Spells for Forgetting – by Adrienne Young (Review)

Standalone

Fantasy, Romance, Supernatural

Delacorte Press; September 27, 2022

352 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsStoryGraph
Author WebsiteSocials

10 / 10 ✪

I was kindly granted an advance copy in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Ballantine Books, Delacorte Press, and NetGalley for the ARC! All opinions are my own.

A mist-cloaked isle steeped in folklore and tradition, no one goes to Saiorse island to stay. Everyone who’s local already lives there, and the island doesn’t take well to outsiders. Despite this, hordes of tourists flock to the islet in fall to see the trees, to visit the Salt Orchard in all its autumn finery.

August Salt isn’t headed to Saiorse as a tourist, and he isn’t going there to stay. But it still feels like he’s headed home.

Decades before, August left Saiorse in the dead of night with his mother, never to return. The Orchard Fire—and the death of Lily Morgan—precipitated their departure, while another death results in August’s return. That of his mother, Eloise. No, August hasn’t come home to stay; he knows he isn’t welcome here, not after the night that provoked his departure. He’s come to bury his mother.

Emery Blackwood once dreamt of leaving the island, running away with August and exploring the world. But after the Orchard Fire, everything changed. Now Emery lives among the ashes of her former life. She runs a teahouse—as her mother did before her—and lives in her childhood home. It’s not the life she thought she wanted, but it is hers.

Now, fourteen years after that fateful day, Emery’s reality threatens to shatter once more. As August Salt once again walks Saiorse’s shores. She can’t look at him: his departure stole everything from her—her heart, her future, her best friend, almost her own father. But neither can she stay away: August is the only man she’s ever loved, and she’s dreamt of him ever since he left—his smell, his taste, his scent, his touch.

But August’s return affects more than just Emery, more than just the town—the island itself notices his arrival. And secrets that have remained buried for the last fourteen years will finally come to life.

There are spells for breaking and spells for mending. But there are no spells for forgetting.

I often mention how I’ll get so immersed in a book that literal hours pass without me noticing. I mean, it doesn’t happen too often, but when it does it’s both an amazing and surreal feeling—of belonging in a world that isn’t my own, but is one I can picture so vividly that I’m transported there.

I think you probably know where I’m going with this.

Spells for Forgetting is a story of true love—and, at the same time, a story of love unrequited. It is a book full of secrets and lies, of the possible and the impossible, of the supernatural and the unknown, of love and envy.

It is also an amazing read.

Saiorse Island is a fictional islet hidden in the shadow of Seattle, in Puget Sound. But it legitimately feels like an entire world on its own, instead of an enclave on the world’s edge. Sometimes a setting like this feels cramped, claustrophobic—but I never noticed that with this. Instead, Saiorse feels cozy, comfortable, and—although I’ve never lived within 500 miles of the ocean—it feels like home.

But for all its comfort, the mystery at the heart of Saiorse burns bright. The past, hidden in lies and steeped in the supernatural, has yet to come out, though one can feel that it desperately wants to. All it needs is a little push.

One thing that bothered me was the tale of true love—and in particular the side-plot of love unrequited. Because I’ve been in that spot before, and so it was so hard to read about it. Yet at the same time… Adrienne Young nailed it. That feeling: that some things are just predetermined, fated, and while they were meant to be for some others will just never have them. Something you cannot fight, though you will anyway.

The way that this bothered me… did not ruin the story. In fact, I think it made it better. It made the story feel more real, more tangible—in a way that it truly did not need. From the setting to the mystery to its characters to true love—it was a tale that hit close to home. Parts of it might have been difficult to read, but all of it was incredible.

TL;DR

I’m honestly having trouble expressing just how much I loved this novel. From the story, the setting, the characters—everything seems so much more than I can put into words. I even loved the romance, even though sometimes the thought of it hurt worse than heartbreak ever has the right to. I can’t recommend Spells for Forgetting enough, not just for creating a world you can get lost in, but for giving you a reason to return once you do.

Our Crooked Hearts – by Melissa Albert (Review)

Standalone

Fantasy, Paranormal, Witches

Flatiron Books; June 28, 2022

345 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsStoryGraph
Author TwitterInstagram

9.25 / 10 ✪

I was kindly granted an advance copy in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Flatiron Books & NetGalley for the eARC! All opinions are my own.

The Suburbs – RIGHT NOW:

Ivy’s summer break kicks off with an accident, a grounding, and a break-up. But there’s also a mystery to it all. The mystery of what happened that night; who that girl in the middle of the road was; why she was naked; and how she knew Ivy’s name. To find the answers, Ivy must pick apart everything that she thinks she knows about herself, her life—and her mother.

The City – BACK THEN:

Dana has always been perceptive, if not creative. But then she had to grow up quick. Didn’t have time for what-ifs, childhood, or fantasies of monsters and magic. Well… maybe there was time for a little magic.

Because Dana has always known she’s had a little bit of magic within her. She knew it from the time she was born, but really only came into it with the help of her best friend, Fiona. The two were inseparable from the moment they first met, from what their mutual gifts awakened in one another. When Dana meets Marion, for a moment she thinks she’s found another kindred soul, another piece of herself. But that moment does not last long. And while she discovers that the magic she’s always known she had can be so much more when she’s among other practitioners, witches, friends—she also learns the cost of betrayal and greed. It is a price she may have to pay in blood.

Or rabbits.

It might’ve begun with Dana, but this story is years in the telling. By the time Ivy comes into the picture the story has lulled, but soon it flares strongly to life once more. Both will just have to hope that the secrets at the heart of this shared story won’t tear their family apart, or their lives along with it.

So. Magic. It is the loneliest thing in the world.

It’s going to be hard for me to put into words just how much I enjoyed Our Crooked Hearts. I pretty much devoured this one, cover to cover, sleep be damned. The creepy, tense thriller that comes from next to nothing. The dark undercurrent of the story to start that grows and grows until the darkness begins to bleed into every part of the tale. The mystery of both mother and daughter—one told in the past, one in the present; one trying to solve this riddle, the other very much attempting to keep it hidden; a naked girl, a coven of witches, a dark secret. The shared story, told in two parts, each one teasing their own secrets out one piece at a time.

It was… oh so satisfying!

While the story itself is no slouch—nothing that’s been overdone or is too long or confusing or convoluted—the characters of Dana and Ivy are definitely the reason to read this. Or, I guess, their shared story is. It’s this link between the past and the present—that so many stories try, to only marginal success—that makes Our Crooked Hearts the amazing tale that it is. Mostly alternating chapters—one in the past, one in the present—up until everything starts going a bit pear-shaped. Both stories are exciting, mysterious and tense, highly interesting and entertaining, but it’s the way they play on each other that makes it so much better. The way the characters interact between timelines, where their problems and personalities conflict or overlap. The way they play off one another—something you can only really find in stories with two main protagonists (not that this only has the TWO, necessarily).

So, you see, it is the strength of the story after all!

Well, that and its characters.

The world is one very much like our own—I mean, it could well be our own. But there’s a darkness to it, something like a shadow creeping on its edges. Very much like what you’d find in the Hinterlands, which a lot of sense given the author. A delightfully dark tale, one fans of Schwab or Kingfisher will enjoy.

The romance, however. It’s not great. It… never really felt real to me. More like a childish crush that we just continued because we felt like it was the thing to do. Because we didn’t have any other prospects. It’s very much a love borne out of convenience, if history. And while it may not have made a ton of sense at any time in the story, it made even less sense in the end. Fortunately, the romance is a bit of an afterthought—it’s not vital to the plot. Less of a plot point, more of an addendum.

TL;DR

While I didn’t come to Our Crooked Hearts for the romance, I wasn’t asked to stay for it either. Instead, author Melissa Albert presents a world very much like our own, albeit with an ever-so-dark twist—one you may not even notice until it starts creeping around the edges of your vision. What unfolds is a story of a daughter and her mother. One of shared meaning and love. One of darkness and regret. One of mystery and secrets. One that is sure to thrill, but also make you think. One with blood, and rabbits—and often both at the same time. To be honest, I’m not sure what made me stay with Our Crooked Hearts. Maybe it was the delightful darkness. The amazing story. The equally amazing characters. The mystery. The magic. The tension. The secrets, and where they led. There were so many reasons to stay and only the briefest of disappointments when it came to the romance—not something I really read books for anyway. So try Our Crooked Hearts for basically every reason, as it’s an incredible read. Just maybe not the romance.

The Stardust Thief – by Chelsea Abdullah (Review)

The Sandsea Trilogy #1

Fantasy, Retelling

Orbit Books; May 17, 2022

538 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsStoryGraph
Author WebsiteTwitter

9.5 / 10 ✪

I was kindly granted an advance copy in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Orbit Books for the ARC! All opinions are my own.

After reading this the only thing I regret is not trying to get a physical ARC of it. Although, I suppose that’s what money is for, right?


King of the Forty Thieves, they called him. Hero. But the strangest was the third title, which he’d never heard before: the Stardust Thief. It was worse than the other titles because it was proof that everyone knew what Omar truly was: a man who stole jinn lives. A killer dressed in silver blood. ‘

In a world of desert and shifting sands, Loulie al-Nazari is the Midnight Merchant—a collector and dealer in rare and illegal magic items. As her trade implies, Loulie avoids the spotlight, doing business on the black market or in the shadows. Something she and her enigmatic jinn bodyguard Qadir have been managing for years. But when she inadvertently saves the life of the sultan’s youngest son, her trade is brought to the forefront. Forcibly.

The sultan—grateful for the Merchant saving his son (twice, in fact)—offers her a reward: her life, in exchange for a mythical jinn artifact lost somewhere in the Sandsea, its sands the border between jinn and human lands. The artifact, a wish-granting lamp, is worth a kingdom—if it exists at all. And should she returns with the lamp, Loulie will be showered with gold—you know, if it exists. Return with out it, however, or attempt to flee, and her life will be forfeit.

To aid the Merchant in this endeavor—as well as make certain she doesn’t try to flee—the sultan sends his youngest son, the same Loulie twice saved, along with an elite guard.

But surprisingly, the lamp turns out to be more trouble than just being mythical, lost, and infamous. And Loulie’s path more treacherous. Ghouls, rogue jinn, demons from the past, jinn hunters, enemies and allies, and the shifting and enchanted sands of the Sandsea are but some of the obstacles the foursome face. Yet Loulie really has no choice but to press on, lest this quest be her last.


Legend had it that after slaughtering the marid, the humans hung their corpses from the tops of the cliffs, and there had been so much silver blood running down the rocks, it had transformed into a cascading stream of water. Sometimes, when Loulie stared hard at the streams winding through the city, she thought they glittered like stardust.

It was beautiful, and it was horrible.

In the Stardust Thief, jinn bleed silver. Wherever their blood falls, life blossoms. It has the power to paint the desert green, heal wounds, or even restore the dying to life. This twist, along with so many others, prevented the book from being both a straightforward retelling, and a facsimile of so many others.

It also prevents the landscape from becoming too… dull. Tans and browns and reds and oranges aren’t necessarily dull, but after a while they do kinda make one long for a blue or two to break up the monotony. Maybe that’s why kohl was so popular. Point is, bleed a jinn or ten around one spot and you’ve got yourself a new forest. Or an everlasting river, as seen in the above excerpt.

As with really good reads, it’s hard for me to talk about what exactly I loved most about the Stardust Thief. I mean… there are just soooo many things! The retelling of various legends especially—not only those incorporated into the plot, but also those included as legends in their own right and told via storytellers, or in interludes—gave the world a tenuous connection to our own, while never confusing just which side of the looking glass the reader was on. It’s good to see so many tales from One Thousand and One Nights included in a single work, not just a retelling of Ali Baba or Aladdin or Shahrazad or the like. Yes, I know that other books aimed to do the same, but I’d argue that by in large, the results were nowhere near as good.

I feel like I should mention the characters too, but I’ve no idea where to start on them. Their depth is impressive, as each and every lead has a thorough backstory—both based in legend and written lore. I was really impressed at just how well they all worked together; amidst the chaos and battle there were hints of unlikely friendship and romance, though you could never tell just who was threatening to fall in love with whom.

TL;DR

This seems entirely worthless, as the review part wasn’t very long and mostly had to do with me gushing about how much I loved the story. Yeah, so that’s pretty much it. Whole-hearted recommendation, hands down. But is it worth the…? Yes. Are you sure? What about the…? Yes, that too. And the audiobook? Not sure about that, exactly. This one supposedly features a full cast, and even one terrible voice-actor can ruin the whole thing. But if I could just direct you back to the other forms of text, maybe try one of those.

Yeah, so I’m gonna wrap this up, as it’s pretty much just me rambling. Read this. It’s sooo good! The only downside I can think of is that you’ll have to wait another year for Book #2.

Seven Deaths of an Empire – by G.R. Matthews (Review)

Standalone

Fantasy, Dark Fantasy

Solaris/Rebellion; March 29, 2022 (paperback)
Solaris/Rebellion; June 22, 2021 (ebook/hardcover)

550 pages (paperback)

GoodreadsStoryGraph
Author Website

9.5 / 10 ✪

“There is no right and wrong, no black and white. Life is not such a simple thing.”

Think Gladiator, but with magic.

General Bordan was born into nothing, but after a life dedicated to the Empire, he has achieved what little thought possible. He governs the army, the might of the Empire. Other than the Emperor and his kin, he may well be the most powerful man in the Empire. But he is also its most loyal servant.

When the Emperor is killed fighting the tribes in the north, Bordan must do all he can to protect the heir to the throne until the Emperor’s body is returned to the city. Then, with the amulet of office in hand—and the powerful magics within under their control—the heir can ascend the throne and assume control of the Empire. But until then nothing is guaranteed. Rebellion is brewing in the countryside. Assassins lurk in every shadow. And worse, politicians surround the royal family, hiding forked-tongues behind their honeyed words and silky smiles.

Apprentice Magician Kyron and his master are assigned to the late Emperor’s honor guard, tasked with seeing the body home to the capital. Mistrusted and feared by many of their own folk, the magicians are both revered and hated in equal measure. But magic is necessary for this task, for keeping the body from decay requires it. And so their presence is tolerated, if little else. But with many leagues between them and the capital, Kyron and the guard face the greatest danger of all. For whomever controls the Emperor’s amulet controls the succession—and the Empire is not lacking in those hungry for power, be they foe, or friend.

“If you stopped struggling to get free, the guards would not beat you,” Astenius pointed out.
“Life is struggle,” the warrior said.
“We only stop when we are dead,” Emlyn finished and the warrior’s gaze snapped around to her.
“Who are you to know the sayings of the forest?”
“I am of the forest,” she answered.
“Yet you stand with them,” he accused.
“Not through choice.”
“Then you struggle.”
“I am not dead yet,” she answered.

“Why attack us?” Astenius asked once more.
“You are here to be attacked,” the man answered.
“How many of your warriors were with you?”
“Not enough,” the warrior answered.
“How many more are there?”
“More than enough.”

“Are you sure you wish to do this?” Astenius said to the trapped warrior.
“I struggle,” the man replied, gritting his teeth.
“I applaud your bravery,” Astenius said, sweeping his hand to point at the brazier, “but your stupidity astounds me.”
“Life is disappointment,” the man said.

Seriously, Seven Deaths of an Empire reminded me so much of Gladiator that I often found my self picturing events from the book overlaid with scenes from the movie. The battle against the tribes in the forest. The legion’s return to the capital. While there’s no fight in the arena, the novel does include a Colosseum, even though we never get a good look inside. Fact is, Seven Deaths of an Empire was ripe for the picturing beneath scenes of Gladiator in no small part because—as you will see once you read it—the world was inspired heavily by the Roman Empire.

Only with magic.

The magic system is quite a basic one, but as enthralled as I found myself with the story, its lack of creativity never really bothered me. This adheres to the law that the only ones who can wield magic are those born with it. This in part seems to be why magic users are hated, feared. Jealousy breeds resentment, they say. And the church and magic never really gets along—in this world or any other.

The two POVs were quite good at getting the story across, each in their own way. Kyron is a bit young, a bit whiny—but this is his coming-of-age tale, and he’ll grow on you once you get used to him. His character might even develop over the course of the story. Bordan, on the other hand, is an old hand. He’s guided the heirs to the Empire for years, as he once was like kin to their father. He is patient and humble, and though his faith is not what it once was, he has faith in the Empire above all else. This is his true strength, but also his greatest weakness. Unlike Kyron, this story does not serve as Bordan’s beginning. It is his swan song. But will he live to see the Empire crumble, or die keeping it intact?

There are a lot of questions that come up over the course of the story, as the past is hinted at and slowly revealed; as loyalties are tested and friendships forged; as the Empire is caught in the wind, and teeters on its foundations. There are many vines in this, and not all will end up bearing fruit. Still, it was quite a thing to see them all come together at the end—and, while not all is cleared up, the overwhelming majority of my questions were answered. All the big and burning ones are, at least. In writing this review a week or two later I was able to come up with a couple that weren’t returned (though I really had to think about it), but none kept me up at night after finishing the story.

TL;DR

Seven Deaths of an Empire may be 550 pages, but to me it went by in a blink. Although it did take a little while to get going. But where it took me 3-4 days to read the first hundred pages, it took me one day to read the rest. Two very strong leads (though they’re both men; it didn’t bother me, but then I typically connect better with male characters, being a guy and all) made the story no effort at all to get into. It’s so reminiscent of Gladiator that I found myself overlaying scenes from the film with the world I’d constructed in my mind. The forests of Germany. The roads of the Empire. The obelisks and Colosseum and wonders of the capital. It really is quite like the Roman Empire but with magic. A thoroughly engrossing read, almost the whole way through. I took a couple points off for the build-up, but clearly nothing that ruined the story for me. Thoroughly recommended! Just don’t expect a happy, sunny story—as this is a dark fantasy, very occasionally bordering on grim.

Risen – by Benedict Jacka (Review)

Alex Verus #12

Urban Fantasy

Ace Books; December 7, 2021

336 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

5 / 5 ✪

I was kindly furnished an advance copy in return for a fair and honest review. Many, many thanks to Ace Books and Berkley Publishing for the ARC! All opinions are my own.

Well, we’ve reached the end. It’s been twelve books, most of them a legitimate joy to read, but the final—yes, FINAL—book in the Alex Verus series is nigh. This is a series I’d very much like to revisit, perhaps as soon as next year, and reread from the very beginning.

But first, the end.

Power doesn’t need a purpose: power is its own purpose. It is the only goal that has value in itself, because it is the means by which all other goals are achieved.

The path for Alex Verus has been long and hard—from a former dark apprentice to an independent, non-council nobody running a shop in Camden, to one of the premier independent mages in all of Britain—but perhaps no part of it has been more difficult than what he faces now. An army of Djinn, led by Anne, his former lover. Or, what used to be Anne. Instead, what wears her face nowadays is a marid, a sultan-level djinn once in considered the greatest threat to humanity’s future. Once, and possibly again.

For the marid is raising an army—and using Anne to do so, much as she once used it—and preparing a ritual that will allow it to possess every mage in Britain, or perhaps, the world. Luckily all the mages in Britain have realized the threat. Now they gather, light and dark and independent all together, setting aside their differences and disagreements in order to fight on the same side until this most horrible of enemies has been defeated!

Or, you know, until it’s really worth it to stab the other in the back. Say they have like a fruit cup or something.

The Council don’t trust Drakh in the least, which is good because neither does Alex. The problem is, he doesn’t really trust the Council either. And the cost of his cooperation with the two is going to be really, really high.

But he’s picked up a few allies of his own. Minus Anne and Variam—currently possessed by djinn—Alex still has Luna (the mage Vesta) on his side, as well as the blink fox, Hermes. He’s also picked up a wayward dark apprentice. And, well, Landis probably won’t betray him. He’s got this made.

But when all cards are on the table, Alex isn’t sure what he’s going to do. If it comes down to it, will he be able to face Richard alone? Will he be able to save Caldera, or Variam, or Anne? Will he be able to stop the djinn, and save the world? And will he be able to do it all before the Fateweaver consumes him, and transforms him into a block of stone?

Man, what a ride!

Admittedly, Risen wasn’t quite the same ride as Forged, as we certainly know what to expect. In general, at least. There’s a war on, and it’s not going to stop until one of the two sides is dead. In that sense, it’s a bit like Battle Ground. But fortunately, it’s also completely different.

In Battle Ground, it was us or them. In Risen, sides are a lot more complicated. Everyone is—on some level, at one time or another—planning to betray everyone else. It’s just the where and when, if or if not it’ll happen, and where the chips fall when it does. There’s also a lot more preparation, a lot of calm before and between the storm. There’s a certain amount of tension in Risen that keeps building, on and on through the fighting, through the breaks and planning and backstabbing. Where Battle Ground just went action action action and tried to constantly push the pace, Risen doesn’t just throw out what has worked for the series to date. There’s still the same amount of intrigue and mystery, it’s just the stakes are higher this time. And this IS the end—one way or another.

It also remembers to be funny every now and then. While Alex has gotten a whole lot darker in recent entries, he’s still the same bottle of pent up cynicism and sarcasm we’ve come to know and love.

“So… you’re guessing?”
“Pretty much,” I said. “And if I’m wrong, I just screwed everything up in a really major way and the Council are going to be very, very pissed off.”

TL;DR

I don’t really know what else to say about this. I loved Risen. I loved Forged and Fallen before it. Marked and Bound and Burned before them. And Veiled and Hidden and Chosen and Taken and Cursed. And Fated. With the way the Dresden series has stumbled recently, this may just be my favorite urban fantasy series of all time. In part because everyone loves an underdog. But once they have transcended underdogdom, and maybe even defected to the dark side… what then? Are they still the hero; someone to root for, someone to love, to relate to, to look up to, to enjoy? Or are they something else, something they can never come back from? The Verus series tells the story of Alex as he wanders down this path. As he confronts difficult situations—ones that have no perfect solution—and makes his own decisions. He’s not perfect. He’s not evil. But he sure ain’t all that good either. He’s human. And… he has light at the end of the tunnel. In an age when so many series just go on and on and on, Benedict Jacka knows when to stop. I think that’s one example of why Alex Verus is great. Yeah, I would’ve loved to see more of him; just another book, or two, or ten. I would’ve read them and I would’ve loved them. Until I didn’t. Alternatively, the series could just end right now. An ending not for me, but for Alex. An ending he not only deserves, but has earned ten times over. So if you’re a fan of urban fantasy and haven’t read Alex Verus, I say this: yeah, the first book isn’t perfect—but it’s headed somewhere special, and you’ll want to be there at the close, at the end of all things.

Iron Widow – by Xiran Jay Zhao (Review)

Iron Widow #1

YA, Fantasy, Scifi

Penguin Teen; September 21, 2021

399 pages (ebook)

Goodreads • Author Website

4.8 / 5 ✪

I did not pay for this book. I was very kindly granted an advance copy of it in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Penguin and Netgalley for the ARC! Hopefully the author will forgive me—especially after I post said review to Goodreads and/or Amazon with a rating;)

Iron Widow is the debut by author Xiran Jay Zhao. And if you don’t know how to pronounce that, don’t worry I’ve got you covered.

Here’s a crash course if you’re new to pinyin:

• ZH is pronounced like the ‘dg’ in “fudge”
• Z is pronounced like the ‘dz’ in “Adz”
• Q is pronounced like the ‘ch’ in “China”, only toward the front of the mouth
• X is pronounced like the ‘sh’ in “Shiny”, only toward the front of the mouth
• C is pronounced like the ‘ts’ in “cats”

Honestly, I could’ve just kept going, but these are the basics—let’s not go overboard. So now let’s butcher her name. If you guessed: something like “She-ran Jay Jow”—you’re on the right track. If you said it perfectly first time: nice! If you guessed: anything else—keep trying!

Right, the book. Iron Widow is a retelling of the Empress Wu Zhao who served as consort for the Tang dynasty and later seized control of the throne leading to the Zhou dynasty, during which she ruled unopposed. The book is the beginning of a retelling of her life.

Only with giant pilotable gundam-like chrysalises. And aliens.

Huaxia sits on the edge of extinction. The Hunduns—sentient mechanical aliens that have overrun the lands north of the Great Wall—have pushed humanity to the brink.

The remnants of the Han survive only through the grace of the great Chrysalises—huge husks made of spirit metal capable of transforming into fighting machines. When the two pilots—one a boy (nanhaizi 男孩子), one a girl (nühaizi 怒孩子)—combine their qi within the Chrysalis they are able to force it into metamorphosis, resulting in a huge fighting robot. Though this grants the pilots the power to repel the Hunduns from their land, it usually results in the death of the girls. This is seen as a sacrifice worth taking, in order to assure the survival of the human race. Plus, they’re only girls.

Wu Zetian is born upon the frontier, near the Great Wall itself. Should the Chrysalises fail, her family would be one of the first to fall. And she was born (and ultimately kept) in order to die.

As her sister did before her.

And so Zetian follows her elder sister (jiejie 姐姐) into the army, joining the ranks of Yang Guang’s concubines—who wait on his every whim, offer themselves to him freely, and are taken into battle with him, most often to their deaths. Again, as Zetian’s 姐姐 did before her.

But unlike her sister, Zetian isn’t here to make some sacrifice, noble or otherwise. Instead she has her heart set on vengeance—for her murdered sister, for thousands of dead girls before her, and ultimately for herself. For even should she live long enough to kill Yang Guang—what then? She’ll still only exist in a world set against her, one where she’ll carve a place for herself—in blood.

You are here to provide comfort and companionship to one of the greatest heroes of our time. From this day onward, you exist to please him, so that he may be in peak physical and mental condition to battle the Hunduns that threaten our borders. His well-being should be the most prominent subject of your thoughts. You will bring him meals when he is hungry, pour him water when he is thirsty, and partake in his hobbies with him with lively enthusiasm. When he speaks, you will give him your full attention, without interrupting or arguing. You will not be moody, pessimistic, or indifferent, and—most importantly—you will not react negatively to his touch.

This book is steeped in both sexism and racism. The misogyny of the classical world has been well documented of course, but here’s another crash course on China (zhongguo 中國), which take things a bit further. Being born a boy was a huge responsibility. You were the hope of your family, your bloodline. You were supposed to succeed in the exams, in life, marry into a good family and produce a (male) heir. You would then take care of your parents and manage their estates. If you were born a girl, you had to hope your parents didn’t kill you because they wanted a boy. If they let you live, you basically did whatever they wanted to ensure that you fetched a good dowry, which would be used to help your brother pay his way into a good family. Then you were someone else’s problem, but should never forget your parents/family should you somehow make it big. You were subservient to your father, then your brothers, then your husband, then your sons. At no point were you ever in charge of your own destiny. Maybe don’t google this.

“I’m so tired of being a girl.”
“Yeah, if you were a boy, you’d be ruling the world by now.”

Likewise, if you were Han, then you had a natural step up on the competition. If you were anything other than Han, you were a barbarian. Often even subhuman. If you were half-blooded or quarter-blooded non-ethnic Han you were often seen as inferior. Han nationalism is generally on par with white nationalism in terms of exclusionism. Of course, this is the only instance of racism ever in history, and therefore is quite notable. Seriously, DO NOT GOOGLE THIS—you won’t find anything remotely heartwarming.

The overwhelming sexism here takes center stage, while the racism is kinda glossed over. I hope that we get to it more later in the series, though. Xiran Jay Zhao doesn’t exactly paint a pretty picture for female life back in the annuls of history, but it’s probably pretty realistic. There’s a reason there’s a huge gender imbalance even nowadays—as the number of men heavily outweighs the number of women.

In terms of a fantasy book, Iron Widow is a damn good one. I mean, it’s a whirlwind of blood, tears and chaos, but one hell of a ride all the same. Zetian quite the character. I legitimately believe she’d bathe in the blood of her enemies. She’s got a bit of a demon in her; willing to do anything in order to achieve her ends. She also has a warm, sensitive side (though it’s a little overshadowed by the whole “demon” bit)—which she shows in touching scenes with Yizhi and Li Shimin. I’m honestly not sure what kind of a romantic she is. All in all, Zetian is complicated. She’s entirely human, but also a vengeful goddess born of pure chaos. As I said, quite the character.

The romance is a thing—leaving me undecided whether I bought into it or not. Despite her assertions that “the triangle is the strongest form of geometry”, I’m still not sure what it was that Zetian really wanted. It seemed to me that both male leads were head-over-heels, willing to die for her, while she was more “well, I like them but… meh”. Again, I hope that this is something that gets cleared up in Book #2.

The gundams—or chrysalises—are more like zoids than mobile suits. Or… a bit of a cross between the two. I envisioned them as gigantic seed-pods that could digivolve into mechanical fighting robots based on the qi of their pilots. Maybe more like a “Big O” kinda thing.

TL;DR

From gundams to aliens to emperors, there’s A LOT going on in this story. And while I didn’t love every minute of it, I loved way more than enough to recommend it. Wu Zetian is a monumental task of a retelling, but Xiran Jay Zhao has a winner here. For while it’s not all accurate, it’s certainly a perspective with a twist; a story that finds the future Empress as a poor farm girl with a taste for vengeance, blood, love, and ambition. An amazing coming-of-age tale that devolves into pure chaos and is somehow better for it.

Note: If you want a soundtrack while you read this book, the author suggests that you just go listen to the Pacific Rim soundtrack on a loop. An excellent idea:)

The Beautiful World of Books – Leviathan Wakes

Beautiful World of Books is a post showcasing a certain special, limited, anniversary, or just particularly eye-catching cover that I love—even if it’s not one I have. Yet. In fact, I don’t own most of the copies that I’ve planned to feature here over the next handful of weeks (or however long this new attempt at something from me lasts), but there’s still time for that to change~

Leviathan Wakes was released just a little over a decade ago, back in June 2011. The author, James S.A. Corey, is actually a collaboration between authors Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck. An amazing space opera, it initially featured the exploits of James Holden and the crew of the Canterbury, as well as the detective stylings of Joe Miller—a detective of Ceres searching for the missing Julie Mao. In the interests of spoilers, I won’t address any more, but if you haven’t read it in the last ten years, well… you really should. REALLY. SHOULD.

Since it’s initial release, Leviathan Wakes has spawned a literary series—The Expanse—which is set to end this year with the release of Leviathan Falls in November, as well as a television series, The Expanse, due to enter its 6th season in… I dunno, probably next year. Needless to say, I am woefully behind on both. I’ve read up through Book 5 (Nemesis Games) in the written series and watched through Season 2 of the show—both of which are quite good.

Now, I love the original cover—its use of the spacecraft and asteroids set against the deep planetary blue, while the light from a certain star shines brightly in the background—but what is an anniversary for if not a new beginning? The original cover is great, but a new take on it is always appreciated. Hell, even if the new one sucks, you’ve always got the tried and true version to fall back on.

Anyway, in homage to the original release being a decade past, and the series set to reach its conclusion later this same year, Orbit is releasing a special anniversary edition of Leviathan Wakes on September 7th.

And I WANT IT.

It’s just… look at those colors! I find the violet and blue against the blackness of space to be haunting; a promise of mystery and adventure amongst the pinpricks of stars all around. The pages itself (well, their edges—can’t remember the term for that) bear a matching violet, all of which promises a lovely adventure just within its pages. Which I know for a fact, having read the book three times to date.

Should you be keen to own your own of these beauties, the pre-order price is currently set at just over $30. Despite my desire to own one of these meself, I’ll probably wait til it falls in price a bit—at least to $25 or so.

What do you think of the cover? Is it your favorite in the series, or do you fancy some other one? Maybe make a note of it, because I just might revisit this thought in the very near future 😉

A Desert Torn Asunder – by Bradley P. Beaulieu (Review)

Song of the Shattered Sands #6

Fantasy, Epic

DAW; July 13, 2021 (US)
Gollancz; July 22, 2021 (UK)

528 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

5 / 5 ✪

I was kindly furnished an advance copy in return for a fair and honest review. Many thanks to DAW and Gollancz for the eARC! All opinions are my own.

Beware spoilers for the Shattered Sands #1-5

Where can we go when all is lost?

The reign of the Kings has been interrupted, but not all is lost. Though Queen Alansal of Mirea now sits atop the Tauriyat, two of the original Twelve Kings still draw breath in the desert. And both Husamettín and Ihsan remain with the Royal Fleet, committed to retaking the city.

Queen Meryam’s blood magic has been burned from her, yet her ambition still burns strong. Armed with the body of Goezhen and the blessing of the younger gods, she seeks out the Hollow—where the elder god Ashael was bound eons prior. But will waking him deliver her all the power she’s ever desired, or will the god’s wrath fall upon the desert instead?

Elsewhere in the desert Çeda and Emre prepare to confront the Alliance about Hamid’s betrayal, but to their horror the tribes have agreed to unite under his banner. Even as the pair arrive, the Alliance readies to sail to Sharakai—to raze the city to the ground.

Even as the Kings, Mirea, Malasan, the Tribes, and Ashael all converge on Sharakai—the gateway beneath the city continues to expand. Though Davud and his allies are attempting to close it, so far they’ve had no luck. And soon nothing will stop the younger gods from stepping through into Further Fields, leaving the mortals to pick up the remnants of they shattered world.

‘ When at last the fields do wither,
When the stricken fade;
The Gods shall pass beyond the veil,
And the land shall be remade. ‘

Well, it’s been a long and immersive voyage—one that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed! With the sixth and last book in the Song of the Shattered Sands—A Desert Torn Asunder—so many threads that’ve been built up over six books (and more novellas) set to converge for the first and final time. As with all grand fantasy adventures, so much COULD happen that it’s next to impossible to know just what will. Going into this I had a general idea—one that proved to be somewhat correct, albeit pathetically limited in imagination. There was just so much going on here! And when it all came together… it was amazing.

This was the perfect ending.

Okay, okay, it wasn’t absolutely PERFECT, but after six books and so many hours of growth and imagination, a few minor issues along the way couldn’t derail it. In fact, there were so many touches and details that I loved, to be honest I don’t remember what any of my gripes were.

As with the previous books, I would rave about the characters, the world-building, the intricacies of the plot, the attention to detail, and more, but instead let’s focus on the gods. Up to this point we’ve known the gods (the younger ones, that is) are the ones pulling the strings. They’ve been behind the scenes until now, but lately have begun to assume center stage. And as such, there are so many details about them in A Desert Torn Asunder that I loved. Let’s begin with Ashael. He was so much more than what I’d expected. So different—and yet not. The elder gods are all more than I’d’ve guessed—detailed yet mysterious.

This holds true for the younger ones as well. They’re still mysterious, albeit less so, with their deeds now at the forefront of the story and their intentions well known. There are so many things I could talk about, but I want to focus on one little (non-spoilery) thing. The way they come and go, each in their own way. Bakhi slashes a line in the air, which he departs through like a portal. Rhia arrives in a flash of moonlight, and Tulathan departs the same way, except hers is done by sunlight. Thaash turns to stone which crumbles to dust as he departs—dust that is scattered by the desert winds. Nalamae appears and vanishes in a swirl of sand. Each of these touches I found incredibly imaginative and had no problem picturing them. As with so much in this series, my imagination hardly knew where to stop; the story ran wild through my mind.

TL;DR

I can’t say enough about how much I enjoyed the Shattered Sands, especially this conclusion to the series. A Desert Torn Asunder is the end this series deserves. So many threads come together that literally anything could happen and frequently does as the desert people all attempt to save their home. Save it, or rule it. If you haven’t started this series yet (perhaps waiting for all the books to be released), well, now’s the time. Hopefully you’ll enjoy it as much as I have. But I can only hope. Whether this is the final time Bradley Beaulieu will revisit Sharakai I cannot say—though there’s still room for more in this world. As for myself I know that I’ll return to the series time and again.

The Shadow of the Gods – by John Gwynne (Review)

Bloodsworn Saga #1

Fantasy, Epic

Orbit; May 4, 2021 (US)
Orbit; May 6, 2021 (UK)

505 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

5 / 5 ✪

I was kindly furnished an advance copy in return for a fair and honest review. Many thanks to Orbit and NetGalley for the eARC! Any quotes are for demonstrative purposes only, included to help showcase the level of detail and writing style that the author employs, and may not be included in the final, published version. All opinions are my own.

The gods are dead. The world is broken.

Three hundred years have passed since the old gods fell, breaking and reshaping the world in their passing. Monsters roam the land—a remnant of the world before. Petty kings and queens have seized control and now vie for whatever power has been left behind. Myths and legends, bones of the fallen gods, and children born of their tainted blood—the Jarls compete for whatever will distinguish them from the rest, all with the same aim: to write their story to be told alongside the old gods before them.

Orka has had her fill of power. Having long since escaped the world of blood and kings, she and her husband now live in the wilds with their young bairn. But she can’t escape the past, nor the machinations of those seeking more power.

Varg has worn a collar his entire life, since both he and his sister were sold to a wealthy landowner as thralls. Ever since Varg has been satisfied to survive—until his sister was killed. His quest to avenge Frøya’s murder will take him to places he never imagined, and find family he never knew existed.

Elvar is a mercenary, seeking to write her own saga in the blood of her enemies. Hired to find an escaped thrall, her band comes into possession of the man’s wife and child, who eventually lead them on a quest to unearth a myth—and the power and glory that it holds.

It seems that the better a book is, the harder it becomes for me to talk about it. And this one is absolutely amazing. Surely by now you’ve seen some hype for it, some 5 star reviews and—if you’ve yet to experience it yourself—are wondering if it’s really all that good. Well, it is. It really, really is.

Shadow of the Gods is truly a masterclass in execution. The world-building is on par with that of the Banished Lands, as the Bloodsworn Saga introduces us to a lush land of Vikings, monsters and gods—all seeking power and glory. While I wouldn’t call SotG a dark fantasy, the descriptions do lend quite a bit of darkness to the story, so much so that in my imagination, the world always carried a bit of a dusky cast. Shadowy forests, deep fjords, seedy taverns and slums, brochs, longhouses and earthworks all added to the dark, Viking feel so much that the entire thing rendered in my head like some ambient Wardruna video.

They were moving through a land of tree-cloaked hills and shadow-dark valleys, of sun-drenched meadows and rivers winding and glistening like jewel-crusted serpents that coiled through the land. The new-risen sun blazed bright as Arg stepped out on to a hillside of rolling meadow and left the trees behind him.

Above her rainclouds shredded and blew across the sky like tattered banners.

The description really is amazing. Each setting is rendered in such detail that I felt as if I’d been there and was just reliving the memory.

As with most of his books, SotG emphasizes the dishonor of the bow, so all combat is restricted to a close-quarters brawl. This, combined with the description and style of writing, made everything feel so much more immersive, almost as if I was experiencing something from memory rather than reading about it. Through the setting and world-building and detail, this one really came alive, and I can’t find the right words to convey just how amazing this was!

TL;DR

While I’m not sure yet if I loved it quite as much as Ruin, Shadow of the Gods is certainly one of the best books of the year and on the shortlist of my all-time favorites. I mean, I’m sure I could rave about this for another page or two and it wouldn’t convey anything more than “you should read it, it’s really that good”—so I’m going to leave it at that. But, yeah, you should read it. It’s really THAT good.

If you don’t believe me and need some more convincing, here’re some other reviews that you might want to look at:

Powder & PageSwords & SpectresSpace & SorceryRealms of My Mind

Forged – by Benedict Jacka (Review)

Alex Verus #11

Urban Fantasy

Ace Books; November 24, 2020

294 pages (Paperback)

5 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

Warning: Contains minor spoilers for the Alex Verus series through Book #10, major spoilers for Fallen (Book #10).

Fallen introduced us to a new, darker Alex Verus. Recently blacklisted by the Council, he acquired the Fateweaver in a desperate attempt to stay alive, managing not only to do so but also becoming a major power player in the process. A confrontation at the end of Book #10 sees him survive a shootout with Richard, Anne, Deleo and Sal Sarque—while also somehow managing to affect events such that each of these agents either become unaligned or very, very dead.

Our favorite new antihero returns in Forged, the penultimate installment of the Alex Verus saga. When we were introduced to Alex in Fated, he was a former dark mage of middling power, trying to do nothing more than stay off the Council’s radar. It’s safe to say that his life has changed quite a bit since. Once he tried to do the right thing, avoiding conflict at all costs. Now an outlaw, Alex has embraced his darker side. So, when Anne goes rogue and uses the power of her Djinn to settle some scores, Alex decides to do the same, starting with his nemesis from Book #1—Levistus.

And with Council death squads hunting him and his former lover, the Fateweaver slowly devouring his right arm, and Deleo now using every scrap of her power (and time) to find and kill him—the time has never been better. Um, apparently.

But the path to Levistus is not an easy one. Nor do you become one of the most powerful mages in the land by mere happenstance. But Alex’s plan—nay, his very life itself—rests on his ability to take Levistus down. Which he will—or die trying.

I quite like the abrupt change of pace in the last few books. The darkness and depth of Alex’s soul has been hinted at from Day 1, but to see him come full circle has not only been impressive and a little bit terrifying—it’s been gratifying as well. In the Dresden Files, it seems Harry’s always struggling with the evil within. Be it from the Blackened Denarius, the Winter Mantle, the darkness he’s seen and the power he’s gained, Dresden always seems to repress and overcome it. Now, while I’m not complaining about him controlling his darker urges, I AM calling him a little goody two-boots. And where the Dresden Files leads, many more series have followed. Thus it’s refreshing to see someone finally embrace their darker side, if only to see where it leads.

And the darker Alex Verus is cold and calculated. Not to mention a little scary. But with Alex embracing the “darkness” within, there’s something more terrifying on show than just his coldness or lack of emotion—and it’s his efficiency. When there’s little holding him back, Alex is scary good. Both definitely good and definitely… scary. There’s definitely something of a Ludonarrative Dissonance to it. For Alex has no shortage of bodies in his wake. Yet still I found myself rooting for him. And relating with him none too little. Far from denying it, Alex actually takes time to address the dissonance within himself—and does so in a way that genuinely surprised me.

Storywise… I have very few notes. And even fewer complaints. This isn’t the first book that has been Levistus-heavy. Several in the series have centered on Alex’s nemesis trying to capture and kill either him or someone he cares for. While you can definitely overdo something like this, I actually can’t complain about it here. For while Levistus hasn’t changed, both the circumstances and Alex Verus himself have. I’ve certainly enjoyed where the plot has led thus far—and am incredibly excited to see where it ends up.

TL;DR

Forged, the penultimate release of the Alex Verus series, continues where Fallen left off. A changed, darker, more powerful Alex Verus takes center stage, and finally looks for some payback against those that have wronged him. If you haven’t yet hopped on the bandwagon, might I suggest this is the year for it? Forged, any, or even all of the series leading up to it would make great last minute gifts. Or consolation prizes for the gifts you should have gotten this year. We’re roughly 3000 pages into my favorite urban fantasy series—with one book remaining. Anything can happen. Anyone is expendable. Everything is on the table. I cannot recommend Forged enough. I cannot recommend the series enough. And I cannot WAIT for the final entry to see how it all turns out.