two girls falling in love while mourning the death of Kurt Cobain, forbidden love in a sixteenth century Spanish convent or an asexual girl discovering her identity amid the 1970s roller-disco scene, All Out tells a diverse range of stories across cultures, time periods and identities, shedding light on an area of history often ignored or forgotten.

Book Review: The Bird King

the bird kingThe Bird King
by G. Willow Wilson
Historical Fantasy
402 pages
Published March 2019

I have not yet read G. Willow Wilson’s first novel, Alif the Unseen, but I really want to now, because this one was beautiful. I really enjoyed this story, watching Fatima mature through her travels and change from the sheltered Sultan’s concubine/possession to become – well – what she becomes.

The Bird King is the story of Fatima, concubine, and Hassan, mapmaker, on the run from the Inquisition. They were both members of the house of the last Sultan in Iberia. When the Spanish (and the Inquisition) came to negotiate his surrender, one of their conditions was they wanted Hassan, because of the magic he used in his maps. Hassan has been Fatima’s only real friend; he’s the only man that wanted nothing from her, because he’s gay and unmoved by her beauty. His sexuality has been largely ignored by the court; his maps were too important to the war effort, so it was tolerated and just not spoken of. When Fatima discovers the Sultan intends to turn Hassan over, she runs away with him. She has some unexpected help in her journey, which, along with Hassan’s mapmaking, makes this a kind of magical realist historical fantasy novel. It’s not really alternate history, because nobody’s actions change how history plays out on a large scale.

I really enjoyed Wilson’s writing style, and while I’d already been interested in the description of Alif the Unseen, given how much I like her writing here, I really need to read that as well. I’m pretty sure it’s on my Kindle!

From the cover of The Bird King:

G. Willow Wilson delivers her long-awaited second novel set in 1491 during the reign of the last sultan in the Iberian peninsula.

The Bird King tells the story of Fatima, a concubine in the royal court of the sultan of Granada, and her dearest friend Hassan, the palace mapmaker. Hassan has a secret – he can make maps of places he’s never seen and bend the shape of reality with his pen and paper. His gift has proven useful to the sultan’s armies in wartime, as well as entertained a bored Fatima, who has never step foot outside the palace walls. When a party representing the newly formed Spanish monarchy arrives to negotiate the terms of the sultan’s surrender, Fatima is tasked with welcoming their women. She befriends one of the women, little realizing that she represents the Inquisition and will see Hassan’s gift as sorcery, and therefore a threat to Christian rule.

In order to escape the Inquisition, Fatima and Hassan embark on an epic voyage across Spain in search of refuge on a mysterious, possible mythic island. With everything on the line, The Bird King asks us to consider what love is, and the price of freedom at a time when the West and the Muslim world were not yet separate. A triumphant tour de force with shadings of Pullman, Gaiman, L’Engle, and C. S. Lewis, G. Willow Wilson’s The Bird King is a jubilant story of love versus power, religion versus faith, and freedom versus safety.

Book Review: Once & Future

once and futureOnce & Future
by Amy Rose Capetta and Cori McCarthy
Sci-Fi/Fantasy/Young Adult/Retelling
354 pages
Published March 2019

This was March’s Illumicrate book, and it’s fantastic! I’d had my eye on it prior to finding out it was the pick for March, and was super happy when that was announced. It’s an exclusive cover, so I’m including a picture of my book too! I actually like the pink better, so I’m slightly saddened by that, but the content is far more important.

20190419_104939790720406498931650.jpgAnd the content is a riot! Ari is our main character, and she’s King Arthur reborn, as these stories always go. Merlin is aging backwards, as he often is, and he wakes up this time as a teenager and groans. It’s pretty hilarious. Arthur’s knights are various characters, of various ethnicities and sexualities. This is a HELLA queer book, and it’s great. We get bi, lesbian, gay, pan, omni – honestly it seems that in this future, people have just accepted that you’ll love who you will love, gender be damned. One of the knights is even ace!

There is going to be a sequel, though I’m not sure when it’s scheduled to be released. Not soon enough, is the real answer, in my opinion!

I realize I haven’t said much about the actual plot, but – really. It’s King Arthur and her knights, as queer teenagers, in space, fighting a giant corporation. That’s really all you need to know. Go read it!

From the cover of Once & Future:

A NEW KING ARTHUR HAS RISEN AND SHE’S GOT A UNIVERSE TO SAVE.

Coming to terms with your identity is always difficult. But for Ari, as the reincarnation of King Arthur, it just got a lot more complicated. What on Earth (or anywhere in space) can she hope to achieve with a rusty spaceship and an adolescent wizard called Merlin?

Gender-bending royalty, caustic wit and a galaxy-wide fight for peace and equality all collide in this brilliant reinvention of the Arthurian legend.

Book Review: Endless Water, Starless Sky

endless water starless skyEndless Water, Starless Sky
by Rosamund Hodge
Young Adult/Fantasy/Retelling
441 pages
Published 2018

This is the sequel to Bright Smoke, Cold Fire, in which we were introduced to Romeo Mahyanai and Juliet Catresou, and the city of Viyara. This book concentrates much more on Romeo and Juliet instead of Paris and Runajo/Rosaline, who were arguably the main characters of the first book.

So, as a quick recap, the city of Viyara/Verona is the last city anywhere in the world, as far as anyone in the city knows. A mystical event called The Ruining manifested as a white fog and spread over the entire world, killing everything in its path, and making the dead rise as zombies. The only reason Viyara stands is because some long-dead priestess managed to create mystical walls to protect it – but the walls are fueled by blood. Willing, sometimes coerced people are sacrificed on a regular basis to fuel the walls and keep the rest of the city safe. Juliet is not actually Juliet, but THE Juliet, a nameless girl raised and mystically bound to the clan of the Catresou, obedient to the head of the clan and bound to avenge any unnatural deaths of the family. She, however, falls in love with Romeo.

The first book plays out their love story, while seeing events around it through the eyes of Runajo and Paris. By the second book, Romeo and Juliet each think the other is dead, though Romeo has discovered that’s a lie, Runajo has ideas about how to save the city from the Ruining, and Romeo and Juliet have switched sides. Her mystical bindings have been transferred to Romeo’s clan, and Romeo, through guilt and remorse, has transferred his loyalties to Juliet’s clan.

The second book concentrates on saving the city, the last bastion of humanity. There are zombies, and sacrifices, and sword fights, and stolen kisses. Things really get complicated when Romeo accidentally kills a Mahyanai and Juliet’s mystical bindings kick in, compelling her to kill him. She operates under that compulsion for most of the last half of the book, while still being utterly in love with him and trying to fight the compulsion.

It’s hard to do this book justice; the web is very complex and, like any Romeo and Juliet story, only ends in death. In Hodge’s world, however, the mystical bindings on Juliet have made her a key to the land of death, allowing her to cross over while still alive. So we get a journey through Death’s kingdom, and it is fascinating.

I won’t say anymore, but if you like Shakespeare, and you like fantasy, you should totally read this duology.

From the cover of Endless Water, Starless Sky:

In the last days of the world, the walls of Viyara are still falling, and the dead are rising faster than ever.

Juliet is trapped – ordered by Lord Ineo of the Mahyanai to sacrifice the remaining members of her family, the Catresou, to stave off the end of the world. Though they’re certain his plan is useless, Juliet and her former friend Runajo must comply with Lord Ineo’s wishes unless they can discover a different, darker path to protecting Viyara.

Romeo is tortured. Finally aware that his true love is alive, he is at once elated and devastated, for his actions led directly to the destruction of her clan. The only way to redemption is to offer his life to the Catresou to protect and support them . . . even if it means dying to do so.

When Romeo and Juliet’s paths converge once again, only a journey into Death will offer answers and the key to saving them all – but is it a journey either of them will survive?

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.