Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao

“But I have no faith in love. Love cannot save me.
I choose vengeance.”

Xiran Jay Zhao has written an ambitious debut novel that should definitely appeal to fans of Pacific Rim & The Hunger Games. Iron Widow is likely one of the most creative books that I’ve read this year (which is saying something given that atm my read count is around 150+) as it presents readers with a unique blend of genres and concepts: fantasy and sci-fi elements are incorporated in a dystopian yet recognizably historical Chinese-inspired setting. Alas, while I liked the commentary and ideas that are at play in this novel, its execution left me wanting. The Not Like Other Girls mc and girl-hate got to me too.

“It takes a monster to slay a monster.”

Way back when I used to be quite a fan of mecha anime (fyi my faves were: macross, code geass & eureka 7) so I was rather looking forward to seeing this subgenre translated into book form. The robots in this novel are called Chrysalises and operated by a psychically linked male/female duo in order to fend off aliens invaders called Hunduns. The male fighters are celebrities, their fights broadcasted to the whole of Huaxia. The female fighters, ‘concubines’, often do not survive these battles, as the boys more or less use them as their own energy bars. The way the girl fighters are treated definitely brought to mind the tributes from The Hunger Games. They are sacrificed without any care or regard, their certain death is deemed necessary for the ‘greater good’, an honour even.

“If we want something, we have to push back against everything around us and take it by force.”

Our narrator, Zetian, has grown up in this extremely misogynistic world. She has been mistreated by her family her whole life, her feet were broken and bound at a young age, and she basically has no freedoms whatsoever. When her older sister dies after being forced into becoming a ‘concubine’ Zetian seeks revenge. She wants to kill the male pilot responsible for her death.
Zetian does indeed succeed but in doing so reveals to the world just how powerful she is. After earning the title of ‘Iron Widow’ she’s paired with Li Shimin, ‘Iron Demon’, a male pilot with a dangerous reputation. Forced into working together Zetian and her new partner discover more about their abilities and the Chrysalises themselves.

The story is very action-driven and has an ‘edgy’ feel to it that will definitely appeal to many other readers. While I did enjoy the author’s take on mecha, their take on Yin/Yang, as well as the issues & realties they touch upon (because of her bound feet our mc’s has difficulties walking and often experiences pain), I would be lying if I said that I enjoyed this novel.
This is one of those rare cases where I genuinely feel shitty for not liking a book as much as I wanted to (the last time it happened was with lindsay ellis’ axiom’s end).
Because I really love the author’s content on youtube I am not too happy about critiquing their debut novel so I will just list the things that prevented me from liking their book without going into that much detail and without spoiling anything for anyone. Also, I feel the need to say (or write) that I don’t want to dissuade anyone from reading this book. I wish the author the best and I do think that they have the potential of becoming a really good writer. They are definitely creative and throughout their novel there are some visually stunning scenes that attest to this (this is the kind of book that should be adapted to the ‘big screen’) as well as some neat-sounding lines that brought to mind the work of Rebecca Roanhorse.

But, alas, here are the things that did not work for me:
the writing felt simplistic and certain words/expressions (‘ugh’, ‘duh’, ‘wow’, ‘yup’) pulled me out of the story; quite a few phrases had this ‘edgy YA’ tone to them that didn’t really do it for me either; personally, I would have preferred it if the story had implemented multiple povs or at least had been told through a 3rd person perspective as Zetian’s inner monologue struck me as extremely simple and the constant questions she asks herself got grating, fast, (“what’s happening? how did i get here? who am i?” “how could i have forgotten him? what does he mean to me?” ); I would have loved more detailed descriptions about the characters’ surroundings or their different environments (and maybe less about their clothes/hair styles); I also think that the world-building would have benefitted from being more firmly established earlier on…we get some crucial lore way too late in the narrative & quite a few aspects remain unexplored; the romance (something i was rather looking forward to) also did nothing for me…the relationship between the boys seemed rushed and it struck me as…I don’t know, I just would have believe in their relationship more if we’d been given their perspectives (their relationship to mc also was kind of meh); while the story was certainly fast-paced my interest waned early on in the story (there were a lot of repetitive and not-so-clear-cut sequences); all of the characters would have benefitted from some more depth; last, but not least, Zetian…I hoped she would be someone a la Zhu from She Who Became the Sun or like Lada Dracul from the And I Darken series (ruthless, knows what they want, may not be ‘physically strong’ but they are certainly intelligent)…but Zetian was low-key stupid and annoying, she had this vague OP/Chosen One/Not Like Other Girls/Badass Girlboss quality to her that I find really off-putting…also, for all her talk of girls supporting girls, the majority of the interactions that she has with other women (there are very few) gave me girls-hating-girls vibes (she has one token female friend).

There are a few other things that I didn’t like but I won’t go into them. I think this novel has a lot of heart and I’m sure that over time the author will hone their writing skills.
If you want to read this novel I recommend you give it a shot regardless of my review because I’ve been known to have shitty opinions (some people on this wonderful site have called me a ‘hater’, ‘dumb’, and ‘illiterate’, so do read my reviews with a pinch of salt).

ARC provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

my rating: ★★

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Six Crimson Cranes by Elizabeth Lim

“My stepmother had broken me. She’d cast me away from my brothers, my family, my home. Even from myself.”

First things first: that cover. I mean….words cannot describe how beautiful it is.
Ever since watching early 2000s Barbie movies reading Juliet Marillier’s spellbinding books I’ve had a soft spot for retellings and I’m happy to say that Six Crimson Cranes makes for a truly wonderful take on “The Brothers Who Were Turned into Birds” type of tales (which include the six swans, the wild swans, and even marillier’s daughter of the forest). Fans of Ghibli and even Disney should definitely consider picking this up as Six Crimson Cranes is a truly magical novel.

“We were seven, and seven was a number of strength. An uneven number that could not fold unto itself, large enough to withstand many threats, yet small enough to stay devoted.”

In Six Crimson Cranes Limm transports her readers to the Chinese and Japanese inspired kingdom of Kiata. Here Princess Shiori, the only daughter of Emperor Hanariho, is not looking forward to getting married to the son of Lord Bushian, someone Shiori considers to be a barbarian. In spite of her sheltered upbringing, Shiori’s adventurous streak (read: foolhardiness) often lands her in trouble. Thankfully for her, she has six brothers who dote on her (even if they do enjoy teasing her now and again) and are more than happy to watch out for her.
On the day of her betrothal ceremony, she uses magic—which is, you guessed it, forbidden in this kingdom—to cheer herself up. And then her magical friend lands her into the palace’s Sacred Lake. Luckily, Shiori is saved by Seryuu, a dragon prince (okay, this whole dynamic gave me some strong spirited away vibes) who offers to help her with her magic. Shiori’s lake mishap raises her stepmother’s suspicions. And it turns out that mysterious & aloof Raikama also dabbles with magic. When Shiori witnesses Raikama getting up to no good she runs to her brothers to warn them about their stepmother’s true identity. Alas, the siblings don’t stand a chance against Raikama who uses her dark magic to curse them. Shiori’s six brothers are transformed into cranes. Shiori too is cursed: no one will be able to recognise her and if she were to utter a single word one of her brothers will die. Voiceless and alone, Shiori travels the lands hoping to find her brothers and a way to break the curse.

“Ironic, wasn’t it, that I—a girl who always wanted to make her own choice—now for nothing more than to surrender to fate?”

What follows is a compelling tale of resilience. Lim has spun a truly enchanting fairy tale one that feels at once familiar and unique. While her story implements quite a lot of archetypes (the protagonist on a quest, a curse, a magical companion who offers wise words of advice, hidden identities, evil stepmothers) she also subverts quite a few of them. Lim’s storytelling is so engaging that even if I predicted most, if not all, of the twists and revelations that occur along the way, well, it didn’t lessen my enjoyment of her story. In fact, I actually found myself looking forward to Shiori figuring things out for herself. Shiori is a truly lovable heroine. To start she’s a bit of a hothead and until her curse, she was leading a rather cushy lifestyle (okay, the arranged marriage wasn’t great but it was also very much the norm in this kingdom). After the curse, Shiori endures quite a lot of hardships. Her love for her brothers and her desire to set them free sees her overcoming the many trials that come her way, and by the end of the narrative, Shiori has undergone quite the character development.
I loved the setting, the magic, Shiori’s voice, her bond with her brothers, the folktales and myths Lim incorporated within her story.

“I would not have you be alone, […], not in your joys or your sorrows. I would wish your strand knotted to mine, always.”

Six Crimson Cranes is a truly delightful and dazzling novel. Not only is Lim a fantastic storyteller but I felt really invested in Shiori and her brothers. There is a hint of romance which added a sweet note to the overall narrative (i am just praying it won’t turn into a love triangle…) but the story’s focus remains very much on Shiori’s quest.
Marillier herself described this novel as a “gorgeous” take on an old fairy tale, and “a must-read for lovers of folkloric fantasy”…and well, she’s spot on.

ARC provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo

Despite its short length (100 pages or so), it took me several attempts to actually finish The Empress of Salt and Fortune. The first time I picked it up I only managed to reach the halfway mark. A few months later I tried again (from the start) but once again found myself growing bored by it. Finally, I gave this a lost shot today and I can’t say that it was worth reading after all. The first few pages are intriguing but this type of novella is clearly more interested in aesthetics and atmosphere than story or characters.

The world-building is vague, we are given more descriptions about objects and accessories than actual people and their environment. The story-within-story structure feels a bit gimmicky, especially with the constant use of ‘do you understand?’. The feminist angle also felt somewhat unsatisfying as I was expecting to feel the ‘anger’ promised by its summary. Perhaps it’s my fault for expecting a handmaiden/queen sapphic tale but sadly The Empress of Salt and Fortune is no Fingersmith. The novella seemed more focused on replicating a certain fairy-tale ambience than actually providing dimensional characters and places. Maybe I would have felt differently if I hadn’t recently read The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri…maybe not.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang


Review of The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang
★★★★✰ 4 that-was-bloody-intense stars

This novel is incredibly engaging. I found myself desperate to read it as often as I could, because I was involved by the story Kuang has so vividly rendered.

The storyline might seem a bit predictable at first – orphan goes to a special school, discovers ‘uncanny’ abilities, yadda yaddabut the way in which Kuang delivers this trope-y story made it seem anything but clichéd.

It might sound daft but one of the aspects that pulled me into this story is that Kuang made me believe in Rin and her tumultuous and often hostile world. The many physical and inner conflicts she faces made me deeply weary. I grew increasingly apprehensive. Kuang does not sugar coat the brutality of war and the inevitable horrors brought by such conflicts. Yet, Kuang’s prose could deliver such beautiful and elegant phrases that I could not find anything she wrote distasteful. Her style would often come across as simple but it is this apparent simplicity that makes Kuang’s words all the more effective. There is a raw almost visceral aspect to her writing that makes it hard not to be affected by what she writes of.
The Poppy War makes you constantly re-think and re-evaluate what you read of.

As much as I loved this book there are a few things that I thought could have been “better” or that I hope can be more developed in the next instalments.

Here are a few thoughts:

✔The way in which Kung depicts a moving body is simply captivating. I was in awe of her descriptions of combat. Even when during these fighting scenes the “eyes” seem to be a bit overdone (everyone seems to have very arresting eyes, especially those who fight well or are shamans).

Rin, this girl, this young woman, frustrated the hell out of me. She is a act first, think later, kind of person. Also, you know how some say that there is no such thing as a stupid question? Well, I disagree, because Rin asks a helluva of stupid questions. And the she is ‘stunned’ or suprised by the unfavourable reactions these often insubordinate questions illicit. She enragers her peers, and her superiors, with her words and her obtuseness. Yet, in spite of my not liking her or her attitude, I still cared for her. Especially since she seems to be treated like a pinata by most of the characters.

And yes, I do mean that she is treated as something that should be bashed about. Her mentors are not upfront enough, pushing her to make stupid decisions. Her friends…well, I don’t think that there is one healthy relationship or friendship in this book. ,b>The relationships she has verge on or are of an abusive (physical and non) nature. Given the world Rin lives in it’s hardly surprising that this should be the case….still
The path that she takes feels sadly unavoidable. It’s refreshing to read about a female character who longs for power….but the damage caused by Rin’s newfound thirst for revenge…well…mmmh…there is no coming back from that.

✖A lot of characters tell Rin the classic “you don’t know what I’ve been through” line. I mean, they are all living through a war, so I don’t think Rin should just let others bemoan their own tragedies, especially since before this new explosion of violence, Rin was already an outcast.

The few female characters that make an appearance are all very negative depictions of femininity. They are shrill and or unnecessary mean, especially towards – surprise surprise – Rin. They seemed very “flat”. They were either jealous or callous, treating Rin in a cold or aggressive manner. Hopefully new female characters in the following instalments will change this but…

✖I think the novel would have benefited from having a few more descriptions of the characters’ surroundings. I know it is an action focused novel but a more delineated landscape would have made Rin’s world all the more vivid.

Overall, I recommend this very much to both historical and fantasy fans. If you love the trope of the “tragic hero/ine” whose thirst for revenge and power bring about their own destruction…look no further. Rin is an Anakin Skywalker in the makings…

I know quite a lot of people are worried by the “trigger warnings” but this book is never gratuitously violent. The violence depicted is both brutal and necessary, and because of it, we can better understand Rin and those around her.

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