Ymir – by Rich Larson (Review)

Standalone

Science Fiction

Orbit Books; July 12, 2022

391 pages (paperback)

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7 / 10 ✪

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

A dark, otherworldly retelling of Beowulf takes place on a dystopian ice-world where the company owns and tells all. A tale of two brothers separated by time, space, and bad blood. Yorick hunts monsters—specifically the eyeless grey terror known as the grendel, that lurk beneath the earth on many company worlds. He left home early, after a spat with his brother that cost him his jaw.

And now he’s back in the one place he hoped never to be again: the ice-world Ymir.

Thello is a mystery. In Yorick’s mind, his homecoming would coincide with his brother’s apology—that or a fight to the death—but upon landing Yorick finds neither. In fact, he hasn’t seen Thello at all, instead greeted by a company man Dam Gausta, his former mentor, the woman who ushered him into the company; and a hulking red clanswoman, Fen, who clearly wants to gut him at first sight. At first Yorick thinks that she must know him—but no, he’s been gone decades, and the Butcher that Cooked the Cradle must be assumed to be well and truly dead by now.

Without his brother, there is only the hunt that matters now.

But this grendel is different than the mindless killing-machines Yorick has dispatched in the past. Beneath that cold, clammy skin there is definitely a very alien mind at work, but there is also something disturbingly human to it as well, something Yorick recognizes and knows all too well.

Thello.

Written in the style of Takeshi Kovacs, Ymir takes a fast-paced, minimalist story designs of Richard K. Morgan and applies them to a Beowulf inspired tale, complete with nordic themes and terrifying grendels. A dark, gritty tale takes place on both sides of the ice of Ymir, even plunging deep underground in pitch-black tunnels where only those desperate or alien live.

The pacing itself is strange, but it is what the story makes it. It’s the way the story is told; in glimpses—with chapters so short we might as well be visiting the story as opposed to spending a book’s length with it. We jump from action to action, spending just enough time to progress the plot—but no more.

While I loved the dark, gritty feel of the ice-world Ymir, there was never enough of it to go around. When you’re only spending one to five pages in the same place, it’s hard to get a real sense of worth from it. Thus, instead of a full-body immersion, this was like a bath taken in quick dips, where you get a shock of cold that eventually builds up into a deep freeze, but only after a long period. It was an interesting way to tell a story—and not one I entirely enjoyed.

I thoroughly enjoyed the narrative between the two brothers, though it didn’t last as long as I’d’ve expected, coming to a cliffhanger well before the close that felt like a foregone conclusion rather than a mystery by the time it was resolved at the end.

TL;DR

While there was more than enough to like about Ymir, very little about the tale wowed me. It did prove a great read and a good story besides, as well as an interesting and unique retelling/tale based heavily on the epic Beowulf. But there was just too little there: too little time spent in any one place; too little depth on any of the supporting characters; too little backstory on the company, the grendels, Ymir itself, anything of the world to make it feel real. Overall, while I enjoyed pretty much everything I saw from Ymir, I’d’ve liked to have seen more of… pretty much all of it. For what is a tale told in glimpses than no tale at all?

A Mirror Mended – by Alix E. Harrow (Review)

Fractured Fables #2

Fantasy, Retelling

Tor.com; June 14, 2022
Macmillan Audio; June 14, 2022

176 pages (ebook)
3hr 48m (audiobook)

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8 / 10 ✪

I was kindly granted an advance copy in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Tor.com, Macmillan, and NetGalley for the eARC! All opinions are my own.

• Review of A Spindle Splintered •

Zinnia Grey—professional fairy-taler and knight in shining armor—has a problem. The problem is not that there aren’t enough princesses to rescue, but too many. Once you’ve made out with 20 princesses, offed 40 evil stepmothers, or gotten drunk with two or three huntsmen and dwarves, everything just starts to run together. So much so that Zinnia is beginning to wish some of the princesses might take initiative and solve their own problems.

The next mirror Zinnia looks in has a face looking right back at her.

Only this face isn’t the young, naïve visage of a princess, but a more mature evil staring back. The more mature, ATTRACTIVE, GORGEOUS, face of evil. But this evil queen isn’t looking to stop Zinnia, she’s after her help. Because she’s learned how her story ends and wants to escape it before the inevitable comes to pass. But should Zinnia decide to help her, the lines of good and evil may blur, and narratives may become irrevocably damaged. Plus, she might just fall in love.

Okay, so it’s $11 for the ebook, or $7.30 for the audiobook version. Please tell me how that makes sense. Normally, I’d just say that the ebook is too expensive and leave it at that. But I’m legitimately confused. I understand that recorded books are more expensive because the author, the narrator, and the publisher all need their cut instead of just the two—but how does it work the other way around?

Anyway, the story. The story is good. I even enjoyed it more than the first one.

See, Zinnia is on a princess-rescuing-bender. It’s been too much, too fast, too long. She has a problem, and the path between right and wrong has begun to blur a little. In the beginning, there’s no way that she’d have considered doing this, but after dozens of weeping princesses and blushing brides she is just looking for a bit of backbone. Or an attractive evil queen that shows some spine (and maybe a hint of cleavage).

No problem with the characters or romance this time around—even I found it a bit refreshing. It did take me a bit to get into, and experienced a bit of a lag in the middle (which was disconcerting since it’s only three hours), though that could’ve boiled down to what I had going on versus how well the narrative was selling itself. So am I really going to criticize this for failing to blow me away? Apparently so, but not much.

The simple fact is that there’s a really good story here, or retelling, at and above the level of what we were previously presented. It’s certainly a good read—or listen, if that’s what you’re into. I quite enjoyed the audio version, as once again Amy Landon brings Zinnia Grey to life in a way I failed to experience from just the text. I’d whole-heartedly recommend A Mirror Mended, particularly as an audiobook—and not just because it’s less expensive.

Now, will there be another, or is this the last we’ve seen of Zinnia Grey? Obviously I can’t get too much into this because of spoilers, but sufficient to say that the conclusion is adequately open-ended to allow for more adventures, but the ending itself was magical enough in its own right to provide the series a proper ending. So… I dunno? Maybe? Either way it was a good ending, one that you’re sure to love whether or not it’s the end of the line for Zinnia.

The Stardust Thief – by Chelsea Abdullah (Review)

The Sandsea Trilogy #1

Fantasy, Retelling

Orbit Books; May 17, 2022

538 pages (ebook)

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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.

Legendborn – by Tracy Deonn

Legendborn Cycle #1

Fantasy, YA

Simon & Schuster; September 15, 2020

503 pages (format)

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—A review by KK—

Hey, so this is Will, just a quick note here. This is the review of a friend of mine, essentially a trial for this site. If she likes doing it, if it’s not too much a strain on her time—then you might be seeing more of these! Albeit with her tag rather than my own. Pretty much I just asked her to rant about some book and I’d post it and we could take it from there. Hopefully it works out, because I absolutely loved this review!

Recap

Sixteen-year-old Bree Matthews choses a school, argues with her mom about that choice, and then finds out her mom died in an accident. With grief still fresh and heavy, she rushes off to the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, an institution for bright scholars and also the setting of the argument with her mom. It’s supposed to be a new and exciting place where she and her best friend, Alice Chen, can learn and grow (and most importantly not be surrounded with her mother’s death). However, her first night there leads to an encounter with magic and a secret society of “Legendborn” who protect the unsuspecting population from demons and their like. That fateful moment unlocks a memory from the day her mother died, and suddenly there are unknowns surrounding her loved one’s death that Bree must solve. And this secret society holds the key to the truth she seeks. The question is, does she join their fight? Or take them down from the inside?  

Rambling Review (unspecific spoilers ahead)

Before I ever read a book, I view the cover, and the cover for Legendborn is fantastic. I love the colors, the prominence of the main character, and the font. As I took it in, I remember asking myself, what is the significance of the red and blue covering her arms? The answer is “Both…and…” I was then pulled into the book through a famous story “that everyone knows”. What I especially enjoyed was the book does this remarkable job of weaving in a second extraordinary component that, I’d argue, is even more compelling than the familiar fairy tale. Tell me more about that in the second book.

Having recently lost a close family member, the struggles of wanting everything to be normal and not dealing with the grief felt extremely real to me. There’s a moment in the book where another character makes a poignant observation to Bree and while she tries to deny it, ultimately realizes what this other character is saying might be true. I realized that I might share this denial with Bree. Death of a loved one is hard, and the entire book felt like a voice for my own loved one’s passing. I was empathetic to the emotions Bree goes through as she navigates knowing that her mother is no longer in this world.

I get that YA novels tend to have this “Oh they’re cute” moment followed by almost instant attraction/getting together, and I’m more and more finding that these whirlwind romances take away something from the story for me. You’re telling me that a 16 year-old can find someone attractive, hang out with them, begin a relationship AND find feelings that strong for them?!? So, if I have an issue with this title, it’s Bree’s romance and the romantic moments she has. Perhaps that’s unfair and it’s the ol’ curmudgeon in me poking through. Boo young love! But also… might be shipping a different couple…

Representation in stories is so important. Bree is a young Black woman. Her best friend, Alice, is a lesbian Asian-American. The initial lure of the book may be the well-known fairy tale, but the strength is Bree and the secondary power she discovers about herself. I really enjoyed how Bree smashes through the gatekeepers of the fairy tale in both specific and unintentional ways.

Overall, I would recommend this book for readers of YA and urban fantasy and I’m definitely excited for the sequel. 

Reader Remarks

I read quite fast. To the point where I will miss important points hidden in long paragraphs because I don’t feel compelled to read the entire section. If it takes more than an inexplicable amount of time to get through a paragraph, or the flow of the sentences is wordy and unexciting, I’m likely skimming it. Also if I’m really looking forward to some character interactions, I read fast to get to that part. I think my reading style does affect my enjoyment of books and should be mentioned to other readers who peruse this summary.

5 Stars!

A Spindle Splintered – by Alix E. Harrow (Review)

Fractured Fables #1

Fantasy, Retelling, Novella

Tor.com; October 5, 2021

3hr 20m (audiobook)
128 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

3.5 / 5 ✪

I was kindly furnished an advance copy in return for a fair and honest review. Many thanks to Tor.com and Macmillan Audio for the ARC (ALC?)! All opinions are my own.

Zinnia Grey is a normal 21-year old—one that has but one year to live. Born with a rare illness, she’s grown up knowing that no one has ever lived past the age of 22. In spite of this—or perhaps because of it—Zinnia has developed a full-on obsession with Sleeping Beauty. Not the Disney version either, but the older, darker, Grimm’s one. And as such, it should be no surprise when her best friend Charm throws Zinnia a sleeping beauty bash, complete with a tower and spinning wheel.

But when Zinnia accidentally pricks her finger on the spindle, something strange happens. Something that sees her awaken in a strange tower, in a strange world, with a strange honest-to-god princess also keen to escape her own fate. Something Zinnia can relate to.

And, maybe, something she can help with.

A funny and entertaining retelling that unfortunately suffers from holes in its story, setting, and otherwise short format. What A Spindle Splintered does have is a full cast of badass heroines, and if that’s what you came for—that should be enough to see you through. A love-at-first-sight romance complete with a fully fairy tale ending, whereas the subject itself goes in an entirely different direction.

I rather enjoyed Zinnia’s POV (which is the only one in the book), particularly her wit and sarcasm, and the fact that she totally owns her disease enough to constantly refer to herself as “the dying girl”. This title even comes with its own set of rules of living—complete with swearing off distraction, romance, and school. The humor of this is pretty heavily self-deprecating, as Zinnia attempts to grapple with the reality of her own mortality, one that is now looming over her. It’s one thing to hear that you’ll never make it past 22—but when you get to 21 it all suddenly gets real. The way she copes with this (mostly through humor), and how her journey into a faerie tale makes her confront it again is quite the thing.

The story wasn’t a complete hit with me, I’m afraid. The setting is incomplete, something I feel the short format (as a novella) worked against it. There just wasn’t enough time to build up the faerie tale, little alone for the real world or Zinnia’s place in it. What might’ve otherwise been little details became glaring missteps when you realize that the entirety of the plot is resting on them. Like Zinnia’s cell working from a faerie tale. Or her friend just up and accepting this without comment.

A Spindle Splintered may not have blown me away, but it’s done more than enough for me to recommend it, particularly to those that need a competent, badass heroine role-model, have a love for retellings, LGBTQ+ stories, novellas, and/or Alix E. Harrow. Where I have trouble recommending this is its price. $11 for a 120 page ebook? Ridiculous. Heck, the audiobook is cheaper, and that way you get to listen to the honeyed tongue of Amy Landon—something which I did, by the way. Landon did an excellent job bringing both Zinnia Grey, and the rewritten Sleeping Beauty fable to life. Still, maybe get it on sale.

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:)