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Month: November 2019

Review: Song of the Crimson Flower by Julie C. Dao

Review: Song of the Crimson Flower by Julie C. Dao

‘Will love break the spell? After cruelly rejecting Bao, the poor physician’s apprentice who loves her, Lan, a wealthy nobleman’s daughter, regrets her actions. So when she finds Bao’s prized flute floating in his boat near her house, she takes it into her care, not knowing that his soul has been trapped inside it by an evil witch, who cursed Bao, telling him that only love will set him free. Though Bao now despises her, Lan vows to make amends and help break the spell.

Together, the two travel across the continent, finding themselves in the presence of greatness in the forms of the Great Forest’s Empress Jade and Commander Wei. They journey with Wei, getting tangled in the webs of war, blood magic, and romance along the way. Will Lan and Bao begin to break the spell that’s been placed upon them? Or will they be doomed to live out their lives with black magic running through their veins?’

Song of the Crimson Flower follows the story of Bao, who has been in love with a girl he has grown to idealise, and Lan, the pampered girl herself. Though the book’s blurb claims that Bao ‘despises’ her after her rejection of him, I feel it’s important to point out that that isn’t a word that accurately portrays his feelings, nor reflects truly on him, as Bao is very much presented as someone who would not leap to such anger without incredibly good reason – certainly better than being rejected by Lan.

Bao is portrayed as an honourable soul who does his best to do right by as many people as he can, his past suffering something that drives him to try and ensure that he gives what he can to try and prevent others, even those he does not know, from experiencing what he has. The situation he finds himself in with Tam is more complex than it looks on the surface, for while Bao stands to suffer if he does not do as Tam’s mother directs, Tam is also trying to avoid being mistreated by his parents, for all that he does not go about it in the right way. Both of them are yearning for something different in the world, though it is much harder to sympathise with Tam, who comes across as arrogant and ungrateful, for all that to be forced into something he does not want is not something to wish upon a person. What is refreshing to see in Bao is a male protagonist who does not go out of his way to try and change the object of his affection, is not aggressive and not rude in his interaction with her or others. However, it could be said that he does need to stand up for himself more, as he accepts unreasonable behaviour on more than one occasion.

Lan is a difficult character to sympathise with, much as Tam, and though there are some moments (which I wish had been developed in greater detail) where it seems that she could have been a much different person, there are instances where it feels that she and Tam are much more on the same level than it would be kind to acknowledge. She appears to be very much someone who has been raised by a lifestyle and expectations rather than real human interaction, and once the one person that that there is evidence she truly cared about was gone, so was a good deal of her humanity. The thing is, Lan knows that she could and should behave better, but she spends a lot of time berating others and being annoyed with Bao for having feelings for her, often treating him very unkindly when he is only trying to do his best in the circumstances that he finds himself in. She does learn as the narrative unfolds, but whether it is enough is, I think, down to the individual reader.

If I were to be honest, I was more invested in Wei and Yen’s love story than that of Bao and Lan, as I kept hoping for more of their interactions as I was reading. Some of what the reader sees of them is clearly designed to try and teach Lan something, and while it’s true that she learns to reflect on her own behaviour and consider whether her desires are her own or those imprinted on her by circumstance, I was more intrigued by the story unfolding before her than I was in those realisations at that moment.

I would say that one thing I was quite conscious of as I was reading was the quite frequent use of heavy exposition. This, paired with the fact that there are some elements of the story that the characters accept without question, such as Bao’s visions and the very quick understanding of who his mother is, make the narrative a little clumsy in places. This is not to say that it is not an enjoyable read, because I did genuinely like the book, but these instances of easy acceptance take away a lot of suspense and tension and sign-point where events are headed quite early on. It is certainly well written and the description is often beautiful, and it’s a good addition to the other books set in this universe.

Song of the Crimson Flower is available in bookshops now!

Review: The Sky Weaver by Kristen Ciccarelli

Review: The Sky Weaver by Kristen Ciccarelli

‘At the end of one world, there always lies another.

Safire, a soldier, knows her role in this world is to serve the King of Firgaard-helping to maintain the peace in her oft-troubled nation.

Eris, a deadly pirate, has no such conviction. Known as The Death Dancer for her ability to evade even the most determined of pursuers, she possesses a superhuman ability to move between worlds.

When one can roam from dimension to dimension, can one ever be home? Can love and loyalty truly exist?

Then Safire and Eris-sworn enemies-find themselves on a common mission: to find Asha, the last Namsara.

From the port city of Darmoor to the fabled faraway Sky Isles, their search and their stories become threaded ever more tightly together as they discover the uncertain fate they’re hurtling towards may just be a shared one. In this world, and the next.’

The Last Namsara and The Caged Queen number among my favourite books and I’ve so been looking forward to The Sky Weaver (while also being sad that it’s the last book in this world and with these characters). I’m pleased to say that it was the same high quality that I’ve come to expect from this series and I loved the continuing structural device of using history/mythology between chapters set in the present to augment the story and reveal more of the world to the reader ahead of the moments in which threads draw together for the characters, ensuring the significance of these moments is not lost.

Safire is a character we’ve met before and is the commander of her cousin’s forces, having worked to prove herself more than capable while others have looked down on her because of her birth, and while she presents herself as brave and fearless, she remains haunted by the treatment of those who attempted to drag her down – and, ultimately, her response to it when she finally had the upper hand and ability to decide their fate. Having been fighting against a particular kind of evil for much of her life, that those she holds dear are now free and in power tends to skew her beliefs to absolute faith and loyalty to them, something that she begins to question when Eris enters her life. What I find most interesting about what happens to not only Safire, but much of the main cast, is that they are often trying to find their way and make the best decisions based on choices which will ultimately end up hurting someone that they love, making it feel somewhat like damage control. None of those who have become leaders since The Last Namsara are particularly experienced by this point, and all are attempting to do what is right for as many as possible in a world that they are still changing and shaping, and I liked that there is not one character who is presented as infallible or so knowledgeable and powerful that they know absolutely what to do when presented with difficult situations that stand to make someone pay a price.

Eris’ story is slightly removed from that of the cast that the reader has got to know over the past two books, her narrative one that develops the already established storylines and brings them together and to their conclusion. Working as a thief, she steals that which her boss orders her to, using a magical device in the form of a spindle to appear and disappear, creating legends that she can walk through walls and evade capture. Between one point and another is a place that she calls Across, where she can weave doors to particular places or people as more fixed points, though even here she is not entirely safe from her enemies. Eris carries the buden of being unaware of her origins and having experienced the destruction of that which was her first home, and has long lived with the belief that no-one really wants her around. Having had to survive among those with very few morals, her world view is considerably wider than Safire’s and, while they stand to be enemies, it’s Eris who takes the first steps of kindness towards the other (and the first steps in deliberately irritating and annoying her too).

I loved that we saw more of the dragons in The Sky Weaver and got to hear more about how they are being treated now that Dax and Roa’s kingdom knows the truth of them. It was lovely to see dragons and humans working together and to see more established about how the bond between a dragon and rider works. Sorrow was adorable and I particularly liked his role in the story.

Thank you, Gollancz, for the ARC!

I received a digital ARC from Netgalley and the publisher.

Review: Girls of Storm and Shadow by Natasha Ngan

Review: Girls of Storm and Shadow by Natasha Ngan

‘Lei and Wren have escaped their oppressive lives in the Hidden Palace, but soon learn that freedom comes with a terrible cost.

Lei, the naive country girl who became a royal courtesan, is now known as the Moonchosen, the commoner who managed to do what no one else could. But slaying the cruel Demon King wasn’t the end of the plan—it’s just the beginning. Now Lei and her warrior love Wren must travel the kingdom to gain support from the far-flung rebel clans. The journey is made even more treacherous thanks to a heavy bounty on Lei’s head, as well as insidious doubts that threaten to tear Lei and Wren apart from within.

Meanwhile, an evil plot to eliminate the rebel uprising is taking shape, fueled by dark magic and vengeance. Will Lei succeed in her quest to overthrow the monarchy and protect her love for Wren, or will she fall victim to the sinister magic that seeks to destroy her?’

Girls of Paper and Fire is one of my all-time favourite books and I was both desperate to read and terrified of reading Girls of Storm and Shadow, fearing I would get my heart broken by something terrible happening to Lei and Wren, and while I can’t say whether or not that came to pass without too many spoilers, what I will say is that I think I loved Girls of Storm and Shadow even more than the first book. I love books with the exploration of ethics, morality and politics that its plot allows and I enjoyed the wider view of the world (though I feel that we have much of it left to see in the third novel).

Wren and Lei’s relationship is one of quiet affection, support and an understanding of pieces of each other that have been shaped by their shared experiences in Girls of Paper and Fire. While they both make every effort to not let these experiences take hold of them when they are in public, or even with those that they trust, when they’re alone they give each other the safe space to fall apart and help put each other back together again. Both are understandably suffering from their own forms of post traumatic stress, though seem to attempt to deal with it in different ways: Wren by throwing herself ever more dangerously into her mission and Lei by first learning how to fight and defend herself so that can know she is proficient, all the while haunted by her memories of the Demon King and the assaults she has suffered at his hand, both physical and otherwise. That their trauma is not seen as a plot device to be ‘got over’ is such an important part of the narrative, both in Girls of Paper and Fire and this instalment, and I wish there were more books that handled this subject in the emotionally sensitive manner that Ngan does.

Romantic without being needlessly and overtly sexualised, their relationship is often formed of little moments of simple physical contact and embraces. There are some potentially worrying moments where Lei continues to believe that Wren is all that is good and right in the world (which is understandable, given what she knows of her at these points), her beauty and strength something that she often lingers on in thinking of her, inching her admiration a little towards towards the grateful variety of infatuation one might form for someone who has done as Wren has for her (though this is not to say that Lei was not key to securing their freedom). As the story unfolds and Wren begins to become more and more willing to make unsettling sacrifices for the ‘greater good’, experiencing Lei slowly reaching the conclusion that she actually knows very little of all that Wren is and what she is determined to do, seemingly no matter the cost, is almost painful. Though what she witnesses doesn’t ultimately shake her love for her, what she believes and thinks of Wren take a dramatic shift as she finds herself unable to reconcile the price that she and others are willing to pay – and her own unwitting part in threads that others have drawn on.

Lei’s role in Girls of Storm and Shadow is an interesting one, in that, while she is attempting to rid herself of the control of a man who has dominated, exploited and assaulted her, she is simultaneously being used by another as a figurehead and a reason for people to rebel and take up arms against the king. That she is uncomfortable with her title and isn’t quite sure what she can do about the situation she now finds herself in is most evident when she directly interacts with Wren’s father, and while she clearly wants freedom for the Papers and to rid the world of the king’s grasp, being elevated to the position of the Moonchosen and admired for what she has done seems to sit very ill with her.

There is so much I want to write about Aoki, but I don’t want to spoil the story, so I’ll have to settle for saying I was internally yelling for much of her appearance. I both love her and am terrified for her.

One of minor detriments to my enjoyment at the novel was primarily at its beginning, when Bo’s humour often seems rather out of place and his continuous jokes can be a little jarring and irritating. This isn’t to say that I disliked him as a character – I’m actually half-convinced that he is meant to be slightly irritating at the beginning of the novel to give room for him to become endeared to the reader, as my opinion of him had changed quite drastically and I was rather attached to him by the middle of the book.

Girls of Storm and Shadow is a beautifully written and enchanting read and is out today!

Review: Skein Island by Aliya Whiteley

Review: Skein Island by Aliya Whiteley

‘Skein Island, since 1945 a private refuge for women, lies in turbulent waters twelve miles off the coast of Devon. Visitors are only allowed by invitation from the reclusive Lady Amelia Worthington. Women stay for one week, paying for their stay with a story from their past: a Declaration for the Island’s vast library.

Marianne’s invitation arrives shortly before her quiet life at the library is violently interrupted, the aftermath leaving her husband David feeling helpless. Now, just like her mother did seventeen years ago, she must discover what her story is. Secrets are buried deep on Skein Island. The monsters of Ancient Greece and the atrocities of World War II, heroes and villains with their seers and sidekicks, and the stories of a thousand lifetimes all threaten to break free.

But every story needs an ending, whatever the cost.’

Skein Island follows the journey of Marianne, who, in the wake of a violent intrusion into her life, accepts an invitation to Skein Island, curious to know just why her mother visited the island and never returned to her. Her decision to visit the island forms part of her desire to take greater control over her life, determined that she will not be viewed as to be protected or ‘rescued’ by her husband and other men, and her need for answers presents the opportunity to examine multiple facets of her past and her present.

The story’s content primarily (and I use the term loosely, for there is a great deal covered by the novel’s themes and plot threads that I couldn’t possibly hope to examine in as much detail as I’d like in a single post) addresses imbalances of power and how the sexes view each other, particularly how women are historically seen as the weaker sex, to be footnotes in the stories of men and not permitted to take charge of their own stories. There are a good deal of references to Ancient Greek literature and mythology, which I very much appreciated, especially as it serves to highlight just how much society unfortunately hasn’t left behind the ancient belief that women are to be controlled and must behave only in particular ways – and that any woman who steps outside of those boundaries is to be considered unnatural and out of control. There are repeated instances of men growing frustrated with women when they do not behave as is desired or refuse to let their partners be the ‘hero’ that they wish to be, with the male point of view ultimately finding women unreasonable for not permitting them to always respond as they wish or in ways they appear to find instinctive.

What I’m not sure is deliberate or not, but will comment on as an interpretation as if it is, is that there appears to be an ironic presentation of different stereotypes of women. To go into too much detail would give away too much of the plot, but there seem to be characters who are deliberately crafted to fit a category, such as the ‘mother’ and the ‘homewrecker’, which I think is an interesting construct in a novel exploring female identity, especially as it makes the reader think just how much of the idea of these judgements passed on women is down to a society, media (etc) that has long been controlled by men.

The magic and fantastical elements of the story are chilling and there are no punches pulled in the execution of the more disturbing features of that which forms Skein Island’s core fantasy component. Coupled with the commentary about stories of women and their role in their own narratives, it makes for a haunting read that acknowledges the frustration and suffering of women through the ages – and addresses the fact that acknowledging such does not give even the most self-aware complete freedom from all that continues to bind them.

One thing that I feel I have to mention is that I don’t believe the blurb accurately represents the novel’s content. Given the content of said blurb, I was anticipating a great deal more to do with Ancient Greece and historical struggles, and though I did, as mentioned above, greatly appreciate and enjoy the references to mythology, it wasn’t quite what I was anticipating.

Skein Island is out November 5th! Thank you to Titan Books for sending me a copy for review!

Review: Find Me Their Bones by Sara Wolf

Review: Find Me Their Bones by Sara Wolf

‘No one can save her.

In order to protect Prince Lucien d’Malvane’s heart, Zera had to betray him. Now, he hates the sight of her. Trapped in Cavanos as a prisoner of the king, she awaits the inevitable moment her witch severs their magical connection and finally ends her life.

But fate isn’t ready to give her up just yet.

With freedom coming from the most unlikely of sources, Zera is given a second chance at life as a Heartless. But it comes with a terrible price. As the king mobilizes his army to march against the witches, Zera must tame an elusive and deadly valkerax trapped in the tunnels underneath the city if she wants to regain her humanity.

Winning over a bloodthirsty valkerax? Hard. Winning back her friends before war breaks out? A little harder.

But a Heartless winning back Prince Lucien’s heart?

The hardest thing she’s ever done.’

I absolutely loved Bring Me Their Hearts (I literally shrieked at the cliffhanger it was left on and I honestly don’t think I’ve ever done that before) and have been so looking forward to Find Me Their Bones – and I’m glad to say that I was not at all disappointed by it. I read it cover to cover in one go, simply because I couldn’t put it down and I had to know what happened not just to Zera, but to the rest of the cast (including the more villainous variety) as well. In my experience, I find it quite rare to have a cast of characters – both the ‘heroes’ and the ‘villains’ – that are so easy to care about and become invested in. This series is one of my all-time favourites and if you’ve not yet picked up Bring Me Their Hearts, I urge you to give it a read!

I think what I appreciated most about Find Me Their Bones is the tone in which it’s written, particularly Zera’s dialogue and her attitude. The ‘strong and confident’ female lead can be done very poorly, in that many YA books have this character type behave in an over the top fashion for the duration of the narrative. The way that Zera behaves, often bringing sass and trying to find humour in situations in which she she cannot escape or finds too uncomfortable to bear is clearly presented as a coping mechanism when paired with her moments of fear, uncertainty and a deep sense of being unworthy. Her humour feels like a natural, defensive response and it doesn’t paint her as unbearably smug or overconfident. She is simply trying to deal with all that’s been forced upon her. Wolf strikes a very fine balance with Zera, ensuring that, while she has moments of physical and emotional strength, there are just as many instances of pain and vulnerability that keep her from being too much of one and not enough of the other. Though there are a lot of characters in YA books that I appreciate for the way they are, I find that Zera is one that I actually like, which I think is quite different to simply enjoying how a character is written. I love her quiet strength and that she is not overly maudlin about about that which she has every right to be, such as the fact that she quite literally dies at the hands of others who care not for her wellbeing more than once over the course of the novel. Zera gets on with what she must and looks for solutions, proving herself to be brave and clever and willing to aid others, often at a cost to herself.

One of the things I was glad of is that Zera, though plainly upset over what has happened to her relationship with Lucien, doesn’t obsess over it or let herself be so much in love that it overwhelms everything else. Yes, she loves him, and yes, there are moments when she wishes things could be different and thinks about him in a romantic way, but in almost every instant she is quick to divert herself from those thoughts and try to do something practical about not getting close to him again (whether it works or otherwise). She does her best to push him and others away, lying as and when she must with the intention of hurting them to keep them from growing attached to her in ways that will cost them, and does not dwell on how this makes her feel or fall into the trap of agonising about it to the detriment of the narrative. The exploration of her relationship with Lucien and those Zera has formed friendships with in the previous novel is, in Find Me Their Bones, not so much a look at romance, relationships and regrets, but how dangerous feelings stand to be, particularly in how they can be used to manipulate and expose weaknesses. While Zera knows that it would be better for all that she keep her distance and not let herself become involved in any way with those she has betrayed, the prospect of more simple and human interactions seems to keep luring her back, which she well knows could cost her her heart (literally) and what of her humanity, her memories and her past that she wishes to regain. It isn’t only herself that she worries for in terms of the toll of emotional involvement, and it’s that she genuinely cares for those around her (those she was never meant to love or want to protect) that ultimately leads to her feeling some of the worst of the same variety of betrayal that she was forced to commit in Bring Me Their Hearts.

Find Me Their Bones is a well-paced, engaging and immersive read with a solid cast of characters (even those with smaller roles are not merely names and titles, but given their own histories, motivation and story) and I can’t wait for the next book! Thank you to Entangled: Teen for the ARC! Find Me Their Bones is out on November 5th!

I received a digital ARC of Find Me Their Bones from Netgalley and the publisher.