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: 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: Endless Water, Starless Sky

endless water starless skyEndless Water, Starless Sky
by Rosamund Hodge
Young Adult/Fantasy/Retelling
441 pages
Published 2018

This is the sequel to Bright Smoke, Cold Fire, in which we were introduced to Romeo Mahyanai and Juliet Catresou, and the city of Viyara. This book concentrates much more on Romeo and Juliet instead of Paris and Runajo/Rosaline, who were arguably the main characters of the first book.

So, as a quick recap, the city of Viyara/Verona is the last city anywhere in the world, as far as anyone in the city knows. A mystical event called The Ruining manifested as a white fog and spread over the entire world, killing everything in its path, and making the dead rise as zombies. The only reason Viyara stands is because some long-dead priestess managed to create mystical walls to protect it – but the walls are fueled by blood. Willing, sometimes coerced people are sacrificed on a regular basis to fuel the walls and keep the rest of the city safe. Juliet is not actually Juliet, but THE Juliet, a nameless girl raised and mystically bound to the clan of the Catresou, obedient to the head of the clan and bound to avenge any unnatural deaths of the family. She, however, falls in love with Romeo.

The first book plays out their love story, while seeing events around it through the eyes of Runajo and Paris. By the second book, Romeo and Juliet each think the other is dead, though Romeo has discovered that’s a lie, Runajo has ideas about how to save the city from the Ruining, and Romeo and Juliet have switched sides. Her mystical bindings have been transferred to Romeo’s clan, and Romeo, through guilt and remorse, has transferred his loyalties to Juliet’s clan.

The second book concentrates on saving the city, the last bastion of humanity. There are zombies, and sacrifices, and sword fights, and stolen kisses. Things really get complicated when Romeo accidentally kills a Mahyanai and Juliet’s mystical bindings kick in, compelling her to kill him. She operates under that compulsion for most of the last half of the book, while still being utterly in love with him and trying to fight the compulsion.

It’s hard to do this book justice; the web is very complex and, like any Romeo and Juliet story, only ends in death. In Hodge’s world, however, the mystical bindings on Juliet have made her a key to the land of death, allowing her to cross over while still alive. So we get a journey through Death’s kingdom, and it is fascinating.

I won’t say anymore, but if you like Shakespeare, and you like fantasy, you should totally read this duology.

From the cover of Endless Water, Starless Sky:

In the last days of the world, the walls of Viyara are still falling, and the dead are rising faster than ever.

Juliet is trapped – ordered by Lord Ineo of the Mahyanai to sacrifice the remaining members of her family, the Catresou, to stave off the end of the world. Though they’re certain his plan is useless, Juliet and her former friend Runajo must comply with Lord Ineo’s wishes unless they can discover a different, darker path to protecting Viyara.

Romeo is tortured. Finally aware that his true love is alive, he is at once elated and devastated, for his actions led directly to the destruction of her clan. The only way to redemption is to offer his life to the Catresou to protect and support them . . . even if it means dying to do so.

When Romeo and Juliet’s paths converge once again, only a journey into Death will offer answers and the key to saving them all – but is it a journey either of them will survive?

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.

Book Review: For A Muse Of Fire

for a muse of fireFor A Muse Of Fire
by Heidi Heilig
Young Adult/Fantasy
494 pages
Published September 2018

I’m starting to realize I might have a thing for lady necromancers. They’re the right kind of dark, badass, I’m-going-to-do-the-right-thing-even-if-you-don’t-understand-it amazing women that I love. From Tea in The Bone Witch trilogy to Odessa in Reign of the Fallen to Jetta in this book, these women are amazing. I have one more lady necromancer book out from the library right now, Give The Dark My Love, and I hope it lives up to the rest of these women!

So in For A Muse of Fire, we have Jetta, with amazing powers but also with what she refers to as her malheur – she’s bipolar. She and her parents are traveling to another country to seek a cure for it, but in their journeys they wind up in the middle of a rebellion. Her powers let her see wandering spirits, bind them to physical objects, and command them. In this way, she’s made shadow puppets that don’t require strings or sticks, and her family has a small amount of fame as the best shadow puppeteers in the region.

We learn secrets about Jetta’s family, ancestry, and just how far her powers can go, while she fights off army deserters, generals, smugglers, and ghosts. She imbues unexpected objects with unexpected spirits (one such instance being the best scene in the book, in my opinion).

I can’t wait for the next book. Jetta is maturing into her powers and deciding what to do with them, and once she makes up her mind the world is going to shudder at her feet.

From the cover of For A Muse Of Fire:

Never show. Never tell.

Jetta’s secret has kept her family from starving. It has made them the most famed troupe of shadow players in Chakrana. With Jetta behind the scrim, their puppets move without stick or string.

Never show. Never tell.

With a drop of blood, Jetta can bind wandering spirits to the silk or wood or leather of the puppets and bring them to life. But the old ways are forbidden. If anyone discovered her ability, Jetta could be thrown in prison and left to rot – or worse.

Never show. Never tell.

As rebellion swells and desperation builds, Jetta’s power becomes harder and harder to hide. Especially from Leo, the young smuggler with sharp eyes and secrets of his own. When he and Jetta capture the notice of both the army and the rebels, she may be the spark that lights the rebellion . . . if she isn’t consumed by the flame first.

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.