Sunday, July 30, 2023

The Jasmine Throne

Tasha Suri
Completed 7/29/2023, Reviewed 7/29/2023
4 stars

Wow, another fantasy with a lot of politics and scheming which I actually loved.  This time, the story is set in an Indian-like culture.  The general plot is not that original, but the world-building, the characterization, and the prose are simply marvelous.  The politics, while fairly complex, were easy to follow.  There are a lot of characters, and the point of view jumps from chapter to chapter, but I had no trouble keeping track of who’s who and who was speaking.  And the magic system is breathtaking.  This book won the 2022 World Fantasy Award and was nominated for a few others.  Definitely worthy of the WFA despite a strong list of nominees.

Malini is a princess who was one of three women condemned to burn for traitorous activity against the emperor, her brother.  However, she refused to willingly climb the pyre.  The emperor exiles her to a ruined temple.  The temple was once the home of the deathless waters of one of the empire’s subjugated kingdoms.  Priya, a former child priestess of the temple and once born of the deathless waters who hides there as a maidservant, is assigned as the sole servant for Malini.  When Malini discovers Priya’s true nature, their destinies intertwine as Malini tries to escape and overthrow her despotic brother while Priya ties to push the empire out of her homeland.  Amidst the drama, a slow burning romance develops between the two women, but ultimately, their duties comes before pleasure.  

There are a lot of themes explored in this book, primarily the subjugation of women.  The despotic emperor fills his court with priests who believe in the burning of women as the original mothers voluntarily immolated themselves as sacrifices.  But for this emperor, it is pure sadism.  As a response, Malini tries to bring her eldest brother back to reclaim the throne, a claim he renounced when he became a monk of an alternative religion.  Malini’s captivity stands in her way.  She is governed by the vindictive mother of one of the other young women burned on the pyre, feeding Malini a drug that keeps her despondent, depressed, and eventually will kill her.  Priya is her only hope of escape.

Priya is a fantastic character, a strong but self-doubting woman with some gifts from having gone through the deathless water once.  Not a Mary Sue character at all, she must find the determination to help free Malini if there is any hope for freeing her own people.  I really liked Priya for her strength and determination, despite not always feeling up to the challenges she faces.

The third main character, Bhumika, is the wife of the emperor’s regent.  She is also a priestess of the temple and twice born of the deathless waters.  Her character comes into play when the action really begins. Through her, we, and Priya, learn just how powerful the gifts of the deathless waters are.  

I thought the world building was just phenomenal.  Based on Indian folklore, Suri creates a vivid world of power and decay.  The magic system is based on nature.  When the characters really start to use it, it’s pretty fantastic.  The prose is dreamy, but not over the top.  There’s a lot of well described action to keep the pace moving.  At over five hundred pages, this prose could have made this book a snore.  Instead everything was vivid and immediate, a real pleasure to read.

I give this book four stars out of five.  It’s an excellent book that makes you anticipate the sequels.  The only thing that kept this book from being five stars is that, while really enjoying the main characters, I found I was never completely engrossed in them.  Perhaps it was because Priya and Malini kept their feelings for each other at bay for so long, I too felt an arm’s length from really connecting with them. But just about every other aspect of this book is top notch.  I’ve started so many trilogies lately, I don’t know when I’ll get to the second book of this one, but I probably will eventually.  Highly recommended.

Saturday, July 22, 2023

A Deadly Education

Naomi Novik
Completed 7/22/2023, Reviewed 7/22/2023
3 stars

I think I usually like books about angsty teenagers, but it’s been a while since I’ve read one.  In this book, the teenager covers her angstiness with meanness.  That I don’t like.  Through most of this book, the main character is just plain mean.  And the story is told in first person.  It made me feel like the anger was directed at me, not just the other characters.  Towards the end, she makes a conscious effort to be less mean, which helped a bit.  The saving grace of this book was that the world building was terrific.  It’s not just your ordinary wizard school, not another Harry Potter rip-off.  It has a much more pragmatic, contemporary feel, as if it could really exist.

Galadriel, who prefers to be called “El,” is a junior at the Scholomance, a school for wizarding.  Her mother was lone wizard, not belonging to one of the many enclaves around the world.  El, as a result, has a disdain for the teens from the enclaves and as well as those who are trying to find a way into one.  The book opens with her being saved again from a monster (a mal) by one such teen, Orion.  The school is overrun by mals trying to eat the students and Orion seems to have a mission to protect as many students as he can.  El hates that fact that she has to be saved.  Thus starts a rocky relationship between the two of them as well as a few other loners, and of course the scads of mals overrunning the school.

Don’t be fooled though.  This is barely a teen romance.  It is a coming into one’s self and figuring out one’s place in the world.  El has been the petulant child for a long time.  At the Scholomance, she’s only ever looked out for herself, who seems to attract more mals than other students.  When she was young her grandmother divined a prophesy that El would bring about a reign of destruction.  So she has been shunned most her life.  Entrenched in self-sufficiency, she must now learn to survive by accepting help from other people.  

I spent most of this book not liking El.  At best, I pitied her.  That must have been Novik’s intent because I don’t see how anyone can like her.  Occasionally, her reflections and insights had some humorous bits, but it made my reading of this book a veritable slog.  At barely over 300 pages, it took me a long week to read this book.  I just didn’t want to be in El’s head that much.  

Fortunately, the school is another character in the book.  It’s crazy structure and format made for interesting reading.  What I found strange though was the purge of seniors at graduation.  It’s revealed to us early on that on graduation day, the seniors are gathered in a big hall which rotates down into the depths of the school where the mals wait to eat them.  The lucky ones escape; the unlucky ones, well, they don’t.  But apparently, this is better than going through your teen years out in the real world.  So the students basically study magic to build their repertoire enough to help them escape graduation, and develop enough of an arsenal of spells to make it through life after Scholomance.  

I give this book three stars out of five.  I was very disappointed in this book after thoroughly enjoying Novik’s previous two novels, Uprooted and Spinning Silver.  I did start to warm up to it at the end when El finally lightens up a bit and has to work with others to try to fix the apparatus that was supposed to keep the mal population at bay.  The world building and the ending helped keep this book from getting two stars.  

I got the whole Scholomance trilogy when the individual books were on big sales, so I’ll probably read the rest of them.  After all of El’s meanness, I saw some hope for her at the end and want to see what happens during her senior year and as she makes her way out into the real world.  I also want to see what more Novik can build into this world.  

Saturday, July 15, 2023

Jade War

Fonda Lee
Completed 7/15/2023, Reviewed 7/15/2023
4 stars

Really impressed that the sophomore effort in this trilogy is nearly as excellent as the first, Jade City.  At about the same length, it took me a little longer to read this book because work had me so exhausted that I fell asleep a few nights after reading just a couple of pages.  I will admit that there were times where the action slowed while Lee brought the reader up to speed with what happened to all the characters since the end of the last book.  Those sections weren’t boring, just slow.  And some of the international politics slowed things down a bit, but again, it wasn’t a trudge.  This book was nominated for several lower profile awards, but I would say it should have gotten more than it did.  

This plot summary has spoilers for the first novel, so beware…

It’s been eighteen months since the end of the first book.  Hilo is now Pillar of the No Peak clan.  He has married his lover Wen.  Without his knowledge, she does some spy work for the clan.  Hilo’s sister Shae is Weather Man.  She has her hand in all the business and politicking.  And she has taken on a lover.  Anden, the gay adoptive brother is all but punished for his rejection of Jade and indoctrination as a Green Bone.  He has disrespected the family, but his conscience won’t allow him to become a Green Bone after killing a man in the clan wars.  So, Anden is sent to Espenia to study abroad, but also to feel out the situation for bringing clan business to the mainland.  The Mountain Clan is gaining power and influence on the island since the death of Hilo’s brother Lan.  However, there is a tentative peace between the clans after all the violence of the previous few years.  In the meantime, war is raging on the mainland, causing uncertainty in the Jade trade, both legal and illegal, and the international relationships of countries and businesses with the clans.

What really stuck out for me was how much Hilo had matured.  He was the Horn of the clan, basically the head of the clan’s “army”.  He was hot headed and vengeful.  In this book, he’s much more subdued.  He still has the same faults.  They are just tempered.  Some of that is attributable to having a wife and a growing family, making him a more responsible leader.  This can be shown by his decision to send Anden to the mainland rather than a complete exile.  

Another standout is Bero, the street urchin who killed Lan.  The book begins with Bero again, this time, he and his accomplice steal Lan’s Jade from the grave.  This causes an all-out manhunt by the No Peaks, but Bero is still slippery.  He has an incredible power of survival.  And while he doesn’t get equal page time the clan family, his seemingly impulsive actions steer the course of the war between the clans.

I was excited that Anden got more page time in this book.  After sulking for a while in Espenia, he ends up an active part of the Kekon community there and even gets a boyfriend.  However, Cory is the only son the Pillar of this part of Espenia.  So you can see what’s probably coming there.  Still, his character developed very well.  

Lastly, Wen, Hilo’s wife, also gets more character development and page time.  I liked her as well.  As the stone eye, that is, a person unaffected by proximity to Jade, she finds ways to help the clan, despite Hilo’s insistence that she does not put herself in danger.

I was never one for crime family dramas, like The Godfather or The Sopranos.  However, I am fully immersed in the Kaul family saga.  I can’t wait to read the last book in the series.  So much happens in this book, so many twists and turns, that it kept my interest once the setting was reestablished in the beginning.  The crazy politics was even interesting.  This series would not be my usual cup of tea, but I found it just amazing.  I could hardly put it down for the last hundred pages.  I give this book four stars out of five, knocking off one star only because it took a while to ramp up.  

Wednesday, July 5, 2023

Siren Queen

Nghi Vo
Completed 7/4/2023, Reviewed 7/5/2023
3 stars

I was disappointed in this novel after reading the first three books of Vo’s Singing Hills series.  Beginning with The Empress of Salt and Fortune, it was gorgeously written and beautifully imagined.  While I thought Siren Queen was well written, the imagination was a little flat.  The book is a take on ‘30s era Hollywood, with its young stars and starlets, but infused with real monsters, not just the basic Harvey Weinstein kind.  It’s narrated by a young, queer, Asian-American woman who will do anything to become a star, even become a monster herself.  I think my issue with it was that the narrator had a stoic, disaffected persona.  She hardly let anyone get close, even when she fell in love.  You might say that that’s how she kept going in the harsh world of the Hollywood studio system, but it also prevented me from having much empathy for her.  Still, it’s a good, brisk read.  I finished this book in two days.  

Luli Wei grew up during the depression outside Hollywood to a family that owned a laundry.  When a movie theater is built, she saves her nickels to go.  When she doesn’t have any money, she lets the ticket taker cut an inch of hair and take a few years of her life for admission.  One day, she happens upon a movie set and the director takes her for a one-line role in his film.  Soon, she is getting regular, but tiny screen appearances.  When she turns eighteen, she gets into a studio with a three-year contract.  It’s on her terms: no Asian stereotype roles.  But she finds that it is not an easy place to be an out queer Asian-American woman in a racist, homophobic industry.  Even worse, she also finds that the success of the studios has to do with blood and sacrifices, human sacrifices.  

My favorite part of the book was the beginning.  I really enjoyed watching Luli grow up wanting to become a movie star, and then actually landing small, walk on roles.  When she finally gets a contract with one of the big three studios, it becomes less interesting for a while.  It didn’t pick up for me again until Luli finds her first love.  Then things get interesting.  We find out more about the human sacrifices and Luli lands a major role as a siren of the sea.  However, once she got to the studio, I lost the empathy I had for her as a child.  She keeps her distance from most people, including the reader.  

I think another thing that had me lost was the world building.  The magic system and monsters are all very vague.  There’s a lot of it, but it’s not clear how it all works.  I think I like my magic a little more well-defined.  I got a little lost in what was real and what was not.  Were the ghosts of the dead ancestors real?  Was the taking of years off your life real?  After reading enough of the book, I realized, yes, it was all real, but it did not seem well integrated into the world.  Whenever it popped up, I was surprised and a little hesitant rather than immediately accepting.  I guess I couldn’t suspend my disbelief very well.

I give the book three out of five stars.  It never quite came together for me.  It lacked the warmth I look for in a book.  Instead, this was cold and dark.  I won’t give up on Vo though.  I’m looking forward to the next novellas in the Singing Hills series and will probably read the next few novels she comes out with.  I really like her prose.  And I think she comes up with interesting ideas.  But in this book, they weren’t quite put together as well as I would have liked.

Monday, July 3, 2023

A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking

T. Kingfisher
Completed 7/3/2023, Reviewed 7/3/2023
4 stars

I was first introduced to T. Kingfisher under her real name, Ursula Vernon.  She wrote the brilliant web-comic Digger, which won the Mythopoeic Award when it was published in its omnibus edition.  This book is almost as good.  It’s a YA novel that’s pretty dark for the subgenre, but highly entertaining.  It’s well-written, fast-paced, and has a good lesson or two in it.  It’s very timely in its depiction of a group of people who are marginalized, ostracized, and hunted down.  But it’s one of these people who ends up saving the day.  It won several awards including the 2020 Andrew Norton Award and the 2021 Locus Young Adult Award. 

Mona is a fourteen-year-old baker’s assistant to her aunt.  She is also a magicker, meaning she does a little magic.  Specifically, she can do amazing things with dough.  One morning when she opens the bakery, she finds the body of another teen girl.  She’s accused of being the murderer by the chancellor, Lord Oberon.  Although she is acquitted by the Duchess herself and her wizard head of the army, Mona finds herself under continuous suspicion.  Next thing she knows, she’s being attacked by the same assassin.  Events twist and turn and soon she is called upon to help the Duchess defend the city from attack by the terrible, cannibalistic Carex people.  

They joy of this book is in the details.  Mona can make gingerbread men dance.  She has a sentient sourdough starter dough named Bob.  She can tell bread to become fresh or very, very stale.  All these little tricks are important for later when it comes time to defend the city.  

Of course, there is also the amazing character Mona.  She’s a very realistic fourteen-year-old.  The cries easily, she’s awkward, self-doubting, and caught in that rough age between childhood and adulthood.  She eschews the title of hero, but she happens to do the right things at the right time, even though she feels like they were last resorts and nothing special.  Kingfisher has several great passages about what it means to be a hero, and particularly, a reluctant one.  And that is what Mona is.  

There is a whole case of wonderful secondary characters, including Spindle, the street urchin whose sister was the victim Mona came upon.  He’s very ten-years-old, street-smart, and impulsive.  The Duchess is interesting as a not yet impotent ruler.  I liked her even though her willingness to believe Mona so quickly was a little hard to believe.  Lord Oberon and the dangerous Spring Green Man are deliciously evil.  Even the small characters like the castle’s cook and her kitchen maid, several of the Duchess’ guard, and the customers of the bakery had life breathed into them despite having small roles.  I owe all this to Kingfisher’s excellent writing.  She had very believable dialogue between the Mona and these characters.  Even the non-speaking gingerbread man familiar perched upon Mona’s shoulder was easily believable.

I give this book four out of five stars.  It’s highly entertaining and fun.  There are a lot of battle scenes near the end as the siege of the city by the Carex is long and drawn out.  It is not fun, as war should not be, but how Kingfisher works Mona’s magic into the battle is awesome.  And of course, there are several good discussions about war and evil and again, what being a hero really means.  I’ve now read Kingfisher’s brilliant comic, her awesome YA, next I want to read her adult novels.