Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor by Xiran Jay Zhao

Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor is an engaging start to an action-driven fantasy series that is written in a winsome prose that is guaranteed to appeal to fans of Rick Riordan. Like Riordan’s books, Zhao combines an action-driven quest with a coming of age tale exploring the highs and lows of being a 12yr boy. I loved the way the author managed to incorporate—with varying degrees of self-awareness—existing tropes of the ‘chosen one/kids with powers’ genre whilst adding new dimensions and elements to their story. Additionally, unlike a lot of MG books, Zhao addresses serious and topical issues/realities in a very clear-eyed and straightforward manner.

Zachary Ying, our main character, has tried to distance himself from Chinese culture in order to fit in his white majority school. His mom, who is his sole carer, works long hours, so Zack spends a lot of his time playing Mythrealm. One day at school he comes across Simon who seems eager to get to know Zack. Turns out that Zack, the host of the spirit of the First Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, who, alongside Simon, host to Tang Taizong, and later on Melissa, host to Wu Zetian, are tasked with a crucial mission: they have to seal the portal to the Chinese underworld before the Ghost Month. Zack doesn’t really want to be part of all of this but with his mom’s life in jeopardy, he has little choice in the matter. Unlike Simon and Melissa, however, Zack’s emperor was not fully able to possess him and was forced to tie himself to Zack’s AR gaming headset (which lends many of the action sequences a gameplay quality). To rectify this Zack flies to China to strengthen his bond with his Chinese heritage, all the while being chased by baddies…but as their mission unfolds and Zack learns more about the emperors’ reigns, he begins to worry that he is not working for the good guys either.

Throughout the course of the narrative, the author references superhero comics, games, anime (i mean, code geass gets a mention which will always be a win in my books), as well as, you guessed it, Avatar: The Last Airbender. The narrative is quite self-aware in that these references often come at an apt moment, and usually poke fun at the existence/perseverance of said trope/storyline (for example with the ‘fridging’ of zack’s mom). I liked this meta aspect of the narrative as it gives the storytelling a playful edge that serves to counterbalance the more serious themes/scenes. Through Zack’s storyline, the author is able to explore the everyday realities of being a Chinese-American kid who feels pressured by his white peers to distance himself from his own Chinese heritage. Additionally, Zack is Hui, an ethnoreligious minority group with Islamic heritage and/or adhere to Islam. Like other minority groups in China, the Hui can be and are discriminated against by the current Chinese government. Zack’s father was executed after protesting the government’s treatment of Uighur Muslims, and this makes his journey to China all the more fraught. While the author criticizes the current Chinese government, through Zack’s quest they are also able to showcase their love for Chinese culture and history, presenting us with a complex image of this country, its past and present. The author’s depiction of and discussions around China oppose the kind of monolithic and homogenous image of this country that sadly seems to prevail in a lot of western media and public discourses. The China that emerges from these pages is enriched by its expansive history and many idiosyncrasies (other MG authors, please take notes!).

I loved the way they incorporate historical facts in the action sequences, so when we are introduced to a new historical figure we get a punchy introduction giving us an overview of their life. There were instances where I wish the author had not added American, or otherwise western, equivalents when introducing a certain figure or when touching upon a certain historical period (we often are given enough context to understand the cultural/historical significance of said person/period). Still, I really appreciated how the author avoids the usual good/bad dichotomy that tends to be the norm in a lot of MG books. Zack repeatedly questions the past behaviours and present motivations of the emperors.
The chapters all have funny titles that were very much a la Riordan. The banter between the various emperors and historical figures was very entertaining, even in those instances where it was trying a bit hard to be ‘young/relatable’. I loved the way the narrative includes and discusses historical-related things, as it very much reminded me of the author’s youtube content, which—as you may or may not know—I am besotted by. While I thought that the historical characters were equal parts interesting and amusing, the contemporary ones, except Zack, were not quite as dynamic. Simon and Melissa in particular lacked dimension and seemed the type of stock characters you find in any ‘trio’ (melissa in particular is the kind of aggravating sidekick who is meant to be a ‘spunky girl’ but comes across as kind of a jerk). I didn’t like them that much either, even before the latter half of the novel. Zack deserves some real/better friends.

Anyway, Zack steals the show as this is ultimately his story. He goes through a lot in this book and is forced to question the kind of person he wants to be/become. He makes mistakes, and he learns from them. He knows he wants to be stronger but finds his notion of strength to be challenged more than once. I wish that the narratives had called out a bit more people like Melissa who mistake his moments of vulnerability or hesitancy as signs of weakness or a ‘lack of moral fibre’. Dio mio, he’s a KID, leave my boy alone. I don’t know, I felt protective of Zack and because of this found myself rather peed off by anyone who tried to make him feel ashamed of being sensitive. But I digress. Overall I thought this was an enjoyable book that manages to blend together history and technology. If you a fan of heroes’ quests you should definitely give this one a try. Added bonuses: hints of casual gay rep + positive Muslim rep.

I for one liked it a lot more than the author’s debut novel, which I sadly was unable to enjoy (i know, don’t get me started if i could actively control and change my response to that book i would). I found the author’s prose to be a lot more confident in this one and their style really worked for this MG-type of storytelling. This is the kind of book I wish had been around when I was a 12yr old as I would have been able to love it, whereas now I can only just ‘like’ it. Anyway, I liked the humor and the historical facts, so this gets a thumbs up from me and I look forward to its follow-up.

ps: i just remember but some of zack’s reactions to learning some of the horrific things the emperors did are gold

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ½

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The Dragon’s Promise by Elizabeth Lim

why are all my most anticipated 2022 releases so disappointing 😭

Please, let there be no love triangle

If you’ve read my review for Six Crimson Cranes you know just how much I loved that book. While I was concerned that the sequel would include a wholly unnecessary love triangle angle, I wasn’t at all preoccupied with the possibility of not liking it. And of course, 2022 being my underwhelming reading year, it turns out that plot twist I low-key disliked almost everything about this book. With a few modifications, Six Crimson Cranes could have easily been a stand-alone novel, and I actually think it would have resulted in an even stronger book. Alas, as this is a duology, we get The Dragon’s Promise, a lukewarm finale that came across as boring and repetitive. Characters I previously enjoyed reading came across as very one-dimensional, the villain was far less compelling than the (apparent) one from Six Crimson Cranes, and the meandering plot failed to grab my attention. One too many chapters end with Shiori falling and or possibly facing some other type of danger (being attacked etc.). While the story doesn’t include an actual love triangle it teases one, something that I almost found more annoying than having to put up with a proper love triangle.
If you, like me, loved Six Crimson Cranes I’d still recommend you check out this sequel as you might find it a more captivating read than I did.

If you don’t mind reading minor spoilers here is my more in-depth(ish) review:

The Dragon’s Promise picks up right after the cliffhanger Six Crimson Cranes. Shiori and Seryu have gone to the kingdom of dragons so Shiori can give the dragon’s pearl to the king of dragons, Seryu’s grandfather. But, Shiori doesn’t really plan on handing him the pearl as she promised her stepmother on her deathbed that she would return the pearl to its true owner. How she planned on escaping the consequences of not doing what she said she would is a mystery to me. Of course, the king is not pleased with her refusal to hand the pearl over to him and this results in a lot of back-and-forths where Shiori repeatedly believes that her newfound allies may or may not have betrayed her. Shiori is imprisoned, freed, imprisoned, freed, and so on. She comes across a character that will quite clearly play a role later on in the story but I didn’t find him as amusing as the narrative tried to make him into. Seryu’s character becomes rather unlikable and his bond to Shiori didn’t feel particularly believable. He confesses to having feelings for her (or something to that effect) but Shiori loves Takkan so she turns him down. She does now and again seem to entertain the possibility of being with Seryu but not in any serious capacity. For plot reasons, the two are of course forced into an engagement. It would have been far more refreshing to have their relationship as strictly platonic as I am tired of these YA novels where we have these two hot guys falling in love with the spunky clumsy heroine who has only very superficial and off-page friendships (here there is a weak attempt at giving her a positive relationship with a girl her age but funnily enough this friendship is mostly relegated off-page because of plot reasons).
After what felt like forever Shiori returns home and reunites with her beloved and her own family. Her brothers, who felt like such a crucial element from 1, are given very few lines and the remainder of the book sees Shiori and Takkan travel from place to place in an attempt to defeat the Bad Guy and are later on aided by a witty side character we met earlier in the book. I didn’t feel the stakes, the Bad Guy was very cartoonish, and the plot was just repetitive. In no time Shiori’s act-now-think-never attitude started to irritate me and while the story seems intent on portraying her as extremely special or whatever I didn’t feel that she was a particularly memorable or unique character. I missed the atmosphere of the first book as here that spellbinding magic is lost to samey action sequences.
Additionally, the dialogue was distractingly anachronistic. I don’t understand why the author randomly dropped archaic words into the characters’ dialogues as they merely stood out and consequently took me out of the story.
This was a deeply disappointing sequel. Not only did it make me fall out of love with the characters and setting of its predecessor but it was just a painfully ‘meh’ read. The content struck me as boorishly vanilla and Disneyesque (not in a good way as, so far as i remember, there were no lgbtq+ characters…).
I wish I could have loved it but as things stand the only reason why I gave The Dragon’s Promise a 3-star rating is out of my love for Six Crimson Cranes.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea by Axie Oh

The YA genre seems saturated by heroines who are (allegedly) neither beautiful nor intelligent but they are spunky and clumsy and bursting with goodness. Well, I have had my fill of these girls.

Wholesome, vanilla, inoffensive, The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea is a relatively enjoyable YA read that tone-wise will definitely appeal to younger audiences (with very few alterations this could easily have been a middle-grade book). As usual, I was sold by the comparison, which in this case happens to be one of my all-time favorite films, Spirited Away. While The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea does present readers with some vivid descriptions of the Spirit Realm, the characters and world-building were not as nuanced as Miyazaki’s ones. Also, I couldn’t help but compare (unfavourably) this to other fairy-tale-esque YA books such as Daughter of the Forest and Six Crimson Cranes.
Anyway, the story is fairly plot-driven as we follow our ‘spunky’ heroine trying to put an end to the curse afflicting the Sea God, a god who once protected humans but for generations has been destroying her homeland by causing deadly storms. To appease him every year a beautiful maiden is thrown into the sea and becomes his bride. This year it will be someone from Mina’s village, the lovely Shim Cheong who happens to be the object of affection of Mina’s brother, Joon. Seeing how much they love each other Mina hijacks the ceremony and sacrifices herself instead. Once in the Spirit Realm, she discovers that the Sea God has been asleep for years and that only his ‘true bride’ can put an end to his curse. We don’t learn much about what happened to the previous brides, with the exception of one, and she doesn’t really get much page time. It would have been nice to know what these other brides got up to in the Spirit Realm but alas the plot is very much focused on Mina who is determined to save her people from future heartaches. She’s somewhat aided by the ‘mysterious’ Shin, and his two sidekicks, the funny one and the surly one. They do come into contact with other gods and spirits but these scenes are short-lived and rather rushed. Mina makes a few heedless choices because she just can’t bear not to do what’s right (le sigh), and she eventually develops feelings for someone.
Mina manages to make people help her left and right because her goodness is just that motivating. Eventually, we learn more about the Sea God and the identities of Mina’s newfound allies.
It would have been nice to have Mina think about her family more. She mostly thought of her grandmother when the plot needed it and it felt a bit unrealistic that she would so easily get over them. I was also tired of the narrative telling us that Mina was not beautiful or intelligent when it is quite obvious that she is the most special girl in the whole bloody book. The love interest was a bit bland and his sidekicks were rather cliched. The Sea God’s curse and the events that led to it were somewhat anticlimactic. The story tries to have Mina bring these gods and spirits to their senses by reminding them that there are humans who pray for them and need their help, but her arguments were so simplistic that it made it hard for me to believe that her words/actions would be so ‘touching’ to others. The ending could have easily been shorter as it came across as prolonged for no reason whatsoever. While there were certain elements that I liked and I did not find this to be an unpleasant story, well, it felt very mid. I guess I could see this book working for readers who enjoyed Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Gods of Jade and Shadow.
Sadly, I was rather disappointed by The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea, as I was looking for richer storytelling, a more developed cast of characters and world-building, and a less predictable plot. Overall this was an easy if forgettable read and I’m not sure whether I would read more by this author.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Where the Drowned Girls Go by Seanan McGuire

Where the Drowned Girls Go is a relatively compelling if inoffensive addition to the Wayward Children series. Once again Seanan McGuire sticks to the same formula: we have a focus on aesthetics, a fairy-talesque atmosphere, and a story revolving around a girl who is either lonely or made to feel different or insecure about something. Like its predecessors, Where the Drowned Girls Go critiques individuals and institutions that seek to impose conformity on those they deem ‘different’. Here the good/bad binary feels particularly lacking in nuance, and I miss the ambivalence that permeated the first few instalments. Still, McGuire’s prose has is always a delight to read. While here she goes a bit heavy-handed on metaphors involving smiles (we have, to name a few, wan smiles, bland smiles, terrible smiles, terrifying smiles…the list goes on), her hypnotic style is rich with tantalising descriptions and lush imagery. I also appreciate her darker take on fairy tales and magical worlds. As we can see, those who go through magical doors do not always make it ‘home’ unscathed. They carry physical and psychological scars from their time there and struggle to integrate themselves back into ‘reality’.

In Where the Drowned Girls Go we are reunited with Cora who we previously followed on a rescue mission to Confection in Beneath the Sugar Sky. She’s haunted by the Trenches, the world she fell into, and fears that she will once more be transported to that world. She believes that at Eleanor’s school she won’t be able to resist the Trenches so she decides to enrol at the Whitethorn Institute. But, she soon discovers, Whitethorn is not kind to ‘wayward children’ like her. The school instils fear in its students, punishing those who mention their experiences in other worlds and rewarding those who come to view magical doors as the product of a delusion. Cora is bullied by some of her roommates who make fun of her appearance and such. Eventually, Sumi comes to her rescue and Cora has to decide whether she does want to leave Whitethorn. There are a few moral lessons about friendship, not being mean, or not letting others dictate who you are.

While there were fantastical elements woven into the story and setting this volume lacked that magic spark that made the first few books into such spellbinding reads. I also found Cora to be a meh protagonist. Her defining characteristic seemed to be her body, which wasn’t great. Sumi was a welcome addition to the cast of characters as I found the girls at Whitethorn to be rather samey (which perhaps was intentional). I don’t entirely get why Cora got another book. She was the main character in Beneath the Sugar Sky. Her insecurities etc. were already explored in that book…and this feels like an unnecessary continuation to her arc. Still, I love the aesthetics of this series and the wicked/virtue & nonsense/logical world compass.
Hopefully, the next volume will be about Kade…

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ¼

The Cat Who Saved Books by Sōsuke Natsukawa

The Cat and The Travelling Cat Chronicles makes for a quick and wholesome read that will definitely appeal to bibliophiles. Like other fantasy coming-of-age tales, this novel features a talking animal who enlists our human protagonists in an adventure and acts as a guide of sorts into the magical world. Rintaro Natsuki, our protagonist, is a particularly introverted boy who sees himself as a hikikomori. When his grandfather, who was his primary carer, dies, Rintaro inherits his secondhand bookstore. Rintaro struggles to articulate his grief and is unable to truly express how much this loss has affected him. Rintaro stops going to school, staying instead at the bookstore. Here he meets Tiger, a talking cat who makes him join in a quest of sorts. According to Tiger, there are books in need of rescuing and Rintaro is the only one who can save him. Together they travel to four different mazes where they come across bad book owners who have lost sight of what caring & loving books truly means. One owner no longer reads for pleasure but because he wants to read the most books possible in his lifetime. Another one thinks that because people no longer make time to read, the only way to keep these stories alive is to literally ‘cut’ them. The third one cares nothing for old books and is interested in books that sell well. While the last one will truly force Rintaro to question what literature and books in general truly mean. The nature of Rintaro’s quest definitely brought to mind the structure of fairy tales. The lessons Rintaro teaches the owners instead reminded me of Scrooge from A Christmas Carol. Like the ghosts in Dickens’ novel Rintaro shows them the error of their ways. While at first these bad book owners seem unbending in their ways, Rintaro is always able to make them reevaluate their attitude towards their books by challenging their behaviour (hoarding books, reading books simply for the sake of ‘reading’ them, without actually connecting to the story, trying to condense books to short summaries, or caring only about the books that sell, well, this is not how someone who professes they love books should act).

Rintaro is the classic guileless male protagonist. More than once we are reminded that he is a nobody, no one of interest. And yet for some reason, Tiger chose him as his companion in his book-saving adventures. There is also the classic female character who is a bit of a busybody and for some bizarre reason kind of likes our male mc. There is also a popular guy whose function in this story is somewhat bizarre. He really served no purpose other than to remind us that Rintaro is not one of the cool guys. Tiger, the most interesting character of the lot, is largely underused.
The moralistic nature of the mazes also struck me as fairly simplistic. Still, the author does ask some thought-provoking questions about what books/reading mean, whether one should prioritize discovering new voices or deepening their relationship to books they love by re-reading them. Also, in one of the “baddies” says that now-days books don’t stand a chance as a source of ‘entertainment’ as one can’t read and multitask. Clearly this guy has never heard of audiobooks (i know it technically isn’t ‘reading’ but you nevertheless can ‘absorb’ a book). I also didn’t like that the final villain, who is portrayed as cold and slightly ‘off’ (in a not-human kind of way), is a woman.
I can see this book appealing to fans of Lonely Castle in the Mirror by Mizuki Tsujimura and Colorful by Eto Mori. Similarly to those novels The Cat Who Saved Books focuses on a Japanese teen who doesn’t really fit in at school but over the course of the narrative, and thanks to the aid of some fantastical elements, begins to connect with other people his age. Overall this was a fairly engaging read even if it was a bit too vanilla for my taste.

my rating: ★★★½

Coraline by Neil Gaiman

The first time I read Coraline I was 10 or so and I won’t lie, it scared the bejesus out of me. I mean, the Other Mother has buttons for eyes. Buttons. And she wants to sew buttons into Coraline’s eyes. Wtf.
Anyway, this is a great piece of fiction. The story revolves around Coraline, a young girl who, alongside her distracted and workaholic parents, has recently moved into a big house divided into flats. As Coraline is out of school at the moment she grows increasingly bored and restless. After visiting her neighbours, who are rather peculiar, she ends up exploring her home and coming across a small locked door. The door, once unlocked, reveals a bricked wall.

One day, after a sort of argument with her mother, Coraline finds herself alone at home and decides to open the door once again. This time it leads into a corridor that takes her into a flat that is almost identical to her own. Here we meet Coraline’s Other Mother and Other Father who seem eager to bestow their love and attention on her. While Coraline is momentarily swept away by the delicious food she’s being served and by this ‘other’ version of her parents, she can’t help but feel slightly put-off by their appearance. Her Other Parents happen to have black buttons for her eyes. As the story continues we see just how terrifying the Other Mother is.
As I said, this is a creepy, even unsettling book. Coraline is such a likeable and sympathetic character that I found myself immediately invested in her and her wellbeing. I’m also a sucker for dark fairy tales, and while this book isn’t quite as dark as say Pan’s Labyrinth, the two definitely share their similarities. Coraline is tempted into accepting a seemingly perfect vision of her life and family. But, she can’t quite make herself forget and or stop loving her real parents, however imperfect they may be. The Other Mother’s love is not love, not really, and her behaviour towards Coraline, and her other ‘subjects’, can be seen as echoing the ones of an emotionally abusive parent. Ultimately the story takes a cat-and-mouse turn where Coraline has to outsmart the Other Mother.
I absolutely love Gaiman’s storytelling, and here he really outdoes himself. He has written something that is accessible to younger readers without sacrificing depth or dumbing down his narrative. And of course, the cat steals the show.
The film adaptation is great too. A favourite of mine even if does add Wybie into the story (he’s very much a comedic-relief type of character). If you have time I also recommend you check out The Eldritch Horror of Coraline by CJ The X (it’s a chaotic & funny analysis of the character of the Other Mother).

my rating: ★★★★☆

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Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho

“He spoke the spell under his breath, still a little uncertain after the agonies he had endured. But magic came, ever his friend—magic answered his call.”

Written in a playful pastiche style Sorcerer to the Crown will certainly appeal to fans of Susanna Clarke, Neil Gaiman, and Diana Wynne Jones. Cho’s bombastic prose, characterized by an Austenesque sense of humor, and madcap fantasy of manners story were a delight to read.
The first time I read this, back in 2015/6, I did, truth be told, struggle to get into Cho’s high register language. But, the more I read, the more I familiarised myself with her lofty and loquacious style. Sorcerer to the Crown was a brilliant read, a real blast!

“In truth magic had always had a slightly un-English character, being unpredictable, heedless of tradition and profligate with its gifts to high and low.”

Set in an alternate Regency England, Sorcerer to the Crown follows Zacharias Wythe, the country’s first Black Sorcerer Royal, who was raised by his recently deceased predecessor, Sir Stephen. While Zacharias clearly respected and was grateful to Sir Stephen, the two didn’t always see eye to eye. Moreover, Zacharias can’t forget that Sir Stephen bought and freed him, separating from his own family. This being Regency England Zacharias is treated with open animosity by most of his colleagues, some of whom are actively attempting to besmirch his name, claiming that he’s responsible for England’s decline of magic and Sir Stephen’s death. Zacharias is an incredibly level-headed individual, a thinker not a fighter. He’s serious, studious, punctilious. He’s also fair, loyal, and endearingly naïve. Yet, even he can’t quite keep his calm when his reputation, and life, are under attack. Attempting to clear his name and to discover the reason behind England’s magic drought, he leaves London.

“Magic was too strong a force for women’s frail bodies—too potent a brew for their weak minds—and so, especially at a time when everyone must be anxious to preserve what magical resource England still possessed, magic must be forbidden to women.”

He visits Mrs. Daubeney’s School for Gentlewitches, a place that is meant to snuff any magic from its pupils. In England, the only women who are ‘allowed’ to practice magic are those from the lower classes (and can only use spells to facilitate their daily chores/tasks). Due to her ‘questionable’ parentage (ie her mother was not an Englishwoman) Prunella Gentlemen, similarly to Zachariah, has always been treated as an outsider. Prunella is an orphan who thanks to her ‘generous’ benefactor, Mrs. Daubeney, was, for the most part, treated like the other students. When an incident threatens to change this, Prunella decides to take matters into her own hands and forge her own path to happiness.

“Your amoral ingenuity in the pursuit of your interest is perfectly shocking,” said Zacharias severely.
“Yes, isn’t it?” said Prunella, pleased.

Zacharias and Prunella cross paths and form a camaraderie of sorts. While Prunella is still very much self-serving, repeatedly going behind Zacharias’ back or eliding important information & discoveries, she does seem to enjoy bantering with Zacharias. Together they face disgruntled magicians, engage in some magical mishaps, attend/crash a ball, confront angry magical creatures, try to reason with a formidable witch, partake in discussions with some rather tedious thaumaturgist, and challenge the Society’s long-established traditions and hierarchies.

““Why, all the greatest magic comes down to blood,” said Mak Genggang. “And who knows blood better than a woman?”

While the witty dialogues and droll characters result in delightfully humourous, within her narrative Cho incorporates a sharp social commentary. From the rampant racism and xenophobia that were typical of this time to addressing gender and class inequalities. Through satire Cho highlights these issues, and, in spite of her story’s fantastical backdrop, Cho doesn’t romanticise this period of time and the England that emerges from these pages feels all too real. The use of historically accurate language and the attention paid to the time’s etiquette and social mores, result in an incredibly well-rendered historical setting.

While this type of narrative won’t appeal to those looking for action-driven stories, Cho’s sparkling storytelling is not to be missed. The follow-up to this book is, dare I say, even better.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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The Raven King by Maggie Stiefvater

And so my latest TRC re-read has come to an end. What an outstanding series. Truly. I cannot even begin to articulate how much this series means to me and how much I love it.

In this finale, the stakes are higher than ever and a lot of things Stiefvater has hinted at in the previous instalments come to the fore. The Raven King makes for a bittersweet read. While Stiefvater’s delightful humor is still present, there are several scenes that are just brimming with sadness & melancholy. In a way, this mirrors the shift in tone and reflects how far the characters have come since their early days in TRC. That is not to say that they still don’t make mistakes or say the wrong things, but they have at least learnt how to communicate more with one another. Their experiences have made them more mature, and witnessing this ‘growth’ makes for such a rewarding experience.

With the exception of The Dream Thieves, which is pure gasoline, the other volumes in this series are characterised by a calmer pace. In The Raven King this too changes as the narrative is very much action-driven. Stuff just keeps happening and at times I missed the more tranquil pacing of TRC or BLLB. Still, I was very much hooked on the story. We get some great reveals and character development. Stiefvater’s storytelling is always on point, from the atmosphere she creates through the use of repetition to the vividly rendered setting of Henrietta (and Cabeswater, Monmouth Manufacturing, 300 Fox Way, the Barns)
As per usual, I adore the Gangsey. Gansey is going through a lot. While he’s certainly good at pretending that he’s control, there are various things that happen here that threaten his ‘everything is going swell act’. Adam is still learning more about his abilities but without Persephone there to guide him, he has to learn to trust his friends and himself. Blue’s reunion with her long-absent father is not particularly ideal as he refuses to talk to anyone. Ronan…my poor boy.
These characters truly are the heart of this series. I did find myself wanting more scenes of them together, and part of me resented that we get less of them in favour of introducing Henry. I like him, I do. I can tell Stiefvater cares for him and wants us to feel the same. The thing is, I would have preferred it if he’d been introduced earlier on in the series or if he’d played a more minor role. His presence in the narrative makes it so that we get less of Noah and less of Adam&Gansey or Ronan&Gansey…I also found myself missing the OG quest. In the previous books, Glendower is very much the goal and Gansey often talks about history and myths…here instead Glendower seemed an afterthought almost that only comes into play towards the end. But these things were fairly minor things.

A lot happens in The Raven King, so much so that we don’t really have the time to process some of the more heart-wrenching scenes (if you’ve read this you know). As I was reluctant to say goodbye to these characters part of me wishes that we could have had a longer epilogue…still, I’m extremely grateful to Stiefvater for what she has accomplished with TRC.
While TRK isn’t my favourite book in this series I still found it to be a fantastic read. I am in awe of this series.
I’m so happy that Stiefvater went on to write Call Down the Hawk and Mister Impossible. While the tonal shift may not appeal to all, personally, I think it really works in its favour.

my rating: ★★★★★

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A Marvellous Light by Freya Marske

“I am nothing like you, and yet I feel more myself with you.”

Part cute/steamy romance, part historical fantasy romp, A Marvellous Light is a delightful debut novel.

A Marvellous Light is likely one of the best romances to come out in 2021. I really had a blast with this novel! While Freya Marske’s historical setting and the magical system is not quite as detailed & complex as Susanna Clarke’s in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell or Zen Cho’s Sorcerer Royal series, its setting is vibrantly rendered and the fantasy aspect was a lot of fun and gave me some serious Diana Wynne Jones/Ghibli vibes. The main characters make the novel, and I found them incredibly endearing. The plot itself is fairly conventional, and it is Marske’s engaging style and her compelling protagonists that steal the show.

“You woke me up. You’re incredibly brave. You’re not kind, but you care deeply. And I think you know how much I want you, in whatever way I can have you.”

Set in Edwardian England, A Marvellous Light follows Robin Blyth and Edwin Courcey. Recently orphaned Robin is in his late twenties and despite his newly inherited title, he’s in urgent need of an income. A clerical mishap lands him in the position of ‘Assistant in the office of Special Domestic Affairs and Complaints’, his predecessor, a certain Reginald Gatling having gone suddenly MIA. On his first day on the job, Robin meets Edwin Courcey, who is the special liaison to the Chief Minister of the Magical Assembly. Robin, baffled by the discovery that magic is indeed real, is sure that someone more suitable should be taking his place. While Robin and Edwin are not keen on working together, after a certain altercation with some dubious individuals, the two decide to join forces in their effort to find out what happened to Reginald. Much of the narrative takes place in Edwin’s family home, where we learn more about how magic works and we see the bond between the two men solidify in something resembling a friendship.

The narrative’s scope remains rather narrow, and the story is very much focused on the blossoming romance between Edwin and Robin. The growing sexual tension between them complicates their ‘mission’, as the two men will be forced to confront the magnitude of their feelings for each other.
The dynamic between Edwin and Robin is truly charming. By switching between their perspectives we learn more about their personal histories, their relationship with their family members, and their previous romantic ‘exploits’. Edwin is a brilliant scholar, and he possesses vast magical knowledge. However, he does not possess much magic, and this has made his family treat him with open contempt. His older brother, who has a lot of magic, is a horrid bully, and his sister and parents have always turned a blind eye to his relentless tormenting of Edwin. Because of this Edwin is slow to trust, guarded to the point of rudeness. While Robin was never particularly close to his parents, who were not nearly as charitable and selfless as they liked to pretend, he is far more open and carefree. Of course, after a certain ‘event’, Robin too begins to have a lot on his mind. At Edwin’s family home the two grow closer, and as they attempt to find the truth behind Reginald’s disappearance they find themselves growing attached to one another.

While we don’t learn much about the Magical Assembly or of the history of magic in England (other than a snippet here and there), the author does a fairly decent job when it comes to world-building, avoiding info-dumps and overly complicated explanations. The mystery storyline is perhaps the novel’s weakest element. There is an attempt at a twist villain but I’m afraid that it was fairly obvious that that person was indeed a ‘baddie’. The last 30% is slightly repetitive, and maybe I would have found it more gripping if the villains had been more fleshed out (we also get the uber cliched line: “Come on board, you’ll have the power you’ve always wanted”). Speaking of secondary characters, they are somewhat one-dimensional. I kept confusing the people at Edwin’s house, as they all have ridiculously posh sounding nicknames and behaved in varying degrees of obnoxiousness.
I did however like Miss Morrisey and her sister, I mean: “And we are but feeble women,” said Miss Morrisey. “Woe.” They were a fun addition and I wish they had played a bigger role in the story (hopefully we will see more of them in the sequel!).

The romance between Edwin and Robin is the cherry on the cake. Their chemistry, banter, and flirting make for some thoroughly enjoyable and surprisingly sweet passages. I wasn’t really expecting the story to be quite this smutty and I have to say that the sex scenes did feel a bit overlong. I don’t mind sex scenes but smut…eeh, it does nothing for me. I either find it unintentionally funny or boring. But this is clearly a ‘me thing’ so I’m sure other readers out there will be ahem more appreciative of these scenes.

While the plotline is somewhat predictable (we have those fairly obvious twists, the usual misunderstanding that occurs around the 70% mark in romances) Marske does have a few tricks up her sleeves and she leaves quite a few questions unanswered (hopefully the sequel will resolve some of these).

Overall this was a very entertaining read. It has humour, mystery, plenty of magical hijinks, and a lively Edwardian backdrop. Robin and Edwin are guaranteed to give you ‘the feels’, and I really liked their character arcs. And, last but not least, their romance. While I could have done with fewer sex scenes and more plot, Robin and Edwin’s relationship was great. The author doesn’t rush it, so we have quite a decent amount of longing/yearning….which I have always been a sucker for (especially in historical fiction). I am super excited to read the sequel and I thoroughly recommend this, especially to those who are looking for a sweet-turned-sexy queer romance + the perfect blend of fantasy and historical fiction.

my rating: ★★★½

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Peaces by Helen Oyeyemi

“Talking to strangers can be riskier than it is rewarding; even people who know each other well talk at cross purposes and derange each other’s perceptions.”

Peaces is the type of freewheeling novel that fully embraces its own weirdness, taking its readers along a madcap sort of adventure, one that is guaranteed to be equal parts amusing and confounding. What drew me to this novel, zany premise aside, was that it would take place on a train. It just so happens that I am a sucker for works set on trains (they can be classic whodunnits—Murder on the Orient Express, The Mystery of the Blue Train—or animated series—Infinity Train—and films—The Polar Express—or anime—Baccano—or short stories—Mary Ventura and The Ninth Kingdom—or genre-defying mindfucks such as Snowpiercer). I’m not sure why I find this setting so appealing (enclosed spaces? The idea of a journey?) but chances are if a story is set on a train, I will be checking it out. Oyeyemi makes the most of her setting and I absolutely loved the slight but present Wes Anderson-esque feel of ‘The Lucky Day’, the train boarded by Otto, our narrator, his partner, Xavier, and their pet mongoose. Once inside the train, Otto & co find themselves in increasingly perplexing scenarios (a woman named Ava may possibly be in need of help), as they come across some eccentric figures who seem to know all about them and each carriage they walk through seems more peculiar than its predecessor. Otto and Xavier become inevitably embroiled in The Lucky Day’s growingly peculiar goings-on.
Otto’s narration is delightfully sardonic and so very British. His wry and frequently mystifying inner monologue is deeply diverting. The characters’ nonplussed responses towards the many fantastic and outlandish things that happen on The Lucky Day added an extra layer of surreality to the overall story and brought to mind the kind of absurdist works penned by Lewis Carroll (or even Beckett). The puzzling conversations that populate this train journey are as entertaining as they are baffling.
Peaces was a fun if discombobulating read that bears the signs of a marvellously inventive and talented storyteller. In addition to a cast of wonderfully queer & quirky characters, Oyeyemi presents her readers with a unique take on love and heartbreak, on sanity and insanity, on being seen and unseen. The novel adopts this matryoshka doll-like structure so that with each chapter we come closer to the heart of this bizarro mystery. The last few chapters did come across as rushed and even somewhat bathetic.
Still, Peaces makes for a decidedly droll ride. Oyeyemi has crafted a nonsensical if strangely modern fairy-tale, one that I look forward to revisiting (and maybe a second read will make me understand more fully what went down in that final act.). Anyhow, if you are a fan of experimental and deeply surreal narratives (think Piranesi) Peaces may be the perfect read for you.

re-read:
The latter half of this novel still has me confused. This is certainly the desired effect but it does become a bit frustrating. While I liked the absurdists elements that dominate the narrative, towards the end I found all of the characters (especially the ‘villains’) to be much too much. The side characters did not remotely come across as actual human beings but the type of one-dimensional figures befitting cartoons aimed at small children. Despite this Peaces was certainly a fun ride.

my rating: ★★★½

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