The Wolf of Oren-Yaro, by K S Villoso

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – July 23, 2019

Summary: “They called me the Bitch Queen, the she-wolf, because I murdered a man and exiled my king the night before they crowned me.”

Born under the crumbling towers of her kingdom, Queen Talyien was the shining jewel and legacy of the bloody War of the Wolves. It nearly tore her nation apart. But her arranged marriage to the son of a rival clan heralds peace.

However, he suddenly disappears before their reign can begin, and the kingdom is fractured beyond repair.

Years later, he sends a mysterious invitation to meet. Talyien journeys across the sea in hopes of reconciling their past. An assassination attempt quickly dashes those dreams. Stranded in a land she doesn’t know, with no idea whom she can trust, Talyien will have to embrace her namesake.

A Wolf of Oren-yaro is not tamed.

Thoughts: Before I get into the meat of this review, I’d like to state that I’ve started taking some new medications to try and help various health issues in my life, and those medications make me a little bit spaced out at times and make it tough to fully gather my thoughts. So if anything in this review doesn’t make sense or makes weird leaps of logic, please take it as a given that it’s because of my meds, or because this book was just that good, or a combination of both.

It’s probably both.

The Wolf of Oren-Yaro is one of those fantasy novels that seems, right from the outset, so very well planned and plotted and expressed that sometimes it’s easy to forget that you’re not reading historical fiction. The world is so finely detailed, the mix of cultures and mentions of different languages and dialects, all of it combine into something that feels incredibly real. As we follow Queen Talyien’s journey to reunite with her runaway husband, layers and layers are peeled back, revealing a rich and complex story coming out from what at first seemed relatively simple.

Well, as simple as politics and “It’s Complicated” relationships are, at any rate.

Talyien is one of those characters who I think it’s easy to both like and dislike, depending on the situation. I can’t help but admire her tenacity, her desire to do what she thinks is right, and her sharp mind, and in many of the situations she found herself in, I agreed with her judgment calls. On the flip side, those traits came with drawbacks that kept her from seeing things she didn’t want to see. Her strong desire to reunite with her husband, partly from love and loyalty and partly due to the political arrangement that came about from their marriage, could seem admirable… if it wasn’t for the fact that she kept overlooking that he really didn’t want the same thing, and that he didn’t view her in the same light she viewed him. Talyien wasn’t what I’d call a trusting person by nature, but she seemed to have difficulty recognizing the machinations of others, the way she was constantly maneuvered into positions that were very much to her disadvantage. While she was committed to doing her best for the kingdom (queendom?) she led, she did have more than a touch of naiveté about her, which was frustrating at times.

So Talyien’s journey throughout The Wolf of Oren-Yaro wasn’t just the physical journey of getting her husband back, or trying to solve the increasingly complex set of circumstances surrounding the reunion (assassins, betrayal, and disappearances abound!), but her journey to see the world in a new light. She’s not the same person at the end of the book as she was in the beginning. She’s seen the lengths people will go to get what they want, she’s seen the reality of life for people she wouldn’t have even noticed in the past, and she learns far more about the what’s going to be expected of her as even her political situation changes. She’s still very much herself at the end, but it’s a self that’s more mature, in some ways, or at least more apt to see the sheer amount of deception around her.

Villoso’s gorgeous writing really brings this Asian-inspired world to life, showing the reader the highs and lows of various locations, the best and the worst of people, and all their varied complexities; nobody is wholly good or wholly bad. With possibly one exception, though I’m not going to spoil that for people who have yet to read this book. Despite having very little ability to concentrate on things lately due to my ongoing health issues, once I started reading The Wolf of Oren-Yaro, I kept being motivated to push past my limits, to read just a little further, even when my eyes didn’t want to focus properly or I realized I’d just spent 5 minutes staring blankly at the same page, because I was that invested in the story. I know I’ve said this about other novels, but it stands true here just as much as there: this is a novel that really draws you in and refuses to let you go. Once you give it even a slight chance to ensnare you, you too will find yourself pushing past your limits, doing the, “Just one more chapter,” thing, until before you know it, you’ve reached the end and there’s nothing else to do but reach for the sequel and continue the epic fantasy adventure.

Long live the Bitch Queen!

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

Jade War, by Fonda Lee

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – July 23, 2019

Summary: On the island of Kekon, the Kaul family is locked in a violent feud for control of the capital city and the supply of magical jade that endows trained Green Bone warriors with supernatural powers they alone have possessed for hundreds of years.

Beyond Kekon’s borders, war is brewing. Powerful foreign governments and mercenary criminal kingpins alike turn their eyes on the island nation. Jade, Kekon’s most prized resource, could make them rich – or give them the edge they’d need to topple their rivals.

Faced with threats on all sides, the Kaul family is forced to form new and dangerous alliances, confront enemies in the darkest streets and the tallest office towers, and put honor aside in order to do whatever it takes to ensure their own survival – and that of all the Green Bones of Kekon.

Thoughts: Sequel to the absolutely incredible Jade City, Jade War dives back into a world where jade means power and the two ruling/warring families of Kekon are still at each others’ throats against a backdrop of increasing social change. Political alliances are being made and broken, lines shift and change, and progress marches ever onward while people try to maintain a semblance of the lives they know while everything around them seems to grow less familiar by the day. Jade smuggling, underhanded deals, old vendettas, war on the horizon, and cross-cultural clashes are just some of the struggles the Kaul family must deal with in this story where nobody is safe.

And I mean that. Jade City and Jade War are books where you can’t get too attached to any character, because there’s every chance they’ll end up dead at some point. For all that I accepted this in the first book, it was still shocking to me every time it happened, because the characters are so well written and grow so familiar to the reader that it seems impossible for the story to exist without them. And yet. Death is the reality faced when clashing clans war in the streets, when old enemies raise their heads and seek vengeance, and when navigating the treacherous waters of unfamiliar and hostile societies. During a few scenes, I was especially tense, as some of my favourite characters were in danger of meeting the same fate as so many others, and I was on the edge of my figurative seat waiting to see how it all turned out for them.

Jade War wastes no time in asking some brutally hard questions. Can you still be part of a family when you’ve forsworn the thing the family is most concerned with? Is it acceptable to sell something sacred to people who don’t appreciate it the way you do, in order to gain advantage over those who seek to destroy you? Is it honourable to push someone to do something dishonourable? How much bloodshed is acceptable to keep valuable cultural traditions strong, or is it better to sacrifice everything you hold dear in the name of peace? And, in nearly every instance, where does the line get drawn? There are no easy answers here, there never are, but these are the issues that occupy the thoughts of so many characters, from the minor to the major. You get explorations of cultural value, of a culture’s place in the context of a wider world. You see a society where that which what we would deem as a seedy underbelly, a criminal organization to be stamped out, is actually just an accepted part of daily life. One that does a lot of good for the people.

The clans honestly remind me a lot about what I’ve read of yakuza families. Probably other organized crime families too. I remember many years ago reading about how, after a large earthquake in Japan, the yakuza were one of the first on the scene to deliver emergency supplies to those displaced in the disaster. They weren’t bound by the same red tape that the government was, so they could just show up and help people who needed help. Or an interview with a yakuza member talking about how one of his colleagues (probably the wrong word but it’s the best I can think of) ran an orphanage, and sure, that orphanage was a tax haven, but it also was a good place for kids to be when they had nowhere else to go. Handing out blankets and bottles of water after a disaster is exactly what I can imagine Hilo doing. I can see Shae in her office, smiling at the thought that an orphanage is both providing for kids and also making sure the family sneaks by paying less in taxes. Beating the crap out of someone who is harassing the owner of a clan-supported business? Sure, that’s absolutely a thing the Maik brothers would do. These are the sorts of characters you will come to know and love as you read both Jade City and Jade War.

The Green Bone Saga books are filled with grey-and-grey morality, where you might be able to identify who is wrong, but it’s hard to say that anybody’s really right. The best you can say of the characters is that they’re all doing what they think is best, whether that be for their families, their clans, or themselves. And that leads to characters doing morally reprehensible things in the name of what they believe to be right. It’s hard to call the Kaul family “the good guys” when they’ll undermine businesses for their own benefit, or when one of them kills in order to essentially kidnap a baby in order to raise it within the family. There are no good guys, not really. There are people who are worse than others, but I don’t think there’s a single character in these books who hasn’t done something awful in the name of loyalty and duty, nobody who hasn’t stepped over someone else in the pursuit of ambition.

And honestly, I kind of love that. There are plenty of stories out there where the lines are clearly drawn, where you know the right side from the wrong side, where people fight against injustice or evil or oppressive regimes. There’s nothing wrong with stories like that. I love them too. But sometimes I crave a good portrayal of the messy reality of life, where there are no easy answers and no clear examples of good versus bad. The world is full of beauty and brutality, love and honour and violence. It’s complicated and oh so real, and I love it so much. Lee has created such a complete world that every piece of it feels real, every piece fits into the complicated pattern that a fully fleshed out world requires. There’s a stunning amount of world-building in these books, and Lee should feel proud that it all came together so brilliantly, conveyed to the reader in ways that at no point feel forced or trite.

I find myself in a similar situation to when I read and reviewed the first book. Jade War was so astounding, so fantastic that I have a hard time collecting my thoughts into something coherent. It’s the sort of book that makes you want to just hand copies to people and say, “Read this because it’s so freaking good!” To so eloquently portray the clash and blend of technology and magic, modernity and tradition, is no easy feat, but Lee handles it all so well that I ended up finishing Jade War and wanting to pick up Jade City and start the whole journey all over again. My reviews can never do this series justice. The best book are always like this for me. I try to put something together to convey just how much I loved them, and in the end I sit back, unsatisfied, knowing that I couldn’t address half the things I wanted to, and none of them properly express my full thoughts and emotions.

In the end, all I can say is that I wholeheartedly recommend this series. If you enjoyed Jade City then you will adore Jade War. I can’t think of another series like this; it stands proudly as a stellar example of what one might call “gangster fantasy.” I can’t do it full justice; it’s the sort of book you have to experience for yourself in order to see just how truly amazing it is, from beginning to end, in all of its glorious violence and heart. The clan is my blood, and the Pillar is its master. Do not miss your chance to read these books.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

Across the Green Grass Fields, by Seanan McGuire

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – January 12, 2021

Summary: Regan loves, and is loved, though her school-friend situation has become complicated, of late.

When she suddenly finds herself thrust through a doorway that asks her to Be Sure before swallowing her whole, Regan must learn to live in a world filled with centaurs, kelpies, and other magical equines–a world that expects its human visitors to step up and be heroes.

But after embracing her time with the herd, Regan discovers that not all forms of heroism are equal, and not all quests are as they seem…

Thoughts: Barring the first story in the series, all of the other Wayward Children novellas have been about already-established characters, and I say, “barring the first story,” because that’s the one that, well, established all the characters. While nearly all of the books could be read as standalones, they are so much richer when you have the foundation under your feet, and I can see why some may have been intimidated to just pick up and random book, knowing they might be missing some vital context.

So it was nice to see a story that really could be read as a 100% standalone, without characters from other stories making appearances, at least so far as I could tell. Regan’s story is one that could be picked up by somebody who’s heard good things about the Wayward Children series but who perhaps can’t get their hands on Every Heart a Doorway, but who still wants a glimpse into the kind of rich and compelling narrative these novellas hold without feeling lost or like they’re missing something.

Regan’s character is one that I think many people can empathize with to one degree or another. While in her mundane life, she tried hard to fit in, tried hard to fit into the boxes that other people dictated she should fit into in order to be ‘normal,’ even when doing so was a painful experience that cost her dearly. Only Regan didn’t quite fit into that box as well as she wanted, after receiving some news from her parents that on a biochemical level, she wasn’t quite like the other girls she knew. A moment of betrayal in telling the person she thought was her best friend, the one she’d worked so hard to please and be liked by, and Regan’s life began to spiral in directions that ultimately led her through a mysterious door and into the Hooflands, where she meets centaurs and unicorns and all manner of fantastical beings, all with hoofed feet. It’s there that Regan not only finds herself and finds acceptance, but also where she, as the world’s designated newly-arrived human, she discovers that she has a grand destiny to fulfill.

Honestly, I could spend years reading about the Hooflands and be quite happy to do so. The world that McGuire sets up in complex and real, with distinct cultures and geography and mythology and prejudice, and it feels deeper and more fleshed-out than some worlds I’ve read about in full-blown novels, where the author has so much more time to establish things for a reader. If next year I find that McGuire has sold a trilogy of novels set in the Hooflands, I will pre-order them all, I swear. There’s just something about the place that I love, and I feel like there are so very many stories that could be told there, all of them ones I’d want to read about. This isn’t my favourite otherworld that has featured in a Wayward Children novella, but it’s pretty damn close!

That being said, there was a moment of internal inconsistency that I wanted to mention, and I’ll preface this by saying that I read an ARC (advance review copy) and what I’m about to say might end up being erased from the final publication, but it stood out to be so much that I wanted to tackle it in this review. Shortly after Regan stumbles into the Hooflands and meets Pansy the centaur, Pansy utters a little colloquialism, “hay and horseshoes.” Which seems fitting, and was kind of the equivalent of our, “sunshine and rainbows.” You know, all the good things, everything being happy. But later on the same page, Regan mentions horses, and Pansy has no idea what a horse is. Now maybe this was just a case of someone not reflecting on etymology, because that happens all the time in real life, but it seemed very weird to me that someone would know what horseshoes were but not horses.

I can’t even give this one my usual handwave of assuming that everyone in the novel is speaking a language that isn’t English and everything I read is essentially translated for my benefit, because Regan is certainly speaking English, and Pansy is perfectly understood and seems to speak the same language, so it ended up being one of those weird internal inconsistency issues that kept nagging at me. Especially since Regan later mentions horses to another character, who doesn’t seem confused as to what a horse is at all. Or if she is, she doesn’t say anything about it.

But that one issue aside, the rest of the story was so very damn good that I was riveted from beginning to end. I loved seeing Regan’s progression as a character, I loved seeing more of the Hooflands and the people who lived there, and I loved the way the story took a turn in the end that made it feel very much like a great myth was being told, with Regan making unlikely allies who help her on her journey to fulfill her destiny. It was a fantastic read, and Across the Green Grass Fields quickly rose to become my second-favourite story in the entire series. And given how much I’ve enjoyed all the other books, that really says something!

Long story short, if you enjoyed the other Wayward Children books, you’ll love this one just as much. And if you haven’t read any of the other books yet but can’t find the first one or are intimidated to start at the beginning of a multi-book series (which is understandable; I often feel like if I start at the beginning, I ought to see it through to the end, and I don’t always have the time or ability to commit to that), then Across the Green Grass Fields is an excellent taste of what you’re in for if you decide to tackle the rest of the series. It’s a proper standalone that’s equal parts thought-provoking and exciting, giving readers a new and unique story while still feeding the craving for more books in the multiverse that is the Wayward Children series. I can’t recommend this one enough; it was brilliant, and I utterly loved it!

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

Come Tumbling Down, by Seanan McGuire

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – January 7, 2020

Summary: When Jack left Eleanor West’s School for Wayward Children she was carrying the body of her deliciously deranged sister—whom she had recently murdered in a fit of righteous justice—back to their home on the Moors.

But death in their adopted world isn’t always as permanent as it is here, and when Jack is herself carried back into the school, it becomes clear that something has happened to her. Something terrible. Something of which only the maddest of scientists could conceive. Something only her friends are equipped to help her overcome.

Eleanor West’s “No Quests” rule is about to be broken.

Again.

Thoughts: I love the Wayward Children series more than a little bit. From the way the first one, Every Heart a Doorway resonated with me, right up to this one (which I’m sad to say actually took me this long to remember I actually had), the series has had more high points for me than lows, and each new story continues to impress.

Jack and Jill’s origin story, if you can call it that, was told in Down Among the Sticks and Bones, providing the details for how they found their door into their ideal world. When we last saw them in Every Heart a Doorway, Jack was carrying her sister’s dead body through the door back into their world, back where they belonged, an act of compassion even if Jill had just proven herself to be homicidal and had been killed to stop her from killing others. Now Jack has returned to Eleanor West’s school, but trapped within her sister’s body, with Jill haven switched bodies and stolen Jack’s once her own had been revived.

See, in their world, Jill is in thrall to her vampire master, seeking to become a vampire herself. But once-dead bodies cannot become undead, and so her own body became useless. Jack’s body, though, has never died, and so could go through the transformation. Jack now has to get her own body back before Jill does something irreversible with it, and all the while struggle to maintain the balance of power that the Moors demand.

You’d think that a world as bleak as the Moors wouldn’t appeal to me, but honestly, I love reading about it when it appears in these novellas. It’s certainly not the world for me, but it does hold a certain appeal, that dark pseudo-sci-fi from classic horror movies and the like, where you can practically hear the crash of distant thunder and feel the approaching storm as you read on. So it was nice to read another novel with Jack and Jill — though mostly Jack — as the centre of the story.

You know me, I love seeing queer characters in my reading. Jack is most definitely queer, given that she’s involved with a woman (and as such, so is Alexis), and Kade is transgender, and it’s so very good to see casual representation like that. This isn’t remotely a new thing for this series, but it still makes me smile every time, because McGuire knows how to write queer characters without making every aspect of them be entirely about their queerness, if that makes any sense. They are queer, and no attempt is ever really made to hide that, but it’s more than a “just so happens to be gay/trans/etc” situation. Their queerness is an important part of their character, but their character is much more than merely their queerness. I’m probably not doing a very good job of explaining it, and it probably makes a lot more sense if you grew up, as I did, with queer characters in fiction always needing some sort of coming-out scene, or another character needing time to adjust to the idea that someone they know is queer, then just sort of casual representation is a true treat, and I love it when authors do it. Their being gay is as much a part of them as another character being straight, their being trans is as much a part of them as another character being cis.

Anyway, moving on.

The Wayward Children series has a habit of making my heart ache for the characters and the situations they find themselves in, an emotional kick right to the chest, and Come Tumbling Down was no exception. From the bittersweet pain of realizing that Eleanor West herself was gradually coming to the end of her time as head of her own school, to Kade’s realization that being a hero sometimes means making the hard choices and the deep sacrifices so that others don’t have to, there’s a lot of emotion packed into so few pages, and it’s not exactly something I recommend reading if you’re feeling particularly vulnerable. While every novella within this series is an adventure story, they’re also stories with a strong overlay of loneliness, of the sort of isolation that comes with knowing you are not where you belong, and getting back there requires the sacrifice of everything you’ve built in the meantime. You follow these characters along on their journeys and you ache and mourn and yearn with them, every time, and you have McGuire’s stunningly evocative writing to thank for that.

I don’t think I’ll ever get enough of this series. Whether it’s revisiting previously established characters or showing the origins of entirely new characters, I’m here for the journey, and every ounce of heartbreak along the way. Even if I relate to some characters far less than others, there’s a familiarity to all of them that makes me want to keep coming back, to keep discovering more and more about where their lives take them. Jill’s horrible downfall, Jack’s painful rise, and the commentary along the way, commentary that strikes at the heart of so many marginalized experiences and lays pain and beauty bare for other to experience. This is portal fantasy, yes, but it’s also something beautifully and tragically unique, and I want to be there for every second of it.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, by V E Schwab

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – October 6, 2020

Summary: A Life No One Will Remember. A Story You Will Never Forget.

France, 1714: in a moment of desperation, a young woman makes a Faustian bargain to live forever―and is cursed to be forgotten by everyone she meets.

Thus begins the extraordinary life of Addie LaRue, and a dazzling adventure that will play out across centuries and continents, across history and art, as a young woman learns how far she will go to leave her mark on the world.

But everything changes when, after nearly 300 years, Addie stumbles across a young man in a hidden bookstore and he remembers her name.

Thoughts: When I first heard about this book, my initial reaction was thinking it sounded like a concept that Claire North would tackle. Indeed, The Sudden Appearance of Hope also has a protagonist who disappears from peoples’ memories once she’s out of sight. But while the concepts for the protagonists are very close, the similarities end there, with both stories being very distinct. Both incredibly fascinating, both superbly told, both their own unique stories with their own particular charms.

Addie’s story begins in 18th century France, a small village that holds little appeal to an independent young woman who wants to live her own life and not be tied by marriage to a man and place she has no interest in. Desperate to escape, she makes a deal with one of the old gods, a deal that means she gets to lives as long as she wants, but with the proviso that when she’s done, she gives up her soul.

Oh, and also that she’s forgotten by everyone she meets. That too.

It sounds like a sweet deal, doesn’t it? Going through the world as long as you want to, people leaving you alone to just do your own thing, only dealing with people when you want to. But Addie quickly realizes the problems with this life. When people forget her, they really forget her. She’s a ghost, a nonentity, something that exists without ties to anyone and anything. If she goes home, her parents don’t recognize her, and try to kick this stranger out of their house. Forget romantic entanglements; once a lover wakes up in the morning, they don’t remember this strange woman in their bed. If she tries to make marks on paper, the marks fade as soon as she writes them. Addie can leave no mark on the world, as the world is doomed to forget her very existence.

But then along comes a man who recognizes her, who remembers her. For the first time in hundreds of years, Addie feels seen, is seen. But this man has a secret of his own, one unbelievable enough to match Addie’s story. And the dark god who granted Addie’s immortality doesn’t take too kindly to someone else being important in Addie’s life…

Though, as I said, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue bears an initial superficial resemblance to The Sudden Appearance of Hope, the rest of the story is pure Schwab. I’ve read some of her work before this, even if I haven’t reviewed any of it, and there are certain elements I’ve come to expect in her work. One is that whatever I’m reading will likely emotionally gut me, in one way or another. Usually by forcing me to confront uncomfortable truths about existence. The ephemeral nature of memory, the way we rely on being remembered through life, even for only as long as it takes to complete a transaction in a store… Addie’s life kicks you in the chest with how lonely she is, and how little she can rely on so many of the things we tend to take for granted. Reading this book had me reflecting on so many circumstances in my life that just wouldn’t have happened, were it impossible for me to be remembered outside of the moment.

And this sort of emotional gut-punch starts early, when Addie realizes that as much as she didn’t want her life to be contained solely within a small village, she had ties there that she appreciated, had come to rely on herself. Her parents being unable to recognize her, unable to remember that they even had a child. The closest person she had to a best friend having the same reaction, turning her attention to something else for a moment, and then turning back to see Addie, once again a stranger, once again a suspicious person in the insular little village. In her desperate bid to hang onto what she really valued in herself, she lost so much, and lived a pretty miserable life of first encounters and awkward goodbyes from them on.

Can you imagine this being your life? I think I would have given up my soul long ago, defeated and broken and unable to bear the loneliness. It’s one thing for me to say I’d like to be forgotten for a little while so that people will leave me alone, but it’s another thing to realize that this wish being granted would mean I’d be a stranger to my cats, my partner, be homeless almost immediately because my forgettable unremarkable self would have no claim to this apartment. Addie’s existence could be compared to that of a ghost, except that a ghost could at least settle down somewhere and not immediately be evicted as soon as they were discovered.

To say nothing of Henry, and the deal with the darkness that he made to alleviate his own pain. The feeling of the click ticking down on his life sometimes made it feel like the walls were closing in around me as I read, shrinking my own life in mirror to his. Schwab has this uncanny ability to really make the feel things, evocative storytelling as its finest, and as much as it always seems to hurt my heart, I can’t seem to get enough of it, and I always go back for more.

There really is so much to love about The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue. There’s the casual bisexuality/pansexuality, which I am 100% a fan of, since it normalizes the idea that, y’know, people can be bisexual, and there doesn’t need to be choice or debate about it, and that’s perfectly valid. Henry has had girlfriends and boyfriends. Addie has had, well, male and female partners, ones she definitely felt affection for, though whether she would consider them girlfriends and/or boyfriends when they couldn’t remember much about Addie beyond the moment, I really can’t say. But no big deal is made about this, it just is, they just are, and it’s so wonderful to see represented so casually as positively in fiction.

What really got to me, though, was the assertion that ideas are more powerful than memories, that the inspiration we give to someone can outlast that person’s memories of us. You don’t always need to remember the specifics of an encounter to remember the effect it had on you, especially if that effect is profound. Do you remember the specifics of the moment you learned you really enjoy reading, the scene of the book that sank into your mind and made you go, “Aha, there are so many brilliant stories out there and I want to see more of them?” I know I don’t. But somewhere along the way, the idea was planted, and here we are. It’s something I don’t think I’ve ever really seen done so well in fiction before, if ever, and it really struck a chord with me.

There’s so much to love about The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue. Even as it tore my heart out, it made me want to keep going, to turn pages and see where everything led in the end. It asked some deep questions, and didn’t always give concrete answers, but sometimes the answers aren’t concrete anyway, and are always mutable. It’s a both a fantastic piece of speculative historical/modern fiction and an emotional punch that will likely catch you off guard more than once. I’m not sure there’s anything else out there quite like it, and I can’t recommend it enough.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

Gods of Jade and Shadow, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – July 23, 2019

SummaryThe Jazz Age is in full swing, but Casiopea Tun is too busy cleaning the floors of her wealthy grandfather’s house to listen to any fast tunes. Nevertheless, she dreams of a life far from her dusty small town in southern Mexico. A life she can call her own.

Yet this new life seems as distant as the stars, until the day she finds a curious wooden box in her grandfather’s room. She opens it—and accidentally frees the spirit of the Mayan god of death, who requests her help in recovering his throne from his treacherous brother. Failure will mean Casiopea’s demise, but success could make her dreams come true.

In the company of the strangely alluring god and armed with her wits, Casiopea begins an adventure that will take her on a cross-country odyssey from the jungles of Yucatán to the bright lights of Mexico City—and deep into the darkness of the Mayan underworld.

Thoughts: I want to state right away that nothing I can say here will do this book justice. Reading this book make me bitterly regret that I couldn’t read it faster, because the story was so good and so compelling, while at the same time lamenting that I couldn’t go any slower, to make it last. This isn’t the first time I’ve had that thought process while reading one of Moreno-Garcia’s books, and I doubt it will be the last.

Gods of Jade and Shadow tells the story of Casiopea, a young woman working for extended family who, to be blunt, treat her pretty damn poorly. She wants more in her life than drudge work, dreaming of the day she can move to a bigger city and start a new life, a life that’s really hers. Her adventures in the wider world get unexpectedly kickstarted, however, when she accidentally frees the god Hun-Kame, whom Casiopea’s grandfather had trapped in a wooden box. Hun-Kame seeks Casiopea’s assistance to return him to his rightful place, ruling the Underworld, but this means finding his missing body parts to restore his power, as well as overthrowing his brother, Vucub-Kame, who now sits on the throne. The whole story is set against the backdrop of Mexico during the 1920s, setting it firmly as historical fantasy.

I’ll be honest here: the place and time period aren’t ones I know very much about, so I can’t comment on any artistic liberties or anything of the sort. As for the mythology… Well, I knew how to pronounce Xibalba before I opened this book, but that’s about as much as I can claim. My lack of familiarity with a lot of the cultural and historical elements, though, worked rather well for me, as now I feel compelled to end some of my ignorance by learning more. This is one of the things I love the most about reading novels set in this world but in places or times I’m less familiar with. If I enjoy the book, I’m usually inspired to learn more, to familiarize myself so that I’m less ignorant in the future, and so that I can better appreciate more media with similar elements.

I have a weakness for stories in which deities interact with mere mortals, and Gods of Jade and Shadow definitely delivered on that count. I expected a bit of amusement when it came to Hun-Kame trying to deal with the mundane world, but there was actually very little of that, sticking with a more serious tone throughout the story rather than taking a “fishgod-out-of-water” approach. There are some clashes between him and Casiopea, most of them due to Casiopea’s quick temper and her wants and needs, which were sometimes opposed to what Hun-Kame wanted or needed. While Hun-Kame’s status as a deity was in question through the story, it never really became a focal point for humour, which, honestly, was kind of impressive. I like that sort of take and expected some of it because it’s easy territory to play in, but that clearly wasn’t the story that Moreno-Garcia wanted to tell.

As I said earlier, there’s nothing I can say here that would do this book justice. It’s a fantastic novel, it’s a brilliant story set in a fascinating time and place, with a compelling story and flawed but interesting characters moving everything along. Even when you dislike characters, you want to know more about them, find out their motivations and goals. They all have a place within the plot, but none of them existed only to move the plot along. They all had their own lives, their own development, all of them felt fleshed out and real. There are themes of sacrifice and devotion, of duty and independence, of selfishness and taking risks and love of all kinds, and it’s just such a wonderful damn book that I can very highly recommend it to pretty much everyone who reads my blog. If your tastes are even a bit close to mine when it comes to SFF novels, you’ll find yourself very satisfied by what you find inside the pages of Gods of Jade and Shadow. Don’t miss out on it.

Fangs, by Sarah Andersen

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – September 1, 2020

Summary: Elsie the vampire is three hundred years old, but in all that time, she has never met her match. This all changes one night in a bar when she meets Jimmy, a charming werewolf with a wry sense of humor and a fondness for running wild during the full moon. Together they enjoy horror films and scary novels, shady strolls, fine dining (though never with garlic), and a genuine fondness for each other’s unusual habits, macabre lifestyles, and monstrous appetites.

First featured as a webcomic series on Tapas, Fangs chronicles the humor, sweetness, and awkwardness of meeting someone perfectly suited to you but also vastly different. This deluxe hardcover edition of Fangs features an “engraved” red cloth cover, dyed black page trim, and 25 exclusive comics not previously seen online. Filled with Sarah Andersen’s beautiful gothic illustrations and relatable relationship humor, Fangs has all the makings of a cult classic.

Thoughts: While it may seem strange to end Manga Month with a non-manga title, I couldn’t let August end without highlighting Sarah Andersen’s latest release, Fangs. A love story between a vampire and a werewolf might sound like the most cliche thing imaginable, the subject of I don’t know how many novels and short stories over the past decade or so, but as with many things, a unique approach can really spice up what might seem like a tired outdated trope.

And Andersen does a good job at bringing this uniqueness, with an emphasis on humour rather than broody drama. It’s cheesy humour at times, like jokes about werewolves having fleas or vampires sleeping in coffins, but it works, and there was a smile on my face the entire time I was reading Fangs. The art style isn’t what I’d call minimalistic but it does emphasize clean lines and simplicity, making it really easy to visually follow and not get bogged down in a zillion tiny details.

Also, the relationship between Elsie and Jimmy is so freaking adorable. How could you not get behind these two when they have bizarrely cute conversations about eating people? (Okay, maybe that one’s just a “me” thing…) Or how they’re quite different people but find ways to work their differences into the relationship and don’t feel the need to hide or minimize things their partner might not relate to. The way their relationship is so honest and open adds to the humour, and yes, I am probably reading too much into a simple comic about a vampire and a werewolf who are dating, but dangit, I really enjoyed Fangs, so I’m going to have my moment to gush over it!

It’s a short and sweet read, a series of one-shots that chronicles the early parts of their relationship, and is definitely something that would be right at home on my bookshelves. Though I received a digital review copy, I know already that I’m going to purchase a physical copy when it’s released, so that I can share the humour and adorableness with my partner. Fangs is 100% something we both enjoy and will want to dive into again.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

Jade City, by Fonda Lee

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – November 7, 2017

Summary: Jade is the lifeblood of the island of Kekon. It has been mined, traded, stolen, and killed for — and for centuries, honorable Green Bone warriors like the Kaul family have used it to enhance their magical abilities and defend the island from foreign invasion.

Now, the war is over and a new generation of Kauls vies for control of Kekon’s bustling capital city. They care about nothing but protecting their own, cornering the jade market, and defending the districts under their protection. Ancient tradition has little place in this rapidly changing nation.

When a powerful new drug emerges that lets anyone — even foreigners — wield jade, the simmering tension between the Kauls and the rival Ayt family erupts into open violence. The outcome of this clan war will determine the fate of all Green Bones — from their grandest patriarch to the lowliest motorcycle runner on the streets — and of Kekon itself.

Thoughts: Jade City is one of those books that can be difficult to talk about, not because I have nothing to say, but because I enjoyed it so much and it’s so incredibly good that it’s hard to know where to begin? The characters? The action? The family drama, the political intrigue? The mind-blowing world-building?

You can see my problem.

Jade, in this book, isn’t exactly the source of magic so much as it’s a magical amplifier and conduit, used by ruling families of Green Bones to enhance their own rigorously trained magic. Peace is generally kept between families, at least of a sort, since families control their respective territories in Kekon, though clashes certainly do happen. But the rough peace is threatened by massive disruption when a new drug hits that allows untrained and untested foreigners to use jade’s power for themselves, and made worse by the discovery that jade mining has been tampered with and a significant amount of jade cannot be accounted for . Tensions both from within and without might destabilize everything held dear and true on Kekon.

And honestly, I am doing this book a massive disservice by trying to summarize it in a handful of sentences. The story is far more complex than that, with textual flavour that I can’t begin to properly convey.

Here we have a world with magic and motorcycles, mysticism and technology not at odds with each other but existing side by side, since the existence of magic doesn’t necessarily mean the stalling of technological advancements. And honestly, I find that an uncommon approach; many authors stick with one or the other and rarely blend the two. Or if both exist in the same world, it’s usually with a schism between them, where magic-users eschew technology because reasons (and never once addressing the hypocrisy behind wearing loom-woven clothes or living in houses made from brick or wood because those things are technology too and please let’s not forget it when declaring “technology bad”). Secondary worlds with magic and modern amenities are uncommon in genre fiction, so yes, it’s nice to see such a world that incorporates both elements so well.

Honestly, the issue of magic and international political intrigue aside, I think if this entire novel had been about the clan warfare and family dramas of the Kaul and Ayt families, I would have enjoyed it just as much. Everything was so intricate, so complex and emotional and real, and it alone could have been an entire book without losing any of the intrigue. The rest was the icing on the cake for me, but the real story was in the people and their lives. Lee’s writing is spectacular; I think after this introduction, I’m more than willing to read just about anything she writes!

I know I am not doing this book true justice. My from my first reading over a year ago, to my more recent reread so that I could tackle the sequel, the primary impression Jade City left on me was, “ASDFGHJK MOAR!” It’s a dirty beautiful world that Lee has written, filled with fascinating characters and a compelling story, and it’s such a wonderful experience that it sinks into you and doesn’t let go easily, and that sort of effect is very difficult to convey in a review.

In a nutshell, if you’re into richly detailed novels filled with political intrigue that also straddle the genre line between secondary-world fantasy and urban fantasy, then yes, absolutely read Jade City! It’s a novel like no other, and I’m very much looking forward to digging into the sequel.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

Finna, by Nino Cipri

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – February 25, 2020

Summary: When an elderly customer at a Swedish big box furniture store — but not that one — slips through a portal to another dimension, it’s up to two minimum-wage employees to track her across the multiverse and protect their company’s bottom line. Multi-dimensional swashbuckling would be hard enough, but those two unfortunate souls broke up a week ago.

To find the missing granny, Ava and Jules will brave carnivorous furniture, swarms of identical furniture spokespeople, and the deep resentment simmering between them. Can friendship blossom from the ashes of their relationship? In infinite dimensions, all things are possible.

Thoughts: In the early pages of this book, I was reminded somewhat of Grady Hendrix’s Horrorstor, but mostly because both stories start in an IKEA-esque environment, and both involve a sort of twisting of the rules of reality. Beyond that, though, the stories go in very different directions.

When an elderly woman goes missing at this definitely-not-IKEA store, it turns out that it’s due to the funny way wormholes can more easily open up in places where it’s easy to get lost. So Ava and Jules, two people who have recently had a rather messy breakup, are “voluntold” (well, Jules volunteered, and Ava was told she’d be risking losing her job if she refused to go along) to head through the wormhole and recover the missing woman. They’re warned that the world or worlds they may visit could be very similar to their own world… or things could be deeply, powerfully different.

Understandably, the journey is rather tense, with Ava and Jules trying to work together despite obvious personal issues between them. Tension ramps higher, though, when it’s discovered that the missing woman is actually dead, and that the FINNA, the device used by Jules and Ava’s workplace to navigate such interdimensional problems, has identified an “appropriate replacement” from another world that the two of them ought to bring back instead.

Finna is a novella, and there’s part of me that wishes it had been expanded into a full novel. On the other hand, what was written was tightly paced and doesn’t waste time on extraneous details. Ava and Jules could have traveled to a dozen, a hundred worlds and had adventures and misadventures, but to be perfectly honest, doing so likely would have felt like padding unless there was a particular reason for them to dwell in any of those worlds. As it was, they may have only visited a few disturbing alternate realities, but those visits were enough, they made their points, and they contributed to the story, so everything felt essential and nothing felt tacked on for the sake of wordcount. Cipri’s writing is tight, the characters interesting and flawed and compelling, and everything is where it ought to be to deliver maximum impact.

There’s a lot of social commentary packed into Finna‘s pages, and I can’t think of anything that I particularly disagree with. Cipri tackles topics like the awkwardness of people trying to respect a non-binary person’s gender identity and pronouns, the way retail environments can kill your soul, the variety of coping mechanisms people use to get through life, and much of it resonated with me. I’ve worked some soul-sucking jobs in my life, and I’m eager to never do so again if I have any say in the matter, so Jules’s disdain for retail and other such jobs really struck a chord with me. You can put your heart and soul into your job, and sadly, more often than not, that job will just take and not give anything back at the end of the day but just enough of a paycheque to convince you that you don’t have a choice but to do the whole thing all over again tomorrow.

And sometimes, even when it’s terrifying to do so, you have to take matters into your own hands, throw caution to the wind, and do something unexpected, maybe even dangerous, to keep your own sanity in the face of a world that would happily grind you down and leave nothing left.

Toward the end, though, was the real mind-blow moment for me, when Ava and Uzmala Nouresh were talking about Ava’s fear and indecision. Uzmala talks about how she felt the same uncertainty about some things, and them realized that across the infinite worlds out there and the infinite iterations of herself, there were worlds in which she was brave enough to do what needed to be done, and worlds where she was too cowardly. The question she asked herself was: which world do I want this to be?

And I was just… I’m not kidding when I say it was a mind-blow moment. You read all the things about just doing what you’re passionate about and seizing the day, and that success will come when you believe it will, and all that stuff, and you think to yourself that yeah, that’s all well and good, but what about the dozen things that get in the way, or all the ways that things might go wrong, and it’s not as easy as just believing you’ll succeed and wanting it enough. You might work hard and never get anywhere, because you worked hard at the wrong thing at the wrong time, or you didn’t meet the right person to help you along the way, or any number of problems with that philosophy.

And… that doesn’t matter. I mean, it does matter, yes, but that’s not really the point, so to speak. It’s not always about success or failure, two binary points on a spectrum with loads of space in between. The point is, in the infinite worlds and with the infinite versions of me in all those worlds, there are worlds in which I’m tenacious enough to work hard at what I love, and worlds where I’m too afraid of failure to let myself start. There are worlds in which I’m brave enough to try, and worlds in which I’m too cowardly to try.

The question is: which world do I want this to be?

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

Turning Darkness Into Light, by Marie Brennan

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – August 20, 2019

Summary: As the renowned granddaughter of Isabella Camherst (Lady Trent, of the riveting and daring Draconic adventure memoirs) Audrey Camherst has always known she, too, would want to make her scholarly mark upon a chosen field of study.

When Lord Gleinheigh recruits Audrey to decipher a series of ancient tablets holding the secrets of the ancient Draconean civilization, she has no idea that her research will plunge her into an intricate conspiracy, one meant to incite rebellion and invoke war. Alongside dearest childhood friend and fellow archeologist Kudshayn, Audrey must find proof of the conspiracy before it’s too late.

Thoughts: I put off reading this book for far too long, since I hadn’t had a chance to read Within the Sanctuary of Wings, the book that preceded this one in the series and also capped off the adventures of Lady Trent. I very much loved the first 4 books in the series, with their approach of taking natural science to a fantasy world, and chronicling the journeys of the scientist who defied society in pursuit of her passions. I didn’t know if I wanted to pick up book 6 without having read book 5 first, for reasons that probably seem pretty obvious.

Fortunately, it’s absolutely possible to do so. Turning Darkness Into Light switches perspective from Lady Trent to her granddaughter, Audrey, and her own academic adventures.While I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that readers can pick up this book without having read any of the previous novels in the series, it is possible to have not read all of the preceding books and to still enjoy this one.

Though go figure, it seems like enough of the world’s understanding of dragons changed after an event in Within the Sanctuary of Wings, and I had to pick up on those from context clues in Turning Darkness Into Light. It wasn’t difficult to put the pieces together, though, and soon enough I was happily turning pages, eager for more of the story to unfold.

Audrey is hired by Lord Gleinleigh to translate the text of what appears to be a large cache of clay tablets from the Draconean culture, and along with a Draconean scholar named Kudshayn and Lord Gleinleigh’s neice Cora, the tablets are revealed to be an epic story telling the beginnings of the Draconean people. Only it’s not quite the story that Kudshayn is familiar with, and to make matters worse, the story turns rather violent over time, echoing fears from a group of people who claim that Draconeans are nothing but mindless beasts who want to burn humanity to the ground. There’s definitely something going on that strikes at the heart of multiple cultures, but the exact nature of that strike remains shadowed and uncertain as the trio work to translate the texts that may well up-end so much that many people hold dear.

I kind of love that in a way, Turning Darkness Into Light is a history of history. It’s styled as a collection of diary entries and articles and notes from people involved in undertaking a massive project with huge cultural implications, detailing their journey and all of the steps they took, their thoughts and feelings, all of the things you’d find in a novel, only with the presentation of a piece of nonfiction. Given that the trio were working on a translation of the tablets with an eye to publication, Turning Darkness Into Light is presented as that very book they eventually published. It’s a similar style to the original Memoirs of Lady Trent novels, fiction presented as nonfiction within a fictional world, and I could gorge myself silly on books with this style and never get tired of it. The anthropologist in me wants more SFF novels done in this style.

All of the characters in this book were compelling, even the ones that were clearly people I wouldn’t want anything to do with in real life. Lord Gleinleigh and Aaron Mornett’s motivations may have been unclear through much of the novel, but it was nevertheless interesting when they made an appearance, adding little bits of information here and there that added to their characters and their roles within the story. Audrey’s hot-headedness and desire to live up to her family’s reputation was something I could very much empathize with; you could feel her passion for her work and her urge to prove herself with every page. Kudshayn was a glimpse into a culture that I’m not familiar with and yet want to become more familiar with. And Cora… Well, Cora was the one I could relate to the most. The one that didn’t fit in, the one that had trouble understanding motivations and social cues and would much rather have been doing her own thing without interruption. She’s definitely a character on the neurodiverse spectrum

Brennan does such a good job at setting the stage for mysteries steeped in archaeology and natural science, taking the fantastical into the realm of underappreciated scientific procedure, the combination of boredom and excitement that permeates investigation and the hope of discovery. This is the sort of book, the sort of series, that you turn to when you love both fantasy and ethnographies, when you want an uncommon approach to the exploration of the reality behind the fantasy. I’m very much a fan of Brennan’s writing, and her highly-detailed world-building, and I highly recommend Turning Darkness Into Light for those who enjoyed the Lady Trent novels or those who are anthropologists and archaeologists at heart. This series has the wings to soar above the rest.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)