Review: Our Violent Ends by Chloe Gong

The year is 1927, and Shanghai teeters on the edge of revolution.

After sacrificing her relationship with Roma to protect him from the blood feud, Juliette has been a girl on the warpath. One wrongmove, and her cousin will step in to usurp her place as the Scarlet Gang’s heir. The only way to save the boy she loves from the wrath of the Scarlets is to have him want her dead for murdering his best friend in cold blood. If Juliette were actually guilty of the crime Roma believes she committed, his rejection might sting less.

Roma is still reeling from Marshall’s death, and his cousin Benedikt will barely speak to him. Roma knows it’s his fault for lettingthe ruthless Juliette back into his life, and he’s determined to set things right—even if that means killing the girl he hates and loves with equal measure.

Then a new monstrous danger emerges in the city, and though secrets keep them apart, Juliette must secure Roma’s cooperation if they are to end this threat once and for all. Shanghai is already at a boiling point: The Nationalists are marching in, whispers of civil war brew louder every day, and gangster rule faces complete annihilation. Roma and Juliette must put aside their differences to combat monsters and politics, but they aren’t prepared for the biggest threat of all: protecting their hearts from each other.

Rating: 4/5

Review

I really enjoyed These Violent Delights earlier in the year despite that ridiculous cliffhanger – so now is a great time to pick up both books in the duology. There’s a lot going on – monsters in Shanghai, not to mention the lovers to enemies to reluctant partners to lovers and back to enemies again romance (and that’s just the first book) – but ultimately it’s an action packed duology with plenty of depths. If you like YA fantasy that actually pokes at gender inequality and colonialism, and includes multiple queer characters despite the historical setting, I’d highly recommend this series. 

Our Violent Ends is a thrilling ride – it took a little bit to get going (and possibly spent a little too long rehashing character dynamics from book one), but once the plot kicked off I binged the last 50 per cent in a single evening, and couldn’t put it down. Gong really captures the complexities of 1920s Shanghai, even before you add monsters to the equation; everyone’s loyalties are constantly shifting, and the broader political tensions of the era intersect with the more localised gang conflict in a meaningful way. Juliette and Roma both love Shanghai and hate what it has become after decades of colonial interference, and the scenes where they debate whether it is worth saving are some of the most hard-hitting. 

This is Juliette’s story – she is by far the most fleshed-out character – and I found her fascinating to spend time with. She’s violent, often reckless, and quick to anger, but I wouldn’t really call her an anti-heroine (even if I was surprised by how far she pushed the limits in the sequel). It’s pretty clear she is just making all of her moral choices in the context of her tumultuous upbringing and how far she has been pushed. The other characters are a lot of fun to be around even if they are not quite as engaging, and I am very excited for news of a standalone sequel potentially starring one of my favourite side characters in this series. 

I do have one complaint which feels a little harsh, which is that I really wish this had been an adult book – and I really think Gong is capable of writing a great one, despite only being in her early 20s. I simply couldn’t believe the strength of Roma and Juliette’s love for each other – a love that started when they were 14, per the series’ timeline – which meant that a lot of the romance scenes didn’t quite land for me (an important part of any Romeo and Juliet retelling!). I also had to keep mentally aging the characters up in my head because otherwise some of the plot elements felt somewhat far-fetched, particularly the extent to which several grown men were scared of or went along with the whims of an 18 year old woman. I am fully aware that I am outside the target age range, however – and accept that as my lot. 

The ending is appropriately bittersweet: it’s a Romeo and Juliet retelling, so I hope no one was expecting a perfectly happy ending. But it’s satisfying and rounds out the story nicely, particularly after some of the high stakes scenes in the middle. And it leaves open the possibility of more stories in this world, which I’m definitely looking forward to. 

Note: I received an ARC from Hodder & Stoughton. Our Violent Ends was released on 16 November. 

Review: The Bone Shard Emperor by Andrea Stewart

The Emperor is Dead. Long live the Emperor.  
 
Lin Sukai finally sits on the throne she won at so much cost, but her struggles are only just beginning. Her people don’t trust her. Her political alliances are weak. And in the north-east of the Empire, a rebel army of constructs is gathering, its leader determined to take the throne by force.  
 
Yet an even greater threat is on the horizon, for the Alanga – the powerful magicians of legend – have returned to the Empire. They claim they come in peace, and Lin will need their help in order to defeat the rebels and restore peace.  
 
But can she trust them? 

Rating: 3.5/5

Review

To recap briefly (and without spoilers), The Bone Shard Daughter saw the Emperor’s Daughter Lin and renowned smuggler Jovis embroiled in a revolution, and also prevent their island kingdom from going – literally – underwater. There are also a number of mysteries around the creation and use of the bone shard constructs – animated creatures made from samples of people’s bones, which are programmed to protect the kingdom from external threats. Of course, I was always going to come back to this series for the character Mephi, who remains a delight to spend time with – who doesn’t love animal companions?

Thankfully, there are other things to love about The Bone Shard Emperor as well. I continue to be impressed by Stewart’s world-building, which takes inspiration from a variety of East Asian cultures and blends them into something that feels unique, instead of being a simple cultural analogue. As someone who grew up by the ocean, I am also particularly into the island aesthetic. Additionally, I think Stewart would make an excellent horror writer if she put her mind to it, as the entire concept of the bone-shard constructs and the tithing festival that facilitates people having their bones harvested to make them is appropriately very creepy – I found myself recoiling at several points as we learn more about the practice of making and controlling constructs.

The Bone Shard Emperor is also much more politically complex than the first book – everyone is conflicted, their loyalties tested. There are no easy or clear answers, and everyone finds themselves pulled between multiple loyalties. I’ve seen a lot of reviews say they don’t buy the romance that springs up between Lin and Jovis in this book, but it’s for this reason that I actually really enjoyed this element of the story: Stewart makes it very clear that their feelings are as much driven by them looking to process what is happening to them individually as it is about whether or not they have romantic feelings for reach other. Of course, this means there’s a lot of potential for it to all blow up spectacularly – and for it to be very messy when it does.

All that said, there were two issues for me with this book, and they’re both the same issues I had with book one. The first of these is pacing – the first half of The Bone Shard Emperor is very slow, and I feel it could have benefited from another round of editing to make it tighter, as there is a lot of unnecessary exposition. Stewart really builds up to her explosive endings – which are great – but I wish it didn’t sometimes feel like a chore to get there. The other issue is the uneven POVs. In addition to Lin and Jovis, we have married couple Phalue and Ramani, who rule over one of the islands in Lin’s empire and Nisong, a character with a mysterious past. I typically always gravitate to the sapphics, but where Lin and Jovis feel like dynamic characters, Phalue and Ramani feel rather one-note and seem to play out the same interpersonal conflict on repeat. In addition, their contribution to the plot simply isn’t as compelling as Lin and Jovis’ story, and I think this book would have benefited from finding some other way to integrate the parts of their story that the reader absolutely had to know about, rather than having us spend time following their POVs. I’m not sure there’s much scope to change this now – given we’re two-thirds into this trilogy – but it’s a fairly significant element and the one thing that stops me recommending this series wholeheartedly.

That said, I do still recommend this series – there’s a lot of elements I love and I definitely think it’s worth giving it a shot if you haven’t already (or picking up book two).

Note: I received an ARC from Orbit. The Bone Shard Emperor will be released on 9 November (US)/23 November (UK/Commonwealth).

Review: Blood of the Chosen by Django Wexler

Four hundred years ago, a cataclysmic war cracked the world open and exterminated the Elder races. Amid the ashes, their human inheritor, the Dawn Republic, stands guard over lands littered with eldritch relics and cursed by plaguespawn outbreaks. But a new conflict is looming and brother and sister Maya and Gyre have found themselves on opposite sides.

At the age of five, Maya was taken by the Twilight Order and trained to be a centarch, wielding forbidden arcana to enforce the Dawn Republic’s rule. On that day, her brother, Gyre, swore to destroy the Order that stole his sister… whatever the cost.

Twelve years later, brother and sister are two very different people: she is Burningblade, the Twilight Order’s brightest prodigy; he is Silvereye, thief, bandit, revolutionary.

Rating: 4/5

Review

I really enjoyed Ashes of the Sun and was glad to get an ARC, which didn’t disappoint.

The premise of this series is fairly straightforward – two siblings, one a staunch uphold of the Republic, the other a sworn rebel – but what’s interesting about it is Wexler’s interest in examining some of the often unstated mantras of fantasy worlds. There’s no black and white, here – the Twilight Order has an important role to play in protecting people from the plaguespawn, but they’re also founded on ideas about magical supremacy that are fundamentally incompatible with equality. This makes a nice change from of a lot of stories – cough, Star Wars, cough – that never really think about what it might mean to have an exclusionary group of people calling the shots. Meanwhile, the rebels have a vision of a society free from rule by the Twilight Order, but there are many different views about what it might take to get there. These conflicts play out for both Maya and Gyre in this book, which also makes them compelling characters – what are they willing to sacrifice, and how do they reconcile the good and the not so good parts of their communities? (It does occasionally see them – particularly Maya – make some really dumb decisions, but these are at least believable in the context of what they know).

Blood of the Chosen also expands the world in interesting ways, exposing us to more of the fallout from a war centuries’ ago, and also allowing us to get to know some of the side characters a little better, particularly Beq, Maya’s girlfriend, and Elariel, Gyre’s ghoul companion. They’re a lot of fun to spend time with, and there are plenty of lighthearted moments among the plaguespawn attacks and other horrors lurking in every tunnel. I did think the central conceit of Gyre and Maya being separated with opposite storylines dragged on a little too long – we are now two-thirds through the trilogy and they’ve spent more page time apart than interacting – but the sequel set their relationship up to move into a new phase in book 3. Which can’t come soon enough, given the ending. I’m curious to see how Wexler ties everything up, and where Maya and Gyre’s loyalties will eventually lie.

Note: I received an ARC from Head of Zeus. Blood of the Chosen was released on 5 October 2021.

Review: Within These Wicked Walls by Lauren Blackwood

Andromeda is a debtera—an exorcist hired to cleanse households of the Evil Eye. When a handsome young heir named Magnus Rochester reaches out to hire her, Andromeda quickly realizes this is a job like no other, with horrifying manifestations at every turn, and that Magnus is hiding far more than she has been trained for. Death is the most likely outcome if she stays, but leaving Magnus to live out his curse alone isn’t an option. Evil may roam the castle’s halls, but so does a burning desire.

Rating: 2.5/5

Review

Within These Wicked Walls is a tough one to review, because it had a handful of things to recommend it, which were overshadowed by me really not liking the most significant element of the book at all: the central romance between Andromeda and Magnus.

To start with the good, while this is more of a Jane Eyre inspired story than a proper retelling (more on that in a second), it does keep up the gothic atmosphere of the original while adding some new elements. The creepy house, the suspicious servants and general sense of foreboding are all well done, and I liked the integration of the magic system, which revolves around the carving of metal amulets to ward against evil spirits. There’s also a few nods to the Ethiopian setting, around the time of Italian occupation, such as the harshness of the desert landscape. I would have liked a little more detail, since the setting often felt a little unmoored and lacking in specificity, but it was nice to read a gothic story not set in dreary old England for a change.

There’s also an interesting side-plot about the relationship between Andromeda and her adoptive father Jember, though it comes somewhat out of left-field in the second half of the book and doesn’t mesh neatly with some of the other elements of the story.

All that aside however, unfortunately I did not click with the romance in this book at all, which is clearly intended to be the story’s crowning jewel. Part of this is the way the Within These Wicked Walls functions as not-really a retelling of Jane Eyre (a book I didn’t even necessarily love myself). A big part of what’s compelling about Jane Eyre is that we understand what a terrible idea the romance between Jane and Mr Rochester is, but are captivated by their relationship in all its messiness anyway. There’s also a strong critique of class, exemplified by their differing social statuses.

Here, Andromeda and Marcus fall in love pretty much straight away and are prepared to throw their lives away for each other after knowing each other for mere days. At no point did I feel they had real chemistry or any reason to be together except that it’s a hallmark of gothic novels for the heroine to fall in love with the monster. It doesn’t help that Marcus is, frankly, kind of an asshole, as well as holding all the power over Andromeda as her employer – a fact conveniently forgotten by Andromeda as soon as she realises she’s in love with him, and by the narrative at large.

I didn’t necessarily expect a stroke for stroke retelling, but I think this book would be more engaging if it had used the different setting as an opportunity to build on and critique the original story rather than simply telling a rather bland romance. I’m disappointed I can’t really recommend this one, though I’m still glad to see it as part of the growing pile of non-western retellings we’re getting these days.

Note: I received an ARC from Wednesday books. Within These Wicked Walls will be released on 19 October.

Review: Scales and Sensibility by Stephanie Burgis

Sensible, practical Elinor Tregarth really did plan to be the model poor relation when she moved into Hathergill Hall. She certainly never meant to kidnap her awful cousin Penelope’s pet dragon. She never expected to fall in love with the shameless – but surprisingly sweet – fortune hunter who came to court Penelope. And she never dreamed that she would have to enter into an outrageous magical charade to save her younger sisters’ futures.

However, even the most brilliant scholars of 1817 England still haven’t ferreted out all the lurking secrets of rediscovered dragonkind…and even the most sensible of heroines can still make a reckless wish or two when she’s pushed. Now Elinor will have to find out just how rash and resourceful she can be when she sets aside all common sense. Maybe, just maybe, she’ll even be impractical enough to win her own true love and a happily ever after…with the unpredictable and dangerous “help” of the magical creature who has adopted her.

Rating: 4/5

Review

I’ve been on a bit of a fantasy of manners kick recently, so it was perfect timing for me to be approved for an ARC of Scales and Sensibility. I’ve previously read and enjoyed Burgis’ Harwood Spellbook series, where my main complaint was that I wished each entry was longer, so I was super thrilled to see her writing a longer book in this new series.

Thankfully, it was delightful as I hoped. I haven’t read all of Jane Austen’s catalogue, but while I’m sure there are plenty of easter eggs for those who have, it’s certainly not necessary to enjoy this book. It’s not so much a retelling of Sense and Sensibility as a homage to all of Austen’s books and the regency genre as a whole. The plot is fairly basic – Elinor Tregarth essentially plays the Cinderella to her awful cousin Penelope, but with the help of her fairy godmother friendly dragon companion, Sir Jessamyn, begins to find a way to express her true worth. But, like all good regency stories, it delights in the absurdity of poor Elinor’s situation, and is filled with tongue in cheek moments of brevity and humour. There’s also a well-rounded supporting cast; I wouldn’t call them all likeable, but they feel very real and it’s fun to watch Elinor negotiate her way around each of them in turn.

If I have any criticisms, it’s that the romance wasn’t hugely compelling – the romantic lead felt the least developed all of all the characters and the resolution to this particular plot arc was rather rushed. It’s also a book that relies in part on Elinor’s emotional connection to her sisters, whom she is avowed to protect but whom we never meet (in this instalment), so some of her decisions don’t resonate as much as they could. But that’s largely offset by the sheer delight and hilarity that the rest of the book brings – I thoroughly enjoyed this one.

Note: Scales and Sensibility will be released on 4 October 2021 (and is also available on the author’s patreon here).

Review: The Bone Ship’s Wake by R.J. Barker

The sea dragons are returning, and Joron Twiner’s dreams of freedom lie shattered. His Shipwife is gone and all he has left is revenge.

Leading the black fleet from the deck of Tide Child Joron takes every opportunity to strike at his enemies, but he knows his time is limited. His fleet is shrinking and the Keyshan’s Rot is running through his body. He runs from a prophecy that says he and the avian sorcerer, the Windseer, will end the entire world.

But the sea dragons have begun to return, and if you can have one miracle, who is to say that there cannot be another? 

Rating: 5/5

Review

I’ve been putting this review off for a few days because I wasn’t sure where to start with how much I loved this book. Anyone who has read the first two books in the series – The Bone Ships and Call of the Bone Ships – will know what to expect, but Barker really took it up a notch in this finale. I don’t typically get outwardly emotional about books, but The Bone Ship’s Wake left me open-mouthed and a little teary.

We pick up where Call of the Bone Ships left off, with Joron as the new shipwife of The Tide Child, and desperate to get Meas back from her captors. The synopsis paints this as a revenge story, but in my opinion it’s much more nuanced than that – the book is ultimately about about Joron coming to terms with what it means to be a leader and how to weigh up what is necessary, what is right, and the consequences of one’s actions. We also return to a number of the other themes threaded throughout the series – courage, duty, and finding hope and light in the darkness. Joron has no idea who he can trust as friends become enemies and enemies become allies, but there is still a focus on finding meaning and solace in relationships with others despite all the treachery and betrayal the Tide Child’s crew face.

Those who came to the series for the naval battles also won’t be disappointed; there is plenty of action, particularly in the first part of the book, including a terrifying encounter with a sea kraken that had me on the edge of my seat. My biggest concern with the first two books, and the reason I didn’t give them five stars, is because I found the pacing could drag a little, but that’s not the case here – the story moves along at a perfectly balanced pace. There is always some event unfolding, but readers are also given time to soak in the world-building and themes that Barker has layered throughout the series. The action scenes are great, but I also love the little details, such as the uniqueness of the flora and fauna (which goes beyond the dragons and the guillame), and the subtle shifts in language that mark the Hundred Isles as a matriachal society in all aspects of its culture.

If you’ve read to this point in the series (which – this is definitely not a book that stands alone) you’ll know not to expect a happy ending, but the conclusion is appropriately bittersweet and, most importantly feels right for the characters that we, as readers, have gone on this journey with. Thank you, R.J. Barker.

Note: I received an ARC from Orbit. The Bone Ship’s Wake will be released on 28 September.

Review: The Splinter King by Mike Brooks

Darel, dragon knight and the new leader of Black Keep, must travel to the palace of the God-King to beg for the lives of his people. But in the capital of Narida, Marin and his warrior husband will be drawn into a palace coup, and Princess Tila will resort to murder to keep her hold on power.

In the far reaches of the kingdom an heir in exile is hunted by assassins, rumours of a rival God-King abound, and daemonic forces from across the seas draw ever nearer…

Rating: 4/5

Review

The first book in the God-King Chronicles series came out in March, which I thought was an incredibly promising start to a new series – so I was very thankful to get an ARC of the sequel.

In some respects, The God-King Chronicles is a pretty standard epic fantasy series. There are a range of characters from the north, south and west of the map – some of them are some of them are nobles, some of them are raiders, and some of them are religious leaders or gutter thieves. There are dragons (though these particular dragons are more like dinosaurs, really). This book does the standard things reasonably well: the world is relatively well-fleshed out with limited info-dumps, as we see the different cultural groups that make up Narida and its surrounding regions come into each others’ orbit, and the characters are all interesting enough to follow, even if I still have my favourites from book one, most notably Daimon and Saana, as well as Daimon’s brother Darel.

But there are two things the series does differently, and they are both on display in The Splinter King.

Firstly, I love that this is a series about conflict resolution via negotiation, rather than fighting. There are some battles, and some people do die, but this is overwhelmingly a hopeful series about what can happen when two parties seek to communicate with each other, compromise, and make genuine efforts towards reconciliation and harmony.

Secondly, Brooks does some really interesting things with gender. Narida is a queernorm world, with a range of different pronouns that signify the spectrum of possibilities for gender representation (in additional to multiple queer relationships). The Splinter King takes this a step further by introducing us to characters who are still figuring out where they sit on that spectrum, and how they might want to move along it and what this means for navigating their way through society. It takes a bit of getting used to as a reader, but after a while it becomes second nature, and it’s one of my favourite things about the series.

The Splinter King does suffer relatively significantly from ‘middle-book syndrome’. My main issue with book one was that a number of the characters felt disconnected from the main action that took place as Daimon and Saana tried to broker peace between their communities, and were clearly only introduced so we knew who they were in book two. These characters are much more integrated in this book – but the trade-off is that there are now far too many POVs, and the book isn’t able to fully do justice to all of their stories. There are a lot mini-climaxes and chapters that are very clearly about positioning characters for the finale, and a lot of stop-start action that comes from getting invested in one character’s story, only to transition to another.

Despite these challenges, on reflection my experience with The Splinter King was a positive one, as evidenced by the fact that I am very keen for the next book in the series – we have been blessed with the first two books arriving within six months of each other, so I can only hope Brooks keeps up the epic pace.

Note: I received an ARC from Solaris. The Splinter King will be released on 7 September 2021.

Review: The Second Rebel by Linden A. Lewis

Astrid has reclaimed her name and her voice, and now seeks to bring down the Sisterhood from within. Throwing herself into the lioness’ den, Astrid must confront and challenge the Matrons who run the Gean religious institution but she quickly discovers that the business of politics is far deadlier than she ever expected.

Meanwhile, on an asteroid mining colony deep in space, Hiro val Akira seeks to bring a dangerous ally into the rebellion. Whispers of a digital woman fuel Hiro’s search, but he is not the only person looking for this link to the mysterious race of Synthetics.

Lito sol Lucious continues to grow into his role as a lead revolutionary and is tasked with rescuing an Aster operative from deep within an Icarii prison. With danger around every corner Lito, his partner Ofiera, and the newly freed operative must flee in order to keep dangerous secrets out of enemy hands.

Back on Mercury, Lito’s sister Lucinia must carry on after her brother’s disappearance and accusation of treason by Icarii authorities. Despite being under the thumb of Soji val Akira, Lucinia manages to keep her nose clean…that is until an Aster revolutionary shows up with news about her brother’s fate, and an opportunity to join the fight.

This captivating, spellbinding second installment to The First Sister series picks up right where The First Sister left off and is a must-read for science fiction fans everywhere.

Rating: 4/5

Review

I really enjoyed Lewis’ debut novel, The First Sister, and was thrilled to be granted an ARC of the sequel.

It’s hard to say much about this book without spoilers for book one (particularly given Lewis’ penchant for epic twists), but The Second Rebel picks up where The First Sister left off with the characters we previously followed, as well as the addition of a new point of view in Luce. Multiple POVs is always a difficult juggling act – particularly when they’re all in first person – but Lewis does a good job of giving them all distinct voices and meaningful character arcs. Luce is probably my new favourite character, as she stands out with her determination and sense of duty to her family, but I enjoyed spending time with all four characters and seeing how their story arcs coincided over time. We also get to spend time with Hiro as a character – as opposed to a recording – and really understand how their relationship with their family has shaped them as a person, which was one of my favourite elements of the sequel (if occasionally heartbreaking).

The Second Rebel also lives up to its predecessor in terms of the twists and turns. We spend more time dealing with the fallout from Hiro’s discoveries about the awful treatment of the Aster and what it tells us about Icarii society than we do with the First Sister on Gaen, and there’s lots to learn about exactly how deep the horrors go. I should add that if, like me, you forgot a lot of the political nuances as soon as you read book one, Lewis does a good job of reminding you who’s who without it feeling like a chore. It did take a little for the plot to kick off, especially since the main characters are once again initially separated and figuring things out for themselves, but the last 20-30 per cent of The Second Rebel is a total rollercoaster ride.

I do have one niggling concern with this series, which is that the world-building is a little flimsy. It doesn’t necessarily take the reader out the story as they read (due to Lewis’ other strengths), but from a more distant angle, it’s not really clear why this world is the way it is. It’s never really explained why this future universe contains such a gendered religious system, or why the internal politics of the First Sister, the Mother and the rest of their Order matter so much outside the personal consequences for those caught up in it. It does feel a little like the author wanted a dystopian aesthetic, and therefore defaulted to an anti-feminist society without thinking through the delays fully. It might be a bit late, but I’d love to see the the history of this element of the world explored more in the final book in the trilogy.

Like I said, however, this is an excellent series overall and Lewis really knows their strengths – I am still shook from the last plot twist and cannot wait for book three.

Note: I received an ARC from Hodder and Stoughton. The Second Rebel will be released on 24 August 2021.

Review: Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao

The boys of Huaxia dream of pairing up with girls to pilot Chrysalises, giant transforming robots that can battle the mecha aliens that lurk beyond the Great Wall. It doesn’t matter that the girls often die from the mental strain.

When 18-year-old Zetian offers herself up as a concubine-pilot, it’s to assassinate the ace male pilot responsible for her sister’s death. But she gets her vengeance in a way nobody expected—she kills him through the psychic link between pilots and emerges from the cockpit unscathed. She is labeled an Iron Widow, a much-feared and much-silenced kind of female pilot who can sacrifice boys to power up Chrysalises instead.​

To tame her unnerving yet invaluable mental strength, she is paired up with Li Shimin, the strongest and most controversial male pilot in Huaxia​. But now that Zetian has had a taste of power, she will not cower so easily. She will miss no opportunity to leverage their combined might and infamy to survive attempt after attempt on her life, until she can figure out exactly why the pilot system works in its misogynist way—and stop more girls from being sacrificed.

Rating: 3/5

Review

To say I was excited for this book was an understatement: I love Xiran Jay Zhao’s social media presence, and really appreciate their energy, humour and what appears to be a deep knowledge of Chinese history. I also read a few articles about their fight to retain the polyamorous romance at the centre of Iron Widow, and I wanted to support them in that effort.

Unfortunately, I had a number of issues with Iron Widow.

To start with the good, however: the aesthetic is excellent. I’m not hugely into anime so didn’t necessarily recognise the specific comps, but the mecha battles are really cool. I also really liked the Chinese inspired world-building: there are lots of little details that make the world feel really expansive and hint at the cultural diversity within the setting, such as the conflicts between different ethnic groups. I really appreciated that this book didn’t treat Chinese culture (or the fantasy cultures inspired by it) as a monolith.

As for everything else, well: the best way to describe Iron Widow is unsubtle. Sometimes that works – I was very into the ‘fuck the patriarchy’ vibe of this book at the beginning. Iron Widow is Wu Zetian’s revenge story, as she seeks revenge against the mecha pilot who killed her sister, but also the system that has pushed her down and denied her autonomy and opportunities at every turn. I love unapologetic women who fight for their rights, and I’m glad this book continues that tradition.

However, below the surface, the lack of subtlely in the feminist message means it doesn’t actually make much sense. Zetian’s entire story revolves around the same events: someone sense something grossly misogynistic, Zetian snaps back with a witty reply and owns them (where she learnt these retorts given the lack of feminist role models in her life is unclear). It doesn’t help that Wu Zetian gives off the biggest ‘not like other girls’ vibe I’ve seen for a while – she is miraculously somehow the most talented female concubine with the most spirit energy that’s ever been seen. She also has no positive interactions with women, either getting into catfights with them (over men), or looking down on them for choosing a different path in life (her disdain for another women who has chosen to have children with her mecha pilot partner is not the feminist message I was looking for). There’s simply no sympathy for the women who have been downtrodden and broken by the patriarchal society they live in and are yet to reach the same level of feminist enlightment as Wu Zetian.

The rest of the book is a bit of a mess, as well. The writing is clunky and unpolished, again lacking any kind of nuance or subtlety. There is a lot of telling rather than showing. And Zetian’s relationships with the two love interests, childhood friend Yizhi and fellow mecha pilot Shimin, lack consistency, making it hard to root for them. At one point, Zetian screams about how much she hates Shimin, only to passionately kiss him about three pages later. I really wanted to cheer for the relationship given the author’s attempts to break new ground and move away from toxic YA love triangles, but there wasn’t a lot to work with.

Ultimately, I really admire the intent of this book and I really hope the author continues to grow as a writer: I think they have a lot of really excellent feminist energy to bring to the genre, but lack the experience to nuance the messaging and tell a compelling story in this venture.

Note: I received an ARC from Oneworld Publications. Iron Widow will be be released on 7 October by Rock the Boat (21 September from Penguin Teen in some jurisdictions).

Review: Monkey Around by Jadie Jang

San Francisco has a Monkey King – and she’s kinda freaked out.

Barista, activist, and were-monkey Maya McQueen was well on her way to figuring herself out. Well, part of the way. 25% of the way. If you squint.

But now the Bay Area is being shaken up. Occupy Wall Street has come home to roost; and on the supernatural side there’s disappearances, shapeshifter murders, and the city’s spirit trying to find its guardian.

Maya doesn’t have a lot of time before chaos turns up at her door, and she needs to solve all of her problems. Well, most of them. The urgent ones, anyhow.

But who says the solutions have to be neat? Because Monkey is always out for mischief.

Rating: 3/5

Review

It’s hard not to be sold on a book with a premise like Monkey Around – urban fantasy set in 2011 San Francisco, dealing with the Occupy Wall Street movement and themes of gentrification and social change? Yes please.

That part of the book does live up to the hype: even though the actual Occupy movement gets limited page time, Jang offers plenty of wry observations about what it’s like to be a millennial (and, particularly, an Asian-American millennial) trying to make your way in the world. There’s also some poignant conversations about immigration and cultural assimilation, and how hard it can be to maintain cultural roots and connections in the face of rapid social change and economic challenges. Monkey Around is worth reading for those points alone.

Having said that, I wasn’t a huge fan of the underlying fantasy story. The general premise is that Maya is a shapeshifter (the full extent of her abilities is unknown, as she was adopted as a young child), who has found herself caught up in investigating a series of murders that have rocked the shapeshifting community. Jang takes an ‘everything but the kitchen sink’ approach to this idea and continually threw in new characters and concepts, without leaving any breathing space to really develop a connection to anyone. There are friends, and even a few romantic possibilities, but none of these relationships felt hugely deep or meaningful. Even Maya is a hard character to get to know, as she’s continally caught up in the action, with limited space in her narrative for reflection.

There’s a lot of good ideas here and while I wasn’t necessarily sold – I’m unlikely to pick up any sequels, though I might try something else by Jang – there’s enough to muse over to make Monkey Around worth checking out, particularly if you like urban fantasy more than I do.

Note: I received an ARC from Solaris. Monkey Around will be published on 3 August 2021.