Book Review: Heart of Thorns

heart of thornsHeart of Thorns
by Bree Barton
Fantasy
438 pages
Published July 2018

I almost bailed on this book. It’s not bad, exactly, it’s just – mediocre. Mia discovers that she is the thing she’s been taught to hate, discovers that maybe they’re not all bad, that what she’s been taught is probably wrong, but, y’know, maybe not entirely wrong – it’s just one trope after another. It was rather predictable.

And there’s this problem with the world. If every woman is suspected of being a witch, (sorry, Gwyrach) and they work their magic through touch – how is anyone having kids? Sure, women are required to wear gloves in public, but – the touch-magic doesn’t keep men from abusing women. Not like in The Power, where men start getting actually scared to touch women for fear of what could happen.

The only character in this book that I actually LIKED was Prince Quin. And maybe Dom, the flirtatious gay boy. Mia was rather thoroughly unlikable. First she blindly accepts that she should hate and kill Gwyrach, then is appalled to find out she (and her mother) are/were Gwyrach, and refuses to accept that because of course she can’t possibly be one of those reviled women. She refuses to take Quin into her confidence, despite him showing blind trust in her for most of the book. What does he have to do to prove himself to you, woman?

I’ve read much better feminist dystopias. This is oppressed-women-finding-their-hidden-powers-and-fighting-back clothed in a fantasy instead of a dystopia, and it’s not nearly as good as it could be. Despite ending on a cliffhanger, I don’t care enough about these characters to read the next book.

From the cover of Heart of Thorns:

Mia Rose wants only one thing: revenge against the Gwyrach who killed her mother.

In a world where only women can possess magic – and every woman is suspected of having it – the half-girl, half-god Gwyrach are feared, reviled, and hunted. After training under her father and his infamous Hunters, Mia is determined to scour the four kingdoms and enact the Hunters’ Creed: Heart for a heart, life for a life.

But then her father announces a quite different future: She will marry Prince Quin, heir to the throne. Just like that, smart, headstrong Mia is thrust into the last role she ever wanted: pretty, wifely bauble to the future king.

So on the eve of her wedding, Mia plots a daring escape, only to discover the unimaginable: She has magic. She may be a Huntress, but she’s also a Gwyrach.

As the truth comes to light, Mia must untangle the secrets of her own past. Friends darken into foes and logic begins to fray – as do the rules she has always played by. If Mia wants to survive, she must learn to trust her heart . . . even if it kills her.

Book Review: The Poppy War

poppy warThe Poppy War
by R. F. Kuang
Asian Military Fantasy
530 pages
Published May 2018

Have you ever read a book that is so good you don’t know what to say about it? It’s taken me almost two weeks to even attempt this review because I just don’t know what to write. The Poppy War is your typical story of downtrodden, disadvantaged girl testing into the highest school in the land and gaining the opportunities and privileges that come with that, but then the book takes a sharp twist into war. Rin doesn’t exactly get the most typical of educations, even before war breaks out. And when war breaks out, the school is disbanded, the students getting flung all over the land to where the government thinks they will help the most. For Rin, that’s joining The Cike. The Bizarre Children. The division of people who can do….things. Things the rest of the military isn’t comfortable with. The Cike can call on the powers of gods, and doing so makes them not-quite-untouchables. Rin, who was never short on resentment before this, grows ever more resentful.

Rin is an interesting character; she’s been hard done by, yes, but she makes decisions that only make things harder on herself. So I feel for her a little, but at the same time, girl. Check yourself. What’s been done to you doesn’t justify what you plan to do to others. I am hoping she comes to see that in the next book, because her rage and need for vengeance definitely gets the best of her in this one.

The Poppy War is an excellently written blend of military fantasy, epic fantasy, and coming-of-age novel. Unlike some books, where the military aspect far overshadows the characters, leaving them flat, Poppy War doesn’t ignore the characters to focus on the bigger picture. It’s a very good mix of both close-up focus on characters, fights, battles, and zoomed-out strategy and war. It’s probably the best military fantasy I’ve read, and the Asian aspect of it makes it even better. So much military fantasy is western European, or Steampunk, or both. I’ve been finding more and more Asian and African fantasy, and I am SO HERE FOR IT. I need to try to find more South American fantasy. I know it’s out there.

I will definitely be watching for the next book in this series, because it’s awesome.

From the cover of The Poppy War:

She is a peasant.
She is a student.
She is a soldier.
She is a goddess.

When Rin aced the Keju – the Empire-wide test to find the most talented youth to study at the academies – it was a shock to everyone: to the test officials, who couldn’t believe a war orphan from Rooster Province could pass without cheating; to Rin’s guardians, who always thought they’d be able to marry Rin off to further their criminal enterprise; and to Rin herself, who realized she was now finally free of the servitude and despair that had made up her daily existence. That she got into Sinegard – the most elite military school in the Nikara Empire – was even more surprising.

But surprises aren’t always good.

Being a dark-skinned peasant girl from the south is not an easy thing at Sinegard. Rin is targeted from the outset by rival classmates because of her color, poverty, and gender. Driven to desperation, she discovers she possesses a lethal, unearthly power – an aptitude for the nearly mythical art of shamanism. Exploring the depths of her gift with the help of a seemingly insane teacher and psychoactive substances, Rin learns that gods long thought dead are very much alive – and that mastering control over her powers could mean more than just surviving school.

For even though the Nikara Empire is at peace, the Federation of Mugen still lurks across a narrow sea. The militarily advanced Federation occupied the Nikara Empire for decades after the First Poppy War, and only barely lost the continent in the Second. And while most of the people in the Empire would rather forget their painful history, a few are aware that a Third Poppy War is just a spark away.

Rin’s shamanic powers may be the only way to save her people. But as she finds out more about the god who has chosen her, the vengeful Phoenix, she fears that winning the war may cost her her humanity.

And it may already be too late.

Book Review: Snow Like Ashes

snow like ashesSnow Like Ashes
by Sara Raasch
YA Fantasy
422 pages
Published 2014

The world-building in this book is fascinating. At first, it seems like yet another YA novel about displaced royals trying to win back their kingdom, but this royal is in much more dire straits than most. Meira is a refugee living on the run with seven others, one of them her rightful King. All the rest of their people have been enslaved by the conquering country, and their kingdom’s link to the magic inherent in the land has been broken.

A little backdrop is needed. In Meira’s land, there are eight countries. The Rhythm countries, where seasons proceed as normal, and the Seasons – 4 countries locked in one season each. The rulers of each country have a magic conduit that lets them feed magic to their people – but the conduits are gender-locked. In four of the countries, only women can use the conduit; in the other four, only men. Meira and her little band are all that’s left of the free people of Winter. Spring invaded sixteen years ago, killed Winter’s queen, broke the locket that was their magic conduit (each ruler has one) and enslaved their people. Because the queen only had a son, he can’t wield Winter’s magic anyway. They’re still trying to find the two pieces of the locket so when he has a daughter, she can wield it. You’d think at this point, since he’s of age, he should be trying to get as many women pregnant as possible to up the odds of getting a royal heir who can wield the magic, but that…doesn’t come up.

The book does delve into the country’s people being oppressed, used as slaves, and being incredibly abused by the conquering country, and this is where I ran into a quandary. The Season’s people reflect their countries: Autumn’s people have copper skin, Spring’s citizens are blond-haired and green-eyed – and Winter’s people are white. Pale skin, snow-white hair, blue eyes. Writing white people as the oppressed people just rubs me the wrong way. (In that false “help I’m being oppressed because other people want equal rights!” kind of way.) Yes, this is fantasy, yes, it has nothing to do with our world’s politics – but it bothers me. It’s at least not white-savioring, as Meira’s trying to save her own people, but I don’t know. Is it better or worse to write white people as the oppressed protagonists?

That question aside, this was a well-written novel of fighting against an oppressor. There is definitely still work to be done at the end of the book, and there are two more books, as well as two short stories. While I am a little curious what ultimately happens, I don’t know if the series has earned more time on my reading list.

From the cover of Snow Like Ashes:

Sixteen years ago the Kingdom of Winter was conquered and its citizens enslaved, leaving them without magic or a monarch. Now the Winterians only hope for freedom is the eight survivors who managed to escape, and who have been waiting for the opportunity to steal back Winter’s magic and rebuild the kingdom ever since.

Orphaned as an infant during Winter’s defeat, Meira has lived her whole life as a refugee, raised by the Winterians’ general, Sir. Training to be a warrior – and desperately in love with her best friend and future king, Mather – she would do anything to help Winter rise to power again.

So when scouts discover the location of the ancient locket that can restore their magic, Meira decides to go after it herself. Finally, she’s scaling towers and fighting enemy soldiers just as she’s always dreamed she would. But the mission doesn’t go as planned, and Meira soon finds herself thrust into a world of evil magic and dangerous politics – and ultimately comes to realize that her destiny is not, never has been, her own.

Book Review: The Book of M

the book of mThe Book of M
by Peng Shepherd
Dystopia/Magical Realism
485 pages
Published June 2018

What defines a person? Your experiences? Your personality? The emotional bonds you forge? What happens when you forget? Are you still you if you don’t remember who that is? The Book of M tackles these questions and takes an intimate look at what happens when some people forget but others remember.

We enter on Max and Ory in an abandoned hotel, running out of food and supplies. Max has lost her shadow, which means she will soon start forgetting. Everything. (There are rumors that Shadowless have died because they forgot to breathe or eat.) We learn it’s been a few years since the phenomenon started happening, and flashbacks tell us the story of those early months. Like any good dystopia, it is a world-altering process. Governments are gone because no one remembered to run them. Food and other supplies are dwindling because farmers, shippers, manufacturers forgot what they were doing and how to do it.

But with the forgetting comes – magic, of a sort. Ory comes across a deer in the forest that instead of antlers, has wings sprouting from its forehead. Because someone forgot that deer shouldn’t have wings – and so it happened. Forgetting that something can be destroyed can make it indestructible. Forgetting that you left a place can take you back to that place. Forgetting a place exists can make that place no longer exist. It’s not a very controllable kind of magic. And it’s dangerous – you can never be quite sure what you’ll forget, and you can affect other people with it.

And the forgetting starts with losing your shadow. Ory gives Max a tape recorder, so she can record things she might forget. He posts signs around their hideout to remind her of things, like “Let no one in. Ory has a key.” and “Don’t touch the guns or the knives.” But Max knows she is a danger to Ory, and so while she can still remember enough to function, she runs away.

The book mostly concerns Ory and Max’s journeys across the country; Max trying to find something she’s forgotten, and Ory trying to find Max. The adventure is gripping, heartbreaking, and at times confusing. (Mostly on Max’s end, as magic warps things around her.) There are a few side characters who also have viewpoint chapters. Naz Ahmadi is an Iranian girl training for the Olympics in the US – in archery, which comes in quite handy. We also have The One Who Gathers, a mysterious man in New Orleans who has gathered a flock of shadowless.

If you ever played the roleplaying game Mage: the Ascension, and remember the concept of Paradox, this book reminds me of that a lot. (Is it a surprise that I’m a tabletop RPG geek? It shouldn’t be. I own almost all of the old World of Darkness books, and currently play in a D&D game, and hopefully soon a second D&D game!) Anyway. Paradox. Where doing magic too far outside the bounds of acceptable reality punishes you, so you have to weigh the potential consequences against the magic you want to do.

I really enjoyed this debut novel; it is a very original take on a dystopia, and raised a lot of questions about personality, memories, and what makes a person the person you remember.

From the cover of The Book of M:

Set in a dangerous near-future world, The Book of M tells the captivating story of a group of ordinary people caught in an extraordinary catastrophe who risk everything to save the ones they love. This sweeping debut illuminates the power that memories have not only on the heart, but on the world itself.

One afternoon at an outdoor market in India, a man’s shadow disappears – an occurrence that science cannot explain. He is only the first. The phenomenon spreads like a plague, and while those afflicted gain a strange new power, the magic comes at a horrible price: the loss of all their memories.

Two years later, Ory and his wife, Max, have escaped the Forgetting by hiding in an abandoned hotel deep in the woods outside Arlington, Virginia. Their new life feels almost normal, until their greatest fear happens to them, and Max’s shadow disappears, too.

Knowing that the more she forgets, the more dangerous she will become to the person most precious to her, Max runs away while Ory is out foraging for supplies – but he refuses to give up what little time they have left together. Desperate to find Max before her memory disappears completely, Ory follows her trail across a perilous, unrecognizable world, braving the threat of roaming bandits, the call to a new war being waged amid the ruins of the capital, and the rise of a sinister cult that worships the shadowless.

On their separate journeys, each searches for answers: for Ory, about love, about survival, about hope; and for Max, about a mysterious new force growing in the south that may hold the cure.

Series Review: The Bone Witch

the bone witchThe Bone Witch/The Heart Forger
by Rin Chupeco
Young Adult Fantasy
411 pages/501 pages
Published 2017/2018

I’m reviewing the first two books of a trilogy here, The Bone Witch and The Heart Forger. The third book, The Shadowglass, is due out in March – but I wish it was out now!!

Both books are told in an alternating chapter format; short chapters, told from a nameless bard’s viewpoint as Tea tells him her story, and longer chapters told from Tea’s viewpoint, being the stories she’s telling the bard. All of the bard’s chapters take place over the course of a few weeks, while Tea’s story covers her entire life up to that point. So you get glimpses of what she’s currently doing, while getting backstory and explanation of why she’s doing it.

First thing I want to say is Tea is BADASS. The book opens on her raising a terrifying monster from the dead and making it into a pet. A PET. The bard she’s talking to is intimidated, to put it mildly. Then we launch into her story. Tea tells us how she went from farmgirl to Asha – think a geisha with magic and combat training, and you’ll get the picture. Tea’s world is fairly rigid on the gender roles – women with magic become asha, men with magic become Deathseekers. A significant side-plot revolves around a young boy with magic who wants to be an asha instead of a Deathseeker, and Tea’s efforts to help him. Tea turns out to be a rare kind of asha – a dark asha, or bone witch – whose powers are mostly concerned with raising the dead.

heart forgerA major point of this world is heartsglass – in several of the kingdoms (but not all of them) everyone wears a locket around their neck with their heartsglass inside. Heartsglass is basically a small ball of light summoned forth from a person’s soul when they come of age. It can’t be given away unwillingly, and the different colors of someone’s heartsglass means different things – whether they’re a magic user, or a bone witch, or an asha, or a heart forger. Or rather, whether they have the potential to become those things. Some people – the ashas, death seekers, any of the magic users, really – can see peoples’ emotions in their heartsglass, and can tell when people are lying, or guilty, or a number of useful things. People in love often trade their heartsglass with each other, literally holding each other’s hearts. This can be dangerous; the bone witch who trains Tea in the first book gave her heartsglass away, but her lover died without returning hers. And she doesn’t know where he hid it. Without a heartsglass, her powers – and life force – are dwindling.

I love Tea so much. She is incredibly powerful, but hurt and pissed off and out for vengeance. At the same time, she doesn’t want to be evil, so she is tempering her vengeance to a knifepoint so innocents aren’t caught in it needlessly. She’s doing horrifying things while you’re thinking “Oh. Yeah. That’s justified.” The writing in these books is excellent. The side characters are fleshed out with motivations of their own, the villains have interesting reasons for their villainy, strange events get revisited later and explained – it’s just amazingly well done.

Between raising the dead, flirting with princes, taking down army-destroying monsters, and taming dragons, the only bad thing I have to say is I HAVE TO WAIT UNTIL MARCH FOR THE THIRD BOOK?!

From the cover of The Bone Witch:

The beast raged; it punctured the air with its spite. BUT THE GIRL WAS FIERCER.

Tea is different from the other witches in her family. Her gift for necromancy makes her a bone witch, who are feared and ostracized in the kingdom. For theirs is a powerful, elemental magic that can reach beyond the boundaries of the living – and of the human.

Great power comes at a price, forcing Tea to leave her homeland to train under the guidance of an older, wiser bone witch. There, Tea puts all of her energy into becoming an asha, learning to control her elemental magic and those beasts who will submit by no other force. And Tea must be strong – stronger than she even believes possible. Because war is brewing in the eight kingdoms, war that will threaten the sovereignty of her homeland…and threaten the very survival of those she loves.

Lyrical and action packed, this new fantasy series by acclaimed author Rin Chupeco will leave you breathless.

From the cover of The Heart Forger:

Life isn’t fair. AND SOMETIMES, NEITHER IS DEATH.

No one knows death like Tea. A bone witch who can resurrect the dead, she has the power to take life…and return it. And she is done with her self-imposed exile. Her heart is set on vengeance, and she now possesses all she needs to command the mighty daeva. With the help of these terrifying beasts, she can finally enact revenge against the royals who wronged her – and took the life of her one true love.

But there are those who plot against her, those who would use Tea’s dark power for their own nefarious ends. Because you can’t kill someone who can never die…

War is brewing among the kingdoms, and when dark magic is at play, no one is safe.

Book Review: Cruel Beauty

cruel beautyCruel Beauty
by Rosamund Hodge
Fairy-tale Retelling
342 pages
Published 2014

After reading Bright Smoke, Cold Fire I knew I HAD to find more Rosamund Hodge. She has a fantastic flair for taking fairy tales (or Shakespeare!) and twisting them into something darker but more realistic. Cruel Beauty is a twist on Beauty and the Beast, but this is no Stockholm Syndrome-suffering Beauty. She is resentful, and bitter, and angry at her father for subjecting her to this. She has trained her entire life to go to the Beast and destroy him, even if it means destroying herself too. What she find at the castle is nothing like what she expected, though, and neither is she what Hodge’s Beast expects. Watching these two bitter, mocking characters dance around each other to get to the bottom of the curse and what actually happened to their world is engrossing and beautiful.

I couldn’t put this book down once I started it, and I’ve already started Crimson Bound (Little Red Riding Hood), the next book in the same world. There’s also a novella, Gilded Ashes (Cinderella), that I should snag a copy of.

The world is lovely and evocative, with gods and Forest Lords and Demons who actively participate in the world and grant wishes and make deals. It’s a little bit Rumpelstiltskin, a little Fairy Godmother, a little Greek mythology, and all Rosamund Hodge. She’s got talent, and writes my favorite micro-genre SO WELL.

If you like dark fairy tales, read this and then everything else Rosamund Hodge has written. It’s excellent!

From the cover of Cruel Beauty:

The romance of Beauty and the Beast meets the adventure of Graceling in this dazzling fantasy novel about our deepest desires and their power to change our destiny.

Perfect for fans of bestselling An Ember in the Ashes and A Court of Thorns and Roses, this gorgeously written debut infuses the classic fairy tale with glittering magic, a feisty heroine, and a romance sure to take your breath away.

Betrothed to the evil ruler of her kingdom, Nyx has always known that her fate was to marry him, kill him, and free her people from his tyranny. But on her seventeenth birthday when she moves into his castle high on the kingdom’s mountaintop, nothing is what she expected—particularly her charming and beguiling new husband. Nyx knows she must save her homeland at all costs, yet she can’t resist the pull of her sworn enemy—who’s gotten in her way by stealing her heart.