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 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: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

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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Girl, Serpent, Thorn by Melissa Bashardoust

Although I am no longer an avid YA reader, I do like to now and again pick up a YA title, especially if, like in the case of Girl, Serpent, Thorn, it promises to be sapphic. While Melissa Bashardoust’s prose is readable enough, even if it does occasionally veer into purple territories, her story and characters left a bit to be desired. The novel invests far too much time in a character that is not all that interesting and our protagonist spends most of her time in self-pity or playing the blame game.
Girl, Serpent, Thorn follows Soraya a princess who was cursed with a deathly touch (which reminded me of Rogue aka Anna Marie aka my all-time favourite Marvel character). Soraya’s curse is kept a secret from her family’s kingdom, and she has spent most of her days secluded from others. Around the time her brother’s wedding is announced two strangers arrive at the palace. One is a handsome young man who seems unperturbed by Soraya’s curse, and the other is a prisoner, a demon by the name of Pavenah.
I obviously approached this under the wrong impression as the first half of the story is centred upon the relationship between Soraya and this young man. The world is barely sketched out, the palace too remains largely undescribed, and the characters’ motivations weren’t always rendered in a convincing way. The romance(s) felt rushed and I would have much preferred the narrative to have a slow-burn romance between Soraya and Pavenah…but things don’t exactly pan out that way. Soraya spends the latter half of the story being plonked here and there, all the while going on about how she can’t trust the ones around her or having basic thoughts about who the real monster is…and I just…urgh. I did not like it. I found it repetitive and predictable. I am also so over the villain who tells the protagonist to “join them” because “together” they would be “unstoppable” and all. N-O.
The story took itself and its characters too seriously at times. The villain is cartoonish, Soraya is no antiheroine, merely an impulsive air-head, and
Pavenah…well, she could have been interesting but her presence is relegated to the latter half of the novel and by then I was sort of done with it all. And there are all these “betrayals” that had no real weight and the sheer abundance of them reminded me a bit of House of Flying Daggers.
All in all, this book was not for me. I doubt I would have finished it if it hadn’t been for the narrator of the audiobook version (she was great). But, I also recognise that maybe this is because I am no longer part of this book’s target demographic.

my rating: ★★½

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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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