Book Review: The Girl King

the girl kingThe Girl King
by Mimi Yu
Young Adult/Fantasy
488 pages
Published January 2019

This is one of those books that I realized, far too late, that it wasn’t a standalone novel. Far too few pages left for everything that still needs to be wrapped up, and yep. Only the first book. I’m not sure why I hadn’t realized it wasn’t a standalone. The second book, Empress of Flames, isn’t due out until early 2020, which is far too long to wait! I need to know what happens to these characters!

The Girl King is mainly the story of Lu, eldest daughter of the Emperor of the First Flame. She is expecting to be named heir, and when she isn’t and her cousin (and bully) Set is named instead, she decides not to placidly accept the injustice. She runs away from court, intending to find allies to help her retake the throne. Lu is single-minded and selfish. She doesn’t really pay attention to how her actions affect other people – she doesn’t think twice about leaving her younger, more timid sister to face the court, their mother, and Set on her own. I know that we’re supposed to be cheering for Lu in this book, but in D&D terms, she’s a paladin. She might be right. She’s not very likable. I had far more sympathy for Min, her sister.

Actually, thinking back on it, almost none of these characters did much thinking about how their actions affect other people. The leader of the refugee Gifted did, she had her people to think about. And the triad of rulers of the mythical city were looking out for their people. But Lu really only thinks of herself. Set definitely only thinks about himself. Min is set up to be more sympathetic but is stuck inside her own head. Nok is too consumed with his own private pity party to think much about other people. I love Nok, don’t get me wrong, he was probably my favorite character, but he doesn’t think much about other people other than his mentor.

I feel like it’s reasonable to have one or two self-obsessed characters, but when it’s everyone, I think that might be a writing issue. The story was still great, and I will definitely be reading the second book, but I’m hoping for some character growth and learning about empathy as the story progresses.

From the cover of The Girl King:

IN AN EMPIRE OF FLAMES, THEY MUST RISE FROM THE ASHES.

Sisters Lu and Min have always known their places as princesses of the Empire of the First Flame: assertive Lu will be named her father’s heir and become the dynasty’s first female ruler, while timid Min will lead a quiet life in Lu’s shadow. Until their father names a new heir – their male cousin, Set.

Determined to reclaim her birthright, Lu goes in search of allies, leaving Min to face the volatile court alone. Lu soon crosses paths with Nokhai, the lone, unlikely survivor of a clan of nomadic wolf shapeshifters. Nok never learned to shift – or to trust the empire that killed his family – but working with Lu might be the only way to unlock his true power. 

As Lu and Nok form a tenuous alliance, Min’s own power awakens, a forbidden magic that could secure Set’s reign . . . or allow her to claim the throne herself. But there can be only one emperor, and each sister’s greatest enemy could very well be the other.

This sweeping fantasy set against a world of ancient magic and political intrigue weaves an unforgettable story of ambition, betrayal, and sacrifice. 

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Book Review: Slayer

slayerSlayer
by Kiersten White
Young Adult/Urban Fantasy
404 pages
Published January 2019

I am a Buffy fan. I’m not the biggest Buffy fan I know – that honor goes to a friend of mine, who I just gave a giant box of Buffy comic to, since we’re downsizing in preparation for the move to the new house. I haven’t seen anyone that happy in a while, and it made my day. (And hers, judging from the bouncing and squeeeeing and hugging!) But I am still a Buffy fan. I own DVDs of the entire show, plus Angel, plus the original movie. The box of comics I just gave away was Season 8 and some spin offs. Slayer takes place after all of that.

First I’m going to say, if you’re not a Buffy fan, seriously don’t bother with this book. You won’t understand a lot of what goes on, and while there are cursory explanations given in the book, it’s really not meant for people that haven’t watched/read the rest of the world. You’d be okay not knowing much about Angel, but you really do need to have watched the TV show of Buffy, especially that last season. While the book takes place after the comics, they’re not necessary to understand the plot as that, at least, is explained.

So, for the rest of us Buffy fans, this is a great continuation of the Buffy-verse. Nina is the daughter of Watchers – in fact the daughter of Buffy’s first watcher, the one before Giles. Given what befell the Watchers, the ones that are left are kind of antagonistic towards Slayers in general and Buffy in particular. So when Nina becomes a Slayer, her world goes sideways.

The world is mostly the same, but with a twist due to events in the comics. (It’s explained. You don’t need to have read them.) The book expands on how Slayer powers work, a bit, especially their dreams now that there’s more than one of them alive at a time. We do see mentions of familiar characters, with one notable scene where an old favorite appears briefly.

I really enjoyed the book, and I’m eager to read the second half of the duology when it comes out. I need to know how Nina’s story ends! The book ended on a subtle cliffhanger; the main conflict has been resolved, and the characters think it’s over, but we know it’s not. Similar to how many episodes of Buffy ended, actually.

So yeah. If you’re a Buffy fan, pick up this book, it’s pretty great. If you’re not – take a pass. Or start with the TV show and get yourself a new fandom if you’re feeling bored!

From the cover of Slayer:

Nina and her twin sister, Artemis, are far from normal. It’s hard to be when you grow up at the Watchers Academy, which is a bit different from your average boarding school. Here teens are trained as guides for Slayers – girls gifted with supernatural strength to fight the forces of darkness. But while Nina’s mother is a prominent member of the Watchers Council, Nina has never embraced the violent Watcher lifestyle. Instead, she follows her instincts to heal, carving out a place for herself as the school medic.

Until the day Nina’s life changes forever.

Thanks to Buffy, the famous (and infamous) Slayer that Nina’s father died protecting, Nina is not only the newest Chosen One – she’s the last Slayer, ever. Period.

As Nina hones her skills with her Watcher-in-training, Leo, there’s plenty to keep her occupied: a monster fighting ring, a demon who eats happiness, a shadowy figure that keeps popping up in Nina’s dreams . . .

But it’s not until bodies start turning up that Nina’s new powers will truly be tested – because someone she loves might be next.

One thing is clear: Being Chosen is easy. Making choices is hard.

Book Review: A Blade So Black

a blade so blackA Blade So Black
by L. L. McKinney
Young Adult/Fantasy/Fairy-Tale Retelling
370 pages
Published September 2018

I’ve seen the point brought up that so many fantasy protagonists have really neglectful parents. Who lets their kid be gone for an unknown amount of time doing something “important” that their kid refuses to tell them about because it’s a “secret”? This book makes a point of how NOT neglectful Alice’s mother is. The blurb calls her overprotective, but really it’s just normal protective. Alice’s mom just wants to know her daughter hasn’t been shot by the police when she’s gone for 24 hours and not answering her phone, that seems normal to me! I actually enjoyed how that was different than a lot of fantasy YA, even if it’s really a small sideplot.

In the main plot, Alice is a Dreamwalker, wielding Figment Blades and her own Muchness to kill the Nightmares that try to cross from Wonderland to our world. Her mentor is Addison Hatta, an exile from Wonderland who’s been charged to guard his Gateway and train new Dreamwalkers. Along the way we meet two more Dreamwalkers, more exiled Wonderlanders, and learn a bit about the war in Wonderland and why they’re exiled but still charged with such an important mission as guiding the Gateways between our world and theirs.

About the only thing I didn’t like about this book was how it left so many questions unanswered at the end. We got a cliffhanger to lead us into the sequel, A Dream So Dark, but it isn’t due out until September! I’m also wondering where the Cheshire Cat is – he’s too instrumental a character to leave out, I would think – but I have a few possible idea about where the author is going with that, so I’m anxious for the sequel, to see if I’m right.

A Blade So Black is a very unique take on Wonderland by a POC author, starring a POC heroine. There’s also an adorable lesbian couple as side characters. With minority racial representation, a fairy tale base, and a splash of LGBT+ rep, this book checked a lot of the boxes I look for in my fantasy. It wasn’t the best YA fantasy that I’ve read in the last year, but it was definitely fun!

From the cover of A Blade So Black:

This isn’t the Wonderland you remember.

The first time a Nightmare came, Alice nearly lost her life. Now, with magic weapons and hard-core fighting skills, she battles these monstrous creatures in the dream realm known as Wonderland. Yet even warriors have curfews.

Life in real-world Atlanta isn’t always so simple, as Alice juggles an overprotective mom, a high-maintenance best friend, and school. Keeping the Nightmares at bay is turning into a full-time job.

When Alice’s handsome and mysterious mentor is poisoned, she has to find the antidote by venturing deeper into Wonderland than she’s ever gone before. And she’ll need to use everything she’s learned in both worlds to keep from losing her head . . . literally.

Book Review: A Spark of White Fire

spark of white fireA Spark of White Fire
by Sangu Mandanna
Science Fiction/Fantasy/Mythological Retelling
311 pages
Published September 2018

This book ripped my heart out and stomped on it. I started crying during one of the last scenes, and thought that was bad enough – then the next chapter just DESTROYED ME. It is the first book in a trilogy inspired by the Mahabharata (which I totally want to read now!) – the second book, A House of Rage and Sorrow, isn’t due out until September. September! What am I supposed to do until then?!

So. Wow. This is the first book I’ve read by Mandanna, though The Lost Girl sounds interesting. Given how good this one was, that one has moved higher on my list.

In A Spark of White Fire, we follow Esmae, a girl who was sent away at birth because her mother was told she’d destroy her family. Trying to subvert those kinds of curses never works out well. She’s grown up an orphan in a different kingdom, albeit one educated by royal tutors with the local princes, as requested by a goddess. (When the goddess of war asks you to educate an orphan girl with your sons, you do it.) All Esmae really wants is to return to her family; she believes the only way to do that, to claim her place with them, is to help her brother regain his throne. And she thinks she can best do that by winning this contest, earning the unbeatable space ship, and pretending to go join her uncle’s family so she has an inside channel to her brother’s enemies. It’s a little convoluted, but it is something that her brother desperately needs, so it kind of makes sense.

Things unfortunately don’t go as planned, and every attempt to escape fate only winds the net tighter.

I loved every character in this book, from the sentient warship Titania (who I wish we’d spent more time with!) to Esmae, her best friend Rama, her cousin Max, her brothers, even her uncle, the usurper king. And the gods. Everyone has such personality. They just leap off the page. Granted, some of them are trying to stab arrows into your heart, but they come to life regardless!

The family dynamics are really what the book is about – no one’s truly in the wrong, here, and no one really wants to kill each other, but pride, miscommunication, and bad advice rips them apart. Esmae and Max are doing their best to reconcile the two halves of the family, but the family resists them at every turn.

I actually picked this book for the Year of the Asian Reading Challenge January prompt, which is “Family.” I moved it up several spots in my To-Read list to make it a January book! I’m glad I did, though, it was absolutely amazing. I can’t wait for the next book!

From the cover of A Spark of White Fire:

When Esmae wins a contest of skill, she sets off events that trigger an inevitable and  unwinnable war that pits her against the family she’d give anything to return to.

In a universe of capricious gods, dark moons, and kingdoms built on the backs of spaceships, a cursed queen sends her infant daughter away, a jealous uncle steals the throne of Kali from his nephew, and an exiled prince vows to take his crown back.

Raised alone and far away from her home on Kali, Esmae longs to return to her family. When the King of Wychstar offers to gift the unbeatable, sentient warship Titania to a warrior that can win his competition, she sees her way home: she’ll enter the competition, reveal her true identity to the world, and help her famous brother win back the crown of Kali.

It’s a great plan. Until it falls apart.

Inspired by the Mahabharata and other ancient Indian stories, A Spark of White Fire is a lush, sweeping space opera about family, curses, and the endless battle between jealousy and love.

Book Review: Vox

voxVox
by Christina Dalcher
Dystopia
326 pages
Published August 2018

I felt like I was reading a horror novel instead of a dystopia. The first third of the book, specifically, was enraging. It’s the setup – the explanation of how the world is now, and how it came to be that way – that made me have to set the book down twice and walk away to calm down.

The book is the story of Dr. Jean McClellan, cognitive linguist. The forced silence is particularly painful for her, a former scientist who was working on a cure for people who had brain injuries or strokes affecting the Wernicke area of the brain, where we process language. She was about to start restoring language to people who had lost it, only to have it stolen from her and every other woman in the country.

The book opens on Dr. McClellan being asked to return to her work, because the President’s brother suffered a brain injury while skiing and can no longer understand language. As one of the most important advisors to the president, the government needs him. In return for the removal of both her bracelet and her daughter’s, she agrees, hoping to find some way to sabotage the work.

Vox sets out a sequence of events that seems far too feasible for comfort. The religious right extends its foothold from the Bible Belt to more and more of the country, pushing a return to “traditional family values” while methodically stripping freedoms from women and LGBT people. Women’s passports are surreptitiously cancelled, schools are split and classes on Christian theology introduced to the boys’ schools. Girls’ schools consist of very basic math (so they can continue to do the grocery shopping and cooking!) and a ton of home ec. Sewing, Cooking, Housekeeping. LGBT people are sent to prisons/camps unless they marry someone of the opposite sex and produce kids. Basically, it’s the right wing’s dream world.

It’s a horrifying scenario. Even given all the dystopia I’ve read, this book rocked me. It definitely belongs in the league of The Handmaid’s Tale and The Power. My only complaint is I wish the ending had been a little more drawn out, and explained the fallout in a bit more detail. Other than that, though, amazing book.

From the cover of Vox:

Set in a United States in which half the population has been silenced, Vox is the harrowing, unforgettable story of what one woman will do to protect herself and her daughter.

On the day the government decrees that women are no longer allowed more than one hundred words per day, Dr. Jean McClellan is in denial. This can’t happen here. Not in America. Not to her.

This is just the beginning . . . 

Soon women are not permitted to hold jobs. Girls are not taught to read or write. Females no longer have a voice. Before, the average person spoke sixteen thousand words each day, but now women have only one hundred to make themselves heard.

. . . not the end.

For herself, her daughter, and every woman silenced, Jean will reclaim her voice.

Book Review: Give The Dark My Love

give the dark my loveGive The Dark My Love
by Beth Revis
Young Adult/Fantasy
351 pages
Published September 2018

Yet another lady necromancer book! I do really love this topic. It’s also really interesting to see the different flavors various authors can give it. Sometimes it’s binding wandering spirits into physical objects, or bringing spirits back from the Shadowlands to live in our world as normal people, or being a warden against great undead beasts, or, in this case, trying to stop a cursed plague that might have necromantic origins.

There are a lot of commonalities, though, even with how different these ladies’ reasons are. There’s always some line, usually the line into “true” necromancy, that she shouldn’t cross, and which she normally does. There’s always a loved one who ultimately supports her even if they’re not sure she’s doing the right thing. There’s always a sense of desperation driving her to what she sees as the only solution.

What’s amazing is that given that framework, these books continue to surprise and delight me. Each one is still such a unique take on the “dark art” of necromancy. These ladies aren’t evil. Nedra, here, is trying to save her family and her people from a plague that evades any kind of scientific explanation. They have no idea how it spreads. It usually starts in the extremities, and if you cut off the infected limb, sometimes that stops it. But sometimes it doesn’t. And sometimes it starts over the heart, or right in the brain. Some people simply seem to be immune. Nedra works with the sick for months and never gets it, but some people come down with it without having any contact with a sick person. Her teacher at school finally confesses that he thinks it might be necromantic in origin, and things begin to cascade from that point.

There is a romance in the book, though it’s definitely a side plot. Nedra’s studies and work on the plague is the main focus. We have a bisexual character in Nedra’s twin sister, but again, she’s really just a side note. The book ended on a bit of a cliff hanger, and the second book doesn’t have a title or a release date yet, unfortunately. “Sometime in 2019” is all we’ve got, which is quite disappointing because I need it NOW!

While Give The Dark My Love wasn’t the best of the lady necromancer books I’ve read recently, it was still pretty great. I am eager for news of the sequel!

From the cover of Give The Dark My Love:

Seventeen-year-old Nedra Brysstain leaves her home in the rural, northern territories of Lunar Island to attend the prestigious Yügen Academy with only one goal in mind: master the trade of medicinal alchemy. A scholarship student matriculating with the children of Lunar Island’s wealthiest and most powerful families, Nedra doesn’t quite fit in with the other kids at Yügen.

Until she meets Greggori “Grey” Astor. Grey is immediately taken by the brilliant and stubborn Nedra, who, he notices, is especially invested in her studies. And that’s for a good reason: a deadly plague has been sweeping through the north, and it’s making its way toward the cities. With her family’s lives – and the  lives of all of Lunar Island’s citizens – on the line, Nedra is determined to find a cure for the plague.

Grey and Nedra grow close, but as the sickness spreads and the body count rises, Nedra becomes desperate to find a cure. Soon, she finds herself diving into alchemy’s most dangerous practices. And when she turns to the most forbidden practice of all, necromancy, even Grey might not be able to pull her from the darkness.