Adult · Book review · Fantasy

Review: Phoenix Extravagant by Yoon Ha Lee

Sometimes a worldbuilding is as steampunk as it is folktale, and sometimes a family is an obstinate non-binary artist, a prime duelist and a philosophical mecha dragon, and isn’t that just perfect?

Phoenix Extravagant is the story of Gyen Jebi, an artist married to their profession (read: kind of… oblivious about anything that isn’t art) as they get caught in the middle of political machinations involving a revolutionary movement in Hwaguk, a fantasy country heavily inspired by Korea under Japanese occupation.

The main character of this book isn’t a genius. They aren’t good at manipulation or even that charming; they aren’t the type of larger-than-life character that leaps off the page like in Machineries of Empire, because this isn’t a space opera. This is deliberately a story about a very ordinary person, one good at painting but not a prodigy, who is caught in a place where they’re way out of their depth. The book never lets them forget that, and neither do the characters, in a myriad of ways that vary from “subtle” to “outright laughing in Jebi’s face because [character] couldn’t believe they could be so dense”.
I don’t have a problem with that. I may prefer to read about really competent people because many things are more fun that way, yes. I also know that it’s easy, as a reader, to say “well that wasn’t smart”, but would have I, another ordinary person who would be out of their depth, made better decisions in that situation? No, probably worse. I just need the book not to try to pass it as smart, you know?

And Jebi grew on me. I didn’t feel strongly about them at first, but something about their sometimes misplaced obstinacy, their ordinary nature paired with odd artist habits, the way they trusted too easily and were paranoid at less rational moments… I ended up really liking them, and it was probably the “must absolutely paint with mud” scene that made it for me.
I also loved the romance, because it appealed to me on so many levels (…characters who grow close physically first and then learn to trust each other? Yes. Also that sex scene.) and because I, too, would be really into the beautiful woman who is the enemy prime duelist.
The romance is far from the only important relationship in the book; there’s a really complicated sibling relationship at the heart of this, tense and with a lot of conflict but also love.
And if you love animal companion stories, you probably really want to read this. My favorite character was Arazi, whom you see on the cover. Mechanical dragon-shaped war machine outside, true pacifist dragon inside!

And when I say “true dragon”, I mean that this involves aspects and details involving legends and creatures who come from them. There’s a reason this is completely fantasy and not steampunk alt-history.

About the worldbuilding, I always come back to how much I love the way Yoon Ha Lee incorporates queerness into his books. Here, polyamory, same-gender relationship and non-binary people (called geu-ae) are varying degrees of normal, from “not even remarked upon” to “our colonizers see this as odd but who cares”. And it goes far beyond a superficial level, involving even small details like cues certain more marginalized groups use to recognize each other (haircuts) to even the very deliberate way the sex scene is written. Queerness is woven into the fabric of this world, it isn’t an afterthought.
The magic system was really unique, perfect for the story, and horrifying on several levels. That was one in a series of ugly surprises.

Phoenix Extravagant deals with many aspects of living in a colonized country, from the forced assimilation barely disguised as modernization to the way the history and art of the colonized people is systematically hidden, stolen, and sometimes destroyed. It talks about food, languages, accents, and especially names; the name change Jebi goes through at the beginning seems such an easy choice to make at first, one with little cost, but it turns out not to be at all. Names have power even when that power isn’t literal.
It also talks about art in the context of different philosophies between the Hwagin and the Razanei, and between both of them and the Western world, which I found really interesting to read.
And about war. I already know the ending is going to be polarizing for a lot of people but I loved it deeply, both for what it was and for what it said.

Did I love this as much as my favorite series, Machineries of Empire? No. I don’t see it as a full five stars, and there were a few things I didn’t like about it:
↬ this book feels the need to state the obvious at times. I wonder how much that has to do with the other series’ reception (forever annoyed about that), and I wonder how much I would have noticed this in another book (probably a lot less), but still, it was there;
↬ the beginning seemed aimless at first. It’s very much not, and I get why it was that way, but I was thinking “where’s the plot” for at least 15% of this.
I still really liked it, and want to reread it at some point in the future. I know I will appreciate some parts of it even more now that I know what they’re doing.

My rating: ★★★★½

CW: interrogation scene featuring torture (beating) of the mc; certain minor characters try to trap and eat a cat (the cat is fine and does not get eaten); mass death; earthquake; bombing; injury

Adult · Book review · Fantasy · Short fiction

Reviews: Two Asian-Inspired Fantasy Novellas

Today, I’m reviewing two Asian-inspired fantasy novellas I really liked. As usual, Tor.com doesn’t disappoint!


46802653._sy475_Empress of Salt and Fortune is the best example of quiet fantasy I know. It’s a story about a revolution, about the upheaval of an empire, the way many fantasy stories are – and yet it’s unlike everything I’ve ever read. There isn’t one fight scene, it’s told decades after the events happened, and it relies so much on details and symbolism, as quiet fantasy does when it needs to talk about something not quiet at all.

It follows Chih (they/them), a cleric – who pretty much functions as a historian and archivist – and their nixin Almost Brilliant, a magical hoopoe, as they talk with Rabbit, an old woman who was once one of the Empress’ servants.

This novella is split between Chih’s present and Rabbit’s past, and most chapters begin with an inventory. It’s a story told through the history of objects as much as the history of people, as the small, mundane details have their own language, and this book understands that. This hidden language of symbols is an important thread running through the story, and it’s tied to its main theme – the power that lies in what is overlooked. Like servants. Like exiled wives, as In-yo, the Empress of Salt and Fortune, was. Like the bonds women form with each other, and the way they support each others through hardships.

Because of its setup, this novella felt a lot like the mirror version of another queer Asian-inspired novella about devotion and revolution told in flashbacks I’ve read, The Ascent to Godhood (by the way, I would recommend this to all Tensorate fans). Unlike Ascent, however, it’s all but a tragic villain story. Empress of Salt and Fortune is gentle, unhurried, and very short – and more powerful than a lot of fantasy trilogies.

Half of the reason this story is so memorable is the writing. It’s never flowery and always sharp, almost minimalistic, so that what isn’t said and is just left implied has just as much weight as what is written. The descriptions are short but incredibly vivid, as is true for everything in this book, to be honest. Even minor characters that only appear in flashbacks, like Mai and Yan Lian, are so well-drawn they jump off the page. And In-yo? She’s already dead at the beginning of the story, but you could feel the power of her presence. The writing is that good.

Also, I loved the worldbuilding. It’s deceptively simple, clear and never messy, and the amount of casual queerness – not only the worldbuilding isn’t binarist, there are queer side characters too, which include In-yo – was amazing. Also, there are talking animals and people ride mammoths. How could I not love that.

Empress of Salt and Fortune is one of the best novellas I’ve ever read, now maybe even my favorite! I really look forward to reading what Nghi Vo will write in the future.

My rating: ★★★★★


45166076._sy475_Overall, I didn’t feel strongly about this, and it’s far from my favorite thing from Zen Cho, but I got emotional about the ending, so.
The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water is a wuxia-inspired fantasy novella following a group of bandits and an ex-anchorite nun after an unexpected fight in a coffeehouse.

I want to start with the positives and say that Zen Cho knows how to write effective banter even when there’s not much page-time to develop the characters, and really gets the serious-humorous balance right in general as well – this is overall a very entertaining story. It’s also always really nice to read about fantasy worlds where queerness is relatively unremarkable; I want to specifically mention that this is also true for being trans, as many supposedly queer-normative fantasy books don’t even try to acknowledge that trans people exist.

While this features the “outcast found family” trope, it focuses mostly on three characters:
🌘 naive-yet-shrewd ex-anchorite Guet Imm, votary of the Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water, whose tokong has been destroyed; she was hilarious and definitely my favorite character.
🌘 mysterious Tet Sang, who is hiding far more than any of his friends suspect;
🌘 beautiful, charming Lau Fung Cheung, more or less the leader of the group.
The other characters were pretty much a blur. Here’s the thing: I don’t think novellas are the right format for the found family trope. It’s already hard enough to pull off in a standalone novel.

Another thing that didn’t work for me much was the lack of descriptions. Maybe it stood out to me because I just finished another novella, Empress of Salt and Fortune, that put painstaking attention into every detail and made them matter, but here I felt like I didn’t know how anything actually looked like.
Also, while I really appreciated how normalized queerness was, this book did kind of use a character’s transness* as a small twist, which could have been easily avoided – but it didn’t end up being the character’s Big Secret, which is refreshing.

*spoilery clarification:

it’s complicated, even for the character, how to define himself, but it’s clear that he uses he/him and doesn’t want to be called “sister”.

There are also some nods to topics I would have loved to see explored more, like how going through traumatic events like a war can change one’s relationship with faith. There are a lot of thing here I would have loved to see more of, characters included, and this definitely has sequel potential, so I’m hopeful.

My rating: ★★★½


Have you read any interesting novellas lately?

Adult · Book review · Fantasy

Reviews: Recent Fantasy Reads

I read two adult fantasy novels in March! (Well, three, but that third was a reread.) Given how my reading has looked like lately – very few novels and relatively little fantasy – this is almost surprising. Here’s the reviews.


29774026When I started The Priory of the Orange Tree, I thought that the most remarkable thing about it was its length. Now that I’ve finished it, that hasn’t changed.

I think that’s where the problem sits. When I write reviews, the first thing I think about is what sets this book or reading experience apart, in a good or bad way? And here, apart from how long this was, I really can’t tell! This book felt like an amalgamation of tropes and ideas I’ve already read elsewhere, where they were done in far more interesting ways. And it has a lot of tropes I love, from dragon rider school (by the way, the “powerful” dragon Naymathun spent most of the book being a damsel in distress, it was kind of ridiculous) to plant-based magic and a forbidden f/f romance.
The book managed to do nothing interesting with them, which is an achievement.

The Priory of the Orange Tree was marketed as a new, diverse spin on traditional fantasy tropes, and while I appreciate the intent, I don’t think that was done particularly well. When I say that I love reading fantasy stories in which queer characters don’t experience homophobia, I don’t mean that you can build a society with rigid gender roles, a serious religious fundamentalism problem, and puritanical attitudes towards sex, and expect me to believe that somehow there’s no homophobia. Fantasy authors, please explore the consequences of the worldbuilding you lay down. Please.
(Also, again, unless I missed something, this is one of the most rigidly cis and gender-conforming fantasy novels I’ve read in a very long while, which wouldn’t have been so glaring if not for a) how much symbolism based on wombs there was here and b) how much of the marketing focused on this being feminist and all about women. Considering all that… it really stood out in a bad way.)

And really, if you mostly read queer SFF to begin with, the only thing that will stand out to you is how long this book is and how some of the plotlines (like Tané’s, which was my favorite character) still manage to feel underdeveloped despite that.
This is one of those books in which it’s clear that, despite the multiple PoVs, there’s a main character (Ead, who was as bland as one can possibly get with superpowers) and the others are less relevant. The book didn’t even seem to try to make me care about Loth, who was a walking plot device, even blander than Ead. And I appreciated the idea of having a main character who for once didn’t have the supreme good as a motivation – Niclays – but he too had the personality of a dishrag.
Add the painfully predictable political intrigue to that and you get a very long story in which all interpersonal dynamics are deeply uninteresting, and as a result, I never felt strongly about anything.

I think my disconnect between this and the story also had a lot to do with the fact that this book tried to be a modern version of fantasy classics, which made me realize just how much I don’t miss that kind of fantasy.
🍊 Like a lot of older fantasy, this very much relies on coincidences to push the story along, which today feels lazy, and it just doesn’t live up in any way to the standards I have for plotting in adult fantasy, when it had all the space it needed to do so and more;
🍊 Like a lot of older fantasy, it portrays a conflict between good people and a clearly irredeemable evil that exists just to be evil, which has never made for an interesting story and today feels flat and uninspired;
🍊 Like a lot of older fantasy, it has such a stiff writing style that I gave up on the English version and decided to read it physically in Italian, despite how uncomfortable it is to read a physical copy of this, because tone doesn’t translate well and for once that was a good thing;
🍊 Unlike most of the older fantasy I read (though I don’t doubt there were many, many exceptions to this), it has sex scenes, still written in that stiff, incredibly uncomfortable writing style, which means this has what’s probably the worst f/f sex scene I’ve ever had to read in my life. Rosebuds at the tips of her breasts?? really?

I did enjoy my time with this for the most part: I had many problems (…I’ve spent most of this review complaining), but the majority of them were background annoyances. For something in which I only cared about one character out of four, it wasn’t a bad reading experience, and I did really like the settings (the Inysh castle, the Priory, Tané’s school…). I will also forget most of it over the next few weeks.

My rating: ★★¾


41473380-1Stormsong is a sequel that does something very few sequels do: it deals with the afterwards. What happens after you’ve defeated the Big Bad and uncovered his nefarious plots? Chances are the structures that allowed the Big Bad to rise and thrive are still standing, and that’s a serious problem.

As Witchmark was one of the most nuanced takes on the outlawed magic trope and very plausibly portrayed the rich profiting from it, Stormsong is one of the most nuanced versions of the “rebellion against the establishment” plotline, and with a very interesting perspective – Dame Grace Hensley was completely part of it until a few days before, and in some ways still is. This book knows how to talk about privilege and oppression, about how this kind of discussion has to be full of grey areas and still requires steps, solutions, because injustice can’t be allowed to continue. Sometimes, those solutions will have high costs.
(Forgive me the aside, but this is the very reason no trope is tired until marginalized people have had as many chances to write it.)

In this book, what truly happened with Laneer comes into focus, and there’s also discussion of justice in the context of colonial wars. Everything in here is complicated, and this book handles all of it with… grace. (Sorry.) There are also advocates for witches’ rights, and the Amaranthines sometimes have goals of their own, and everything is twisted enough that I couldn’t even predict the solution to the murder mystery (yes, of course there’s murder too!) this time.

I still didn’t like this book as much as Witchmark. It might be due to my mental state, but my frustration at the ending had a lot to do with it. I hate cliffhangers, they make me want to not continue with the story, and while I get why a certain character didn’t get what they deserved, I’m still really annoyed and that’s never the emotion I want a book to leave me with.

The romance in this book also took more of a backseat than it did in the first. Again, I understand why this was necessary, but I still wish I would have gotten more than that, especially when I had to sit through so many scenes with Severin (why do f/f books specifically have to spend so much time on men who want to end up with the main character but obviously won’t?).
It’s also one of those romances in which you’re told that the characters were already drawn to each other since before the beginning of the story, but you aren’t shown that, not even in a flashback, so you’re already starting halfway through. There is a lot to love about Avia and Grace’s relationship, about how they came from somewhat similar situations and are going through similar pathways in different times, and there was even an occurrence of the “there’s only one bed!” trope. I liked them, of course I did, but I still wanted more from this book.

My rating: ★★★★


Have you read or want to read these?

Adult · Book review · Fantasy

[Audiobook Reread] Review: The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty

32718027This was even better on reread.

The City of Brass is the first book in an adult fantasy trilogy involving a faraway hidden city of djinn, a young woman with unexpected powers, and grudges that transcend time.

I had almost forgotten how it felt to read well-plotted, satisfying, unpredictable political intrigue in which all characters are equally realized and there isn’t a clear good side. It’s such a freeing sensation. I wrote in my old review that “Daevabad is such an awesome powder keg and I can’t wait to see it explode“, and I stand by that. There’s so much backstory, all delivered in a way that doesn’t weigh on the reader, that makes everything in this city precarious and full of horrible implications.
And when I say it was unpredictable, I want to underline that this was a reread, and it managed to surprise me again.

I have to admit that the first half of this book, while well-written and atmospheric and still interesting enough to keep my attention on reread, is kind of boring the way travel fantasy often is; it takes half of the book for our main character Nahri to even reach Daevabad, and the first chapters in Ali’s PoV just aren’t that interesting. However: the second half wouldn’t work without the first, which gives you time and space to clearly see the relationships between certain characters develop, and the second half is political fantasy at its best. I can confidently say that it pays off, and I wouldn’t change anything.

This also hits the perfect balance in both making me care about the characters and not making me firmly take the side of only one character over everyone else, which is amazing for political intrigue. Everything here is a complete mess. The characters you spend most of the time with – Nahri, Ali, Dara, and Muntadhir – are often on opposing sides, but because there aren’t easy answers and there’s a certain clear amount of atrocities on all sides, I on some level cared about everyone and wasn’t rooting for only one character to “win” or for others to disappear (that’s where a lot of political fantasy fails: they make some characters incredibly unpleasant to spend time with, and you have to read about them over and over).
And do you know why this works so well? Because it’s fun. I spent so much of this reread, especially the second half, laughing.

I care about Nahri, who is just a (lying, mildly backstabbing) treasure to read about, and Ali grew on me (poor boy has a functioning moral compass. that’s going to be a problem), but somehow seeing them make terrible decision didn’t irritate me, because their inexperience made sense – neither of them has any reason to actually be good at political intrigue – and because I was just living for the situation to get even more complicated. It’s more fun that way?
After all, my favorite part of political intrigue is seeing interpersonal relationship get strained because of it, so I was really invested in both Ali’s family dynamic and Nahri’s relationship with Dara, while at the same time not having a firm idea of how I wanted them to be resolved.

36475759This also confirmed my theory that powerful, competent characters are only interesting to read about if you can make fun of them. Like, look at Dara. Scary? Absolutely! Also the character version of the “old man yells at cloud” meme. I loved his scenes because I find them funny, even though he’s… not funny (does anyone but Nahri have a sense of humor here? It wouldn’t seem so, jokes only exist to Goad the Enemy).
It helps that nothing will ever be as funny to me as “the most hated person of the realm, who people thought dead, returns; chaos ensues” combination of events. As it usually happens with characters that belong to this archetype, the story eventually uses him as a punching bag, and that was also a great time.

Another big reason I love this book is the writing. It’s not overly flowery but it’s definitely descriptive, and I loved that; I will never not love books that understand the power of a well-defined setting, that make details meaningful. Daevabad and the palace of the Nahid almost feel like characters themselves, and are such beautiful, horrible places to read about.

Can’t wait to see just how much The Kingdom of Copper will hurt!

Some observations from this reread:

  • Darayavahoush e-Afshin spends a significant amount of this book complaining. “In my time, things were better”, “when the Nahid were still ruling, things were better”, “why do you keep asking so many questions”, “why doesn’t the prince speak the most important (=my) language in this city”, etc. Interestingly, I’ve seen reviews call Nahri “whiny” (a word I don’t like using in general), but not Dara – when he’s the one who complains constantly. I think this says a lot about how we see female main characters.
  • It’s really interesting to me how healing in fantasy novels is usually a magical ability that is relegated to side/minor characters that are kind of plot devices while the main characters get to fight. Here, healing is the most important magical ability – for once, here’s a book in which the society has priorities that make sense
  • The audiobook was amazing and I can really recommend it as a format. You’ll actually know how to pronounce everything! The narrator, Soneela Nankani, makes all names sound way nicer than how I read them in my head. (The biggest shock for me, interestingly, was the true pronunciation of “Manizheh”. The Italian-style one my brain automatically went to is so sad when compared to the truth)
  • I already said this in my old review but I wish people would stop mis-categorizing this as YA, all the characters are adults and this is very much an adult fantasy with genre-typical slow pacing & attention to worldbuilding, while YA usually prioritizes faster pace and characters/romance over worldbuilding. I get that publishers had a hand in creating this mess (blurbs mostly from YA authors and all) but it’s a form of misleading marketing and also kind of sexist (it’s known that almost only women authors get this treatment).
  • If you’re interested in seeing my old review, it’s also still here on the blog! For some obscure reason, it was my most popular goodreads review until I deleted it.

My rating: ★★★★¾ [raised from 4.5]

Adult · Book review · Fantasy

Review: Middlegame by Seanan McGuire

35965482This book did the impossible, which, in this case, is making me wish I had paid attention during my mandatory philosophy class.

Sadly, the Acqua who would be fine with paying attention to high school philosophy classes instead of sneakily reading fantasy books during them isn’t the kind of person who would have ended up reading Middlegame, and as this book rightly says, you can’t have everything, even with infinite alternate timelines and even if you’re the living embodiment of logos, which I’m not.

So, this book is about evil alchemists trying to harness the Doctrine, which, as far as I understand, is basically the English name for what the ancient Greek philosophers called the logos, the rule that drives the universe. There is a fascinating history in this, written in this story like a book within a book, thin slivers of the past woven in and out of the present timeline, omens scattered in the form of excerpts of a children’s book. In the present, the immortal alchemist Reed is trying to embody different concepts into people who aren’t quite human, who look human but might one day be infinitely powerful, if they end up manifesting, if they end up being the Doctrine themselves. If this time he gets them right.
And this is where our main characters, Roger and Dodger, come in.
(Confusing? I’m not as good at explaining as this book, and this is weird.)

Roger is language, Dodger is math, and they are a harmony of opposites. We see them as children who are trying to navigate the world while being “gifted” while also discovering that they have a telepathic connection, and they might be magical, but the way the world fails them isn’t any different from the way it fails children with too many expectations on their shoulders. (The parts about Dodger never being able to understand how people work and the quote about you got a girlfriend, I got a therapist: painfully relatable.)
And then we see them during many different times of their lives, finding and losing each other and slowly learning about the puppeteers beneath reality, and it should be boring, but it’s not, and the time jumps should make it easy to get disconnected from the characters, but they don’t, because this book delights in doing the impossible. (Improbable, it whispers, as if it were a reincarnation of Nikolai Lantsov.)

Middlegame is, after all, deceptively simple: it’s really easy to follow, for something so complex – a narrative that plays at being linear just to make itself accessible when it’s actually a tapestry of timelines, with writing that gets its point across with an elegance that doesn’t call attention to itself. It has the beauty of efficiency and fits this book just right.
And it’s so clever. I want to look at all the facets and can’t and this is exactly what I want from a book, as much work as it is fun. Time is a joke to this book and it just occurred to me that as inside this book language is a trigger to math and consequently words are a trigger to time, this book in itself is words that command time in their own little universe and I, well, I should probably shut up now.

It’s not only the way it’s written, so readable even when it doesn’t seem to make sense (but it always does, sideways), that makes it not boring for something that almost feels like a slice-of-life story for a significant portion of the 500+ pages. It’s also the fact that there are books that have unpredictable twists, and then there are books that are unpredictable in essence, which you don’t even vaguely know which direction they will take until you’re near the ending, because they’re so different from everything you’ve seen before that you don’t even have something to build your expectations on.
And it’s also about stakes, of course. You know a book is taking things seriously when someone just caused mass death and you aren’t even near the climax.

Apart from that, and from what Middlegame has to say about society and the way stories shape consciousness which then shapes reality (which are all things I love to read about), I am predictable and was into this right from the moment I understood it involved evil, ruthless magical scientists. There’s no story about merging science and magic involving people being horrible that won’t interest me.
And yes, there are a few things I didn’t love about this, the main one being just how centered on America this book is despite the consequences befalling the whole world, because of course America is both the whole world and the only part of it in which interesting things actually happen.

In any case, I was trembling even while reading some of the calmest parts of this book, and maybe I can’t yet (ever?) explain fully why it affected me so much when it doesn’t make sense to me completely either, but I hope I got at least part of it, and if not, this is probably the reason I shouldn’t write reviews after midnight.

My rating: ★★★★★

Adult · Book review · Fantasy · Short fiction

Reviews: Two Villainous Novellas

Today I’m reviewing two Tor.com novellas I’ve read this year:

  • The Ascent to Godhood by JY Yang, which I read this August and hadn’t posted a review of yet, despite having talked about it many times on this blog already
  • The Monster of Elendhaven by Jennifer Giesbrecht, a book I read this October for Spookathon.

34613788The Ascent to Godhood is about the relationship between Hekate, the series’ villainess, and Lady Han, a courtesan-turned-revolutionary. It follows how the two met, the times they spent together, and how the relationship fell apart – so, yes, it’s basically an f/f villain romance, with delicious intrigue in the background.

The Tensorate is a series of novellas written in unusual formats, some of which worked for me more than others, and when I heard that The Ascent to Godhood was to be a transcription of “a drunken monologue”, I thought this wouldn’t work for me at all. And was I wrong. You already vaguely know how the story ends, and you’re being told by Lady Han what happened, and yet it works – maybe too much? (Those were my FEELINGS, book. How dare you.) It makes up for the details lost in the telling with a narrative voice that you will remember, and maybe exactly because of the few descriptions you’re given, the few details you know are even more memorable.
This ended up being my favorite novella in the series.

This is not the story of a revolution. It is much more personal than that, it’s a story about love and loss and grief, and it deliberately doesn’t focus on Hekate’s downfall, because that’s not what was important to Lady Han to begin with. Lady Han loved this terrible woman, and hated her just as much, and this is about how those feelings can coexist, and this complicated, twisted relationship. If you’re looking for something that is about political intrigue and a revolution, you’re going to be disappointed – they’re the background, not the focus. I didn’t mind that; I was there for the villain romance, and all the conflicting feelings that come with it. It’s probably my favorite trope, and it means so much to me to finally see a book focus specifically on an f/f version of it.

Villainous, competent women are my favorite kind of characters, so I knew right from the beginning that Hekate was going to have a lot of potential, but I didn’t think I would get a book focusing on her, and I’m so glad this exists. Lady Han is also brave and shrewd and manipulative, and I loved reading her version of the story.
The Ascent to Godhood is a tragedy, one about how your love and admiration for a person can mislead you, and about how the excessive mistrust from those experiences can destroy you all the same. Tragic f/f love stories in which the tragedy has nothing to do with homophobia, like the m/f ones that have existed since forever, have so much value, and while this is a tragic gay story, it’s not the kind of tragic gay story we’re so familiar with.

I also loved how this novella and The Descent of Monsters were tied to each other. I didn’t love The Descent of Monsters, but this novella gave it more meaning. I really recommend reading this even if you, like me, thought the third book was kind of a waste of your time. The only thing I still don’t understand is what is even up with Sonami. I mean, this book kind of gave me an answer, but as she’s not a developed character at all, I’d still love to know more.

My rating: ★★★★¾

Content warnings: suicide of a minor character, child trafficking, death of a toddler, forced sterilization. Nothing graphic because you’re just being told about it, and usually not in detail.


42269378-1This was so gory, disgusting and atmospheric you could almost feel the smell of decay wafting from the pages.

The Monster of Elendhaven is a dark fantasy novella following an immortal, magical man as he meets another man who might be even more dangerous than him, and who might have some nefarious plans; deliciously evil relationship ensues.

What I loved the most about this novella was the writing. It is vivid, even though most of the time you kind of wish it hadn’t been, because Elendhaven is a horrible place to be in, and every single character is on some level corrupt and/or unhinged. I loved it for that; it truly makes you experience just how ugly this world is. It also doesn’t take itself too seriously, and the narrator’s humor made this city bearable to read about and also made it feel more real.

“Leickenbloom Manor was the oldest mansion in the city: four floors, twenty-six rooms, and a wrought-iron trim that made it look like an ancient prison that had been garnished by an extremely fussy knitting circle.”

This book had the best descriptions, yes.

I also really liked the way the relationship was being set up: as usual, I’m always there for the trainwrecks, especially if they involve gay characters being evil the way a straight one would be allowed to be. (I don’t feel like the novella explored the full potential of it, but that’s not too unusual for short books.)

Those two things were a significant part of why I loved the first half, which introduces the reader to the world, the characters and what they’re up to; I thought this was going to be amazing because of what it seemed to lead up to.
And then… it just fizzled out. It starts talking about an apocalypse and then just ends with that? (I know, I’m vague, but I keep things non-spoilery.) Maybe there’ll be a sequel, I don’t know. What I know is that when I got to the end, my main feeling was “that’s it?”

I hesitate to say that this isn’t good, because it is well-written, but I didn’t really get what it was going for, and in the end, I kept thinking about so many other directions it could have taken that I would have liked more – but then that’s kind of wanting to read a different book.

My rating: ★★★½


Have you read any great novellas/stories about villains lately?

Adult · Book review · Fantasy

Review: The Impossible Contract by K.A. Doore

43263188When I heard that The Perfect Assassin was going to get a companion sequel that was also about assassins but with a main f/f romance, The Impossible Contract instantly became one of my most anticipated books of the year. And it didn’t disappoint.

While reviewing a sequel, one of the first things I think about is how the sequel is in comparison to the first book. And in this case, I can say that I’ve never read two books in the same series that had such different strengths. Where The Perfect Assassin was a slow-burn mystery all set in the same city, The Impossible Contract is a fast-paced journey book involving necromancy. It’s darker and bloodier – and, in a way, also messier than the first book, not as clear in its direction or themes, but way funnier at the same time.
I can’t tell you if it’s better or worse, but what I can tell you it’s that it’s different, and that I enjoyed it a lot more.

This is the story of Thana, the daughter of the famous assassin known as “the Serpent of Ghadid”. Thana has always wanted to prove herself, to be seen as something more than “the daughter of someone famous”. She wants to be a legend herself, and this new assassination contract seems to be her chance… except it’s impossible, and she ends entangled into a web of political and magical machinations that reach as far as the capital of the empire.

And help her meet a cute healer girl. I loved Mo so much, and her relationship with Thana. They are people with very different values and strengths and… they made it work anyway, but it wasn’t easy and seamless. Thana, who learns that she doesn’t have to be a copy of her mother; Mo, who learns to not deal in moral absolutes. And it’s so interesting to see how the romance storyline is a foil to the one in the first book.
(Also, Mo deserves the world and a hug.)

I can’t not mention the third relevant character, Heru, the man Thana has been hired to kill. He is a powerful en-marabi, a necromancer, and a really self-important, irritating man obsessed with researching magic. He ended up being the funniest character in the book – not by his intention – and ended up having all the best lines.
Also, he’s the reason me and Silvia keep making zombie camel jokes.

While I can’t talk about the villain without spoilers, I will say that for a character who got relatively little page time, they were really fascinating.

I talked about the worldbuilding in this series before, but can I just repeat how… not obvious and yet so logical it is to have a water-based magic system and economy in a desert fantasy book? And the repercussions that has on a world in which there’s also blood-based necromancy? This is how you do worldbuilding.

The only thing that didn’t work for me that much was the pacing. Journey books often have pacing problems, but in some places here it was clear that a scene had been cut and then summed up, so that sometimes we’re only told about things I would have liked to see – but that’s a minor complaint, and overall I really liked this.

My rating: ★★★★½

Adult · Book review · Fantasy

Review: The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow

40794181I think that at its heart, The Ten Thousand Doors of January has a great message. It is based on some really clever and interesting ideas, especially the ones surrounding the role of doors, of magic and portal fantasy. I also thought that the writing was – usually, more on that later – beautiful without needing to draw that much attention to itself, every word chosen carefully. It had a harmony to it, as if it were made to be read out loud; I think it would sound amazing as an audiobook.

I was also going to say that this book had a solid portrayal of the psychological consequences of childhood abuse, but something that happened in the second half made me change my mind. One didn’t need that to make January’s struggle to talk back and disobey realistic. It kind of undermined the whole thing.
Anyway, abuse does have a relevant role in this story, as the biracial main character is raised by a racist white man and abused both by him and by her white maid; at one point the main character also experiences forced institutionalization and abuse at the hand of psychiatrists, which I wish I had known before reading.

The rest of the book is… fine. I don’t have much to say about it, because one of my problems with it was exactly how unremarkable it was. All the characters but January didn’t have any dimension to them. All the portal worlds but one are barely described.
Also, it took me more than two weeks only to get through the first 30%. It was partly my fault, but everything I have to say on the pacing isn’t good.

While I said that the author clearly put effort in choosing the right words, the same didn’t happen when it came to including Italian ones. This led to jarring sentences and weird moments, like the one in which the Italian-American love interest calls the main character a “strega”, as if that were a compliment. It does mean “witch”, yes, but not in the way the English word does. It doesn’t carry the same connotations, the aspect of the cool independent woman who saves herself. I asked the people around me, and it doesn’t make any of us think of mysterious, dangerous but alluring magic. A strega is an old woman with a pointy hat and warts. He basically called her a hag.

It might be that the character, having grown up in America, sees the word as just a translation – but then, why not use the word “witch”, if that’s what you mean. And why use Italian words at all, if you don’t even bother to get the plural right? Was that a sign of laziness, of not even caring that other languages don’t do plurals the way English does, or was it done to cater to monolingual anglophones who might be confused by an Italian plural but still want a sprinkle of ~exotic flavor~?
I don’t know, I don’t particularly care, but in a book that attempted to talk about exotification among other things, this struck me as hypocritical.

My rating: ★★½

Adult · Book review · Sci-fi · Short fiction

Review: Of Wars, and Memories, and Starlight by Aliette de Bodard

45429770._sy475_Of Wars, and Memories, and Starlight is a short story collection written by one of my favorite authors, Aliette de Bodard.

I knew I needed to read this when I got to know that there was an f/f novella in it – about Emmanuelle and Selene from the Dominion of the Fallen series, and really, the main reason I love them are the scenes of them I saw in various short stories and novellas, this one included – and it didn’t disappoint. I probably would have read this anyway because I always want more Xuya universe (and short stories set in space in general), but the fact that the novella wasn’t the only f/f story was also a nice surprise.

As one can guess from the title, most stories in Of Wars, and Memories, and Starlight have something to do with a war. If you think this could be repetitive, it’s not, because these stories about war aren’t stories about battles, but about the repercussions of it. It’s about how war changes people on a personal level just as much as it can change a country, and about how war and diaspora influence a culture.
What I want the most from collections (and anthologies, too), is that they feel more than the sum of their parts, and that’s definitely true for this book. There’s a value in this multifaceted approach to a theme that one can’t get from reading all these stories individually in different moments.
So yes, this is about war, from many different angles, and yet it’s all but depressing. Some parts of it are definitely dark – I think this hits the darkest points in The Days of the War, as Red as Blood, as Dark as Bile and in The Waiting Stars, though The Jaguar House, In Shadow was also almost there, since it dealt with totalitarianism – but others aren’t, and the collection ends on a lighter note with the novella Of Birthdays, and Fungus, and Kindness, in which the main characters try to make a party work in the aftermath of the fall of House Silverspires. (By the way: all the scenes involving Morningstar were so funny. I’m kind of sorry for Emmanuelle, but… so funny)

Even then, not all stories deal primarily with war. The Dust Queen is about the role of pain in art, Pearl is a beautiful retelling of a Vietnamese lengend in space, and there are a few stories that are mostly about grief – Three Cups of Grief, by Starlight, which was a reread for me and my introduction to the Xuya universe, and A Salvaging of Ghosts – and some in which the main theme is colonization, my two favorite stories in here, Memorials and Immersion.
Memorials does talk about the aftermath of a war, and it’s about… pain-based tourism and voyeuristic portrayals of war, but it’s also a story about taking back the ways your culture is misrepresented, and about what you owe to your people. This one was so vivid that the first thing I think of when I think about this book are the food descriptions (especially the scene in which the aunts order chè ba màu).
Immersion is about globalization as a subtler form of colonization. It’s one of the stories that stands better on its own and it’s about how the colonizer’s interpretation of a culture can be prioritized, and about how people who are used to living as a part of the dominant culture assume their own as a default (the usual “I have no culture”) and so they try to reduce others to a few key points, the ones that feel the most different. About how this affects the people who are othered, and their sense of self, because being more similar to the dominant culture is seen as “progress” no matter what, and people end up hurting themselves in the attempt to assimilate. There’s a lot here and it deserves all the awards it got.

(Also, I didn’t mention it before because that’s true for basically everything Aliette de Bodard writes, but I think all the main characters are people of color, mostly but not only Vietnamese, and almost all of them are women.)

Since these stories have been written from 2010 to 2019, there are a few that feel dated. While I really liked The Shipmaker for being a bittersweet f/f story, the way it talked about being queer in a far-future space society and the way it accidentally conflated having an uterus with being a woman really made the fact that it was written in 2011 stand out.
Overall, while not every story worked for me on its own – that’s the way collection and anthologies go – I’m really satisfied with the collection as a whole, and I really appreciated seeing so many sides of the Xuya universe, which I previously mostly knew from the novellas. If I rated every story individually, I would have an average rating of 4.07, but this is worth more than that for me, and I rated it five stars on goodreads.

The Shipmaker – 4,5
The Jaguar House, in Shadow – 4,5
Scattered Along the River of Heaven – 2,5
Immersion – 5
The Waiting Stars – 2,5
Memorials – 5
The Breath of War – 3
The Days of the War, as Red as Blood, as Dark as Bile – 3,5
The Dust Queen – 4
Three Cups of Grief, By Starlight – 4,5
A Salvaging of Ghosts – 3
Pearl – 5
Children of Thorns, Children of Water – 5
Of Birthdays, and Fungus, and Kindness – 5

Adult · Book review · Fantasy

Review: Jade War by Fonda Lee

37578998For something that took me more than a month to complete, this was surprisingly fun. It’s just that the writing leaned into the aspect I didn’t like in Jade City even more than in the first book – giving you far more details than you actually need to understand the story – and that’s how we got a 600-page sequel that was at the same time far too long and far too short for what it was trying to do.

I’ll try to explain what went wrong, which I can sum up as “I’ve never read a book in which the pacing was so bad“. The scenes themselves are slow, often full of paragraphs and paragraphs of useless infodumps; I skimmed most of the non-dialogue parts in the second half and still didn’t struggle at all with understanding the story. (It was more fun that way, actually.)
Why far too short, then? Because in this book, the sense of passage of time goes completely out of the window after 30%. There are enormous time jumps between chapters, and you’re not told that so much time has passed until, for example, the book tells you that the character who was pregnant a few chapters ago is also pregnant now… with another child. Where did that year go?

Which is how I started focusing on odd details, one of them being the unusual amount of pregnancies in this book. I joked that this book, sequel to Jade City, should really have been called Pregnancity: every single relevant female character but the villain (and even a few of the not relevant ones) gets pregnant in this book, some of them multiple times, for a total of six pregnancies. I guess that’s what happens when you put too many straight people on an island.

The only major gay character, the token self-loathing gay cousin, is away in another country, and queer women don’t seem to exist. I won’t tell you that this book is bad because it has none, but I do wish there had been less overwhelming heterosexuality and more female characters in general (…all of them can get pregnant because there are only a few relevant ones to begin with).
Now that I got my complaints out of the way, let’s talk about what I liked.

Jade War is an ambitious sequel. A lot of things about it didn’t work for me, but something I never lost was my interest in it, or my attachment to the characters. I loved reading about these complicated family dynamics, seeing how far the character would go for each other and for what they believe in – sometimes, maybe too far; there were a few scenes that surprised me that way, and yet they made so much sense. I’ve always been interested in stories about families and stories about loyalty and its limits, and this is both, so it’s perfect.
Also, can we talk about how refreshing it is to read an adult book in which sibling relationships are the backbone of the story? We’re lucky if even YA novels remember that siblings are a thing.
I might not have been there for the politics and the overly-detailed worldbuilding, but I was always there for the quieter scenes, the ones in which I saw the characters interact. There was always tension, and it always felt personal and real. I loved all of them.

(Also, not to be predictable, but I’m really fascinated by Ayt Mada and would love to have her PoV.)

Once I stopped forcing myself to wade through the text walls, the plot also turned out to be really engaging, complex and surprising, and this time I also loved the ending.
So, will I continue the series? It depends on how long the third book will be and how willing I’ll be to get into something just to skim it, but I really do want to know what happens. I even have some theories:

Spoiler-y theories

Since Jade City had a plot-relevant near-lethal duel halfway through involving Lan, and Jade War had a plot-relevant near-lethal duel halfway through involving Shae, it only makes sense that Jade Legacy will have a plot-relevant duel halfway through involving Hilo, only I have a hunch that this time it will actually be lethal for him. I don’t know who the opponent is, I just hope it’s not Bero.

My rating: ★★★