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.

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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?

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: Queen of Ruin

queen of ruinQueen of Ruin
by Tracy Banghart
Young Adult
325 pages
Published July 2019

This is the sequel to Grace and Fury, a book that surprised me with how much I actually really liked it. Picking up immediately where the first book left off, we’re thrust right back into the oppressive kingdom of Viridia and the women fighting for their freedom. I can’t say a whole lot about the plot in this second book without spoiling things, but the sisters find each other, split up, and find each other again, each collision shaking their beliefs and convictions, as well as those around them. The battles are bloody and visceral without being unnecessarily gory, the action kept the plot moving at a good pace, and the oppression was appropriately infuriating.

My only complaint would be that the overall plot was too easy – but these are short Young Adult books. You can’t give them too many obstacles to overcome or you’ll exceed your allotted pages, so I can give that a pass here.

Everything is wrapped up nicely by the end of the book; I appreciate that this was a duology and not a trilogy (though a trilogy would have allowed for more obstacles). I do enjoy the recent trend in YA towards duologies, though.

So – if you enjoyed Grace and Fury, this is a satisfactory conclusion. The first book was by far the stronger of the two, though.

From the cover of Queen of Ruin:

RESILIENCE
RESISTANCE
REVOLUTION

When the new, brutal Superior banishes Nomi from Bellaqua, she finds herself powerless and headed toward her all-but-certain death. Her only hope is to find her sister, Serina, on the prison island of Mount Ruin. But when Nomi arrives, it is not the island of conquered, broken women that she expected. It is an island in the grip of revolution, and Serina – polite, submissive Serina – is its leader.

Betrayal, grief, and violence have changed both sisters, and the women of Mount Ruin have their sights set on revenge beyond the confines of their island prison. They plan to sweep across the entire kingdom, issuing in a new ages of freedom for all. But first they’ll have to get rid of the new Superior, and only Nomi knows how.

Separated once again, this time by choice, Nomi and Serina must forge their own paths as they aim to tear down the world they know and build something better in its place. 

The stakes are higher and the battles bolder in Tracy Banghart’s unputdownable sequel to Grace and Fury.

Book Review: The Hundredth Queen

the hundredth queenThe Hundredth Queen
by Emily R. King
Young Adult / Fantasy / Romance
287 pages
Published 2017

This is the first book of a four-book series, and I already have the last three requested from the library, because this was a fun bit of fluff. HOWEVER. I’m a little ashamed that I enjoyed it so much, because there is SO MUCH WRONG HERE. Just off the top of my head, there’s fridging, instalove, women ritualistically competing for a man’s affection, and a woman who “isn’t pretty” and “isn’t special” yet beats other women in combat and has men obsessing over her. It reminds me a lot of Empress of All Seasons, except Empress wasn’t culturally appropriative, either! The author is white and lives in Utah, while writing about a culture that takes a lot from ancient India. (Though she says the religion is based on ancient Sumeria.)

The silly thing I keep coming back to is at the very beginning, Kalinda is gifted a carriage and horses as an engagement gift; yet they ditch the horses for camels to cross the desert on the last leg of their journey. Nice gift.

The world-building could use some work, but I expect that to be further explored in the rest of the series. I wish the romance had built more slowly and not been so instant; I always find it hard to believe the heroine can trust her lover so much when she DOESN’T EVEN REALLY KNOW HIM. Like – seriously?

While this is a fun, quick read, I can’t in good conscience recommend it.

From the cover of The Hundredth Queen:

HE WANTED A WARRIOR QUEEN. HE GOT A REVOLUTIONARY.

As an orphan ward of the Sisterhood, eighteen-year-old Kalinda is destined for nothing more than a life of seclusion and prayer. Plagued by fevers, she’s an unlikely candidate for even a servant’s position, let alone a courtesan or wife. Her sole dream is to continue living in peace in the Sisterhood’s mountain temple.

But a visit from the tyrant Rajah Tarek disrupts Kalinda’s life. Within hours, she is ripped from the comfort of her home, set on a desert trek, and ordered to fight for her place among the rajah’s ninety-nine wives and numerous courtesans. Her only solace comes in the company of her guard, the stoic but kind Captain Deven Naik.

Faced with the danger of a tournament to the death – and her growing affection for Deven – Kalinda has only one hope for escape, and it lies in an arcane, forbidden power buried within her.

Book Review: Naamah

naamahNaamah: A Novel
by Sarah Blake
Historical Fiction / LGBT
296 pages
Published April 2019

It took me until just now, staring at my screen, to realize those are supposed to be water droplets on the cover, distorting the image behind them. Fitting, with the huge part that water plays in this story. Most of the narrative takes place aboard the ark during the flood – water is ever-present and overwhelming.

Naamah is an odd novel. I can’t really explain why I chose to read it; I’d heard that Naamah was bisexual in the book, and I think maybe a queer, feminist retelling of a Bible story appealed to me? It then took me a month or so to get around to actually reading it because of the Bible story part!

The narrative, while always told from Naamah’s point of view, dips into her memories, where we learn about the widow Bethel, her lover before the flood, and into Naamah’s dreams, where we meet Sarai. Sarai, or Sarah, is Abraham’s wife in the future. Well. Naamah’s future. Our ancient past. Sarai shows Naamah the far future – our present – and claims to have ascended to near godhood. She seems to take pity on Naamah’s despair, trying to show her what her time on the ark begets later. It’s strange.

Naamah is clearly depressed, and sorting out her dreams from what is actually happening is difficult for both her and the reader, I think. The whole book is fuzzy and a little dream-like.

It’s interesting, but I can’t say I’d recommend it.

From the cover of Naamah:

With the coming of the Great Flood – the mother of all disasters – only one family is spared, left drifting on the endless waters, waiting for them to subside. We know the story of Noah, moved by divine word to build an ark and launch an escape. Now, in a work of astounding invention, Sarah Blake reclaims the story of his wife, Naamah, the matriarch who kept them alive. Here is the woman torn between faith and fury, lending her strength to her sons and their wives, caring for an unruly menagerie of restless creatures while silently mourning the lover she left behind. Here is the woman escaping into the unreceded waters, where a seductive angel tempts her to join a strange and haunted world. Here is the woman tormented by dreams and questions of her own – questions of devotion and self-determination, of history and memory, of the kindness or cruelty of fate.

In fresh and modern language, Blake revisits the story of the ark and discovers the agonizing burdens endured by the woman at the center of it all. Naamah is a parable for our time: a provocative fable of body, spirit, and resilience.