Silver Phoenix, by Cindy Pon

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – April 17, 2009

Summary: No one wanted Ai Ling. And deep down she is relieved—despite the dishonor she has brought upon her family—to be unbetrothed and free, not some stranger’s subservient bride banished to the inner quarters.

But now, something is after her. Something terrifying—a force she cannot comprehend. And as pieces of the puzzle start to fit together, Ai Ling begins to understand that her journey to the Palace of Fragrant Dreams isn’t only a quest to find her beloved father but a venture with stakes larger than she could have imagined.

Bravery, intelligence, the will to fight and fight hard . . . she will need all of these things. Just as she will need the new and mysterious power growing within her. She will also need help.

It is Chen Yong who finds her partly submerged and barely breathing at the edge of a deep lake. There is something of unspeakable evil trying to drag her under. On a quest of his own, Chen Yong offers that help . . . and perhaps more.

Thoughts: This is a book I meant to read years ago, and one that I believe first came to my attention when complaints started circulating about the change to the cover art for the paperback release, switching from a bright and vibrant image with an obviously Chinese woman front and centre, to a very uninspired image of a woman of unknown ethnicity, wearing clothes of undefinable style and origin, and with half her face hidden in the shadows. I know the adage is to not judge a book by its cover, but cover art is often one of the first things a person sees, it’s meant to attract attention and draw a potential reader in, and for my part, had I not seen the original cover art first, I would have utterly overlooked Silver Phoenix because nothing about the new cover said anything to me beyond, “probably a YA romance maybe?”

Cover art aside, though, how is the novel itself?

Silver Phoenix is written from the perspective of Ai Ling, a young woman from the kingdom of Xia, whose father leaves for a journey to the Palace of Fragrant Dreams and then doesn’t return when he is meant to. Already feeling herself a burden to her family, and worrying that being married off to an old lecherous man is in the future, Ai Ling sets off on a journey to bring her father back, leaving him to escape her prior fate and to carve herself a new one. The problem is that demons and monsters seem to be following her wherever she goes, putting her and her eventual travel companions at great risk, though she can’t fathom why she would be targeted so. Some greater force is at play, and Ai Ling needs to get to the bottom of it and find her father before something truly terrible happens.

Ai Ling is very much one of those characters who could be described as “not like other girls.” She can read in a time and place where most women can’t. She’s willful and proud, not accepting the place that society tells her she ought to want, especially in matters of marriage. Her parents were a love match, and she’d like the same for herself. And while I know the “not like other girls” stereotype is often a disliked one (I’m not that fond of it a lot of the time either), Ai Ling is much easier to read than many of the characters I’ve encountered in the past who fit the same trope. Quite possibly because a number of those characters seem to be very brash and in-your-face about how different they are, and Ai Ling doesn’t do that. She’s just very much herself, and that’s enough. She never states herself to not be like other girls as though it’s automatically a positive thing to be different than your peers (for one thing, that does quite a disservice to anyone who does like more traditionally feminine things and enjoys being female within society’s gender role; the “not like other girls” trope usually declares traditional femininity to be bad and something to break away from in order to be worthy of greatness, or just worthy in general. So while Ai Ling definitely hit a number of points on a checklist, it wasn’t in an obnoxious way, and I can appreciate that.

Reading Silver Phoenix felt very much like reading an expanded legend. Ai Ling’s journey to find and rescue her father started out with simple, if lofty, goals, and over time involved all sorts of otherworldly encounters, starting with sightings and attacks by demons and at one point, actually entering another realm entirely, passing through the homes of many non-human people, encountering deities and wondrous animals and food beyond human experience. It felt like an epic tale that hit all the right spots to be a modern legend in its own right, pulling from many aspects of mythology and folklore and tradition while also being its own unique thing. Ai Ling’s changes so much on her journey, with each new encounter bringing her information that calls into questions what she knew of the world, her family, and herself. At the end, she is a changed person, having walked through fire to save her loved ones and the veil being lifted from her eyes.

The book is generally very well paced, though there were a few things that seemed to start and then end without any real resolution. The main thing that springs to mind is after the death of Li Rong, when Ai Ling vows to revive him even though doing so is dark and dangerous. She starts gathering what she needs, she remembers her task every now and again, and things around her change in response to her goal, but never in a way that really causes consequence, and she abandons the plan before ever really getting further into it than she started. So what might have been an interesting subplot in which Ai Ling’s luck and aid could have abandoned her at a crucial moment or Li Rong could have come back terribly and forced a confrontation between Ai Ling and Chen Yong, it just… goes nowhere. Which left me wondering why those pieces were still part of the story.

Now, the book does have a sequel which I haven’t read yet, so it may well be that it was all setup for something that happens later on. But within the context of Silver Phoenix on its own, that subplot felt like something that was initially planned to go further and got cut, but the cutting wasn’t complete. It was odd.

Still, the story was a true delight to read, and I was entertained right from the get go. It scratched an itch for something new in my reading, at least new-to-me, that gave me something different than many of the other options on my shelves right now. It was what I needed right when I needed it, an epic journey of loyalty and discovery that I was glad to be able to read. If you’re a fan of YA fantasy, especially of fantasy with deep inspirations beyond “vaguely medieval European,” then Silver Phoenix is a novel you shouldn’t miss.

Flame in the Mist, by Renee Ahdieh

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – May 16, 2017

Summary: The daughter of a prominent samurai, Mariko has long known her place–she may be an accomplished alchemist, whose cunning rivals that of her brother Kenshin, but because she is not a boy, her future has always been out of her hands. At just seventeen years old, Mariko is promised to Minamoto Raiden, the son of the emperor’s favorite consort–a political marriage that will elevate her family’s standing. But en route to the imperial city of Inako, Mariko narrowly escapes a bloody ambush by a dangerous gang of bandits known as the Black Clan, who she learns has been hired to kill her before she reaches the palace.

Dressed as a peasant boy, Mariko sets out to infiltrate the Black Clan and track down those responsible for the target on her back. Once she’s within their ranks, though, Mariko finds for the first time she’s appreciated for her intellect and abilities. She even finds herself falling in love–a love that will force her to question everything she’s ever known about her family, her purpose, and her deepest desires.

Thoughts: I am very much torn on my opinion of Renee Ahdieh’s Flame in the Mist. On one hand, I’d had it recommended to me as being really good, and I did enjoy much of the story. On the other hand, I found the world-building distractingly shoddy, which detracted from my overall enjoyment of the novel as a whole.

Long-time readers of my reviews may know that I’ve repeatedly gotten burned out on YA novels, and while I do dip my toes back into those waters now and again, it’s with mixed results. I may find something good, but most often, it seems I find something that I can best describe as lackluster. Something I wanted to enjoy more. I don’t go into books expecting to dislike them. If I think that I will actively dislike a book, I won’t waste my time reading it, and instead will seek out something I think might be more to my taste.

And Flame in the Mist could have been more to my taste. But as I said, the world-building kept pulling me out of the story and making me question the amount of research that went into the writing of this book, because to be perfectly blunt, it feels like a good half of said research was just reading and watching Memoirs of a Geisha.

Allow me to elaborate. First, I’d had this book described to me as “Japanese-inspired fantasy.” Websites listed the book as “set in Feudal Japan.” Neither of these really holds true, at least in my eyes. If it was meant to be set in a secondary world inspired by Japanese history, then it made too many mentions of real places and historical figures to fall comfortably into that realm. If it was meant to be historical fantasy, then it had too many anachronisms to be properly set in the time period it was meant to be.

Best I can figure, Flame in the Mist is set roughly in the 1200s, or there abouts. I’m estimating this based on mentions of actual historical figures. But, there are a number of other things that don’t fit on that timeline, such as the shamisen (not introduced to Japan until after the 1600s) and what awkward mention of what I assume is the Tatsumura Textile Company (not established until 1894). I’d generously say that maybe this novel was actually set in the early 1900s, except that doesn’t fit at all with Japan’s situation at the time. So, this book remains set in some time that didn’t actually happen.

Which is why I can only class this as bad historical fantasy. It draws too many specifics from real people and places to be passed off as a fantasy inspired by history, and gets too many things wrong for me to settle into the historical setting. To put it in context, it would be like reading a novel set in England in the time of Alfred the Great, only people are mentioned drinking tea. It may seem like a small thing, but when you see it, you can’t unsee it, and it definitely doesn’t fit. You can say it’s merely inspired by that time and place, but when you bring in actual historical figures, you kind of commit yourself to the same kind of accuracies, and if you can’t follow through on that commitment, it’s going to trip some readers up. Too much of the real world to be fantasy, and too many anachronisms to be the real world.

There are only certain things I know enough about to be this picky, but Japan is one of them. I don’t know everything, of course, but I know enough to spot these problems when they crop up in what I read. For someone who is interested in Japan but who doesn’t have the kind of in-depth interest that would make the inaccuracies stand out, then there won’t really be a problem. But from my standpoint, I do have that depth of interest, and the problems did stand out.

I made an earlier accusation that half the research done for Flame in the Mist was the author reading and watching Memoirs of a Geisha, and I’d like to elaborate on that. I have read that book and seen it’s film adaptation I don’t know how many times at this point, it remains one of my favourites, and from that perspective, it was easy to see the influence. The awkward mention of the Tatsumura Textile Company I mentioned earlier was two in-novel mentions of “Tatsumura silk,” which isn’t any particular kind of silk, but just silk processed and woven by Tatsumura Textiles. But “Tatsumura silk” was mentioned in the Memoirs of a Geisha movie, an the context given was that it was used for very fancy kimono.

There’s more than that. The protagonist, Mariko, is described as having her personality be very much “like water,” echoing the same pronouncement of Chiyo’s personality (the protagonist and narrator of Memoirs of a Geisha). A description of this in Flame in the Mist was at one point given almost word-for-word like part of Mameha’s dialogue in the Memoirs of a Geisha movie. Or how about the line, “I’d rather chew sand,” which was said by Pumpkin in the Memoirs of a Geisha movie, as well as Okami in Flame in the Mist. There is a Japanese idiom that translates that way, and it was used correctly, but when it comes to English-language media relating to Japan, I’ve pretty much only ever seen that phrase used in that way in this novel and that movie. Combined with the other things I mentioned, it was honestly a surprise to me to not see Arthur Golden mentioned in the acknowledgements.

So what did I like about Flame in the Mist? The story itself was pretty interesting. It follows Mariko, a young woman on her journey to her husband-to-be, only that journey gets cut short when she and her entourage are attacked in the forest. She alone survives, and is dead certain that the ones who slaughtered the others are the Black Clan, enemies of her family. She makes the decision to disguise herself as a boy in order to infiltrate them, to gain their trust and let their guard down so that she might have her revenge. She manages the first parts of this, at least, but in so doing, not only does she come to suspect that perhaps the Black Clan wasn’t actually behind the attack after all, but also falls in love with one of its members.

I’m not quite sure I’d call this a coming-of-age story so much as an eye-opening story, one in which Mariko starts off so certain of everything, only to later be revealed as one of those characters who is startlingly ignorant about many things while the whole time believing she sees more than most. It’s a story of a young woman trying to make her way in the world in her own way, pushing back when the world tries to stop her, but also a story in which she herself, her own mind and understanding, is one of the things she has to overcome. I admit, while I don’t like characters who are as brash and falsely self-assured as Mariko started out, I do like stories in which such characters come to understand that there’s more to the world than what they thought they knew. There’s a scene in which Mariko sees workers in the fields, harvesting rice, and sees just how hard they’re working, how worn out they all look by their labour, and reflects that she’s seen all these same people before, doing the same work, and never once came out of her own thoughts to actually see them. She assumes they were content, because she was content.

I have to say, it was also nice to have a female YA protagonist who wasn’t a virgin, too. Not that I have problems with virgins or anything, but I’ve seen a number of YA novels where part of the romantic and sexual tension comes from, “I want to get it on with you, but I’ve never done that before and I’m too nervous we either have to stop Right Now, or else you need to convince me because that’s sexy.” Which is fine, and lots of people are nervous and unsure and don’t have sex the first time their hormone start raging, and it’s good for people to see that you can say no and have that respected. But I think it’s also good for people to see examples of characters who have done it before, and gone on with their lives because that’s just what people do. Your life isn’t over if you have sex for the first time with the person you don’t end up permanently partnering with. Nor does having sex with more than one person make you promiscuous or less deserving of anything. Both of these are tropes I’ve seen handed down in fiction over the decades, neither are tropes that I particularly like, and each does its own kind of harm, so I was really pleased to see that Flame in the Mist fell into neither of those categories.

In the end, what I can really say about this book is that it was okay, but in an unbalanced way. The story was good, especially after the first few chapters had passed and Mariko really started to show who she was. The writing was fine, even if the author used some odd turns of phrase every now and again. But what really spoiled it for me was the historical aspects, the pieces that were out of place and pulled me out of my reading groove whenever I came up against them. Plus the cribbing from Memoirs of a Geisha. It got increasingly difficult to hand-wave some of those issues. As I mentioned earlier, if these sorts of things don’t bother you, or you don’t have the same kind of oddly obsessive-compulsive knowledge-seeking that I do about beloved topics (I’ve long suspected it’s an ADHD thing…) then what bothered me likely won’t bother other readers. For my part, though, I can label Flame in the Mist as… okay. Not something I’ll likely read again, not part of a series I’m likely to continue with, nothing I can say was either so good or so bad that it made much of an impact on me. What it did well, it did well, and where it fell, it fell hard. I guess your mileage may vary as to how much either of those aspect affect you.

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.)

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.)

Shards and Ashes, edited by Melissa Marr and Kelley Armstrong

Buy from Amazon.com or B&N

Armstrong’s website / Marr’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – February 19, 2013

Summary: Gripping original stories of dystopian worlds from nine New York Times bestselling authors, edited by Melissa Marr and Kelley Armstrong.

The world is gone, destroyed by human, ecological, or supernatural causes. Survivors dodge chemical warfare and cruel gods; they travel the reaches of space and inhabit underground caverns. Their enemies are disease, corrupt corporations, and one another; their resources are few, and their courage is tested.

Powerful original dystopian tales from nine bestselling authors offer bleak insight, prophetic visions, and precious glimmers of light among the shards and ashes of a ruined world.

Review: In every dystopian novel, there are countless characters who do things that aren’t worthy of a full book, but are no less interesting to read about. Sometimes authors come up with dystopian settings or concepts they’d like to play with but that can’t really be expanded into a full world as is. And quite frankly, I think an anthology of dystopian stories is a great idea. As burned out as I can get on YA dystopian fiction, I admit that part of that burnout is due to the stories often being transparent until they get ridiculously convoluted. Or else being an idea that is interesting in its own right but when stretched out to novel-length, becomes tedious and pondering. Short stories are a great way to get around this, and even people who feel that the genre is on its way out can find a fair bit to enjoy within a book that takes us to multiple different dystopian worlds to explore multiple different ideas.

Of course, as with any anthology, stories can run the gamut between meh and amazing. So it is with this one too, unsurprisingly. But there were still a few memorably stories in here that I feel are worth pointing out.

Veronica Roth’s Hearken takes place in a world where not only is bio-terrorism a sadly common occurrence, but also certain people can hear songs of life and death with the aid of a special implant. Everybody has such a song, from the moment they’re born until they die, as we all have life and death in our existence. These musically-inclined individuals can play and record the song of someone’s life or death, as requested, a sort of musical record of some of the most existential concepts we really have. The story focuses on Darya, her difficult childhood, and her life leading up to her decision as to whether she wants to focus on songs of life or songs of death. It’s an interesting concept that Roth played with here, and as I mentioned earlier, I doubt it’s one that could fill an entire novel, but it certainly made for a decent short story.

Margaret Stohl’s Necklace of Raindrops was one that I have mixed feelings about, if I’m being honest. The story takes place in a world where life is measured by beads on a necklace. The more beads, the longer your life will be. But people “spend” beads for memorable experiences, like skydiving, or trips to interesting places. A person’s life is a balance between being long and being interesting. You can live for a long time if you don’t spend your beads, but the question is whether such an uninteresting life is really worth it. Taken literally, there are so many logical problems with this story that I don’t even know where to begin. Who decided this? How does the bead system work? Do the spent beads go to someone, who redistributes them? Who decides what experience is worth what cost? And so on. But taken symbolically, it’s a lot more interesting. Stohl writes a metaphor come to life, and to hell with the logistical conundrums! While I like knowing the ins and outs of how a dystopian world is supposed to function, sometimes those details get in the way of a good story, and I commend Stohl for experimenting like this.

Carrie Ryan’s Miasma is set in a world filled with sickness and death, and medicine as we know it has failed. To keep contagion from getting out of hand, there are old-fashioned plague doctors wandering the streets, their bird-like masks hiding more than just their faces but some deeper agenda. They bring with them animals that can sniff out disease like prey. The protagonist, Frankie, knows her younger sister is sick but uses tricks to keep her from being taken away, like bathing in scented water to mask the smell of illness. Pleasant smells, after all, are believed to keep away the evil disease-causing miasma, similar to very old European theories on disease. Of all the stories in this anthology, this was the one I most wanted to see more of. More of the world, more of the characters, more of the deeper plot that’s hinted at as the story goes on. A lot of the others were one-shot short stories, but this one feels like there could be so much more to it, and I’d love to read that.

The other stories in the collection were okay, but none of them really made an impression on me the way these three did. There were plenty of big name authors here to catch your attention if you’re a fan of YA novels (Melissa Marr, in addition to co-editing this collection, also wrote a story for it, as did Kelley Armstrong), but I’ve read surprisingly few of those authors myself, so that wasn’t what pulled me in. I was looking for a quick read and some interesting ideas. This book certainly was a quick read, and there were some interesting ideas indeed, but there were also a number of pretty predictable ones. Definitely fine if that’s what you’re looking for, but I think I went into this book expecting something else. It wasn’t bad, not at all, but it also wasn’t something that made a particularly deep impression on me, aside from a few of the stories. As I said, if you’re a fan of the authors whose stories are included here, or you’re a fan of YA dystopian stories in general, then this anthology might be right up your alley, and I encourage you to check it out if you’re able to. But if you don’t fall into those categories, I don’t think you’ll find too much here that will appeal to you. So, mostly for YA and YA dystopia fans, I think.

 

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, by J K Rowling, Jack Thorne, and John Tiffany

Buy from Amazon.com, B&N, or IndieBound

Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – July 31, 2016

Summary: It was always difficult being Harry Potter and it isn’t much easier now that he is an overworked employee of the Ministry of Magic, a husband and father of three school-age children.

While Harry grapples with a past that refuses to stay where it belongs, his youngest son Albus must struggle with the weight of a family legacy he never wanted. As past and present fuse ominously, both father and son learn the uncomfortable truth: sometimes, darkness comes from unexpected places.

Review: I’m a big fan of the Harry Potter series. The books have their problems, there’s no denying that, but overall I find them a good set of stories that age along with the kids they’re intended for, have some good humour, and are just fun to read. It’s a universe I enjoy jumping back into every now and again, for the comfort and nostalgia that the books bring.

That being said, I opened The Cursed Child with some amount of trepidation. The story was pretty much over at the end of the original seventh book, plus this was all in screenplay format, and everything I’d heard said it was merely so-so.

And at the end? I rather agree with that sentiment.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is less the story of Harry Potter and more the story of one of his kids, Albus. Coupled with the cutest damn Malfoy to ever exist, Scorpius. After being sorted into Slytherin because of reasons that aren’t exactly adequately explained (seriously, most of the character traits that sound Slytherin-eqsue largely came about as reactions because he was sorted into Slytherin), Albus feels like he doesn’t really have a place within his family, nor does his father understand him. He has a strongly biased view of his father, similar in many ways to how Draco Malfoy’s bitterness toward Harry demonstrated through the core series. After overhearing a conversation between Harry and the ailing Amos Diggory, Albus decides that he can do something that Harry himself was never able to do: save Cedric. He thus drags Scorpius along on a time-traveling adventure to save Cedric from Voldemort.

And if that sounds like any number of fanfics out there, you won’t be far off the mark.

Be warned: from here on out there are going to be a crapton of spoilers for this story, because I have a lot to say about it and many things won’t make sense unless I talk in detail about the plot. If you don’t want spoilers, then don’t highlight the invisible paragraphs. I also assume you’re familiar enough with how to rest of the series went, so if you’re not, then spoiler warnings for that too.

The whole thing is a quick read, thanks to the fact that all you’re reading is dialogue and stage directions, which is nice because it means you’re not actually sticking around too long within any given section that may or may not actually make sense. Albus and Scorpius decide that the best way to prevent Cedric’s death is to make sure that he doesn’t make it to the final task in the Triwizard Tournament, thus never encountering Voldemort in the first place. Solid plan. So they decide to use the world’s last Time-Turner to go back in time, and steal his wand in the first event, evidently ignoring the idea that this may result in him being roasted to death by a dragon anyway.

Accomplishing this sends them rocketing forward into a different timeline. One in which Ron and Hermione never married because they went to the Yule Ball with each other and realised after one dance apparently that it wouldn’t work out (ignoring every bit of jealousy Ron displayed prior to that event, and Hermione’s feelings to boot), Hermione turns into a clone of Snape in terms of personality (openly calling Albus an idiot in class, for instance, and this personality shift is never explained but I think we’re supposed to assume it’s because she’s secretly bitter about Ron marrying someone else, I guess…), and other minor changes to the timeline. Plus Cedric still died, so Albus and Scorpius take a trip back in time once more and try to head Cedric off at the second task instead.

And here’s where the plot starts to fall apart in a huge way. They decide to humiliate Cedric in that task, which evidently doesn’t sit well with him, because humiliation made Cedric decide to be a Death Eater. And to kill Neville. Who consequently never killed Nagini, and thus Harry couldn’t eliminate all the Horcruxes, and Voldemort survived and took over.

But here’s the thing: that sounds utterly unlike Cedric. We see little of him in the fourth book, but what we see doesn’t make me think that people laughing at him would make him go Dark. Also, this timeline’s existence relies on the notion that absolutely nobody but Neville could kill Nagini (this is Scorpius’s explanation for why Voldemort took over, which goes counter to something he says later about prophecy and destiny being mutable and able to be thwarted; you can chalk that up to it being his realization, but that means he was likely wrong about Neville being that sole key figure in Voldemort’s downfall, so then we’re back to the question of why that timeline happened in that way to begin with). Snape lives and is helping Hermione and Ron subvert Voldemort and his Dark government, which also makes no sense because a) Hermione and Ron have no reason to trust him that we can see (the reason they knew he was secretly working for Dumbledore all along is because of Snape giving his memories to Harry just before he died), and b) if we assume everything else played out the same except for Neville’s absence and inability to kill Nagini, then by the time that happened, Snape was already dead, killed by Voldemort to get the Elder Wand.

…Maybe Trelawney’s prophecy was secretly about Neville all along…

Then we get to the second half of the play, which involves — I kid you not — Voldemort’s daughter having manipulated this all along in order to fulfill a prophecy to bring back her father. This involves her going back in time in order to convince Voldemort to not attempt to kill the Potters, thus never causing the backlash that semi-killed him and created the protection around Harry, and thus preventing the creation of the only person that could apparently kill him in the future.

An interesting idea, but similar to the issue with Neville, it also assumes that nobody but Harry could ever have killed Voldemort. That nobody else could ever have discovered the secret of his Horcrux collection and worked out a way to destroy them. I’m sure it’s supposed to be playing on the idea that one person really can make a world of difference, but it comes off more like saying only that person can make a difference. Prophecies are flexible, but things are only ever supposed to work out one exact way.

And it may seem nitpicky to say, but this scene breaks with book canon, because everyone who traveled back in time to thwart the thwarting saw the Potters exit their house.

Their house that was established to essentially be invisible to anyone who didn’t expressly know where it was, as divulged by a Secret Keeper.

This bit makes more sense if all you’ve ever known of the story was what the movies told you, because that didn’t get brought up in the movies at all. But in the books, it was a huge plot point that the Potters knew they were targets, and so a powerful spell was cast on their home to make it secret. Peter Pettigrew knew that secret, and told it to Voldemort, which is how he knew where to go that fateful night. You could argue that because the spell wasn’t in effect when Harry found it during the book’s timeline, then it didn’t matter if anyone else knew about it when he told them, but at that point in the past, it was under a spell. It wouldn’t be a very safe sort of secret if people who already knew about it kept knowing. Then Voldemort could have just tortured their mailman for information. Nobody should have been able to see them leave the house at that point.

And yet…

The whole thing with Delphini being Voldemort’s daughter was just painful, to be honest. It’s hard to imagine Voldemort condescending to even do that, but according to the timeline Delphini admits to, she was born shortly before the Battle of Hogwarts, which means that her mother (Bellatrix Lestrange) was heavily pregnant through many scenes she appeared in and yet nobody noticed. She also fought in that battle soon after giving birth, because apparently women bounce back from that like it’s nothing.

This is part of my biggest problem with the story in The Cursed Child. Not only does it make some truly impressive leaps of logic when it comes to the rippling effects of small changes to the timeline, but it also outright ignores established canon. It’s not the first story to do this. It certainly won’t be the last. But it’s extremely frustrating every time it happens, because I can never shake the feeling that if it’s a plot hole I can spot, the creator should have been able to spot it with greater accuracy.

Maybe it’s just easier to assume that this whole this canonizes multiple universes, and that bookverse and movieverse are both just canon on different timelines. That doesn’t erase my other issues, and it does call into question issues of canon within the movies themselves, but it at least can explain away this one problem.

As for characterization, well, some characters were fairly on point. Others? Not by a long shot. Ron gets turned entirely into the comic relief guy in the primary timeline; running the joke shop would be one thing, but figuring that a snack in the Hogwarts kitchens takes priority over finding his missing nephew? Cedric, when encountered in the maze during a time travel event, talks like a knight from a bad fantasy novel. When we see Snape in the Dark world timeline, he acts like he’s really Sirius pretending to be Snape. I already mentioned Hermione’s random personality switch; she acts like she’s really Snape not even attempting to pretend to be Hermione. Harry and normal!Hermione were pretty decent and recognizable, but I think the book’s biggest saving grace was that most of it surrounds characters who didn’t already have established personalities to begin with, so nothing about them really seems out of place.

For my part, I loved Scorpius. The word adorkable fits him perfectly. I enjoyed seeing more development of Draco, not just as an antagonistic counterpart to Harry but as a loving father and a grieving husband who made some monumental mistakes in the past but not without reason, and not without redemption. Albus may have been a bit of an emo teenager, but I could relate to him to a degree, that sense of feeling out of place around the people who are supposed to give you stability, feeling lost and alone and like only one person in the world actually gets you. I loved seeing the conflict between him and Harry, the rifts that come between people even in good families. I liked the idea that people can still love and support you even when you don’t always get along. So even while some characters were mere caricatures of the people I’d come to expect, there was still enough in other characters to make dealing with them a treat.

Then there’s the Trolley Lady. I just… good gods, the Trolley Lady. That scene was one long “WTF did I just read?” moment.

In the end, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child was a story that was fun so long as you don’t think too hard about it. It had some plot holes you could drop a piano through, but it also had some good moments, and some lovable characters to discover. It’s worth reading for curiosity’s sake, but I wouldn’t take it too seriously, nor expect much of it, because it fails to deliver. I feel a bit saddened by the fact that I’m essentially saying you won’t be that disappointed if your expectations are low, but that really does sum up how I felt about this whole screenplay. It was okay, but not great, and not a patch on the core series.