The Red Palace by June Hur

“I wanted to love and be loved. I wanted to be known. I wanted to be understood and accepted.”

The Red Palace makes for a fairly suspenseful read, one that will definitely appeal to fans of YA mysteries where the lead girl goes all Nancy Drew trying to figure out who the culprit is. And of course, given the setting, Korea in 1758, The Red Palace will likely appeal to fans of historical K-dramas. Personally, I think The Red Palace is the kind of book I would have loved 10 years or so ago. Now, I am a bit more nitpicky and there are a few things that prevented me from being fully immersed in Hyeon’s story.

“We are women,” she continued, “and nothing short of death stops us from doing precisely what we wish to do. That is what the laws and restrictions binding our lives breed: determination and cunning. The likes of you will not obey me. You will tell me that you intend to be as still as a rock, and yet I know you will dart from shadow to shadow like a fish.”

Hyeon is the illegitimate daughter of Lord Shin, who refuses to acknowledge her as his daughter. In their kingdom, Hyeon is seen as ‘belonging’ only to her mother, one of Lord Shin’s concubines, and therefore belongs to the ‘cheonmin class’ which she describes as ‘the lowest of the low’. Hyeon refuses to grow up into her mother however and dedicates herself to the study of medicine, eventually earning the coveted position of palace nurse. Hyeon hopes that her hard-work and ambition will result in her father’s approval but he continues to largely ignore her existence.
Hyeon’s life is upended when four women are murdered at the palace, most of whom were nurses like her. After her beloved mentor is accused and arrested for these murders Hyeon is determined to clear her name. Concerning rumours around the city claim that the Crown Prince is the killer, and Hyeon has no choice but to pursue this lead, even if doing so could potentially result in her ruin. Thankfully, Hyeon doesn’t have to navigate this world of dangerous court intrigues alone as she is aided by Eojin, an actual police officer. Eojin has some personal reasons for wanting to find the real killer so the two decide to combine their efforts. As they confront various people of interest they slowly begin to untangle the truth…of course, not everyone is happy with that and Hyeon risks losing what she’s worked so hard for.

The stakes were certainly high in this novel so I found myself reading this in quite a short amount of time, wanting to find out how our leads would manage to bring the real killer to justice.
The historical setting is the most well-developed aspect of the narrative. While there were some interactions that had slightly ‘modern’ dynamics (especially between the two leads), overall I liked the amount of detail that went into the setting. The author does use Hyeon as an ‘intermediary’ to the Joseon period (she sometimes forget certain key factors of her society, and asks someone to fill her in, other times she explains about Confucianism or other things that she would not really need to ‘explain’ to herself) but it kind of works as Hyeon does function as an extension of the reader. Her Daddy Issues™ and her role as a nurse are her main defining characteristic, which didn’t make for a truly fleshed out and fully dimensional character. All of the characters, in general, were fairly one-note, even Eojin. The story was more interested in establishing and exploring the setting and the mystery than in developing its characters. I am the type of reader who prefers character-driven stories (rather than plot-driven) so I wasn’t quite able to love this as much as I hoped I would. The mystery itself was a bit predictable, but that’s probably because I have read a ton of thrillers and whodunnits…(and watched one too many scooby-doo episodes/movies). Still, even if the storyline was vaguely formulaic I liked learning more about the Joseon era and I appreciated that the story isn’t romance heavy. Hyeong struggle for self-worth and self-actualization in a society that sees her as ‘less than’ was compelling, and the author also does a good job in regards to her conflicted feelings towards her father (wanting his love and respect while at the same time resenting what he stands for and the way he has treated her and his mother). The writing was at times a bit too dramatic and cheesy for my tastes (“silence fell, as chilling as the shadows enveloping us”, “a thought lurked in the far shadows of my mind”, “we seemed to have, in that moment, merged into one mind with one purpose: find the killer, find the truth”, “revenge begets revenge […] we become the monsters we are trying to punish”, “[her] mouth parted as though in a silent scream”). Still, I recognize that this type of style may very well work for other readers.
The romance was surprisingly cute. In fact, the ‘partnership’ between our leads was one of the most enjoyable things about the story. During their shared scenes Hyeon character became a bit more rounded and interesting.

All in all, I liked The Red Palace well enough! I would definitely recommend you check this one out for yourself and make up your own mind about it.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Tithe by Holly Black

“It was one thing to believe in faeries; it was totally another thing if you weren’t allowed to even have a choice about it. If they could just walk into your normal life, then they were a part of normal life, and she could no longer separate the unreal world from the real one.”

Holly Black writes the best modern faeries tales.
First published in 2002 Tithe is Holly Black’s debut novel. While Black’s storytelling has certainly come a long way since her Modern Faerie Tales days, I have a soft spot for this series. I first read Tithe back in 2007 when I was 11 and it completely blew my mind. While I now recognize that its plot, language, and secondary characters could have been more complex, I still find that it makes for an engrossing read. Black has definitely honed her writing skills since writing this, and if we compare Tithe to her Folk of the Air trilogy, well it does seem a bit less ‘sophisticated’…but maybe that’s the reason why I like it so much. It has this late 90s/early 2000s grunge aesthetic that works really well with the faerie world Black has created. Black’s faeries are beautiful, cunning, and cruel, not to be messed with, and her lead character, Kaye, is delightfully gritty.

The narrative is fairly fast-paced. After spending the last years on the road, sixteen-year-old Kaye and her mum, who is in a punk-rock band, return to her grandmother’s home in New Jersey. Here Kaye reconnects with her childhood BFF Janet and, not fully aware of what she’s doing, ends up casting a spell on her boyfriend. Freaked out by her own actions Kaye runs off and finds herself coming face-to-face with Roiben, a wounded faerie knight.
Kaye becomes embroiled in the ongoing feud between the Seelie and the Unseelie court. Turns out that her childhood friends, Lutie-Loo, Spike, and Gristle, are not ‘imaginary friends’ after all and they are now in need of her help.
In addition to Kaye, we also follow Corny, Janet’s older brother, who is gay and a bit of an outsider. He and Kaye team up but soon learn first-hand how dangerous and brutal the faerie world can be.

“Whatever has been done to me, whatever I have done… as surely as blood soaks my hands, and it does, the stain of it touches even the hems of the Queen of Elfland.”

I had a lot of fun re-reading this. The narrative goes for this ‘edgy’ tone that for some bizarre reason I found to be strangely endearing. I liked the friendship between Kaye and Corny, and I also appreciated how flawed Black’s characters are (there is a tendency in ya to make female leads into shy/book-loving/not-like-other-girls type of characters). While the romance does have a vague hint of insta-love, Kaye and Roiben certainly have chemistry and their interactions are charged with ambivalence.
While Black’s prose here isn’t quite as gorgeous or refined as the one from her later works—she uses the dreaded “She let go a breath she didn’t even know she’d been holding” phrase—Tithe still holds up. We have some truly lush and tantalising descriptions of the faeries and their revels, as well as some bewitching scenes that really showcase Black’s knowledge of faerie tales. The riddles populating this narrative are ingenious, the court dynamics and shenanigans are intriguing, and Kaye’s arc was certainly compelling.
If you are a fan of Black’s newest series and you are in the mood for something a quick urban fantasy read, well, you may want to give Tithe a shot.

my rating: ★★★ ½

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She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan

Desire is the cause of all suffering. All Zhu had ever desired was to live. Now she felt the pure strength of that desire inside her, as inseparable as her breath or qi, and knew she would suffer from it. She couldn’t even begin to imagine the awful magnitude of the suffering that would be required to achieve greatness in the chaotic, violent world outside.”

This book OBLITERATED me 🙃
While I can see why She Who Became the Sun has drawn comparisons to Mulan (we have Zhu ‘posing’ as a man), The Song of Achilles (we have a ‘close’ bond between two soldiers, one a lord the other a general), and The Poppy War (harsh backdrop + war/battles + main characters who do questionable things), what this novel really reminded of Mary Renault’s historical novels (like her Alexander the Great trilogy). But brutal. I mean, x1000 more brutal (so, think Mary Renault + you are being sucker-punched).

“All of it had been nothing more than the mechanistic motion of the stars as they brought him this opportunity: the path to his fate. And once he stepped upon it there would be no turning back.
It was an opportunity he wanted, and at the same time it was the very last thing he wanted: it was a future too horrible to bear. But even as he prevaricated and agonized, and shrank from the thought of it, he knew it wasn’t a matter of choice. It was his fate, the thing no man can ever refuse.”

In this reimagining of the life of Zhu Yuanzhang, the peasant-turned-emperor founder of the Ming Dynasty, Parker-Chan transports her readers to Mongol-occupied imperial China. Famine, poverty, plagues From the very opening pages we are plunged into a harsh and unforgiving world. In 1345 the Zhu children, a boy and a girl from the famine-stricken Zhongli village are given opposing fortunes. The boy, Zhu Chongba, is promised ‘greatness’, his “deeds will bring a hundred generations of pride to [his] family name”. The girl’s fate? “Nothing”. Yet, after a bandit attack leaves them orphaned it is the boy who is unable to recover while the girl refuses to succumb to despair. After his death, the girl claims his name and fate. The ‘new’ Zhu Chongba refuses to accept her former fate and will do whatever it takes not only to survive but thrive. Zhu goes on to become a novice at the Wuhuang Monastery, and as the years go by the more her conviction that she will be great is cemented.
When the unrest against Mongol rule grows Zhu, now a monk, joins forces with the Red Turbans, a group of peasant rebels. In her ruthless quest for greatness, Zhu will stop at nothing. Driven by the certainty that she will be great, Zhu slowly rises among the ranks of rebels, demonstrating time and again that to win a war one needs more than swordsmanship or physical strength. The more powerful Zhu becomes the more she craves, but how far is too far?
We also follow Ouyang, a eunuch of Nanren blood, formerly a slave and now a general in the Mongol army (the people responsible for exterminating his family and enslaving him). Ouyang too is following what he believes to be his fate, even if he knows that this path will lead in pain (my pain, Parker-Chan, if you are reading this you broke my effin heart).
As the narrative progresses, Zhu and Ouyang’s fate become irrevocably and terribly entwined. One is hungry for greatness, the other, revenge.

She Who Became the Sun is an epic historical fantasy and probably one of the best debut novels I’ve ever read. While I was not familiar with this era/setting (predictably, the little I knew about Mongolia concerns ‘the’ Genghis Khan, aka Temüjin, and I knew next-to-nothing about 14th century China—I love wuxia films but they are not entirely reliable) Parker-Chan does a fantastic job in immersing her readers in this period of Mongolian/Chinese history. In that way, she brought to mind Renault who also excelled in evoking ancient cultures and peoples without making her readers feel overwhelmed or confused.
Parker-Chan does not shy away from portraying the grim realities faced by people like Zhu and Ouyang. In addition to famines and plagues, we have battles between Mongols and the Red Turbans who seek to free themselves from their cruel rule. Rather than portraying either faction as inherently good or bad, Parker-Chan populates her story with characters who are all varying degrees of terrible (Ma, daughter to a Red Turban general, and Xu Da, Zhu’s monastery ‘brother’ are perhaps the only not-so-morally ambiguous characters).
Zhu and Ouyang are no heroes. They are, to different extents and purposes, self-serving, and willing to commit acts of horrific violence to fulfil their fates (even if it means betraying their loved ones). Yet, given what we learn about them, in other words, their circumstances, readers will have a hard time condemning or judging them.

Parker-Chan’s unadorned prose perfectly complements the severe world inhabited by Zho and Ouyang. For all its apparent simplicity, Parker-Chan’s writing packs a punch. We have emotionally charged dialogues, precise and clever descriptions about the characters (their motivations, fears, natures), and some fantastic fighting sequences. It just goes to show how talented a writer Parker-Chan is but I was gripped by scenes focusing on military strategy (something I am not usually all that wowed by). There are also surprising moments of humor that offer brief yet desperately needed moments of levity (Zhu’s ‘pious’ act was a delight to read). The narrative is otherwise fraught with tension. The fantasy elements were also very well-done. Although they are seamlessly incorporated into the historical backdrop they did add a certain atmosphere to the story.
In addition to a gripping storyline and a detailed historical setting Parker-Chan also brings to the table a complex cast of characters. Their shifting allegiances and dynamics made the story all the more captivating. Zhu is no hero(ine). She is hellbent on getting what she wants (greatness) and while she isn’t wholly morally reprehensible she is not afraid to get her hands dirty. Her relationship with Xu Da and Ma were wonderfully compelling, even heart-rendering.

Aaaand, now I have to talk about Ouyang and I cannot even. Dio mio. This man is terrible but that did not stop me from loving him. I swear, I felt ‘all the feels’ each scene he was in. The man is literally haunted. His tortured self-loathing reaches highs not even Adam Parrish would dream of. My heart broke for him, time and again. His storyline managed to be even more devastating than Zhu’s one. I am never going to shut up about him. Just thinking about him makes me wanna curl in a ball and cry.

At its heart, Parker-Chan’s novel is about power, survival, and fate. Parker-Chan pushes Zhu and Ouyang to their limits, putting them in impossible situations and pitting them against each other (we have more than one scene where I could not for the life of me root for either Zhu and Ouyang, hoping against hope that they could just set their weapons aside and become best buds…I am delusional I know). In addition, Parker-Chan subverts traditional gender roles and notions of masculinity and gifts us with an A+ queer romance and a complicated relationship with a lot of yearning (when their hands brushed I was a goner).

It took me 40 pages or so to really get into the story but once I was ‘in’ I was 100% invested in both the story and the characters. This novel is gripping, brutal, poignant, distressing and full of jaw-dropping moments. The betrayals and political intrigue made the novel all the more engrossing. I don’t often use the word epic to describe a novel but She Who Became the Sun demands it.

ps : i am both terrified and desperate to read the sequel

ARC provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

my rating: ★★★★★

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The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri

Trust me, her face said.
That was the problem with making allies. At some point, inevitably, there came a moment when a decision had to be made: Could this one be trusted? Had their loyalty been won? Was their generosity a façade for a hidden knife?”

I more or less inhaled this 500+ page novel in two days.
Tasha Suri’s The Jasmine Throne may be one of the best high fantasy novels I’ve ever read. Superbly written The Jasmine Throne presents its readers with an evoking Indian inspire setting, A+ world-building, a cast of compelling and morally ambiguous characters, a sapphic romance (think Fingersmith by way of Marie Rutkoski), and plenty of intriguing storylines that will keep you on the edge-of-your-seat. In other words, The Jasmine Throne is high fantasy at its best. It is exceedingly original and utterly captivating.

But some men dream of times long dead, and times that never existed, and they’re willing to tear the present apart entirely to get them.

The Jasmine Throne transports us to Ahiranya a nation plagued by a peculiar disease known as the rot. Ahiranya was conquered by Paraijatdvipa which is ruled by the fanatical Emperor Chandra. Between the ‘rot-riven’ and the growing discontentment towards the harsh Paraijatdvipan rule, Ahiranya is a nation on the verge.
Priya who works in the household of the regent of Ahiranya tries to help ‘rot-riven’ children. Although she does her best to hide her true identity and past the arrival of Malini, Emperor Chandra’s disgraced sister, complicates things, especially when Malini witnesses her powers.

After refusing to be burned at a pyre, in order to be ‘purified’, Malini is sent by her zealot brother to Hirana, a treacherous temple that was left abandoned after the deaths of its ‘children’.

Once Malini sees Priya in action she requests her as her maidservant. The two feel pulled to each other but both are aware that their desires may not align.

The Jasmine Throne provides its readers with a fantastic cast of characters. First, Priya and Malini. These two young women have been through a lot (and when I say a lot, I mean it). They have every reason not to trust one another but they cannot deny the nature of their feelings. To call it ‘love’ doesn’t feel quite right given the positions they are in. Malini’s brother is responsible for many horrific things, many of them which have left their mark on Priya and her homeland. Also, both at one point or another end up using the other. Yet, their relationship is chef’s kiss. There is yearning, lust, hate, understanding…
Of course, I found each of their character arcs to be just as captivating as the relationship that develops between them. They face many impossible situations and we may not always agree with their choices.
The characters around them are just engaging. From Bhumika, the regent’s wife, to Rao, Prem, and even Ashok. I loved the tension between all of them, as well as the betrayals and revelations we get along the way.

The world-building is top tier stuff. From the religions (we have the nameless god, the yaksa, the mothers of flame, each one is truly intriguing) and tales that shape each empire (the nameless to the magical elements. I found Suri’s storytelling to be truly immersive. There are many beautiful and haunting passages (“Family don’t have a duty to be kind to you. They have a duty to make you better. Stronger.” and “The first time Malini learned how to hold a knife was also the day she learned how to weep.”), as well as insightful discussions on power, revenge, and forgiveness.

It had been a while since I’d read something that gave me the so-called ‘feels’ but The Jasmine Throne sure did. Suri has crafted an engrossing tale that made me feel as if I was riding a rollercoaster. And that finale…wow. I have yet to recover from it. Suffice to say, I am anxious about the sequel (please Suri, be gentle on us!).

ARC provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

my rating: ★★★

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A Desolation Called Peace by Arkady Martine

 

“Trust is not an endlessly renewable resource. Loyalty might be. For longer.”

With A Desolation Called Peace Arkady has achieved something quite rare in a sequel. In fact, I liked A Desolation Called Peace so much so that, when I looked back to my review for A Memory Called Empire, I found much of my criticism unfair. In my review, I describe AMCE as a case of ‘great concept, poor execution’ but now I wonder whether I just read it at the wrong time. All of this to say that for those worried that A Desolation Called Peace may suffer from ‘second book syndrome, I say, fear no more. A Desolation Called Peace was an exhilarating and wonderfully inventive read. Arkady’s world-building is phenomenal, the stakes are even higher than in AMCE, and we follow multiple characters, most of whom are plotting against one another. Political scheming abounds within these pages, each character has their agenda, no one is trustworthy or necessarily ‘likeable’. But I liked how bold Arkady is when it came to characterisation. She does not resort to easy ‘evil/good’ dichotomies and repeatedly challenges her characters’ ideas and views.
While much of AMCE was dedicated to introducing us to this world and learning of the Teixcalaanli Empire through Mahit’s Stationer eyes, A Desolation Called Peace provides a ‘first contact’ scenario. Fleet Captain Nine Hibiscus is fighting against a terrifying and unknown enemy, and requests the assistance of someone from the Information Ministry and it is Three Seagrass who takes on the job. Before making her way to the fleet Three Seagrass is reunited with Mahit who is not only struggling to reconcile herself with her imagos (of a young and old Yskandr) and who has more than one enemy at Lsel Station. Mahit’s linguistic skills make her an asset in this ‘first-contact’ situation so she finds herself tagging along with Three Seagrass. The narrative follows Three Seagrass and Mahit, and their feelings for each other, which are complicated by the fact that Three Seagrass views Stationers as ‘barbarians’, Nine Hibiscus, who not only has is engaged in a war against an unknown enemy but is aware that someone is conspiring against her, and 11-year-old Eight Antidote, who is a clone of His Brilliance the Emperor Six Direction and heir-apparent to the Sun-Spear Throne of Teixcalaan. Eleven years old, and is being pulled in different directions at court. I found each storyline to be deeply engaging and, to my surprise, I probably found Twenty Cicadas to be the most in The tension between the characters, who always seem to be assessing each other’s words and actions in an attempt to gauge their motivations and intentions, gives the narrative a fantastic edge.
Another central aspect of this novel is, of course, language. Arkady demonstrates incredible knowledge and originality when it comes to linguistics. The words her characters use have such nuance and meaning that it enhances any exchange they have (so we can just how much words matter in every discussion or conversation they have). Arkady incorporates many other interesting themes in her storylines: the fraught relationship between coloniser and colonised (which complicates any relationship Three Seagrass and Mahit may wish to have with one another), xenophobia (and, in some cases, its opposite), identity (especially with Mahit and Eight Antitode), memory, and ethics.
This novel certainly made me think, and re-think. Arkady has created a stunning world and her prose is as sharp as a knife (or dare I say, even badass?). As I wrote above, I liked this novel so much that it made me re-value my less than warm feelings towards its predecessor (something that happens…very rarely indeed). Perhaps this is because I started learning more about languages or maybe this time around I was able to connect with her story and characters because I read it at the ‘right’ time, but, in any case, I would definitely recommend this to fans of AMCE. The only thing I had trouble with is Teixcalaanli names (part is due to the fact that numbers come to me in my mother tongue and not in English). I read an arc that sadly did not come with a glossary and I had a hard time keeping their names straight. Ideally, I would also have liked to have re-read AMCE before sinking my teeth in A Desolation Called Peace. But, overall, this novel elevated my feelings towards this series and I actually look forward to re-reading it (and I hope that Arkady will write more!).

ARC provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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Fireheart Tiger by Aliette de Bodard

I was intrigued by this novella’s premise—The Goblin Emperor meets Howl’s Moving Castle in a Vietnamese inspired setting—by its cover and of course by the promise of sapphic love story. Sadly, I can’t say that Fireheart Tiger was a particularly good read.
As per usual, if you are thinking of reading this I recommend you read some more positive reviews as my one is not a particularly enthusiastic one.

Fireheart Tiger would have probably worked a lot better if it had been told in a larger format as under its thinly rendered characters and world lies a potentially interesting story. Sadly, this is not a fully fledged novel. The first few pages deliver some exposition: our main character is Thanh a princess who was sent off to Ephteria as a political pawn (ie hostage). Now she’s back to her mother’s court (a place which is hardly described) where she chafes against her mother’s rule. Thanh’s self-pitying is interjected by various memories, mainly, one of a fire, and another one of a kiss she shared with the blue-eyed Eldris (her blue eyes are her major character trait) who is from Ephteria. With 0 preamble she finds herself reigniting her relationship with Eldris…it isn’t clear why as Eldris is as ‘magnetic’ as a slice of stale bread. Thanh too is the classic supposedly quiet and smart yet totally hapless heroine who really grinds me nerves. She claims to care for her country but spends the majority of her time passively thinking about Eldris and of how her mother is evil and uncaring. Thanh’s mother, however one-dimensional, made for a much more compelling character.
There is also another girl who after one brief meeting Thanh begins to call ‘little sister’ (or something along those lines) even saying that she misses her when this girl isn’t around (after one day?).
Eldris is clearly bad news, she is creepy but fails to be a truly manipulative or charismatic villain. The other ‘bad guy’ is portrayed in a very cartoonish manner (“We’re going to have such a lovely time together”) .
Perhaps I approached this with the wrong expectations. I hoped for something more mature and complex. The dialogues were clunky, the descriptions clichéd, the love story was unconvincing and undeveloped, the main protagonist was a boring Mary Sue, and the setting was barely rendered.

my rating: ★★½

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Queen of Coin and Whispers by Helen Corcoran — book review

42442934._SY475_.jpgQueen of Coin and Whispers is a very generic YA fantasy novel. While it is not necessarily badly written, its story, setting, and characters are both forgettable and lacklustre.

What initially drew me to Queen of Coin and Whispers was its F/F romance. Once I began reading this book I quickly realised that the queer romance was the only thing that makes this story somewhat more interesting than your usual YA fantasy. The world-building is poorly rendered, the plot, as such, consisted in a succession of cliché after cliché, and most disappointing of all is the romance, which severely lacked chemistry.

The World-building/Setting
The setting is a generic fantasy one. There is an attempt to make this world different by dividing social classes into steps (barons are third steps, while lord and ladies are sixth and seventh steps). This whole step system was wholly unnecessary as the characters already have titles, and readers could therefore workout who sits where on the social hierarchy. The rest (clothes, customs, architecture, the kingdom’s history) is barely hinted at. The country’s attitude towards same-sex relationships is briefly hinted at towards the beginning, and later on we discover that same-sex marriages are legal, but we don’t really know more details than that (when this happened, whether homophobia still occurs, etc). We are told that Edar, the country Lia rules, is no longer religious, but we don’t get much more information beyond that. What sort of religion? What about Edar’s myths and or lore?
Most of the story takes place in inside Edar’s royal palace, and you would think that we would get an extensive history of it (when it was constructed, its dimension/style) but we don’t. We know that nobles live in apartments inside the palace, but we don’t really know how they are set out (on more than one floor?).

The Story
Like many YA books out there this book stars a newly crowned queen who has to assert her power. She decides to make Xania into her spymaster. There is gossip, some drama between different factions, an assassination attempt or two, and some foreign princes. As the queen Lia has to marry in order to have an heir. Lia and Xania fall in love. That’s sort of it.

The Characters
Lia: most characters describe her as an idealist…so I guess we could say she is that. Other than that nothing about her stood out.
Xania: much is made about her…she is Lia’s Whispers, aka her spy, and should therefore be feared by the court…to me however she was way way way too green to be a convincing spymaster. She is seventeen, she must have only recently started working at the palace’s treasury, and that would hardly make her well-versed into the art of spying. When she describes those instances in which she extrapolates informations from others she is so self-dramatising. She goes on about how dangerous she is…and for some reason she has learnt self-defence even if she was raised at the palace…I just wasn’t convinced by her character.
Other characters: they are either good or bad, but most of all they are forgettable.

The Writing
Lia and Xania have first person narrations…and they sound exactly the same. There were a lot of unnecessary attempts at making them sound edgy (so we have many metaphors involving thorns and blades). Other than that the writing was all-right, nothing too elaborate.

Final Verdict
I just didn’t feel the chemistry between the two main characters. The story was predictable, the setting was barely rendered, and the writing was unremarkable. All in all, I would not recommend this. If you are looking for a satisfying F/F YA fantasy novel I would suggest Marie Rutkoski’s The Midnight Lie.

My rating: ★★✰✰✰ 2 stars

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Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel — book review

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To simply define Wolf Hall as being a historical narrative seems unfair. The word ‘historical’ conjures a sense of events that happened a long time ago. Wolf Hall, unlike most historical fiction, struck me for the immediacy and urgency of its narrative. While the events Hilary Mantel writes have occurred nearly half a millennium ago, the world she writes of feels far from stale or antiquated. Readers are made to feel as if Mantel had just plucked us from the 21st century and transported us into the political and religious unrest of the Tudor era.

Mantel breathes new life into the drama that unfounded so many centuries ago.
The novel’s present-tense narrative undoubtedly contributed in making me feel as if the events Mantel was writing of were happening right now. The narrative is not an omniscient one, there is no foreshadowing of what is to come. Throughout the course of this novel we are made to feel alongside Thomas Cromwell and his contemporaries that their future is not yet fixed.

The title of this novel conveys the dangerous atmosphere of Henry’s court. Suspicions run high, everyone seems intent on outwitting and outmanoeuvring his or her opponents, there is a great deal of plotting, quite a few betrayals, and a perpetual sense of unease hangs in the air. We read of a divided nation, a divided court, and of the self-division that occurs within every single character. As the characters wage overt and indirect wars for power and position, readers are presented with a panorama of human vices and follies.

Yet, while the world Mantel writes of is certainly a treacherous one, Wolf Hall contains so much beauty. I was moved by the glimpses of genuine love and vulnerability between certain characters. Thomas Cromwell in particular seems to possess plenty of admirable qualities. It is through his eyes that we often see his surroundings and he always seems to pay attention to all the beautiful textures that enrich his world. From the fabrics of people’s clothings to their appearances and expression. His perceptive eye seems often to pick up on other’s true intents and desires. In spite of the tension between the different ‘players’, there are also surprising moments of empathy and understanding.

It is incredibly just how engaging Mantel’s dialogues were. While I sometimes struggled to keep up with what was being said, or left unsaid, I still found myself captivated by the nuances of the characters’ language. While some are observe rules of civility, others let their passion or greed shape what the say. Each sparring of words is fraught with tension. There are so many clever uses of the English language, so many elegantly veiled threats and well-crafted sentiments. Regardless of their role or position, not one character seems to utter a word in vein.

What perhaps took me time to adjust to was the ‘he’ pronoun. The third point of view narrative does not refer to Thomas Cromwell by his name but by ‘he’. When this happened when Cromwell was speaking to other male characters I found it difficult to follow. My non-British education also proved to be a hindrance (it took me quite some time to figure out who was who).

This is a dense novel that demands its readers full attention. There is much to be admired in Wolf Hall. Mantel’s research, her grasp of the English language, her nuanced, and frequently immoral, characters…yet, reading her novel proved to be a laborious experience. There was so much that went over my head, and while I can see that this is due to my lack of knowledge, I also think that some of her stylistic choices (such as the constant use of ‘he’) lessened my enjoyment of her narrative.

Wolf Hall is a well written and exquisitely intelligent novel in which Mantel presents us with a beautifully intricate tapestry of shifting allegiances.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 3.5 stars (rounded up to 4)

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The Queen of Nothing by Holly Black – book review

71sHbfc2H9L.jpgCourt intrigue ahoy!

“We have lived in our armor for so long, you and I. And now I am not sure if either of us knows how to remove it.”

Holly Black’s sensual and lush writing style perfectly complements the menacing world her heroine inhabits.
Black’s silvery prose brims with lavish descriptions: she renders the extravagances of the fairy realm, from their wild and dreadly revels to their taste for grandeur and riddles. Whether she is describing their dresses or foods Black truly succeeds in conveying how decadent and unpredictable the faerie world is. Black’s depicting of the fae and their ways is simultaneously alluring and threatening. Regardless of their appearance—whether they are painfully beautiful or possess disturbing attributes (I’m fairly sure there were a few fae who resembled spiders in here)—and personality, Black’s faerie’s speak in an invitingly mellifluous language. Given their inability to lie there is an emphasis on how they phrase things. Even when making threats or bargains the fae retain their ability to form beautifully articulated phrases.
Black’s faerie world is thrumming with the tantalising presence of magic. While this world offers many glamorous and temptation we are always aware of the danger it poses (to mortals in particular it’s definitely not all fun and games).

“[I]n the great game of princes and queens, I have been swept off the board.”

Jude is a compelling main character and her arc is one of the most interesting aspect of these novels. Perhaps this is due her being the narrator of these novels but she is definitely the most fleshed out character in this series. In this last instalment we really see how much progress she has made. Her resilient nature is stronger than ever. She is brave, if occasionally foolish, and can definitely spin a tale or two. Rather than letting herself be blinded by her thirst for power and revenge, she demonstrates how much she cares for her siblings and the faerie world.
The other characters, although entertaining enough, struck me as occasionally being a bit one dimensional. Jude’s sisters in particular. Taryn is given a sort of ‘redemption arc’ (similarly to other previously ‘wicked’ characters in this series) that just didn’t convince me. Her personality is…pretty bland. Vivi seemed to be the series’ comic relief…which in some ways worked, given that most of the other characters take themselves rather seriously.

“It’s ridiculous the way everyone acts like killing a king is going to make someone better at being one,” Vivi says. “Imagine if, in the mortal world, a lawyer passed the bar by killing another lawyer.”

Cardan is as amusing as ever. I was once again not entirely convinced by some of the reasons we are given about his ‘wicked’ past…I’d preferred for him to have grown into a better person rather than having been somewhat misunderstood. Nevertheless, I still loved his presence in this volume (still not a fan of his tail though, my best friend and I had a similar knee-jerk reaction when we read this: “His tail lashes back and forth, the furred end stroking over the back of my calf.”)

“Mortals are fragile,” I say.
“Not you,” he says in a way that sounds a little like a lament. “You never break.”

Usually romances are not my favourite aspect of a story or a series but in the case of Jude and Cardan…well, their chemistry is off the charts. Their scenes are just pure enjoyment.
It was also refreshing to see the way their relationship changes and develops throughout the course of this series. Their deadly romance is the perfect combination of angsty and dazzling. Now this is how you portray a convincing enemy-to-lovers romance.

“It wasn’t an accident, his choice of words. It wasn’t infelicitous. It was deliberate. A riddle made just for me.”

While the scope of this series is rather narrow Black has plenty of tricks up her sleeves and the dynamics between the various characters are always shifting. The fast paced plot of The Queen of Nothing has quite a few surprises along the way (maybe not as twisty as the ending of The Cruel Prince but still…).
The resolution felt too neat (the epilogue was particularly cheesy) but I still enjoyed seeing (or reading) how things unfolded.
At times I craved for a more leisurely pace amidst the heart-in-throat action, the many double-crossings and face offs.

While I did prefer The Cruel Prince to its follow ups, I would still heartily recommend this series (even if The Queen of Nothing makes for an entertaining, if a bit rushed, finale).

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4 stars

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A Brightness Long Ago by Guy Gavriel Kay — book review

Untitled drawing (5).jpgPerhaps if Guy Gavriel Kay had paid more attention to his story and his characters, rather than devoting himself to the cadence of his carefully orchestrated prose, I would have been able to enjoy reading A Brightness Long Ago more than I did…the first few chapters are compelling but what follows is a repetitive, wearisome, and occasionally pedantic tale.

The story is supposedly set in a fictional world vaguely reminiscent of Renaissance Italy however, for the most part, Guy Gavriel Kay often chooses to create his own ‘Italian-sounding‘ names and words rather than using ones that exist in the Italian language. Although ‘fictive‘ the historical setting of his novel provides a convincing backdrop to a story of intertwining fates and a feud between two opposing mercenaries (which is the recurring narrative that connects the characters’ storylines together).
While there is an emphasis on how this is a polyphonic novel, the characters’ voices do not all have the same weight or page-space. For example, only one character is allowed to narrate his experiences directly, through a first person perspective, so that he can relate the events surrounding his involvement in this ‘feud’ in an intimate and immersive way. We follow the others through a somewhat detached third perspective which made for a rather imbalanced portrayal of these characters. The switch between 1st and 3rd perspective could at times be a bit jarring…often Kay would relate the same event from different characters’ pov, which made for a few repetitive scenes…
The beginning of the novel introduces us to some of the ‘players’ of the story, and while there is an emphasis on them being ‘side-characters‘ to the main conflict of the overall narrative—the feud between these two mercenary—they actually have quite an important impact on the outcome of this drawn-out fight.
Time and again we are reminded by Danio or by the omniscient narrator that small choices—made on the spur of the moment—will often have life-altering consequences. Often the narrative will make the point of saying that an individual’s fate can be shaped by a small decision. This actually felt like the main ‘argument’ of the story: the paths of these characters are shaped by chance decisions…I understood this 25% percent in, so it was a bit tiresome to be reminded of this throughout the entire novel.
Ambition and freedom of choice are the recurring themes in the ‘seemingly’ ordinary characters of this novel. The stakes never felt that ‘high’ in that the narrative reported important moments in a distant, almost objective, manner. A lot of these characters never seem to be guided by strong emotions, seeming instead puppets in the narrative’s hands. If the narrative wants to make a point about faith or luck it will do so by making the character say or do something, regardless if this fits with the characters’ storyline and/or personality.
I wish that Kay had spent more time on fleshing out his world rather than half-relying on his readers’ vision of the Italian Renaissance. He does not inform us on the prominent religion of his world (once or twice a few characters allude to a nondescript god) or the culture prevailing in each city. There is a ‘race’ in one city and that’s about it. I wanted to know more about the food, the dialects, the history…pretty much about everything. But Kay seemed more focused on spinning carefully phrased paragraphs…and the thing is that he can write beautifully contemplative phrases which often articulate with clear-cut precision the importance of each choice his characters made…however, a pretty and intelligent prose does not compensate a drawn-out story which lacked both emotional depth and a bit of ‘sizzle’.
I’m not sure I will try to read a book by Kay again…or at least not anytime soon.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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