Book Review: The Star-Touched Queen

the star-touched queenThe Star-Touched Queen
by Roshani Chokshi
Young Adult/Fantasy/Romance
342 pages
Published 2016

I’ve had this on my TBR shelf for quite a while, but only got around to reading it because the library finally really wants it back. Oops! And now I’m regretting not reading it sooner because it is OH MY GOD FANTASTIC. This is one of those books that’s going to be hard to talk about without giving things away about the plot, but I’m going to try. Maya is the main character, a princess with a horoscope full of doom for whoever marries her.

She’s in for a surprise when she does marry, though, as she is whisked away from her father’s kingdom to a palace full of hidden doors and a husband who is more than he seems. She’s quickly embroiled in a mystery to find out not only the secrets her husband’s kingdom is hiding, but the secrets behind her own history.

I absolutely love reading non-western fantasy because there are NEW fantasy elements to discover. This book makes heavy use of reincarnation, which is not a common trope in western fantasy. Not reincarnation as karma, anyway. There is fate, and horoscopes, and choosing your own destiny despite those things, and spirit worlds, and OH IT’S JUST SO GOOD.

The second book, about Maya’s sister, came out last March, so I need to read that too.  The same author has written another book set in Paris, The Gilded Wolves, which came out in January and immediately hit the bestseller list. I’m glad, this author is fantastic. I’m not sure I’ll read it though, as the description doesn’t really intrigue me. But The Star-Touched Queen and its sequel, A Crown of Wishes – these are just my cup of tea!

From the cover of The Star-Touched Queen:

FATE AND FORTUNE. POWER AND PASSION. WHAT DOES IT TAKE TO BE THE QUEEN OF A KINGDOM WHEN YOU’RE ONLY SEVENTEEN?

Maya is cursed. With a horoscope that promises a marriage of death and destruction, she has earned only the scorn and fear of her father’s kingdom. While Maya is content to follow more scholarly pursuits, her whole world is torn apart when her father, the Raja, arranges a wedding of political convenience to quell outside rebellions. Soon Maya becomes the queen of Akaran and wife of Amar. Neither roles are what she expected: As Akaran’s queen, she finds her voice and her power. As Amar’s wife, she finds something else entirely: Compassion. Protection. Desire . . .

But Akaran has its own secrets – thousands of locked doors, gardens of glass, and a tree that bears memories instead of fruit. Soon, Maya suspects her life is in danger. Yet who, besides her husband, can she trust? With the fate of the human and Otherworldly realms hanging in the balance, Maya must unravel an ancient mystery that spans reincarnated lives to save those she loves the most . . . including herself.

A lush and vivid story that is steeped in Indian folklore and mythology, The Star-Touched Queen is a novel that no reader will soon forget.

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Book Review: Kingdom of the Blazing Phoenix

kingdom of the blazing phoenixKingdom of the Blazing Phoenix
by Julie C. Dao
Young Adult/Fantasy/Fairy Tale Retelling
356 pages
Published November 2018

This is the sequel to Forest of a Thousand Lanterns, and where Forest was about the rise of the Empress – or the evil stepmother from Snow White – this book is solidly about Snow White. Or Jade, in this case. I enjoyed Forest, but Kingdom is spectacular! It’s hard to like Xifeng in Forest, where she continually makes the decisions that drag her deeper into the evil god’s clutches. Jade, however, is sweet and determined and loyal and good. She is easy to love, and worthy of it. We see a few characters from the first book coming back to help Jade in her quest, and I loved seeing how they had grown in the intervening years.

I do feel like the romantic storyline was kind of shoehorned in. Jade falls in love with no real reason for it. We don’t see what’s so fantastic about her love interest, he isn’t shown as doing anything outstanding, he’s just kind of there and the first male person she’s spent time with. I get why he fell in love with Jade, Jade is amazing. He’s just so bland. So that felt a little odd.

I did enjoy the magic cloak and the quest and the final battle. The scene between Ming and Xifeng at the end was absolutely heartbreaking and made me love Ming even more. He might be my favorite character from both books.

Bottom line, this is an excellent sequel to Forest of a Thousand Lanterns, and I think it’s better than the first book. You could probably read it without reading Forest, but some of the reveals won’t mean nearly as much, and you’ll miss all the background that makes Xifeng so interesting.

From the cover of Kingdom of the Blazing Phoenix:

Princess Jade has grown up in exile, hidden away in a monastery, while her stepmother, the ruthless Xifeng, rules as Empress of Feng Lu. But the empire is in distress, and its people are sinking into poverty and despair. Even though Jade doesn’t want the crown, she knows she is the only one who can dethrone the Empress and set the world right.

Ready to reclaim her place as rightful heir, Jade embarks on a quest to raise the Dragon Lords and defeat Xifeng and the Serpent God once and for all. But will the same darkness that took Xifeng take Jade, too? Or will she find the strength within to save herself, her friends, and her empire?

This follow-up to Forest of a Thousand Lanterns brings to a close Xifeng’s dazzling saga and gives readers a satisfying ending to the story that gripped their hearts from its very beginning.

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 ideas 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: Empress Of All Seasons

empress of all seasonsEmpress Of All Seasons
by Emiko Jean
Young Adult/Fantasy
375 pages
Published November 2018

I am so torn on this book. I’m really tired of the trope of “batch of girls competing to win a dude” that seems to be so popular lately. But this is an Asian take on the trope, so I don’t want to come down too hard on it for that. I attended a panel at the last Baltimore Book Festival about old tropes being resurrected by minority authors, and I agree that just because a trope might seem old and played out, putting a new spin on it with minority characters and themes deserves its own time. That is definitely valid. But they were talking about tropes like vampires and zombies and retold classics like Pride and Prejudice and Alice in Wonderland. I’m not sure the trope of “girls competing to win a dude” deserves more time in any form. (To be fair, I kind of equally hate guys competing to win the hand of the princess. No one should be obligated to marry someone just because they won an arbitrary competition. There are all kinds of consent issues there.)

Despite that, I really enjoyed this book. I loved the characters, the variety of yõkai, the bits of myth interspersed throughout the book. I do question Akira being trained to be a master of shuriken in a matter of days – like, really? And I wish instead of summarizing a ton in the epilogue, she’d just written a sequel, because I think there’s enough material to do it. You’d think, with so much I didn’t like about the book, that my overall opinion would be negative – but it’s not. Even with all of those bad points, this book was enthralling and kept me reading right to the end.

Empress of all Seasons is a great Japanese-inspired fantasy that relies a little too much on old tropes. Set your inner critic to the side and just enjoy the ride, because the story is fantastic.

Empress of all Seasons also hits the “trope” theme for Year of the Asian’s February challenge!

From the cover of Empress Of All Seasons:

IN A PALACE OF ILLUSIONS, NOTHING IS WHAT IT SEEMS.

Each generation, a competition is held to find the next empress of Honoku. The rules are simple. Survive the palace’s enchanted seasonal rooms. Conquer Winter, Spring, Summer, and Fall. Marry the prince. All are eligible to compete – all except yõkai, supernatural monsters and spirits whom the human emperor is determined to enslave and destroy.

Mari has spent her life training to become empress. Winning should be easy. And it would be, if she weren’t hiding a dangerous secret. Mari is a yõkai with the ability to transform into a terrifying monster. If discovered, her life will be forfeit. As she struggles to keep her true identity hidden, Mari’s fate collides with that of Taro, the prince who has no desire to inherit the imperial throne, and Akira, a half-human, half-yõkai outcast. Torn between duty and love, loyalty and betrayal, vengeance and forgiveness, the choices of Mari, Taro, and Akira will decide the fate of Honoku in this beautifully written, edge-of-your-seat fantasy.

Book Review: Love à la Mode

love a la modeLove à la Mode
by Stephanie Kate Strohm
Young Adult/Romance/Contemporary Fiction
323 pages
Published November 2018

I’m a baker. I absolutely love baking, it centers me when I’m being scatter-brained and grounds me when I’m in a bad mood. So I instantly identified with Rosie in this novel, who wants to be a pastry chef, currently at a culinary school that focuses more on cooking savory things. I’ve been there. Granted, my culinary school was basically a crash course two-year program at a community college, not “the most prestigious cooking program for teens in the entire world” but I identify with the feeling of being a fish not-quite-out of water. I’d also never seen this put into words before:

“…it was that not knowing that Rosie hated. That was why she loved baking. Baking was all knowing. If you followed the recipe, you got exactly what you intended. An apple pie never surprisingly turned into lemon meringue halfway through the baking process.”

I have some mild anxiety, and I hadn’t realized WHY baking helped, just that it did. But it’s true – baking is about knowing. That quote is in the second chapter, and I knew from then on I was going to love this book. (I was already pretty sure, but that moment drove it home.)

The descriptions of food in this novel – food and cooking, and WHY some people cook – are mouth-watering. I loved seeing the backgrounds of the various culinary students, as they came from all over the world to École Denis Laurent, the prestigious school in Paris. I liked the point made, eventually, that what looks like the “cool kids clique” from outside might not be what it seems. The book even addressed toxic masculinity in the form of Henry’s unwillingness to ask for help from his friends when he was struggling.

At its heart, Love à la Mode is a sweet, fluffy, clean romance with a romantic backdrop of Paris and good food. Sometimes a little bit of happy, lighthearted escapist fiction is what we all need. Especially when it doesn’t neglect representation to do it – there’s only a tiny bit of LGBT+ rep in the book, but the characters come from all kinds of ethnic backgrounds.

From the cover of Love à la Mode:

Take two American teen chefs, add one heaping cup of Paris, toss in a pinch of romance, and stir . . . 

Rosie Radeke firmly believes that happiness can be found at the bottom of a mixing bowl. But she never expected that she, a random nobody from East Liberty, Ohio, would be accepted to celebrity chef Denis Laurent’s school in Paris, the most prestigious cooking program for teens in the entire world. Life in Paris, however, isn’t all cream puffs and crêpes. Faced with a challenging curriculum and a nightmare professor, Rosie begins to doubt her dishes.

Henry Yi grew up in his dad’s restaurant in Chicago, and his lifelong love affair with food landed him a coveted spot in Chef Laurent’s school. He quickly connects with Rosie, but academic pressure from home and his jealousy over Rosie’s growing friendship with gorgeous bad-boy baker Bodie Tal makes Henry lash out and push his dream girl away.

Desperate to prove themselves, Rosie and Henry cook like never before while sparks fly between them. But as they reach their breaking points, they wonder whether they have what it takes to become real chefs.

Perfect for lovers of Chopped Teen Tournament and Kids Baking Championship, as well as anyone who dreams of a romantic trip to France, Love à la Mode follows Rose and Henry as they fall in love with food, with Paris, and ultimately, with each other. 

Book Review: The Brilliant Death

the brilliant deathThe Brilliant Death
by Amy Rose Capetta
Young Adult/Fantasy
330 pages
Published October 2018

It’s not often that I like a relationship more than I like the separate parts of it, but that’s the case with The Brilliant Death. I love Teo and Cielo together. As a couple they are amazing. I like them individually, but together they are something unique and lovely. By the end of the book, they can both switch genders at will, and they love each other for who they are, not what bodies they happen to be wearing.

This book plays with the gender binary, giving us two characters who dance from boy to girl and back again when it’s convenient for them. Teo uses this ability to masquerade as her brother, going to the capital city when summoned by the ruler of her country after the assassination of her father.

If Teo’s name and the use of the word “strega” hadn’t given it away, the book is very Italian-inspired. The family ties, the landscape, the names, the atmosphere is unmistakably Italian. While that’s still a Western European culture, it’s not one we actually see in fantasy that often, which makes this book more enthralling.

While Teo juggles loyalties to family, country, and friends, Cielo is on a mission to find out what happened to their mother. Falling in love isn’t in the plan for either of them, but when is it, really?

I loved the magic, the characters, and the setting of this one, and I really hope there’s going to be a sequel. The plot was definitely left open enough to allow for one, though I could be happy with this as a standalone, too.

From the cover of The Brilliant Death:

Teodora Di Sangro is used to hiding her magical ability to transform enemies into music boxes and mirrors. Nobody knows she’s a strega – and she aims to keep it that way.

Then she meets Cielo – and everything changes.

A strega who can effortlessly swap back and forth between female and male, human and animal, Cielo shows Teodora what her life could be like if she masters her powers – and how much more she’s capable of. And not a moment too soon: the ruler of Vinalia has poisoned the patriarchs of the country’s five controlling families, including Teodora’s father, and demands that each family send a son to the palace. If she wants to save her family, Teodora must travel to the capital – not disguised as a boy, but transformed into one.

But the road to the capital, and to bridling her evolving powers, is full of enemies and complications, including the one she least expects: falling in love.