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?

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Book Review: Unmarriageable

UnmarriageableUnmarriageable
by Soniah Kamal
Young Adult/Romance/Retelling
335 pages
Published January 2019

One of these days I really need to read Austen. I enjoy so many retellings – Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, Bridget Jones’ Diary, and I know I have a copy of Mr. Darcy, Vampyre around here somewhere! (And now that I pulled up The Lizzie Bennet Diaries to link it here, I’m sorely tempted to sit down and watch the whole thing again but I have books to read!)

Anyway. Austen. I’ve read a bunch of retellings but believe it or not, I haven’t read the original. I really need to get on that, but instead, I read Unmarriageable, which is Pride and Prejudice set in modern-day Pakistan! It’s SO GOOD. The themes of family honor, class structure, and rumors damaging reputations translates incredibly easily into Pakistani society, which is why Soniah Kamal wrote it. In her Afterword, she writes:

“Was there any worry more Pakistani than the concern about what might bring a family honor or dishonor? …. Was there anything more Pakistani than [Charlotte’s] calculated, ‘arranged’ marriage? … Was there anything more apropos to Pakistan than class issues, snootiness, and double standards?”

She goes on to say she was already reading the book as if it was set in Pakistan, so why not write it that way for other Pakistanis? Kamal explains that Pakistan is very much a mix of Pakistan and English culture, and that the emphasis on learning English and English culture comes at the expense of their own indigenous culture, something forced upon them by colonizers. Unmarriageable is her way of melding the two cultures.

I really enjoyed this version of the classic, and it has me even more interested in other versions, such as Ibi Zoboi’s Pride and Sonali Dev’s Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors. Book Riot actually ran a short list recently on diverse Austen retellings, and I’ve added every one of them to my To-Read list!

From the cover of Unmarriageable:

In this one-of-a-kind retelling of Pride and Prejudice set in modern-day Pakistan, Alys Binat has sworn never to marry – until an encounter with one Mr. Darsee at a wedding makes her reconsider. 

A scandal and a vicious rumor concerning the Binat family have destroyed their fortune and prospects for desirable marriages, but Alys, the second and most practical of the five Binat daughters, has found happiness teaching English literature to schoolgirls. Knowing that many of her students won’t make it to graduation before dropping out to marry and have children, Alys teaches them about Jane Austen and her other literary heroes and hopes to inspire the girls to dream of more.

When an invitation arrives to the biggest wedding their small town has seen in years, Mrs. Binat, certain that the family’s luck is about to change, excitedly prepares her daughters to fish for rich, eligible bachelors. On the first night of the festivities, Alys’s lovely older sister, Jena, catches the eye of Fahad “Bungles” Bingla, the wildly successful – and single – entrepreneur. But Bungles’s friend Valentine Darsee is clearly unimpressed by the Binat family. As the days of lavish wedding parties unfold, the Binats wait breathlessly to see if Jena will land a proposal – and Alys begins to realize that Darsee’s brusque manner may be hiding a very different man from the one she saw at first glance.

Told with wry wit and colorful prose, Unmarriageable is a charming update on Jane Austen’s beloved novel and an exhilarating exploration of love, marriage, class, and sisterhood.

Book Review: Royals

royalsRoyals
by Rachel Hawkins
Romance/Young Adult
296 pages
Published 2018

So I’ll admit. The only reason I picked this book up is because the second book in the series, Her Royal Highness, looks like an adorable lesbian romance and I thought I should start at the beginning of the series. I’m glad I did, because Royals is a delight. Daisy is a spirited, no-nonsense teenager who doesn’t get the appeal of all this “royal” stuff, and she’s not one to mince words for the sake of appearances. As you can imagine, that ruffles a LOT of royal feathers! Add in a posse of noble ne’er-do-wells trying to get in trouble, and you’re in for some fun.

Interestingly, I’m torn now on whether to read the second book! Rachel Hawkins is a fantastic writer, so I have no doubt she’ll write a great second book, but the love interest in the next book, Princess Flora, did not make a great impression on me in this book. I was glad she only made a short appearance. It doesn’t sound like the next book is told from her point of view, though, so maybe it will be okay. The series definitely has a lot of potential, as there’s still several members of the Prince’s posse to tell stories about!

I do enjoy a good royal romance, and these are interesting in that they’re contemporary, so the royals are concerned with their reputation, and treated like massive celebrities, but have lost a lot of their intimidation factor and power when it comes to normal people. Daisy sees it more as an inconvenience than anything else, it seems.

One content warning – there was a scene with an unasked-for kiss that could have been called sexual assault if Daisy had been less charitable about it. It wasn’t malicious. But it was questionable. So beware if that’s something you want to avoid.

From the cover of Royals:

Meet Daisy Winters. She’s an offbeat sixteen-year-old Floridian with mermaid-red hair; a part-time job at a bootleg Walmart; and a perfect older sister who’s engaged to the Crown Prince of Scotland. Daisy has no desire to live int he spotlight, but relentless tabloid attention forces her to join Ellie at the relative seclusion of the castle across the pond.

While the dashing young Miles has been appointed to teach Daisy the ropes of being regal, the prince’s roguish younger brother, Prince Sebastian, kicks up scandal wherever he goes and tries his best to take Daisy along for the ride. The crown – and the intriguing Miles – may be trying to make Daisy into a lady . . . but Daisy may just rewrite the royal rulebook to suit herself.

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, 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. 

Book Review: Black Enough

Black EnoughBlack Enough: Stories of Being Young & Black in America
Edited by Ibi Zoboi
Young Adult/Anthology/Contemporary Fiction
400 pages
Published January 2019

I’m not sure how to write this review or even if I SHOULD be writing this review. Black Enough is an anthology of stories about being young and black in America. (As the subtitle says.) I’m white. I don’t identify with these stories, but I wanted to read it to be exposed to other experiences. That’s WHY I try to read a lot of minority voices.

The problem is – I didn’t care for a decent portion of the book. But should that matter in writing a review of an #ownvoices book when I’m not part of the demographic? There are two authors I have previous problems with – Justina Ireland (author of Dread Nation, read my review for my issues with her) and Nic Stone, who wrote Odd One Out which I HAAAATED. Their short stories here had none of the issues their respective books did, but I tend not to separate art from artist, so I’m still side-eyeing their inclusion in this anthology. I also strongly disliked the editor’s own story, the last one in the book. But should that matter? There were stories I loved – Jay Coles’ Wild Horses, Wild Hearts, Lamar Giles’ Black. Nerd. Problems. and Leah Henderson’s Warning: Color May Fade were all amazing. But again, how much does that matter? I can’t speak for how real these stories are, or how well the authors capture these feelings because I don’t know. (Which is part of WHY I read these. To learn.)

I toyed with the idea of just not writing a review. But books like these are important, and need to be talked about and lifted up so more people can find them. Being one more white person refusing to talk about the subject ALSO isn’t the right call.

What I finally decided I can do is link to some #ownvoices reviews of the book. Don’t take my opinion on this book. Take theirs! (And, spoiler, they all loved it!)

Rich In Color’s review

Black Nerd Problems’ review (and I’m totally following this site now)

Crafty Scribbles’ review (okay, so I’m following all three of these sites now, and you should too!)

 

From the cover of Black Enough:

BLACK IS . . . sisters navigating their relationship at summer camp in Portland, Oregon, as written by Renee Watson.

BLACK IS . . . three friends walking back from the community pool talking about nothing and everything, in a story by Jason Reynolds.

BLACK IS . . . Nic Stone’s bougie debutante dating a boy her momma would never approve of.

BLACK IS . . . two girls kissing, in Justina Ireland’s story set in Maryland.

BLACK IS . . . urban and rural, wealthy and poor, mixed race, immigrants, and more – because there are countless ways to be Black enough. 

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.