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.

Review: The Bone Way by Holly J. Underhill

Teagan’s wife, Cressidae, is missing. She has left for the Shadow Realm, a kingdom of the dead filled with untold nightmares—and the only place that can save Teagan from a lethal poison that’s killing her slowly. It is ruled by a princess said to make powerful deals with those brave enough to find her, and Cressidae has gone to bargain for Teagan’s life. Cressidae has forgotten one very important thing: no one makes it out on their own.

Despite the risks to her own safety, Teagan is determined to save her wife—and perhaps even herself in the process. The princess of the Shadow Realm, however, doesn’t let mortals roam her territories without opposition. In this thrilling fantasy novella, Teagan and Cressidae must face both the horrors of the Shadow Realm as well as their own past.

Rating: 3/5

Review

Novellas are a hard gig to pull off, and while The Bone Way isn’t a bad book by any stretch of the imagination, it’s unfortunately one that is hamstrung by the limitations of the shorter format.

Firstly, I have to say that the story is a lot of fun: I really enjoyed the modern twist on an old Greek myth, and I am always here for messy sapphics who are quite literally willing to die for each other. I also really liked that this book was happy just to retell this story as a queer one – Teagan and Cressidae are treated like any other couple, and there are plenty of small nods towards other queer identities in the world they inhabit. I had though this might be a more explicitly subversive retelling that tackled some of the various assumptions about gender and sexuality in the original myths, but getting to enjoy a plain, queer reimagining with no homophobia felt somewhat subversive in its own right. I also really liked the relationship dynamics at play, and how neither Teagan or Cressidae are at fault for the breakdown of their relationship (not a spoiler, it takes place before the first chapter), but are both required to confront how they communicate what they need from each other.

Having said all that, this was not a memorable story for me, because it tried to do too much in too few pages, and felt stretched paper-thin as a result. The world-building is flimsy; almost non-existent aside from some basic descriptions of the locations they visit. Obstacles were overcome in mere moments in order to get through the entireity of the plot, and there simply wasn’t enough suspense or sense of genuine challenges for the characters. And while I really liked the relationship dynamic, the flashback scenes felt very insta-lovely as we sped through their early time together, while the resolution of their relationship woes felt rushed.

I’d definitely check out more from Underhill, and hope they expand to a longer format, because all the ideas were there, they just lacked the space to give the characters breathing room and do the story justice.

Note: I received an ARC from Nyx Publishing. The Bone Way is out now.

Mid-Year Freakout

How is it mid-2021, already? Yikes! I’m notoriously bad at doing wrap-up posts for what I read, but I’ve seen this one around on a few blogs and I thought it would be fun, so here goes:

Best book you’ve read so far in 2021:

Asking a book blogger to pick their ‘best’ anything is cruel, so here are my top five:

  • The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison
  • Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke (you’ll see I’ve been catching up on some long-recommended faves)
  • The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater
  • The Kingdoms by Natasha Pulley
  • Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse

Best sequel you’ve read so far in 2021:

Jade War by Fonda Lee. I’m both excited and terrified for the finale.

A new release you haven’t read but want to:

I’m surprised I didn’t drop everything to read One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston the minute it downloaded on my Kindle, but I haven’t been in the mood for romance and I don’t want to spoil it.

Most anticipated release for the second half of 2021:

It has to be She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan, and I will cry if it doesn’t live up to the pedestal I have built for it in my mind.

Biggest disappointment:

I’ve read a few books I wished I loved more than I did this year, but in terms of the cover: content ratio, unfortunately I have to pick The Ones We’re Meant to Find by Joan He. Please don’t let that stop more publishers putting BIPOC girls front and centre.

Biggest surprise:

I thought A Dowry of Blood by S. T. Gibson would be good, but I wasn’t expecting it to be a 5-star read that blew me away with its unique approach to the story of Dracula (even if we’re not calling him that).

New author:

Hench didn’t quite make my list of faves, but I will pick up anything else Natalie Zina Walschots writes, because she has a real knack for deadpan, cynical humour and I’m curious to see what she writes next.

New character:

Adam Parrish from The Raven Cycle. The Dream Thieves is my favourite book in the series and is definitely a story about Ronan Lynch, but Adam is the character I can’t stop thinking about, and I love his eggshell optimism, his journey towards self-respect and his desire to live life on his own terms.

Made you cry:

I don’t cry much at books, but I did occasionally get emotional about Legendborn by Tracy Deonn, which has one of the best depictions of living with grief that I’ve read in a very long time.

Made you happy:

Ten Thousand Stitches by Olivia Atwater is exactly the kind of story I like: a wholesome romance featuring kind-hearted, competent characters who deserve all the good things.

The most beautiful book you’ve bought:

I picked up a full set of Melissa’s Caruso’s Swords and Fire trilogy at the secondhand book store for the price of a single book (I’m yet to read them, of course) and the covers look absolutely splendid when lined up together – I love the striking colours.

Books you need to read by the end of the year

I’m focusing on a combination of r/fantasy bingo, book club books and ARCs for the rest of the year, but five books I know I’ll get to that I’m excited about:

  • Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer
  • A Master of Djinn by P. Djeli Clark
  • Blackheart Knights by Laure Eve
  • Redemptor by Jordan Ifueko
  • The Stone Sky by N. K. Jemisin (don’t judge me for how long it’s taken me to read this series)

Review: Wendy, Darling by A.C. Wise

For those that lived there, Neverland was a children’s paradise. No rules, no adults, only endless adventure and enchanted forests – all led by the charismatic boy who would never grow old.

But Wendy Darling grew up. She left Neverland and became a woman, a mother, a patient, and a survivor. Because Neverland isn’t as perfect as she remembers. There’s darkness at the heart of the island, and now Peter Pan has returned to claim a new Wendy for his lost boys…

Rating: 3/5

Review

I have a lot of complicated thoughts about this book, and they all boil down to: I think this is a fascinating story, but a really poor reimagining of Peter Pan.

Wendy, Darling is not really a retelling, but an additional story, set somewhere between the events of the original Peter Pan and Hook, the Robin Williams movie about a version of Peter Pan that really does grow up (you don’t need to have seen the latter to read this book). Broadly, in Wise’s version, Wendy grew up, got married and had a child, and is forced to revisit Neverland in order to save her daughter from Pan’s clutches.

However, it tells a much darker story than the original J.M. Barrie story, about what it actually means for someone to refuse to be an adult – and therefore take responsibility for the consequences of their actions – and how terrifying it is that Neverland is built on the backs of children effectively stolen away from their parents. It also takes a huge swing at the racism and misogyny inherent in earlier iterations of the books, including the idea that Wendy, as a woman, must mother the Lost Boys, as well as the caricicatures of Native Americans. Give us more retellings that poke at racist but otherwise beloved stories, please and thanks.

The story is split between three perspectives: Wendy in the present, in search of her daughter; Wendy in the past, as we learn that she was institutionalised by her brothers after returning from Neverland, for her inability to let the story go; and Jane, Wendy’s daughter, after she is kidnapped by Pan and forced to fight her way out of the strange new world she finds herself in. The middle story is compelling; there is a real gothic element to it as Wendy finds herself trapped and alone, with no way of processing her memories, trying desparately to convince others she’s not crazy even as she starts to wonder if Neverland was the utopia she thought it was while there. There’s also a lot of interesting themes here around processing of trauma (and remembering versus forgetting as different but equally legitmate ways of doing so), and the limited options for women in post-War England, where Wendy’s only option for redemption is seemingly to be coerced into a marriage she’s not sure she wants. (Without spoilers, there is ace/aro rep in this book which made my ace heart very happy, even if it somewhat fell towards the wayside towards the end).

The other two perspectives are less compelling, mostly because Jane feels indistinguishable from pretty much every child protagonist ever, but it feels like the author wanted people to engage the most with Wendy in the past, so I didn’t mind this too much. The story as a whole is also a bit too much at points: Wendy gets abused, institutionalised, forced into marriage and then has her daughter kidnapped, and there were occasions where I was begging for a moment or two of lighthearted brevity. For those into dark retellings, this may be less of a problem – it’s certaintly a personal preference on my account.

But the reason Wendy, Darling didn’t always work for me is that the book expects you to be fully engaged with the original Peter Pan story while also skewering it. Peter is a barely a character in Wendy’s story; we mostly see him through flashbacks as she processes his real motivations and the consequences of his actions, and he feels shadowy, half-formed at best. Scenes from the original Peter Pan are often referenced obliquely. That wouldn’t be a big deal, except that it left the reader filling in the gaps from the original stories, which meant trying to reconcile the fun character of my childhood with the ominous spectre that this Peter, and it felt incongruous. Though, I should note that Peter does play a more active role in Jane’s story, and he’s legitimately terrifying in his subtle manipulation of the Lost Boys, even if he didn’t quite feel like a version of Peter I recognised (and maybe that’s the point and I should let go of my childhood nostalgia too). Similarly, the attempts to point out the racism in the original aren’t as strong as they could be, because we don’t get to relive the original scenes with Hook and the Indian tribes, meaning I couldn’t remember exactly how bad things were in the films, and therefore really grapple with the changes Wise made.

I am really interested to see what Wise writes next; Wendy, Darling was an evocative story and I’d love to see what they could do with some original gothic or dark fantasy ideas, but I wasn’t sold on it as a retelling of Peter Pan.

Note: I received an ARC from Titan Books. Wendy, Darling was released on 1 June 2021.

Can’t Wait Wednesday: Servant Mage by Kate Elliott

This week I’m waiting on Servant Mage by Kate Elliott.

Fellion is a Lamplighter, able to provide illumination through magic. A group of rebel Monarchists free her from indentured servitude and take her on a journey to rescue trapped compatriots from an underground complex of mines.

Along the way they get caught up in a conspiracy to kill the latest royal child and wipe out the Monarchist movement for good.

But Fellion has more than just her Lamplighting skills up her sleeve…

I’m (very) slowly making my way through Elliott’s backlist (starting with her highly enjoyable Spiritwalker trilogy) and her use of historical inspiration and ability to touch on related themes around colonialism and the power of government and ideology is excellent – so I expect this one to be no different. (Also, every time I see that it’s about “Lamplighters”, I’m immediately reminded of my favourite childhood movie, Mary Poppins).

Servant Mage will be released January 18, 2022 by Tor.

Review: The Beautiful Ones by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

They are the Beautiful Ones, Loisail’s most notable socialites, and this spring is Nina’s chance to join their ranks, courtesy of her well-connected cousin and his calculating wife. But the Grand Season has just begun, and already Nina’s debut has gone disastrously awry. She has always struggled to control her telekinesis—neighbors call her the Witch of Oldhouse—and the haphazard manifestations of her powers make her the subject of malicious gossip.

When entertainer Hector Auvray arrives to town, Nina is dazzled. A telekinetic like her, he has traveled the world performing his talents for admiring audiences. He sees Nina not as a witch, but ripe with potential to master her power under his tutelage. With Hector’s help, Nina’s talent blossoms, as does her love for him.

But great romances are for fairytales, and Hector is hiding a truth from Nina — and himself — that threatens to end their courtship before it truly begins. The Beautiful Ones is a charming tale of love and betrayal, and the struggle between conformity and passion, set in a world where scandal is a razor-sharp weapon.

Rating: 2.5/5

Review

The Beautiful Ones is an interesting book to review, in that I initially thought I would be giving it a much higher rating.

I love fantasy of manners stuff, so the beginning of this book was right up my alley. Our heroine, Nina, meets Hector, our heroine, and while they understand each other better than anyone else due to their shared status as outsiders in society, pesky social norms are conspiring to make their love affair less than straightforward (along with some deception on Hector’s behalf). Moreno-Garcia also writes well; her prose is very smooth, and I found myself turning the pages quite quickly.

The fantastical elements in The Beautiful Ones are minimal. The setting is a Belle Epoque inspired secondary world, where the standard trappings of a regency romance (a highly stratified class society, in particular) are in still full swing, and the motorcar has only just arrived on the scene. Nina has a unique talent for telekenesis, though ‘talent’ is pushing it – since she barely knows how to control it. Hector has the same ability, which he has parlayed into a career entertaining the masses. None of this really matters in plot terms, except as a front for Nina and Hector’s initial conversations, and while that didn’t bother me since I was in this for the romance rather than the magic, I can see how it might bother other readers looking for something more fantastical since this book is being marketed as a fantasy romance.

Unfortunately, the romance itself quickly falls into all the worst stereotypes of historical romance when it comes to being outright misogynistic, and any enjoyment I was feeling quickly faded. All of the characters are frankly pretty awful. Nina starts off as a sweet, if naive girl who would rather spend her time reading entomology textbooks than dancing with boys (another talent that sadly goes nowhere), but ultimately becomes a blushing young ingenue who can’t think about anything but romance. The other female character, Valerie, is frankly awful – she’s the worst stereotype of a vicious, shrewd harpy who sets out to destroy Nina’s life because her own romantic dreams were crushed and she feels trapped by society’s expectations of women. Totally relatable, until her entire personality becomes bitter and manipulative and her only role in the story is to stand between our love interests as the jilted ex-lover. The men are no better: all the male characters see women as follies, as objects, or as means to an end, and absolutely none of them are ever openly called out for it or face any punishment. I can see why Valerie’s so bitter.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s a time and a place for writing about the gendered social constructs of the historical upper classes: to deconstruct and shine a light on them, to give a voice to the women who suffered through them, or to provide guidance on how we can move forward. This book does none of those things. If an author can imagine a whole new fantastical world to set their romance in, I’d prefer to see them also imagine a romance that doesn’t rely heavily on gender-based stereotypes to work.

Note: I received an ARC from Jo Fletcher. The Beautiful Ones was re-released on 27 April 2021 (first published in 2017).

Review: The Lights of Prague by Nicole Jarvis

In the quiet streets of Prague all manner of otherworldly creatures lurk in the shadows. Unbeknownst to its citizens, their only hope against the tide of predators are the dauntless lamplighters – a secret elite of monster hunters whose light staves off the darkness each night. Domek Myska leads a life teeming with fraught encounters with the worst kind of evil: pijavice, bloodthirsty and soulless vampiric creatures. Despite this, Domek find solace in his moments spent in the company of his friend, the clever and beautiful Lady Ora Fischerová– a widow with secrets of her own.

When Domek finds himself stalked by the spirit of the White Lady – a ghost who haunts the baroque halls of Prague castle – he stumbles across the sentient essence of a will-o’-the-wisp, a mischievous spirit known to lead lost travellers to their death, but who, once captured, are bound to serve the desires of their owners.

After discovering a conspiracy amongst the pijavice that could see them unleash terror on the daylight world, Domek finds himself in a race against those who aim to twist alchemical science for their own dangerous gain.

Rating: 2.5/5

Review

As much as I love the Brits, I’m always looking for historical fantasy set in countries other than England so I was very excited to receive an ARC of The Lights of Prague. The atmosphere in this book definitely lived up to the hype, which was full of haunted castles and sinister underground tunnels, and the author used the trappings of the time period (the 1860s) to her advantage, as the reliance on gaslamps made the streets Prague feel appropriately spooky and an unwise place to be after dark. Jarvis definitely nailed the gothic feel. I would have loved more about the history and politics of Prague rather than just castles and cobblestones, but others may be satisfied with just the aesthetic trappings.

The plot starts off slow, but it gets more compelling as it progresses, and we learn more about who is really behind the pijavice (vampire) scheme to take over the city.

All that said, I wasn’t a huge fan of the character arcs in this book and the relationships – especially the romance between Domek and Ora – felt forced. Ora is the more interesting of the two characters; as a vampire, she’s had a long time to come to terms the challenges of being immortal and living among humans, and we get some interesting snippets of her life in prior centuries (also: a bisexual vampire, we love to see it). She also has a strong sense of justice in comparison to other vampires, which I found compelling. Domek, on the other hand, has no similar backstory and I found it hard to connect with him or understand his compulsion to hunt vampires beyond the superficial; this made the conflict between vampire and vampire hunter less compelling than it could have been.

It doesn’t help that the relationship between Domek and Ora starts in a weird place, plot wise – we’re told they already know each other and are good friends at the start of the story, but there was no immediate chemistry between them, and their closeness wasn’t backed up by the content of their conversations and their interactions with each other. It didn’t help that dialogue isn’t really a strength of this book; it’s often stilted at best and cliche at worst. (That goes for all the characters, not just our main duo).

Overall, I have fairly mixed feelings about The Lights of Prague. I loved the atmosphere but really wish more time had been dedicated to character development and fleshing out the relationship between Ora and Domek into a more passionate romance. Still, it’s definitely worth a read if you want gothic fantasy not set in England.

Note: I received an ARC from Titan Books. The Lights of Prague will be released on 25 May.

Review: Sorrowland by Rivers Solomon

Vern – seven months pregnant and desperate to escape the strict religious compound where she was raised – flees for the shelter of the woods. There, she gives birth to twins, and plans to raise them far from the influence of the outside world.

But even in the forest, Vern is a hunted woman. Forced to fight back against the community that refuses to let her go, she unleashes incredible brutality far beyond what a person should be capable of, her body wracked by inexplicable and uncanny changes.

To understand her metamorphosis and to protect her small family, Vern has to face the past, and more troublingly, the future – outside the woods. Finding the truth will mean uncovering the secrets of the compound she fled but also the violent history in America that produced it.

Rating: 3/5

Solomon won me over with their novella, The Deep, and I was immediately intrigued by the premise of this book: a young, pregnant girl who flees into the woods to escape a cult, but can’t hide forever. I don’t want to say too much in order to avoid spoilers, but in addition to the horror elements, there is more of a spec-fic element than I originally anticipated, as Vern grapples with a number of supernatural changes to her body, born of the cult’s true purpose and activities.

There are numerous content warnings applicable for Sorrowland (including but not limited to: self-harm, child abuse and pedophilic relationships, rape, suicide, animal abuse/death, non-consensual medical procedures, racism and homophobia/transphobia, including against intersex individuals). All of these are handled respectfully and never used solely for shock value, but to highlight the themes of the book and remind readers of the real trauma experienced by many Black and LBGT+ people. Not that I would expect anything else from Solomon as an author. Indeed, Solomon pulls no punches in highlighting the various abuses that these communities have faced throughout history, and their far reaching consequences. It’s harrowing stuff. Readers of Solomon’s other books will also recognise similar themes of collective trauma and memory.

Unfortunately, while I greatly respect the themes of Sorrowland, the actual execution was lacking for me. The book read like a first draft that needed another round or two of editing and refinement before it was released. Apart from some minor plot holes and inconsistencies that I hope were fixed in later editions, several scenes read like play-by-plays of the action without much emotion, and there is quite a lot of info-dumping (including a large section of backstory about another character which appeared right at the climax, throwing off the pacing of the entire denoument of the story in a disconcerting way). I also couldn’t connect with Vern or her children, who never felt like real characters to me. I found it hard to believe that a young girl raised in a cult and two kids raised in the woods with no other human interaction could be as calm, collected and worldly as they were (Vern, in particular, understands a lot of cultural references that don’t make much sense given her upbringing). I did like some of the side characters, particularly Vern’s lover, but I wish we’d seen more of them.

I really respect Solomon’s aims with this book, but I can’t help but feel that their message occasionally got a bit muddled and would have hit home even more forcefully if told via characters the reader could connect with and a more gripping plot. Still, I can’t wait to see what they do next.

Note: I received an ARC from Macmillan. Sorrowland was released on 4 May 2021.

Review: The Ones We’re Meant to Find by Joan He

Cee has been trapped on an abandoned island for three years without any recollection of how she arrived, or memories from her life prior. All she knows is that somewhere out there, beyond the horizon, she has a sister named Kay. Determined to find her, Cee devotes her days to building a boat from junk parts scavenged inland, doing everything in her power to survive until the day she gets off the island and reunites with her sister.

In a world apart, 16-year-old STEM prodigy Kasey Mizuhara is also living a life of isolation. The eco-city she calls home is one of eight levitating around the world, built for people who protected the planet―and now need protecting from it. With natural disasters on the rise due to climate change, eco-cities provide clean air, water, and shelter. Their residents, in exchange, must spend at least a third of their time in stasis pods, conducting business virtually whenever possible to reduce their environmental footprint. While Kasey, an introvert and loner, doesn’t mind the lifestyle, her sister Celia hated it. Popular and lovable, Celia much preferred the outside world. But no one could have predicted that Celia would take a boat out to sea, never to return.

Now it’s been three months since Celia’s disappearance, and Kasey has given up hope. Logic says that her sister must be dead. But as the public decries her stance, she starts to second guess herself and decides to retrace Celia’s last steps. Where they’ll lead her, she does not know. Her sister was full of secrets. But Kasey has a secret of her own.

Rating: 2.5/5

Review

Firstly, how gorgeous is that cover? I love seeing BIPOC women front and centre on book covers, and the art style caught my eye right from the beginning, as it hinted at mysteries. There are a lot of mysteries in this book, but unfortunately The Ones We’re Meant to Find didn’t capture my imagination as much as I would have liked.

This is a hard book to summarise, but The Ones We’re Meant to Find is part cli-fi thriller, part wilderness survival story, each one navigated by a different sister. Firstly, shout out to He for writing a story that is ultimately about individual self-worth at its core, followed by sisterhood. There is a romance (which I found a little too insta-lovely to really enjoy), but the thematic focus of this story is on what it means to be a person, with your own independent thoughts, desires, and sense of agency and purpose. These are themes I would love to see explored more of in YA fiction, and I thought He raised some really interesting moral and ethical dilemmas that I am still thinking about (but are hard to talk through without spoilers).

In terms of the actual stories, I actually enjoyed the survival story, for the most part – Cee’s determination to survive immediately shone through, and her coping mechanisms were both uplifting and heartbreaking; in one scene near the beginning, Cee tries to make friends with the boat she has built to take her away from the island, which she lovingly calls Hubert. My only real criticism here is that occasionally there was a little too much focus on elements that were ultimately nonconsequential for the story, which bogged down the pacing a little.

Meanwhile, I had no idea what was going on in most of Kasey’s scenes. There was a lot of techno-babble about stasis pods and holograms, and a lot of world-building about the various natural disasters taking place outside the eco-city where she lives. The first half of Kasey’s story ultimately felt like a giant info-dump that still didn’t answer some pretty basic questions: how far into the future is this book set? And how did things end up like this? Kasey’s story (and Cee’s) did get significantly more interesting in the second half, as the mysteries started to unravel and the thriller aspect ramped up, with lots of twists and turns, but it was unfortunately too little too late for me. I also think some of the twists would have benefited from me being more engaged with the world-building, as I think I missed some key clues.

On Kasey, something I also think is worth highlighting is that one could easily read Kasey as being neurodivergent (I certainly did). She constantly prioritises logic and science-based explanations over emotional reactions, and regularly laments her struggles in relating to her peers and understanding the nuances of various social interactions. This made her a hard character to read about sometimes because I was, in turn, struggling to relate to how cold and calculating Kasey was about almost every scenario she found herself in. But, I also wish she had been made explicitly neurodivergent in the text; it felt very odd to me that in a world with such advanced technology, including huge advancements in medical science, and in a story so focused on how we perceive ourselves and the world around us, that this wasn’t the case.

I really wish I’d loved this book, but unfortunately, sometimes it isn’t meant to be. I do think others will get more out of it though, especially those who love sci-fi thrillers and unique genre-blends.

Note: I received an ARC from Text Publishing. The Ones We’re Meant to Find will be released on 4 May 2021.