Series Review: The Conqueror’s Saga

and i darkenAnd I Darken / Now I Rise / Bright We Burn
by Kiersten White
Alternate History
475 / 476 / 416 pages
Published 2016 / 2017 / 2018

I’ve heard a lot about this trilogy, but it was a close friend of mine gushing about it that finally brought it to the top of my reading list. Much like Bram Stoker’s Dracula, I wish I had read it sooner, as the entire trilogy is excellent. It’s a dark trilogy – it’s based on Vlad Dracul, not Dracula, and it doesn’t shy away from the brutality of his story. Except in this trilogy, it’s her story. And I Darken tells the story of Lada’s childhood alongside her brother, Radu. How their father left them with the Ottoman Empire’s sultan as hostages against his good behavior. How they found a place there and started to grow up and possibly even make friends, or at least allies. It specifically details their friendship with the Sultan’s son and heir, Mehmed.

now i riseThe second book, Now I Rise, covers the early years of Mehmed’s reign as sultan, and the siege of Constantinople. Most of this book is spent on Radu, as the siblings are doing different things in vastly different places at this point. We still get glimpses of Lada’s life, but Radu is definitely the star here, which is good, as I like him much more than Lada.

I don’t think Lada is supposed to be liked. She is vicious, and brutal, and while you can see where the brutality comes from, and why she thinks she must be this way, it’s still not exactly an easy trait to like. I much prefer Radu and his unusual marriage.

The third book, Bright We Burn, brings Radu and Lada back together again. There’s not much I can say here, for fear of spoiling things, but it is an epic and satisfying conclusion to the trilogy.

bright we burnTaken together, these three books are an epic story. They span the length of the Ottoman Empire, involve love affairs with powerful people, hidden passions, and bastard children. There is blood and death and plague. Cities fall and fortresses are built. The story is true to the bones of Vlad Dracul’s history; gender-swapping Vlad into Lada was an absolutely inspired bit of storytelling.

There’s no magic in these books, so it’s not exactly fantasy, it’s alternate history, but it reads like fantasy. Swords and shields and sieges and medieval politics.

If you like epic fantasy, and don’t mind a bit of brutal combat – if you like Game of Thrones – you’ll like these. I loved them.

There’s a good bit of LGBT rep – Radu is very gay, and Lada is aromantic. There’s also a lesbian pair.

From the cover of And I Darken:

NO ONE EXPECTS A PRINCESS TO BE BRUTAL.

And Lada Dragwlya likes it that way. Ever since she and her gentle younger brother, Radu, were wrenched from their homeland of Wallachia and abandoned by their father to be raised in the Ottoman courts, Lada has known that being ruthless is the key to survival. She and Radu are doomed to act as pawns in a vicious game, an unseen sword hovering over their every move. For the lineage that makes them special also makes them targets.

Lada despises the Ottomans and bides her time, planning her vengeance for the day when she can return to Wallachia and claim her birthright. Radu longs only for a place where he feels safe. And when they meet Mehmed, the defiant and lonely son of the sultan, Radu feels that he’s made a true friend – and Lada wonders if she’s finally found someone worthy of her passion.

But Mehmed is heir to the very empire that Lada has sworn to fight against – and that Radu now considers home. Together, Lada, Radu, and Mehmed form a toxic triangle that strains the bonds of love and loyalty to the breaking point. 

From New York Times bestselling author Kiersten White comes the first book in a dark, sweeping new series in which heads will roll, bodies will be impaled . . . and hearts will be broken.

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Book Review: We Set the Dark on Fire

we set the dark on fireWe Set the Dark on Fire
by Tehlor Kay Mejia
Young Adult / Dystopia / LGBT / Romance
364 pages
Published February 2019

We Set the Dark on Fire is an excellent example of how government-mandated relationship structures are oppressive. The core of the story revolves around an island society’s marriage structure; because of an old myth, each man – or at least each upper-class man – has two wives. One wife, the Primera, is expected to be his intellectual equal; she runs his affairs and household and manages his social engagements – the business side of the marriage, if you will – and a second wife who is his heart. The second wife, the Segunda, is expected to be emotional, passionate, and beautiful; she bears and raises his children. The wives are expected to get along and love each other like family.

This is really only the framework for the plot, though. The plot itself revolves around the idea of who belongs in society and who doesn’t. I’ve seen some people call it illegal immigration, and there IS a wall that it is illegal to come over; the unfortunates living outside the wall are uncared for by society and government alike. But I didn’t get the impression that they weren’t actually part of the same country. So I’m not 100% certain I agree that it counts as immigration in the story, though it does have a lot of the same principles, so it may as well be. There’s a lot of othering and dehumanizing, and deciding who deserves what based on their wealth, and government checkpoints to check residence papers, so even if it isn’t technically immigration – well. It’s still a major theme.

This sounds like it could be a book on polyamory; it is not. This is government-mandated female oppression. The government, and our main character’s new husband, specifically, are intent on crushing the resistance coming from the poor who live on the edges of the island. The resistance is called La Voz, or The Voice, and they help Daniela, our main character, out of a tight spot in the beginning of the book. In return, they expect her to spy for them on her new husband, a highly-placed government official. Not knowing who to trust, and afraid of her lies being discovered, she agrees.

What follows is the early stages of rebellion: protests, government cover-ups, undercover meetings, and military checkpoints. In the middle of it all, Daniela begins to fall in love with her Segunda, Carman, who seems to have secrets of her own.

I really really enjoyed this book, and I am very much looking forward to the second! It’s listed as a duology, so it should just be the two. I can’t wait!

From the cover of We Set the Dark on Fire:

At the Medio School for Girls, distinguished young women are trained for one of two roles in their polarized society. Depending on her specialization, a graduate will one day run her husband’s household or raise his children, but both wives are promised a life of comfort and luxury, far from the frequent political uprisings of the lower class.

Daniela Vargas is the school’s top student, but her bright future depends upon no one discovering her darkest secret – that her pedigree is a lie. Her parents sacrificed everything to obtain forged identification papers so Dani could rise above her station. Now that her marriage to an important politico’s son is fast approaching, she must keep the truth hidden or be sent back to the fringes of society, where famine and poverty rule supreme. 

On her graduation night, Dani seems to be in the clear, despite the surprises that unfold. But nothing prepares her for all the difficult choices she must make, especially when she is asked to spy for a resistance group desperately fighting to bring equality to Medio. Will Dani give up everything she’s strived for in pursuit of a free Medio – and a chance at a forbidden love?

The first in a sizzling fantasy duology from debut author Tehlor Kay Mejia, We Set the Dark on Fire is a boldly feminist look at freedom, family, and fighting the power.

Book Review: Georgia Peaches and Other Forbidden Fruit

georgia peaches and other forbidden fruitGeorgia Peaches and Other Forbidden Fruit
by Jaye Robin Brown
Young Adult/Romance/LGBT
432 pages
Published 2016

This is a sweet, southern f/f romance. Set in Georgia, it deals with a lot of things young lesbians might have to deal with in the south – religion, bigotry, the stress of coming out or not coming out (or being forced back in the closet by a move to a small town)! It doesn’t deal with any outright violence against our lesbian protagonists, and it just barely touches on drug use, eating disorders, and abusive relationships. Joanna has a mostly supportive family, even if they do ask her to hide her sexuality for her senior year in the new town. Jo reluctantly agrees to do so, but doesn’t count on falling in love with a girl at her new school.

The book deals a LOT with religion and sexuality; Jo’s father is a radio preacher, and she attends a baptist church in town with her stepmother and new grandparents. At one point – one of my favorite scenes in the book – she snaps, and calls out her classmates for thinking homosexuality is a sin, while they eat shellfish and have premarital sex.

I liked the book, but I’m not sure I’d recommend it. I grew up Christian; I’m familiar with all the concepts in the book, but rather than progress to a kinder, more loving version of Christianity, I left it behind altogether. I’m glad that some people can reconcile religion with progressive values, but I can’t. So it might be a good book for some, but not for me.

From the cover of Georgia Peaches and Other Forbidden Fruit:

It’s going to take a miracle for Joanna Gordon to get through senior year. 

Despite being the daughter of a well-known radio evangelist, Jo has never hidden the fact that she’s gay, and her dad has always supported her. But that was back in Atlanta. Now her dad the reverend has married wife number three, and they’ve all moved to small-town Rome, Georgia. When Jo’s dad asks her to lie low for the rest of the year in the hopes that it will help him and his new wife settle in, Jo reluctantly agrees. 

Although when God closes a closet door, he opens a window. Everything becomes so easy for Jo once she rebrands herself as a straight girl. No one gives her odd looks. Her new stepfamily likes her. She even gets in with the popular crowd.

And that’s how she meets Mary Carlson, the ultimate temptation. Even though Jo knows this girl is completely off-limits, she just can’t get her out of her mind. But Jo couldn’t possibly think of breaking her promise to her dad. Even if Jo’s starting to fall for Mary Carlson. Even if there’s a chance Mary Carlson might be interested in her, too. Right?

Lord, have mercy.

Jo’s in for one hell of a year.

Book Review: The Shadowglass

shadow glassThe Shadowglass
by Rin Chupeco
Fantasy
456 pages
Published 2019

I wish I had the first two books in front of me to refer back to while reading this one. Specifically, the last few chapters of book two. Like the first two books, this one alternates chapters between the bard’s point of view, and the story told to the bard by Tea. The difference is that they have separated paths at this point; so instead of the bard’s chapters being very short, getting clarification on the story she’s telling, he’s now telling what’s happening to him in present day, interspersed with Tea’s letters that he’s carrying, with the rest of her story. This gets VERY confusing. It’s confusing even trying to explain the timeline! Okay, if we split up all three books between Tea’s story and the Bard’s viewpoint, chronologically they’d look like this:

The Bone Witch – Tea’s Story
The Heartforger – Tea’s Story
The Shadowglass – Tea’s Story
The Bone Witch – Bard’s Viewpoint
The Heartforger – Bard’s Viewpoint
The Shadowglass – Bard’s Viewpoint

See why I’d like to have the other two books to refer back to? This book is giving me part 3 and part 6. And while it was pretty easy to keep them straight in books one and two, because the Bard wasn’t doing much besides having a conversation with Tea, in this book, he’s off seeing OTHER important events that are happening while Tea is doing other things – and occasionally flitting in and out of his orbit too!

It is a good conclusion – the end, especially, had me crying into my book – but most of the book was very, VERY confusing. Like another conclusion I’ve read recently, if you moved straight through the trilogy with no waiting time, it might not be too bad.

What ESPECIALLY annoys me, is in the Bard’s viewpoint in the first two books, she does something that is supposed to be impossible. So in her story in The Shadowglass, this thing is impossible. But in the Bard’s viewpoint, she’s ALREADY DONE IT. And there’s no explanation of HOW. That’s really what I’d like to refer back to the other two books about. Having that particular task be in the time gap between the two parts of the book was poorly done. Like, really? I read Book 2 almost a YEAR AGO. I don’t remember how that part happened.

So that’s particularly frustrating. I wish Book 3 had condensed to one timeline. I don’t really see why it couldn’t have. It would have been much less confusing!

From the cover of The Shadowglass:

I had no plans of living forever.

In the Eight Kingdoms, none have greater strength or influence than the asha, who hold elemental magic. But only a bone witch has the power to raise the dead. Tea has used this dark magic to breathe life into those she has loved and lost . . . and those who would join her army against the deceitful royals. But Tea’s quest to conjure a shadowglass, to achieve immortality for the one person she loves most in the world, threatens to consume her.

In this dramatic conclusion to Tea’s journey, her heartsglass only grows darker with each new betrayal. She is haunted by blackouts and strange visions, and when she wakes with blood on her hands, Tea must answer to a power greater than she’s ever known. Tea’s life – and the fate of the kingdoms – hangs in the balance.

Book Review: Greywalker and Poltergeist

greywalkerGreywalker/Poltergeist
by Kat Richardson
Urban Fantasy
352 pages/349 pages
Published 2006/2007

I didn’t want to call this a series review, because there’s currently nine books in the series, and I’ve only read two of them. So this is a review of the first two books in the Greywalker series, because I don’t plan on reading more. I know that sounds ominous! Bear with me.

So Greywalker begins with our heroine, Harper, nearly being killed by a dude she’s been investigating. Well. Not nearly. She does die, but the EMTs bring her back. This experience gives her the ability to see into the Grey – a kind of fuzzy otherworld full of ghosts and other, scarier beings.

Now, this is a cool concept. I’m down with this. My problem, I think, is that Harper just seems to take this in stride. She finds a couple of people who know about the Grey, and teach her how to use it. But I feel like she never really emotionally dealt with this giant change. It felt like she basically went “Huh. Okay. That’s a thing. I need to learn how to use this.” She just went back to being a PI with this new ability. Fifty pages in, she’s back to investigating cases. It would be one thing if these were flashbacks – if the assault had happened prior to the book opening, and she’d done the emotional work. But to have the book open with that, and expect us to believe she’s just – okay with this? That a human could wrap their brain around this news so quickly? I don’t know. That requires a LOT of suspension of disbelief.

poltergeistIf I ignore the start, and the fact that she’s brand new to being a Greywalker and should be dealing with that, the rest of the book is a pretty standard urban fantasy mystery. I liked the world-building and the different takes on supernaturals. Vampires are, rightly, TERRIFYING. Despite being the protagonist, Harper is not magically immune to vampire wiles, which is a nice change. Personally, though, Book One is just spoiled for me because there should be a lot more emotional fallout. The character just falls flat and seems unrealistic.

The second book is better; possibly simply because this isn’t new for her by now, so I’m not expecting emotional work from her. The investigation seems more focused, and less scattered all over the place. It’s still pretty standard urban fantasy, though.

Overall, the concept is interesting, but the execution is lacking. It’s possible the series gets better in later books, but I’ve read two and just don’t have the desire to spend more time with Harper. She’s flat, lacks emotional depth, and is just uninteresting. I’m moving on to other books.

From the cover of Greywalker:

Harper Blaine was your average small-time PI until a two-bit perp’s savage assault left her dead – for two minutes, to be precise.

When Harper comes to in the hospital, she begins to feel a bit…strange. She sees things that can only be described as weird – shapes emerging from a foggy grey mist, snarling teeth, creatures roaring.

But Harper’s not crazy. Her “death” has made her a Greywalker – able to move between our world and the mysterious crossover zone where things that go bump in the night exist. And her new gift (or curse) is about to drag her into that world of vampires and ghosts, magic and witches, necromancers and sinister artifacts . . . 

Whether she likes it or not.

 

From the cover of Poltergeist:

In the days leading up to Halloween, Harper’s been hired by a university research group that’s attempting to create an artificial poltergeist. The head researcher suspects someone is faking the phenomena, but Harper’s investigation reveals something else entirely: They’ve succeeded.

When one of the group’s members is found dead in a brutal and inexplicable fashion, Harper must determine whether the killer is the ghost itself . . . or someone all too human.

Book Review: The Poet X

the poet xThe Poet X
by Elizabeth Acevedo
Young Adult/Poetry
357 pages
Published 2018

This is another much-hyped book – and oh man, did it stand up to the hype. Told entirely through poetry, this novel was extraordinarily powerful, and had me sobbing near the end. Xiomara is an amazing character, and her poetry shows us her emotions more than prose ever could.

I’ve always loved poetry for that reason; especially poetry that plays with formatting – spacing and line breaks and size of stanzas. It’s so much more evocative than simple paragraphs of prose. (My favorite poet is probably e.e. cummings, who is rather infamous for unusual formatting.)

Acavedo does similar things, making Xiomara’s poetry explode across the page when necessary, and ordering it into simpler stanzas in calmer moments. It’s not rhyming, even poetry; this is written slam poetry. And I love it.

Xiomara is Dominican, living in Harlem, with a very strict, religious mother. Her twin brother is gay but not out to their parents; Xiomara is fine with this but knows their mother won’t be. Her poems cover her need to protect her brother and herself, both from their parents and from the outside world. She writes about street harassment and questioning God and falling in love with a boy, which is also against her mother’s rules. Her poems are at turns heartbreaking and joyous, but always beautiful.

This is an amazing book, and is the second book on my Best of the Year list. I am blown away.

From the cover of The Poet X:

Xiomara Batista feels unheard and unable to hide in her Harlem neighborhood. Ever since her body grew into curves, she has learned to let her fists and her fierceness do the talking.

But Xiomara has plenty she wants to say, and she pours her frustration onto the pages of a leather notebook, reciting the words to herself like prayers – especially after she catches feelings for a boy in her bio class. With Mami’s determination to force her daughter to obey the laws of the church, Xiomara understands that her thoughts are best kept to herself.

When she is invited to join her school’s slam poetry club, she knows that she could never get around Mami’s rules to attend, much less speak her words out loud. But still, she can’t stop thinking about performing her poems. 

Because in spite of a world that may not want to hear her, Xiomara refuses to be silent.