I didn’t like The Phoenix Empress as much as the first book in this series. There are many reasons for that, and I’m going to get into them soon, but the main one is that I’m reading this series for its f/f romance more than the plot, and at least 40% of this book follows the years Shizuka spent alone.
What I Liked:
🐎 The writing is, as usual, beautiful.
🐎 I loved reading Shizuka’s perspective. She has more depth as a character than Shefali’s narration in the first book made me think. She is overconfident to the point of being irritating, and I love her for that in a way, but I also liked that this book addressed this aspect of her personality.
🐎 There are so many complex female characters. Not only this book focuses on an f/f romance, the side characters – like Baozhai, Sakura and Daishi – are also really well-written and interesting.
What I Didn’t Like:
🐎 There is a flashback that takes up at least 20% of the book following a tragic event in Shizuka’s past. I already knew who died and who didn’t, I already knew how it affected Shizuka, and it’s 20% of a fantasy romance book that is completely without romance, as one of the two main characters isn’t in it. Why was it even there? It felt so much like filler that I skimmed most of it, and I don’t feel like I lost anything by doing that.
🐎 I felt like there was a lot of filler in general – this book as a whole felt watered down.
🐎 I’m glad that this book, unlike The Tiger’s Daughter, addressed that imperialism isn’t a good thing (in the first book, that’s only mentioned in a throwaway line, which… well, the reviews that talk about that and the misrepresentation of Asian cultures are worth reading) and I’m glad Shizuka freed conquered lands like Xian Lai (Baozhai rules, now literally). However, it all seemed too easy. I’m not saying everything needs to be dark and sad, but things like these have long-lasting consequences, and this book basically acts like they don’t. You’re free! Now all your problems are solved! …It doesn’t work like that.
🐎 I also felt like this book was trying way too hard to be dark and tense, but it just didn’t work. I don’t know how to explain, but it’s not the right kind of book for that.
My rating: ★★¾
The Bird King is a historical fantasy novel which follows a Circassian concubine in the royal court of Granada. It’s a beautifully written book, and – as far as I know – also a well-researched one; it mentioned a lot of things I know from reading nonfiction (the Genoese were the ones who sold Circassian slaves to rich people, including Sultans – just one of the many awful things they did to make money).
Unfortunately, this kind of slow-paced, detailed historical fiction with just a hint of magic isn’t my thing (I find it boring, but I think it’s not in any way this book’s fault), and I don’t want to force myself to read something that isn’t working for me. However, I do recommend it if this genre appeals to you – I think it’s a very good book.
My rating: ★★½
The Hearts We Sold is a standalone genre-bending book that takes place in a contemporary setting. It’s paranormal and sci-fi as the same time, which was a really interesting concept. As I usually love genre-bending books, I thought I was going to love this too, but unfortunately it didn’t work for me as much as I hoped.
This is probably the first time I’ve ever wanted a book to be less genre-bending. I think that if it had been strictly a paranormal story, I would have liked it more. But it tried to be sci-fi, and when it started to involve aliens, my suspension of disbelief was already gone. When I already have little sense of setting, no atmosphere, and the writing doesn’t stand out, I need a believable story.
I also didn’t love the characters. Dee was an interesting main character, and I really liked her development and how this book talked about self-hate and how difficult it is to let people in when you hate yourself, but the side characters were forgettable. I liked that there was an f/f couple in which one of the girls was trans, but I felt like I barely knew them. Maybe it’s because I spent very little time with them, I don’t know.
There is another minor thing that bothered me: most of this book is set in Portland, but there are some flashbacks set in Rome. While the book talks about how beautiful Italy is, the only relevant Italian character is a thief. I don’t know what it is about Americans, but in American books Italy is always beautiful and romantic, but Italians are always criminals (usually mafia, but if it’s not the mafia, it’s violent drunks or thieves). I’m tired of this.
That’s not to say this book was bad. It went in a direction that, while predictable, isn’t common in YA books (they usually just don’t go there), and I actually really liked reading it – enough that I finished it in less than a day. I just don’t think it will stay with me.
My rating: ★★★