Dekoboko Sugar Days, by Yusen Atsuko

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Publisher’s website
Publication date – February 18, 2020

Summary: Yuujirou Matsukaze has been close friends with Rui Hanamine since the two of them were children, and at that time, Yuujirou was the one who stood up for and took care of his adorable, soft-hearted friend. But as it turns out, Yuujirou’s childhood dreams end up growing a little too big to handle ― or, rather, too tall! At over six feet in height, the cheerful and happy-go-lucky Rui towers over his would-be protector… and still has no idea Yuujirou’s had a crush on him since they were kids!

Thoughts:I used to read a lot of yaoi and BL manga back in the day, but over recent years have been somewhat turned off the genre due to its formulaic and occasionally anger-inducing storytelling. I found that the vast majority of BL and yaoi fell into one of two categories:

  1. One of the men involved was basically coded as a woman because apparently two “manly” men aren’t allowed to fall in love.
  2. The developing relationship involved one side trying to convince the other that they really wanted it despite objections.

I can, at least, say that Dekoboko Sugar Days only fell into the first category. Rui was definitely the feminine-coded one in this story, being cute, enthusiastic, open with his emotions, wearing a hair clip (which was, ostensibly, to advertise his sister’s store), and and the one who, as a child, needed help getting out of scrapes. Later, his concern that his boyfriend might only want him for his body and not for his personality.

Now, that isn’t to say that men never have such concerns in their lives. But there’s a large amount of BL manga out there where you can see the outdated concepts of, “Which one is ‘the woman’?” at work, and unfortunately, Dekoboko Sugar Days does play with this trope.

The story itself is pretty cute, though. Two guys, childhood friends, each trying to come to grips with what it means to be attracted to each other. There are the usual misunderstandings (“I had a crush on him early on but mistook my feelings for something else,” “I feel awful that he has a girlfriend and don’t understand why I feel so bad about it,” etc), and it never really breaks out of any established comfort zones, but it was a pretty cute story within those limits, I have to admit.

One of the reasons I’m not giving this a star/teacup rating here on the blog is because, well, Dekoboko Sugar Days treads a very well-worn path, not really telling a new story but instead sticking to the tried-and-true. And if you like that sort of thing, then great, because this manga doesn’t break any new ground in that regard. It will give you the exact kind of story you already know you like. And I think a lot of BL manga is the same way. This makes it really difficult for me to rate, honestly, because while I was hoping to see something I hadn’t seen already done dozens of times over a decade ago, it still does that particular job well enough.

Though one area that did manage to surprise me was the way it went from the whole “discovery” phases of Yuu and Rui’s relationship to full-on sex. Again, it might just be my own experience, but a lot of manga that I’ve read has tended to keep the two things apart. You’ve either got stuff that’s focused on sex, or you’ve got stuff that’s about the adorable romantic stuff. Dekoboko Sugar Days acknowledged that teenage boys get horny and might want to have sex, but their entire lives aren’t necessarily consumed by it, and they don’t always discover they have an attraction to someone by getting surprise boners around them. So I will give credit where credit is due there.

So in the end? A cute story about two guys discovering and understanding their feelings for each other, which didn’t break any molds or do anything original, but that didn’t stop it from still being cute. It was a nice fluff read, nothing too taxing, on a snowy winter morning.

(Still, hopefully my next read during Manga Month will be a bit more than mere fluff…)

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

Hunter, by Mercedes Lackey

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – September 1, 2015

Summary: They came after the Diseray. Some were terrors ripped from our collective imaginations, remnants of every mythology across the world. And some were like nothing anyone had ever dreamed up, even in their worst nightmares.

Monsters.

Long ago, the barriers between our world and the Otherworld were ripped open, and it’s taken centuries to bring back civilization in the wake of the catastrophe. Now, the luckiest Cits live in enclosed communities,behind walls that keep them safe from the hideous creatures fighting to break through. Others are not so lucky.

To Joyeaux Charmand, who has been a Hunter in her tight-knit mountain community since she was a child, every Cit without magic deserves her protection from dangerous Othersiders. Then she is called to Apex City, where the best Hunters are kept to protect the most important people.

Joy soon realizes that the city’s powerful leaders care more about luring Cits into a false sense of security than protecting them. More and more monsters are getting through the barriers,and the close calls are becoming too frequent to ignore. Yet the Cits have no sense of how much danger they’re in-to them, Joy and her corp of fellow Hunters are just action stars they watch on TV.

When an act of sabotage against Joy takes an unbearable toll, Joy uncovers a terrifying conspiracy in the city. There is something much worse than the usual monsters infiltrating Apex. And it may be too late to stop them?

Thoughts: It’s been a while since I first read this book, and I admit, I wasn’t too fond of it the first time around. Knowing that I can get this way with Mercedes Lackey’s more recent books, though, I deliberately let it lie for a while, then picked it up again recently to reread it, to see if my opinions had changes any with the passage of time.

I did enjoy it more the second time around, which I’m happy to say. However, the problems I had with it the first time remained for my second reading.

Hunter was written during the YA dystopia boom and it really shows. Now, Lackey has shown no problem is the past with writing books in popular genres primarily to pay the bills, and in general I have no problem with that, because writing is art and art is work and work deserves to be paid for. I think perhaps it was published a bit too late to really capitalize on that boom, but it hit enough of the tail end of it to still do decently, as both of its sequels have been published between then and now.

A few hundred years in the future, the apocalypse (known as the Diseray, a corruption of Dies Irae) happened, and now the world contains all sorts of malevolent and destructive beasties from the depths of worldwide mythologies. Protecting the remains of humanity from these creatures are the Hunters, people with not only magical talents but also the ability to summon guardian beasts known as Hounds, a pack to guide and fight alongside in the war against Othersiders. In North America, Hunters are required to go to the city of Apex to do their jobs, and that’s where the story begins with Joy, on her way to Apex for the first time.

Once in Apex, Joy finds that not only does she have to protect the citizens there from incursions of Othersiders, but she also has to do so while essentially being a streaming celebrity. Watching Hunters fight monsters is entertainment to the citizens of Apex, and Hunters gain improvements to their lives by rising in the rankings of the entertainment industry. Joy rises quickly through the ranks, but it seems that somebody objects to what she’s doing or how she’s doing it, because she quickly finds herself a target, and whoever has their sights set on her doesn’t care who gets caught in the crossfire.

It’s not difficult to see the real-world inspirations for certain aspects of Hunter. People today stream aspects of their lives through sites like Twitch and YouTube, and become celebrities for it, giving people a way to live vicariously through others, and also providing comfort and inspiration to viewers. “Those celebrities started off with no more advantages than I have; I could be just like them one of these days.” It’s a sentiment I know well. It was employed in an interesting way in Hunter, since drone-cameras follow Hunters nearly everywhere to catch the exciting aspects of their lives, but also the broadcasts are on a delay, allowing editors to change or remove footage that doesn’t play into an established narrative. The governing body of Apex doesn’t want people to know that Othersiders are getting closer and closer to the city’s barriers every day, and so alter footage to make it look like Hunters are further away than they really are. Here we have the “circus” aspect of “bread and circuses;” keep people entertained so that they never wonder about broader complications; make them think they see everything, so they never question what’s happening behind the scenes. The way Lackey handled the discourse on whether stream celebrities are authentic or not was heavy-handed in places, but not entirely unwarranted.

I think my biggest problem with Hunter is its main character, Joy. She’s one of those exceptional can-do-no-wrong characters, and that much is made clear very quickly. She has a larger-than-average pack of Hounds, he’s proficient with multiple weapon types, she’s encountered things that Hunters in Apex haven’t and so gives advice to people who have been doing the job as long as or longer than she herself, right from the get-go. She ascends to near the top of the ratings ranks within a few days of arriving at Apex, she makes friends with powerful people, and she does things that have never been done before, such as acquiring someone else’s Hounds after that person dies, because she’s just that special. She’s no-nonsense and has little time for frivolities, she’s earnest about wanting to protect people when many Hunters want the perks that come with the job, and of course this makes her at least one enemy, especially when she decides she wants to push for Elite ranking after having been in Apex for, what, less than a month?

Frankly, this kind of character gets extremely tiring to read about, because they aren’t remotely believable outside of myth, and for an experienced author like Lackey to write somebody this way feels incredibly amateurish. There’s the oft-repeated advice that characters ought to have flaws, believable and relevant flaws, and no, a character who is beautiful and popular and talented at nearly everything but who, for instance, can’t sing, isn’t a believably flawed character. It doesn’t matter that she can’t sing. That’s not really a flaw. That’s just the lack of a talent. The two aren’t the same. The worst flaw I think Joy has is that she doesn’t suffer nonsense, but it’s handled in such a way that even then, she comes off as somehow the winner. If somebody got in Joy’s face and accused her of not knowing something, she’d just tightly point out that she knows how to figure it out and name off all the resources she’d use, and then people would be impressed by how well she handled the situation. She is (and I hate to use the term) the very image of the Mary Sue that is endemic in so many bad fanfiction pieces, the sort of character aspiring authors are cautioned to avoid writing.

Dislike of character types is a highly personal thing, so I admit that Joy’s presentation won’t bother everybody, but it definitely bothered me. I felt less like I was reading about a real person and more like I was reading about somebody attempting to humanize a hypothetical future fictional hero, and that’s is far more complicated than it needs to be.

For as much as I found the presentation problematic, I am, at least, interested in how the rest of the story plays out in later books. I don’t think they’re books I’ll go out of my way to track down, but if I come across them, I’ll probably give them a try, to see if Joy becomes a more interesting character or if any interesting story elements override my annoyance with her. The city of Apex, as a character, is of more interest to me, because it seems to have many layers to it, most of which depend on keeping citizens ignorant and entertained in equal measure, as well as keeping those who know better either in appalling living conditions and scrabbling to eke out a living, or in plush comfort in exchange for their silence. This riding on the coattails of the dystopian wave, I want to know what’s in store for the city, its ruling body, the systems that keep it running, and I’m more interested in that than I am in Joy McSpecial over here.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

The Night Tiger, by Yangsze Choo

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – February 12, 2019

Summary: Quick-witted, ambitious Ji Lin is stuck as an apprentice dressmaker, moonlighting as a dancehall girl to help pay off her mother’s Mahjong debts. But when one of her dance partners accidentally leaves behind a gruesome souvenir, Ji Lin may finally get the adventure she has been longing for.

Eleven-year-old houseboy Ren is also on a mission, racing to fulfill his former master’s dying wish: that Ren find the man’s finger, lost years ago in an accident, and bury it with his body. Ren has 49 days to do so, or his master’s soul will wander the earth forever.

As the days tick relentlessly by, a series of unexplained deaths racks the district, along with whispers of men who turn into tigers. Ji Lin and Ren’s increasingly dangerous paths crisscross through lush plantations, hospital storage rooms, and ghostly dreamscapes.

Yangsze Choo’s The Night Tiger pulls us into a world of servants and masters, age-old superstition and modern idealism, sibling rivalry and forbidden love. But anchoring this dazzling, propulsive novel is the intimate coming-of-age of a child and a young woman, each searching for their place in a society that would rather they stay invisible.

Thoughts: Yangsze Choo’s books are ones that are delightfully hard to classify. The Ghost Bride was a sort of historical supernatural mystery/romance. The Night Tiger, Choo’s most recent standalone novel set in 1930s Malaysia (then known as Malaya) is something similar, though the supernatural elements are considerably toned down compared to The Ghost Bride. That’s not to say that there aren’t any such elements to the story, and indeed they play a large part in the story’s narrative, but they’re woven into the story in such a way that it would be easy to overlook them, to dismiss them as historically and locally accurate superstitions that influence characters but are not real and tangible things.

The story begins with Ren, a houseboy to a recently-deceased doctor who has charged Ren with finding his missing finger and returning it to his grave no more than 49 days after his death, so that his soul can rest easy. Ren, loyal to his former employer, does so by going to the house of William Acton, another doctor, and one who is connected to the missing finger.

Ren’s sections (which sometimes are written from Acton’s viewpoint as well) as interspersed with first-person chapter from the perspective of Ji Lin, a young woman apprenticed to a dressmaker but who also works part time at a dance hall in order to make enough money to pay off her mother’s gambling debts. Dance halls were not always socially acceptable places to go or work, so Ji Lin does this on the sly. Things go as normally as they can for her until one day a Ji Lin finds herself in possession of a very odd object lost by a dance hall patron: a preserved severed finger. Together with her stepbrother, Shin, the two try to discover and return the finger to its former owner.

Naturally, this ties back into Ren’s sections of the book, and even though all the characters have their own equally complex backstories and personal motivations, they all seem to be working together toward a common goal, even if they don’t always share the same thoughts on what that goal is. Both Ren and Ji Lin want to return that finger to its former, erm, body, though Ren has a much clearer idea of who that is.

The supernatural elements I mentioned mostly focus in 2 areas. The first ties back to the idea of 5 Confucian virtues, and it’s mentioned repeatedly, from both Ren and Ji Lin’s viewpoints, that they both are named after virtues and have siblings that are similarly named after virtues, but that there are only 2 of them, rather than a complete set of 5. Ji Lin and Shin are 2, Ren and his deceased brother Yi are another 2, and there’s a running plot about discovering the 5th virtue, Li. Ji Lin finds herself occasionally slipping into a sort of afterlife while she sleeps, where she talks to Yi, who admits, over time, that from his position there he can influence some things in the living/waking world, and that the missing 5th virtue from their set is… flawed, on some level greater than the rest of them, and is doing things to spin their harmony off balance.

The 2nd supernatural element is, at least to me, the most fascinating piece of the book’s mystery, because it never gets resolved conclusively. Ren’s former employer, Dr. MacFarlane, officially died of malaria, and it was the high fevers that supposedly caused the delirium at the end of his life. He went on long walks at night, came back dirty and disheveled, talking about how far he went and what animals he killed. Then would come news that such an animal had been killed by a tiger, roughly the same distance away that MacFarlane claimed he roamed. There are superstitions mentioned about weretigers, people who straddle that line between human and beast, and there’s a lot of leading information that suggests MacFarlane really was a weretiger, that he did change his skin at night and roam around as a tiger. The reports of tiger attacks in the area stopped after MacFarlane died. What else could he have been?

Except that we really don’t get any conclusive, “Aha!” moment as to whether or not this is true. It could have been coincidence that the tiger attacks stopped after MacFarlane’s death. He may have walked so far in his fevered state and somehow seem things that his mind told him later were personal experiences, the way reality twists sometimes when fevers rage. When people are discovered dead and with signs that they were mauled by a tiger, I started to wonder if MacFarlane’s spirit was responsible for those deaths, but the book does give a much more mundane explanation for them.

Of course, the book also gives a mundane explanation for MacFarlane’s claims, too. There’s nothing conclusive to say that he wasn’t capable of the things he claimed, but also nothing conclusive to say that he was. It’s part of the connection between the main characters, and given that it’s the book’s title, it’s easy to see how it’s all relevant, but it’s an element that could go one way or the other. And frankly, I like that. I’m a firm believer that while the supernatural should have rules, it shouldn’t always be easily explainable. There should always be some ambiguity, because it’s ambiguous in real life. Is it real, or is it superstition and interpretation?

I won’t go into any detail about the identity of the 5th virtue, because that will ruin a good deal of the mystery for many people, but suffice it to say that I figured out who it was shortly after one particular character was set firmly as a candidate for being the Li of the set. If you approach this story as a historical mystery, it’s a fair bet that the first suspect/candidate isn’t going to be the right one in the end, so I don’t consider it much of a spoiler to say that it isn’t Acton. But with the hint of Chinese names in mind, the correct identity occurred to me pretty soon after that reveal. That being said, I know that a lot of people reading this book won’t have my background to give them that extra clue, so the 5th virtue’s true identity will likely stay safely hidden until near the very end of the book, when the pieces really start to fall into place. Choo is utterly brilliant at weaving together a complex mystery in that way, and I loved being strung along as the story went.

I do want to take a moment to talk about the romantic elements of the story, because it is a complicated one that I think will turn many people off. Reading The Night Tiger came hot on the heels of me reading a piece online about the trope of romance between stepsiblings or adopted siblings, and the pervading belief that it’s okay because they’re not “real siblings.” And how that does a vast disservice to many types of families that are doing their best to actually be families despite cultural opposition. Now, I’m not saying that the author was taking a stand and stating that such families aren’t real families, but I can absolutely understand why this content would be a deal-breaker for some people.

As it was… Ji Lin’s mother and Shin’s father married each other when their kids were both in their teens. They didn’t grow up with each other, and the family dynamic for them was different. It’s also made clear (albeit much later on in the book) that Shin had an interest in Ji Lin practically from the beginning, so it wasn’t as though he saw her as his sister/stepsister first and came to develop a romantic attraction to her after that. Ji Lin saw their relationship as complicated, trying to be family and yet also denying that they were family at different turns, and suffering a crisis of self and conscience when she realized she was becoming attracted to Shin. I thought that it was a pretty good presentation of the issue, presenting it neither as inherently right or wrong, but a personal thing that depended very much on circumstance and dynamic and that neither one of them should just rush into no matter how much they might want to. I didn’t have a problem with this particular presentation, though, as I said, I can see why some people might.

(That being said, I want to state that just because I didn’t have a problem with the relationship in this one particular novel doesn’t mean that I don’t have a problem with stepsibling or adopted sibling romances in other novels. I have seen a fair number of, “It’s okay because we’re not really siblings” romances where the two have grown up side by side for most of their lives, where there’s no more than a token, “Maybe we shouldn’t do this,” argument, and then nothing more because apparently romance is supposed to trump everything. I am very much not okay with that, or the mentality behind it.)

The Night Tiger was a fantastic piece of historical fiction, with a strong mystery element strung through with folklore and the supernatural and an uncommon cultural flavour tied to the location and history. It’s a rare gem in speculative fiction, something that crosses genre boundaries and declares itself to be unique, original, and highly compelling, even to those who don’t usually read much speculative fiction. It has vast appeal, and it’s always a treat to find such a book. I loved it even more than I loved The Ghost Bride, and that’s saying something. If you enjoyed Yangsze Choo’s previous novel, or you enjoy historical mysteries, or you just want to know what the hype is all about, then absolutely pick up The Night Tiger when you get a chance. It’s an experience you won’t want to miss out on.

Rosemary and Rue, by Seanan McGuire

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – September 1, 2009

Summary: October “Toby” Daye, a changeling who is half human and half fae, has been an outsider from birth. After getting burned by both sides of her heritage, Toby has denied the Faerie world, retreating to a “normal” life. Unfortunately for her, the Faerie world has other ideas…

The murder of Countess Evening Winterrose pulls Toby back into the fae world. Unable to resist Evening’s dying curse, which binds her to investigate, Toby must resume her former position as knight errant and renew old alliances. As she steps back into fae society, dealing with a cast of characters not entirely good or evil, she realizes that more than her own life will be forfeited if she cannot find Evening’s killer.

Thoughts: I’d heard good things about Seanan McGuire’s October Daye series for years now, but I’m so rarely in the mood for urban fantasy that starting what I knew to be a long-running series seemed too daunting. When the mood struck me again and a copy of the first book in the series was available at the library, I thought to myself, “Why not?” At worst, I would read the book and dislike it and not have to worry about continuing the series. At best, I would find something new and fun to read that I could keep visiting over and over again with the many different novels that make up the whole story.

Unsurprisingly, I now must lament that the library only has this book, and none of the others, and so I must begin the process of tracking them all down one by one.

I’m used to thinking of urban fantasy series with female protagonists as being rather formulaic. Mid-20s attractive woman and martial arts skills must thwart growing supernatural menace and date hot supernatural guys. I know that stereotype is something of an injustice to the genre, especially these days, but that was the bulk of urban fantasy I saw growing up, and so it’s a surprise to me (and yet it shouldn’t be) when I encounter something that bucks those trends and gives me something I didn’t expect.

Much of Rosemary and Rue could have been written with a protagonist like that, I suspect, but that this wasn’t the case caught my attention immediately. October “Toby” Daye was born in 1952, though in fairness she’s part faerie and also spent 14 years living as a fish in a koi pond, so her appearance doesn’t make her true age immediately obvious. She has a husband and child, though thanks to the aforementioned fish pond captivity, they’re not part of her life to the degree they used to be. She knows how to fight, how to defend herself, because she was a trained private investigator. And unlike the first books of many urban fantasy series I’ve read, she doesn’t begin the multi-novel journey in ignorance of the supernatural forces around her. She knows what she is, she knows what lurks in the shadows and in the danger of the sunrise, and she has experience dealing with a variety of things both mundane and otherworldly. She’s competent, experienced, and resourceful, and it was refreshing to see.

The bulk of the novel is a supernatural murder mystery, after a fae Countess is brutally killed and her last words are to bind and compel Toby to solve the matter of who killed her and why. The binding places something of a time constraint on Toby, not in a strict “you have 48 hours to figure this out” way, but by actively hurting her if she’s taking too long to find clues and follow the trail. Which is honestly a bit difficult to wrap my head around, when it comes right down to it, because there’s the implication that the spell knows the answer to the puzzle, at least on some level, since it eases up on Toby when she’s getting closer to the truth, and squeezes tighter when she’s taking too long. The magic itself seems to have awareness of the truth. I can’t say it’s based on Toby’s motivations or actions, not entirely, as there are times when Toby is getting close to something but the situation isn’t much different from times when Toby thought she was getting close to something but it was more of a false lead. Could Toby have escaped the binding by just blaming somebody who seemed likely to kill Countess Winterrose, even if there was no definitive proof but plenty of circumstantial evidence? If somebody falsely confessed, would the binding know that the mystery wasn’t solved, even if Toby believed it was? Could the binding be unraveled to just lead right to the truth of the matter?

Am I reading too much into this?

Probably. But I enjoy asking questions like this. I enjoy looking at possibilities and trying to figure out how magic systems in books work, seeing where the holes are and trying to reconcile them with what’s presented to me. Sometimes there’s no satisfactory answer. Sometimes the answer is, “It just works. It’s a mystical thing and human minds can’t fully grasp it, but it works, and that’s all you need to know.”

It’s also very possible that anything I see now as an ambiguity will be addressed in later novels, as the October Daye series currently has 13 novels and a few side stories. There’s plenty of time to see how this all unfolds.

It’s the backdrop of faerie lore that makes Rosemary and Rue more than just a typical murder mystery. The binding curse on Toby definitely propels things forward, making sure that there isn’t much downtime in the story. But people also know that Toby is on the case, including the murderer she’s seeking, and so traps and obstacles come her way. Up to and including people sent to kill her, to stop her from finding out the truth. There’s more to it than just Winterrose’s death. There’s also an item of legend thrown into the mix, a box that reportedly contains great powers, that Toby must protect and that other people want to get their hands on. The balance between Toby needing to stay safe (which rarely happens) and to rush into danger so that her quest can be finished and the binding removed causes the story to always be moving forward, but at something of an unsteady pace. None of it slows down the story to the point where it feels stuck, however, which is a testament to the author’s ability to tell a good story.

I love the complicated world of the fae. Political lines drawn and shifting, and there are complex rules to follow that aren’t always apparent. The different kinds of supernatural beings all seem connected to the fae even if they’re not quite what I’d typically think of as faerie, such as trolls or kitsune, but I can still see how they could be considered under a similar umbrella, so to speak. The author certain did a decent amount of research when figuring out the way a lot of these groups would fit together and relate to each other, both politically and in terms of lifestyle, and it all comes together quite nicely and feels coherent, if complex.

Even if I disagree with some aspects of the pronunciation guide at the front of the book… (Kitsune is not pronounced kit-soon. Sorry.)

As I said previously, I quite enjoyed my experience reading Rosemary and Rue, and I’m inspired to continue following Toby Daye’s adventures and misadventures through the rest of the series. I don’t know how quickly I’ll be able to actually do that, since finding them might involve a lot of luck and interlibrary loans, but I certainly want to read them and to see where the story leads in the end. Seanan McGuire is a skilled writer who can balance enjoyable fluff with serious considerations, and while Rosemary and Rue leaned a little more heavily to the side of enjoyable fluff (at least, that’s my interpretation), it did dip its toes in darker waters at times, turning from witty and quick to grim and brutal in a matter of pages, and I liked the effect. Sure as if there’s now a binding on me, I’m compelled to read on!

Children of Blood and Bone, by Tomi Adeyemi

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – March 6, 2018

Summary: They killed my mother.
They took our magic.
They tried to bury us.

Now we rise.

Zélie Adebola remembers when the soil of Orïsha hummed with magic. Burners ignited flames, Tiders beckoned waves, and Zélie’s Reaper mother summoned forth souls.

But everything changed the night magic disappeared. Under the orders of a ruthless king, maji were killed, leaving Zélie without a mother and her people without hope.

Now Zélie has one chance to bring back magic and strike against the monarchy. With the help of a rogue princess, Zélie must outwit and outrun the crown prince, who is hell-bent on eradicating magic for good.

Danger lurks in Orïsha, where snow leoponaires prowl and vengeful spirits wait in the waters. Yet the greatest danger may be Zélie herself as she struggles to control her powers and her growing feelings for an enemy.

Thoughts: In this African-inspired novel, magic has been eradicated fairly recently, but the physical signs that would once have marked someone as a magic-user remain, drawing ire and violence from many and making them outcasts. Children of Blood and Bone sees a hot-headed young woman, her reluctant brother, and a runaway princess on a quest to restore magic to the people, to revolt against the king who killed and ruined so many lives, and to take back the power that the people once held for themselves.

I wanted to like this book a lot more than I ended up liking it. I mean, it wasn’t a bad book, and it definitely had a lot going for it, but I found myself often growing bored with some of the repetitive narrative. The protagonists go somewhere, the antagonist finds them, the protagonists make a narrow escape. Repeat that at least 2 more times in the first half of the book alone. At first there was tension in that, because narrow escapes almost always bring tension. But after multiple narrow escapes, it lost any edge it might have had. Combined with the second half of the book having a lot of, “Is this the truth? Yes, it must be! Oh no wait maybe things aren’t like I thought! It must be lies! Oh but I want it to be truth, so it must be truth!”…

I’m sure a lot of it was meant to be tense for readers too, dealing with the unknown and trying to muddle your way through a complicated situation where you don’t know all the variables, but for my part, he constant flipping back and forth once again started to get boring, grating on my nerves after a time.

The characters, at least, were great to read about. I loved Zelie’s hot-headed impulsive nature, which got her into trouble more often than not. She had to deal with consequences of her actions, though admittedly a lot of them boiled down to, “Dangit, Zelie, you need to be more considerate of people, you’re causing so much trouble!” but then it gets overlooked until the next impulsive action because the trio had to run away from something. Her brother’s constant frustration over the way Zelie reacts without thinking, the way she frequently brings trouble down around her, was one of the most relatable things to me, not because of a sibling connection (I have none), but because good lord, don’t we all wish, at times, that we could just snap at the people who act without giving a damn to the consequences and seem to keep getting away with it? His frustration and anger were eminently understandable!

But also where the characters were concerned… The romance. Amari and Tzain I can get behind, because their budding romance was pretty adorable to read. But with Zelie and Inan? Nope. I’m very much over the whole, “They’re enemies so they must fall in love” trope; it was stale in the 90s and it’s not any fresher now. Attraction, I could maybe see. Fascination, sure. Inan’s eye-opening experiences regarding Zelie’s life, yes, absolutely, I can understand that. But Inan turned from hated enemy to guy-I-love-because-he-understands-me very quickly, and a lot of that understanding was borderline noncon because Inan had access to Zelie’s thoughts and emotions, and that whole dynamic made the whole, “Is he good or is he bad?” thing even more painful to read. Zelie doubting Inan’s commitment to her and her cause gets questioned so often, and usually for good reasons, that it’s a wonder to me why Zelie kept fanning flames for him. It felt contrived, and I’m not on board with contrived romances.

I did enjoy the premise of the story, when when Children of Blood and Bone focused on that aspect, I found myself quite attentive. Those who can use magic have been systematically killed or had their heritage and training denied to them, so that they can’t rise up and overthrow a ruler who despises it. Since this happened less than a generation ago, the wounds are still open, discontent festering within them. Through circumstance, Zelie and her group are tasked with bringing back magic to the people, to take down an oppressive government and to restore the history and culture of her people. Not a small task to put on the shoulders of a young woman who, while wanting to raise her people up, finds it understandably daunting. With very little information about just how she’s supposed to do this, she sets off on her journey, gaining companions along the way, finding pockets of resistance fighters to aid her, and having her world turned upside down in the process. This aspect of the story, I enjoyed, and even though the inspiration for it all came from a culture and events that are not personally familiar to me, it was easy to feel the fire of resilience and resistance burning, that light inside that tells you to counter injustice in small and large ways.

But in the end, I had too many issues with Children of Blood and Bone to consider it worth recommending strongly, and I really did want to enjoy it more than I ended up doing. The world-building is very interesting, and there’s definitely some good stuff here, but that appreciation was overshadowed by the problems, and in the end I didn’t find it that enjoyable a read, and I’m kind of disappointed by that.

The Lady Rogue, by Jenn Bennett

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – September 3, 2019

Summary: Traveling with her treasure-hunting father has always been a dream for Theodora. She’s read every book in his library, has an impressive knowledge of the world’s most sought-after relics, and has all the ambition in the world. What she doesn’t have is her father’s permission. That honor goes to her father’s nineteen-year-old protégé—and once-upon-a-time love of Theodora’s life—Huck Gallagher, while Theodora is left to sit alone in her hotel in Istanbul.

Until Huck arrives from an expedition without her father and enlists Theodora’s help in rescuing him. Armed with her father’s travel journal, the reluctant duo learns that her father had been digging up information on a legendary and magical ring that once belonged to Vlad the Impaler — more widely known as Dracula — and that it just might be the key to finding him.

Journeying into Romania, Theodora and Huck embark on a captivating adventure through Gothic villages and dark castles in the misty Carpathian Mountains to recover the notorious ring. But they aren’t the only ones who are searching for it. A secretive and dangerous occult society with a powerful link to Vlad the Impaler himself is hunting for it, too. And they will go to any lengths—including murder—to possess it.

Thoughts: When I first heard this book described as something that fans of A Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue would enjoy, my attention was caught. Despite me having problems with it’s sequel, I really enjoyed Gentleman’s Guide, and the idea of a book in that vein but with the legend because Vlad the Impaler thrown in, The Lady Rogue sounded like something I would similarly enjoy.

And it wasn’t bad, really. It just wasn’t something I was able to get into as much as I had hoped.

The Lady Rogue is primarily told from the perspective of Theodora, daughter of a wealthy adventurer who is frequently left behind in the care of tutors and caretakers while her father travels the world on grand adventures, seeking lost artifacts and mysteries. Suddenly reunited with her previous boyfriend, who was supposed to be traveling with Theodora’s father, she finds herself caught up in an adventure of her own as she not only attempts to track down her missing father, but also a lost ring connected to Dracula’s legacy and the dark power that runs through her veins.

In between many of the chapters are short interludes from her father’s journal, where we see the entries dated in the late 1930s. I will be completely honest here — I spent a good amount of the novel thinking that the reason Theodora’s father was missing was because he had somehow traveled back in time. I came to this erroneous conclusion because none of Theodora and Huck’s sections were dated, and they both talked as though they were far closer to today than to almost 80 years ago. Almost nothing was given to indicate the time they existed in, and I based my cues on their behaviour and speech, and it wasn’t until I noticed that I wasn’t seeing any indication that time travel was actually going to be a plot element that I had to look up when the entire book took place.

Now yes, there are some things that do indeed indicate the time period, but I think many of them, to a reader less inclined to look things up, might just assume that they could be explained away by east Europe being, well, not North America. Of course rural European settings would use small mail delivery planes. Of course people would take trains and buses rather than going by car. That’s just how it’s done over there.

It didn’t help that I found two instances (at least, two that stand out in my mind) of characters using slang that is entirely inappropriate for the time period. At one point, Theodora is telling her father off, and comments that, “FYI, [thing].” Now, FYI as an abbreviation for “for your information” did certainly exist in the 1930s, but primarily in a journalistic sense, from what my research has led me to conclude. You would see it in marginalia and in newspaper corrections, that sort of thing. It’s hardly something you would have heard many people say aloud as though they were 90s teens.

The second instance that comes to mind is Huck saying toward the end that he was getting “hangry,” and no, I’m sorry, but that portmanteau gained popularity in the 90s, even if it was used as far back as the 50s, and neither of those decades are the 30s.

Now, I admit that I read an ARC of this book, and those issues might not be in the final release, so I admit that those particular problems might not even be problems in the version that most people will read. However, that doesn’t eliminate any of my commentary on why I was confused about the time period of the book. Neither Theo nor Huck talked or behaved as though they came from any time period but “timeless modern,” and considering this book is meant to be historical fiction with a touch of the supernatural to it, so much felt so out of place for so long.

I did, admittedly, enjoy the story of The Lady Rogue, when I was getting distracted by how anachronistic many of the characters acted. The mystery of Theodora’s father’s disappearance powered most of the book, though along the way, as they made their way from Istanbul to various Romanian cities and towns, the subplot of the ring slowly overtook all else. Theodora’s father was initially searching for the ring, on the premise that 3 identical rings were made but only 1 was real, and supposedly connected to dark magics that gave the wearer great power but also brought death and ruin down around them. In this, I can see how the comparison to The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue were made; both are historical fiction, and both feature a possibly-magical item as a motivation for the characters to progress through the story. Whether that item is actually magical or not is irrelevant; what matters is that people believe it to be, and act accordingly.

The ring was magical (the rest of the legend surrounding it wasn’t quite accurate, though I’ll refrain from giving too many details so that at least something in this book isn’t spoiled for future readers), though it really only proved itself to be at the very end. There were signs building up to it, signs which certainly convinced Theodora even if they didn’t quite convince Huck, but similar to Gentleman’s Guide, the magic itself wasn’t what compelled people. It was the belief in the magic, the legends themselves that made people seek it out, committing sometimes terrible acts in the name of legends and folklore, and I find that sort of thing fascinating. It interests me, to see what people will do in the pursuit of perceived power, what they might be motivated to do to get closer to something they only believe is the truth but don’t have definitive proof of. It’s a testament to the power of myth and belief, and I’m glad to have seen this appear in multiple novels over the past few years.

Unlike Gentleman’s Guide, however, there was no queer element to this story at all. It shares the same element of historical adventure with a supernatural element, but that’s where the similarities end, and I know many people enjoyed Gentleman’s Guide because it was all that and more, a good piece of queer representation. Readers looking for something similar in The Lady Rogue are only going to find superficial resemblance, I think.

The Lady Rogue is certainly an adventure, with a few interesting mysteries that the characters must solve along the way, usually employing a bit of cryptography and sleuthing. The characters are decently developed, though I admit that if you asked me to describe them outside of the context of the story within this book, I’m not sure they’d be that recognizable. Theodora is hot-tempered, intelligent, and in many ways spoiled. Huck is… Irish, and Theodora’s ex-boyfriend-but-it’s-complicated. Theodora’s father is… I don’t know here. An adventurer. Selfish and thoughtless. That’s about it. But within the context of the novel itself, they are distinct from each other when it comes to tone, dialogue, behaviour, and so it wasn’t difficult to tell who was doing or say what if you picked a random line in the middle of a random page.

But on the whole, I didn’t close out The Lady Rogue with many positive feelings toward it. Not many negative, either, for what it’s worth. I had an awkward start with it due to the anachronistic issues I mentioned earlier, but I enjoyed the mystery of the ring well enough, and I think the two sort of cancel each other out, leaving me with a rather neutral impression overall. I don’t think this is one I will ever get the urge to reread, and I think I can feel confident in recommending it to those who enjoy YA historical fiction with a bit of a twist, but that’s likely a fairly niche group, and I’m not sure it has much appeal beyond that. It wasn’t bad, but it’s not one I’d recommend going out of your way to read.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy, by Mackenzi Lee

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – October 2, 2018

Summary: A year after an accidentally whirlwind grand tour with her brother Monty, Felicity Montague has returned to England with two goals in mind—avoid the marriage proposal of a lovestruck suitor from Edinburgh and enroll in medical school. However, her intellect and passion will never be enough in the eyes of the administrators, who see men as the sole guardians of science.

But then a window of opportunity opens—a doctor she idolizes is marrying an old friend of hers in Germany. Felicity believes if she could meet this man he could change her future, but she has no money of her own to make the trip. Luckily, a mysterious young woman is willing to pay Felicity’s way, so long as she’s allowed to travel with Felicity disguised as her maid.

In spite of her suspicions, Felicity agrees, but once the girl’s true motives are revealed, Felicity becomes part of a perilous quest that leads them from the German countryside to the promenades of Zurich to secrets lurking beneath the Atlantic.

Thoughts: After thoroughly enjoying Mackenzi Lee’s previous novel pertaining to the Montague siblings, The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, I expected to like this book just as much. In the end, though, I can’t say that I did. Oh, I definitely enjoyed my time with it, and it certainly has its strengths and is worth taking the time to read if you’re a fan of YA historical fiction, but it didn’t captivate me in the same way as its predecessor, and after that strong introduction to the author’s writing, this one felt like a bit of a let-down in comparison.

The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy allows Felicity (Monty’s sister and semi-unwilling traveling companion from the previous book) to take centre stage as she tries to gain admittance into the grand masculine halls of higher education. Unsurprisingly given the time period of these books, she is unsuccessful, with her gender being held against her as making her “unfit” to study medicine. Because girly parts and wandering uteruses and blah blah fragile masculinity blah. Felicity is not so much upset as she is angry about this. So when there’s the slim hope of a chance to study under a man she admires, Dr. Platt, she launches herself head-first forward. Even if it means reuniting with an old friend she fell out with years ago. Even if it involves getting mixed up with pirates and murky schemes.

Even if her idol isn’t quite the man she thought he was.

For all that The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy maintains a similar sense of adventure as its predecessor, that adventure didn’t grab me in quite the same way. It wasn’t that I wasn’t invested in Felicity’s journey or her discoveries about the world and herself, but Monty’s starring role in The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue meant that a delightfully irreverent sense of humour was there throughout the pages, and his general absence here meant a lack of the same. Felicity’s narration is very different from Monty’s, filled more with anger and stubbornness than wit and baffled privilege. Felicity viewpoint is absolutely important, and still relevant today (much to my chagrin), but as far as entertainment value, I do have to say that Monty’s narration really gave the previous novel an edge over this one.

Felicity’s position is undeniably a hard one to be in. She’s intelligent, driven, passionate, and she wants more for her life than just to settle down and be the wife to a man who would expect her to put away childish things like the desire to learn and be respected in the same way and for doing the same things that a man would. Felicity doesn’t want to be a man, but she wants what men have, and who can blame her? Society dictates that she, her very essence, is unseemly, that she should have abandoned her desires as a childish conceit, or at least done what her friend Johanna did and become more acceptably feminine even if her academic interests remained the same. Through the story Felicity wrestles time and again with whether pursuing her goals is even worth it, whether she can say that it brings her happiness or peace to do so even with the knowledge that she will very likely fail, or whether she should shunt all of that to the side and aim for more social acceptance and put on the mask of civility so that she stops rubbing everyone around her raw.

Honestly, it’s a debate I’ve had with myself multiple times, so I can very much understand and appreciate Felicity’s dilemma. Is it better to hide the deepest part of oneself and to conform in the name of making life more harmonious, or is it better to be true to oneself even if the cost is social cohesion and connection? Which brings greater satisfaction? Which is more important? Though it may seem to the reader that Felicity comes off as flip-floppy or indecisive regarding something we already know she feels strongly about, that indecision is, in fact, a very realistic aspect to the lives of many who don’t fit in, who are too passionate or odd to adapt to society’s mold. Frankly, I’m in my 30s and I still wrestle with this from time to time. It’s a debate that doesn’t just end after one decision. There is always something around the corner that makes you doubt whether self-denial might be worth it after all.

Once again comparing this novel to the one that came before it, the supernatural element seemed stronger and more overt this time around. In Monty’s story, the mere rumour of a magical or alchemical panacea drove a lot of the plot forward. Here, while for a while the story is about Felicity reaching Dr. Platt and then uncovering his true motives, there’s also the issue of Sim, whose presence comes and goes but is ultimately tied to her family’s legacy of keeping the secret of the sea serpents whose scales act like a drug when ingested. Once Sim reveals that information, Felicity can look back on her interactions with Platt and see that he already knew about the serpents and their scales, and that the otherwordly (so to speak) element was present the whole time within the story.

Honestly, this didn’t really do anything for me. Felicity and Johanna’s encounter with the sea serpents and their theories on how they live were interesting and reminiscent of Marie Brennan’s Lady Trent series, but the execution of that plot element didn’t feel as deft as the similar element in the previous book. As I said, I was intrigued by how much Monty was driven by the rumour of the alchemical panacea, to the point where it frankly didn’t really matter whether there was truth behind the rumour or not. The possibility sparked both adventure and misadventure, and it was a great example of what a person can do with mere whispers in their ears. Here, though, it was like Felicity’s goal changed repeatedly, that she had nothing until she had everything, and there wasn’t a great mystery to solve, no wondering as to the truth of what she hears. There are sea serpents, Platt is after them, the scales do exactly what Felicity had been told they do.

If it had been more akin to what The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue had presented, Sim’s family would have believed the dragons to be real but wouldn’t have show undeniable proof, Felicity and Johanna would never have found the dead beached serpent nor its orphaned offspring, a serpent wouldn’t have risen from the depths to crush their enemies, and the whole journey would have been Felicity trying to reach her mentor, then going off on an adventure with her childhood friend to discover whether or not the rumours of such miraculous creatures had any truth to them, and they would have found nothing concrete but seen something under the ocean’s waves that we’d all know to be the sea serpent, but that’s as close as anyone would come to concrete evidence. The journey sparked by personal ambition, changing to include the desires of or for a childhood friend, rumours pushing them on, and in the end both nothing and everything changed.

Since I’m sure it’s on the minds of anyone reading this review, yes, there is once again queer representation in this book, though it’s not exactly as positive as before. Felicity isn’t precisely disgusted by the relationship between her brother and Percy, but she acts often as though she doesn’t want to see it and doesn’t want to be around them when they’re acting like a couple. She accepts that they’re in love and that they make each other happy, but she herself is happiest when they’re not around her being happy with each other. Frankly, that was rather unpleasant to read.

Sim is undeniably attracted to women (less sure about whether she’s attracted to men also; that wasn’t really touched on), and I honestly would read an entire novel about her because she’s a great character with lots of potential, although as I mentioned previously, she dips in and out of the story when the plot needs her to, so she’s not present as much as she could be and as such didn’t get as much development as some of the others. And I know it’s likely to be a case of Unfortunate Implications rather than anything deliberate, but when Sim is a Muslim woman who vanishes from the story at intervals because it’s not convenient to have her around and doesn’t get the development of characters like Johanna, it can come across a bit as saying that the openly-Muslim characters aren’t as important as the white Europeans. Or that they’re only good to have around when they’re needed to advance someone else’s story. Again, probably not the author’s intention, but it can read that way at times, and it’s something that’s worth paying attention to.

As for how Felicity relates to queer representation… It’s not said explicitly, since the terms weren’t really in common use with modern connotations during the time this book is set, but Felicity is probably either asexual, aromantic, or both. I’m not even entirely sure, if Felicity were given those terms and modern knowledge, whether she would know. Neither man nor woman has been able to light a fire in her, so to speak, but that doesn’t narrow it down, and it might just mean she doesn’t like kissing. It’s not a universal like, after all. And while it was good to see a potentially aro/ace character in a YA novel, I do have some issues with the presentation.

First, it’s not concrete. As I said, her experience has mostly been that she hasn’t been interested in anyone so far and isn’t that into kissing. Compared to her brother’s clear and self-expressed attraction to men and women, it’s easy for readers who don’t want to see more aro/ace characters to just not read that in Felicity, and to downplay it as her just not having found “the right person” yet.

And believe me, I wish I could properly convey the sour feeling associated with those words, because I’ve heard them from many people in regard to myself, and there’s a lot of bitterness surrounding the idea that asexual people just need somebody to awaken latent sexual desire within them. Like we’re all “late bloomers,” sexually immature, and that we need sexytimes to prove to ourselves that we want sexytimes, and yes, “you’ll want it after you’ve had it,” is a common idea and is just as damaging and creepy as you might think it is.

Secondly, a lot of presentations of asexuality in media come across as more a matter of a character not knowing what they want and less as knowing what they don’t want. Asexual people do go through a journey of discovery when it comes to their sexuality, absolutely, and we don’t always instantly know, “Ah yes, I absolutely have no sexual or romantic desire for people,” but very often the formula seems to break down as:

Am I interested in the opposite gender? No.
Am I interested in the same gender? No.
Well golly, there must be something wrong and weird about me. Why can’t I decide which I like?

The idea that sexual or romantic attraction is innate rather than just being common is one that prevents asexual and aromantic people from accepting themselves. And society backs up this idea, because there’s so much even now that tells us we have to define ourselves by what we are, by what we like, that nobody every considers that not liking a thing is a thing in itself. If someone didn’t like living in apartments, we wouldn’t automatically assume that they do like living in houses, but we go that route with sexuality all the time. If someone has no attraction to either gender, they often struggle defining themselves because this culture and this language doesn’t really have much call for expressing who we are by what we don’t have an interest in. That seems negative,and so must be discouraged. We can’t say that we dislike living in apartments; we must say we like living in houses, even if that isn’t really the truth of the matter. Even if the dislike of apartments defines us more than liking to live in houses, our identity must stem from what we like, what we are, what we do, or else we’re curmudgeons and negative and nobody wants to be around a Negative Nelly.

Where am I going with this? Essentially, to the point that Felicity’s sexual orientation in The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy is hinted at only by telling us what she doesn’t like. We’re meant to follow that to the conclusion of asexuality or aromanticism, but its never said. Felicity never says, or thinks, “I have no romantic or sexual desire for anybody.” She just expresses that kissing men didn’t appeal to her, and kissing Sim was better but still not that appealing, and so the reader is meant to reach the conclusion through a series of if/then coding. If not this, then that. If not that, then the other thing. Saying it without saying it, because even if a clever author could easily find ways to express that a lack of desire is still something, there was no such cleverness here, and it was disappointing.

Third and final, Felicity’s potential asexuality and/or aromanticism is tied to her personality of not having much time for anyone and anything that doesn’t suit her and her goals. She’s impatient, driven, passionate, and at times extremely single-minded, and it’s too easy to read that her lack of desire for sexual or romantic connection is just another facet of that “no time for anything else” personality, rather than something that can and does play a part in the lives of many kinds of people with a variety of different personality types. It’s a trope at this point. The asexual characters is nearly always the one that’s asexual due to trauma or religion, or they’re the obsessive goes-against-the-grain type that often can’t see outside their own narrow scope.

And once again, it was disappointing.

Similar to the issue with Sim, I feel that this was less the author’s deliberate intention and more a case of unfortunate implications. But these implications are once again things that can damage and delay acceptance. I can all too easily imagine a teen reading this book and thinking, “Felicity’s just like me that way, I’m not interested in sex/romance either, but oh wait, Felicity’s not interested in anything outside of her focus and drive to get into medicine, so maybe she’s got so time for romance just like she had no time for Johanna’s pretty dresses.” Instead of someone seeing themselves in a book for possibly the first time, they see someone who might be like them, maybe, but it’s so easy to explain away, and it’s never even explicitly stated to begin with.

I won’t say that I didn’t enjoy this book. I will say that I didn’t enjoy it as much as its predecessor, and that I found the previous book to be better on a multitude of levels. I can see The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy appealing to people who enjoy historical fiction, and to those who are interested in historical aspects of feminism. But where The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue shone, this book merely glitters in comparison, and I think it could have stood a couple more sensitivity readers going over the material to smooth over some of the rough edges that might scratch at people who need to be met with better. It’s easily skippable even if you really enjoyed the first book of the series, though in fairness, a third book is still on the horizon and might well build off certain things established here, so I can’t say for absolute certainty that this will remain my opinion in the future.

The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, by Mackenzi Lee

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – June 27, 2017

Summary: A young bisexual British lord embarks on an unforgettable Grand Tour of Europe with his best friend/secret crush. An 18th-century romantic adventure for the modern age written by This Monstrous Thing author Mackenzi Lee—Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda meets the 1700s.

Henry “Monty” Montague doesn’t care that his roguish passions are far from suitable for the gentleman he was born to be. But as Monty embarks on his grand tour of Europe, his quests for pleasure and vice are in danger of coming to an end. Not only does his father expect him to take over the family’s estate upon his return, but Monty is also nursing an impossible crush on his best friend and traveling companion, Percy.

So Monty vows to make this yearlong escapade one last hedonistic hurrah and flirt with Percy from Paris to Rome. But when one of Monty’s reckless decisions turns their trip abroad into a harrowing manhunt, it calls into question everything he knows, including his relationship with the boy he adores.

Witty, dazzling, and intriguing at every turn, The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue is an irresistible romp that explores the undeniably fine lines between friendship and love.

Thoughts: There needs to be more historical fantasy with queer characters; I’ll say that for nothing. Queer people aren’t some modern phenomenon, and I enjoy seeing such characters in historical settings, and doubly so in YA novels, because there are still a number of people who hold that queer culture and experience is something that only adults are capable of handling and so teens don’t need to know.

My sincere regrets to the myriad queer teens out there who have to deal with this. I was one of you, once, before growing into a queer adult, and I can say with certainty that greater exposure and education would have made coming to grips with myself a lot easier, had such things been more readily available in my youth.

The protagonist, Henry “Monty” Montague, is something of the black sheep of his family. Drinking, gambling, and going to bed with men and women alike, though with his heart set on his best friend, Percy. Percy, who is a young black man in the 1700s, so you can well imagine what his social status is and how he’s treated by many. Before settling down to take over the family’s estate, Monty has plans to tour Europe (along with Percy, to his happiness, and his sister Felicity, to his chagrin), and to use it as an excuse for hedonistic debauchery before having to give at least some of that up for social propriety. But his plans for fun keep getting derailed, first by misunderstandings with Percy and the chaperone the group was forced to bring, and then by the discovery that Percy has epilepsy, and contrary to the story he told about going to school at the end of the tour, he’s actually being sent to an asylum, where he can be, to put it mildly, “less of an inconvenience.” Percy won’t stand for this, and when rumours reach his ears of something that might cure Percy’s epilepsy, the trio’s journey takes a sharp turn toward the uncanny and dangerous.

It was fairly obvious, just from the back-of-the-book synopsis, that The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue was going to be a queer historical, and that alone would have convinced me to read it. I didn’t expect that it would have fantastical elements to it, though, and that was a very pleasant bonus. That aspect of the story isn’t revealed until well past the halfway point, giving the reader plenty of time to get hooked on the rest of the story first. The cure for Percy’s epilepsy is alchemical, of sorts, a magical panacea in the form of an undying human heart. That this is even possible is a surprise to all characters, since The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue is, until the discovery of that plot point, based very firmly in historical reality, rather than historical fantasy. The handling of the magical elements reminded me very much of Cornelia Funke’s The Thief Lord and its magical carousel: it’s a motivating force for the characters, it drives part of the plot along, but it doesn’t really show up on centre stage. Its biggest effect isn’t in what it actually does so much as what it motivates character to do in order to obtain it.

It’s worth noting that the story could have gone in much the same fashion whether or not the heart had any magical curative properties. The mere rumour of it, hints at where it might be and what it might do, influenced Monty. By the time he found it, his life had already changed just from hearing of it, and it scarcely mattered if it was true or merely compelling fiction. It was a deft way to handle something so mystical while still keeping the story feeling very much grounded in reality, and I would love to see more books take this tack.

As for Monty himself, he is the very epitome of privilege. He is a wealthy white man in the 1700s, and while it can’t be denied that his life has some legitimate hardships (being bisexual was hardly approved of at the time, and he was pressured from many sides to hide or change that aspect of himself), he was startlingly ignorant about the hardships anyone else may endure in their lives. His European Tour with Percy and Felicity was, by and large, his coming of age story. Intended to be his “last hedonistic hurrah,” he instead finds himself confronted at every turn with the fact that he is ignorant and selfish, and that those closest to him suffer for those traits. He sees hypocrisy in his sister for wanting to study and simultaneously not wanting to be sent away to school (not learning until much later that she is being sent to a finishing school, where she’ll be taught manners and comportment and all things “befitting a lady,” not a school where she can learn academically the way a man might), he refuses to see that Percy may suffer for being black and for having a chronic illness, and generally thinks that his way is the right way solely because he thought of it, regardless of what others want. When Monty decides to seek the magical panacea, it’s not because Percy expressed that he wanted to be cured of his epilepsy, but because Monty wanted Percy to be cured, and wanted that so that Percy wouldn’t have to be sent away. His heart was in the right place, but his privilege made him so blind to the validity and value of others that he didn’t think anything was wrong with demanding his way all the time.

Frankly, it was nice to see him be taken down a few pegs through the book’s progression, to see him forced to confront, undeniably, that the whole world wasn’t the way he had experienced in his small and carefully manufactured life, and that his wants could not always come first and foremost.

I may not know the most about the time period and locations this novel took place in, but it was clear that the author did some research about the subjects she was tackling in her writing. Historical treatment of women, of people of colour, of people with chronic and/or serious illnesses, or queer people, all came into play during A Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, and even if some license was taken in places, the overall feel of the novel was indeed one of authenticity, of enough historical references and turns of phrase to centre a reader in the moment while still maintaining and witty and irreverent tone through the narrative to keep the reader entertained. It was, to be blunt, a damn fine read, a historical romp through marginalized groups as seen through the eyes of someone whose privilege is getting stripped away in layers, and the story of a young man finally growing up. I can heartily recommend this to fans of YA historical fiction (even those who don’t typically go in for a touch of fantasy) and to those seeking more books with queer and other marginalized characters.

The Walled City, by Ryan Graudin

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – February 12, 2019

Summary: 730. That’s how many days I’ve been trapped. 18. That’s how many days I have left to find a way out.

Jin, Mei Yee, and Dai all live in the Walled City, a lawless labyrinth run by crime lords and overrun by street gangs. Teens there traffic drugs or work in brothels–or, like Jin, hide under the radar. But when Dai offers Jin a chance to find her lost sister, Mei Yee, she begins a breathtaking race against the clock to escape the Walled City itself.

Thoughts: I’d heard so many good things about The Walled City, and the concept certainly intrigued me. A city cut off from the things and people outside it, a lawlessness that had its own rules, people caught up in schemes far bigger than they could imagine, all intersecting to bring their stories together. It seemed like a great starting point for an epic story.

So what went wrong?

I suspect in many ways the disconnect I felt for this book is purely a personal thing, because most other reviews I read for it don’t mention the particular aspects that were problems for me. Everyone’s got their individual tastes, and that’s fine. But in the interest of full disclosure, and because there’s always the possibility that there’s someone out there who will have the same problems, I feel that they’re worth discussing.

The Walled City of Hak Nam is based on Kowloon Walled City, an old fort in Hong Kong that was essentially left to its own devices and became a sort of city within a city, a place where the usual rules don’t apply, and where drugs, murder, prostitution, the whole nine yards were run often without any interference from outside forces, because Kowloon both was and wasn’t within Hong Kong’s jurisdiction. It was a complicated situation, just as it is within The Walled City, with Hak Nam replacing Kowloon, and Seng Ngoi replacing Hong Kong.

You might think, then, that The Walled City is a small sample of a much larger world, the story that we get to see set in a secondary world that is most decidedly not the world we know and live in. But no, not really. Or if it is, it’s the same in every respect except for two place names being different. The world within The Walled City has 747 airplanes, Mercedes cars, television. Seng Ngoi and Hak Nam are in the eastern part of the world, and English is a language. It seems, for all intents and purposes, that The Walled City is set in this world, only, as I said, with 2 places having different names than we’re used to.

This comes across an awful lot like the author wanted to write a story set within Kowloon, but didn’t want to commit to writing something about a place that actually existed, and so instead set the story in a place that was identical for all intents and purposes, but with an easy out in case something ended up not being historically accurate to the places that inspired the book’s setting. A way to say, “Well, it’s not really Kowloon, not really Hong Kong, so there’s nothing to really be accurate about.”

Which left this world wide open for so much creative execution, so many ways to change a few things here and there and make it a wholly original world, even if it was heavily inspired by something real. Television could still happen in this world, but just leave out the mentions of brand names. The setting can be in the east, but change English to, I don’t know, some language that isn’t real and that you don’t have to deal with beyond giving it a name. Then suddenly Hak Nam and Seng Ngoi become real within their own world, a self-contained part of a much broader reality, instead of being fake places based on real places, set in the real world.

It would have been a small change but it would have made so much difference, at least to my reading of the book. It felt like unused potential, and it dogged the footsteps of the story throughout.

As for the story itself, rather than the setting, it was interesting enough. The book follows three primary characters: Dai, a rich boy who was exiled to Hak Nam and now seeks to find evidence against a drug lord to barter for his freedom; Jin, a girl who disguises herself as a boy for her safety and whose goal is to find her sister within one of the city’s brothels; and Mei Yee, Jin’s sister, working within one of the brothels owned by Hak Nam’s most powerful drug lord. Jin and Dai’s paths cross and they begin working together, mostly for Dai’s purposes but it also dovetails nicely into Jin’s plan to find and free her sister. Naturally, Dai ends up meeting Mei Yee along the way, conversing with her through her window since Mei Yee isn’t allowed outside, and the two develop a crush on each other as they learn more about each other’s lives and goals.

Each chapter is told from the viewpoint of a different character, and their voices are distinct enough that it’s easy to tell them apart despite all chapters being written in the first person. Mei Yee has more poetic imagery in her observations, Dai is confident and cocky, and Jin’s sentences are often shorter and to the point, which ties back well to her life on the street filled with abbreviated experiences and frantic lifestyle. You can turn to any random page in the book and within a few sentences get a very clear idea of who is narrating, and credit where credit is due, that’s a tough thing to manage and I think the author pulled it off quite well.

The romance between Dai and Mei Yee was fairly predictable, and though it wasn’t given much time to really develop on the pages, it still was somewhat sweet. The two do fall for each other without knowing much about who the other really is and what they really want at first, and I think much of their attraction was based on who they each wanted the other to be, a sort of aspirational crush, as it were, but it was still rather cute to read their budding romance and to wonder how long it would last once they experienced the world beyond Hak Nam’s walls and their own immediate wants? Would it survive? Would they remain compatible with each other? Were they even as compatible as they assumed they were? Honestly, I can’t answer any of those questions, because the focus of the story wasn’t on their romance. But I will say that their interest was believable, realistic, and didn’t immediately go into the realm of obsessive attraction, and for that, I was thankful.

In the end, The Walled City wasn’t a bad story, and it had enough action and intrigue to convince me to read the whole thing through, but I couldn’t help but feel that it could have easily been so much more. The world-building felt nonexistent at best and confused at worst, and as I previously mentioned, it felt like the author was afraid to commit to telling a story about people in the actual Kowloon Walled City. It ended up making a novel that was somewhere between historical fiction and speculative/secondary-world fiction, fitting in neither and so being very hard to categorize. This is one you read when you want something you don’t want to look deeply at, because then the cracks become obvious and you start to ask more questions that can’t be answered. Its lack of easy categorization makes it difficult to recommend: “people might enjoy this if they enjoy… books, I guess?”

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

The Rage of Dragons, by Evan Winter

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – February 12, 2019

Summary: The Omehi people have been fighting an unwinnable war for almost two hundred years. The lucky ones are born gifted. One in every two thousand women has the power to call down dragons. One in every hundred men is able to magically transform himself into a bigger, stronger, faster killing machine.

Everyone else is fodder, destined to fight and die in the endless war.

Young, gift-less Tau knows all this, but he has a plan of escape. He’s going to get himself injured, get out early, and settle down to marriage, children, and land. Only, he doesn’t get the chance.

Those closest to him are brutally murdered, and his grief swiftly turns to anger. Fixated on revenge, Tau dedicates himself to an unthinkable path. He’ll become the greatest swordsman to ever live, a man willing to die a hundred thousand times for the chance to kill the three who betrayed him.

The Rage of Dragons launches a stunning and powerful debut epic fantasy series that readers are already calling “the best fantasy book in years.”

Thoughts: There’s a very good reason for a lot of the hype that surrounded this book at launch. The Rage of Dragons is the sort of book that pulls you in very quickly, and leaves a strong impression after you finish the final page. It’s the kind of epic fantasy that feels comfortable to fans of that particular genre, while also displaying an impressive amount of originality to make it stand out. There are demons, there are dragons, there is military drama, there are all the hallmarks of an epic fantasy classic, and yet it is also so unlike many epic fantasy novels I’ve read, in no small part because it is not set in a land broadly inspired by medieval Europe, and neither are its people. Instead we get something inspired by South Africa, which is far less common and worth paying attention to for its representation and creativity

It is, in short, very well worth the hype.

The Rage of Dragons is, first and foremost, a story of a man driven by the desire for revenge. Tau is from one of the lower castes of the Omehi people, limited in his ability to advance in life, but powerfully motivated to go as far as he can after the death of his father reroutes Tau’s plans for his life. Now he is driven to become the best fighter he can be, not to fight in his people’s unending war against the hedeni, but to get to a place where he can kill those who played a part in his father’s death. But, as in any good story, Tau’s journey is far from easy, and far from straightforward, and time and again Tau finds himself running into walls that block his goals or turn him aside to a new aim.

Put that way, the story might seem unfocused, but that’s far from the case. In many cases, Tau stays focused on his goal of revenge even after uncovering details that things are not always as they seem, that things are more complicated than he wants to believe in order to keep his goal in sight. Frankly, it was interesting to see a character bent on revenge to the point of blindness, to the point of damaging himself and refusing to be turned aside even when logically he should have been. Emotion rarely obeys logic, and Tau’s singular drive did not respond to anything until it became impossible to ignore.

It’s difficult to talk about The Rage of Dragons without mentioning the Omehi caste system, which, as caste systems do, affect so many aspects of every character’s life. Tau is Common, which isn’t the lowest caste but it’s also far from the highest, and as such, his life is very limited. He can (and did) gain some military training and status, but even that would only take him so far. So, a caste system with a limited degree of meritocracy, just enough to give people hope that life might improve but not so much that they will ever improve to the degree of a higher caste. People from the Noble caste, thanks to selective breeding, are taller and stronger than Lessers, giving them physical as well as social advantages. For Tau, options in life are: become an Ihashe (a low-level soldier) through physical prowess, become front-line fodder in the war, or become a Drudge (essentially a slave).

It’s not surprising that Tau throws himself into becoming not only an Ihashe, but the strongest one he can be, training literally night and day to hone his martial abilities and make himself ready for the day when he challenges his father’s killers to the death.

There are plenty of characters in plenty of books who end up being the best of the best, the exceptions to all the rules, and so that’s why the story is about them. But more often than not, that skill is a natural talent, albeit enhanced by training. In many other books, a character like Tau would find himself suddenly presented with training that brings out hidden martial talent that existed within him all along, and that exceptional nature would be what saves him and propels him forward. Here, it’s just the opposite. Compared to the others he trains with, Tau is, at first, weaker and smaller than all of them, and to rise to their level, he has to put in extra hours of training to improve. But being as good as the others isn’t enough, and he knows it, so he puts in more hours, forgoing sleep, forgoing friendships, in the pursuit of power.

He ends up being able to dual-wield swords, and admittedly cool trick that I’ve seen before, but again, it usually gets presented as some natural talent. Tau finds he can wield two swords at once due to a lucky accident, and due to his dominant hand being injured during the early days of his training, forcing him to fight with his weaker hand and so in essence becoming ambidextrous. Nor is his progress unmarked by any detriments: Tau loses sleep, gets injured, fights demons and starts to see them everywhere even when they aren’t there. His drive has drawbacks, tangible ones, and to be honest, it was good to see on the page. Sometimes stories are remarkable for what they don’t do rather than what they do do, and this is one such case. It would have been easy to have Tau be naturally talented and to rise with effort, yes, but also without sacrifice. It was fantastic to not the see author fall into that trap, to give Tau more obstacles to overcome and actual difficulty overcoming them. It made him, however exceptional he turned out to be, very relatable, very real.

It’s worth mentioning the hedeni in this review, because I often feel awkward when an entire race of people are presented as “savages” and “the enemy.” Especially when we see almost nothing from the viewpoint of any of those people, and the vast majority from the people who invaded the hedeni’s lands and seek to eliminate them. While it becomes clearer toward the end of the book that the hedeni have a strong culture of their own and are not the slavering horde that the Omehi believe them to be, much of the book is written from the perspective that they are pretty much there to be an obstacle to the Omehi being secure in land that, frankly, they invaded and caused massive damage to. This is a perfect example of not just history being written by the victor, but of culture being defined largely by an “us vs them” mentality, with little to balance the perspective. It was reminiscent of old presentations of North America’s Indigenous people, seen as nothing but an uncivilized obstacle to European power and comfort, and while I don’t delude myself into thinking this mentality has only ever been part of White history, it still was uncomfortable to read.

I can understand it from a storytelling perspective. The Rage of Dragons was about Tau’s revenge, his loss, and not about culture clashes and erasure, though it did take on a little bit of that toward the book’s climax. But while I do understand the decision from the standpoint of a storyteller, I won’t pretend it didn’t make for some very awkward overtones at times.

Still, I cannot express properly just how much I enjoyed reading The Rage of Dragons. The world is so complete, so developed, that even though we really only see a very small part of it, it feels larger, it feels connected to what lies beyond the small section of land in which the book is set. Characters had their own unique voices, varied personalities, and even when I didn’t particularly like some of them, I was invested in what happened to them. Winter, has a wonderful talent for telling engrossing stories and for keeping readers hanging on every page, every word, with action and intrigue aplenty. I was truly impressed with this debut novel, and I’m very excited to see the story continue in later books, and to keep an eye on other things that the author may write in the future. I highly recommend The Rage of Dragons to those who love epic fantasy but who also crave something more unique in their reading.

(Received in exchange for an honest review.)