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: 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: Confessions of the Fox

confessions of the foxConfessions of the Fox
by Jordy Rosenberg
Historical Fiction/Contemporary Fiction
329 pages
Published June 2018

Confessions of the Fox is an #ownvoices novel – written by a trans author, about a trans professor writing about a manuscript about a trans eighteenth-century thief. In that way, it’s quite unique, and valuable for its observations about being trans.

But story-wise – it drug on about a hundred pages too long, got bogged down by the footnotes that tell the professor’s story, and ultimately went off on some conspiracy tangent that added nothing to the plot. It got weird. I think the book would have been better if it had just been Jack Sheppard’s story, without the “professor-annotating-the-manuscript” framework built around it.

Jack is a very compelling character, but we keep getting distracted from his story by the professor’s career and love life problems, so it feels very fragmented. I did enjoy the colorful, metaphorical language constantly being used to talk about sex, though! Make no mistake, this is a dirty book. It’s mostly dirty in the most flowery of terms, so it’s more entertaining than titillating, but it’s something to keep in mind if you’re thinking of gifting it to someone!

Ultimately, I wish I’d skipped it. I know there are people that like the book-within-a-book framework, and I do sometimes, but I feel like it distracted from the story I really wanted to read, here.

From the cover of Confessions of the Fox:

Jack Sheppard and Edgeworth Bess were the most notorious thieves, jailbreakers, and lovers of eighteenth-century London. Yet no one knows the true story; their confessions have never been found.

Until now. Reeling from heartbreak, a scholar named Dr. Voth discovers a long-lost manuscript – a gender-defying exposé of jack and Bess’s adventures. Dated 1724, the book depicts a London underworld where scamps and rogues clash with the city’s newly established police force, queer subcultures thrive, and ominous threats of the Plague abound. Jack – a transgender carpenter’s apprentice – has fled his master’s house to become a legendary prison-break artist, and Bess has escaped the draining of the fenlands to become a revolutionary.

Is Confessions of the Fox an authentic autobiography or a hoax? Dr. Voth obsessively annotates the manuscript, desperate to find the answer. As he is drawn deeper into Jack and Bess’s tale of underworld resistance and gender transformation, it becomes clear that their fates are intertwined – and only a miracle will save them all.

Confessions of the Fox is, at once, a work of speculative historical fiction, a soaring love story, a puzzling mystery, an electrifying tale of adventure and suspense, and an unabashed celebration of sex and sexuality. Writing with the narrative mastery of Sarah Waters and the playful imagination of Nabokov, Jordy Rosenberg is an audacious storyteller of extraordinary talent.

Book Review: The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy

lady's guide to petticoats and piracyThe Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy
by Mackenzi Lee
Young Adult/Historical Fiction/LGBT
450 pages
Published October 2018

I have been eagerly awaiting this sequel to The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, and it did not disappoint! In The Lady’s Guide we continue the story of the Montague siblings, with the book opening on Felicity showing up at her brother’s flat in London while she figures out how to get into medical school. I love the sibling relationship between these two, and Felicity’s friendship with Monty’s partner Percy. The three of them just make an amazing little group, so supportive and understanding of each other.

Felicity strongly hinted at being asexual in The Gentleman’s Guide, and through the course of this book, that is cemented. Even when she comes to care for someone, sex just…isn’t her thing. Romance isn’t really either, making her both asexual and aromantic. It’s fantastic representation for an identity we don’t see very often in books. Or, perhaps, an identity we don’t see explicitly mentioned in fiction. Many books don’t have romantic plots and just don’t investigate that aspect of their characters, but to investigate that aspect of a character and say NO, they are NOT interested in that is unique.

Similar to The Gentleman’s Guide, this is an adventure story. Unexpectedly, we veered into magical realism in this book, with the existence of some fantastical creatures I wasn’t expecting to see. Nothing about The Gentleman’s Guide had implied that the world they inhabited was not exactly ours, but The Lady’s Guide does deviate. So that was a big surprise, and I’m not sure I like it. It felt a little forced. I think the “secret” that someone was protecting could have been written as something real instead of a fantastic creature.

That minor quibble aside, I really loved this book, just like I did the first. These two are GREAT books, and the characters are outstanding.

From the cover of The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy:

Felicity Montague is through with pretending she prefers society parties to books about bonesetting – or that she’s not smarter than most people she knows, or that she cares about anything more than her dream of becoming a doctor.

A year after an accidentally whirlwind tour of Europe, which she spent evading highwaymen and pirates with her brother Monty, Felicity has returned to England with two goals in mind – avoid the marriage proposal of Callum Doyle, a lovestruck suitor from Edinburgh, and enroll in medical school. However, her intellect and passion will never be enough in the eyes of the administrators, who see men as the sole guardians of science.

But then a small window of hope opens. Dr. Alexander Platt, an eccentric physician who Felicity idolizes, is looking for research assistants, and Felicity is sure that someone as forward-thinking as her hero would be willing to take her on. However, Platt is in Germany, preparing to wed Felicity’s estranged childhood friend, Johanna. Not only is Felicity reluctant to open old wounds, but she also has no money to make the trip.

Luckily, a mysterious young woman is willing to pay Felicity’s way, so long as she’s allowed to travel with Felicity disguised as her maid. In spite of her suspicions, Felicity agrees, but once the girl’s true motives are revealed, Felicity becomes part of a perilous quest that leads them from the German countryside to the promenades of Zurich to secrets lurking beneath the Atlantic.

Book Review: Dread Nation

dread nationDread Nation
by Justina Ireland
YA Fantasy (Alternate History)
454 pages
Published April 2018

So, as a general rule, I don’t read zombie stories. Zombies are the one monster that will almost invariably give me nightmares. This book, however, had such hype built up around it that I decided to bend my rule.

I should not have.

Before I start in on this, let me say it’s a good story. It’s well-written, the plot is paced nicely, and it’s entertaining. All that said, it’s quite problematic in many ways. I knew some of this before I read it; there was a Twitter thread about some of the issues, namely that in the Author’s Note she describes the Native American boarding schools (where the government forced Native American children to go, and tried to destroy their heritage and culture in the name of “civilizing” them) as “well-meaning.” The Twitter thread does an excellent job of dissecting that passage, and it’s worth reading.

There’s also the incredibly unrealistic scene where Jane gets flogged eleven times, walks back to where she’s staying, has a coherent conversation where she lays out a plan she has formed, and then puts a shirt on. That last part especially got me. Like, what? You’re going to be in more pain than that! Being flogged barely seems to slow Jane down. She asks for laudanum – for her plan. Not to take for the pain.

I don’t know. There’s a lot about the book that set my teeth on edge. There’s the absurd amount of racism, but the protagonist is a black woman and it’s civil war era, so that’s to be expected. And it’s coming from characters, not from narration. Jane lies. A lot. So it’s hard to trust that she’s even a reliable narrator.

I guess it’s okay. I didn’t care for it. I found it really hard to get past the author’s “well-meaning” comment about the Native American boarding schools. And the plot of “as soon as they’re old enough, black children get sent to combat schools.” Especially with what’s going on lately with the jailing of migrant children, it feels tone-deaf, ignorant, and genocidal.

One good point was the oh-so-casual mention of bisexuality (a female friend taught her “everything she knows about kissing”) but it was only two sentences and never mentioned again. Not nearly enough to make up for the rest of the book.

From the cover of Dread Nation:

Jane McKeene was born two days before the dead began to walk the battlefields of Gettysburg and Chancellorsville—derailing the War Between the States and changing America forever. In this new nation, safety for all depends on the work of a few, and laws like the Native and Negro Reeducation Act require certain children attend combat schools to learn to put down the dead. But there are also opportunities—and Jane is studying to become an Attendant, trained in both weaponry and etiquette to protect the well-to-do. It’s a chance for a better life for Negro girls like Jane. After all, not even being the daughter of a wealthy white Southern woman could save her from society’s expectations.

But that’s not a life Jane wants. Almost finished with her education at Miss Preston’s School of Combat in Baltimore, Jane is set on returning to her Kentucky home and doesn’t pay much mind to the politics of the eastern cities, with their talk of returning America to the glory of its days before the dead rose. But when families around Baltimore County begin to go missing, Jane is caught in the middle of a conspiracy, one that finds her in a desperate fight for her life against some powerful enemies. And the restless dead, it would seem, are the least of her problems.

Book Review: The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue

gentleman's guide to vice and virtueThe Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue
Mackenzi Lee
YA Historical Fiction
513 pages
Published 2017

This was excellent! First, all the diversity here – between the bisexual main character, his best friend, who is biracial, has an “invisible” disability, and also likes men (or at least likes Monty!) and his seemingly asexual sister – the book covers so many facets, it’s great.

Given that it’s historical fiction, set in Victorian Europe, Percy’s biracial heritage has him just seen as black to most people they encounter. Monty doesn’t seem to understand what that means, most of the time, and is a little blinded by his rich white boy privilege. He gets talked to a couple of times about how he’s being blind to the problems his friend is facing.

I liked that we got to peek under Monty’s playboy facade a few times, when being punched has him flashing back to being beaten by his father for being a “disappointment.” An interaction between him and a pirate captain was particularly sweet, teaching him to fight back because he’s worth defending.

I LOVE Felicity, Monty’s sister, and I’m really eager to read her story in the sequel to this book, The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy. She is so badass, and incredibly intelligent.

The writing was fun, the action well-paced, and the dialogue clever. I was a little put off at first by the size of the book, but I flew through it quickly. I especially liked Monty’s bisexuality – how he just cheerfully perved on practically everyone his age. It definitely reminded me of a few people I know!

Something that I noted, near the end of the book, was Percy not asking Monty to stop his perving. What he said was “if you ever go behind my back…” which implies as long as Percy knows, it’s not an issue. Yay for non-monogamy being present in YA! It’s nice to see alternative relationship structures being presented, though I wish it had been more than just implied.

This was an excellent read for Pride Month, and I loved the amount of diversity and intersectionality present in it. You can find the rest of my Pride Month reads listed here.

From the cover of The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue:

Henry “Monty” Montague was born and bred to be a gentleman, but he was never one to be tamed. The finest boarding schools in England and the constant disapproval of his father haven’t been able to curb any of his roguish passions – not for gambling halls, late nights spent with a bottle of spirits, or waking up in the arms of women or men.

But as Monty embarks on his Grand Tour of Europe, his quest for a life filled with pleasure and vice is in danger of coming to an end. Not only does his father expect him to take over the family’s estate upon his return, but Monty is also nursing an impossible crush on his best friend and traveling companion, Percy.

Still, it isn’t in Monty’s nature to give up. Even with his younger sister, Felicity, in tow, he vows to make this yearlong escapade one last hedonistic hurrah and flirt with Percy from Paris to Rome. But when one of Monty’s reckless decisions turns their trip abroad into a harrowing manhunt that spans across Europe, it calls into question everything he knows, including his relationship with the boy he adores.