Category Archives: Novel Review

Novel Review: The Gilded Ones

A primary criticism of the We Need Diverse  Books movement is how books are populated by overwhelmingly white casts. This is definitely not the case in  Namina Forna’s YA fantasy The Gilded Ones. Read on for the review.

Back Cover Blurb

Sixteen-year-old Deka lives in fear and anticipation of the blood ceremony that will determine whether she will become a member of her village. Already different from everyone else because of her unnatural intuition, Deka prays for red blood so she can finally feel like she belongs.

But on the day of the ceremony, her blood runs gold, the color of impurity–and Deka knows she will face a consequence worse than death.

Then a mysterious woman comes to her with a choice: stay in the village and submit to her fate, or leave to fight for the emperor in an army of girls just like her. They are called alaki–near-immortals with rare gifts. And they are the only ones who can stop the empire’s greatest threat.

The Review

Note: this is a review of an Advance Reader’s Copy. In the foreword, the author states that the book is an examination of patriarchy, but it isn’t so much an examination as it is a scathing criticism. I’m not necessarily opposed to such an overtly feminist viewpoint; after all, there are many misogynistic practices that must be called out. Even so, I couldn’t get myself to like Forna’s tale of girls standing up to wrest the future with their own hands. Partly because characters are so blatantly divided into good and bad, mostly along gender lines. Partly because the rules of her fantasy world, Otera, are so convoluted.

Otera consists of four regions, each occupied by different races but all ruled by a single emperor and religion. As part of that religion, all girls are slashed at the age of sixteen in the Ritual of Purity. If their blood runs red, they are accepted as members of society; if it runs gold, it signifies they’re alaki, descendants of demonic beings known as the Gilded Ones. The protagonist Deka, who has always been despised in her Northern village because of her mixed heritage, anxiously prays for red blood so she can finally earn acceptance. However, the day of the Ritual, humanoid monsters known as deathshrieks attack the village, and a sudden transformation overtakes Deka, changing her world forever.

The thing about this narrative is that it often states one thing, then some chapters later, contradicts that established fact. For instance, the races of the Northern, Southern, Eastern, and Western regions roughly equate to white, black, Asian, and Latino, respectively, and the story opens with Deka as the one biracial girl in her otherwise all-white village. Her late mother was a Southerner, and Deka describes at length the discrimination she suffers because of her mixed background and the villagers’ suspicions about her mother’s purity. That seemed to infer that race was a factor in the purity tested in the ritual. As it turns out, the state religion is enforced by the Emperor, a Southerner, so Deka’s dark skin has nothing to do with her purity. Also, once Deka leaves her village, the whole issue of racial tension becomes a nonissue.

As another example, the appearance of an alaki is supposedly rare; Deka remarks that the last time it happened to her village was “decades ago.” However, when she goes to the imperial capital, she joins scores of other alaki–and those are only the ones born in Deka’s birth year. That makes them uncommon, but certainly not as rare as the original statement led us to believe.

Then there are the okai. The term is introduced on page 1, but it isn’t defined until halfway through the story, which was confusing. Unfortunately, getting that definition made things even more confusing. Okai are top-tier imperial assassins, and not only are there female okai, there’s an entire garrison in the capital dedicated to their training. Despite the religious rules stating that women can’t leave home without an escort, must cover their faces with a mask (kind of a reverse veil), and are forbidden from running, that same system also allows some women to be trained as elite killers under the Emperor’s auspices? The necessity of female okai, which have supposedly existed for generations, is never explored, nor is the means by which girls are chosen for this path rather than the standard fate of submission to a husband. These inconsistencies in the world order are unfortunate, especially because other aspects of Otera, especially the visual descriptions of setting, architecture, and fauna, are beautifully imagined.

In the midst of this problematic world framework, Deka undergoes a classic hero’s journey. She begins as a powerless, oppressed prisoner, and through the help of the enigmatic noble White Hands, she endures boot camp style training, learns to harness her true powers, and ultimately discovers and fulfills her grand destiny. Between the abuse, the training, and the battle scenes, there is a lot of brutality and death. The violence isn’t gratuitous; Forna has a purpose for those scenes, but if you’re squeamish about torture, this might not be the best fit.

Forna does a pretty good job presenting the psychological scars of Deka and her fellow alaki. Fleshing out the personalities of the male characters, not so much. By and large, the men are one-dimensional brutes, who are often corrupt and self-righteous to boot. The one exception is Deka’s love interest, Keita, who is so perfect he treats deathshrieks with respect, despite the fact they slaughtered his entire family.

Those who enjoy heroic tales will find Deka’s journey from weakling to warrior an engaging one (if you’re willing to overlook the issues in the world order.) For me, the most compelling part of the story was White Hands and the secrets she withholds from Deka. Forna does an amazing job of weaving an air of intrigue around this character. However, when the mystery behind the deathshrieks’ very complicated lifecycle is revealed, all I felt was disappointment. White Hands is presented as the cunning strategist pulling the strings in the background, but her master plan is way more convoluted than it had to be. And despite the excessively unnecessary twists and turns leading to the confrontation against the ultimate big bad, the final battle is conveniently tidy and short.

In Summary

I really wanted to like this book but couldn’t. The Gilded Ones has strong female characters, vivid visual details, and unfortunately, too many places where you must suspend belief. If you’re looking to read about girls who kick butt and overthrow their oppressive patriarchal systems, this book has it in spades. However, if you need that action presented against a world order that makes some sort of sense, give The Gilded Ones a pass.

First published at The Fandom Post.

 

Novel Review: Nameless Queen

Despite the declining number monarchies, tales of lost or hidden royals continue to fascinate people across cultures. Now Rebecca McLaughlin presents another story about a blue blood among the masses with her YA fantasy Nameless Queen. Read on for the review.

Back Cover Blurb

Everyone expected the king’s daughter would inherit the throne. No one expected me.

It shouldn’t be possible. I’m Nameless, a class of citizens so disrespected, we don’t even get names. Dozens of us have been going missing for months and no one seems to care.

But there’s no denying the tattoo emblazoned on my arm. I am queen. In a palace where the corridors are more dangerous than the streets, though, how could I possibly rule? And what will become of the Nameless if I don’t?

The Review

A quote on the dust jacket touts Nameless Queen as possessing “epic world-building,” but for me, the world-building was so shaky it kept jolting me out of the story. The setting is the city of Seriden. It’s preindustrial (they’ve got muskets but no gas/electric power), ruled by a sovereign, and has a population divided into three classes. Those classes are Royals (nobility), Legals (common citizens), and Nameless.

The Nameless, as you might guess, are the city’s oppressed inhabitants. They’ve got no legal status or rights, can’t buy property, and can’t hold jobs. As result, the vast majority live on the streets and survive by stealing and other illegal activities. However, it’s really unclear why the Nameless are stuck in Seriden. They’re not like Russian serfs, who are bound to provide slave labor for taskmasters. In fact, the Seriden government seems as if it would be thrilled if all the Nameless left town. And it’s not like the environment outside the city is some inhospitable wasteland. From what I can tell, nothing is keeping the Nameless from leaving and creating their own settlement elsewhere, yet they remain in the city where they receive no benefits and endure unjust beatings and hangings.

The other problematic aspect of this social structure is that the only thing differentiating the three classes is their clothes. Not something permanent or obvious like a brand or skin color, just clothes. And the clothes aren’t uniforms but vague ranges of color. Which means it’s easy to impersonate a different class by snitching the right outfits. There’s only one surefire way to tell if someone’s Nameless, and that’s through the magic of the sovereign.

 Or rather, it’s through the ineffectiveness of the sovereign’s magic.

Magic exists in Seriden, but its use is limited to the sovereign, whose powers are limited to what are essentially heightened ESPer powers–reading memories, manipulating thoughts, causing hallucinations. And those powers hold sway over Royals and Legals, but they have no effect on Nameless.

That inability to affect/manipulate the Nameless is the sole reason the group is discriminated against in the first place. But despite the emphasis on magic and how important it seems to the characters, it’s not really that critical to the city’s day-to-day functions. The sovereign doesn’t greet subjects with a daily hallucination. And even though the sovereign can tell at a glance if someone is Nameless, rank and file guards don’t have the same ability, and they are the ones maintaining city order.

Anyway, this is the world of our main character Coin. She’s a seventeen-year-old female Artful Dodger. She’s Nameless, homeless, self-reliant, and she gets the surprise of her life when, shortly after the king’s death, a magical tattoo appears on her shoulder, marking her as the heir to Seriden’s throne. Outrage ensues, and as Coin contends with death threats and endures the skepticism of the Royal Court, the plight of the Nameless hits her head on.

As far as characters go, Coin has an engaging voice, and she’s colorful and clever. The problem is she’s too clever for belief. She’s had to hone pickpocketing skills to survive, but apparently she’s so good she snitches several items despite being under guard custody AND having her hands shackled. The one time her dessert is poisoned, she instantly recognizes it as suspicious and even identifies the poison. She can knock the wind out of a professionally trained guard, and when she gets tossed into the palace dungeon, she escapes within five minutes. All this she does WITHOUT magic. So when she receives the sovereign’s magic powers on top of her own talents, it’s difficult to reconcile her superhuman abilities with the powerless mindset she carries.

Another thing difficult to reconcile is Coin’s I’m-all-alone mindset. From the start, she’s paired with Hat, a younger pickpocket with whom she’s worked for years. When Hat goes missing, Coin passes up a chance at safety to find her. When Hat ends up at the gallows, Coin risks her own neck to save her. Despite these actions, Coin is reluctant to call Hat her friend, even though mutual affection abounds between the two. Part of Coin’s character arc is a journey from lone wolf to accepting the love and support of others, but her excessively selfless actions on behalf of Hat makes that aspect of the narrative seem forced. Which is too bad because a number of scenes could have been truly touching had they been framed a more plausible context.

In Summary

Nameless Queen has great voice and intriguing characters. Unfortunately, problematic elements govern the setting, and the plot twists only make the events of the story less believable. All the fuss about the unsuitability of the main character doesn’t match the stakes, and the convoluted situation gets resolved much too easily at the end.

First published at The Fandom Post.

 

Novel Review: American Royals

Despite the fact that the United States began by rebelling against a monarchy, many Americans retain a romantic view of royalty. That’s the target audience of  American Royals. Read on for the review.

Back Cover Blurb

What if America had a royal family? If you can’t get enough of Harry and Meghan or Kate and William, meet American princesses Beatrice and Samantha. Crazy Rich Asians meets The Crown. Perfect for fans of Red, White, and Royal Blue and The Royal We!

The Review

The premise of American Royals immediately brought to mind the Korean manhwa and drama Goong (Princess Hours). Both reimagine modern democratic countries as modern monarchies to form the backdrop of romances involving young royals. Unfortunately, while Goong was captivating, American Royals came across as implausible and tiresome.

The implausibility sprang from the novel’s problematic world building. Whereas Korea has a legacy of kings and nobility for Goong to draw from, America doesn’t have one. The origin story provided is that George Washington was asked to become king when America won the Revolutionary War, and after he accepted the crown, he awarded titles and dukedoms to those who’d aided the Revolution. That tradition of ennobling worthy citizens persists to the novel’s present-day, and the nobility includes individuals from formerly oppressed groups (i.e., Native Americans and blacks–the monarchy supposedly abolished slavery two generations after the Revolution).

However, when a royal falls for a commoner, it triggers an uproar about impropriety that doesn’t make much sense when nobility is only a royal decree away. Not to mention, the nobility doesn’t serve any special function other than attending fancy state events. They’re not charged with military obligations to the country, and they can go bankrupt like anyone else. (Supposedly, one of the original noble families is on the brink of losing all their assets.)

Another thing that doesn’t ring true is how content and peaceful American society is. Everyone adores the royal family and is perfectly happy to remain under their rule, no matter their background. Yet toward the end of the book, the two Latina characters make references to the fact that people hate them because they’re Latina. This indicates the existence of racial prejudice, but nowhere else does this portrayal of America show any racial tension. Similarly, the narrative mentions at least three openly gay couples in the nobility that hobnob with the royal family, but toward the end, a character complains how she was discriminated against because she’s gay. The novel wants to present the monarchy as high-minded and egalitarian and at the same time show minorities fighting the injustices of the system, and it doesn’t work.

 Unfortunately, this novel winds up with the books to attempting for the diverse voices stamp of approval and falling short. Despite the fact that one black and two Native American men made the shortlist for the Crown Princess’s hand, all the main and secondary male characters are white. The Washingtons have supposedly intermarried with foreign royals, but all the ones we are aware of came from European countries. Himari Mariko, the one Asian character, is literally in a coma the entire story, and her surname isn’t even a real Japanese surname. (Mariko is a Japanese given name for females.)

Nina is the one token Latinx in the main cast, and I’ve got issues with her for different reasons. The narrative describes her parents as “one of Washington’s power couples:” one heads the Treasury, the other founded a successful e-commerce business. If that doesn’t scream privilege, the fact that she’s hung out at the palace and vacationed with the royal kids since the age of six ought to. Yet despite the fact that she’s attended state events with the princesses and prince and her parents have wealth and power, she’s portrayed as the down to earth commoner, who is at a loss at formal events. She even has a college scholarship tied to an on-campus job, which in this world are generally granted to students with financial hardship. If a so-called Washington power couple can’t swing college tuition for their kid, the rest of the country must be in really bad financial shape.

As for the tiresome aspect of the novel, it stems from the fact that all four of the main female characters are varying degrees of vacuous. Nina is supposedly smart, but she makes out with Prince Jefferson while he is still officially in a relationship with another girl, and afterward, he doesn’t call, text, or otherwise contact Nina for six months. But despite that dismal display of character, Nina decides he’s good boyfriend material. Princess Beatrice has supposedly known from infancy that she is expected to take on the responsibilities of the Crown, and monarchies, as a rule, deem continuing the bloodline a major part of it. However, when her parents bring up the subject shortly after she graduates from college, she acts like it’s never even occurred to her she might have to marry a guy she doesn’t love for the good of the country. Her sister Samantha is worse. She’s presented as the family free spirit, but her behavior comes off as self-absorbed and reckless. She’s supposedly extremely well versed in history, but despite the dozens of examples of political and arranged royal marriages, it never crosses her mind that politics might play even a tiny factor in Beatrice’s selection of consort. As for Daphne, she’s a stereotypical conniving gold-digger, albeit one from the nobility.

The narrative jumps from one woman’s perspective to the next, and the overall result is four uninspired romances woven together. The premise of an American monarchy has a lot of potential, but the novel focuses so much on the women’s fraught love lives that we never really see how this government affected the trajectory of American society and history. We never get a male perspective (it would’ve been nice to get Prince Jefferson’s view on events), and we never get any specifics on the concerns and challenges of the country. The narrative tells us over and over that the king and Beatrice work ceaselessly for the good of the country, but we don’t know if they’re dealing with an oil shortage, the threat of war, trade imbalances, environmental issues, or if they’re preoccupied with keeping the upper crust happy so they can retain their status.

By the way, this book is categorized in the YA section at my local library, but it’s probably more of a New Adult title. With the exception of Daphne, all the characters are out of high school, and Beatrice and her love interest are in their twenties. There’s lots of drinking, and a couple of characters have sex although those scenes aren’t overly graphic.

In Summary

A romance that reimagines a modern democratic nation as a modern monarchy isn’t a new idea, and unfortunately for American Royals, the story it weaves into that setting is also uninspired. The romantic moments between the main characters and their love interests are contrived (especially Beatrice’s getting snowed in at a cabin), and I can’t get myself to care about their love lives. It would’ve been nice to see how a monarchy might have redirected the development of the country, but in the story, it’s simply a device so that Americans can have their own prince and princesses to swoon over.

First published at The Fandom Post.

 

Novel Review: The Miracles of the Namiya General Store

It’s rare to find an adult title that’s beautifully written and carries a message of hope, but The Miracles of the Namiya General Store has got both qualities. Read on for the review.

Back Cover Blurb

When three delinquents hole up in an abandoned general store after their most recent robbery, to their great surprise, a letter drops through the mail slot in the store’s shutter. This seemingly simple request for advice sets the trio on a journey of discovery as, over the course of a single night, they step into the role of the kindhearted former shopkeeper who devoted his waning years to offering thoughtful counsel to his correspondents. Through the lens of time, they share insight with those seeking guidance, and by morning, none of their lives will ever be the same.

The Review

This novel is a gem. I’m not generally a fan of stories where time and space get twisted by unknown entities, but The Miracles of the Namiya General Store grabbed my heart much the way your name did. However, Namiya General Store has a drastically different plot structure than your name. In your name, the year and setting bounces all over the place, but ultimately the plot follows the progression of the main couple’s relationship. Namiya General Store has no overarching plot. It’s comprised of five lengthy chapters, each focused on a different set of characters. Yet as the chapters progress, they reveal critical connections which bind the characters, although the characters themselves are often oblivious to it.

The one connection that definitively ties all the characters is the Namiya General Store. In the late 1970s, the aged shopkeeper offered advice to anyone who wanted it. Simply drop your question, no matter how silly or serious, in the shop’s mailslot after hours, and old Mr. Namiya would have a response waiting in the milk crate at the rear of the shop the next morning. Fast forward to 2012, thirty-three years after Mr. Namiya’s passing, three young burglars duck into the now abandoned store after a midnight robbery. As they’re waiting for the coast to clear, letters from the past drop through the slot.

Chapter 1 actually begins with the three thieves and their decision to respond to the letters on the store’s behalf. Chapter 2 shifts back in time to one of the advice-seekers whose correspondence reaches the three thieves. Chapter 3 goes even further back to show Mr. Namiya in his advice-giving heyday as seen through his son’s eyes. In Chapter 4, the perspective shifts to Mr. Namiya’s first serious correspondent. Finally, Chapter 5 wraps up with the three thieves and the final advice-seeker they advise. It’s a lot of jumping around, but it actually works because there’s always an element from the ending chapter that allows it to flow into the next.

The thing that initially grabs your attention is the problems of the advice-seekers. (There’s a reason why advice columns attract readers.) However, the focus gradually shifts to those struggling to write a response. While we eventually become privy to the particulars of everyone involved, the characters are shut behind veils of anonymity. Anonymity is often used as a shield for nastiness, and a couple times, the thieves do make potshots in their responses. For the most part, however, the three do their utmost to help the advice-seekers, and the way their anonymity bring out the best in them is a beautiful twist.

The store’s supernatural routing system lends the novel an air of mystery, and the story also contains some exciting bits, including a deadly fire and a family’s fly-by-night. For the most part, though, this is a tale of characters at crossroads. Not everyone gets a happy ending, but all are portrayed in a sympathetic light as they agonize over the right thing to do.

In Summary

Thoughtful, well-intentioned advice doesn’t always lead to a happy result, but at the Namiya General Store, it’s more the rule than the exception. Characters come from all walks of life and grapple with a range of decisions, but Higashino-sensei beautifully intertwines their struggles to create a beautiful story of hope.

First published at The Fandom Post.

 

Novel Review: The Guinevere Deception

A lot of retellings recast females in much more active roles than they originally had. Kiersten White does this with the Arthurian legends in The Guinevere Deception. Read on for the review.

Back Cover Blurb

Princess Guinevere has come to Camelot to wed a stranger: the charismatic King Arthur. With magic clawing at the kingdom’s borders, the great wizard Merlin conjured a solution–send in Guinevere to be Arthur’s wife . . . and his protector from those who want to see the young king’s idyllic city fail. The catch? Guinevere’s real name–and her true identity–is a secret. She is a changeling, a girl who has given up everything to protect Camelot.

To keep Arthur safe, Guinevere must navigate a court in which the old–including Arthur’s own family–demand things continue as they have been, and the new–those drawn by the dream of Camelot–fight for a better way to live. And always, in the green hearts of forests and the black depths of lakes, magic lies in wait to reclaim the land.

Deadly jousts, duplicitous knights, and forbidden romances are nothing compared to the greatest threat of all: the girl with the long black hair, riding on horseback through the dark woods toward Arthur. Because when your whole existence is a lie, how can you trust even yourself?

The Review

The Guinevere Deception seems written for those looking for a feminist take on the Arthurian legends. Arthur’s queen isn’t your usual pretty trophy wife. She’s clever, she takes initiative, and her mission is to protect the king. But she’s not the only strong female in the cast. Most women boast backbone plus some power or ability, and the two greatest threats to our protagonist are female.

As to the main character, she’s called Guinevere, but the third person narrative initially only refers to her as “the girl,” which makes for a clunky opening chapter. It’s not until the middle of Chapter 2 that it settles on referring to her as Guinevere. That’s because “Guinevere” is a changeling and only recently assumed this particular form and identity (which was taken from a now-deceased princess). This is done at the behest of her father Merlin. Having convinced King Arthur to ban magic from his realm, the great wizard is obliged to stay out of Camelot. But so that Arthur’s not left completely vulnerable against dark magic, he sends his daughter to watch over the king in his stead, and their marriage is a ruse to allow her to keep close to Arthur.

It’s a complicated setup. It’s also complicated because our main character has big gaps in her memory, which makes it difficult to tell what kind of person she was before assuming her Guinevere identity. For instance, Merlin is her father, but she knows nothing about her mother, and it doesn’t strike her as strange until two thirds through the book. At the same time, she’s faking her way as queen without any real guidance on who the real Guinevere was. The only thing that is absolutely clear about her is that she is determined to protect King Arthur no matter what.

Her loyalty is admirable, but it is also baffling, given that she dedicates herself to the task before she’s met Arthur. Moreover, she’s a creature of magic who’s been isolated from people. Prior to becoming Guinevere, she lived in the wilds, and her only interactions were with Merlin. She doesn’t have any real investment or connection with human society, yet she’s ready to put herself on the line to make sure Arthur’s vision for Camelot succeeds.

However, if you can accept that elaborate setup, the plot that follows is interesting. Guinevere must use magic to detect and fight magic, but because it’s against the law, there are close calls and clandestine measures. Guinevere ends up behaving like the superhero who must wield her superpowers judiciously in order not to blow her cover. Arthur, who contrived the arrangement with Merlin, knows her secret, of course, but eventually she let others in on it, mainly because she holds an equally weighty secret of theirs.

Regarding Guinevere’s relationship with Arthur, this novel is YA, so they get around the issue of sex by agreeing that their marriage is just a cover and therefore does not need to be consummated. However, Guinevere, who devoted herself to Arthur even before laying eyes on him, pretty much falls for him once they actually do meet. Although that’s not too surprising because everyone in Camelot is in love with the king. While female characters have a fair amount of complexity, the male characters are flat. That includes Arthur, who’s invariably adored by his people and always does the right thing no matter what. The one exception to the banal male lineup is Arthur’s nephew Mordred, who forms a love triangle with Arthur and Guinevere. His interactions with Guinevere are much more interesting, although they have so many encounters that it’s a wonder it doesn’t trigger any malicious gossip in the court that Guinevere trying to navigate as queen.

The multifaceted aspects of this world are the novel’s strong suit. Guinevere’s acting sentinel against magical forces, so there are battles and investigations involving enchantment. At the same time, she’s queen at a castle, so there’s an element of royal pageantry. And Camelot doesn’t exist in a political void, so Arthur has human enemies in addition to the supernatural ones. Plus, a kingdom has more mundane problems, like poop disposal. This envisioning of Camelot is lively and fascinating, so even if our heroine is sometimes baffling as she sorts through the disconnected bits that comprise her identity, the activity swirling around her form an engaging backdrop.

In Summary

This Guinevere isn’t just a pretty face. She’s a magic-wielding, smart-sleuthing protectress of the kingdom. However, the fact that she doesn’t remember much of who she is while simultaneously impersonating a person she never knew makes her someone difficult to relate to. But if you like mysteries and enigmas with a cast of knights and various magic-wielding entities, give this book a shot.

First published at The Fandom Post.

 

Novel Review: House of Salt and Sorrows

Fairy tale adaptions are a popular subset of YA novels, but not many are based on The Twelve Dancing Princess. However, Erin Craig has taken that lesser known tale and combined it with gothic flavored horror in House of Salt and Sorrows.

Back Cover Blurb

Annaleigh lives a sheltered life at Highmoor with her sisters and their father and stepmother. Once there were twelve, but loneliness fills the grand halls now that four of the girls’ lives have been cut short. Each death was more tragic than the last–the plague, a plummeting fall, a drowning, a slippery plunge–and there are whispers throughout the surrounding villages that the family is cursed by the gods.

Disturbed by a series of ghostly visions, Annaleigh becomes increasingly suspicious that her sister’s deaths were no accidents. The girls have been sneaking out every night to attend glittering balls, dancing until dawn in silk gowns and shimmering slippers, and Annaleigh isn’t sure whether to try to stop them or to join their forbidden trysts. Because who–or what–are they really dancing with?

The Review

Erin Craig presents an interesting twist on The Twelve Dancing Princesses. There’s a mystery to be solved, but it’s styled less like a hero’s challenge and more like a gothic horror story. Although the puzzle of the worn dancing shoes comes into play, the primary enigma confronting our main character is the deaths of her older sisters.

Annaleigh is the sixth of the Duke of Salaan’s twelve daughters. However, four of the young women have met untimely ends. People whisper that the sisters are cursed, but Annaleigh suspects murder. As her family attempt to ignore the rumors and move on with their lives, Annaleigh investigates the deaths only to find herself increasingly beset by eerie visions and nightmares.

I have mixed feelings about this book. It got off to a fabulous start with Craig’s gorgeous world-building. Arcannia incorporates many Victorian-era elements in its setting and culture, and those who like descriptions of silk ball gowns and corsets and luxurious gaslit estates will have plenty to enjoy. Another Victorian element of the story is the gothic horror type atmosphere haunting Annaleigh. As she confronts one gruesome image after another, readers are left guessing whether her sisters’ ghosts are real or she’s losing her mind.

Then a third of the way through the story, the nighttime balls come into the story along with a magic/meddlesome deity aspect. From the get-go, Arcannia is depicted as a polytheistic society, with each area of the kingdom paying homage to a regional deity. These initial descriptions make it seem like these gods and their supernatural powers are rather removed from the mortal world. However, once the sisters start going to the family shrine, gods and magic are suddenly very active in the narrative.

This irked me. The initial chapters made it seem like the only possible actors in the sisters’ deaths were ghosts or humans. Annaleigh never considers that magic or immortals might be involved even though their existence is supposedly common knowledge. So when the mystery of Annaleigh’s ghoulish visions is revealed as the workings of a god, that was a letdown.

Another weakness of the story is the romance between Cassius and Annaleigh. It’s not insta-romance on her end; watching her figure out whether he’s friend or foe is actually intriguing. However, he walks into the story besotted with her before they’ve met. Considering how he learned about Annaleigh and the fact that she’s one of eight sisters, I’m left wondering why her and not one of the others.

The story also runs into the same quandary I noticed in another Twelve Dancing Princesses retelling, Princess of the Midnight Ball. Basically, twelve sisters is a lot of people to keep track of. Granted, the deaths in House of Salt and Sorrows reduces the number to eight, but that’s still a lot. Aside from the eldest, the youngest, and the main character, the sisters are a muddle of names without much to distinguish them.

However, a woman that does stand out in this female-heavy family is Morella, the Duke’s new young wife. As soon as I saw the word “stepmother,” I really hoped the novel would depict something beyond the hackneyed evil stepmother. Sadly, Morella winds up among the ranks of the wicked version although she puts on a pretty good nice-mom act for most of the book.

In Summary

This book starts off well and creates wonderful atmosphere in both its radiant and creepy scenes. (And if you want spooky descriptions, there’s plenty on these pages.) However, the deus ex machina resolution to the mystery of Annaleigh’s visions was disappointing, and for the life of me, I don’t see how the main character was so compelling that her love interest would go to such lengths for her.

First published at The Fandom Post.

 

Novel Review: Spin the Dawn

Fantasies often have wizards as central characters, but how about a tailor with a magical touch? Elizabeth Lim presents the tale of a girl tasked to create three mythical gowns in her debut novel Spin the Dawn.

Back Cover Blurb

Maia Tamarin dreams of becoming the greatest tailor in the land, but as a girl, the best she can hope for is to marry well. When a royal messenger summons her ailing father, once a tailor of renown, to court, Maia poses as a boy and takes his place. She knows her life is forfeit if her secret is discovered, but she’ll take that risk to achieve her dream and save her family from ruin. There’s just one catch: Maia is one of twelve tailors vying for the job.

Backstabbing and lies run rampant as the tailors compete in challenges to prove their artistry and skill. Maia’s task is further complicated when she draws the attention of the court magician, Edan, whose piercing eyes seem to see straight through her disguise. And nothing could have prepared her for the final challenge: to sew three magic gowns for the emperor’s reluctant bride-to-be, from the laughter of the sun, the tears of the moon, and the blood of stars. With this impossible task before her, she embarks on a journey to the far reaches of the kingdom, seeking the sun, the moon, and the stars, and finding more than she ever could have imagined.

Steeped in Chinese culture, sizzling with forbidden romance, and shimmering with magic, this young adult fantasy is pitch-perfect for fans of Sarah J. Maas or Renée Ahdieh.

The Review

This fantasy is a delightful change of pace. Unlike most English language novels in this genre, which tend to have European-style settings, this story takes place in A’landi, an East Asian inspired empire. And instead of having a royal or adventurer protagonist, the main character Maia Tamarin is a tailor.

Not to say there aren’t royals or a dangerous quest in the plot. Following a five year civil war between the emperor and a powerful warlord, the master tailor Kalsang Tamarin is summoned to the emperor’s court. However, the recent war, which claimed two of his sons and maimed the third son, has left him so broken he cannot sew. Unfortunately, the summons cannot be ignored, so his daughter Maia disguises herself, taking her remaining brother’s identity, to go in his place. Soon thereafter, Maia discovers she’s merely one of twelve tailors that will vie to become the emperor’s master tailor, and the judge is none other than the warlord’s daughter Sarnai, whose impending marriage to the emperor is critical to A’landi’s newfound peace.

The primary thread of this book is Maia rising up to each of Sarnai’s challenges. The demands of those challenges changes drastically as the story progresses, and the novel winds up in three distinct acts. The first is the competition between the twelve tailors at the Summer Palace. It resembles a TV elimination-type competition with plenty of girls-are-capable-as-boys gumption and a thick layer of court intrigue. The second part is the quest for the mythical components of Sarnai’s three wedding dresses. These chapters are reminiscent of impossible task folktales where heroes venture into forbidden territories with the aid of magical helpers. In Maia’s case, her magical helper is the emperor’s enchanter Edan, and in addition to being an adventure-style quest, this section also ends up a romance between the two. In the final section, Maia must reckon with the costs and gains of her efforts and determine whether she can return to normalcy.

It’s a lot of territory for one book, but despite roaming over a bunch of genres, it forms a solid, cohesive, and engaging story. The strength of Maia’s character has a lot to do with it. The novel gets off to a slower start than some, but the family history in the initial chapter forms the core of what makes Maia compelling and relatable.

Actually, the multifaceted nature of the cast is among its greatest strengths. Edan carries centuries of baggage behind his teasing, and although Sarnai doesn’t hesitate to torment others, she’s to be pitied as a woman forced into an arranged marriage. Most characters fall into shades of gray, which makes Maia’s dilemma of whom to believe and trust as pressing as the sewing challenges she must win.

Regarding the love that blossoms between Maia and Edan, I’m happy to say that it is not a case of insta-romance. Maia meets him amid the intrigue of the Summer Palace, where Edan is only one of a number of enigmatic figures she’s trying to figure out. Although the connection between Edan and the palace’s black hawk is kind of obvious, it’s not obvious from the get-go how their relationship will progress, which makes it fun to watch. However, it is odd she refers to him as a “boy.” His actual age aside, Edan has the appearance of a young man of about twenty.

Another interesting facet of this story is the descriptions of the materials, tools, and techniques the tailors use. If you like fashion, this may be a selling point for you. However, I found some aspects of Maia’s abilities jarringly unbelievable. Not only does Maia work so fast that she knits two complete sweaters during her five-day ride to the Summer Palace, she sews the silk portions of Sarnai’s three gowns while she journeying to the desert and a frozen mountaintop. I’ve sewn dresses and shirts myself, and I can’t imagine keeping all those pieces clean and in order while camping, let alone through the sand and rain she supposedly traveled through.

The journey’s pace was also puzzling at times. Maia has a mere three months to travel to the three corners of the continent to gather the magical materials for Sarnai’s gowns. As such, Maia’s constantly under the pressure of this looming deadline. However, there are parts, such as their encounter with Orksan’s caravan and their visit to the monastery, where they stop a couple days as if time is of no consequence.

Those are minor nitpicks though. Overall, I enjoyed this story and its cast, and unlike most recent novel series I’ve read, I’m actually eager to see what happens in the second book of this duology.

In Summary

Spin the Dawn is one girl’s journey from obscurity to fame, from the mundane to the magical, and from loss to love and back again. Combined with a complex cast, an intricate Asian-inspired setting, and plenty of unexpected twists and turns, this novel is a delightful read with wide appeal.

First published at The Fandom Post.

 

Novel Review: Eve of Man

A recurring theme in sci-fi is humanity’s existence pushed to the brink by everything from monsters to global catastrophes. Now Giovanna and Tom Fletcher adds a worldwide dearth of baby girls as a species-ending dilemma in their novel Eve of Man.

Back Cover Blurb

On the first day, no one really noticed. All those babies wrapped in blue blankets–not a pink one in sight. On the third day, people were scared–a statistic-defying abundance of blue. Not just entire hospitals, not only entire countries, but the entire world. Boys. Only boys.

Until Eve. The only girl born in fifty years. The savior of mankind. Kept protected, towering above a ruined world under a glass dome of safety until she is ready to renew the human race.

But when the time comes to find a suitor, Eve and Bram–a young man whose job is to prepare Eve for this moment–begin to question the plan they’ve known all along. Eve doesn’t only want safety, and she doesn’t only want protection. She wants the truth. She wants freedom.

The Review

What would happen to humankind if the gender balance tipped completely toward males? This book’s premise is an interesting one, especially since societies like China’s are dealing with the fallout from sex-selective abortions. Unfortunately, Eve of Man doesn’t so much delve into social change as it uses the scenario as the basis for a futuristic princess-locked-in-a-tower tale.

And main character Eve is literally confined at the top of Extinction Prevention Organization’s 2.5-mile high tower. Because the youngest women other than her are in their mid-sixties, Eve is the one hot commodity, and the EPO has made it their business to shield her from the opposite sex until she’s mature enough to take a shot at another generation. But now that Eve is sixteen she gets to choose her future mate from three potential males. As you might guess, Eve ends up falling for someone outside of this preselected pool.

The cover flap blurb teases, “But how do you choose between love and the future of the human race?” The question insinuates that Eve’s choice (Bram) is lacking somehow, like he has a genetic disorder or is infertile. That would make for interesting drama. However, the story boils down to revealing EPO as the big bad out to maintain worldwide domination by controlling Eve’s reproductive bits while Bram is the rebel in the organization trying to break her out.

The world-building in this novel is weak, which makes for confusing storytelling. Perhaps this is because it was written by two authors, but important elements don’t get clarified as soon as they should for a sci-fi title. For instance, Bram mentions that the EPO tower is located in a place called Central in Chapter 3, but it isn’t until Chapter 37 that we learn Central was once called London. Chapter 3 also talks about an apocalyptic combination of pollution clouds, global warming sea rise, and extreme weather, which gives the impression that the outside environment is borderline uninhabitable. Two-thirds of the story later, Bram is watching all sorts of mundane activity take place out of doors. The most confusing moment for me was the introduction of Holly in Chapter 1. The prologue had already hammered home the point that Eve is the ONLY! girl on the planet, so when another “girl” shows up in Eve’s penthouse quarters, I was stuck wondering what she was. After a couple of pages without an explanation, I assumed she was a kind of AI. Then in Chapter 2 (after 11 pages of Eve /Holly chatting) they FINALLY reveal that Holly is a hologram.

And not just any hologram. She’s controlled by “pilots,” young men close to Eve’s age, and Bram is one of these pilots. While it is an interesting way for the characters to meet and fall in love, the rationale behind “Holly” is shaky. She’s an extremely expensive technology whose only purpose is to manipulate Eve. However, manipulating Eve is only valuable if Eve has any real power, and she doesn’t. Whenever she shows a hint of disagreeing, the EPO tosses out Holly and reverts to force. So if they don’t really need her permission, why waste the effort and resources to persuade her? Not to mention, their pilot standards are pretty shoddy. Bram and his cohorts are supposed to act the role of a best girlfriend, but when the jerk character pilots Holly, his jerk personality bleeds through. And when the boring guy pilots her, the boringness comes out loud and clear.

The story’s one-dimensional characters, unfortunately, are not limited to these two. The primary villains Vivian Silva and Dr. Wells are especially egregious in their respective roles of unscrupulous, arrogant corporation head and evil scientist/abusive father, but it expands to include the entire male gender. Without the kindler, gentler sex, men apparently unleashed World War III and devastated the environment. Moreover, the book asserts that men possess zero self-control and, if they see a woman, are helpless to stop themselves from raping her. It’s a narrative I find appalling and rather shocking, considering a man co-authored it.

Regarding cast diversity, the main couple is white (and gorgeous), and the other key players are also white. There are side characters who might possibly be non-white, but the physical descriptions on them are so sparse that it’s difficult to tell for certain. The single character who is definitively non-white is Diego, one of Eve’s potential mates. However, he is described in unflattering terms. (“In appearance Diego is small and uninteresting…” “His skin is rough and dark, his eyes small and beady.”) Oh, and within fifteen minutes of meeting Eve, he murders someone and gets blasted to pieces. End Diego.

I suppose it’s up to the authors to decide how to design their characters, but given that they’re depicting a worldwide problem and the setting is London, a city with a diverse population, it would’ve been nice to reflect that in their cast. For instance, the narrative mentions at least three times that Eve is struggling to learn Mandarin, so why not include a Chinese person among her attendants?

The novel isn’t without its strong points. The action and escape scenes are fast-paced and have unexpected twists. However, most of those don’t show up till the second half of the book, and by then I’m already disinterested in the fate of this couple and their world.

In Summary

The book has an interesting premise but doesn’t quite deliver. Problematic storytelling aside, the story takes what could have been an interesting commentary on gender balance, power, and traditional roles and simplifies it into a hero-must rescue-princess-from-the-evil-totalitarian-power tale. Add to that some convoluted world-building and flat characters, and it makes for a less than engaging read.

First published at The Fandom Post.

 

Novel Review: Ash Princess

YA novels often involve a search for identity. If you’re looking for a tale about identity that involves royalty, magic, and a rebellion, Laura Sebastian’s Ash Princess might fit the bill. Please read on for the review.

Back Cover Blurb

Theodosia was six when her country was invaded and her mother, the Fire Queen, was murdered before her eyes. On that day, the Kaiser took Theodosia’s family, her land, and her name. Theo was crowned Ash Princess–a title of shame to bear in her new life as a prisoner.

The Review

Ash Princess seems targeted toward the YA audience who wants a royal teenage rebel but prefers reading about palace scenes rather than combat maneuvers. Even though the book includes a map of the country of Astrea, it’s not that helpful because almost everything takes place at the Astrean palace, and the primary battlefield is the web of lies and intrigue surrounding the court.

Our main character is Theodosia, Princess of Astrea, a land blessed with magical gems. When she was six, the Kalovaxians, a warlike people who are like a cross between Vikings and Nazis, invaded her country, killed her mother the Queen, and enslaved the Astreans. However, instead of sending Theodosia to the Spiritgem mines like the rest of her populace, the Kalovaxian Kaiser changed her name to Thora and kept her in the palace, where she is beaten whenever the Astreans cause trouble.

Ten years later, the last Astrean rebel leader is captured. Thora is forced to execute him, but before he dies, Thora learns her true relationship to him. The incident forces her to remember her duty to her people, and when the remaining rebels make contact with her, she gives up a chance to escape, choosing instead to spy on the people who imprisoned her.

There’s a lot going on in this story: magic, oppressed slaves, a castle with secret passageways, ruthless conquerors, an ambush against another country, romance, murmurs of a new military weapon. However, the main focus is the identity of our main character. Who is she really? The narrative uses three names (Theodosia/Thora/Theo) that highlight how she views herself, the roles she’s trying to play, and what she strives to become. This plays out primarily on two interweaving fronts: the spy game and the love triangle.

Despite getting beaten and humiliated at king’s orders on a regular basis, Theodosia not only gets to occupy the same space as the most powerful Kalovaxians in the land, she’s even endeared herself to one of them: Crescentia, the daughter of the Kaiser’s general. Even though Crescentia’s father killed Theodosia’s mother, the girls are best friends, and Crescentia trusts Thora wholeheartedly. As improbable as that relationship sounds, it does make for interesting internal turmoil when Theodosia starts deceiving her unwitting friend for the rebel cause.

That internal turmoil is matched by that caused by the Kaiser’s son Soren. The polar opposite of his self-absorbed, underhanded, ignoble father, the handsome prince falls in love with Theodosia. (Conveniently, she only carries scars on her back so that she’s still a pretty princess despite all her beatings.) What results is a surprisingly compelling star-crossed lovers scenario that only intensifies when we discover that Soren’s feelings toward Theodosia are more complex than she first realizes.

Unfortunately, the chemistry between Theodosia and the other leg of the love triangle doesn’t quite work. Blaise is an escaped slave and the equivalent of the “boy next door” from Theodosia’s childhood. He and the other two Astreans who have managed to infiltrate the palace are initially distrustful toward Theodosia, partly because they’re unsure where her loyalties lie, partly because they question her abilities. The fact that she’s been well fed in a palace while her people are starving in mines doesn’t help. As such, there’s a lot of initial squabbling between Theodosia and Blaise. However, when they plot to have Theodosia seduce Soren, the subsequent conversation about Theodosia’s first kiss seems way out of character for former slaves who’ve supposedly suffered rape and other unspeakable atrocities. So when Blaise kisses Theodosia, it feels forced, like it’s only there to achieve a plot point. And when Theodosia’s feelings go back and forth between Soren and Blaise, she just comes off as fickle.

Another weakness of the story is backstory of the Kalovaxian invasion. Supposedly, Astrea was an idyllic country where everyone was unified under their strong, beautiful Queen. In addition, it was the only place where people wielded magic. Theodosia remarks at the opening about the astounding superhuman powers Astrean magic users possessed that the Kalovaxians have never been able to imitate. And despite this great advantage, they fell—in fairly short order—before their magicless conquerors, and it’s never made clear how.

The strategies of Theodosia’s rebel companions are equally baffling. At one point, Theodosia steals Spiritgems, making it possible for one of the rebels to cast illusions and another to become invisible. Yet they shove the job of poisoning the Kalovaxian general and his daughter onto Theodosia. While it does provide more for Theodosia to agonize over, strategically it makes a lot more sense for the invisible guy to do it. Instead, they use their powers to hover over Theodosia when she goes to a masquerade ball.

As for the end of the story, it’s not really the end of the story. Like so many books in this genre, it concludes with the end of a battle and the beginnings of an uprising. While the final chapters reveal some intriguing connections between the cast, I don’t feel sufficiently invested the world of Astrea to read on about its ultimate fate.

In Summary

Ash Princess presents a tale in which a captive princess must cast off her slave persona and find the inner fortitude to become the queen her people need. While it takes us on an interesting internal journey about self-identity, the novel’s external conflicts left me scratching my head at times. However, if you aren’t as interested in those kinds of details and just want a story where a beautiful princess defies an unquestionably evil enemy while wearing pretty gowns and having two boys fall in love with her, then give this book a try.

First published at The Fandom Post.

 

Novel Review: Tempests and Slaughter

Tamora Pierce is the author of several fantasy novels, and I recently had the opportunity to review the first book in her latest series, Tempests and Slaughter. Please read on for the review.

Back Cover Blurb

Arram Draper is on the path to becoming one of the realm’s most powerful mages. The youngest student in his class at the Imperial University of Carthak, he has a Gift with unlimited potential for greatness–and for attracting trouble. At his side are his two best friends: Varice, a clever girl with an often-overlooked talent, and Ozorne, the “leftover prince” with secret ambitions. Together, these three friends forge a bond that will one day shape kingdoms. And as Ozorne gets closer to the throne and Varice gets closer to Arram’s heart, Arram realizes that one day–soon–he will have to decide where his loyalties truly lie.

The Review

I’ve no previous exposure to Tamora Pierce’s work, but judging from the information on the dust cover, she’s written a number of series set in the Tortall fantasy realm, and Tempests and Slaughter is the first book of another Tortall series. However, Tempests and Slaughter doesn’t provide a particularly engaging introduction to the Tortall realm and falls short as a standalone novel.

At the very beginning of the book is a map of “Tortall and Neighboring Realms,” which displays the kingdom of Tortall smack in the middle. However, the setting for Tempests and Slaughter is the Carthak Empire, which the map doesn’t even show in its entirety. Actually, a map of the University of Carthak would’ve been more helpful because the vast majority of action takes place at the school, and even when characters leave its grounds, they never go far from it.

Our main character is Arram Draper. The dust cover describes him as “a talented young man with a knack for making enemies.” Talented, yes. Knack for making enemies, not really. Basically, he’s a ten-year old genius, and at the university, he’s the mage version of the whiz kid taking college level math while his agemates are still learning fractions. So he encounters occasional classmate bullying because he doesn’t fit in, but he also becomes the pet of every instructor who takes him on (and there are at least eight of them). Plus, he also wins over gladiators, clinic patients, various animals, and two deities, and by the end of the book, he’s been romantically involved with three girls, all of whom pursued HIM. That’s quite the opposite of “a knack for making enemies.”

His two best friends are Varice and Prince Ozorne, who are also prodigies, although not nearly as young or talented as Arram. Ozorne is interesting in that he’s in line for the Carthak throne and must contend with a certain political reality. Varice, on the other hand, is rather bland. Her most distinguishing characteristics are that she’s a gorgeous blonde and likes to cook so she’s always feeding the two boys.

Between the school for magic and the three-friend aspect, Tempests and Slaughter seems a not so subtle attempt at a Harry Potter type of story. Unfortunately, it falls flat. It’s not that the magical elements aren’t fleshed out; Pierce puts in plenty of detail about the workings of Gifts as Arram goes from one teacher to the next. The problem is that there’s no strong plot to carry the novel from a beginning to an end.

The book shows Arram getting an education—and that’s about it. He hasn’t come to the university to fulfill a specific purpose. He doesn’t have to worry about the practical aspects of financing his very expensive education became his instructors arrange for a scholarship plus stipend. (Not to mention, he’s always receiving special gifts from them.) He has no rival he’s competing against. His bully encounters are brief and never escalate to anything serious. He’s not seeking revenge or redemption. He has such amazing talent his teachers come to HIM for help. The threesome never turns to a love triangle, and Arram gets the girl he’s always wanted without even trying.

The story does contain a number of elements with the potential to become the backbone of an arc (i.e. the murdered mage). However, they are simply introduced and not fleshed out. It seems like the purpose of this book is to lay the groundwork for the real conflict that is to come later in the series, but I feel cheated that so little is resolved after 455 pages.

The other issue with this book is that I’m not sure what its intended audience is. Arram is ten at the beginning of the story and can’t be more than fourteen by the end of the novel. I associate that protagonist age range with middle grade readers. However, the content includes graphic gladiator-type violence and a typhoid plague that has Arram puking his guts out as well as various sexual references. These elements I associate with young adult stories. So Tempests and Slaughter creates a weird combination of YA content and a childish mindset. In addition, that childish mindset doesn’t get jaded, despite all the awful things Arran sees and experiences.

In Summary

Existing fans of Tamora Pierce’s fantasy books may feel differently, but as a newcomer to her Tortall fantasy world, I’m not inclined to explore it further after reading Tempests and Slaughter. There’s certainly a lot of magic and magic lessons, but they serve no purpose other than making prodigy Arram an even more advanced student. While some interesting events do arise, they never fully develop into a real plot, and overall, Tempests and Slaughter fails to generate enough anticipation for me to be interested in the series’ next book.

First published at The Fandom Post.