The Jasmine Throne – by Tasha Suri (Review)

Burning Kingdoms #1

Fantasy

Orbit Books; June 8, 2021

533 pages (ebook)
19hr 43m (audiobook)

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8.0 / 10 ✪

The Empire was born in sacrifice wreathed in flame. Lifetimes before, the Yaksa nearly swallowed the world in darkness. and their devoted followers the Ahiranyi In the end, it was the Mothers sacrifice which saved the world. If the Mothers had not given themselves willingly to the flames, the Age of Flowers would never have ended.

Malini is a princess of the Empire. Years before, she was to be given to the eternal flames in order to purify herself and all women, so that the Mothers continuing sacrifice would not be in vain. However, Malini refused to ascend to the fires and was exiled, imprisoned atop the Hirana by her brother, the Emperor. Now she spends her days in isolation in her foe’s ancient sanctuary, temple to the deathless waters that once served as their most powerful magics.

When Priya was young, the temple atop the Hirana burned. A gutter-rat turned maidservant, Priya is satisfied with a life of drudgery lived in the shadows, terrified that anyone learn her secrets. So terrified that she even hides them from herself. Once a maid to the regent’s wife, Priya reluctantly accepts a job tending to the temple rooms atop the Hirana, now occupied by the exiled princess. The job pays more in a day than she makes in a week, as maids must ascend and descend the deadly path to Hirana each day, careful not only to survive the journey but more so to never cross paths with the princess herself.

Well, somewhat careful.

When the inevitable does come to pass, however, Malini not only discovers Priya but also stumbles upon her true nature. Both are women cast from their true path; both would give up everything to find their way again. And together, they very well may.

It may have taken me a bit to get lost in the Jasmine Throne, but once I did I was well and truly gone. The world passed by while Priya and Malini and Akosh weaved their webs and sang their stories, and the tide of the Deathless Waters carried me away.

Full disclosure: I listened to (read) this while playing Cyberpunk, only stopping when I was exhausted or had to go to work. It was truly a surreal experience—for a good chunk of its 20+ hours—so much so that I completely lost myself to the story, and often ended up wandering aimlessly around Night City doing nothing but listening to the adventure unfold.

The Jasmine Throne is truly a story built for and driven by its characters. So much so that the setting took quite a while to permeate the story. It took me the longest time to discover just what the Hirana was, how it related to the plot, or just why it was so dangerous. It just seemed that the plot had taken a backseat to its characters. At least for a time. I really only noticed the setting when Rao’s POV rolled around. I don’t know whether that was because he’s a weaker character than Priya or Malini or Ashok (which he is), or because his chapters are just more oriented toward the setting than others.

Once the everything gets set up and the story (particularly that between Priya and Malini) gets interesting, there’s not much else to steal the focus away from them. This means that though it’s quite hard to put down, the characters that aren’t the big four—of Priya, Malini, Ashok, and Bhumika—seem to detract from the plot rather than add anything to it. It’s not that I don’t care about their input, it’s just… they distract from what’s going on. I realize that their contribution pays some dividends in the end, but I’d argue that it’s not enough to justify the albeit slight distraction they provide.

I guess it’s a good thing that these characters don’t get a ton of time in the spotlight. Priya has more chapters to her name than everyone else (excluding Malini) combined. And with the these two pretty much controlling the story… well, it turns out quite nicely.

TL;DR

The Jasmine Throne is very much a story driven by its characters. Though some of the bit characters (other, less involved POVs) are immediately forgettable, the main characters (Priya, Malini, Ashok, and Bhumika) make up for them easily enough. And since these control around three-quarters of the book… let’s just say they more than make up for it. In classic fantasy form, it takes its time setting the scene, introducing its world—not to mention the characters therein—before getting down to the plot, the romance, and the world at large. And to be fair, this works quite well. While it took me a little to get into the tale, once I did it was a lovely time. Even the romance, which is usually not my favorite. All in all, the Jasmine Throne proves an entertaining start to a new series! One I’ll be more than happy to continue.

The Burning Kingdoms continue with The Oleander Sword, out in August of 2022.

Sisters of Shadow – by Katherine Livesey (Review)

Sisters of Shadow #1

YA, Fantasy

HarperCollins; September 30, 2021

368 pages (ebook)

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3.5 / 10 ✪

Beware minor spoilers for the story. Mostly it’s for the romance though, and I kept them vague.

Sisters of Shadow is tagged as an “unforgettable teen fantasy perfect for fans of Shadow and Bone”. Now, while I’ve not read Shadow and Bone (yes, I know, I know), I’m skeptical of this. First about the “unforgettable” part. I found the whole thing very forgettable, thank you. But I really want to focus on the “teen” part. Because other than the whole ’sapphic love’ thing, I’d argue that nothing in here seems very “teen”.

And that’s just a personal preference thing, really. If you’re the type of person that thinks homosexuality is wrong—be it religious, or culture, or personal, or whatever—that’s your call, yeah? I don’t want to debate anyone over this. If you’re that kind of person, you’re probably not going to tell your child about it until you absolutely have to, and when you do, just say that it’s wrong and leave it there. Otherwise, I don’t know what the appropriate age to hear about this is. Puberty, I guess? But, see, the ‘sapphic romance’ within… there’s no sex, or anything. Nothing like that at all. Two of the characters do fall for one another, but they don’t do anything more than cuddle. And maybe kiss. It’s implied that they’re together together, and that’s about it. It’s not very heavy or adult, as these things go.

Anyway, the book. The read.

I found it quite boring. But also quite maddening. You’ll see why. At this point, I’ll say the two best things I can about Sisters of Shadow. One—I didn’t hate it. And two—it was a pretty quick read. Now, I realize none of those things are all that flattering. And from the above rating, you probably know there’s a bit of a rant incoming. So. Um I guess. Read on to find out more?

In the prologue, Alice is kidnapped.

Shortly after, we meet Lily Knight. The adventure starts when her uncle, Alf—who seems like a fantastically nice human the entire time we see him—just tells her that she alone has to go rescue her friend (yes, alone; no one can go with her), because Alice is her responsibility. Serious, wtf. I don’t even remotely understand this. Much less how Alice is somehow Lily’s responsibility. They’re friends, not lovers.They’re both humans. They’re not related. Alice isn’t a pet.

At first I suspected it was poorly worded. Then it was reiterated. “Alice is your responsibility”. Because.

And so the journey begins. And it’s… not great. And here we come to my main problem with Sisters of Shadow.

Nothing happens.

Okay, okay, stuff DOES happen. It just never feels important. It never feels epic. It never feels REAL.

Adventures and journeys aren’t always fun. That’s kind of their thing. There’s always a problem, somewhere. No matter how well you play it. And when you don’t plan it, one would think that there’d be problems all around. That’s the whole allure of reading about epic quests and adventures, especially spontaneous ones; stuff goes wrong all the time, and it’s up to the characters to deal with these, frequently in creative or inventive or roundabout ways.

Every problem has an immediate solution, one she never has to do anything about. When Lily finds out how far it is to the ocean she gets dejected about the walk—and a horse appears. It just wanders up, pre-saddled and ready to ride. No further explanation. People go out of their way to help her through her journey, for no reason. (Yes, I realize this is a thing that some real people do. But everyone that helps her does so immediately and for nothing. Everyone.) Later, when Lily reaches the ocean, there’s a boat handy. When she reaches the lighthouse, there’s a dark-eyed boy who takes her in and feeds and waits on her. He’s even her own age and—yes, this is the actual romance. At least it takes Lily some time, if not any actual effort. Alice’s romantic other is literally the first person she meets.

Now, I will say that the ending is decent. Things almost feel real, consequential—and maybe that’s reason enough to read the sequel. Not for me, though.

Billed as a coming of age fantasy, Sisters of Shadow features two young women around the age of adulthood (Alice is 17, I presume Lily’s about the same). They just never act like it. Lily never acts any older than 13 or so. In the beginning, honestly it’s a bit younger. Alice is a little better, though not much. None of the others they meet around their own age are any better either. So. If this had been written as a late Middle Grade fantasy—I think it would work out great. For teens or middle-grade. Other than the same-sex romance (which I’ve already gone over), there’s nothing explicit or adult about this.

There might be a good story in here, somewhere. Heck, you might well have found it already, and are reading this review—shocked, annoyed, incredulous—that I didn’t see it too. But I did do my homework on this one. I checked the ratings, I skimmed reviews. Some people loved Sisters of Shadow. Some hated it. But most people thought it was meh. Not terrible, not great. That’s about the size of it. This wasn’t a terrible book, though it also wasn’t good. I’d even say it was meh if it hadn’t been so boring. If something had ever happened to change my mind about it. If anything had ever made me want to continue it, or the series. It did read quick, though I never felt invested. I did finish it, but I skipped around a bunch. But this definitely wasn’t for me. You might like this, or not. It’s $3 for an ebook, if you’d like to take a chance on it. Maybe you’ll love it. Maybe you’ll hate it. Or maybe, like the majority of reviews I’ve seen, you’ll think it was all a bit bland, a bit forgettable.

The story will continue in Sisters of Moonlight, due April 14th, 2022.

Black Water Sister – by Zen Cho (Review)

Standalone

Fantasy, Paranormal

Ace Books; May 11, 2021

380 pages (ebook)
11hr 37m (audiobook)

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4 / 5 ✪

Jessamyn Teoh is fresh out of Harvard, and the world is her oyster! Realistically though, she’s got just about nothing—no waiting job, no place to live, a mountain of student debt—and so decides to move back to Malaysia with her parents, where she hasn’t lived since her parents immigrated to America when she was a toddler.

But Malaysia may not be the clean start she was looking for. Here, Jess is still broke and unemployed, living with relatives who condescend to her, and a state that condemns her for the way she was born. Not that her girlfriend would ever visit her here. Malaysia is one thing, but what would her family say? Jess is still very much in the closet, although her very supportive girlfriend wishes she wasn’t. A girlfriend she rarely gets to see and talk to, done entirely over video chats and messages in the dead of night.

Her life can’t get much worse. Or so Jess thinks.

…Until she starts hearing voices. Voices claiming to be the manifestation of her dead grandmother’s spirit, speaking to Jess as their medium. In life Ah Ma was the medium for the mysterious and powerful minor deity known as the Black Water Sister, but in death she is a powerful spirit with a grudge—one that just happens to be against a gang boss and his family.

And now this grudge is Jess’s also, drawing her deeply into the world of ghosts, gods, crime, and secrets, any one of which would be enough to get her killed. But while she begins to gain attention from all the wrong places, Jess is willing to admit that it’s not all bad. At least she has a purpose, a place, something to do with her time—at least until she catches the Black Water Sister’s eye.

Moving to Malaysia may not have been the best choice.

Black Water Sister may be an inspirational read for any number of reasons—it features a gay protagonist living in a society that is incredibly against that sort of thing; it’s a coming-of-age, or finding-ones-place-in-the-world kinda thing, something that very much appeals to so many, regardless of age; it tells the tale of a culture, history, and point of view that maybe you weren’t used to—but it’s very much not because of the overwhelming positivity and support. This isn’t what I would call a “bright and sunny” read. It’s quite dark in places: with murder, violence, language, not to mention an attempted rape scene.

While Jessamyn’s orientation begins as just a detail amidst the larger plot, more and more I felt it attempt to take center stage, as Jess struggles to hide who she is from her parents and friends, all the while suffering the strain that this puts on her relationship with her girlfriend. In fact, this adds more and more tension to the overall plot approaching the end, but sadly leaves us without any true resolution come the conclusion.

If you came for the gods and ghosts, the good news is you’re likely staying for them. The story is interesting, turning to entertaining and fast-paced once it gets going. The setting—Penang, Malaysia—is as varied as it is vivid; not to mention an exotic setting that you might not have heard of. Penang has been called the Silicon Valley of the East, and is representative of a liberal and culturally diverse Malaysia, if there even is such a thing in this secular Islamic state. I loved the depiction of the various temples and gods, the underworld and its outward veneer.

But it’s how Jess relates to the country that really sells the story. While she hasn’t lived in Malaysia since she was a toddler, since her parents emigrated from the country in search of a better life for their daughter, Jess has been back. A few times, for visits. But visiting a place and living there are two entirely different experiences. And it’s how she explores these experiences—as a native Malaysian who left, received an Western education, was dosed in “liberal, global culture”, and returned—that affects how the story is told. I quite enjoyed all of it: from the ghosts and gods, to the gangs and underworld; to her parents’ struggle to reconnect with their previous livelihoods; to Jess’s own to establish herself, discover the person she is, to live and to grow, all the while struggling whether or not to come out to her parents, to her family, to legitimize her girlfriend and their relationship. It’s quite the tale, quite the book.

TL;DR

Black Water Sister is a tale of love and acceptance, of hope and defeat, of darkness, death, and growth. Of understanding one’s place, and finding one’s way in the world. There are also gods and ghosts. A gay lead who is very much in the closet and determined to stay there, while her very supportive girlfriend wishes she wouldn’t. It’s about cultural diaspora—of a native daughter returning home only to find it so far from where she remembered. It’s about the past and one’s family—of how blood is blood and kin is kin, but sometimes their actions fade and should be forgotten while others should be remembered above all else. Black Water Sister is a story about a daughter’s quest for acceptance. A girl’s journey to become a woman. A woman’s quest to find what she wants out of life, of who and what she wants to become. While it’s not a perfect story, so little is in this life. Black Water Sister tells a human story of a very human girl/woman (albeit one who can talk to/see gods and ghosts). I’d definitely recommend it to anyone, but especially lovers of paranormal, supernatural, fantasy, urban fantasy above all else.

Audio Note: Catherine Ho does an excellent job bringing Jessamyn Toeh to life! There were a few minor missteps, but I’d chalk those up to being “how do I relate this feeling simply through words” rather than anything the narrator could’ve improved on. I read Black Water Sister as an audiobook in just under three days, and cannot recommend it in this format enough! I can’t wait to see more of Zen Cho and Catherine Ho in the future!

Havenfall – by Sara Holland (Review)

Havenfall #1

Fantasy, YA, Romance

Bloomsbury YA; March 3, 2020

320 pages (ebook) 12 hr 17 min (audio)

3.2 / 5 ✪

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Deep within the mountains of Colorado lies the Inn at Havenfall. Havenfall is a crossroads between worlds—and serves as a meeting place and sanctuary for the delegates from any number of worlds. Nowadays there are only two gates open: one to Fiordenkill, the other Byrn.

Maddie Morrow, the niece of the Innkeeper of Havenfall, has always spent her summers working at the Inn. She even has hopes of taking over for her Uncle, Marcus, someday. But soon after she arrives at the Inn for the summer of her 18th birthday, those dreams quickly become a reality.

Marcus has been attacked and survives in a coma. Maddie is in charge of the Inn. And the trouble doesn’t stop there.

For a being has slipped through one of the dormant gates—one to the world of Solaria. The Solarians are shapeshifting monsters that prey upon humans and have been banned from Earth for a generation. But now one is loose. And the Solarian door is stuck open.

Now Maddie, with little help and less clue of what to do, must take charge, run the Inn in place of her uncle, prevent any more Solarians from entering via the door while hunting down the one that has already come through. But it may already be too late.

So, at Colorado Mountain there is a door that opens to many worlds. This door is known as the Stargate, and through it… wait no. Um. Colorado, mountains, Havenfall. Right, right.

Havenfall is equal parts adventure, fantasy, romance, and mystery. While it’s a decent fantasy adventure, the romance within the story is actually what captured my interest. I mean, the fantasy is alright—an interesting enough premise and world-building, decent execution and plot, but with underwhelming extraplanar beings, magic system, and character development. The romance somehow drew my attention, which is usually not a good thing. But here it surprised me. Maddie is bi—having fallen in love with Fiorden soldier Brekken, whom she first met at the Inn, but also seasonal worker Taya, who is a mystery that Maddie just can’t seem to solve. Instead of the cringe-worthy, awkward teen romance I was expecting, Havenfall proves to be a soul-searching, confusing story of teenage attraction that—while still awkward—seemed more real than the faerie tale romance you’d expect. Now while Maddie isn’t the best gumshoe (we’ll get to that), she is young and naïve, but also skeptical, making her an excellent target for romance.

A detective, however, she is not. Maddie is young and (apparently) not very bright. She is continually pelted in the face by evidence that she somehow ignores. At first I chalked this up to her being young. Then not terribly smart. And at last… just because. Maddie doesn’t seem to learn from experience. Or make any deductive leaps. Or really even pay much attention to any kind of detail. Yeah, she’s 18, but throughout the story her character doesn’t develop and learn from experience. The mystery is rather basic, and it takes her over twelve hours of story-time to wrap her head around it.

Audio Note: Kate Handford was an excellent narrator that really brought Maddie Morrow to life. And while it didn’t do anything for her mystery-solving ability, I really enjoyed the angst and confusion and naïvety the narrator put into her performance that brought across Maddie as the awkward teenage outcast she truly was.

TL;DR

Havenfall represents (in my opinion) awkward teenage romance done right. While there are faerie tale elements, it’s not a storybook romance, and actually feels somewhat real, not ridiculous and cringe-worthy, if still awkward. In terms of plot, world-building, and adventure, the story is your run-of-the-mill YA fantasy—with an interesting premise and decent execution, but little more. The mystery is just pathetic, honestly. And Maddie isn’t the best narrator, despite being intensely romanceable. Havenfall is a decent enough series debut—though I expect better from its sequel.

The series will continue with Phoenix Flame, out March 4th, 2021.