Book reviews, Fantasy, LGBT Books

Book Review | In the Vanishers’ Palace

in the vanishers palace

I loved this book so much, and I really need to thank Acqua for making me aware of it, which made me request it. I saw the title on Netgalley multiple times but the cover led me to believe this was a middle grade book for some reason — when it’s actually an adult retelling of Beauty and the Beast, set in a Vietnamese inspired fantasy world and with an f/f romance.

41729893When failed scholar Yên is sold to Vu Côn, one of the last dragons walking the earth, she expects to be tortured or killed for Vu Côn’s amusement.

But Vu Côn, it turns out, has a use for Yên: she needs a scholar to tutor her two unruly children. She takes Yên back to her home, a vast, vertiginous palace-prison where every door can lead to death. Vu Côn seems stern and unbending, but as the days pass Yên comes to see her kinder and caring side. She finds herself dangerously attracted to the dragon who is her master and jailer. In the end, Yên will have to decide where her own happiness lies—and whether it will survive the revelation of Vu Côn’s dark, unspeakable secrets…

I was actually convinced retellings weren’t something I was that interested in until I read this, suffice it to say it changed my mind. This is a novella but the world-building is amazing, it isn’t spoon-fed to the reader or overly explained, and it only added to the feeling of eerie wrongness of Yên’s village, and Vu Côn’s palace. The world was broken by extraordinarily powerful creatures, called Vanishers, who did as they pleased with humanity and spirits alike, and then simply vanished leaving behind a world that was a husk of its former self. Society struggles, the poor suffer the most, people are seen in terms of how “useful” they can be to their community —  and disposed of when they overstay their welcome.

It’s a short book but it has the time to examine several themes, like the complexities of human relationships, and the kind of connections people form — how social hierarchies shape communities and destroy them, how people are capable of putting their own well-being aside in the name of what’s right. I enjoyed all those reflections, which were subtle and weaved through with the plot and tied to character development, and thankfully not a stream of consciousness info-dump. But what I liked the most was the theme of nature vs nurture when it came to Vu Côn’s children. I can’t get into too much detail because it gets into spoiler territory, but it was a great part of the book, and I loved Thông and Liên as characters.

I also appreciated seeing characters who used gender neutral pronouns like Thông and Elder Giang represented, and the little ways the world-building addressed that. They lived in a society who accepted them and that was reflected in things like clothing, forms of address, and myths and legends. It added extra immersion, and made the world feel even more real and dynamic, to the point it’s hard to believe this book doesn’t even have 200 pages.

I loved the romance too, Vu Côn and Yên are very different but equally compelling characters, and I loved the changes to the original tale. Vu Côn is a Beast with far more selfless motivations, albeit just as short and gruff at times. She also doesn’t feel like a prisoner in her own castle as much as prisoner of the Vanisher’s legacy, which is a more compelling narrative than “cursed by a witch”. I’ve never liked The Beauty and the Beast in part because the Beast always felt vaguely pathetic to me. Vu Côn is nothing like that, she’s strong and powerful and you never once doubt her abilities, she also doesn’t fly into rages which was much appreciated.

Vu Côn also stays a monster, which I absolutely loved. I should clarify that she is a spirit, and thus has both a dragon form and a human form, which she can change and meld together at will. Her regaining full human form is never a plot point and the book is all the better for it, because I for one love monsters, and I love romances that involve them. I’m actually determined to read as many LGBT books with monster/human romances as I can. I hope it becomes a trend. I want to personally thank Guillermo del Toro, and now Venom, for being pioneers, and bringing this genre to the masses.

Anyway.

The writing was delicious, it gave a real sense of setting and contributed much to the world-building. I loved all the descriptions of the Vanishers’ palace which is this mind-bending, physics defying ever-changing construction, that is dangerous to (almost) everyone who walks its halls and many rooms. It was such a fascinating place, and I could spend much more time there. The palace and all the constructs, inside and outside, were also great contributors to the sense of unease and foreboding. Even in absence the Vanishers’ presence hung like an oily film over everything.

My only complaint is that I wish this book were longer, and perhaps even a series, because I loved the world so much and would like nothing more than to return to it. That being said, I was still completely satisfied with the story as it was, and everything was perfectly resolved. I just want more because I’m greedy.

Rating: ★★★★★
Author: Aliette de Bodard
Publisher: JABberwocky Literary Agency

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Book reviews, Fantasy, LGBT Books

Book Review | Bloody Rose

bloody rose reviewI don’t know how to describe this book without just gushing meaningless praise, after meaningless praise. It was such an enjoyable, engaging, fun read, with plenty of humour that somehow lulled me into a false sense of security and then ripped my heart out with the ending (it was the good kind of pain).

35052265Tam Hashford is tired of working at her local pub, slinging drinks for world-famous mercenaries and listening to the bards sing of adventure and glory in the world beyond her sleepy hometown.

When the biggest mercenary band of all rolls into town, led by the infamous Bloody Rose, Tam jumps at the chance to sign on as their bard. It’s adventure she wants – and adventure she gets as the crew embark on a quest that will end in one of two ways: glory or death.

You know how there are a lot of books that you finish reading and think to yourself: “that would make a great movie”. Bloody Rose would make a perfect RPG, I’m salivating just imagining it. I’ve never actually read a book that reads so much like a game, and I mean that in the best way possible. The band is your traditional party: with spell-casters summoners, rogues, tanks etc. The enemies are “monsters” all different, and with varying degrees of sentience, which leads into the vast array of possible moral choices, do you go for glory or peace? Spectacle or Clemency? The adventure of the wyld or the comfort of home? The book raises all these questions, and the characters even find answers for some of them. But I can’t help being greedy and wishing I could get to play some more in Eames’ wonderful, fascinating, world and its really compelling lore. Ok, I’ll stop.

But to any game devs reading this, please make it happen.

Anyway, back to the story. It’s full of heart and humour for one. Some fantasy takes itself so seriously that it’s honestly a chore to get through, others are so superficial, so devoid of any deeper understanding of the world and its inner workings that it feels like the author wanted the trappings of fantasy but none of the work that comes with it. Bloody Rose offers a completely fleshed-out world, with politics and conflicts that are at once petty and urgent depending on which characters you ask, and where every character, no matter how minor, has their own unique voice, and their own part to play in the plot. Nothing is wasted, every scene is meaningful and hurtles towards a clear-cut objective and most importantly — conflict resolution. Yet this book feels indulgent, with plenty of quiet moments of introspection and camaraderie, where the chaos and urgency peels back and we can take a peek at the tender humanity that ties it all together.

Speaking of which. Tam is a wonderful protagonist, she is so likeable, and while psychologically flawed in the sense that she’s at once extremely insecure and a glory hound (maybe adventure hound is more appropriate, but she does bask and preen a little) I really appreciate that she’s physically flawed as well. You see, she joins the mercenary band Fable as a bard, a role that, unlike in video games and DnD, doesn’t come with any special skills beyond being able to play and write songs. She’s a competent archer and half-way through the books gets some more weapons training, but that’s about it. She tries to help her bandmates, and sometimes she succeeds, and sometimes she accidentally hits them with her arrows. She’s great, they like her anyway.

Tam is also a lesbian, something she tells you within the first chapter. Watching her flirt is adorable and hilarious at the same time, it works out in the end because no woman can resist her wide-eyed earnestness. She develops a romantic relationship with one of her bandmates, and it’s just so good. Their personalities are diametrically opposed, and there’s even a little bit of friction in the beginning, and it’s delightful to see the feelings grow between them. Don’t worry though, this isn’t a romance masquerading as fantasy, the romance is very much a B-plot to the central conflict, and it works well that way.

Every single one of Fable’s members has their own internal conflict and we learn about their motivations as they tie seamlessly into the main plot, just like all good side-quests should. Besides Tam, my favourites were Brune and Cura. Finding out Brune’s backstory was such a memorable part of the book. I loved how being a shaman was such a delicate balancing act between the human and animal side, and how “repression” featured into it. It elevated something that could be “wow cool power” into a deeper analysis of character. Cura literally summoning her demons to fight for her was also poignant in a very understated way.

In a way Rose was the character I felt the most distanced from. Which I wouldn’t say is a bad thing, she is meant to be this larger than life legend, and the figurehead of Fable, her character arc deals with exactly that. Wanting that fame and recognition, and once having it, realising that it strips her of personhood just as much as living under her father’s shadow did. Her relationship with motherhood is very interesting and honest. She loves her daughter, but being a mother isn’t a role she’s sure suits her. She’s a fascinating character, but her at once mythological existence and the narrative acknowledgement of her broken pedestal, makes it hard to see her in the same human light as the other characters. Which I say isn’t a bad thing because I think that was exactly the author’s intention.

Every Rose has its thorns though, and as much as I loved this book, I need to mention how much it annoyed me that it kept evading one conversation I very much wanted it to have. The thing with “monsters” in this universe is that they aren’t all mindless killing machines, they also aren’t controlled by a cosmical evil (a la darkspawn from Dragon Age), some of them are sentient, and a lot of them feel like regular “animals” a lot of the time. What this means is that I started feeling a bit uncomfortable with the carnage, and wondering if the book would ever address this. It did! Kinda. The characters talked about it, they expressed remorse sometimes, in one memorable occasion they tried to resolve things peacefully. But it doesn’t really go anywhere from there. At one point it feels like they will have to come to a really hard moral decision, confront the fact that humanity’s cruelty was responsible for the monster’s desperation and their willingness to join someone who promised them freedom from the humans, but a convenient deus ex machina meant they never had to. The decision was literally taken out of their hands!

Maybe this is a theme that will be dealt with in a sequel, that seems likely. After writing two fantastic books I doubt Eames is the kind of author who thinks referencing something is the same as analysing it. So I’m hopeful this won’t be a dropped plot-point and will be picked up in a later book!

All in all, some fantasy books show you an exciting journey, some take you on an exciting journey. Bloody Rose was the latter. And one I will remember for a very long time.

Rating: ★★★★★
Author: Nicholas Eames
Publisher: Orbit

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Book reviews, Fantasy, LGBT Books

Book Review | Godsgrave

godsgrave

by Jay Kristoff — This book actually fixed the few minor complaints I had with Nevernight but then went around and introduced a few new ones. It’s still an incredible book that I had a lot of fun with, and I can’t wait for Darkdown, but it’s still that half star shy of perfection.

“Assassin Mia Corvere has found her place among the Blades of Our Lady of Blessed Murder, but many in the Red Church ministry think she’s far from earned it. Plying her bloody trade in a backwater of the Republic, she’s no closer to ending Consul Scaeva and Cardinal Duomo, or avenging her familia. And after a deadly confrontation with an old enemy, Mia begins to suspect the motives of the Red Church itself.

When it’s announced that Scaeva and Duomo will be making a rare public appearance at the conclusion of the grand games in Godsgrave, Mia defies the Church and sells herself to a gladiatorial collegium for a chance to finally end them. Upon the sands of the arena, Mia finds new allies, bitter rivals, and more questions about her strange affinity for the shadows. But as conspiracies unfold within the collegium walls, and the body count rises, Mia will be forced to choose between loyalty and revenge, and uncover a secret that could change the very face of her world.”

As you can see from the graphic (I can’t stick to a single style, I apologise), this book is all about gladiator fights — the more over the top the better. Unfortunately I really don’t care about them. I loved the tv show Spartacus, but it had enough blood and sand to last me a lifetime. It’s just a setting I have no interesting in revisiting. Speaking of setting, the Roman Empire influences are a lot more explicit in this book than in the previous one. Inescapably present, really. Mia spends most of the book training to be a gladiator, so it’s sort of hard to miss. And that’s it for complaints!

Despite my initial trepidation I still managed to enjoy some of the fights, and I did care about their outcome, the stakes were high enough to keep my attention. One fight in particular was actually pretty exciting, probably because it was against a monster and not people. The highlight were Mia’s fellow gladiators, though. In the previous book I complained that some side-characters felt a little underdeveloped, there’s no such thing here. All of them had clear personalities and voices, and even motivations that went against Mia’s plans. With the exception of Furian, (who fell a little flat for me, and annoyed me to no end), all the characters introduced in Godsgrave were welcome additions, and in a few cases sad departures when they met their grisly end. Sid in particular was a delight, he starts out as sort of a slimeball, but he redeems himself and becomes one of the most endearing characters in the whole book pretty fast.

The romance! I loved, loved it. Unlike Mia’s previous romance with he-who-shall-remain-nameless (because it’s a spoiler) where I felt like the relationship made them worse characters, as in: less interesting, boring to read about, and their romantic moments were overall dull. Mia’s relationship with this girl was completely different. I liked how they worked together, how they became a strong unit moving towards a common goal. I liked how they became better people together. I really hope to see their relationship develop even more in the next book, because I just love their dynamic and think it shows a lot of promise.

The ending was somewhat predictable, not nearly as shocking as Nevernight’s. That isn’t a bad thing, though. It felt predictable in that it unfolded in a way that was supported by previous events in the book, nothing felt like it was coming out of the blue for the sake of being another plot twist. There was one thing I definitely didn’t see coming. I don’t usually like it when characters come back from the dead, and it doesn’t look like the Nevernight series is going to make me change my tune– that’s all I’ll say about it. Eldritch abominations are cool, though.

The characters making a comeback were all welcome sights. And while I was expecting to keep closer tabs on the Red Church this book did a good job of making me happy to see the back of them. It also addressed the matter of slavery, which was sort of glossed over in Nevernight, but plays a huge role in Godsgrave. There’s a scene in the end that is particularly satisfying, when some people get a great comeuppance, and one gets away far too lightly. I hope that proves a mistake Mia grows to regret in the next book. I love consequences. Which is an ironic thing to say considering my second favourite character keeps getting away with murder. But I’m allowed my biases. Which Jay Kristoff seems to share.

Godsgrave is a great sequel,  one that lives up to its predecessor. Expands on some world-building, patches some holes, and opens new ones, just to keep things exciting. It’s not without its flaws but that doesn’t make it any less charming and fun. The change of scenery, so to speak, could give some readers pause, but I can also see it being a highlight for others. Either way, another great book in a series I can’t wait to read more of.

Rating: ★★★★½
Author: Jay Kristoff
Publisher:  St. Martin’s Press

Book reviews, Fantasy, Lgbt Characters

Book Review | Red Sister

red sister review

by Mark Lawrence — I loved this book. There wasn’t a single thing I didn’t enjoy about it. The characters were a delight, from the lovable to the despicable, they were all unique and their voices unmistakable. The world was fascinating, and so gripping that I swear I could hear the Corridor wind whistling in my ears, rustling my hair. I didn’t want to leave, and I put off finishing this book for a long time — for me that’s the highest form of praise. The books I speed by are entertaining, and fun, but the ones I take my time with are truly special.

At the Convent of Sweet Mercy young girls are raised to be killers. In a few the old bloods show, gifting talents rarely seen since the tribes beached their ships on Abeth. Sweet Mercy hones its novices’ skills to deadly effect: it takes ten years to educate a Red Sister in the ways of blade and fist.

But even the mistresses of sword and shadow don’t truly understand what they have purchased when Nona Grey is brought to their halls as a bloodstained child of eight, falsely accused of murder: guilty of worse.

Stolen from the shadow of the noose, Nona is sought by powerful enemies, and for good reason. Despite the security and isolation of the convent her secret and violent past will find her out. Beneath a dying sun that shines upon a crumbling empire, Nona Grey must come to terms with her demons and learn to become a deadly assassin if she is to survive…”

Nona is a fantastic protagonist, you just want to peel all the layers that make up her personality and get to the heart of her. She’s as outwardly cold as the frozen world of Abeth, beaten down by the harsh weather and an even harsher life, but that outward layer is like a warm cloak that protects her from the elements – and her rage is hot and incandescent, a glorious thing to watch – that hides the lonely 11 year-old girl who is so desperate for companionship, for friendship, that she won’t think twice about laying down her life for a friend. She might be a nun in training, learning under the blessing of the Ancestor, but friendship is Nona’s religion, and loyalty her prayer. I felt her struggles keenly, I wanted her to succeed at all costs, even as she was hot-headed and impulsive, risking her life but always mindful of the dangers to her friends’.

I loved Nona, she is the perfect protagonist, in my opinion. But the title of most fascinating character definitely goes to Abbess Glass who is everything J.K. Rowling wishes Albus Dumbledore was – I’m at once compelled to trust her, trust that her student’s well-being is a priority to her, but I’m also suspicious of her motivations. She is a master manipulator, and she uses everything and everyone to her advantage, to protect the convent and its students, sure, but you’re always left wondering how far is she willing to go, and is there even a limit if the end result is the greater good? Her voice is at once maternal and ruthless, it’s such a hard line to walk but Mark Lawrence does it beautifully.

This is grimdark fantasy, and while the students are 10-12 years-old they don’t sound like it. They live in an extremely unforgiving planet, with only the warmth of the “focus moon” to melt a thin corridor of liveable land around Abeth’s equator. The harsh realities of life don’t leave much room for carefree childhoods, but some of the natural innocence of children still shines through in some moments — few and far between, but that only makes them more poignant. That being said, the Convent of Sweet Mercy is still a comforting space, in the way all magical schools should be, even with danger lurking in every corner. The classes and the magic system were a highlight for me, even as many of the powers Nona, and a few others display, are still unpredictable. Walking the Path especially was very engrossing, and very easy to visualise, which speaks well of Mark Lawrence’s wonderful writing.

The only real complain I have about this book is that while Mark Lawrence is amazing at writing women, really from the despicable to the sweet they are all fascinating, he isn’t nearly as good at writing men. The few men that show up in Red Sister are rather one dimensional, and while one antagonist is appropriately menacing, that’s all there is to him. The other male antagonist, and Nona’s nemesis…I don’t think I remember a word he said. I sincerely hope that if there’s going to be any romance in future books (besides the side romance between two adult nuns at the Convent) it remains between the female cast, because the men in this world aren’t at all memorable. And again it speaks volumes about how great this book is, that it didn’t detract in the least from my enjoyment.

I still haven’t managed to talk about how beautiful the prose in this book is. Red Sister has some of the most beautiful writing I’ve read in grimdark fantasy. It’s lyrical without being purple. Some turns of phrase were so stunning that they stayed with me long after I’d read them. There really isn’t enough I can say to express how delightful this was to read. If the grimdark label doesn’t give you pause (and trigger warnings for violence/abuse against children) do yourself a favour and pick up this book.

Rating: ★★★★★
Author: Mark Lawrence
Publisher:  Ace

Book reviews, Fantasy, Young Adult

Book Review | Nevernight

nevernight book review

by Jay Kristoff — I don’t have any witty remarks to start this review off, this was just a solid fantasy book that I enjoyed immensely. Compelling and believable world-building, solid characters, and a strong, if commonplace, plot that carried its weight all through the book. That’s it really.

“Daughter of an executed traitor, Mia Corvere is barely able to escape her father’s failed rebellion with her life. Alone and friendless, she hides in a city built from the bones of a dead god, hunted by the Senate and her father’s former comrades. But her gift for speaking with the shadows leads her to the door of a retired killer, and a future she never imagined.

Now, Mia is apprenticed to the deadliest flock of assassins in the entire Republic—the Red Church. If she bests her fellow students in contests of steel, poison and the subtle arts, she’ll be inducted among the Blades of the Lady of Blessed Murder, and one step closer to the vengeance she desires. But a killer is loose within the Church’s halls, the bloody secrets of Mia’s past return to haunt her, and a plot to bring down the entire congregation is unfolding in the shadows she so loves.”

Mia, the protagonist, is a really likeable character. I have a fondness for outwardly cold female characters that use their prickly exterior as a shield to hide not only their past hurts, but a soft mushy middle built on loyalty and kindness. Sometimes you have to dig to find that mushy middle, but that’s half the fun. Sometimes that mushy middle can coexist with utter ruthlessness, and that’s even better.

Some of the side characters weren’t as well-rounded as her unfortunately. There was a secondary antagonist whose personality, besides being a thorn on Mia’s side, was non-existent. A teacher who hated her for a flimsy reason, there’s always one of these in any fantasy school worth its salt, though, so it didn’t bother me too much, cliché as it was. Some tropes just come with the field. It also didn’t bother me that there were a few characters whose arcs didn’t seem to go anywhere, since this is a series and I’m hoping they’ll be more fleshed-out in the next books. I’m particularly curious about Hush.

I wasn’t a big fan of the romance either. I can see some people loving Mia’s love interest in this book though, he just didn’t do it for me. They had some fun banter but most of their romantic interactions felt more plot-convenient than heartfelt. I can say though, the resolution of this particular plot-thread had me grinning ear to ear, I’m probably in the minority here, but I was smiling down at the words as I read them, feeling smug and a little evil as I thought to myself,”Good.”

Knowing he ended up in that situation due to Mia’s actions was particularly delicious. I don’t know if that was what Jay Kristoff was going for, but it was definitely a highlight for me.

When it comes to highlights though none shines brighter than the world and its tree suns. Fantasy is my favourite genre because I love fantasy worlds and magic, simple as that. So, getting to read about a new and fascinating world is always a treat. Nevernight has it all: a complex religion with a mythology that didn’t seem lifted from any of the usual sources (Itreya is inspired by the late Roman Empire, but it doesn’t beat you up the head with it, mercifully — and interestingly, the main religion is a form of monolatrism which we don’t get to see very often in fantasy). A magic system that explained the reach and limitations of some of its components (I can’t get the weavers out of my head), while leaving others in the dark (Mia’s darkin abilities), without it feeling like its rules could change whenever convenient to the plot. And a political system that while not the focus of the book is the corrupt machine that keeps this fascinating, but often disgusting, world turning.

The use of footnotes for the info-dumps was brilliant, because they didn’t feel like info-dumps at all. And I often found myself looking forward to reading the next one. The narration should be credited for that. As of now the identity of the narrator is still a mystery (although I have my theories) but their voice is delightful to read, with a particular brand of dark humour that really suits the mood of the book.

This book is shelved as Young Adult on Goodreads, and although there’s definitely elements of that, it felt a lot grittier than most YA Fantasy, in a really good way. Sometimes YA books, regardless of genre, tend to be just a love-story masquerading as something else. This isn’t that, not by a long shot. And despite my misgivings about it the romance really doesn’t take up more room than it should, nor does it slow down the action. Besides, I would be lying if I said I would be opposed to seeing a romance involving Mia and someone I like better…

Overall, I really recommend this book, my complaints are very minor and by no means did they reduce my enjoyment while reading this. Funny enough, I started reading this book right as I was almost finishing Red Sister (because I was loving it so much and didn’t want it to end), and I was surprised to realise just how much the two books have in common. Although Red Sister is Adult Fiction, and grimdark to the more humorous grit of Nevernight they both happened to share a lot of superficial details, and hit on a lot of the same notes that made them both such stand out reads for me. If you’ve read Red Sister I definitely think you should give Nevernight a shot, it’s lighter, but not light, and Mia shares some of the traits that make Nona such a lovable protagonist, the supporting cast is not as strong but there’s a few gems.

I just checked back on Goodreads and a lot of the top reviews complain about the prose. The title of this book might have clued you in on that, but I vastly prefer books written in third person (I struggle to read first person more often than not), so this book already has that going for it, but I also consider the writing style to be a big plus. There were second person asides but they were barely noticeable. It’s simile heavy, some of them are wonderful, some are inconsequential, but none weigh the story down in my opinion. I wouldn’t call the prose lyrical or flowery but there is a melodic cadence to it. I really liked it, it’s what I’m saying. People who prefer cut and dry writing might not. That being said, I don’t think it’s complicated or hard to follow, at all.

Since I compared Nevernight to Red Sister, I can’t help but compare ratings too. And while I loved Nevernight I didn’t love it as much as Red Sister (it feels weird that I’m not posting that review first, but oh well), therefore:

Rating: ★★★★½
Author: Jay Kristoff
Publisher:  St. Martin’s Press