A Court of Wings and Ruin (Sarah J Maas)

5 stars

Spoilers linger ahead, turn back if thou hast not read ACOWAR.

“I would have waited five hundred more years for you. A thousand years. And if this was all the time we were allowed to have… the wait was worth it.”

I think that, luckily, I didn’t go into this book expecting ACOMAF. Why? Because it’s the end of an arc, there’s war, destruction, pain, whilst ACOMAF was about healing, and joy and wonder. I also went into this with my heart in my throat, wondering whether, as a bisexual wlw, I would find this book as offensive as the internet had been saying. I was actually in quite a dark place starting this book, my grandmother had just died, I was 1000 miles from home and horribly homesick, I could feel my anxiety as a constant pressure in my chest. The ACOTAR series has always been like a comfort blanket for me, too many times I’ve curled up with ‘don’t let the hard days win’ on my lips. The thought that had been planted in me, that this book could hurt me, made me feel ill, I desperately didn’t want it to be true. I made sure to read it critically, listening to what people had been saying, but, personally, as a bi woman I didn’t find any of it offensive (though I agree, the acephobic is painfully acephobic). There are definitely one or two things I would love to just sit down and educate Sarah about, namely NB genders, but I felt that there was a real effort made to include more diverse identities in this book. I’ve seen a lot of people saying that Sarah ignores the comments made about her lack of diversity, but I think this book really does show that she’s listening.

ACOWAR begins maybe a week after ACOMAF left off, with Feyre infiltrating the Spring Court, now allied with Hybern, and gathering information for the Court of Dreamers. Feyre is playing the part of a ‘perfect Bride of Spring’, painting, helping organize festivals…sowing unrest and discord in the Court. When commanders from Hybern arrive in the Court, alongside the dastardly Jurian, so begins a dangerous game…

I will start by saying that I know this book, or indeed any of Sarah’s books, are not for everyone. This entire series is about love, romance and sex, so if that’s not your cup of tea then you might as well pick up another book. There are lines in here that I find incredibly beautiful and others find incredibly cheesy. I’m pretty sure that a couple of years ago I would not have enjoyed this series as much as I do now. How we enjoy books is never based entirely on the books, but also on things we have experienced, things that have happened to us…

‘Night Triumphant- and the Stars Eternal. If he was the sweet, terrifying darkness, I was the glittering light that only his shadows could make clear.’

If you don’t subscribe to the soulmate philosophy, then I can just tell you straight off the bat that some parts of this will make you want to scream. I am, however, an enormous romantic; the idea of finding a partner where both of you are the better for your partnership, just makes me well up. The relationship between Feyre and Rhysand across this series is just so perfect, so secure and safe and heartfelt, it’s really going to be hard to find another couple that can even come close. They’re just so good for each other, both feeling able to lower their masks and open their hearts to one another. The mating bond is definitely a magical extension of the intuitive nature of some relationships. I also really enjoyed that there were some times where the two of them stepped on one another’s toes, where they annoyed or worried the other. I honestly don’t think a relationship is as strong as it originally seems until you’ve seen it weather a storm, or ford a river crossing. Arguments are natural, expected, it would be bizarre if couples didn’t disagree about some things.

Feyre
Feyre’s growth as a character in this book was just incredible. Watching her embrace her fears and say and do the things that had always lived somewhere deep in her heart was just so gratifying. Feyre, the woman who had survived homelessness, starvation, torture, accepting her past, accepting herself and mastering the mirror…wow, I was so impressed with her arc. I also enjoyed that she wasn’t instinctively good at flying, did not master the skill in an unbelievable time frame and would probably need to keep working on it even after the end of the book. Watching Feyre grow into a true High Lady, and how her relationships blossomed with the other members of the Court of Dreamers, drawing out the truth of each of the characters…ah, I’m so ready to reread and experience that all again.

Rhys
I’d seen some comments that Rhysand seemed out of character, ‘too soft’, in this book and I have a lot of thoughts and opinions about that. In ACOTAR we saw only the mask, in ACOMAF the mask slipped away, in ACOWAR we saw the heart of Rhys. I honestly believe that, from the end of ACOMAF, Rhys knew that he would die, that his gentleness in this book came from constant integration of every possibility and the realization that all of them ended in his death. He takes every moment of happiness he possibly can, makes sure, with every moment, that Feyre knows that he loves her and would spend every second of eternity with her if he could.

“The great joy and honour of my life has been to know you. To call you my family. And I am grateful – more than I can possibly say – that I was given this time with you all”

I know that a lot of people relate to Feyre, but, personally, I relate more with Rhysand. Feyre’s depression is very visible, very obvious, whilst Rhys hides his behind a mask of half smiles and glib comments, isolating himself from those he loves because he considers himself a burden. Feyre wastes away, Rhys is actively reckless with his life, spending every ounce of himself and his self worth upon those he loves. Even his beast form, with its cruel talons and inhuman face, seems like a metaphor for internalised self loathing, a part of himself that he really hates to let others see. You feel as if Rhys has always been hiding parts of himself, well before Amarantha’s torture, that from a young age he was aware of the suffering around him and that it pained him.

‘Everyone insists Rhysand is soulless, wicked. But the male I knew was the most decent of them all.’ (Jurian)

He was written so well, so honestly, that I could almost know what he was going to do before he did it. The respect that he has for Feyre, his trust in her and her abilities honestly made me well up in places. Feeling and caring, sensitivity and gentleness and love does not make someone weak, and I didn’t really like the implication that Rhysand was in this book. If you think that a man dealing with trauma and fear and the coming of war is ‘weak’, then you’re part of the problem and you can come and fight me to be honest.

The Court of Dreams
I won’t lie, the moment we met Cassian in the snow of the Winter Court, I wanted to be the one to throw my arms around his chest. I missed my Court of Dreamers so much in the Spring Court, I missed their laughter, joy and support for one another. Seeing Feyre becoming an integral part of that circle, to see their love for Rhys become love for Feyre…eugh, my heart. I think the dynamic of the Court, watching as Nesta, Elain and, towards the end, Lucien, became enveloped to varying extents into their circle, was just…I loved it.

I liked Cassian and Azriel in ACOMAF, but, after finishing ACOWAR I adored them. Seeing how much they cared for Feyre, not just as Rhys’ mate, not just as High Lady, but as a friend…how they would die for her and for her sisters, I have no words for how much I felt about that. Azriel’s rage at hearing how Tamlin had turned violent around Feyre, his gentleness around broken Elain, Cassian’s desperation to save Nesta even when his body was broken…the depth of their love for those around them is just unbounded. I personally, would love to see Azriel and Elain happy together, multiple times throughout the book Sarah’s pointed out that sometimes the mating bond just doesn’t work, just isn’t right and I think even Lucien has come to see their bond as something strange and inexplicable. I ship Lucien with Vassa to be honest, I feel that would be one hell of a relationship, and I really think he deserves someone who loves him as much as he loves them, especially after all that Ianthe did to him. Gentle Elain with her green fingers, her love of beauty and her fierce loyalty to her family, Azriel whose life has been shadows and pain but has seen the joy of love from afar…I just want them to be happy. If that happiness is together or in another pairing I don’t mind, just let them be happy.

Nesta and Cassian were just…I already enjoyed their relationship in ACOMAF, but there’s so much more depth in ACOWAR, with even Nesta letting her own mask slip when concerned about the Illyrian General. I will be disappointed, to say the least, if one of the novels is not about these two, I think there is so much more to be said with them, bear in mind that they only met one another in a time of war when so much else was at stake. Does it matter whether the mating bond snaps into place for them? Not really, I always got the feeling that being ‘mated’ was actually not all that common, a little like finding your soul mate and, I almost wonder whether you kind of had to be looking for your soulmate for that to happen. I can’t imagine that was particularly high on either Nesta or Cassian’s priorities. Relationships are different for everyone and I don’t think a relationship without a mating bond is lesser to one with. But who knows, maybe it will snap into place at some point in the next few books.

I’ve seen some people say that they think the inner circle are a bit too blasé, a bit silly almost and I have some things to say about that. I’m a ‘military brat’, I grew up surrounded by battle hardened soldiers and one thing they have almost universally is the most childish sense of humour I have ever come across, sure it dips into darkness every now and then, but for the majority of the time eye rolling and tongue sticking out it entirely par for course. I mean, even for me as a Doctor, do you honestly think we’re serious all the time. Dealing with death painfully often makes you more likely to be cracking dumb jokes and not giving a crap what anyone thinks about it, because you know too much about the frailty of life.

I felt really bad for Mor in this book, really bad…it seemed that, whilst the situation was terrible for everyone, it was really unravelling for her. Being forced to interact with abusers…watching compromise having to be made with those abusers, I mean, there was no choice, without the Autumn Court, without Keir’s forces, they would not have won, but still, it would really have had a serious impact on Mor’s security. For her to maybe no longer feel that she’s safe in her own city, eugh, my heart hurt reading that part. My heart hurt when Feyre yelled at her about things she couldn’t understand, when she struggled to find a way to explain to Azriel that she could not love him that way, when Feyre tricked her into letting her go to the Middle…seriously, Mor really got dealt some of the most painful blows in this book. I just hope that Sarah gives her a wonderful, loving lady in later books, and I hope that the splintering of the relationship between her and the rest of the circle is healed with time.

Sexual Identity
Since Rhys’ mask came down in ACOMAF, I’ve read him as demisexual, someone who feels sexual attraction only to those they have an emotional bond with. The emotional bond doesn’t have to be ‘true love’, just emotional intimacy and trust. I don’t think Sarah wrote him that way intentionally, I just honestly think that lots of people are demisexual but maybe have never considered that part of themselves. It’s an identity that I’ve been turning over in my hands, trying to get a feel for, wondering whether it might apply to me for a while, and I read a lot of my own feelings in Rhys, his flirtations with those other than Feyre not filled with any real sexual desire. You get the feeling he’d never really act on anything without truly knowing them, truly feeling as if he could trust them. The idea that much of that had to do with his trauma at the hands of Amarantha, doesn’t make his potential demisexuality any less valid. Being hurt and betrayed by others can definitely impact on your romantic and sexual identities.

That leads very much into the next point that I’ve been thinking about a lot. I came into this book expecting that I might find problems with the way that Mor ‘being a lesbian’ was handled, only to find that she wasn’t even a lesbian at all! From what I understand as a bi wlw, Mor is a homoromantic bisexual, which means that she enjoys sex with more than one gender but is more often than not only romantically attracted to her own gender. ‘I prefer females‘ seems to be the line that has confused people. The thing is, it is perfectly valid as a bi person to be more attracted to a specific gender, bisexuality is a spectrum and it is perfectly normal to feel more attraction to certain genders than others and still consider yourself attracted to all. The fact that she seems unsatisfied after her sex with Helion seems more to do with the fact she was only having sex with Helion to avoid having to talk to Azriel than the fact that she didn’t like taking male lovers.

‘I do find pleasure in them. In both. But I’ve known, since I was little more than a child, that I prefer females. That I’m…attracted to them more over males. That I connect with them, care for them more on that soul-deep level.’

Homoromantic bisexual…that is literally what she is describing. She’s not bad lesbian rep because she’s not a lesbian at all. It is not homophobic for Mor to say that sometimes she wants male lovers, because she’s bisexual, and erasing that part of her identity is just gross, please stop. I actually found Mor’s story heartbreaking because I see so many similarities with myself.

‘It was Nephelle and her lover- now her wife, I suppose- who made me dare to try. They made me so jealous. Not of them personally, but just…of what they had. Their openness.’

Because being in the closet off the internet can be so heartbreakingly difficult. Seeing people so open in their love and just not being able to find it in yourself to explain the way that you feel to family and friends because some part of you is so scared that it could tear everything asunder, destroy everything that you have. Even the part of Mor that can’t love Azriel, I relate to that so much…I once had a friend that I adored, one of the best friends I ever had, and he loved me in a different way to how I loved him. I tried a relationship because part of me thought that being lovers can’t be that different to being friends, but every time he kissed me or touched me I felt repulsed, because I just didn’t love him that way and in the end I had to explain that and it destroyed our friendship. It wasn’t that I didn’t love him that way that hurt, it was that I had lied to myself and lied to him about the fact I just didn’t see him that way.

So, I don’t think Mor’s story is bad rep, I think that it’s complicated rep, maybe too complicated for a YA book (not that I really think ACOTAR is YA) but at the same time, reading through ACOMAF I honestly think that Mor has been queer right from the start and I was really happy to see parts of myself in Sarah’s books where there had been very few queer identities before.

There are two more points about sexual identity that I want to deal with, Helion and that acephobic paragraph.

‘Dagdan and Brannagh had listened to her fawning with enough boredom that I was starting to wonder if the two of them perhaps preferred no one’s company but each other’s. In whatever unholy capacity. Not a blink of interest toward the beauty who often made males and females stop to gape. Perhaps any sort of physical passion had long ago been drained away, alongside their souls.’

Everytime I see that paragraph I groan because it is acephobic, I don’t think she intended it to be, I genuinely think she was probably horrified when she found out. It reads more like ignorance than malice. Two characters, evil, twins, probably incestuous…literally, this paragraph causes me physical pain because I can just see how hurtful it could be to people and I just honestly don’t believe that Sarah had any idea that it was the case. Being on the internet, learning about different sexual identities, having asexual friends has opened my eyes, but if you haven’t had that kind of awakening…I know lots of people who hold a lot of internalised bullshit that they’ve not yet worked through. This reads a lot like that, and I hope that it leads to some reading that stops it happening again. I honestly don’t believe that a single person exists on this planet who doesn’t hold some kind of internal bigotry, the important part is recognizing that and working to erase it from your thought process and prevent it from hurting others.

Now, Helion…I’ve also seen some very angry stuff online about how he’s a trope, how he’s a hypersexualised stereotype and biphobic, which I don’t agree with? Not all bisexuals fit into a nice little box, some of us really like sex, others not so much, some of us are poly, others not…saying a bisexual character is biphobic for enjoying sex or wanting a threesome is kind of hurtful. Is someone’s bisexuality less valid if they like these things? That sounds an awful lot like slut shaming. I can understand some people not seeing it as representative of their bisexuality but I think it’s disingenuous to say it is outright biphobic, not when other bisexual characters such as Rhy Maresh and Monty (A Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue) also are shown as louche and flirtatious and don’t get half of the vitriol. Helion’s love of sex is literally mentioned once, at that point, and, if I remember correctly, not again after that. He has a really interesting character development, and a story that I hope Sarah goes into more detail in later books. I’m really fascinated to see how the news that he is Lucien’s father goes down!!

Diversity
So, one of the things that Sarah has been panned for in the past is her lack of diversity, and I agree, most of Throne of Glass was the whitest, most hetero thing I have ever read. You can tell from ACOWAR that she is really listening and trying. Many of the High Lords we are introduced to in this books are POC, Drakon and Miryam are POC, Lucien is biracial, Illyrians are confirmed as brown, not simply tan, making Rhys, the main love interest, not white. There are definitely some identities missing, for example, trans and NB characters and more varied sexualities, but this book was almost unrecognizable to the white out of TOG and is substantially more diverse than many fantasy books I’ve read recently.

Conclusion
I think it’s obvious from this enormous review that I have a LOT of thoughts about this book and what it does well and maybe what it does not so well. I knew when I started reading that it would not be another ACOMAF, this is book about pain, war and loss, about the fear of waking up one more to a world without the one you love. The ending filled my heart with joy. It was 3am and I was sitting in the dark, clutching my kindle and sobbing because I was just so satisfied and so excited to see more of the world that Sarah has created. Maybe not perfect, but complicated and beautiful.

The Abyss Surrounds Us (Emily Skrutskie)

4 stars

Cas has fought pirates her entire life. But can she survive living among them?

For Cassandra Leung, bossing around sea monsters is just the family business. She’s been a Reckoner trainer-in-training ever since she could walk, raising the genetically-engineered beasts to defend ships as they cross the pirate-infested NeoPacific. But when the pirate queen Santa Elena swoops in on Cas’s first solo mission and snatches her from the bloodstained decks, Cas’s dream of being a full-time trainer seems dead in the water.

There’s no time to mourn. Waiting for her on the pirate ship is an unhatched Reckoner pup. Santa Elena wants to take back the seas with a monster of her own, and she needs a proper trainer to do it. She orders Cas to raise the pup, make sure he imprints on her ship, and, when the time comes, teach him to fight for the pirates. If Cas fails, her blood will be the next to paint the sea.” (Flux)

So I went into this book knowing two things, a) the lesbian representation was apparently excellent, and b) it was filled with raging sea monsters. Two of my favourite things, sign me up right now!

Our protagonist, Cas, has spent almost her entire life studying to be a Reckoner trainer, she pretty much breathes, eats and sleeps her work. To her there is nothing as exciting and important as this job and her Reckoner. She’s been raised with almost unquestioning loyalty to the programme and the task that they complete, protecting civilian vessels on the vast seas of a world ravaged by global warming.

The world that Skrutskie builds is chilling. Seriously, nothing manages to get under my skin more than a future where we did nothing to slow the progression of global warming. The world Cas lives in has been dramatically changed by rising sea levels with many cities, even countries, being swallowed by the waves. The remaining landscape is so changed, the landmass so depleted, that federations of countries had to form to redistribute people across the available space, leading to war and deprivation.

I think one of my favourite parts of the book was Cas’ growing awakening to the world around her. Her realization, after seeing the cramped and desolate floating cities, that she doesn’t deserve food, land or security more than any other citizen of the earth, and the understanding that the breeding of Reckoners was always to protect those with wealth from those without.

Swift is the instrument of Cas’ moral awakening, a hard nosed young pirate, training and competing to be next in line for Santa Elena’s throne. Swift is very much a victim of her circumstances, born on a floating city, learning to look at the Reckoners that Cas’ adores with fear and dread. Swift would have chosen to have nothing to do with Cas, were it not for a twist of Santa Elena’s game that left Cas’ success as a trainer and their lives entwined. The romance between these two is slow, slow burn. Although it was maybe a little too slow for my liking, I can appreciate Skrutskie’s reasons for doing so. A romance any faster would have been a romance with a unhealthy power dynamic, that of captor and captive, something which Skrutskie deliberately avoids. It did, however, mean there wasn’t as much romance in this as I would like, but, I’m hoping that in book two this will be ecstatically rectified. Another massive positive for the LGBT aspect in this book is the fact that the world seems to be a place where non-heterosexual relationships are not looked upon with any kind of bigotry, avoiding any homophobic narratives and making this a safe and satisfying f/f romance.

From reading other peoples reviews I thought I would come out of this crying that it was my favourite thing I’d ever read. Unfortunately, I found that, whilst I enjoyed it, there were some things lacking in it for me. Namely that I think I wanted it to be more hardcore sci fi than it actually was. However, I think I could be the problem here. Weirdly, I think I’m slightly too old for this book, which is something I rarely feel when reading YA fiction. I also think it was maybe a little too slow burn for me, romance-wise, and I entirely understand why Skrutskie chose to write it that way (and I know other readers loved it), but I wanted more angst…and more kissing.

So, would I recommend this? Yes, definitely yes. Queer sci fi and fantasy books, especially with an Asian lead, rarely come up on my radar, and this is a little gem that I’m sure lovers of all f/f romance will enjoy, regardless of whether science fiction is a genre they usually avoid.

Descendants (Rae Else)

3 stars

“There are lots of stories about the children of gods. But what about those cursed by the gods, and their descendants…

El, a seventeen-year-old has inherited an ancient and deadly power. She loses control of it, causing a horrific accident, and becomes the prey of a secret organisation, knows as the Order. Forced from her family and home, she hides in plain sight amidst the crowds of London, and is thrust into a world she never knew existed; one full of arete: beings with extraordinary powers like hers. 

Arete are beings that can trace their lineage and powers from ancient Greece. They do not claim their inheritance comes from the gods, rather legend says they are descended from cursed beings, such as Medusa. At the heart of their world is the kerykeion, the symbol that protects them from the humans and the humans from them. El is trapped between two factions, one that has built an empire around the kerykeion and another that is determined to bring it down.

As she is drawn deeper into the conflict, the only way to find the truth is to take matters into her own hands, and the line between friend and foe becomes dangerously blurred.”

I had mixed feelings whilst writing this review. On one hand, it was a quick paced YA thriller with interesting concepts and big ideas, but on the other, I finished reading this book and found it strangely soulless.

It has a great concept, binding mythology and technology, monsters and men. Why have your heroes be demigods when they can be the spawn of Gorgons instead? It’s obvious that Else knows her classics and there are examples of that knowledge spread throughout the entire text. She’s also got some big ideas; enormous sprawling structures hidden by kerykeion, contests of elemental magic, and enormous illuminati style corporations infiltrating the highest levels of business and politics.

So, why was I so underwhelmed?

I spent a couple of days trying to work out exactly why I felt that way, and came to an answer. There’s not enough character development, by far.

El, our heroine, has no defining features that make her ‘her’. We get some snippets of information about a childhood, a friend that doesn’t get enough page space to really be called a friend, and, yet,we  are expected to care when all of this gets torn away. I wonder whether it’s due to the book starting in on the action, maybe we needed some interactions between El and her friend, or El and her Grandmother before she has to go on the run. It’s very difficult to feel the loss of a life that you have not been shown. Likewise, what does El like to read? Is she athletic? What does she feel about the world that she lives in? I found that I was struggling to connect to El, or even to give her a face, and that made it very difficult for me to engage with the book in general.

When you can’t figure out the protagonist, it certainly makes it very difficult to care about romance, especially when it’s a love triangle. Once again, I wanted more from my love interests. Who are they? Why do they choose to do the things that they do? Dan, for example, should be our archetypal heart throb with his dark mussed hair, amber eyes and life spent travelling Europe, but we’re just not given enough information to justify his choices and his actions. Obviously, there’s a lot to be said about creating mystery, but if you don’t put in enough clues then we don’t know that we’re supposed to be looking for it. Mysterious can quickly become one-dimensional if we don’t have glimpses into what a character is feeling.

It was actually quite frustrating because there were some beautiful moments where I could see a rough gem shining through. I felt as if Else’s vision of her story and world were bigger than what she’d put down on paper. There were some wonderful dream like moments where the heart of backstreet London was revealed, only to be shattered by sudden clunking introspection only moments later. Show don’t tell. Slow down and let that heartbreaking moment of emotion spill over into three, four, even five sentences, rather than strangling it in one.

I felt that the book could have done with some injection of sensation. The world exists beyond just sight, it’s brought to life by scent and taste and sound and touch. Describe to me the soundscape of a crowded bar, the scent of earth and rosemary on a Dryad’s fingertips, the strange juxtaposition of speeding cars and tourists against a boy wending fire through his hands. There was so much possibility in this world, so much room for decadence and description, but instead I felt detachment. Distant from the characters and story.

Nevertheless, it was enjoyable in its own way. Quick paced, clever concepts and intriguing ideas; ‘Descendants’ didn’t grab me as I was hoping it would, but Else is a young author and this is a debut novel. I can already think of a handful of underwhelming debuts that grew into awesome series, so, hopefully, this one might be the same.

Many thanks to Rae Else for a copy in return for an honest review.

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…

flame-in-the-mist-renee-ahdieh

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.

Truthwitch (Susan Dennard)

4 stars

“I’ll always follow you, Safi, and you’ll always follow me. Threadsisters to the end.” 

I am not ashamed to admit that I picked up this book entirely because the cover is gorgeous. It was a pleasant and not-all-together-unexpected happenstance that I enjoyed the story as well.

Truthwitch-UK-cover

Character

Now, character is what this book does really well. Our central protagonist, Safiya, is a Truthwitch, a very rare type of witch who is instinctively able to tell truth from lie. Safi is a stubborn and feisty noblewoman from a family which has fallen on hard times, a perfect foil to her Threadsister, Iseult, a calm and very logical Threadwitch, widely mistrusted due her Nomatsi heritage. I liked the balance that the two girls gave eachother, Safi having to learn to not let emotions get in the way of her ability to tell truth, Iseult struggling not to be overwhelmed by her knowledge of humankind’s bonds and feelings, shown to her as a constant drifting miasma of coloured threads. I loved the concept of Threadsisters and brothers, a bond between characters that most closely correlates to platonic soulmate. It took me longer to warm to Safi’s character than Iseult’s, probably because I related more to Iseult’s quiet fire and determination, but even Safi went through a bit of a metamorphosis by the end of the book.

Events unfolding in book lead Safi and Iseult into the sights of Merik, a Prince of Nihar, and Aeduan, a much feared Bloodwitch who tracks by the scent of a person’s blood. I adored both characters. Merik is equally as hot headed as Safi, though, as a Windwitch, his rage comes with more risks. A young Prince second in line to the throne of a country on the brink of starvation, Merik crosses paths with the girls when desperately trying to broker a trade deal to keep his people alive. Immediately, Safi and Merik find the most superfluous of reasons to hate one another, and we all know how that ends…

Aeduan is equally a fascinating character,  somewhat an antagonist in this story, but only in the way that he is a mercenary on a contract. Hired to hunt Safi, who has been forced to flee from the City for reasons I will not divulge, he is utterly driven, unwilling to let anything get between him and his quarry. A lot of questions are raised in this book about the nature of just exactly who Aeduan is, but not a lot are answered…I am very interested to learn more about him in later books. Also, I ship our Threadwitch and our Bloodwitch with a fury

Story

One of the things I quickly realised whilst reading ‘Truthwitch’ is that I tend to favour fantasy with a slower pace. This book starts quick, only slows a little and then powers up for the finale. The book opens with a heist…well, an attempt at a heist that only really ends up exposing Safi and her secret powers to the mercy of our money hungry Bloodwitch. Truthwitches are rare and their powers, for reasons of business and government, are considered incredibly lucrative. Safi has tried her hardest throughout her life to keep her powers a secret from those that could twist her to their use and now her fragile shield has come shattering down.

From this point on we enter a story where the world is in a tremulous 20 year pact of peace, which is soon due to reach its natural end. Past wars have left several countries in ruin, everyone is jostling and trying to buy themselves any advantage to keep themselves on top of the hierarchy when the peace crumbles. Witches are revered in some countries and considered criminals in others, but all live under a common threat, the fear of cleaving, where their powers corrupt almost instantly leaving them creatures of murderous instinct.

The witches in this world have powers that work upon one of a selection of elements: earth, air, water, fire, aether and void. It’s not particularly complicated, though some of the naming conventions don’t make it immediately obvious who can control what. Threadwitch, for example, is a type of Aetherwitch, whilst a Bloodwitch is considered to be a Voidwitch…which, let’s be honest, is probably because it sounds cool.

The plot is fast paced, there are multiple POVs (none which I found tiresome), we have sea battles, enchanted hurricanes and wild chases on horseback. It is really good fun.

My one big criticism of this book is that the actual physical worldbuilding is fairly weak. There were a couple of times I had to guess at what exactly Dennard was going for when she was describing the cities and palaces. I think that Venaza is supposed to be a Venetian simulacram, but that was pretty much all I had to go on when trying to build an image of it in my mind. It actually did dampen the reading experience for me; I love rich and decadent worldbuilding and in places I felt I might as well have been dumped in a white room for the lack of imagery. I have no doubt that Dennard had beautiful lush images of her world in mind, she just never really put it on paper.

Final thoughts?

This was a really fun book; witty and sharp, with no words wasted. We have witch battles, true friendship, hate-to-love, cool magic systems and an entire world only a misstep away from war.

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again, this book was really fun, I can’t wait to pick up book two.

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.

Heartless (Marissa Meyer)

Long before she was the Queen of Hearts, Catherine Pinkerton was just a girl who wanted to fall in love. Catherine may be one of the most desired girls in Wonderland, and a favorite of the unmarried King of Hearts, but her interests lie elsewhere. A talented baker, all she wants is to open a shop with her best friend. But according to her mother, such a goal is unthinkable for the young woman who could be the next queen.

Then Cath meets Jest, the handsome and mysterious court joker. For the first time, she feels the pull of true attraction. At the risk of offending the king and infuriating her parents, she and Jest enter into an intense, secret courtship. Cath is determined to define her own destiny and fall in love on her terms. But in a land thriving with magic, madness, and monsters, fate has other plans.

3 stars

It took me the longest time to get into this book. For the first 40% I was fighting a constant battle with myself as to whether I should simply mark this book as a DNF and move on. However, I really enjoy Meyer’s work, I mean, Cinder is a great piece of fiction and I love how she cleverly twists fairytales to her needs. So, I soldiered on, and, at about 40%, I began to get a feeling, the sort of feeling I get in my chest when I’m really starting to get invested in something.

It was dark and mysterious and a little mind bending in places, and I began to think, this is why I wanted to read this book. We have an abrasive protagonist, a mysterious court jester, a cast of characters every bit as strange as the Wonderland of our childhoods, and the omnipresent threat of the Jabberwock. A feeble Monarch, a kingdom of the weird and wonderfully naïve, and a Hatter who managed to at once be eccentric and dangerous in all the best ways. It really does raise the question, how is it possible that a book I was coming to love ended up a three star read?

There were some really cool moments, I actually devoured the middle half of the book. Anything Jest or Hatta related automatically caught my attention and, without ruining the plot for anyone, I will say that the backstory written for them was really interesting. I do feel, however, that not enough was done with it, and there’s nothing more infuriating than watching the characters with the coolest designs just not getting used to their full effect. The book was deliciously dark, and with all its cake laden pages was delicious in many other ways as well. There was blood and pain and the heart breaking sensation of characters having to settle for less. It had all the ingredients of a five star book, but somehow in the baking did not rise to its potential majesty.

The beginning is slow and sometimes irritatingly twee. It was only once we reached further into the book that it developed a bit of grit, a bit of the sinister energy of a villain origin story. This is the world of the Looking Glass, yes, it should be strange, iridescent, vivid, but it should also be unsettling, for in that you find the true heart of Wonderland. I do feel the middle half of the book really captured the off kilter roots of Carroll’s books, it was just a shame that it ended in the way it did.

But this is a villain origin story you say. You knew when you started this read it was never going to have a happy end? Yes, but there’s a big difference between bittersweet and just plain anger inducing.

I don’t think I’ve ever raged over a character’s actions as much as I did those of Cath. She quite literally condemned her companions to death and their worst nightmares. I have no words for how close I was to hurling my kindle across the room at that point. Her decision was so illogical, so utterly infuriating, that I ended up skimming the last couple of pages, no longer invested in character or book at all. Vengeance is a fine plot motivator when it’s given time to brew. A handful of pages at the end of a book just doesn’t do it for me.

I can see why some people adored this book. Everyone and every heart is different. For me personally I felt there was little reward for me in finishing this book. I felt cold and hollow as I turned the final page and was tetchy for many hours afterwards. I think there is importance in the delineation between a good book and an enjoyable book. This was a good read, it was not an enjoyable one.

Many thanks to Pan Macmillan for a copy in return for an honest review.

When the Moon was Ours (Anna-Marie McLemore)

whenthemoonwasours

“To everyone who knows them, best friends Miel and Sam are as strange as they are inseparable. Roses grow out of Miel’s wrist, and rumors say that she spilled out of a water tower when she was five. Sam is known for the moons he paints and hangs in the trees and for how little anyone knows about his life before he and his mother moved to town. But as odd as everyone considers Miel and Sam, even they stay away from the Bonner girls, four beautiful sisters rumored to be witches. Now they want the roses that grow from Miel’s skin, convinced that their scent can make anyone fall in love. And they’re willing to use every secret Miel has fought to protect to make sure she gives them up.”

4 stars

It took me longer to read this book than I would have liked. It’s not a fast book, it’s a slow, meandering, thoughtful book with beautiful, lyrical prose. It contains probably the most sensitive portrayal of a trans character that I’ve come across, a trans character that is allowed to fall in love and explore his sexuality without fetishization.

I think I can safely say that it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. Things happen and you just have to let go and accept that they’re happening. This book is the definition of Magical Realism, down to the beautiful authenticity of the Latin American elements present in the book. Think pumpkins turning to glass, brujas pulling the lovesickness from a heart, shining painted moons, and a roping vine of rose that buds and flowers in response to the protagonist’s inner turmoil.

You can really tell that this book is ‘own voices’. McLemore draws upon her heritage and, as is described in the afterword, her marriage to her husband, who transitioned after they started dating. It gives the book a truthful feeling even amidst the unreality of some of the magical elements. You feel as if McLemore is very carefully and sensitively choosing her words. The relationship between Miel and Sam, how it blossoms and, equally as importantly, how they help to manage each other’s foibles is just so tenderly handled that it makes your heart swell in your chest.

‘To Sam, she was the girl who gave his moons somewhere to go. She was the dark amber of beechwood honey, the caramel of sourwood, and the bitter aftertaste of heather and pine. She was every shade of blue between two midnights.’

I also loved how McLemore intertwined the cultural identities of our two characters, how Sam shared traditions of his Pakastani heritage with Miel, and she shared with him the Mexican culture of her family. It’s sad and powerful and feels very true.

One star was removed because I felt that, in places, this book could have benefitted from being shorter. There were some beautiful passages that lost their power for me because I felt as if I’d heard them before earlier in the book. I felt it was dilute when it could easily have been concentrated.

However, I think overall that any positives far outweigh the benefits. I think it’s still sadly unusual to find a book ‘for’ lgbt individuals as opposed to ‘about’ lgbt individuals. There are some books I’ve read where I worry for the lgbt kids reading them, where an overuse of slurs to illustrate the hardships facing lgbt individuals ends up hurting those who read it whilst looking for characters like themselves. This book was different. Yes, it covered transmisogyny and dysphoria, but importantly it gave its lgbt characters a happy loving relationship and a warm positive ending. I cannot thank McLemore enough for that.

Thank you to St Martin’s Press for a copy in return for an honest review.

 

Miranda and Caliban (Jacqueline Carey)

mirandacalibanresize-809x536

4 stars

Miranda is a lonely child. For as long as she can remember, she and her father have lived in isolation in the abandoned Moorish palace. There are chickens and goats, and a terrible wailing spirit trapped in a pine tree, but the elusive wild boy who spies on her from the crumbling walls and leaves gifts on their doorstep is the isle’s only other human inhabitant.

There are other memories, too: vague, dream-like memories of another time and another place. There are questions that Miranda dare not ask her stern and controlling father, who guards his secrets with zealous care: Who am I? Where did I come from?

The wild boy Caliban is a lonely child, too; an orphan left to fend for himself at an early age, all language lost to him. When Caliban is summoned and bound into captivity by Miranda’s father as part of a grand experiment, he rages against his confinement; and yet he hungers for kindness and love. 

“Thou art the shoals on which Caliban wilt dash his heart to pieces.” 

I will admit, it’s been a while since I read ‘The Tempest’, though I think you could probably never have read it and quite happily enjoy this book. ‘Miranda and Caliban’ is a retelling focusing on the younger years of the two protagonists, only entering the events of the play at the very end.

It was a beautifully crafted book, delicately written as Carey’s work always is, meandering through lush prose and rich fantasy. ‘The Tempest’ has often been lambasted for its dearth of female characters and this story seeks to address that, giving an important voice to a character who is used mainly as a tool in the original text. Likewise, in ‘The Tempest’ I always felt slightly uncomfortable that Caliban, an Algerian man, was written in a way that seemed to suggest he both abhorred and adored his own subjugation. In this retelling both Miranda and Caliban are shown as prisoners of Prospero, prisoners of societal prejudices even on an island cast out into the sea.

I can say straight out that this book will not be for everyone. It’s a cruel, hard book. Miranda and Caliban are kept under her father’s finger through physical punishment and emotional manipulation. She is both revered by her father and treated like dirt, on one hand taught the basics of his complicated magical arts, on the other forced to do menial tasks in kitchen work and cleaning. Prospero’s misogyny throughout the book left me with such a bad taste in my mouth, which I suppose shows the book is doing exactly what it intended to. Likewise, Caliban is subjected to horrific cruelty and unrelenting racism throughout. He adores Miranda, sees her as the sun in his otherwise grey, caged life, but he knows that he will never be allowed to be with her. It becomes so ingrained in him that, by the end, even he believes he is not good enough. Unfortunately, as this is a retelling, neither of our young protagonists gain their hearts desires.

This is a beautiful, lyrical book, filled with strange magic. I adored how Carey writes the capricious air spirit, Ariel, truly a creature of nature, beholden to no one other than themselves. I, personally, loved the heady, rich way that she writes, as if every paragraph is laden with heavy buds. I know that it won’t be to everyone’s taste. I can imagine that for some readers this book would be their idea of their worst nightmare, meandering, maudlin and unrelenting, but, for me, it was like being taken on an out of body experience.

So, if you enjoy reading a book for the feelings, for the journey and development as opposed to the plot, this is definitely a book for you. Even though it was sad, sometimes making me feel a little numb inside, it was so rich and immersive that I couldn’t blame it. It’s a book that makes you feel a lot of things, though not all of these sensations are so easy to pin down.

Many thanks to Macmillan-Tor/Forge for a copy in return for an honest review.

The beautiful cover is by Tran Nguyen.

mirandaandcalibanfull