Review: The Forever Sea by Joshua Phillip Johnson

On the never-ending, miles-high expanse of prairie grasses known as the Forever Sea, Kindred Greyreach, hearthfire keeper and sailor aboard harvesting vessel The Errant, is just beginning to fit in with the crew of her new ship when she receives devastating news. Her grandmother–The Marchess, legendary captain and hearthfire keeper–has stepped from her vessel and disappeared into the sea.

But the note she leaves Kindred suggests this was not an act of suicide. Something waits in the depths, and the Marchess has set out to find it.

To follow in her grandmother’s footsteps, Kindred must embroil herself in conflicts bigger than she could imagine: a water war simmering below the surface of two cultures; the politics of a mythic pirate city floating beyond the edges of safe seas; battles against beasts of the deep, driven to the brink of madness; and the elusive promise of a world below the waves.

Kindred finds that she will sacrifice almost everything–ship, crew, and a life sailing in the sun–to discover the truth of the darkness that waits below the Forever Sea.

Rating: 3.5/5

Review

Firstly, The Forever Sea has already secured itself a place on my hypothetical ‘top covers of 2021’ list…. and 2021 hasn’t even started yet. It drew me in right from the start with its bright colours and then got me intrigued… sailing ships are on the covers of nautical fantasy everywhere, except wait, that’s grass.

The creativity and boldness of the cover thankfully carried over into the world-building, which was by far my favourite thing about this book. It’s a little too grounded to be classified as ‘weird fiction’, but there’s that same sense of a completely alien world that’s impossible to imagine juxtaposed anywhere on earth. The descriptions of the dense, lucious grasses and the crackling, spluttering hearthfires in the centre of the ships were vivid, and I felt the wonder that Kindred experienced every time she contemplated the Forever Sea, but I could also sense the unknown dangers that kept others in Kindred’s crew on edge. This is truly an epic environmental fantasy: there is a clear message about adapting one’s way of life to the local habitat, and everything in this story – the foods the characters eat, the materials their homes are built from, even the way they regulate their exercise and movements due to lack of water – is influenced by the fact that they are literally floating on a giant sea of grass.

Energy was a luxury. There were no fights, no drunken brawls in poorly lit alleys. Such anger required blood singing with water. Rage was for the rich and not to be wasted.

There’s also a hint of magic in this book – Kindred is responsible for tending to the hearthfires that power ships across the Forever Sea. These fires use bones to fuel them – a mystery I’m keen to learn more about in the sequels, since little is known about the process of harvesting these bones from their willing donors – and while anyone can learn to tend the fire, very few people can hear the fire singing to them, telling them what it needs, and Kindred is more adept than most. I get the sense there’s a lot more to play out on this front in the coming books.

And, of course, there is also a very clear message about environmental degradation. The Forever Sea is starting to die due to over-harvesting, forcing people to venture further and further from their homes in source of materials and creating a seemingly never-ending cycle of destruction, while water scarcity is leading people to more and more desperate acts. I would have liked to have seen more of the politics surrounding these issues: the war over water often took a back seat to the story about Kindred’s affinity for the hearthfire and the grassy seas, and it wasn’t always clear who the key players were or what tipping point had lead them down this path.

As for the rest of the book: the characters are well-rounded, particularly Kindred, her love interest Sarah, and the Captain of their crew. I did struggle to like Kindred as much as I wanted to, though I expect that will be a matter of personal preference: she’s incredibly instinct-driven, often to the point of recklessness, and her actions have consequences that can be devastating for the crew. Even when I understood her motivations, she was a little too headstrong for me. The romance between Kindred and Sarah is sweet, but felt a little rushed – we learn early on that Kindred has a giant crush – but we never really see the pair interact before they’re falling headfirst into romance. It was also great to see a story where all the key roles on a ship are taken by queer women, and this is clearly unremarkable.

My main criticism is that this book needed a judicious pruning (sorry, not sorry). The story at times feels bloated, as the same messages about Kindred knowing the sea better than anyone are hammered home repeatedly. At points, there’s a little too much waxing lyrically about the beauty of the sea, and not enough time spent getting on with the plot. That feels like a fairly minor complaint given how much I loved learning about this world, but I did have to drag myself through some of the middle of third of this book, and resented retreading old ground. There’s also some gaps in the plot – nothing that ruined the story for me – but a lot the events that take place once Kindred and crew reach the Once City come seemingly out of nowhere, and aren’t really integrated well into the rest of the story.

Overall, however, this book is incredibly unique and daring in its approach to world-building, and I’m looking forward to the sequel.

Note: I received an ARC from DAW in exchange for a review. The Forever Sea will be released on 19 January 2021.

Can’t Wait Wednesday: The Councillor by E.J. Beaton

Can’t Wait Wednesday is a weekly meme hosted by Wishful Endings. I have an insane number of 2021 books on my TBR, so this seems like an appropriate activity to take part in.

This week I’m waiting on The Councillor, by E.J. Beaton.

This Machiavellian fantasy follows a scholar’s quest to choose the next ruler of her kingdom amidst lies, conspiracy, and assassination.

When the death of Iron Queen Sarelin Brey fractures the realm of Elira, Lysande Prior, the palace scholar and the queen’s closest friend, is appointed Councillor. Publically, Lysande must choose the next monarch from amongst the city-rulers vying for the throne. Privately, she seeks to discover which ruler murdered the queen, suspecting the use of magic.

Resourceful, analytical, and quiet, Lysande appears to embody the motto she was raised with: everything in its place. Yet while she hides her drug addiction from her new associates, she cannot hide her growing interest in power. She becomes locked in a game of strategy with the city-rulers – especially the erudite prince Luca Fontaine, who seems to shift between ally and rival.

Further from home, an old enemy is stirring: the magic-wielding White Queen is on the move again, and her alliance with a traitor among the royal milieu poses a danger not just to the peace of the realm, but to the survival of everything that Lysande cares about.

In a world where the low-born keep their heads down, Lysande must learn to fight an enemy who wears many guises… even as she wages her own battle between ambition and restraint.

I can never pass up the opportunity to spotlight an Australian author, particularly on debut. Throw in the phrase ‘Machiavellian fantasy’, and the possibilities associated with a non-hereditary monarchy, and I’m sold.

The Councillor will be released on 2 March 2021 from DAW Books.

Review: Hollow Empire by Sam Hawke

It started with poison and rebellion. It continues with war and witchcraft.

The deadly siege of Silasta woke the ancient spirits, and the city-state must find its place in this new world of magic.

But people and politics are always treacherous, and it will take all of Jovan and Kalina’s skills to save the city-state when witches and assassins set their sights to domination.

Poison was only the beginning . . .

Rating: 4.5/5

Add Hollow Empire on Goodreads

Review

I read City of Lies around this time last year, and while I liked it, I didn’t love it. However, I remember thinking that Sam Hawke was a debut author with a lot of talent, and someone to watch out for as they released more work. There are a few (minor) spoilers from City of Lies below.

And I was (thankfully) right. Hollow Empire picks up two years after City of Lies finished, with Jovan and Kalina still muddling their way through the consequences of the siege of Silasta and figuring out how to put the broken pieces of their country back together, while also preventing new fissures from emerging. The pacing – my biggest issue with City of Lies – is watertight from the start, Jovan and Kalina’s POVs feel much more equal, and the key conflicts of this book flow naturally from the previous, and are new and fresh while still being deeply connected to what has come before.

“You never get used to poisoning a child.”

Firstly, Sam Hawke is the master of opening lines, and Hollow Empire follows through. There are so many twists and turns in this book, and this pervasive sense of suspicion and fear that permeates the entire story: it’s impossible to tell who Jovan and Kalina can and can’t trust. It’s hard to say too much about the premise of the book without spoilers, but there is a combination of internal and external politics that are hard to pick apart: the city and the Guilders on the Council are still adjusting to the changes in governance that occurred following the revelations about the Darfri in book one, but there are also several foreign ambassadors in town for a festival, some of whom have political ambitions of their own.

I have to admit that I didn’t pick up a lot of the reveals, but they made sense in hindsight since the breadcrumb trail is so well-scattered. This book is also a lot darker than City of Lies in some ways: the ratio of murders to pages is probably about the same, but the attacks are more personalised, and more sinister in nature.

Both Jovan and Kalina remain the strong, stoic and kind-hearted individuals of the previous book, which I adored. The side characters are also fascinating, though it’s hard to necessarily like any of them (except perhaps Jovan and Kalina’s niece Dija), because you never know if one of them is going to metaphorically or actually stab one of the siblings in the back. (And, if I had one complaint about Hollow Empire, it’s that I would have loved to see more of a role for Tain, the Chancellor and my favourite character). But, if you like reading about good people who try their best to do the right thing and follow their own moral compass (even when it directs them slightly off-course), then I highly recommend this series.

There is also great disability rep: Jovan suffers from anxiety, while Kalina has an illness somewhat like chronic fatigue – and while the characters may be forced to slow down and take a deep breath sometimes, they are never inhibited in pursuing their goals one way or another. There is also an f/f relationship between Kalina and another character, and while it wasn’t my favourite part of the story since it didn’t get a lot of screen-time to fully develop, I know many readers will be thrilled. (Also Tain continues to be less subtle about his crush on Jovan than he’d like).

The Poison Wars is marketed as a duology, but it’s clear these characters aren’t done making Silasta a better place, and I am in desperate need of another sequel.

Finally, I have to give a shout-out to the chapter epigraphs. Where City of Lies started each chapter with a description of a various poison, Hollow Empire gives us entries from the diaries of previous Oromani family proofers, regarding the investigation of various poisoning incidents. I often skim epigraphs – but these are hilarious, and full of shout of outs to other authors in the fantasy community. (some of whom are the victims of insidious poison-related murder). It’s worth reading them just to see how many you can spot.

Note: I received an ARC from Bantam Press in exchange for a review. Hollow Empire will be released on 26 November in the UK and Australia and on 1 December in the US (by Tor).

Review: A Curse of Roses by Diana Pinguicha

With just one touch, bread turns into roses. With just one bite, cheese turns into lilies.

There’s a famine plaguing the land, and Princess Yzabel is wasting food simply by trying to eat. Before she can even swallow, her magic—her curse—has turned her meal into a bouquet. She’s on the verge of starving, which only reminds her that the people of Portugal have been enduring the same pain.

If only it were possible to reverse her magic. Then she could turn flowers…into food.

Fatyan, a beautiful Enchanted Moura, is the only one who can help. But she is trapped by magical binds. She can teach Yzabel how to control her curse—if Yzabel sets her free with a kiss.

As the King of Portugal’s betrothed, Yzabel would be committing treason, but what good is a king if his country has starved to death?

With just one kiss, Fatyan is set free. And with just one kiss, Yzabel is yearning for more. She’d sought out Fatyan to help her save the people. Now, loving her could mean Yzabel’s destruction.

Rating: 3.5/5

Review

2020 has blessed us with several queer retellings of myths and fairytales, and I was admittedly concerned that A Curse of Roses would feel too similar to other books I’ve read this year to give it an objective review. Luckily, I needn’t have worried. Elements of Portuguese history and culture are both deeply interwoven into Yzabel’s story, which gave this book a unique perspective – exactly the purpose of an #ownvoices retelling.

Like most retellings, the plot is fairly basic, and Yzabel and Fatyan’s relationship follows a fairly standard cursed-mentee/wise mentor template, though both characters are interesting enough in their own right to make up for the straightforward narrative. Also, Yzabel is thirsty for Fatyan, and I loved it.

However, this book is much more a historical novel than I anticipated; Yzabel and her fiancé, Denis, are based on real Portuguese royals, and there are several references to the Reconquista. This leads to the most interesting part of the novel, for me: Yzabel struggles deeply with internalised homophobia and reconciling her desire for Fatyan with her Christian faith. I thought this book did an excellent job of pointing out the role that religion played in controlling women’s lives in the Middle Ages and the hypocrisy of various religious leaders, while also respecting Yzabel’s beliefs and the way she embodied what she saw as Christian values of charity and kindness. Pinguicha also does an excellent job at balancing the period-typical homophobia with an acknowledgment of the fact that queer women existed everywhere in history, and were often able to use gender stereotypes to their advantage in carving-out safe spaces for themselves without men getting suspicious.

If I had any issues with this book, it’s that I would have liked a slightly broader scope. This is a very tight-knit book with a small cast of characters, and almost all of the action takes place within the castle and the immediately surrounding streeting (save for one steamy scene in the local baths… ). I also think this book could have benefited from expanding a little more on Portuguese history for those of us who are relatively unfamiliar; without going into spoiler territory, some of the final conflict in this book is based on the divide between Christians and Muslims, which feels a little abrupt without a good understanding of the historical context. (I did quite a bit of Googling afterwards).

I’m not sure it’s really necessary for me to extoll the importance of ownvoices narratives to anyone who’s gotten this far into my review, but A Curse of Roses was definitely another example of how much diverse perspectives can bring to the fantasy genre.

Note: I received an ARC from Entangled Teen. A Curse of Roses is available from 1 December.

Review: Seven Devils by Elizabeth May & Laura Lam

When Eris faked her death, she thought she had left her old life as the heir to the galaxy’s most ruthless empire behind. But her recruitment by the Novantaen Resistance, an organization opposed to the empire’s voracious expansion, throws her right back into the fray.

Eris has been assigned a new mission: to infiltrate a spaceship ferrying deadly cargo and return the intelligence gathered to the Resistance. But her partner for the mission, mechanic and hotshot pilot Cloelia, bears an old grudge against Eris, making an already difficult infiltration even more complicated.

When they find the ship, they discover more than they bargained for: three fugitives with firsthand knowledge of the corrupt empire’s inner workings.

Together, these women possess the knowledge and capabilities to bring the empire to its knees. But the clock is ticking: the new heir to the empire plans to disrupt a peace summit with the only remaining alien empire, ensuring the empire’s continued expansion. If they can find a way to stop him, they will save the galaxy. If they can’t, millions may die.

Rating: 3/5

Review

I have been eager to read this book ever since I heard about it – I was sold on the concept of a queer, feminist space opera duology and then I learnt that the title was inspired by a Florence and the Machine Song (which reminded me of my fanfic-writing days, trawling through my music library for the perfect song lyric because I had no idea what else to use as a title and wanted to be ~poetic). In the authors’ defence, the lyrics suit the mood of Seven Devils perfectly:

Holy water cannot help you now
See I’ve had to burn your kingdom down
And no rivers and no lakes can put the fire out
I’m gonna raise the stakes, I’m gonna smoke you out

Seven devils all around you
Seven devils in my house
See they were there when I woke up this morning
I’ll be dead before the day is done

This book absolutely lives up to the queer, feminist hype: all five of the POVs are women, including black and brown women, and women who are bisexual, lesbian and asexual, as well as a trans woman in a position of power. For the most part, Seven Devils doesn’t explicitly grapple with feminist themes, but it was nice to have a book where all of the ‘heroes’ are women with their own roles and responsibilities within the crew, and no one bats an eyelid. One character Ariadne, is also portrayed as neuro-divergent, while Clo has a prosthetic leg. Oh, and there’s a (somewhat) explicit queer sex scene. Note: this is not a young adult book, and I’ll save my rant about it being classified that way for another day.

I loved all of the characters, though I had some particular favourites in Eris (the former Princess Discordia) and Rhea, a former courtesan for Princess Discordia’s brother, the awful Damocles. The POVs all felt relatively unique – a hard task when juggling five of them – and all the characters are given opportunities to be both strong and vulnerable. (There are no tropey badass warrior women here).

The plot is pretty much resistance fighters in space 101. This didn’t bother me – since women have so rarely gotten to tell and star in those stories – but may bother more hardcore science fiction fans looking for something unique.

Where this book fell down for me was primarily in the pacing: as well as experiencing all five POVs in present time, we get flashback chapters to explain how they meet each other and defining events that led to them rebelling against the Empire, and it’s a lot. The constant jumping around in time disrupted the flow of the narrative and often read more like info-dumps. There’s also a lot of world-building which comes at the expense of the characters: a lot of the word count is taken up explaining sciencey stuff or setting out the relationships between the Empire and various other races and planets)… often by telling us that the Empire destroyed a particularly place or group. The Empire is clearly evil, but you don’t get a sense of what that means emotionally because its worst atrocities are outlined separately from the main characters’ arcs. To fit all this in, some of the characters’ interactions are rushed – characters resolve their differences and fall in love a little too quickly.

I know duologies are becoming increasingly popular, but I feel like this book could have easily been the first of a trilogy that doled out the world-building and character backstories in slightly smaller doses and gave the plot and characters more time to breathe.

Overall, I recommend Seven Devils and hope the trend of diverse space operas continues. Now that the world is well-established, I’m looking forward to seeing what May and Lam do in the sequel.

Review: A Golden Fury by Samantha Cohoe

Thea Hope longs to be an alchemist out of the shadow of her famous mother. The two of them are close to creating the legendary Philosopher’s Stone—whose properties include immortality and can turn any metal into gold—but just when the promise of the Stone’s riches is in their grasp, Thea’s mother destroys the Stone in a sudden fit of violent madness. While combing through her mother’s notes, Thea learns that there’s a curse on the Stone that causes anyone who tries to make it to lose their sanity. With the threat of the French Revolution looming, Thea is sent to Oxford for her safety, to live with the father who doesn’t know she exists. But in Oxford, there are alchemists after the Stone who don’t believe Thea’s warning about the curse—instead, they’ll stop at nothing to steal Thea’s knowledge of how to create the Stone. But Thea can only run for so long, and soon she will have to choose: create the Stone and sacrifice her sanity, or let the people she loves die. | Goodreads

Rating: 2.5/5

Review

A Golden Fury covers a topic rarely seen in YA fantasy: alchemy. Add that to the fact that I love books about the French Revolution and I was immediately compelled to request an ARC.

To start with, I thought A Golden Fury was well-written for a debut, and there were some cool ideas in here that I thought were worth exploring. I liked the science-based approach to alchemy and the hints that the field of alchemy was much broader than the stuffy European alchemists were willing to open their eyes and consider. (Though I will note that this would have had more weight if the non-white character who apparently taught Thea her skills was actually given some page time). A Golden Fury is also unafraid of madness: the standout scenes in this book are those where Thea is slowly loosing her grip on reality, to the extent that as the reader, even I wasn’t quite sure what was real anymore. Cohoe really captured the suffocating feeling of losing control.

That said, I didn’t particularly care about any of the characters. Everyone, from Thea to the love interests and the antagonists, seemed to say or do whatever was necessary to drive the plot forward. I couldn’t connect with anyone in this book and thought some of their actions made little sense, which undercut some of the major plot reveals. Additionally, characters’ motivations were typically revealed only once convenient, and hints at interesting backstories were mostly dead-ends. Character development is what makes or breaks a book for me, and unfortunately for the most part, it didn’t exist in this book. Cohoe did, however, nail the thorny relationship between Thea and her mother, and Thea’s self-doubt about living up to her mother’s standards as an alchemist felt real and pervasive.. I will also give the author plenty of kudos for her treatment of the staple YA love triangle – without spoiling the outcome, let’s just say that the mere existence of a love triangle in this book is in fact somewhat of a ruse.

Overall, the weak character development overshadowed any excitement I had about the prospect of an alchemy-based plot and while this was an easy read, it’s not one that I had any deep and meaningful feelings about.

A note on the marketing

Remember how I said I love books about the French Revolution? Well, it turns out that the majority of this book actually takes place in England. The revolutionaries’ attitude toward towards co-opting science for the revolution is mentioned early on as the reason why Thea must flee to England, but then conveniently dropped and never mentioned again. As it turns out, Thea doesn’t have a lot of interest in revolutionary politics of any description. Nor does she have much interest in English politics in Oxford, except occasionally to argue that women should be able to study alchemy. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I got my hopes up based on the description, and I suspect others may have as well.

Note: I received an ARC from Wednesday Books in exchange for a review. A Golden Fury will be released on 13 October 2020.

Review: The Midnight Bargain by C.L. Polk

Beatrice Clayborn is a sorceress who practices magic in secret, terrified of the day she will be locked into a marital collar that will cut off her powers to protect her unborn children. She dreams of becoming a full-fledged Magus and pursuing magic as her calling as men do, but her family has staked everything to equip her for Bargaining Season, when young men and women of means descend upon the city to negotiate the best marriages. The Clayborns are in severe debt, and only she can save them, by securing an advantageous match before their creditors come calling.

In a stroke of luck, Beatrice finds a grimoire that contains the key to becoming a Magus, but before she can purchase it, a rival sorceress swindles the book right out of her hands. Beatrice summons a spirit to help her get it back, but her new ally exacts a price: Beatrice’s first kiss… with her adversary’s brother, the handsome, compassionate, and fabulously wealthy Ianthe Lavan.

The more Beatrice is entangled with the Lavan siblings, the harder her decision becomes: If she casts the spell to become a Magus, she will devastate her family and lose the only man to ever see her for who she is; but if she marries—even for love—she will sacrifice her magic, her identity, and her dreams. But how can she choose just one, knowing she will forever regret the path not taken?

Rating: 4/5

Review

I have been a fan of C.L. Polk since I read Witchmark late last year, and she lived up to my expectations here – The Midnight Bargain is my favourite of her works to date.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book, though there were definitely moments where I found myself enraged on Beatrice’s behalf regarding her treatment. The premise of this book is that sorceresses have their magic suppressed when they get married, to prevent the risk of their future unborn children being possessed by spirits during pregnancy and turned into dangerous monsters. Which sounds horribly dystopia-esque, but this book is actually a secondary world regency fantasy, where the focus is on a few individual women trying to find a way out of such a fate and continue to pursue their interests as Mages (a mission complicated by society’s obsession with marriage as a way to bolster a family’s fortunes). It’s not the tone I was expecting, but it really worked for the purposes of this book, as it showed how the subjugation of women becomes ingrained in society in part by robbing individual women of their agency and stopping them from collaborating to end their own oppression.

Beatrice is a determined (if occasionally reckless) character, and I found it rewarding to follow her journey throughout the book. I particularly liked her friendship with Ysbeta, Ianthe’s sister. The synopsis paints them as rivals, but they quickly realise that they have a mutual interest best achieved through cooperation and collaboration, which is a much more interesting story – proving yet again that female friendships make everything better. Her relationship with Ianthe had an unfortunate air of insta-love about it, and it took me a while to warm to him as he, too, was forced to slowly let go of his assumptions about women’s ability to wield magic. (I gave the insta-love somewhat of a pass in this book as it was at least necessary for the plot to proceed – and by the end I was totally rooting for them).

Otherwise, I found the magic system fascinating – after their training, a sorcerer binds themselves to a spirit who helps them wield magic, but they must offer something as part of a bargain in return. Nadi, Beatrice’s chosen spirit, is a fun addition to the cast with her witty commentary on everyone they meet and steadfast determination to put some of the more smug male villains in their place.

The Midnight Bargain is an excellent addition to the feminist fantasy genre, which speaks to current issues around women’s bodily autonomy in a relevant way while still managing to remain lighthearted and fresh.

Note: I received an ARC from Erewhon in exchange for a review. The Midnight Bargain will be released on 13 October 2020.

Review: Phoenix Extravagant by Yoon Ha Lee

Gyen Jebi isn’t a fighter or a subversive. They just want to paint.

One day they’re jobless and desperate; the next, Jebi finds themself recruited by the Ministry of Armor to paint the mystical sigils that animate the occupying government’s automaton soldiers.

But when Jebi discovers the depths of the Razanei government’s horrifying crimes—and the awful source of the magical pigments they use—they find they can no longer stay out of politics.

What they can do is steal Arazi, the ministry’s mighty dragon automaton, and find a way to fight…

Rating: 3.5/5

Review

Firstly, Phoenix Extravagant is exactly the kind of book we need more of – queer, anti-colonial fiction (with relatable automaton dragons!). I really enjoyed this book for the most part, and would highly recommend it to anyone looking for something original and fresh in the SFF genre. There were a few elements that didn’t necessarily work for me, but may not bother others so much depending on the type of story they’re looking for.

What I liked:
  • The discussion of colonialism, which is at its most powerful when this book talks about the importance of art. Phoenix Extravagant deals with the occupation of not!Korea by their not!Japanese neighbours, who enforce their rule through the use of automatons that are animated by the painting of code-like calligraphy on masks, which are then attached to them. This requires the destruction of art to make magic pigments, and there are lots of conversations about the links between art and culture, and how destroying artworks erases a significant part of a group’s cultural identity. Some of these scenes gave me chills, and I appreciated the exploration of such an underrepresented element of colonialism in this work.
  • The protagonist, Gyen Jebi. Jebi is a nonbinary artist who isn’t much interested in who rules their country as long as they can paint, until they come to understand exactly how much pain has been inflicted by the process of colonisation, and how much of themself they’ve come to give away in an effort to conform. Jebi seems to be a conflicting character among other early reviewers, but I really liked them – I found the story of someone who isn’t a fighter until they have to be much more realistic than always reading about characters who were born with a weapon clutched in their tiny fist, and appreciated how much Jebi clung to their pacifist ideals, wrestled with the consequences of their actions, and tried to find creative, non-violent solutions where possible.
  • Arazi. Seriously, I related to this animated machine so much that it’s embarrassing, and thought his wry observations brought some much needed levity to this book.
  • This book does such a great job with portraying the diversity of the queer experience in general. As noted, Jebi is nonbinary (in an f/nb relationship, you love to see it), their sister is bisexual, and their love interest’s parents are in a normalised polyamorous relationship. What I appreciated most is that this book doesn’t dwell on the specifics of Jebi being non-binary: people use their preferred pronouns automatically and without fuss, and none of the intimate scenes give any indication as to Jebi’s biological sex.
What didn’t always work for me:
  • Some of the fantasy elements didn’t feel well integrated. I thought the idea of flying a dragon to the moon was a metaphor, until people started implying it wasn’t. There were also lots of small fantasy elements that didn’t seem to matter to the plot (e.g. one of Jebi’s friends is a gumiho, but this was referenced in a throw-away line and had no real consequences).
  • The big issue for me was pacing – not a lot happens in the first half of this book, but the plot ratchets up in the second half. However, by the end, there are lots of plot points left unresolved. That’s true of how most colonial conflicts happen in real life (battles vs wars and all the rest), but it was emotionally unsatisfying. This really felt like a book crying out for a sequel we don’t seem to be promised as of yet. I also would have liked to have spent more time fleshing out the relationships between Jebi and Vei (their love interest) and Bongasunga (their sister) as I wasn’t 100% emotionally invested in either.
  • The villains are mostly faceless, and I had no sense of their motivations beyond them being dedicated to the colonial cause. Again, this is true to real life in that most oppressors are just part of the system (and this book really hit home with how the system can dehumanise people slowly), but it made it harder to connect to Jebi’s story and the broader revolution narrative.

Overall, this is a book that made me think, and that has a lot of uncanny parallels to current events in many countries around the world, but it didn’t always click for me as a story. However, it’s exactly the kind of book I hope we see more of in the future.

Note: I received an ARC from Rebellion in exchange for a review. Phoenix Extravagant will be released on 13 October 2020.

Review: Evie and the Pack-Horse Librarians by Laurel Beckley

As an assistant editor at the prestigious Hanhat Publishers, Evie Southiel is entrusted with fine-tuning the manuscripts of the company’s most important authors. Her skills as a book witch allow her to manipulate the stories she reviews and bring them to life.

When her girlfriend steals the secret manuscript of Hanhat’s best-selling author and leaks it to the press, Evie is exiled to become a journey carrier with the Pack-Horse Librarians in the eastern mountains.

Timid city mouse Evie doesn’t know the first thing about surviving in the wilderness, riding a horse, or dealing with the rugged mountain folk and coal miners surrounding the town of Hevis. She does know books, though, and she’s determined to do the best job she can. But that goal is jeopardized when her horse gets spooked on her first solo run, sending her tumbling out of the saddle and into a mysterious woman’s life.

Rating: 3/5

Review

Take the recent trend of historical novels about the Kentucky horse-back librarians, only make it fantasy. This novella ticked a lot of the boxes for things I love in books: nerdy librarians who understand the importance of children’s books; a diverse, all queer cast; snooty cats; horses; adorable children; and a really sweet love story. If you like any of those things you’ll probably enjoy this novella at least a little.

The prose flows easily and Evie is a very relatable heroine; I was definitely wincing in sympathy after her long days on horseback. There is also a genuine sense of community in the remote towns Evie visits as a librarian, and it’s nice to read a story full of people of colour and queer people working together to create safe and happy spaces.

However, the flip-side is that this book tries to do far too much for a novella, and I really wish it had been longer. There were a lot of characters introduced (particularly in the first half of the book), and we didn’t really get to know any of them enough to warrant trying to keep track of all the various names. I also wish the magic system had been more explored – the fact that Evie can manipulate books was a big draw for me, but limited time is spent on this aspect of the story in favour of the broader story, including the development of a romance. (I won’t say too much about the romance for fear of spoiling it, but there are some fantasy elements there, as well).

This book is definitely worth a read, provided you temper your expectations for the shorter format and accept the limitations of the genre.

Note: I received an ARC from NineStar Press, an amazing LGBTQ+ focused small press that I wasn’t aware of before receiving a copy of this book. I’d highly recommend checking them out.

Review: Fable by Adrienne Young

For seventeen-year-old Fable, the daughter of the most powerful trader in the Narrows, the sea is the only home she has ever known. It’s been four years since the night she watched her mother drown during an unforgiving storm. The next day her father abandoned her on a legendary island filled with thieves and little food. To survive she must keep to herself, learn to trust no one, and rely on the unique skills her mother taught her. The only thing that keeps her going is the goal of getting off the island, finding her father, and demanding her rightful place beside him and his crew. To do so Fable enlists the help of a young trader named West to get her off the island and across the Narrows to her father.

But her father’s rivalries and the dangers of his trading enterprise have only multiplied since she last saw him, and Fable soon finds that West isn’t who he seems. Together, they will have to survive more than the treacherous storms that haunt the Narrows if they’re going to stay alive.

Rating: 4.5/5

Review

This book is among the best young adult novels I’ve read in 2020. The gorgeous cover caught my attention immediately (and is also among my favourite covers for the year), and I’m glad the content didn’t disappoint.

To start with, the eponymous Fable is such a fabulous character, and I found myself rooting for her from the beginning – she’s so determined, and she’s so willing to see the good in others and do the right thing by them, even though she has no reason to trust people. I though this book did a great job of highlighting both Fable’s strengths, and her vulnerabilities and weaknesses. I also loved the romance; it was there from the beginning, but at no point did it veer into insta-love territory or overwhelm Fable’s personal journey. Watching West’s icy exterior slowly crack open was worth the wait.

I also though the attention to detail in terms of the setting was incredibly well done This book really captured the atmosphere of being on the high seas, and I could also feel the wind and taste the salt water in the air. I’m also incredibly curious about Isolde’s gem magic and the role that plays in the story; I really hope we get to learn more about this aspect of the culture in the sequel.

Finally, the pacing and tension were excellent. Every time something good happened, I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, and well… we got there in the end. That cliffhanger was something else.

I binged the last half of this book in an evening, and am already on the edge of my seat waiting for the sequel.

Note: I received an ARC for Wednesday books in exchange for a review. Fable will be released on 1 September 2020.