Oh boy, this really is the perfect challenge prompt for me at the moment. While I am okay with reading several books at once, I don’t usually go overboard the way I am doing currently. But you’ll see it’s really not my fault. How can I help it when reading challenges have great prompts, finalists for some major SFF awards are announced, and then an e-ARC falls into my lap that actually made me run around the house screaming because I’m so happy. Add to that my long-time projects or books I’ve put to the side hoping the right mood will strike me soon to finish them…
ACTUALLY currently reading
Tade Thompson – The Rosewater Insurrection
I read the first book in the Wormwood Trilogy last year because it was a finalist for the Best Series Hugo Award. Although it was a difficult book to read – different timelines, crazy ideas, complex characters – I really enjoyed it. Just before Wyrd and Wonder started, I got the audiobook of the second volume and I think I’m enjoying this one even more than the first. It’s science fiction, not fantasy, but I don’t think I can wait until the end of Wyrd and Wonder to finish the book. I may just finish it today which means more time for the next fantasy book.
Catherynne M. Valente – Under in the Mere
This take on Arthurian legends by my favorite author is one of her older works, which means it’s even wordier and has even less of a plot than her newer books. Although it’s very short, I’m reading this in half-a-chapter-increments because, man, does Cat know a lot of words! Some chapters are more readable than others, painting a picture of one of Arthur’s knights and his particular plight. Others are more like a fever dream, with tons of references to classical myths, and very little substance. It’s just pretty words strung together prettily. Also, I am not sure I completely understand it. It’s told from the POV of Arthur’s knights but they’re in California? Maybe you need to know a lot more about Arthurian legend than I do to get it. So this won’t end up at the top of my Valente list but it also doesn’t change her status as my very favorite author!
Brandon Sanderson – Words of Radiance
This is a re-read (or technically a re-listen) because I haven’t actually read Rhythm of War yet and want to get myself back up to speed. The third book in the Stormlight Archive, Oathbringer, especially had lots of new important information about the world and characters and I remember very little of it. That’s no way to go into a new Sanderson book, so I’m re-reading the series before diving into the newest book. I actually started with the last two parts of The Way of Kings (just the ending, which in Sanderson means 250 pages) and am now reading all of Words of Radiance. It’s still as exciting as it was the last time, except now I am catching more hints for things to come than I did on my first read.
T. Kingfisher – The Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking
I’ve only just started this book but ever since I met the sourdough starter named Bob in the very first chapter, I knew this would be hilarious. T. Kingfisher has been a favorite of mine for years (I actually first loved her fairy tale retellings) but combining baking, magic, and her brand of humor must be a new high. I cannot wait to join protagonist Mona on a search for who dropped that dead body in her bakery…
Marjorie Liu – The Tangleroot Palace
This isn’t technically a current read as I write this but by the time this post goes up, I will have started it. It’s an e-ARC (not the one I screamed about, but another one that makes me fairyl excited) and it comes out in June, so now is the perfect time to read it. This short fiction collection promises twists on fairy tales, magic in cool settings, and a full-length novella. And it’s by the writer of the Monstress comic book series.
Officially but not really currently reading
Okay, so I maaaay have started a book last year (!), put it aside and never picked it up again. I still want to finish it but there’s always other stuff that I need to read first. The book in question is Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James and if you’ve read, or sampled, that book, you’ll know why I needed a break. It’s not only dark in terms of subject matter, plot, and characters, but the language is complex and sometimes difficult to understand. At least for me, as a non-native speaker. I’ve been waiting for the urge to read the second half of that book for months now and it hasn’t really struck yet. But I’m not giving up. I definitely want to know how that crazy story ends!
Second, a similar situation, although I do read a few pages here and there, is Little, Big by John Crowley. This book was fun enough for the first third or so. Then I kept wondering when the plot would finally start or at least when all those stories about multiple generations of the Drinkwater family would make sense. I am at about 65% and the thought of picking this book up feels more like a chore than fun. But it’s my favorite author’s favorite book and I do like the general atmosphere of it. I just hope that I’ll get some kind of plot within the next 5% or at the very least a mind-blowing twist at the end…
And last but not least, a book I’m only reading casually to practice my Spanish (or rather to revive my Spanish, as it seems to have mostly left my brain after years of not using it). Harry Potter y la piedra filosofal, the first Harry Potter book, is something I’m reading without any pressure. I’ll pick it up and read a few pages one day, then put it down again for a few days – it’s not like I don’t know the story after all. The first few chapters took me forever because I had to look up so many words. By now, I can read without pausing after every sentence, but my brain is still much slower when processing Spanish than German or English. If I finish the book before our trip to Barcelona (if that even happens), that’s fine. No pressure, just lechuzas and varitas. 🙂
In case you’re wondering, the e-ARC I mentioned above is Cat Valente’s The Past is Red and I do want to dive into it right away. But. It’s science fiction, so not really the right fit for Wyrd and Wonder. And I am also feeling super guilty about those other books and feel like I should at least use this beautiful monthlong event to read a few chapters of them.
Then again, I already know reading everyone else’s #currentlyreading posts and tweets will distract me and draw my attention to all those exciting books I’ve been meaning to pick up and then my current reads will suddenly be forgotten again. It’s like a curse but at least we’re all suffering it together. 🙂
Traveling the world and seeing new places is great, but if you can’t do that, for whatever reason (money is usually a big one, although we’re also still in a pandemic and traveling isn’t most people’s top priority right now), there are always books. In recent years, the fantasy genre has branched out more and more, and is giving us stories inspired by places other than Medieval Europe and cultures other than white Eurocentric or North American ones. Here are some of my favorite authors and books that let you travel around the world. With magic!
Fantasy From Around the World
For this post, I’ve chosen not only books that I really enjoyed and would recommend, but also ones where the setting and sense of place is more than just window dressing. There are many, many books that are “set in XYZ” where “XYZ” turns out to be just a name that has no bearing on the characters or plot. These are books that have a proper sense of place and culture. I found all of them to be great reads that transported me far away from home.
If you still haven’t read Fonda Lee‘s mindblowingly good Jade City and its equally fantastic sequel Jade War, then you are in for a treat. The third and final book in the Greenbone Saga is coming out later this year, so you won’t even have to wait that long. It’s about the Kaul family, one of the two ruling mafia-like families on the island of Kekon. They use magical jade to enhance their abilities. These books are all about ancient feuds, secret betrayals, political alliances, and cool martial art battles. But it’s told through the eyes of the younger Kaul generation who are brilliant characters in their own right and will steal your heart in no time. It’s like the Godfather with magic!
Our next stop will lead us to alternate Russia where The Winternight Trilogy by Katherine Arden takes place. These books tell the story of Vasilisa Petrovna, Vasya for short, who can see the spirits that protect her village. It’s the little house ghosts that people leave some food out on the window sills for and the creatures of the forest that talk to Vasya. When a young and charismatic priest comes to live in the village and plans to convert everyone to Christianity, two belief systems clash. And Vasya is right in the middle of a battle between old gods and new ones. This is such an atmospheric trilogy that has a little bit of everything. It starts out set mostly in Vasya’s home town but in the second book, she visits Moscow and other places in Russia – both real and magical. There’s a beautiful romance, court intrigue, female empowerment, and this brilliant atmosphere that makes you believe there really could still be a little magic left in the world.
Look, I could throw all of Nnedi Okorafor‘s books at you and I really want to, but that seems unwise and also a bit impolite, so I’ll just go with one of her YA books which is set in Nigeria. If you like super immersive fantasy worlds that exist alongside our mundane human world, then Akata WitchandAkata Warriorare an excellent choice. Sunny Nwazue is Nigerian by birth, has lived in the US and has now returned to Nigeria. She is also albino and feels like she never really fits in. That is, until she finds out she is also a Leopard Person – someone with a magical gift – and will be learning how to use these new powers alongside a group of great friends. Oh and there’s also a dangerous serial killer on the loose, a book of lessons that seems to mock its reader, teen drama, and lots of original, cool, fun magic to discover. I adore these books and I cannot wait for the third part to come out. Also, if you’re into audiobooks, I highly recommend going that route. The narration is stunning!
All the way down in South Africa, we find the setting for Lauren Beukes’ fantastic novel Zoo City where people who have committed a terrible crime are marked by an animal companion. It may sound cool to have you rvery own pet companion but you can’t be separated from it without feeling pain and seeing it shows everyone else that you have done something terrible… Set in Johannesburg, Zoo City tells the story of Zinzi December, who has a sloth and is also very good at finding things. This book has so much to discover. Zinzi takes a job to find the missing half of a famous pop duo, has to try and pay her drug debts by participating in 419 scams, and also lets us see what life is like for an “animalled” person in this alternate South Africa.
Don’t let the words “horror novel” scare you off. Even if you’re not a great reader of horror (neither am I), this could still be for you. In Mexican Gothic, Silvia Moreno Garcia sends her plucky socialite heroine off to the creepy mansion where her cousin lives with her new husband and his family. As soon as she arrives, she knows something isn’t right and she is determined to figure it out. Things get creepy fast and it’s delightful to follow Noemí through the crumbling old house, looking for clues, unsure whether she can trust anyone but herself. This book is so damn immersive and readable that you can eat it up in one sitting. At the end, things do get a bit gross and there’s some body horror there. But for the most part, the creep factor relies on humans acting weird, things not making sense, and the casual everyday racism of the family’s patriarch. For another trip through Mexico that reads much more like YA (although apparently, it is supposed to be adult fantasy), go for the fairy tale like cute road trip novel Gods of Jade and Shadow. There’s lots of mythology and a lovely coming-of-age tale here. I still feel it reads super young, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a fun book.
Ah, finally another chance to recommend one of my all time favorite underdog books. This novel should be getting so much love but it seems to have gone under the radar. So let me tell you why The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson is so brilliant and you should all be picking it up. It’s set in a futuristic Brazil in the city of Palmares Tres where every few years a Summer King is chosen who then gets to select the future Queen. And then he’s killed. Don’t question it, just read the book. Young June Costa is a graffiti artist and she’s also quite taken with the newest Summer Prince, Enki. But there’s much more to this book than a teen romance. First of all, most characters seem to be bisexual in this book and there’s very little teen drama. Instead, there is political unrest, the clash of old and young generations, new technology versus traditional methods, and it’s also about the importantce of art. I adored this book for its great atmosphere, its amazing world building, and its characters.
There are many, many more fantasy books set in all sorts of different places around the world but these are some of my favorites. I hope you enjoy traveling via book as much as I do and these recommedantions offer new and interesting places to visit. I can’t wait to go and see what everyone else is recommending for this seventh day of Wyrd and Wonder. 🙂
I was looking forward to the sequel to The City of Brass very much, especially because the first book had a few evil twists at the end. While Chakraborty proves once more that she is a great storyteller and can spin tales of political intrigue really well, this book does very little to move the overall plot forward. It’s got classic middle book syndrome, which doesn’t mean it’s boring. Just… not as exciting as it could have been. But again, it delivers an ending that makes it hard not to pick up the next book right away.
SPOILERS FOR CITY OF BRASS BELOW!
THE KINGDOM OF COPPER by S. A. Chakraborty
Published: Harper Voyager, 2019 eBook: 640 pages Audiobook: 23 hours 14 minutes Series: The Daevabad Trilogy #2 My rating: 6.5/10
Opening line: Alizayd al Qahtani didn’t make it a month with his caravan.
Nahri’s life changed forever the moment she accidentally summoned Dara, a formidable, mysterious djinn, during one of her schemes. Whisked from her home in Cairo, she was thrust into the dazzling royal court of Daevabad—and quickly discovered she would need all her grifter instincts to survive there. Now, with Daevabad entrenched in the dark aftermath of the battle that saw Dara slain at Prince Ali’s hand, Nahri must forge a new path for herself, without the protection of the guardian who stole her heart or the counsel of the prince she considered a friend. But even as she embraces her heritage and the power it holds, she knows she’s been trapped in a gilded cage, watched by a king who rules from the throne that once belonged to her family—and one misstep will doom her tribe. Meanwhile, Ali has been exiled for daring to defy his father. Hunted by assassins, adrift on the unforgiving copper sands of his ancestral land, he is forced to rely on the frightening abilities the marid—the unpredictable water spirits—have gifted him. But in doing so, he threatens to unearth a terrible secret his family has long kept buried. And as a new century approaches and the djinn gather within Daevabad’s towering brass walls for celebrations, a threat brews unseen in the desolate north. It’s a force that would bring a storm of fire straight to the city’s gates . . . and one that seeks the aid of a warrior trapped between worlds, torn between a violent duty he can never escape and a peace he fears he will never deserve.
After a short prologue, we jump five years into the future with our protagonists scattered over different places and established in very different roles than in the first book. Nahri, now married to Muntadhir, has become an acoomplished healer unter the tutelage of Nisreen, although she is anything but free. With her two closest relationships gone for years (Ali exiled into the desert and Dara killed), Nahri has become friends with Nisreen and also got to like her sister-in-law Zaynab a lot more. Ali, meanwhile, now has some crazy superpowers. He can detect water, even in the middle of the desert. He now lives in Bir Nabat, an oasis, and his life is pretty okay. That is, until the plot calls for him to return to Daevabad, of course. Dara…. well, nobody really thought he was dead, did we? Dara is returned to his body by none other than Menizheh, Nahri’s mother. And the people he hangs around with are planning a full attack on Daevabad so Menizheh can take back Suleiman’s ring and the power the Geziri have stolen from her people.
That’s the setup for Kingdom of Copper and although there are some sub-plots that keep things interesting – such as Nahri wanting to re-build a former Nahid hospital and also start healing shafit – the main story this book tells is of these three characters starting out in different places and with opposing factions of djinn, coming together again. As you can imagine, the reunion isn’t exactly a party…
What I liked about this book, much like in the first one, was the characters and the nuanced political situation. It took me a bit to remember who all the factions were, who was hating whom for what reason, and who had stolen power from which bloodline. The great thing is that there are no real good guys here. There are some pretty bad people, come to think of it, killing others for being shafit (djinn and human mixed blood). But I couldn’t say that any one character or group has completely good motives and even if they do, their methods are… ethically questionable, to say the least. Menizheh, Nahri’s mother, interested me the most. Because Nahri has no idea her mother is still alive and one of the most powerful people at that, I was excited to learn more about her and of course see the two of them meet. Menizheh wasn’t the likable lost mother type I was hoping for, however. And while that means I didn’t like her very much, I appreciated that her character felt so real. She’s been living without her daughter for years, after all, and she is following her own plans. Why should she suddenly get teary-eyed at the thought of meeting her kid again? I particularly loved the dynamic between the Geziri princess and princes and how we got to know them better. Ali is a well-established character but Muntadhir and Zaynab got to shine in this book. They each interact with Nahri and with each other and every scene shows a new aspect of their personality and their hopes for the future. I won’t spoil anything but it’s fairly obvious that Muntadhir has a little more than feelings of friendship for Jamshid. And Zaynab has more depth than what we got to see in the first book. There was entirely too little Dara in this book for my taste and what we do get to see of him didn’t feel like the Dara from the first book. He’s suddenly turned into this naive, gullible guy who sets himself up to repeat the mistakes of the past.
It’s hard to say much without spoiling, but there’s quite a bit of violence in this book. What with Menizheh’s people planning a large scale attack on Daevabad, traitors at court, and tempers running high among the Daevabad population, there are terrorist attacks, brutal killings, poison, assassination attempts, and more. While these scenes were all exciting to read and not all characters are safe, they did very little to push the plot forward. Much like the rest of this book.
Things really get started at the end of this book when secrets that were revealed reach their climax, when plans are executed, when Nahri has to make quick decisions to save the people she loves. A lot of stuff happens and it’s big stuff that will have big consequences. I suspect the next book will lead us to yet another completely new situation for our characters. Oh yes, and let’s not forget the huge twist at the very end. As much fun as I had reading this book, I don’t know why this little plot needed over 600 pages. Everything this volume did was set up things for a hopefully super exciting, fast paced climax. I’ll find out soon.
This is it! Mythothon is officially over and it’s time to see how I did. Let me say first of all that I am super happy with this readathon. I am not the hugest King Arthur fan so I thought the prompts would make things difficult for me. But they are vague enough to fit many books and yet, there was enough King Arthur vibe to this readathon to actually get me in the mood for more.
The month of April was a bit meandering for me. Work was crazy most of the time, I had picked some bigger books (that’s not a super smart idea for a readathon), the Hugo finalists were announced, making me throw my entire readathon TBR out the window, and I got a Covid shot appointment (yay!). But yeah, it was mostly work that got in the way of me really rocking this readathon.
I started out okay but not super fast with a few shorter reads. I re-read the first book in the Song of the Lioness series, determined to just race through the entire series in April. Well, that didn’t happen. Because the Hugo Award finalists were announced and that gets me super excited every year. Since I’m voting again this year, I needed to start reading the finalists right away because reasons. There’s time until December so I really didn’t have to worry but you know how it is. But for what it’s worth, that gave me a reading boost and upped my motivation. I didn’t finish as many books as I would have liked but I’m happy with how I did, especially since I discovered some great books.
In addition to these fine knights I have recruited, I also finished the group read and the team prompt. The latter turned out to be my favorite read of the month, even though it was very different from what I expected and took a while to get going.
Catherynne M. Valente – Under in the Mere (Sir Lancelot)
Tade Thompson – The Rosewater Insurrection (Sir Bors)
As you can see, I’m also behind on my reviews. Next week will probably be hell again at work but after that, things should relax a little and I’ll have time to catch up on reviews and current reads and maybe even do a tag or something. 🙂
Okay, okay, so I may have a reading challenge/readathon problem. But last time, I just missed this event by a few days and this year, I forgot when it was going to happen and somehow only discovered yesterday that it will, in fact, happen now, throughout the month of May. So you see, I just had to join. Mind you, I don’t know how successful I’ll be or how many of the daily prompts I can participate in but, damn, do I look forward to Wyrd and Wonder. Not least becaues the community seems to be wonderful and welcoming and everything that makes the world feel a little better right now. Let’s all love fantas books together.
My Tentative TBR
Now that the Hugo Award finalists have been announced, I am much more convinced that I can stick to a planned TBR. At least mostly. And because Wyrd and Wonder is all about reading and enjoying and talking about fantasy, I’ll focus on that, even if there are some sci-fi books here, waiting to be read.
Darcie Little Badger – Elatsoe
T. Kingfisher – A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking
Seanan McGuire – An Artificial Night
Seanan McGuire – Come Tumbling Down
Joanna Ruth Meyer – Into the Heartless Wood
S. A. Chakraborty – The Empire of Gold
C. L. Clark – The Unbroken
Tamora Pierce – The Woman Who Rides Like a Man
Leigh Bardugo – Rule of Wolves
Rebecca Roanhorse – Black Sun
I actually just threw those together randomly from whatever was near the top of my TBR but I’m quite happy with the variety we got going on.
There are YA and adult novels, Urban Fantasy and secondary world fantasy, books based on fairy tales and/or myths, quite a few BIPOC authors, two 2021 publications, a lot from 2020, and one much older one. Depending on how well I do, I might just throw in a fantasy classic. I’ve been meaning to read Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees and Dragonsbane by Barbara Hambly and they would both fit well.
Then again, there are some books coming out in May that could destroy my reading plans by demanding to be read first:
Joan He – The Ones We’re Meant to Find (cannot WAIT)
P. Djèlí Clark – A Master of Djinn (Full length Clark novel, yay!)
Maggie Stiefvater – Mister Impossible (Gimme more Lynch brothers any day)
Rivers Solomon – Sorrowland (Is it sci-fi, is it fantasy? I don’t know but I need it!)
Plans for May
Other than hopefully read the books above (or at least most of them), I want to participate in some of the daily prompts. I really love the topics and ideas that are coming up. Some of them will take a bit longer to prepare, others can be answered quite easily. There are some prompts that require creativity (erm… spine poetry), and others that are easier to do (like a list of favorites). And of course, May shall be the month in which I deliver all those reviews that are still stuck in my brain.
I will also follow the Twitter #WyrdAndWonder and I look forward to reading the many posts my fellow bloggers write as well as seeing those gorgeous Instagram pictures of pretty books that everybody seems to be able to take.
Also, in order to fully enjoy Wyrd and Wonder and to get all that reading done myself, I plan to work less during May! You can hold me accountable if I fail. Seriously, guys, bring on the shame bell. 🙂
You guys, everything is so exciting! All the Awards are happening. Well… all the finalists are happening, but that means reading the best books and stories of last year, catching up on things we missed, celebrating the great stuff we already read, and generally enjoying being in SFF fandom.
WorldCon, the annual convention that gives out the Hugo Award, has been moved to December 2021. For the first time ever, the Hugos won’t be announced in August but just a bit before Christmas. The reason is of course to make an in-person con possible (hopefully, nobody knows what will happen until then) but it also means more time to read all the finalists and that, my friends, is reason to celebrate. At least for me. line
The nomination period for the Dragon Awards is open. It’s a rather strange award that doesn’t go by calendar year when it comes to eligible titles. You can nominated one work per category, just make sure that the works have been published between July 1st 2020 and June 30th 2021 because that’s the rules. Anyone can join and nominate so if that’s your jam, go right ahead. line
The Shadow & Bone TV show has hit Neflix and I am far from the only person who binged it right on the first weekend. Although there is much to discuss, my overall feelings towards the show are positive. I adore the cast and the way they chose to bring the characters to life. And while I may disagree with some storytelling decisions and the way the Six of Crows and Shadow and Bone stories have been intertwined, I will definitely re-watch the first season and look forward to the next one.
I am very invested in the Hugo Awards (if you follow this blog, you may have noticed :)) so there is a separate post about all my OPINIONS about the final ballot. But for those who aren’t interested in my thoughts, here are the finalists for Best Novel:
Rebecca Roanhorse – Black Sun
N. K. Jemisin – The City We Became
Martha Wells – Network Effect
Susanna Clarke – Piranesi
Tamsyn Muir – Harrow the Ninth
Mary Robinette Kowal – The Relentless Moon
And the finalists for the Lodestar (which makes me so very, very happy!):
Jordan Ifueko – Raybearer
Darcie Little Badger – Elatsoe
Tracy Deonn – Legendborn
T. Kingfisher – A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking
Aiden Thomas – Cemetery Boys
Naomi Novik – A Deadly Education
Congratulations to all the finalists!
The Best Novel ballot is not surprising in that all the novels on it were fairly buzzy, are sequels in beloved series, or the long-awaited newest novel by a previous Hugo winner. So the only surprises are the novels that didn’t make it. There were others that could have made the cut but didn’t. I won’t be surprised if we see Mexican Gothic, The Once and Future Witches, Andrea Stewart’s The Bone Shard Daughter or Micaiah Johnson’s The Space Between Worlds on the list of nominees just below the top 6. But we’ll have to wait for that data until December, and it’s not like we don’t have a great selection of finalists to entertain us until then.
As with the Nebulas/Andre Nortons, I’m insanely happy that Raybearermade it as a Lodestar finalist. It was my favorite YA book of last year, I nominated it myself, and I wish Jordan Ifueko all the success in the world. That said, the finalists I haven’t read are all books I’m super excited about. Elatsoehas been calling to me for months now, Cemetery Boys was my second choice for trying out Aiden Thomas (Lost in the Never Woods, a Peter Pan retelling, just interested me more) but I heard such good things about it. And T. Kingfisher needs no introduction. I’ve been a fan of hers long before WorldCon realized how great she is and I will follow her fiction for ever and ever.
Even more awards excitement! I am again super happy to see some of the books that got some award recognition but with ballots this good, choosing one favorite won’t be easy. Voting is open up through May 31st, so make sure you read the wonderful finalists and then vote for your favorites. Make sure to check out all the finalists (link in header) because there’s a lot of great stuff to discover. For space reasons, I’m listing only Best Novel and YA Novel here.
These are the finalists for Best Novel:
Rebecca Roanhorse – Black Sun
N. K. Jemisin- The City We Became
C. L. Polk – Midnight Bargain
Stephen Graham Jones – The Only Good Indians
Hao Jingfang – Vagabonds
The Stehen Graham Jones book was the second horror book that was very hyped last year. Although I haven’t read it yet, I’m happy that it made the ballot. Horror books often have a hard time on SFF ballots. I’m even more excited to see Hao Jingfang’s Vagabonds here, a book I’ve been meaning to read but still haven’t got to.
And the finalists for Best YA Novel:
Darcie Little Badger – Elatsoe
Jordan Ifueko – Raybearer
Tracy Deonn – Legendborn
Bethany Morro – A Song Below Water
Sabaa Tahir – A Sky Beyond the Storm
I’m surprised (and kind of delighted) that the final volume of Sabaa Tahir’s series is on here. I didn’t much like the second book and was debating whether to continue the series. If the final volume is good enough to be nominated for an IGNYTE award, I have high hopes. I look forward to A Song Below Water, a book I first heard a lot about and then nothing at all anymore. Legendbornwas fun, and Elatsoe and Raybearerseem to be universal favorites. My absolute favorite is still Jordan Ifueko’s book. I loved it so much I’m going to ge me a special edition, so it can sit on my shelf and be pretty. 🙂
Exciting May Publications
May is going to be great, you guys. I have been rubbing my hands for that new Rivers Solomon book for months now. Maggie Stiefvater continues her Dreamer Trilogy, Joan He – she that wrote the amazing Descendant of the Crane – has a new book coming out and P. Djèlí Clark brings us his first full-length novel set in his alternate Cairo. 2021 seems to just be getting better and better.
RIVERS SOLOMON – SORROWLAND (May 4th)
There are few authors who have made me fall in love as hard with their fiction as Rivers Solomon. Their writing is just brilliant, they create multi-layered, interesting and diverse characters to tell original stories that are like nothing you’ve ever read before. So you could say I’m excited about their newest book.
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.
NICOLE KORNHER-STACE – FIREBRAND (May 4th)
I still haven’t read anything by Kornher-Stace, although I do have her Archivist Wasp on my TBR somwhere… Everything about this new novel sounds amazing. Virtual Reality supersoldiers, a near future (probably?) world where an evil company controls people’s lives, and humans have to work several jobs just to afford water. I have heard nothing but good things from authors who had the pleasure of reading this already, so my excitement levels are high!
Like everyone else she knows, Mallory is an orphan of the corporate war. As a child, she lost her parents, her home, and her entire building in an airstrike. As an adult, she lives in a cramped hotel room with eight other people, all of them working multiple jobs to try to afford water and make ends meet. And the job she’s best at is streaming a popular VR war game. The best part of the game isn’t killing enemy combatants, though—it’s catching in-game glimpses of SpecOps operatives, celebrity supersoldiers grown and owned by Stellaxis, the corporation that runs the America she lives in.
Until a chance encounter with a SpecOps operative in the game leads Mal to a horrifying discovery: the real-life operatives weren’t created by Stellaxis. They were kids, just like her, who lost everything in the war, and were stolen and augmented and tortured into becoming supersoldiers. The world worships them, but the world believes a lie.
The company controls every part of their lives, and defying them puts everything at risk—her water ration, her livelihood, her connectivity, her friends, her life—but she can’t just sit on the knowledge. She has to do something—even if doing something will bring the wrath of the most powerful company in the world down upon her.
JOAN HE – THE ONES WE’RE MEANT TO FIND (May 4th)
Look, I don’t even need to read the synopsis to look forward to this, okay? Descendant of the Crane was such a surprising, twisty, well-crafted book that I will read anything by Joan He. The fact that this is called Black Mirror meets Studio Ghibli is just an added bonus that makes me squee with joy.
One of the most twisty, surprising, engaging page-turner YAs you’ll read this year—We Were Liars meets Black Mirror, with a dash of Studio Ghibli.
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.
ZEN CHO – BLACK WATER SISTER (May 11th)
Zen Cho’s writing is always charming. The Malaysian setting and this gorgeous cover decided it for me. I have to have this book. Hearing your dead grandmother’s voice in your head and having her spirit accompany you is also a thing I would like to happen to me, so there’s that.
A reluctant medium discovers the ties that bind can unleash a dangerous power in this compelling Malaysian-set contemporary fantasy.
Jessamyn Teoh is closeted, broke and moving back to Malaysia, a country she left when she was a toddler. So when Jess starts hearing voices, she chalks it up to stress. But there’s only one voice in her head, and it claims to be the ghost of her estranged grandmother, Ah Ma. In life Ah Ma was a spirit medium, the avatar of a mysterious deity called the Black Water Sister. Now she’s determined to settle a score against a gang boss who has offended the god–and she’s decided Jess is going to help her do it.
Drawn into a world of gods, ghosts, and family secrets, Jess finds that making deals with capricious spirits is a dangerous business. As Jess fights for retribution for Ah Ma, she’ll also need to regain control of her body and destiny. If she fails, the Black Water Sister may finish her off for good.
P. DJÈLÍ CLARK – A MASTER OF DJINN (May 11th)
Clark is a treasure and one of the most interesting current writers in the SFF field. This book is the first full-length novel in his alternate Cairo setting with Fatma el-Sha’arawi as protagonist.
Nebula, Locus, and Alex Award-winner P. Djèlí Clark returns to his popular alternate Cairo universe for his fantasy novel debut, A Master of Djinn
Cairo, 1912: Though Fatma el-Sha’arawi is the youngest woman working for the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities, she’s certainly not a rookie, especially after preventing the destruction of the universe last summer.
So when someone murders a secret brotherhood dedicated to one of the most famous men in history, al-Jahiz, Agent Fatma is called onto the case. Al-Jahiz transformed the world 50 years ago when he opened up the veil between the magical and mundane realms, before vanishing into the unknown. This murderer claims to be al-Jahiz, returned to condemn the modern age for its social oppressions. His dangerous magical abilities instigate unrest in the streets of Cairo that threaten to spill over onto the global stage.
Alongside her Ministry colleagues and her clever girlfriend Siti, Agent Fatma must unravel the mystery behind this imposter to restore peace to the city – or face the possibility he could be exactly who he seems…
SUYI DAVIES OKUNGBOWA – SON OF THE STORM (May 11th)
Young scholar, forbidden magic, skin-changing warrior. Just shut up and take my money.
A young scholar’s ambition threatens to reshape an empire determined to retain its might in this epic tale of violent conquest, buried histories, and forbidden magic.
In the thriving city of Bassa, Danso is a clever but disillusioned scholar who longs for a life beyond the rigid family and political obligations expected of the city’s elite. A way out presents itself when Lilong, a skin-changing warrior, shows up wounded in his barn. She comes from the Nameless Islands–which, according to Bassa lore, don’t exist–and neither should the mythical magic of ibor she wields. Now swept into a conspiracy far beyond his understanding, Danso will have to set out on a journey that reveals histories violently suppressed and magic only found in lore.
LAURE EVE – BLACKHEART KNIGHTS (May 13th)
This could go either way but it sounds too bonkers and fun to miss. Camelot but with bikers? Ok, count me in. I have another Laure Eve book (The Graces) which sounds much more fairy tale-esque, so the author definitely likes to change things up a bit.
Power always wins.
Imagine Camelot but in Gotham: a city where knights are the celebrities of the day, riding on motorbikes instead of horses and competing in televised fights for fame and money.
Imagine a city where a young, magic-touched bastard astonishes everyone by becoming king – albeit with extreme reluctance – and a girl with a secret past trains to become a knight for the sole purpose of vengeance.
Imagine a city where magic is illegal but everywhere, in its underground bars, its back-alley soothsayers – and in the people who have to hide what they are for fear of being tattooed and persecuted.
Imagine a city where electricity is money, power the only game worth playing, and violence the most fervently worshipped religion.
Welcome to a dark, chaotic, alluring place with a tumultuous history, where dreams come true if you want them hard enough – and are prepared to do some very, very bad things to get them . . .
DARYL GREGORY – THE ALBUM OF DR. MOREAU (May 18th)
I didn’t want to want this book. That whole Dr. Moreau story is just not my thing but then I read the synopsis and, well, murder mystery, genetically engineered human-animal hybrid boy band sounded too good. I think this novella might be funny as well as creepy.
Daryl Gregory’s The Album of Dr. Moreau combines the science fiction premise of the famous novel by H. G. Wells with the panache of a classic murder mystery and the spectacle of a beloved boy band.
It’s 2001, and the WyldBoyZ are the world’s hottest boy band, and definitely the world’s only genetically engineered human-animal hybrid vocal group. When their producer, Dr. M, is found murdered in his hotel room, the “boyz” become the prime suspects. Was it Bobby the ocelot (“the cute one”), Matt the megabat (“the funny one”), Tim the Pangolin (“the shy one”), Devin the bonobo (“the romantic one”), or Tusk the elephant (“the smart one”)?
Las Vegas Detective Luce Delgado has only twenty-four hours to solve a case that goes all the way back to the secret science barge where the WyldBoyZ’ journey first began—a place they used to call home.
It’s a new Maggie Stiefvater book!!! If you’ve read the Raven Cycle, you probably also have a soft spot for Ronan Lynch – I certainly do. The first book in this new Dreamer Trilogy didn’t sweep me off my feet as much as I had hoped but I do keep thinking about it and definitely want to find out what happens next and how my Ronan and his brothers are doing.
From the #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Raven Boys, a mesmerizing story of dreams and desires, death and destiny.
The stakes have never been higher as it seems like either the end of the world or the end of dreamers approaches.
Do the dreamers need the ley lines to save the world . . . or will their actions end up dooming the world? As Ronan, Hennessy, and Bryde try to make dreamers more powerful, the Moderators are closing in, sure that this power will bring about disaster. In the remarkable second book of The Dreamer Trilogy, Maggie Stiefvater pushes her characters to their limits – and shows what happens to them and others when they start to break.
A. M. STRICKLAND – IN THE RAVENOUS DARK (May 18th)
I always like to include a few books I’m on the fence about and here’s one of them. I don’t know Strickland, but this book sounds pretty good. Being bound to a sexy spirit, but one that can control your body? Creepy and intriguing. A Greek-inspired world? Yes! And a pansexual protagonist – definitely not someone I’ve read about, so give it to me.
A pansexual bloodmage reluctantly teams up with an undead spirit to start a rebellion among the living and the dead.
In Thanopolis, those gifted with magic are assigned undead spirits to guard them—and control them. Ever since Rovan’s father died trying to keep her from this fate, she’s hidden her magic. But when she accidentally reveals her powers, she’s bound to a spirit and thrust into a world of palace intrigue and deception.
Desperate to escape, Rovan finds herself falling for two people she can’t fully trust: Lydea, a beguiling, rebellious princess; and Ivrilos, the handsome spirit with the ability to control Rovan, body and soul.
Together, they uncover a secret that will destroy Thanopolis. To save them all, Rovan will have to start a rebellion in both the mortal world and the underworld, and find a way to trust the princess and spirit battling for her heart—if she doesn’t betray them first.
E. K. JOHNSTON – AETHERBOUND (May 25th)
Johnston is another author I’ve never read, but I own some of her books, both fairy tale retellings. This book just sounds like a lot of fun, a space adventure with some social commentary.
A thought-provoking new YA space adventure from the #1 New York Times bestselling author of Star Wars: Ahsoka.
Set on a family-run interstellar freighter called the Harland and a mysterious remote space station, E. K. Johnston’s latest is story of survival and self-determination.
Pendt Harland’s family sees her as a waste of food on their long-haul space cruiser when her genes reveal an undesirable mutation. But if she plays her cards right she might have a chance to do much more than survive. During a space-station layover, Pendt escapes and forms a lucky bond with the Brannick twins, the teenage heirs of the powerful family that owns the station. Against all odds, the trio hatches a long-shot scheme to take over the station and thwart the destinies they never wished for.
NEWS FROM THE BLOG
Haha! Finally I have some good news in regards to my reading. I’ve done pretty well in the Mythothon readathon and, as all the best readathons do, it made me pick up some books I definitely wouldn’t have gone for otherwise. The experience isn’t always pleasant but I like to consider reading a bad book as a useful experience rather than a waste of time.
What I read:
Tamora Pierce – Alanna: The First Adventure a gread middle grade adventure – very fast paced – lovable heroine pretending to be a boy – mentions menstruation (yay!)
I had had Aiden Thomas on my radar because their newest book is a Peter Pan retelling with a gorgeous cover and I just can’t resist Peter Pan retellings that look like they do something new and interesting with one of my favorite stories. But then Thomas’ first book, Cemetery Boys, became a finalist for the Lodestar Award (not-a-Hugo but really totally a YA Hugo), so I picked that one up first. It won’t make ranking the finalists easier but it was a great reading experience.
Opening line: Yadriel wasn’t technically trespassing because he’d lived in the cemetery his whole life.
A trans boy determined to prove his gender to his conservative Latinx family summons a ghost who refuses to leave in Aiden Thomas’s paranormal YA debut. Yadriel has summoned a ghost, and now he can’t get rid of him. When his traditional Latinx family has problems accepting his true gender, Yadriel becomes determined to prove himself a real brujo. With the help of his cousin and best friend Maritza, he performs the ritual himself, and then sets out to find the ghost of his murdered cousin and set it free. However, the ghost he summons is actually Julian Diaz, the school’s resident bad boy, and Julian is not about to go quietly into death. He’s determined to find out what happened and tie off some loose ends before he leaves. Left with no choice, Yadriel agrees to help Julian, so that they can both get what they want. But the longer Yadriel spends with Julian, the less he wants to let him leave.
Yadriel is a young trans boy living in a brujx family. What he wants most in the world is to be accepted for who he is, and that includes being a brujo (rather than a bruja), one of the men of his community who can summon spirits and send them on to the afterlife. The only people who seem to undertand him and take him seriously are his cousin Maritza – who, as a vegan, refuses to become a bruja because they use animal blood for their healing rituals – and his tío Catriz who has no magical powers at all, despite being born into a brujx family. Right from the start, this book has so much to offer! The first few chapters may be heavy on the exposition, but it’s exposition about interesting stuff, so I didn’t mind all that much. Getting to know how the whole brujx thing works and why Yadriel lives on a cemetery (!), as well as meeting the protagonists is important. Not every book needs a steep learning curve. Sometimes, it’s really nice to have things explained to you first, and then go and have adventures in that world.
The plot kicks off with Yadriel and Maritza secretly performing a ritual which will grant Yadriel his brujo powers – if, indeed Lady Death, sees and accepts him as the young man he is, rather than the young woman some of his family think of him. The ritual works out – YAY! – but almost at the same moment, something terrible happens. Yadriel’s cousin, Miguel, dies and because brujx are all connected somehow, every brujx feels it. The problem is, there is no body and nobody knows what happened to Miguel. Sure, they can wait for Día de Muertos, which is only a few days away, for his spirit to return and tell them how he died and where his body is, but if something went wrong and he hasn’t crossed over into the afterlife, they need to find his body and help him.
In an attempt to help his cousin’s spirit and prove to his family (and himself, a bit) that he truly is a brujo, Yadriel summons a spirit, thinking it’s Miguel. It turns out that it’s a boy from Yadriel’s school (although he isn’t there very often) named Julian Díaz. And Julian, although definitely dead, has no idea where he is, why he’s a spirit, or how he died. Bewilderment ensues.
I enjoyed this book so very much and despite the fact that I had guessed the solution to the murder mystery at pretty much the halfway mark. I guessed both the villain and the reason for Miguel’s missing body as well as Julian’s death, and my guess turned out to be exactly right. Like, not even a detail missing… You’d think that would take the fun out of this book but it really didn’t. That, to me, proves that this is about much more than just an exciting plot or solving a murder case. It’s about a wonderful cast of characters and the pretty tough things they have to go through.
I immediately liked Yadriel. The fact that he is trans is a big part of his life, mostly because his family are super traditional and don’t really take him seriously. His mother did, buying him a proper binder and making sure the rest of the family called him by his name, didn’t misgender him, etc. But his mother died not long ago in a car accident, so now Yadriel only has Maritza to truly support him and his uncle to understand what it’s like feeling like an outsider. As I have only occasionally read books with trans characters, many aspects of Yadriel’s daily life were interesting to me. I admit, I get annoyed when my boobs get in the way sometimes, but I have never thought about what it’s like to bind them up every day and how that affects your life. Yadriel’s binder isn’t mentioned all that often, but it is part of his life and if you’ve ever worn tight clothing, you know that when it doesn’t fit, it can get uncomfortable fast. When you’re running around the city, trying to find out who killed your new ghost friend, these things are important. Just as controlling what you wear or how you cut your hair can make a huge difference for your identity.
But as much as I liked Yadriel, I freaking loved Julian. I was super bummed out that, when we first meet him, he’s already a spirit. His life is officially over and all he can do now is convince Yadriel to help him check on his friends and his brother and make sure everyone’s okay. Julian has a reputation as a bad boy, a guy who never goes to school but rather hangs out with dangerous gang kids on the street. In reality, Julian is the kindest, sweetest boy you can imagine, even if he does have anger management issues. Discovering, alongside Yadriel and Maritza, what this dead boy was really like and how, even after dying, he is still trying to look out for others, is the heart of this book. You may guess that Yadriel develops feelings for Julian, but this book isn’t super heavy on the romance. There is way too much going on for sappy moments or big declarations of love. No, what feelings there are, they are shown in small ways, through gestures or little moments. It’s my favorite kind so I don’t need to tell you that I was close to tears several times while reading this.
All things considered, this is a very good debut novel. The important (and I suspect hardest) bits are well done, the characters all feel real and fleshed out. They have agency, they are individuals but they aren’t defined by their character traits – Maritza isn’t only vegan, just the way Yadriel isn’t only trans – they are people and these things are part of what makes them, them. I also adored the world building. Sure, there are probably more elegant ways of explaining the magic and intricacies of brujx culture, but for a book aimed at a young audience, I don’t think it’s terrible to just straigh up tell your readers how things work. I loved how Thomas conveyed the feeling of Latinx families. Without ever really saying it, you totally get the feeling of large families with lots of siblings and cousins and grandparents, all living close together and watching out for each other. And cooking. Lots of cooking. 🙂
Was this a perfect book? Probably not. Or at least not for me. I don’t know what it’s like to be a trans boy out there, looking for stories with someone like themselves and coming across this book. I can only imagine that it must be delightful and wonderful, especially because it’s #ownvoices. To me, an adult, cis woman, this book was just beautiful and made me want to pick up Thomas’ next one even more. And I have to say, after guessing the solution the the biggest mystery, I was more than happy that the ending still held a few surprises in store. But that’s all I’m willing to say because you should really pick this book up and enjoy it for yourselves.
As I suspected, the announcement of the Hugo Award finalists made me completely overthrow my readathon TBR. 🙂 On the other hand, it also boosted my reading motivation and got me super excited for a lot of books!
How the week went
Thankfully, last week was much nicer than the beginning of the month. Work is still super stressful and in addition to the “normal” stress we’re starting new projects left and right, but I’m dealing with it better. I’ve been exercising regularly and sleeping better. A good night’s sleep really does work wonders! I didn’t finish a lot of books (because daily exercise takes up time…) but I did get halfway through a chonker and a Lodestar finalist, so next week I’ll have more books to talk about.
My choice for the Nimue group read – set by the sea – was a total hit, although it didn’t start out that way. Full disclosure, the author Angela Slatter is one of my very favorites, so I trusted her to turn the rather slow start of this book into something more exciting after a while. And she did! This is a gothic, dark fairy tale, a family story interwoven with myths and legends, the tale of a young woman breaking free from the chains of tradition and making a life for herself. The language is lyrical, the protagonist Miren’s strength grows with every chapter, and although it starts slowly, the plot picks up pace along the way and leads to a finale that had me biting my nails and worrying for the characters I’ve come to care for. If you like fairy tales or mythology, a creepy atmosphere, and discovering dark family secrets, then this is for you.
My choice for the legendary romance prompt was very different. I didn’t have high expectations of this book but it delivered pretty much exactly what I thought it would. A book that’s super quick and fun to read but just not very good from a literary standpoint. Or a genre standpoint. It’s written inconsistently, the world building is haphazard and sloppy, the characters are shallow, there’s lots of telling instead of showing, and the plot is super predictable. BUT! I had a blast reading this because it’s one of those books that doesn’t require too much thinking. You don’t have to keep an entire history of this fantasy world in your mind, you don’t have to figure out difficult family relations between this royal or that. You just follow your Mary Sue, good-at-everything protagonist and the stereotypical sidekicks on their comfortingly predictable journey. This was by no means a good book, but I’d recommend it for when you’re trying to get out of a slump. There’s something comforting in books like this and I’m glad they exist.
I didn’t finish the Song of the Lioness yet but I hope to still manage that during this readathon. My excitement for the Hugo Awards has simply been too great and I wanted to get started on the finalists as soon as possible. The voting period will be extended this year and the winners won’t be announced until December, so I really shouldn’t stress myself. Starting now, I will mix up my reading. One Hugo finalists, one (older) book from my TBR. The most important thing is to keep it low pressure and have fun!
Here’s what I’m looking at for next week. Most of these are short and/or for a young audience so I think I can read them quickly. These are two Lodestar finalists and two backlist books. I’ll probably throw in an audiobook as well because I’m more than halfway through Kingdom of Copper and I can’t not listen to an audiobook. That’s just not an option. 🙂
Depending on what kind of a reader you are, you may enjoy being challenged by every new book or you may prefer comfort reads, books where you essentially know what you’re going to get. Or you’re a mix of both or something in between. I lean more towards new and challenging reads but, boy, do I love a nice comfort read when I’m stressed. This book was not good literature in any way, it wasn’t good fantasy either, but it told a fun story that was easy to follow, with exciting scenes, a nice romance, and a fast moving plot. And sometimes, that’s exactly the right kind of book.
POISON STUDY by Maria V. Snyder
Published: Mira Books, 2005 eBook: 431 pages Series: Poison Study #1 My rating: 4/10
Opening line: Locked in darkness that surrounded me like a coffin, I had nothing to distract me from my memories.
About to be executed for murder, Yelena is offered an extraordinary reprieve. She’ll eat the best meals, have rooms in the palace– and risk assassination by anyone trying to kill the Commander of Ixia.And so Yelena chooses to become a food taster. But the chief of security, leaving nothing to chance, deliberately feeds her Butterfly’s Dust and only by appearing for her daily antidote will she delay an agonizing death from the poison. As Yelena tries to escape her new dilemma, disasters keep mounting. Rebels plot to seize Ixia and Yelena develops magical powers she can’t control. Her life is threatened again and choices must be made. But this time the outcomes aren’t so clear…
Yelena is taken from the dungeon where she has spent the last year to finally be executed for the murder she’s committed. But destiny offers her another chance to live, at least for a while. The Commander’s former food taster has died recently and a replacement is needed. The Rules (this mysterious document/code of conduct comes up many times, don’t expect it to be explained or make sense or anything, just roll with it) state that the next in line for the gallows should be offered the job. And, as she is kind of attached to life, Yelena accepts. After a trial run where her new superior – and the commander’s confidant – Valek tests her ability to even discover whether food is poisoned, Yelena turns out to be perfect for the job. And thus starts her career as food taster and this story kicks off.
Let me say, before I get into anything else, that I had a lot of fun reading this and I would actually recommend it. But I’d recommend it with caveats, or for when you’re in the same mood I was in, or when you’re just into this kind of book. Because if you’re a reader of SFF for the same reasons I am – namely discovering the world through a science-fictional lens, reading about wild ideas, wondrous magic, epic battles, fantastical cultures, futuristic visions, … – then this is not the right book. But if you want a quick, fun adventure where magic appears when convenient, where things are simple and straight forward, and where you know more or less what’s going to happen, then pick this up. The best analogy I can make is a rom com. They’re all essentially the same but still different enough to have a favorite and to keep you entertained. So, now that I’ve hopefully got across that I had fun reading this, my critical brain nonetheless needs to tell you why it just isn’t a good book.
Everything is super simplistic and shallow. Seriously, pick your poison (haha), it has no depth. The characters are mostly blank with one or two personality traits and no agency at all. They exist merely to further Yelena’s story, they don’t have lives or hopes or dreams outside of being a sidekick to Yelena. Yelena is, naturally, perfect. She is the kind of heroine I loathe! She’s good at everything, either right from the start or after very little training. Her friends teach her self-defense and fighting with a staff and she masters this art after only a few weeks because… well, the plot demands that she’s really good at fighting at that point. The fact that her tastebuds are also amazing and can immediately (!) detect the slightest differences in certain foods is far from believable, especially in someone who has spent the last months in a dungeon, being fed tasteless slop. But my motto while reading this was: just roll with it!
The world buliding is just as weak and sloppy. There used to be a king, but he was overthrown by the Commander and now the kingdom is divided into Military Districts, led by Generals. They abide by super strict rules (that Code thingy I mentioned above) that allow no lenience whatsoever. Killed someone in self-defense? You gotta die. Killed someone to save a baby’s life? Too bad, you’re still going to be hanged. None of this is ever explained, there’s not even an attempt at creating a consistent believable world here. Rules, cultural idiosynchrasies, celebrations, etc. come up when the plot demands it and disappear as easily. That’s why this is, objectively, not a good book. But who cares? There’s also magic in this universe and – can you guess it – our heroine secretly has magical powers. This isn’t a spoiler as anyone will guess after the third chapter when she accidentally uses magic. Now I am perfectly happy with the lack of a magic system, because magic should be wild and uncontrollable, otherwise it would just be science that we don’t understand (yet). But Snyder does put some rules on her magic, although they, like everything else in this book, feel like she came up with them spontaneously and they don’t have any impact whatsoever on the plot or characters or anything. New rules appear as soon as it’s convenient, without ever having been mentioned before. That’s what makes this book feel so much like an early draft. Ideas pop up whenever they probably popped up in the author’s head. Now to make a book better, you should try and foreshadow a little or at least leave tiny hints or mentions of things that will be important to the plot later. Don’t let your readers believe they are in a world with only rule X and then, in the last quarter of the book sudeenly pretend that rule Y has always existed.
As for the plot, I’m not really sure what the point is and why the book is called Poison Study, but it was exciting enough. Yelena’s new chance to live gets the whole thing rolling, but we soon learn that she has a Dark Past (TM) which is also the reason she’s killed a man and was in the dungeons in the first place. Nothing about her past was particularly surprising, except for the one time where she explicitly contradicts herself – saying in an early chapter that a certain thing never happened and then much later in the book explaining how that very thing not just happened but was the catalyst for the murder… That’s just super lazy writing/editing! But whatever, her new job is to taste the Commander’s food, try and not find her superior/assassin/poison master Valek so damn attractive, make friends with a few people, and discover a whole conspiracy. There are training montages, bullies to fight, spies to discover, friendship, betrayal, a fire festival, acrobatics, surprisingly little poison tasting, sneaking around the castle, and some battles.
On the one hand, everything in this book is just too easy and it felt like the author didn’t know how to make certain things feel important. Yelena’s past, for example, follows her everywhere. She clearly has some trauma (as is only understandable) but only about her past. She strangely mourns a stranger’s death but never so much as mentions the death of a character who was a friend. Because the characters are all so shallow, I guess the author forgot to have her heroine be sad about one of them passing. There is also this whole enmity going on between Yelena and another character that is simply dropped somwhere around the middle of the book. Said character isn’t even mentioned after that although they came across as rather important at first. It’s all very haphazard and serves one purpose only: to tell the story of an author-insert protagonist who is beyond perfect and finally realizes just how amazing she really is. She finds an attractive man who (of course) is all aflame for her, she makes friends who would immediately die for her, and she saves the country just by being the only (!) person clever enough to figure out things that will be clear to the reader from chapter 3 onwards.
So to reiterate: Despite this book actually being a literary trainwreck, I had fun reading it! Who cares that the language changes from old-timey to strangely modern within the same sentence? Who cares how simple and ridiculous everything is. This is a feel-good book where you know everything will end well, things will turn out alright for the protagonists and the only characters who find a bad end you never really cared for in the first place because they were just cardboard cutouts. Sitting down for a few hours having mindless fun can be exactly right, especially during stressful times. Reading is supposed to be fun and sometimes, we need this pure escapism. Maria Snyder gave me that with this book, and although I have no desire whatsoever to find out how Yelena’s story continues, I will keep this series in the back of my mind for a time when I’m stressed out and don’t want to think but just want to go on a silly adventure with a perfect heroine.
In case you haven’t heard me gush about Angela Slatter (writing here as A.G. Slatter), let me remind you of how the mosaic novels/short story collections Sourdoughand The Bitterwood Bible blew my mind, tore out my heart, and made me want to just bathe in their beautiful language. Okay, now that’s out of the way, you know why I had to pick up Slatter’s newest book, set in the same world as the two mentioned above, with lots of Irish mythology and fairy tale vibes but which is also a gothic novel?! Does that work? Yeah, totally!
Opening line: See this house perched not so far from the granite cliffs of Hob’s Head?
Long ago Miren O’Malley’s family prospered due to a deal struck with the Mer: safety for their ships in return for a child of each generation. But for many years the family have been unable to keep their side of the bargain and have fallen into decline. Miren’s grandmother is determined to restore their glory, even at the price of Miren’s freedom.
A spellbinding tale of dark family secrets, magic and witches, and creatures of myth and the sea; of strong women and the men who seek to control them.
Sometimes it takes a little while to find your way into a story, to figure out what kind it is, how to feel about it. This was the case for me with All the Murmuring Bones. Its cover design and my knowledge of the author’s previous work led me to believe I would get some sort of a fairy tale, a whimsical story of a young girl breaking away from her family’s strict rules. And while that isn’t totally wrong, it’s also really not right.
We begin this story not with a person but with a place. The O’Malley’s home by the sea, the grand old house that young Miren is to inherit some day. With her grandfather Oísin just dead, her grandmother Aoife is her closest living relative and she is a strict, cold woman. But family nonetheless. Not that the O’Malleys don’t have quite a bit of extended family, but none of the many cousins however many times removed have the purity of blood to be considered rightful heirs of the mansion and all that comes with it. Because you see, the O’Malleys have been so successful because they struck a bargain with the Mer – merpeople of legend and myth – but some years ago, their luck ran out. Grandmother Aoife plans to return the family to prosperity at any cost. The first step is marrying Miren off to her cousin Aidan Fitzpatrick. Miren is not pleased and makes plans of her own…
The first part of this book wasn’t what I had imagined. Granted, I had missed that this is a gothic tale and with that bit of knowledge I would have been much better prepared, but even knowing that it was a dark, mysterious tale with empty rooms in vast mansions, family secrets that go back generations, and greedy scheming cousins, it takes this book a while to find its footing. Once Miren is off on her way to find her own place and life to live, that’s when things started kicking off for me. That’s when I sunk into this book, enjoying every page, soaking up every mention of mythological beasties, making every connection between the fairy tales Miren reads and her own life. It was so much fun, despite (or maybe because of) all the murder and death and terrifying monsters…
I don’t spoil books here, so let’s keep things vague but still give you an idea of what to expect. Miren’s journey is marked by dangerous encounters but also unexpected friendships, but it doesn’t last forever. Eventually, she arrives at a place that is a whole new mystery and it was at that place that I felt the gothic elements of this novel got to shine. Sure, the O’Malley mansion may be creepy but since you know pretty much from the start what the O’Malley’s deal is, there’s nothing mysterious about it anymore. The thing that makes the second half of this book so delightfully creepy is the not knowing. What is really going on? Is it mythological creatures? Witch’s magic? Or just regular humans being awful to each other? What happened in the past? Did someone strike a deal with a devil? You see, it could be either or none of those, you just get this sense that someting is wrong and you have no idea who you can trust. As bad as that situation is for Miren, I revelled in it. It’s exactly the kind of creepy mystery that makes me cuddle up with a blanket and read for hours and hours.
But it’s not just the mixture of gothic elements with Irish mythology and fairy tales (some of which reference Angela Slatter’s other works, by the way, which made me squeal like a crazy person because that’s just brilliant), it’s also the first person protagonist Miren. At first, she doesn’t seem like there’s much to her. She’s obedient, knows her place in the strict and strange O’Malley family tree, she doesn’t talk back, she just nods and agrees. But inside, oh, inside is a different story. And over the course of this book, the way she has always felt inside comes out more and more. The way her life is controlled by others, how her voice isn’t heard. She breaks free of those restraints, sometimes violently, sometimes through kindness. It happened quite sneakily, but by the end of the book, I found I really cared about her!
If, like me, you find yourself struggling a bit at the beginning of this book, you’re unsure what atmosphere is supposed to be created or which character you should root for, don’t stop reading. You’d miss out on a fantastic novel that grows better and better with every chapter. It has twists and turns in store, it has plenty of good stuff for lovers of mythology or ghost stories, murder and mayhem, and of course very pretty writing. I’m happy Angela Slatter shows no signs of running out of ideas and I hope many people pick this book up. If you liked Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno Garcia, why not go for this Irish-inspired gothic story? And if the Irish names throw you, I can recommend the audiobook – that’s how I consumed this book – which is read masterfully by Aoife McMahon who knows how to say all the names.