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.

A Conjuring of Light (V.E. Schwab)

5 stars

Anoshe was a word for strangers in the street, and lovers between meetings, for parents and children, friends and family.

It softened the blow of leaving.

Eased the strain of parting.

A careful nod to the certainty of today, the mystery of tomorrow.” 

 

I think it’s going to take a while to sink in that this series is over. It’s been a while since I’ve read a group of characters that feel so much like old friends.

I found myself moving back in my memories, trying to work out exactly when I picked up book one, and found that I wasn’t entirely sure. I just remembered every time I walked into a bookshop, saw ‘A Darker Shade of Magic’ and smiled, because what else can you do when you love a book so much that, whenever you see it, you just want to brush your fingers across it.

The series spanned a weird time for me; the last few years of Medical School, a time of growing up, taking responsibility and finding out exactly who I was. It was made all the more poignant by this series being filled with characters of the same age, who were doing just the same. Kell, trying to find his place between worlds; Lila, learning to trust and accept that having friends and those who cared for her wasn’t such a bad thing; Rhy, accepting that taking the responsibilities of the Crown didn’t mean he had to erase who he was.

The book begins directly after ‘A Gathering of Shadows’ ended, after that tortuous cliffhanger that we had to survive for an entire year. The British copy of ‘ACOL’ has exactly 666 pages, which is just too apt, because who didn’t spend their entire time reading this story terrified of their favourite characters (aka all the characters) dying?

I think this is one of the only stories I’ve read recently where I honestly loved every character. Kell with his magic coat and seeming inability to be anything other than the human embodiment of social awkwardness. Rhy, our jovial Prince, who actually seems to feel every ounce of his country’s suffering like a physical blow. Lila, a character who I still can’t quite fathom that people could dislike, impulsive, volatile, coming to terms with the fact that, despite her best efforts, she actually cares for people. Alucard, whose pomp and indifference is many layers of a very elaborate mask to spare his actual, very breakable, heart. Holland, the survivor, the one who both cracked the whip and was subjected to its lash.

A couple of other backstories are explored in ‘ACOL’, we learn about Maxim and Emira’s courtship and their experience of raising Rhy and Kell as brothers, what truly drove Alucard from Arnes, and, in depth, about Holland’s life in White London, from childhood to the horror of the Dane’s reign. The histories slow the pace of ‘ACOL’, and I know they weren’t to everyone’s taste, but I adored hearing more about the characters and, without spoilers, I thought they were all entirely necessary for the story.

I’m going to avoid major spoilers here but I will say that if you’re scared of reading it because you’re worried your favourite will die, you don’t really need to worry. There is a beautiful and wonderful avoidance of all gratuitous death. I’m not saying you’re not going to bawl your eyes out at the handful of deaths there are, but there are no deaths that honestly make you want to put the book down in protest.

It’s an beautifully satisfying ending to the series. All the threads are tied, I think I may have welled up with happiness at the end. I’d say there’s room for exposition in the world if Ms Schwab so wished, and, I would probably enter into a blood pact with Ms Schwab for more stories about Alucard…

This series has always been important to me because it’s probably the only series that comes to mind at the moment with a canonically bisexual protagonist. The page time, character development and story space that Rhy Maresh gets, especially in this book, is incredibly important. I think that if you’re in a majority group, ie. white heterosexual for this point, it’s very easy to dismiss the significance of putting diversity into your books, because you’re not going to know what it feels like to not be represented. Almost every book is written about you, for you. Obviously, the beauty of books is empathizing with people who aren’t ‘like us’, but there’s also great importance in seeing valid characters who are just like you. I also think the importance of Rhy is that his story is not based around how bisexuality has affected his life. He’s not hurting because he’s bisexual, he’s hurting because he’s in love and he’s only partially alive and he’s worried about the responsibilities of the crown. Writing a diverse character isn’t about basing their entire story around their diversity (necessarily) it’s about allowing them to have a story and have adventures just like any other character, and Ms Schwab does that really really well.

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(Fanart of Rhy Maresh by me/ lordbelatiel.tumblr.com)

So, if you’ve read ADSOM, I suggest picking up AGOS and ACOL and hibernating with them for a week. If you’ve read AGOS then what are you doing(?), go and grab ACOL. If you haven’t read any of them, then consider this your sign to pick the series up en masse and devote the next few weeks to the majesty that is Victoria Schwab.

The Young Elites (Marie Lu)

 5 stars 

I did tell myself that I would start being harsher, or at least less ecstatic, with my reviews, and I tried, I really did, I just enjoyed this book too much to give it anything less than five stars. It has everything I want out of a book: darkness, bucket loads of diversity, amorality, mystery, a renaissance setting… cool hair.

The book opens with our protagonist, the anti-heroine Adelina Amouteru, languishing in an Inquisition cell, awaiting the day of her execution. Adelina is malfetto, a survivor of the blood plague that killed her mother and thousands of other Kennetrans. However, Adelina is more than simply malfetto, she is a young elite, one of the few survivors that developed strange unearthly powers after their illness. Hunted by the Inquisition and considered little more than demons, Young Elites are the stuff of legend, so when a group of them save Adelina from her own execution, all hell is about to break loose.

I think the easiest way to describe the setting is post-plague Europe, but with magic. Lu’s writing is dark and rich. I know that some people find her writing a little dense, but I, personally, really enjoyed it. I actually could have spent another couple of hundred pages in the Fortunata Court, amongst the flowers and silks. I just can’t get enough of rich details and luscious locations.

“I am tired of losing. I am tired of being used, hurt, and tossed aside. It is my turn to use. My turn to hurt.”

I think one of my favourite aspects of this book is that Adelina is not an anti-hero because she deliberately does terrible things, but because she makes awful human mistakes. She’s selfish and flawed but also deeply traumatised and filled with anger from her childhood, bitter at a life raised as a monster and an outsider. The most heartbreaking part is how desperately she just wants to be loved, how cruelty has warped her view of the world and others, making it difficult for her to trust.

The love interest, Enzo, the leader of the Daggers, is a malfetto prince in exile who wishes to reclaim his throne. To be perfectly honest, I didn’t feel the romance between Adelina and Enzo at all, it felt very one sided (which may have been the point? I don’t know) and I have an alternate favoured ship for the dark prince.

I have this thing where I fall in love with side characters that don’t get enough page space, and that happened again. Raffaele Laurent Bessette, ‘one kissed by moon and water’, a beautifully androgynous bisexual consort whose magic lies in ensnaring the emotions. He’s basically the ultimate empath and I agree with every single thing he said in this book *no spoilers*.

The ending is a little brutal, I warn you. You won’t see it coming because, well, YA novels don’t tend to end that way. So, if you’re looking for YA from an alternate perspective and enjoy books such as Locke Lamora or the darkness of Red Rising, I’d suggest giving this a read.

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.

Candidate (Rachel E Carter)

5 stars

‘Apprentice’ ended with Ryiah attaining her true hearts desires, and what can you do when a character’s trajectory seems to be becoming a little too comfortable? You can throw a spanner in the works.

Everything is going wonderfully for Ryiah, she has her pick of battle mage placements, her freedom, the heart of a Prince, yet things are just not quite working out for her. Ryiah didn’t go to War School to fall in love, and certainly not to languish in her lover’s shadow, she went to become the best, the greatest battle mage imaginable. Now, newly graduated, comes the year of the Candidacy, a contest where the most powerful Mages of the three disciplines are chosen. It’s a competition that pits mage against mage, friend against friend, and, in the case of Ryiah and Darren, lover against lover. As much as they love one another, neither will place their love before the possibility of becoming the next Black Mage.

This book had a much grittier feel to it than the ones that came before. The characters are older and very aware of  the spectre of war hanging over their heads. Ryiah knows the danger that Darren’s proposal has put her in, how the King and his Heir are less than happy at her change in circumstances, how the prince’s love has made her a target. But she also has to ponder how much she could or should bend to fit by Darren’s side. Should she forgo her dreams of serving at the Northern border outpost to stay with Darren in the capital? Should she forget her dreams of winning the mantle of the Black Mage to avoid confrontation with her lover? It raises the question of how much someone should compromise for love.

Ryiah’s determination is one of her greatest assets and her Achilles heel. By fixating on the grandeur and glory of the Candidacy she closes her eyes to those around her, creating divisions between her and her friends and, more drastically, between her and those she is tasked to lead. What is more important? Individual glory or the strength of the pack.

This book was painful in all the right ways. I’d definitely suggest giving Darren’s prequel novella ‘Non-Heir’ a read before this book because it makes some of the scenes all the more powerful. It feels as if it’s building to a crescendo, and as to how it will end for Ryiah and Darren, I honestly don’t know. Their world is quickly becoming one of darkness and they’re finding out things about those they love that could shake their faith in humanity forever. I can’t wait to pick up ‘Last Stand’, I have a feeling I might be sobbing by the end of it.

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

The City Stained Red (Sam Sykes)

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5 stars

‘Your employers should consult those who make the corpses. We merely clean up after them. Death is our business, Captain. Business is always good in Cier’Djaal.’

Sam Sykes has to be the first author whose book I’ve picked up solely based on personality. I used to devour high fantasy, to the point where it was almost all I read, but that did lead to the conundrum where everything I read felt a little…the same? I read a lot of science fiction, young adult, some classics, even a little contemporary,  but I was looking for something to draw me back into the high fantasy fold.

I’d been following Sam for a while on twitter because he seemed fun and there was a high concentration of writing discussion, owls and dogs on his feed. Eventually I did indeed ‘BUY [his] BOOK’ and I will admit, I didn’t think his personality would translate into the text because, from past experience, ‘swords and sorcery’ never had much of a sense of humour.

I am pleased to say that I was very much mistaken.

The book opens with our battle weary young protagonist, Lenk, on ‘some crappy little boat’ making the decision that he really ought to put down his sword and place his killing days well in his past. I think that you can already guess that he doesn’t really get a chance to even act on that decision before he is thrust once more into fighting, killing and general tomfoolery. You see, he’d love to settle down, but you can’t retire without gold, and the gold he thought was coming his way is now in the pocket of a priest somewhere in the city of Cier’Djaal.

Except, the priest isn’t a priest, a gang footwar is brewing, the giant spiders that make the silk are feeding on something less than wholesome, and the city is full of demons…

I loved this book.

The monsters are really monsters. We’re not talking vaguely humanoid creatures with boobs, we’re talking dragonmen, demons that haul their way out of peoples mouths and cloaked, multi-armed creatures with paintings for faces. It’s delightfully weird.

It feels like that D&D campaign you’d play if you were funnier, more intelligent and more imaginative than you think you are.

The characters are really something else. Amoral yet loyal, sarcastic, running from their pasts, trying desperately, and failing, to care less and be more detached. A motley crew comprised of a reluctant young warrior, a shict far from home, a seven foot dragonman, a thief, a priestess and a boy wizard. A combination that shouldn’t lead to anything less than Armageddon (and, in its own way, does) but actually tends to hilarity and genuine emotional upheaval.

This is maybe not a book for the squeamish, or those without a slightly twisted sense of humour, but I genuinely adored it. A surprise favourite for sure.

So if you like your fantasy wildly imaginative, gory and darkly funny then this is definitely the author for you.