Flame in the Mist (Renée Ahdieh)

5 stars

“Mariko has always known that being a woman means she’s not in control of her own fate. But Mariko is the daughter of a prominent samurai and a cunning alchemist in her own right, and she refuses to be ignored. When she is ambushed by a group of bandits known as the Black Clan enroute to a political marriage to Minamoto Raiden – the emperor’s son – Mariko realises she has two choices: she can wait to be rescued… or she can take matters into her own hands, hunt down the clan and find the person who wants her dead.

Disguising herself as a peasant boy, Mariko infiltrates the Black Clan’s hideout and befriends their leader, the rebel ronin Ranmaru, and his second-in-command, Okami. Ranmaru and Okami warm to Mariko, impressed by her intellect and ingenuity. But as Mariko gets closer to the Black Clan, she uncovers a dark history of secrets that will force her to question everything she’s ever known.”

So, ‘Flame in the Mist’ had been one of my most anticipated reads of this year ever since it was announced. That’s a lot to live up to and I was both excited and nervous when I received an ARC copy, wondering whether it could live up to my expectations.

Thankfully, I adored this book…

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Characters

Mariko, our protagonist is more interested in inventing things, whether they be objects that explode or those more practical, than being a Daimyō‘s daughter. The funny thing is that she’s actually kind of useless at first in the society of the Black Clan. She can’t cook, can’t cut fire wood, has pretty terrible upper body strength, and manages to make an enemy of pretty much everyone she meets. Maybe sometimes overestimating her own cunning and making chaos of situations, she’s a nightmare and I loved her.

Her twin brother, Kenshin, also known as the Dragon of Kai, is already a greatly revered Samurai warrior. He is equally as fierce as his sister and deeply protective of her, sometimes struggling with tenents of Bushidō relating to self control. One thing I couldn’t work out during the book is whether Kenshin actually has some magic of his own, mages are rare in the book but destruction seems to come to him far too easily. Fear for his sister, the complex political wranglings of the Imperial Court and having to lead a band of Samurai almost twice his age seem to push Kenshin to the brink and I’m pretty curious and worried to see how the next book works out for him.

Okami is, unsurprisingly, one of my favourite characters. Seemingly a little lazy and unkempt, the actually rather dangerous and dark-magic-wielding  second in command of the Black Clan has some of the best lines in the book:

‘My life has been filled with death and lies and loose women…I regret everything else.’

Like, what am I supposed to do with that? Witty and a dashing facial scar? He almost comes with a sticker on his head saying ‘this one is going to be your favourite character‘. I also enjoyed just how infuriating he found Mariko in her guise as a young man, seeing her as little more than a burden and a risk to the Black Clan.

Ah, hate to love, isn’t it glorious?

Story

Often touted as a combination of the Chinese story of Mulan and the Japanese tales of the 47 Rōnin, I will say that, plotwise, it takes a lot more from the latter. It is a Mulan retelling to the extent that Mariko disguises herself as a man and in some aspects of the romance, but the actual story is much closer to the Japanese stories of the rōnin, leaderless samurai, seeking revenge for the death of their daimyō.

It’s a slow story, but I’m glad that was the case. Ahdieh’s descriptions and character building take time and space, she has a wonderful way with words that often made me want to read the story aloud. Likewise, she takes time to allow character relationships to blossom, often leaving the exact feelings of characters towards one another as confused or amorphous, which, let’s be honest, is often exactly how close bonds form.

One thing I have, unfortunately, found over my years of reading is that it’s really difficult to find fantasy set in a Feudal Japanese setting that doesn’t make my eyes roll out of my head. Between painful tropes, fetishization and a basic misunderstanding  of Japanese cultural identity, finding good books has really been luck of the draw. This book was a breath of fresh air in that respect.

Flame in the Mist‘ is a sensitive portrayal of a fantasy feudal Japan. The story could not be told without its setting, it’s much more than scenic window-dressing, with Ahdieh addressing the political and cultural implications of Bushidō, ‘the way of the warrior’, as one of the central pillarstones of the story. It explores the duality of a fantasy Edo period and shogunate culture, where warriors such as the Samurai lived by the laws of Bushidō, including benevolence, integrity, loyalty and honour, but the structure of society enforced strict hierarchies with little or no social mobility. Ahdieh does a good job of explaining some more unfamiliar concepts in text, especially the omnipresent Bushidō code and the political importance of Geiko and the tea ceremonies.

It’s a story about revolution and social change, which, let’s be honest, is incredibly relevant right now. It asks questions about the status quo, about why it should be allowed to persist, whether it is even ethical for it continue in the way it is. Okami, for example, is vocally critical of the way of the Samurai and what he sees as unquestioning loyalty to an underserving upper echelon of society. I’m really excited to see how Ahdieh tackles some of those issues in the next book!

Note

I have seen one or two people comment that the use of Japanese in text is confusing or distracting for them. I would say that a) there’s a glossary at the back, b) the words are pretty easy to understand from context and cultural osmosis, and c) you’d probably just accept it if it was a fantasy novel. If you come from a martial arts background like me (Kendo), then you will probably have no problem with the words at all.

Conclusion

It was amazing, I read it too fast and now I’m going to have to wait painfully for book two. If you’re looking for a YA fantasy set in feudal Japan then this is the book for you; it’s beautifully written, sensitive to culture, has a perfect romance and is just, genuinely, everything that I wanted it to be.

Many thanks to Hodder and Stoughton for a copy in return for an honest review.

The Promise of the Child (Tom Toner)

1 star

Ok, so I actually had a couple of other reviews lined up to write before this, but I feel I need to talk about this one now. I’m usually a fan of darker books, I don’t tend to get turned off by violence, or gore, or things that are just plain weird, but I do have a real bugbear with the unnecessary use of sexual violence…that, and books without a single female character of note.

So, the book…

It’s touted as an epic space opera in the style of Banks or Reynolds, and it is pretty big…but also wallowing and lacking direction. We follow the POVs of a good ten or so different characters throughout the story, but only two that you’ll actually have any interest in. It’s basically set in our universe but approximately 12,000 years in the future. Humans left earth, some became the immortal Amaranthine, others evolved into strange Prism races, all seeming to be at war with one another. The Amaranthine, being immortal, ended up holding power, but a power that seems to be waning as infighting weakens their society.

Chapters leap around a bit, there’s one set in 14th century Prague that seems to be literally never mentioned again, a couple in the 20th century Mediterranean that turn out to be dreams, and most set in the 147th Century. I’m sure that some of the more superfluous seeming chapters may be important in later books, but since I found them horrendously dull and pretty irrelevant I won’t be reading the later books to find out.

This book could have done with some serious streamlining. I know it was supposed to be some grand space opera, but it wallowed in a way that the greats, the Herbert’s and the Bank’s did not.

Lycaste, the main POV for the novel, is a member of a colour changing race of giants living on Earth. The blurb describes him a ‘lovesick recluse’. What that doesn’t tell you is that he spends the entire book bemoaning the fact he has been friendzoned, and basically ends up trying to kill the man that his ‘beloved’ loves instead. I also really did not like that his ‘reclusiveness’ and the fact he is generally unlikeable seems to be ‘explained away’ by him being on the autistic spectrum…seriously, if you’re going to try and write an autistic character, maybe talk to some autistic people beforehand and don’t make already rare autistic characters into gross stereotypes.  Needless to say, I didn’t like how Lycaste’s character was handled at all. There was some really cruel ableist language chucked around that could really hurt readers on the autistic spectrum.

The second POV that gets the most page space is Sotiris, a 12,000 year old Amaranthine, who originally lived his life in contemporary Cyprus. Personally, I think this entire book would have been much more interesting and much more readable if Sotiris had been the main character. I want to read books about amoral space Immortals, not whingy young men (well, giants) from Earth. Sotiris also gets the most interesting, and least offensive plot line. I’m going to sit here and mourn the epic story that could have been.

So, what is wrong with this book…

Whilst the inclusion of rape, sexism, homophobia and ableism in a book isn’t in itself a red flag, how it is dealt with, and whether it is given the grief it deserves in book, really is.

I mentioned the problematic depiction of a character on the autism spectrum earlier, and the fact that the book is just generally too long and poorly paced, but there’s more.

There are only a handful of named female characters in this enormous book and pretty much all of them either get raped or die…sometimes both. There’s even an attempt to explain away the lack of older female Amaranthine by saying they all ‘go senile’ earlier than the men…which doesn’t follow medical statistics at all, but, well, you do you. Also, I’m not going to go into detail about it here because I know it could hurt people, but the character I mentioned earlier, the one who doesn’t love Lycaste, literally…I’m not sure the author really intended it to be this way…but it reads like a friendzone revenge fantasy . I had to skip that part entirely, it was so gross and hurtful and unnecessary. All I’ll say is that it involved pregnancy and sexual assault…

There’s also some really rampant and completely out of place homophobia in this book. One character goes on a rant about how he thinks it’s disgusting that two men loved one another, just, out of nowhere, for no real reason. Later, a character is goaded by another character that he’s a ‘pretty man’ and ‘gay’, as if it’s a bad thing?? Then later some dude, that looks like a kid, drugs Lycaste and tried to sleep with him?? Why a) are any of these scenes necessary and b) how did no-one read any of this and think ‘maybe this is a little bit homophobic?’

As I mentioned earlier, you can put the most horrible, disgusting content in your books as long as you justify in text that the actions are abhorrent. You’re allowed to make points, to use shock and horror, as long as it doesn’t read like torture or revenge porn. Using rape to make a character look like a monster is maybe not advised but possible, however, take care with context! If you’re writing a book  and you don’t take care not to romanticize that act, then you’ve written something that actively damages rape victims of any gender.

Conclusion…

This a big book with an interesting plotline and envious scope…but it rolled some critical fails when it came to nuanced use of gendered violence. As a woman, specifically a queer woman, this one was not for me.

Many thanks to Netgalley and Gollancz Publishing for a copy in return for an honest review.

 

The Upside of Unrequited (Becky Albertalli)

5 Stars

“Seventeen-year-old Molly Peskin-Suso knows all about unrequited love-she’s lived through it twenty-six times. She crushes hard and crushes often, but always in secret. Because no matter how many times her twin sister, Cassie, tells her to woman up, Molly can’t stomach the idea of rejection. So she’s careful. Fat girls always have to be careful.

Then a cute new girl enters Cassie’s orbit, and for the first time ever, Molly’s cynical twin is a lovesick mess. Meanwhile, Molly’s totally not dying of loneliness-except for the part where she is. Luckily, Cassie’s new girlfriend comes with a cute hipster-boy sidekick. Will is funny, flirtatious, and just might be perfect crush material. Maybe more than crush material. And if Molly can win him over, she’ll get her first kiss and she’ll get her twin back.

There’s only one problem: Molly’s coworker, Reid. He’s an awkward Tolkien superfan, and there’s absolutely no way Molly could fall for him. Right?”

Anyone who knows me knows that I don’t read a lot of contemporary fiction, often preferring a heady dose of magic to reality. However, there are a handful of contemporary fiction writers that are autobuy for me, and Mrs Albertalli is just one of those writers. I picked up ‘Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda’ last year at YALC and read the entire book in one sitting, falling in love with just how well Albertalli writes youth, especially those who live their teenage life towards the fringes, not popular but not exactly friendless either.

Her latest protagonist, Molly, falls into a similar segment of society. She’s well liked, has a happy home life, but is plagued with clinical anxiety and shyness which keeps her dreaming rather than acting upon any of her crushes. In Molly’s mind it is safer to pine from afar than risk the bitter sting of rejection. But watching her skinny twin, Cassie, fall in love, Molly begins to feel that she is being left behind, and begins to wonder whether she is the only barrier between herself and such happiness.

‘I’ve had crushes on twenty-six people, twenty-five of whom are not Lin-Manuel Miranda’

(I feel you, Molly)

This book was ridiculously cute and ridiculously relatable. I’m twenty three and I still feel the same nervous jitters when I come across someone I like and begin to wonder whether they could like me too. I think it will mean a lot to some teenagers readers to see a fat girl in a contemporary romance, to reassure young readers of all genders that being fat doesn’t mean they aren’t beautiful or deserving of love.

‘There’s this awfulness that comes when a guy thinks you like him. It’s as if he’s fully clothed and you’re naked in front of him. It’s like your heart suddenly lives outside your body, and whenever he wants, he can reach out and squeeze it. Unless he happens to like you back.’

Without spoilers, the flirtation between Molly and her love interests was adorable. Hipster Will and Nerd Reid are definitely guys that I have met and dated. I’d also like to thank Albertalli for inserting the ??? into attraction. Sometimes those we come to love have things about them that are odd or a little off-putting at first but you come to accept as you grow to know them. It’s not something that is discussed often in romance, especially not teen romance!

I’d also like to put it out there that any scene about Molly’s mothers or their impending wedding made me tear right up. The world is a cold and cruel place to the LGBTQA community right now and this book was filled with the warmth and comfort that I have been craving. It also made me so happy to see bi women in relationships with women still being referred to as bi. It’s all too easy for authors to erase a character’s bi identity in a relationship and I felt all fuzzy to see that not happening here.

So, my loves: relatable non-cookie-cutter lead, a distinct lack of instalove, diversity, accurate depictions of anxiety, nerdom, oreos and arts and craft.

Dislikes? I don’t know what you expected me to put here because I loved it all.

‘The Upside of Unrequited’ is out on both sides of the Atlantic on the 11th of April (not long now!) and I seriously recommend you all go and pick it up (and ‘Simon’ if you haven’t already read it!).

Many thanks to Penguin Random House for a copy in return for an honest review. All quotations were drawn from an advanced review copy and may be subject to change in the final novel.

Fair Rebel (Steph Swainston)

 

3.5 stars

Fifteen years after the last devastating Insect attack, the immortal Circle is finally ready to launch an offensive against their implacable enemies. This time they have a new weapon – gunpowder. Hopes are high.

But the Circle’s plans are threatened when the vital barrels of gunpowder go missing. Jant, the Circle’s winged messenger, is tasked to investigate. Soon it becomes clear that the theft is part of a deadly conspiracy . . . and Jant and his friends are among the targets.

As tensions rise, Jant races to foil the conspirators. Can he expose them in time – or will the crisis blow the Fourlands apart?

My first introduction to the Fourlands was a good seven years ago now, in a book large enough to take someone’s head off. The blurb read as if all my favourite disparate plot characteristics had been forged into one enormous vat of excellence. Immortals, a winged messenger, drug fuelled crossings to wildly strange parallel worlds. Thankfully, it was as good as I had hoped.

Skip forward eight years and we have a book that I did not think was coming. “Fair Rebel’ is the fifth instalment in the Fourlands series, the story of a land being slowly destroyed by a wave of unrelenting, world-eating insects. Without giving too much away about the plot of the initial trilogy, because I think you should probably go and read that first, fifteen years have passed since an onslaught that stemmed the tide of insects, even if only for a little while. The Circle, a coterie of the very best militarists that the Fourlands has to offer, gifted immortality for as long as they remain ‘the greatest’, are planning a staggering assault on the insects far to the North, using their new secret weapon, gunpowder. Obviously, this does not all entirely go to plan.

One of my favourite things about these books has always been the voice of our protagonist, the immortal Messenger, Jant. Fate gave him fully functioning wings in a world where, for most, they’ve become little more than vestigial. The Jant of the original trilogy spent more time in the drug jettisoned worlds of the shift than in the Fourlands, but he seems more tempered in ‘Fair Rebel’, maybe a little more aware of just what they have to lose if he takes his eye from the ball. His relationships are firmer, truer, he seems more reluctant to disappear from them than the immortal of fifteen years ago. It raises a lot of questions about humanity and what happens to our humanity if immortality intercedes.

There was, however, one big elephant in the room for me when I was reading this book. The word ‘gypsy’ is used liberally throughout. I’m pretty sure it was used critically (well, semi-critically), indeed in the book the ethnic group that it’s used for and their persecution is a huge story theme. It’s just difficult when you’re physically wincing every time you see the word. You’ve just got to question whether it was necessary to use such a loaded word in text. I mean, it’s a fantasy world, just come up with a fancy fantasy word. Likewise, the plotline, which obviously had some basis in world events and the current post-Brexit bigotry we’re encountering, wasn’t handled as delicately as it needed to be. I’m not sure whether we’re all still a little bit tender for narratives about domestic terrorism, especially when coupled with a loaded use of the word ‘gypsy’. Swainston’s books have always dealt in the more fringe realms of fantasy; sex, drugs and death, and were probably never really for people who like ‘happy go lucky’ books, but there are definitely parts of this plot that came up as a big question mark for me.

So it was a bit of an up and down experience for me. I love the character of Jant, I love being back in the world and the depth and detail of Swainston’s work, I’m just not sure that the plotline worked and I ended up a little bit worried that it might even be offensive to some readers. I felt like in places it was trying to make a point but then never really made it. Is this supposed to be a book about terrorism? If you want to have a discussion about the broad painting of marginalised ethnic groups as ‘bad’ or ‘evil’ purely due to the actions of a few then why is this book about white people? It’s either an allegory for the treatment of actual Romani people or an allegory for the treatment of the Muslim community in the world at the moment, it can’t be both, and it felt a little bit like a weird, mind-mashing mix of the two.

So, my recommendation at the moment is to read the first three books. I’m not quite sure where this book sits with me. I enjoyed it when I was reading it, but thinking about it and writing this review I started to realise just how uncomfortable I’d been with the way some of the plot points were handled. I’ll be interested to see how the next book continues the story, but I’m disappointed with the way that this one unfolded.

Many thanks to Gollancz and Netgalley for a copy in return for an honest review.

First Year (Rachel E. Carter)

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4 stars

So, I’d already had ‘First Year’ on my ‘to-be-read’ pile for a little while when I was given the opportunity to read a copy of the new edition, with its beautiful new cover, in return for an honest review. 

I have a weakness for books set in schools of magic, especially when the books have feisty, stubborn female protagonists. 

Ryiah is an apothecary’s daughter who wants nothing more than to be a battle mage. Unfortunately, her magic has a bit of a habit of doing everything other than what she asks of it. She and her twin travel to one of the three War Schools, hoping to make their dreams of becoming mages reality. What they hadn’t quite counted on is the wide divides between them and the aristocratic students who seem to have been training for this their entire lives. Never have those chosen few apprenticeships seemed so unattainable and far away. 

 

Fighting her way through classes, late nights and brutal training regimes would be hard enough, but what further complicates matters is a Prince. A Prince that can’t seem to decide whether to hate or to help her. 

I enjoyed this book a lot more than I thought I would. I found that I actually had to fight myself to put the book down before bed. I felt like I was getting the magic education that we all secretly dream of!

Ryiah is a great lead, she says and thinks what she wants, makes decisions that sometimes make you wince, but is so focused and hardworking towards her goals that you can’t help but admire her. Her twin is a cad, but a cad with a heart of gold who wants nothing more than to be a Healer. There seemed to be a genuine warmth between the two of them that, if you’re close to your brother like I am, felt very real. I also loved the friendship between Ryiah and Ella, female companionships like that aren’t something we see nearly enough of in fantasy fiction, and I really liked how much they supported each other and the sort of silent insistence that both of them would reach the end of what was turning out to be the year from hell. 

Whilst the plot isn’t wildly groundbreaking, I found that I didn’t mind. A stubborn female protagonist reaching for a goal that seems completely out of her reach. A smug and arrogant prince who the main character does not immediately fall head over heels for. A militaristic magic school with duelling and hazing and hierarchical struggles. Hundreds of students whittled down to a final test. It’s a formula that has been followed before, but for the basic reason that it’s a good formula, and it’s the details overlaid over the top of it that makes it individual and enjoyable. 

I would definitely recommend if you enjoyed the books of Tamora Pierce, Trudi Canavan or Elise Kova. A quick, deeply enjoyable, escapist read. I can’t wait to get my hands on book two!

Many thanks to Rachel E Carter for a copy in return for an honest review.