World Hopping and Finding Your Place: Micaiah Johnson – The Space Between Worlds

This book had me so confused. Not because of its contents (they were awesome – expect some gushing below) but because of its marketing or rather the way early reviews presented it. For some reason, I thought this was a YA book but… it’s really not. The protagonist is in her mid-twenties, there is nothing particularly “YA” about the writing style or the plot, so I don’t know where early reviewers and people on Goodreads got this idea from. It is, however, a really great book that kept me on the edge of my seat the entire time.

43301353. sy475 THE SPACE BETWEEN WORLDS
by Micaiah Johnson

Published: DelRey, 2020
eBook: 336 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8/10

Opening line: When the multiverse was confirmed, the spiritual and scientific communities both counted it as evidence of their validity.

An outsider who can travel between worlds discovers a secret that threatens her new home and her fragile place in it, in a stunning sci-fi debut that’s both a cross-dimensional adventure and a powerful examination of identity, privilege, and belonging.
Multiverse travel is finally possible, but there’s just one catch: No one can visit a world where their counterpart is still alive. Enter Cara, whose parallel selves happen to be exceptionally good at dying–from disease, turf wars, or vendettas they couldn’t outrun. Cara’s life has been cut short on 372 worlds in total.
On this Earth, however, Cara has survived. Identified as an outlier and therefore a perfect candidate for multiverse travel, Cara is plucked from the dirt of the wastelands. Now she has a nice apartment on the lower levels of the wealthy and walled-off Wiley City. She works–and shamelessly flirts–with her enticing yet aloof handler, Dell, as the two women collect off-world data for the Eldridge Institute. She even occasionally leaves the city to visit her family in the wastes, though she struggles to feel at home in either place. So long as she can keep her head down and avoid trouble, Cara is on a sure path to citizenship and security.
But trouble finds Cara when one of her eight remaining doppelgängers dies under mysterious circumstances, plunging her into a new world with an old secret. What she discovers will connect her past and her future in ways she could have never imagined – and reveal her own role in a plot that endangers not just her world, but the entire multiverse.

Caramenta works for Eldridge, the company that has invented multiverse travel. As a traverser, she is tasked with hopping between Earths that are similar to, but not quite like, our own in order to take samples and conduct research on behalf of her employer. Cara is so valuable because you can only safely travel to worlds where your other self is already dead – and Cara happens to be really good at dying…

The premise alone was already so interesting that very little could have gone wrong with this book. But Micaiah Johnson didn’t just rely on one good idea. Instead, she took that idea, extrapolated from it and delivered twist after twist, all fitting perfectly together in this world she’s built and keeping me riveted for the entire book. I mean, how often does it happen that you get a plot twist in chapter 2 (!) that actually shocks you? For me, this showed two things. First, that Johnson did a really good job setting up the world and protagonist in the first chapter. And secondly, that she somehow got me emotionally invested in that same amount of time. And that’s no small feat.

Caramenta is pretty easy to like, even though she is complicated, stubborn, and carries a lot of baggage. She keeps flirting with her watcher, Dell, even though she only returns the flirtations with cold professionalism. Cara is also great at getting herself into dangerous situations, ones she mostly makes the best of. The best being her pursuit of a Wiley City citizenship. As a traverser, she gets to live in Wiley City but she never, for one second, forgets her origins in the Mad Max-like wastelands. Walled cities have all the wealth and quality of life, whereas the outside is mostly desert under a scorching sun, with terrible living conditions, and ground that barely wants to grow anything. It’s ruled by the Blood Emperor and that title alone should tell you all there is to know about him.

This book may be about multiverses, and we do get to see some of those, but it’s also about living between two worlds on your own Earth, of straddling two identities and not feeling like you properly fit into either. As much as I enjoyed Cara’s jumps between worlds, it was this aspect of the novel that truly gripped me. And I was very impressed with how the author managed to show both those worlds as believable spaces, with their own culture, their own clothing and mannerisms, their own rituals and rules. Discovering both how Wiley City and the wastelands work was a large part of the fun for me.

But there’s also plot. Oh, and what a plot it is! You’d think the trope of the multiverse would prepare you a little for what’s to come. And again, some things that are expected turn out to happen in this novel – such as meeting other versions of people you know, except they’re very different or meeting their other versions and they’re almost exactly the same – but there is so much more! Things in one universe actually impact other universes, if only because Cara travels between them and can take information (and objects) with her. Let’s just say there are quite a few twists, none of which felt cheap, and I was there for it!

What made this book even better was the relationships between the characters and the way they were written. This may sound mean (I don’t mean it that way) but that’s another thing that convinced me this was not a YA novel. In YA, sometimes relationships can be described in very obvious terms. And while it’s obvious from the start that Cara is in love with Dell, that’s all we really know. We’re in Cara’s head so we don’t really know what goes on in anyone else’s. But as aloof as Dell may be, through little (and sometimes big) gestures, she shows that she at least cares whether Cara lives or dies.
Similarly, Cara’s relationship to her stepsister Esther was beautifully done. As different as these two girls may be, there is love between them and it is shown not by either of them declaring it in big words, but rather through actions. It may just be me, but I’m a sucker for love shown, rather than told. Sure, pretty words are nice and I get weak in the knees as much as the next person when I read a powerful declaration of love. But even more than that, a collection of little gestures is what gets to me. A small lie to protect the other person here, a gift there, something that shows you listen and care about someone… aaaaah, I’m getting all mushy inside.

This book is exactly what the title promises. It’s about the space between worlds. A multitude of worlds. The literal parallel worlds that exist next to ours, the two worlds on Earth Zero with their class differences, even the worlds inside Cara herself where she has to decide whether she wants to be a good person or just someone who carved out a comfortable life for herself, regardless of the cost. And let’s not forget the space between Cara’s two romantic relationships which couldn’t be more different. In short, there is so much to discover in this book and the way Johnson explores these themes is amazing.

I loved everything about this book, especially considering that it’s a debut novel. Johnson writes like she has at least five books under her belt. If this is what she comes up with for her first book I cannot wait to see what’s next. The Space Between Worlds was a fantastic, multi-layered story with high stakes, great science-fictional ideas, brilliant characters, and a satisfying ending. It will easily end up on my list of favorite books of the year.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

The Horrors of Slavery Through Modern Eyes: Octavia E. Butler – Kindred

I’m participating in the Octavia Butler Slow Readalong, a two-year project where a group of people read thorugh the works of the late great Octavia E. Butler. Having read only one of her books before (Wild Seed), I had certain expectations for this one. I expected a tough, slow read with heavy topics and a focus on character development. And while the topics are definitely tough to read about – this is about slavery – I found myself flying thorugh the pages of this book in no time at all.

KINDRED
by Octavia E. Butler

Published: Headline, 2014 (1979)
eBook: 306 pages
Audiobook: 10 hours 55 minutes
Standalone
My rating: 9/10

Opening line: I lost an arm on my last trip home. My left arm.

On her 26th birthday, Dana and her husband are moving into their apartment when she starts to feel dizzy. She falls to her knees, nauseous. Then the world falls away.
She finds herself at the edge of a green wood by a vast river. A child is screaming. Wading into the water, she pulls him to safety, only to find herself face to face with a very old looking rifle, in the hands of the boy’s father. She’s terrified. The next thing she knows she’s back in her apartment, soaking wet. It’s the most terrifying experience of her life … until it happens again.
The longer Dana spends in 19th century Maryland—a very dangerous place for a black woman—the more aware she is that her life might be over before it’s even begun.

This is such an amazing book! I don’t expect to be forming a lot of coherent sentences in this review, not least because my perspective is that of a White woman living in Europe and slavery, while taught at schools, has never been a topic that’s been much discussed in my life. We have our own dark history here in Austria that’s featured much more prominently in schools but this doesn’t keep me from wanting to educate myself and learn more about humanity’s past as a whole. And because fiction has always been my best teacher, I picked up Kindred.

Octavia Butler doesn’t waste much time before beginning with the story that’s promised in the synopsis. Dana, a young Black woman, lives in 1976 with her White husband Kevin, and is suddenly yanked back in time, only to find herself in an unknown place where a little White boy is in the process of drowning. Naturally, she helps him and saves his life. Then she just reappears in her own apartment where her husband says she vanished for a few seconds and randomly popped up in a different part of their home. Neither of them can quite believe what has happened, but these strange events are far from over. Dana jumps through time again, this time to meet a slightly older version of Rufus, the boy she saved. It doesn’t take her long to figure out that this boy is her own ancestor and while his father is a slave owner and exactly the kind of despicable you’d expect, Rufus is still young and can maybe be taught kindness yet. It is also his fault Dana is being drawn back in time whenever his life is in danger. Not that he knows how he’s doing it, but whenever his life is threatened, Dana appears and does her best to save him.

Things start going really wrong when Dana takes her husband Kevin with her on one of those time jumps. On the one hand, having a White man by her side to protect her from a decidedly hostile society is a good thing. On the other hand, her and Kevin have to integrate enough into that society so as not to be suspicious. So they pretend to be slave and slave owner and although it’s just make-believe, that doesn’t keep Dana from being treated like a slave, or Kevin from pretend-talking like a slave owner… And then there’s the problem that Dana never knows when (or if) she is going to return to her own time. All she knows is that she has to touch Kevin in order to take him back with her.

That’s all I’m willing to tell you about the plot, but there is much more to come after that. I found this book incredibly fascinating for many different reasons. The most obvious one is of course the way Butler talks about and has her characters deal with slavery. Dana is a modern woman who knows about slavery but of course, it’s quite different when you’re suddenly living it, seeing it firsthand, watching people you’ve come to befriend suffer terrible hardships without a chance at ever gaining their freedom. Which leads me to the other thing I found so impressive.
While you could call this an “issue book”, one that deals with Black pain, Butler’s use of language almost works against that classification. Neither the words she chooses to tell the story nor her protagonist ever feel like they’re falling down into a depressed spiral, lingering on the suffering of of the people in this book, or using the terrible things that happen for shock value. If you’re looking for torture porn, you’ll have to find a different book.

I loved Dana, who goes from knowing in theory what slavery was like to actually understanding it over the course of this book. Compared to the other slaves on the Weylin’s plantation, Dana has it pretty easy. With Kevin as her companion, she doesn’t have to do hard physical labor but is rather employed as a teacher for young Rufus. But that doesn’t keep her from seeing how the other slaves are treated, how they bear the scars of endless whippings and beatings, how they are hunched over from a lifetime of gruelling work. Again, Octavia Butler doesn’t deliver these facts with particularly shocking language. She just lets the story talk for itself and it is utterly heartbreaking. This book comes with trigger warnings for racism (many uses of the n-word), violence, and rape so it’s not exactly an easy book to read when it comes to its content.

But the language itself flows so beautifully that I couldn’t stop reading. Actually, I listened to the audiobook, but you know what I mean. Having read only one other of Butler’s books before, I had expected the language to be more difficult, the atmosphere to be more sinister, but somehow it wasn’t. It was Dana’s narration, her calmness throughout all the horror, that turned this into a book which only unfolds completely in your own mind. We may experience being whipped alongside Dana and while these descriptions are chilling and Dana’s in great pain, she doesn’t linger on it as an event. Instead, her experiences in the past slowly change Dana’s character from a rather carefree young woman to someone always on the lookout for someone who might mean her harm. She watches what she says, she doggedly does her work in order not to stand out, rather than risk another beating – and she comes to understand that it’s not as simple as “just band together and rise up against the White slavers”.

Another interesting aspect is Dana’s relationship with her husband. Due to the circumstances of their time travels, their marriage has to deal with way more than they had planned. Racism from their own families they can deal with, racism in the past they’ve expected. But how spending time in the past, living alongside its people, changes them is something they don’t know how to handle. And let’s not forget that these time jumps don’t happen parallel to the present. When Dana is in the past for a few hours, a few minutes may have passed in her time. She may spend months in the past, only to appear in 1976 again, just a day after she disappeared. This complicates matters even more when she and Kevin are separated, one waiting for the other, with no means of contact or knowing when (or if) they will ever be reunited.

I’ve rambled on about this book for a while now but I still don’t think I got across just what an emotional impact it had on me. I found myself crying quietly to myself several times, not even necessarily during the scenes that were the most brutal, but rather during the quiet conversations Dana has with other slaves, who tell her matter of fact that their children were sold away and they haven’t seen them since they were babies, or how two Black people in love can’t get married and if their master doesn’t like their love, they can just separate them and sell one of them off. These things are mentioned almost by the way but they have lingered in my mind, as much as the brutal phyiscal treatment of Dana and the other slaves.

It feels strange to say I enjoyed this book. But I did! I enjoyed how it made me think, how it showed a period of history through the eyes of a fictional heroine I can feel with, how it made history that much more real, even though the characters are all invented. I may not have enjoyed the plot because I came to care for the characters and wanted them all to be okay and happy, and of course that’s not a realistic hope for slaves during slavery. But I loved how Octavia Butler nudged my mind to look at this topic from different angles, how she included multi-layered White people, how she showed that slaves don’t all agree with each other, that there is envy among them as well as love. I wish I had the ability to express properly how amazing this book really is. For now, you’ll just have to take my word for it. This one will stick with you!

MY RATING: 9/10 – Close to perfection!

A Haunted House Story Done Right: Silvia Moreno-Garcia – Mexican Gothic

Okay, here’s the thing. I’ve only read one book by Silvia Moreno-Garcia before and while I found it sweet and nice, it definitely wasn’t what the hype had made me expect. I found the tone to be much more YA than adult fantasy (although I am fairly alone in this opinion) and so I approached her newest novel with some trepidation. The hype is massive yet again, so I was all the more worried that me reading this book would lead to disappointment. Spoiler: No need to worry because this was GREAT!

53152636. sx318 sy475 MEXICAN GOTHIC
by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Published: DelRey, 2020
eBook: 304 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8/10

Opening line: The parties at the Tuñons’ house always ended unquestionably late, and since the hosts enjoyed costume parties in particular, it was not unusual to see Chinas Poblanas with their folkloric skirts and ribbons in their hair arrive in the company of a harlequin or a cowboy.

An isolated mansion. A chillingly charismatic aristocrat. And a brave socialite drawn to expose their treacherous secrets. . . .
From the author of Gods of Jade and Shadow comes a novel set in glamorous 1950s Mexico.
After receiving a frantic letter from her newlywed cousin begging for someone to save her from a mysterious doom, Noemí Taboada heads to High Place, a distant house in the Mexican countryside. She’s not sure what she will find – her cousin’s husband, a handsome Englishman, is a stranger, and Noemí knows little about the region.
Noemí is also an unlikely rescuer: She’s a glamorous debutante, and her chic gowns and perfect red lipstick are more suited for cocktail parties than amateur sleuthing. But she’s also tough and smart, with an indomitable will, and she is not afraid: not of her cousin’s new husband, who is both menacing and alluring; not of his father, the ancient patriarch who seems to be fascinated by Noemí; and not even of the house itself, which begins to invade Noemi’s dreams with visions of blood and doom.
Her only ally in this inhospitable abode is the family’s youngest son. Shy and gentle, he seems to want to help Noemí but might also be hiding dark knowledge of his family’s past. For there are many secrets behind the walls of High Place. The family’s once colossal wealth and faded mining empire kept them from prying eyes, but as Noemí digs deeper she unearths stories of violence and madness.
And Noemí, mesmerized by the terrifying yet seductive world of High Place, may soon find it impossible to ever leave this enigmatic house behind.

The first thing I noticed about this book, and the first thing that made me fall in love with it, was the narrative tone and the protagonist. Set in 1950 in Mexico, we follow young socialite Noemí Taboada as she is leaving a fancy dress party and charms her date with her wit and flirtiness. I immediately adored her! The writing made me think of Jane Austen for some reason, but with less overdrawn characters and, of course, a completely different time and cultural setting. So this book was off to a fantastic start, and that’s despite my unintentional but existing prejudice because of all the hype.

As the synopsis promises, Noemí receives a disturbing letter from her cousin Catalina, asking for help. Although she isn’t happy about leaving her carefree life and missing social gatherings, Noemí packs her bags and goes to High Place, where her cousin lives with her husband Virgil and his family. Immediately after arriving, Noemí knows something isn’t right. It’s not just that the entire family are cold and unfriendly, the house in disrepair, and the rules ridiculous. Catalina herself appears to be ill, but it’s not simply a cold. Her mind seems confused, she’s hearing voices, and the Doyle family won’t let Noemí visit her much.

I won’t go into the details of the weird things that happen in High Place, Noemí’s strange dreams, or the rumors she hears about the Doyle family. This is a haunted house story that may or may not include supernatural elements, and it does exactly what it should. It builds up this atmosphere of unease, it makes you look for clues to what’s going on, it makes you live alongside Noemí and question everything and everyone. I loved how the house and its inhabitants are described, how local legends and rumors and stories get woven into Noemí’s experience in High Place, and how strange everyone is behaving. Noemí’s only potential ally is Francis, the quiet, pale young man who at least talks to her like a normal person.

It’s difficult to talk about this book without spoiling anything. I will say that one aspect of the mystery was quite obvious to me but the bigger secrets, while hinted at, weren’t so easily guessed. I had my suspicions the entire time but then Moreno-Garcia adds a little twist and all my ideas suddenly don’t make sense anymore. I don’t know about you guys but I love it when I think I’ve got something figured out that then turns out to be wrong. Not every author has the ability to achieve that, to mislead their readers in such a way that the twists at the end still feel satisfying. But Silvia Moreno-Garcia hit the mark. She gave us just enough clues to figure some things out for ourselves, while surprising us with the whole terrifying story at the end.

Other reviews have mentioned that this book is rather slow but I have to disagree. Sure, the setting is rather narrow – mostly Noemí stays at High Place with occasional visits to the local village – but there’s always something happening. Whether it’s Noemí’s terrible nightmares, the utterly strange behaviour of the Doyle family and their servants, or her brief talks with Catalina, I never felt bored for one second. Unlike what I’d heard about this book before, it’s definitely not just dinner conversations and descriptions of the house, if only for the reason that the Doyle family spends dinner in silence. Like I said, they are weird…

The one thing that can make or break a horror story for me is the protagonist. I don’t just mean that I want to like them, but I absolutely need the protagonist to be Not Stupid. And Noemí was more than that. She is clever and cautious when she needs to be, without turning into a Mary Sue. In fact, she is well aware of her own character flaws, and that makes her even more likable. But most importantly, she knows what kind of story she has stumbled into but she reacts like most people would. She kind of thinks she’s in a haunted house but she also doesn’t believe in ghosts and keeps searching for a scientific reason behind what’s going on. Whenever she uncovers something new, she collects her thoughts first, she tries to formulate a plan. I can’t stress enough how much I enjoyed her as a character and especially as the heroine in this gothic tale.

While it’s not the main focus of the book, I also enjoyed how Moreno-Garcia managed to weave a bit of history in the story. The Doyle family came to Mexico from England where they bought a silver mine and exploited many workers for their own financial gain. Howard Doyle, the ancient patriarch of the family, also has a thing for eugenics and doesn’t miss a chance to let Noemí know just what he thinks about classifying people into good and bad, based on their appearance or bloodline. You can imagine that it was pretty easy to despise the man but this topic wasn’t just thrown into the story to make clear that Howard is a despicable human being. It’s all part of the bigger tale.

Another thing that pleasantly surprised me was Noemí’s relationship with Francis. It doesn’t take long for the reader – or Noemí, for that matter – to realize that Francis is rather taken with her. But Noemí usually flirts with attractive men, men who can keep up with her wit, who know how to flirt and be charming. Francis is none of that and yet, the two form a sort of friendship that gave me all the warm feelings I could want. This relationship was also a chance for Noemí to grow as a person, to not pick her friends or suitors by appearance or superficial charm only, but by deeper values.

At the end, things come together beautifully. Well, if you can call it beautiful when talking about a horror novel that describes some truly disturbing things. But you know what I mean. All the elements fall into place to paint a larger picture that makes perfect sense. The clues were there all along, you just have to piece them together in the right way. And for anyone who feels that this book is a bit slow, you can expect a lot to happen at the end! When I was reading the last few chapters, my boyfriend suddenly asked “is the book exciting?” because, apparently, I had that look on my face. Utter concentration mixed with shock mixed with disgust – so the ending was really, really good! 🙂

I’m so glad that the hype hasn’t ruined this book for me. In fact, I’m jumping on the hype train and looking forward to all the other books by Silvia Moreno-Garcia I have on my TBR. Her range already impresses me after having read only two of her novels. If she can jump from genre to genre like this, then I can’t wait to see what she writes next.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

 

Found Families, Magic, and Fighting Destiny: Jordan Ifueko – Raybearer

I’m very cautious when it comes to hyped books because we’ve all stepped into the trap of expecting the world of a novel, only to end up disappointed that it doesn’t deliver what was promised. In the case of Raybearer I needn’t have worried. The hype machine worked pretty hard to promote this book but I am so happy to report that Ifueko’s debut novel not only does what it says but surpassed all my expectations.

RAYBEARER
by Jordan Ifueko

Published: Amulet Books, 2020
eBook: 368 pages
Audiobook: 13 hours 48 minutes
Series: Raybearer #1
My rating: 8/10

Opening line: I shouldn’t have been surprised that fairies exist.

Nothing is more important than loyalty.
But what if you’ve sworn to protect the one you were born to destroy?

Tarisai has always longed for the warmth of a family. She was raised in isolation by a mysterious, often absent mother known only as The Lady. The Lady sends her to the capital of the global empire of Aritsar to compete with other children to be chosen as one of the Crown Prince’s Council of 11. If she’s picked, she’ll be joined with the other Council members through the Ray, a bond deeper than blood. That closeness is irresistible to Tarisai, who has always wanted to belong somewhere. But The Lady has other ideas, including a magical wish that Tarisai is compelled to obey: Kill the Crown Prince once she gains his trust. Tarisai won’t stand by and become someone’s pawn—but is she strong enough to choose a different path for herself?

One of the gripes I have with many YA books that end up falling flat for me is that they only have one thing – one theme, one issue, on idea to set them apart – that is supposed to carry the whole story. Say, for example, the protagonist has a special power, and that’s all there is to make her interesting. Raybearer is the exact opposite of that, which is probably why I liked this book so much. There are so many ideas here and they all come together beautifully to create a fascinating world peopled with complex characters – what more can I want from YA, really?

Tarisai grows up in a magically hidden away house where she is mostly left alone by her mother, The Lady. She longs for family and love but the servants won’t even touch her because of her gift of reading and even taking away memories. This so-called Hallow is why The Lady sends Tarisai off to the capital in order to compete with other children to become one of the Crown Prince’s Council of Eleven. This Council is a group of eleven people, each with a Hallow, who are connected to the Prince and to each other via the Ray – a magical bond closer than blood. If they are too far from each other, they feel pain; they can telepathically communicate, they can share their thoughts and feelings and each Council member also provides a unique magical protection for the Prince. Once the Council is fully anointed, the Prince cannot be killed by anyone except a member of that council.
There are so many great ideas in that premise alone that it would have been enough for a great story, but Jordan Ifueko doesn’t stop there. The world of Aritsar has even more to offer, both in terms of politics, lore, songs, and history, that there is always something new to discover.

What really makes this book shine, though, are the characters. Tarisai is a great protagonist, not because she is flawless by any means, but because she is made of conflicts. The Lady compelled her to become a Council member and to kill the Prince. But Tarisai actually grows to love Prince Dayo like a brother and wants to do everything in her power to protect him. Instead of just bemoaning her fate, though, she puts her brain to it and searches for ways around her curse. Her cleverness, her kindness, her love for Dayo and their friends are what made Tarisai so lovable.
Many YA books also tend to use character development solely only on the protagonist and leave the side characters almost blank. Maybe they get one character trait each, but that’s it. In Raybearer, we don’t get to know every single member of the Council very well but instead focus on a select few who are shown to be layered, believable people with dreams and feelings of their own. I thought this was a great decision on the author’s (or editor’s?) part. Tarisai’s best friend Kirah felt like a real person and the girls’ friendship was simply beautiful. Even more beautiful was Tarisai’s relationship to Sanjeet and how their bond slowly grows over time. Every time these two had an interaction, it warmed my heart!

But wait, this book isn’t done yet! There is also a plot and it packs a punch. Do you know those books that start out as one thing and then slowly peel away layers and layers to reveal that the world is so much bigger than you thought, that there are mysteries within mysteries? Yeah, I love that kind of book, and Raybearer absolutely delivered on that part. I thought I was going to read about a girl destined to kill a boy she loved and how she fights against that compulsion. And while I did get to read about that, there was so much more. We learn about different cultures and traditions, about how the magic in this world works and what the implications are, about Raybearers past and present, and about why The Lady kept Tarisai hidden away for so long only to send her on a cruel mission. There’s inequality in the world that needs fixing, there are secrets that want to be revealed, friendships that want to be saved, and in the middle of it all a young girl yearning for a family, for a place to belong.

I think the first moment when I realized this wouldn’t just be a good book but a great one was when Tarisai takes a certain action at about a third into the book. This action – I’m being vague for fear of spoilers – could just as easily have been the resolution to the whole story, had this been a simpler, less well thought-out YA book. The fact that she did what she did so early on in the story made me realize that Jordan Ifueko has a lot more to tell and doesn’t have to hold back her ideas. And then she does the same thing again, later in the book. I thought I knew what kind of quest I was on with Tarisai, Sanjeet, Kirah, and Dayo, but it turns out, things go even deeper than that. We get to see different parts of the Kingdom, meet other cultures, learn about the land’s history, and watch Tarisai grow up through all of it.

In case you haven’t guessed it yet, I have endless amounts of love for this book! Because the last thing that could have ruined it is the writing, and the writing happened to be fantastic. There is nothing particularly flowery about the language, but I adored how Ifueko added songs and drum sounds into the story. What sealed it for me was the way she described her characters interacting. It could have been so easy to turn Dayo into Tarisai’s love interest (the destined to kill the one you love trope is a trope for a reason, after all), but instead, the two are just incredibly close friends and – at least for me – that bond felt even closer than a romatic relationship could have. Whether it’s Tarisai and Sanjeet or Tarisai and Kirah, or even Tarisai and one of the tutors teaching the new Council, the author always managed to not just convey information thorugh her writing but to also add an emotional layer. No conversation is simply an exchange of words.

As for the ending… well, that was something else! Not only do a LOT of things happen, but the ending also somehow manages to satisfyingly finish the main arc of the story while setting up the story for the sequel. And, boy, what a setup it is!

I listened to this on audio, so I have to mention the narrator (and actress) Joniece Abbott-Pratt. What a great job she has done of bringing Ifueko’s brilliant characters to life. I was especially impressed with how she showed the characters at different ages while still keeping them distinct from each other. She also actually sang the songs in this book which added a lot of atmosphere. I’m still a bit annoyed that I couldn’t access my NetGalley copy of the audiobook, but in retrospect, I don’t begrudge the book (or the author, or the narrator) the Audible credit it cost me to buy my own copy. And this way, I can re-listen to the book when the sequel comes out.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

The State of SFF – September 2020

Hello, everyone, and welcome to another State of SFF. This time, I’ll look at what happened in August, new and old awards, a September readathon, TV adaptation news, and of course new releases for the month of September. I hope you’re all safe and healthy!

The inaugural IGNYTE Awards

FIYAHCon is hosting its inaugural IGNYTE Awards and I am so excited! Look at that ballot.

I am so happy that both Pet and War Girls made it onto the YA shortlist and I hope that The Deep by Rivers Solomon wins Best Novella. I am also glad that Fonda Lee’s amazing Jade War is getting some well-deserved recognition. Plus, you know, all the other amazing finalists.

You can still vote until September 11th, so go to the link above and follow the voting process. Give your favorites a vote and then let’s all be excited together for the announcement of the winners.

The Dragon Awards Shortlist

I, like many others, was very surprised to see this year’s Dragon Award finalists. I haven’t been following these awards very closely in the last few years because the finalists weren’t the type of books I enjoy. The morose baby canines had decided that the Dragons were their awards where their kind of fiction could shine and that’s totally okay. I’m following enough SFF awards as it is and I have no problem with certain awards going to works that don’t personally appeal to me.

Except this year’s ballot looks a lot like other SFF awards ballots. It has works that showed up on Best of the Year lists or were generally buzzed about a lot and that’s quite a departure from previous Dragon Awards.

Although The Ten Thousand Doors of January is wrongly classified as science fiction (it’s a portal fantasy… there’s really not much wiggle room there), this list looks pretty awesome! I’m especially happy to see Fonda Lee and Leigh Bardugo on this ballot as well as Tade Thompson, although I haven’t yet read the third entry in his Wormwood Trilogy.

It does make me wonder, however, what prompted this development. As we don’t know how many people nominate or vote in the Dragon Awards, we can only make assumptions and educated guesses. Technically, anyone with an e-mail address can participate in the voting process and the Puppies have praised the Dragons for being the One True Fan Award where the great masses give prizes to actually beloved works of fiction. I guess the masses have really good taste.

readathon – SOS: Space opera September

Thomas from SFF180 is hosting this month-long readathon that’s all about Space Operas. The definition is used very loosely and I think as long as your book is set (predominantly) in space or involves a space ship, you’re good to go. There’s also a Goodreads group for the readathon if you’re looking for recommendations or discussions.

SFF180 Readathon 🚀 SPACE OPERA SEPTEMBER - YouTube

There are a few challenges to fulfill which help you collect points towards your intergalactic career. You start out as a Space Cadet and can then go on to become a Space Admiral or, if you choose the rebel track, a Space Pirate. That sounds like so much fun and I’d love to participate, but for me, September will be all about 2020 releases. Maybe I’ll manage a couple of books for this readathon, though…

I also want to recommend Thomas’ Youtube channel in general. His reviews are always insightful and in-depth and even though we don’t agree on everything, I appreciate his opinion on SFF books.

Adaptation News

Jade City by Fonda Lee is coming to TV! Yes, this month’s State of SFF is filled with great Fonda Lee news. If you haven’t yet read the brilliant Jade City and its follow-up Jade War, I can only envy you for still having that story ahead of you. If you like mafia movies and magic, complex characters and family dynamics, great fight scenes and political intrigue, then these books are for you.

I cannot wait to see how the Greenbone Saga will translate to TV but I am expecting epic battles and great character actors. I have no idea if I can even access Peacock, the streaming service that is producing the series, but I certainly hope that I can buy the first season once it’s out.

Author event got Zoom-bombed

Behold What Has Arrived. 'Raybearer' by Jordan Ifueko Is Now Available! –  Nerds and Beyond

In utterly depressing news, a virtual author event with Black writers Dhonielle Clayton (The Belles) and debut author Jordan Ifueko (Raybearer) was zoom-bombed by racist scum. The two writers were called the n-word repeatedly and Salsa music was played in the background, making it impossible for the authors to be heard.

All I can say to that is, please, if you’re hosting an online meeting or event of any kind, make sure the participants are safe from attacks! You don’t even have to be particularly tech-savvy to figure out how to protect your online event and especially your guests from harm.

In moments like these, I always think about what I personally can do to help these authors. It may not be much but I bought the audiobook version of Raybearer and am absolutely loving it! So consider Jordan Ifueko’s book a recommendation and maybe go out and buy your own copy. My review will be up soon-ish but I can already tell you there will be some gushing.

Exciting September Publications

SUSANNA CLARKE – PIRANESI

It is a rare book that can keep me not only interested but completely riveted for over 1000 pages. Susanna Clarke wrote such a book – Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. Although this is not a sequel, it is her follow-up novel and probably my most anticipated release for the second half of 2020.

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Piranesi’s house is no ordinary building: its rooms are infinite, its corridors endless, its walls are lined with thousands upon thousands of statues, each one different from all the others. Within the labyrinth of halls an ocean is imprisoned; waves thunder up staircases, rooms are flooded in an instant. But Piranesi is not afraid; he understands the tides as he understands the pattern of the labyrinth itself. He lives to explore the house.

There is one other person in the house-a man called The Other, who visits Piranesi twice a week and asks for help with research into A Great and Secret Knowledge. But as Piranesi explores, evidence emerges of another person, and a terrible truth begins to unravel, revealing a world beyond the one Piranesi has always known.

For readers of Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane and fans of Madeline Miller’s Circe, Piranesi introduces an astonishing new world, an infinite labyrinth, full of startling images and surreal beauty, haunted by the tides and the clouds.


ANDREA STEWART – THE BONE SHARD DAUGHTER

I’m looking at this book with mixed feelings. The early reviews were so overwhelmingly positive that they make me a little suspicious. The premise sounds brilliant and I’m sure if it’s executed well I will love the story. But pre-publication hype makes things just a bit more difficult for me. Expectations are unusually high, so if the book is only good, I am bound to be disappointed. Which won’t keep me from picking it up, of course.

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In an empire controlled by bone shard magic, Lin, the former heir to the emperor will fight to reclaim her magic and her place on the throne. The Bone Shard Daughter marks the debut of a major new voice in epic fantasy.

The emperor’s reign has lasted for decades, his mastery of bone shard magic powering the animal-like constructs that maintain law and order. But now his rule is failing, and revolution is sweeping across the Empire’s many islands.
Lin is the emperor’s daughter and spends her days trapped in a palace of locked doors and dark secrets. When her father refuses to recognise her as heir to the throne, she vows to prove her worth by mastering the forbidden art of bone shard magic.
Yet such power carries a great cost, and when the revolution reaches the gates of the palace, Lin must decide how far she is willing to go to claim her birthright – and save her people.


NAOMI NOVIK – A DEADLY EDUCATION

I think we can all agree that an updated, adult version of the Magic School trope is in order. That someone of Naomi Novik’s skill has taken it on just makes things more exciting. I cannot wait to discover this school where you either graduate or die. Give it to me, now!

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Lesson One of the Scholomance
Learning has never been this deadly

A Deadly Education is set at Scholomance, a school for the magically gifted where failure means certain death (for real) — until one girl, El, begins to unlock its many secrets. There are no teachers, no holidays, and no friendships, save strategic ones. Survival is more important than any letter grade, for the school won’t allow its students to leave until they graduate… or die! The rules are deceptively simple: Don’t walk the halls alone. And beware of the monsters who lurk everywhere. El is uniquely prepared for the school’s dangers. She may be without allies, but she possesses a dark power strong enough to level mountains and wipe out millions. It would be easy enough for El to defeat the monsters that prowl the school. The problem? Her powerful dark magic might also kill all the other students.


V. E. SCHWAB – THE INVISIBLE LIFE OF ADDIE LARUE

Here’s my unpopular opinion: I think Schwab is completely overhyped. I like her ideas and some of her books well enough but I don’t believe she is the literary superstar that others see in her. But her newest novel sounds so good that I won’t be able to resist. And there’s always the chance that she has grown as an author and will sweep me off my feet with this book.

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A Life No One Will Remember. A Story You Will Never Forget.

France, 1714: in a moment of desperation, a young woman makes a Faustian bargain to live forever and is cursed to be forgotten by everyone she meets.
Thus begins the extraordinary life of Addie LaRue, and a dazzling adventure that will play out across centuries and continents, across history and art, as a young woman learns how far she will go to leave her mark on the world.
But everything changes when, after nearly 300 years, Addie stumbles across a young man in a hidden bookstore and he remembers her name.


S. L. HUANG – BURNING ROSES

“As The Last I May Know” just won a deserved Hugo Award for Best Short Story and Huang also ripped my heart out once before with her fairy tale retelling of The Little Mermaid. So of course, I look forward to turning into a sobbing ball of emotions again.

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A gorgeous fairy tale of love and family, of demons and lost gods, for fans of Zen Cho and JY Yang.

When Rosa (aka Red Riding Hood) and Hou Yi the Archer join forces to stop the deadly sunbirds from ravaging the countryside, their quest will take the two women, now blessed and burdened with the hindsight of middle age, into a reckoning of sacrifices made and mistakes mourned, of choices and family and the quest for immortality.
Burning Roses, a gorgeous fairy tale of love and family, of demons and lost gods, arrives in 2020.


JESSICA TOWNSEND – HOLLOWPOX

For the Middle Grade readers among you, here’s a treat. The final instalment of the Nevermoor Trilogy is coming out and I for one can’t wait to see where Morrigan Crow’s story goes next. These books are lovely, heartwarming, quirky, and inventive, and they’re just what I need when I’m feeling a little down.

53152954. sx318 sy475 Strange things are happening in Nevermoor…

Morrigan Crow faces her most dangerous challenge yet in her latest Wundrous adventure. The highly anticipated third book in the award-winning Nevermoor series from one of Australia’s bestselling and most loved authors.

Morrigan Crow and her friends have survived their first year as proud scholars of the elite Wundrous Society, helped bring down the nefarious Ghastly Market, and proven themselves loyal to Unit 919. Now Morrigan faces a new, exciting challenge: to master the mysterious Wretched Arts of the Accomplished Wundersmith, and control the power that threatens to consume her.

But a strange and frightening illness has taken hold of Nevermoor, turning infected Wunimals into mindless, vicious unnimals on the hunt. As victims of the Hollowpox multiply, panic spreads. And with the city she loves in a state of fear, Morrigan quickly realises it’s up to her to find a cure for the Hollowpox, even if it will put her – and everyone in Nevermoor – in more danger than she ever imagined.


R. B. LEMBERG – THE FOUR PROFOUND WEAVES

I don’t know anything about this author but this sounds super intriguing. Comparisons to The Left Hand of Darkness are probably exaggerated but I’m willing to give it a try.

51600161Wind: To match one’s body with one’s heart
Sand: To take the bearer where they wish
Song: In praise of the goddess Bird
Bone: To move unheard in the night

The Surun’ do not speak of the master weaver, Benesret, who creates the cloth of bone for assassins in the Great Burri Desert. But Uiziya now seeks her aunt Benesret in order to learn the final weave, although the price for knowledge may be far too dear to pay.
Among the Khana, women travel in caravans to trade, while men remain in the inner quarter as scholars. A nameless man struggles to embody Khana masculinity, after many years of performing the life of a woman, trader, wife, and grandmother.
As the past catches up to the nameless man, he must choose between the life he dreamed of and Uiziya, and Uiziya must discover how to challenge a tyrant, and weave from deaths that matter.

Set in R. B. Lemberg’s beloved Birdverse, The Four Profound Weaves hearkens to Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. In this breathtaking debut, Lemberg offers a timeless chronicle of claiming one’s identity in a hostile world.


TESSA GRATTON – NIGHT SHINE

A girl called Nothing and a Sorceress Who Eats Girls is really all I need to know to want this book. Tessa Gratton impressed me with The Queens of Innis Lear and while I really don’t like the cover for her new book, I will definitely check it out.

51000875. sy475 How can you live without your heart?

In the vast palace of the empress lives an orphan girl called Nothing. She slips within the shadows of the Court, unseen except by the Great Demon of the palace and her true friend, Prince Kirin, heir to the throne. When Kirin is kidnapped, only Nothing and the prince’s bodyguard suspect that Kirin may have been taken by the Sorceress Who Eats Girls, a powerful woman who has plagued the land for decades. The sorceress has never bothered with boys before, but Nothing has uncovered many secrets in her sixteen years in the palace, including a few about the prince.

As the empress’s army searches fruitlessly, Nothing

and the bodyguard set out on a rescue mission, through demon-filled rain forests and past crossroads guarded by spirits. Their journey takes them to the gates of the Fifth Mountain, where the sorceress wields her power. There, Nothing will discover that all magic is a bargain, and she may be more powerful than she ever imagined. But the price the Sorceress demands for Kirin may very well cost Nothing her heart


And that’s it for this month’s State of SFF. Make sure to vote in the IGNYTE Awards if you’ve read the nominated works and want to push your favorites. Add all the interesting sounding books to your wishlists and, most important of all, stay kind and stay safe.

Fairy Revolution: Mishell Baker – Impostor Syndrome

One thing I’ve learned from reading The Arcadia Project trilogy is that you shouldn’t let years pass between books 2 and 3 of a series that tells one continuous story. Also, mood is important when picking up a book of a certain subgenre. Also, also, finishing a series is a great feeling which is probably why this has become my Year of Reading Sequels. Warning: Spoilers for the first two books below!

IMPOSTOR SYNDROME
by Mishell Baker

Published: Saga Press, 2018
eBook: 480 pages
Series: The Arcadia Project #3
My rating: 6/10

Opening line: The British declared war in January, just after my boss’s twentieth birthday.

In the third book of the Nebula Award–nominated Arcadia Project series, which New York Times bestselling author Seanan McGuire called “exciting, inventive, and brilliantly plotted,” Millie Roper has to pull off two impossible heists—with the fate of the worlds in the balance.
Three months ago, a rift between agents in London and Los Angeles tore the Arcadia Project apart. With both fey Courts split down the middle—half supporting London, half LA—London is putting the pieces in place to quash the resistance. But due to an alarming backslide in her mental health, new LA agent Mille Roper is in no condition to fight.
When London’s opening shot is to frame Millie’s partner, Tjuan, for attempted homicide, Millie has no choice but to hide him and try to clear his name. Her investigation will take her across the pond to the heart of Arcadia at the mysterious and impenetrable White Rose palace. The key to Tjuan’s freedom—and to the success of the revolution—is locked in a vault under the fey Queen’s watchful eye. It’s up to Millie to plan and lead a heist that will shape the future of two worlds—all while pretending that she knows exactly what she’s doing…

I have let entirely too much time pass between reading the second book in the trilogy and this final one because when I started reading, I was completely lost. The British declared war? Wait, what happened again? Mishell Baker does a commendable job of catching her readers up in the first few chapters of this book but I still felt like I should have read books 2 and 3 much closer to each other.
Millie is right in the middle of the action again and this time, “the action” means a full-blown revolution in two worlds. Once she and her friends found out that the spells woven by the sidhe are actually enslaving conscious spirits, it was clear that something had to be done to end this torture! But of course not the entire Arcadia Project stands behind that idea and so the organization is split. Millie is now looking for alliances both in Arcadia and in our world in order to gain the upper hand over Dame Belinda, the Project’s boss.

I’ll be honest with you. The fact that I had forgotten so many details from the previous book made it a bit hard to get into this one. The writing style was immediately engaging, however, so I kept pushing on in the hopes of figuring everything out eventually. And I did, but because it took me so long, a lot of emotional beats were lost on me. I had forgotten about Caryl’s past, for example, and that’s not a small thing to forget…

The part of the Arcadia Project that wants to end spirit slavery is making plans on how exactly to achieve that goal. This involves several heists, potential alliances with both Seelie and Unseelie royalty, working together with some freed spirits, and dealing with jetlag. There’s always something happening in this book, so I can’t say I was ever bored. But again, the emotional connection to the characters was missing this time around (entirely my own fault) and that’s why the whole book didn’t really work for me the way the previous two did.

Thankfully, we have protagonist Millie to hold on to. She is just as intriguing and wonderful as ever, not just because she’s smart and has a good heart, but also because she messes up frequently and so feels much more human than a stereotypical hero would. Much like in the first two books, I appreciated all the little moments that show how Millie’s disabilities influence her daily life. As a double amputee with prosthetic legs, simple things such as walking up stairs or getting out of a bathtub become serious obstacles and that’s something able-bodied people usually don’t think about much. Millie has the added gift/curse of unravelling spells because of the metals holding her body together. Metal and Fairies don’t mix well and while that can be an asset at some times, it can lead to serious trouble when an innocent hand gestures destroys and important guarding spell.

Another thing I liked was the diversity of the characters and the range of relationships between them. So many times, stories where people have to work together end with them being friends. But real life doesn’t work that way and neither do the inhabitants of the Arcadia Project’s Residence Four. Millie’s new partner Tjuan isn’t exactly opening up to her even though they technically get along okay. Millie is also dealing with her feelings for her Echo Claybriar, her boss Caryl, and the new-ish resident of her home, Alondra, who also has Borderline.
Their relationship is especially intersting because Millie immediately feels some kind of competition with Alondra, even though (or maybe because) the girl is nothing but sweet and kind. But Millie is no longer the only one with BPD and she feels like Alondra is trying to one-up her constantly. Whether that’s true is left up to the reader but again, this rather unlikable trait of Millie’s makes her more realistic and believable and I’m always here for that.

As far as the plot goes, I didn’t much care about it for the first half of the book or so, even though it involves a heist with several dangerous situations and tough choices. But once Millie decides to go to Arcadia, things got way more interesting. It reminded me yet again that I should have read this book much sooner but even though the memories were only slowly coming back to me, there was enough action and emotional situations there to keep me at the edge of my seat. This is the part where not only the protagonists get to shine but where side characters can surprise you, where the fate of the world’s future is decided. It’s both easier and more difficult than expected and that’s all I can say without spoiling.

The ending – which not only ends this book but the entire bigger arc of the trilogy – was pretty amazing. Just like in Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone Trilogy, this story is about war and about old, old conflicts, the breaking of traditions, questions of humanity (and basic decency), and about the protagonist finding her place in the world. Other than that, the two series have nothing in common but this theme was handled very well by both authors. Mishell Baker delivered a satisfying ending to the story arc but leaves enough things open for us to know that the characters’ job is far from done.
There is also a bittersweet note to the ending when it comes to Millie’s relationships, be they friendships or love. All things said and done, this book may deal with dark themes and characters who do bad things – sometimes for the perceived “greater good” – but it left me hopeful. I didn’t like it as much as the first or second books but I think if I re-read the entire trilogy in one go, I might give this book a much higher rating. This time, by my own fault, I only found it rather good but not as amazing as the others.

MY RATING: 6/10 – Good

The Arcadia Project:

  1. Borderline
  2. Phantom Pains
  3. Impostor Syndrome

The Arcadia Project - by Mishell Baker (Paperback) - image 1 of 2

Jessica Townsend – Wundersmith

I discovered the Nevermoor books through Booktube and I am so grateful that I have this fun, quirky Middle Grade series in my life. While I don’t think comparisons to that most famous of teen wizards are quite fitting, these are books that you can just fall into. They are feelgood books that I highly recommend, especially for people who aren’t as lucky during these trying times as I am and need something to lift their spirits. Warning: Big SPOILER for the first book below!

Wundersmith: The Calling of Morrigan Crow Nevermoor, Band 2: Amazon.de: Townsend, Jessica: Fremdsprachige BücherWUNDERSMITH: THE CALLING OF MORRIGAN CROW
by Jessica Townsend

Published: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2018
eBook: 545 pages
Series: Nevermoor #2
My rating: 7/10

Opening line: Morrigan Crow leapt from the Brolly Rail, teeth chattering, hands frozen around the end of her oilskin umbrella.

Wunder is gathering in Nevermoor …
Morrigan Crow may have defeated her deadly curse, passed the dangerous trials and joined the mystical Wundrous Society, but her journey into Nevermoor and all its secrets has only just begun. And she is fast learning that not all magic is used for good.
Morrigan Crow has been invited to join the prestigious Wundrous Society, a place that promised her friendship, protection and belonging for life. She’s hoping for an education full of wunder, imagination and discovery – but all the Society want to teach her is how evil Wundersmiths are. And someone is blackmailing Morrigan’s unit, turning her last few loyal friends against her. Has Morrigan escaped from being the cursed child of Wintersea only to become the most hated figure in Nevermoor?
Worst of all, people have started to go missing. The fantastical city of Nevermoor, once a place of magic and safety, is now riddled with fear and suspicion…

Morrigan Crow is back and this time, we get to follow her to magic school! It’s a trope many readers love, me among them, so I was looking forward to this book a lot. Turns out, things don’t go exactly according to Morrigan’s (or my) plans but that just makes the story more exciting.

Morrigan is now a member of the Wundrous Society and, together with the rest of her unit, she will learn to use her Knack for the benefit of Nevermoor. Or so she hopes. Things start going downhill when her Knack is revealed to her unit and their mentors – people who have sworn an oath to each other, to keep each other safe, to be a found family, to always look out for each other. But Morrigan being a Wundersmith complicates matters and makes her very much an outsider in the group that was supposed to be her home.
Add to that the fact that, unlike the others in her unit, she only gets to go to one class, dealing with the history of Wundersmiths. While her best friend Hawthorne gets to ride dragons, learn their language, and acquire all sorts of useful skills, Morrigan reads endless passages about the terrible deeds of all the Wundersmiths that came before her. Oh yes, and lets not forget that people are mysteriously disappearing all over Nevermoor and nobody seems to have any idea what’s happening…

The magic school trope usually works really well for me and Jessica Townsend did not disappoint when it comes to originality. All the little rules and quirks of Morrigan’s new life made me smile and appreciate this magical world all the more.  Whether it’s the small W appearing on Morrigan’s index finger, the door that leads to her unit’s very own Wunderground station, or the school Mistresses, there is something fun and quirky to discover on every page.
But at the heart of this story is Morrigan’s relationship to the people around her. Jupiter is super busy and rarely has time for her, Hawthorne sticks to her no matter what, but the rest of the unit are not big Morrigan fans. When a blackmail letter arrives at their station, forcing one of Morrigan’s friends to do something terrible in order to keep her secret (about being a Wundersmith), this doesn’t exactly help her grow closer with her unit.

Nevermoor series author Jessica Townsend on crafting diverse characters, comparisons to JK Rowling - Living News , Firstpost

In this second instalment, you’ll meet all your favorite (and not so favorite) characters from the first book as well as some new ones. Morrigan’s classmates may not like her very much, but I liked them a lot as a reader. There are also tons of new things about the city of Nevermoor that were so much fun to read. Tricksy Lanes were probably my favorites, but Morrigan’s Knack slowly coming to life also kept things interesting. And learning about old Wundersmiths – while super boring for Morrigan – helped flesh out the world building and give us more background on why Wundersmiths are so feared. Not to forget the subplot about people going missing. That was my least favorite aspect of this book and although things come together at the end, I didn’t feel like this thread was needed for the larger story. Then again, I have no idea what Jessica Townsend plans for the next book so I might be completely wrong here.

Morrigan spirals lower and lower during this book and ends up feeling almost as lonely as she did before she ever came to Nevermoor. But this being a Middle Grade novel, albeit a darker one than the first volumen, you can rest assured that things will turn out mostly alright by the end. You can also expect some twists and turns along the way, as well as the trademark heartwarming love between Morrigan and Jupiter (and all her friends). I loved this book. It’s a fun adventure story but it has so much heart that it makes you all warm and fuzzy inside. The third – and final, at least for now – book will come out later this year and I’ll be very surprised if I don’t pounce on it the moment it is out.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

The Epic Conclusion: Laini Taylor – Dreams of Gods and Monsters

At this point, there is no way I can be considered unbiased anymore. It took me two tries to appreciate this story of Chimaera and Seraphim but now that I’m into it, I know I can’t judge this book properly. I am completely biased, I am rooting for the characters, I love the world… so any flaws this book may have (and I’m sure it does) just didn’t matter because Laini Taylor has woven her magic around me and I am happily oblivious. Warnings for gushing and spoilers for Daughter of Smoke and Bone and Days of Blood and Starlight!

Dreams of Gods and Monsters by Laini TaylorDREAMS OF GODS AND MONSTERS
by Laini Taylor

Published: Little, Brown, 2014
eBook: 613 pages
Audiobook: 18 hours 12 minutes
Series: Daughter of Smoke and Bone #3
My rating: 7.5/10

Opening line: Once upon a time, an angel and a devil pressed their hands to their hearts and started the apocalypse.

Two worlds are poised on the brink of a vicious war. By way of a staggering deception, Karou has taken control of the chimaera’s rebellion and is intent on steering its course away from dead-end vengeance. The future rests on her.
When the brutal angel emperor brings his army to the human world, Karou and Akiva are finally reunited – not in love, but in a tentative alliance against their common enemy. It is a twisted version of their long-ago dream, and they begin to hope that it might forge a way forward for their people. And, perhaps, for themselves.
But with even bigger threats on the horizon, are Karou and Akiva strong enough to stand among the gods and monsters?
The New York Times bestselling Daughter of Smoke & Bone trilogy comes to a stunning conclusion as – from the streets of Rome to the caves of the Kirin and beyond – humans, chimaera, and seraphim strive, love, and die in an epic theater that transcends good and evil, right and wrong, friend and enemy.

It’s pretty amazing when an author sets up a world, peoples it with interesting characters and then, in the sequel, makes that world so much bigger that you feel like you’ve entered an entirely new story. It’s even more amazing when an author manages to pull this off twice! Laini Taylor did just that in her Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy. Whereas the first book took place mostly in Prague and some other places on Earth, the second book transported us not just to Morocco but also to Eretz – the world where Chimaera and Seraphim come from. By meeting new characters, this world felt utterly real and Taylor painted a picture of this centuries-old war that was so engaging to read that I didn’t even miss those quieter, funnier moments with Zuzana and Karou in Prague.

In this final book, we are introduced to yet another aspect of the world and we learn some rather important (read: world shaking) things about its past. But I’m getting ahead of myself and I won’t tell you what I mean anyway, because this is a spoiler-free blog. Just know that you’re in for a couple of surprises that were hinted at before but definitely not predicted by me.

Karou and Akiva have managed a reluctant truce between their people and the goals are clear. What with Jael having invaded Earth, pretending to be biblical angels in order to gather human weapons, and the revelation that hundreds, maybe thousands, of Chimaera souls being preserved, they plan to do two things. Keep Jael from bringin human weapons to Eretz and decimating their entire world and resurrect what’s left of the Chimaera. But of course, things don’t go exactly as planned. That’s all I’m going to say about the plot as such because while it was certainly exciting, my focus was on other aspects of this book.

The characters have grown so dear to me over the course of the series that I didn’t think I had space in my heart for new ones. But I totally did! Karou and Akiva are obviously my favorites, but Zuzana and Mik prove their worth over and over again, all while providing the necessary comic relief to not make this story too dark. I adored Zuzana’s bickering, her practicality, and her brilliant mind in moments of need. But we meet new characters as well and one of them felt out of left field. Eliza is a student who is plagued by strange dreams of monsters and angels… It’s pretty easy to make the connections to the monsters and angels we, as readers of this series, already know, but figuring out how Eliza fits into this took a while. And while I adored the idea behind her character and the resolution of this mystery, I think a tad more foreshadowing could have been used in the previous books. That’s the bit of critizism I can come up with in my adoring Laini-Taylor-is-the-best-give-me-all-her-books state of mind. 🙂

I also appreciated that some characters from the very first book become important or make an appearance again. It shows that Taylor didn’t just add them in willy-nilly. And even if she did, those characters are fleshed-out enough for them to have a personality and a mind of their own. With everything that’s going on in the world(s), it only makes sense that these people would have hopes and desires that sometimes work well with our heroes’ own plans and sometimes… not so much. I love that added layer of realism in works of fantasy. Just because we’re dealing with monsters and angels doesn’t mean that they can’t behave like people, after all.

The ending was a fantastic mixture of bittersweet resolution and enough open questions for maybe revisiting this world again, someday. Without spoiling, it’s really hard to talk about details but I can tell you this much: Even when a war is over, things don’t magically fall into place and everyone isn’t suddenly happy living alongside people they have been fighting against all their lives. You don’t topple Sauron’s tower and all the Orcs magically die. In this world, the Orcs aren’t necessarily the bad guys either and the plan is to live alongside them. That takes an enormous amount of work and Laini Taylor doesn’t let her characters off easy. I found the ending very satisfying, even though I have a few questios that were left unanswered. For now, I am just happy that I still have the spin-off about Mik and Zuzana ahead of me.

MY RATING: 7.5/10 – Very good!

The Daughter of Smoke and Bone Trilogy:

  1. Daughter of Smoke and Bone
  2. Days of Blood and Starlight
  3. Dreams of Gods and Monsters

Illumicrate Collections: Daughter of Smoke and Bone – Illumicrate

Blurring Good and Evil: Kacen Callender – Queen of the Conquered

As I’ve been on holiday (thus the hiatus this past week), I had the pleasure of reading Kacen Callender’s adult fantasy debut by a lovely blue lake in between sessions of trekking up mountains, trying Stand Up Paddlel for the first time (it rocks!), and steaming in the sauna… That may have colored my experience a bit, but even if I’d read this at home during rainy days, this book would have left me deeply impressed.

Queen of the ConqueredQUEEN OF THE CONQUERED
by Kacen Callender

Published: Orbit, 2019
eBook: 401 pages
Series: Islands of Blood and Storm #1
My rating: 7.5/10

Opening line: My mother kissed my forehead with a smile when I cried, upset that the party would carry on as I was sent away to sleep, and while I lay awake in my bed of lace, huddled beneath my covers and shivering in the cool trade-winds breeze, I heard when the tinkling piano stopped and when the laughter turned to screams.

An ambitious young woman with the power to control minds seeks vengeance against the royals who murdered her family, in a Caribbean-inspired fantasy world embattled by colonial oppression.
Sigourney Rose is the only surviving daughter of a noble lineage on the islands of Hans Lollik. When she was a child, her family was murdered by the islands’ colonizers, who have massacred and enslaved generations of her people—and now, Sigourney is ready to exact her revenge.
When the childless king of the islands declares that he will choose his successor from amongst eligible noble families, Sigourney uses her ability to read and control minds to manipulate her way onto the royal island and into the ranks of the ruling colonizers. But when she arrives, prepared to fight for control of all the islands, Sigourney finds herself the target of a dangerous, unknown magic.
Someone is killing off the ruling families to clear a path to the throne. As the bodies pile up and all eyes regard her with suspicion, Sigourney must find allies among her prey and the murderer among her peers… lest she become the next victim.

There is a lot to unpack in this book. We first meet Sigourney Rose as a young child on the night her entire family is murdered during a party by the White people inhabiting the islands of Hans Lollik because a dark-skinned prosperous family just doesn’t fit into their world view. Sigourney survives, however, and grows up with one thing on her mind: vengeance! She has a plan to take over the Caribbean-inspired islands as ruler, free all of her people, and kill everyone who had a hand in murdering her family.

Whew! That premise alone tells you that this is not a particularly enjoyable book, but there’s more. Kacen Callender added magic, and while it’s not the most original type of magic, it makes the story just so much cooler. Sigourney can read minds, kind of go into someone else’s brain and look at their memories, but she can also kind of possess someone else’s body and make them do things… Yeah, it’s exactly as terrifying as it sounds and the first few chapters illustrate this horrible power very well. Sigourney is dealing with a slave uprising by entering the minds of some of the rebels and making them kill themselves in brutal ways. She is not an easy character to like.

Which brings me to the aspect that most intrigued me. Sigourney is dark-skinned herself, she sees that her people are enslaved and she desperately wants to free them, to give them back a life of their own. She hates the kongelig (the ruling colonizers of her islands) deeply and has no qualms about killing them all to reach her goal. But at the same time, when we meet her, she herself is a slave owner who plays by the questionable rules of the White slave owners. We learn early on that she only does this to reach her ultimate goal – which is essentially good – but it constantly raises the question whether the means justify the end and whether doing “a few” bad things for the greater good is okay. Sigourney questions herself many times but even though she hates herself for executing her own, for making them work for her, for owning slaves, her mission remains her number one focus.

Through intrigue and by using her kraft of mind reading, she manages to marry into one of the ruling families, becoming a candidate for the next king of Hans Lollik. It is only when she meets a young slave whose mind she just can’t seem to enter that things stop going according to her plan. This slave Loren is biracial and easily the most interesting character in this book. Sigourney is equally intrigued by him and decides to keep him as her personal guard – despite the fact that he was sent to assassinate her.
Speaking of assassination. When all the kongelig are called to the island of Hans Lollik Helle where the king resides and plans to pick his successor, the death rate goes up rapidly. This is not surprising because apparently, it’s normal for potential successors to kill off the competition in order to give them a better shot at the throne. But to me, it felt like what Gideon the Ninth tried to do, but more successful, with a bigger impact when someone dies.

We get to know the other kongelig and while it’s easy to dismiss them all as villains who came to these islands, eslaved its people, and live in luxury while slaves work their plantations, there is more nuance to them. Sure, none of them grows particularly sympathetic, but some of them are definitely more evil than others and I even caught myself feeling sorry for some of them. Even as members of the ruling class, they deal with sexism and suffer under the rules of their own society and while that doesn’t make their actions any less terrible, it makes them feel like real people. A good villain should always act in a way that, while I wouldn’t condone it in any way, at least makes sense when you put yourself i their shoes. And Kacen Callender created a whole cast of such villains. Not all of them are bad people, they are simply caught in the world they were born into and they don’t have the courage or strength to do something about it. Other are just despicably but even they have something that humanises them to a degree.

I haven’t even touched upon the way race is dealt with in this book because it’s another complex topic that Callender tackles in amazing ways. Sigourney’s character is perfect for that because although she has dark skin and it’s her own people that have been enslaved by the colonizers, she herself is a noblewoman. The other (White) nobles don’t like her and what she represents – a dark-skinned woman rising up to power – but she is equally hated by the slaves of Hans Lollik. And that hate weighs heavily on Sigourney, not just because she wishes she could tell all the slaves that she’s only doing what she’s doing to free them but also because she is so utterly lonely. She has one friend (ironically the only one of her slaves that she actually freed but who stayed of her own volition) but is otherwise completely alone in this hostile world where most other people want to see her dead. This made it easier to like her but her actions throughout the story also never really let me connect with her emotionally.

When it comes to the writing style, I have some small nitpicks. Callender uses the phrase “skin as dark as mine” entirely too often. There are other ways to describe someone as dark-skinned. Simply call them dark-skinned or “with brown skin” or anything else. But the exact words “skin as dark as mine/ours” is thrown around way too often and actually took me out of the reading flow. It does get better as the novel progresses but at the beginning especially, you’ll see it on every page. Other than that, I quite liked the writing. Callender doesn’t shy away from describing terrible things but they never felt gratuitous. I particularly liked how quickly characters came to life and how the world building was down almost exclusively thorugh showing instead of telling. It does mean the book has a bit of a learning curve, especially if (like me) you didn’t know that the real Caribbean was colonized not just by the British and French, but also the Dutch and Danish – which explains all the very Danish sounding names. But a quick trip to Wikipedia will give you some context and even if you don’t feel like reading up on our own history, you can easily follow the events of this book. I just personally like a bit of context when a story I read is based or inspired by the real world.

It goes without saying that this is a rather dark book. The story takes place in a time and place where slavery existed, it has characters with incredible powers, it goes on to a “And Then There Were None” sub plot and there is quite a bit of violence and abuse, both physical and emotional. By a certain point, I kept asking myself how this book could possibly end. Even if Sigourney reached her goal and became the new Queen of the islands, would she really do what she set out to do? Would she free her people or would she find a new goal that made it “necessary” for her to keep slaves just a bit longer? Well, Kacen Callender surprised and delighted me with the ending they chose. It not only resolves Sigourney’s story in a satisfying, believable way, but it also adds a twist that hit me in the gut and made me re-examine my own way of thinking. That’s all I can say without spoiling but trust me on this: If you pick up this book, you will get a satisfying ending.

Although this could well stand on its own, I look forward to the sequel King of the Rising, which is set to come out in December 2020. Although with the Covid-19 pandemic still going strong in certain parts of the world, I don’t know if that date will be pushed back. Either way, when the book comes out and I have enough brain power and emotional strength I will definitely pick it up. Queen of the Conquered has also been nominated for a World Fantasy Award – deservedly so – and it’s currently super cheap on Kobo. Just sayin’…
The only reason I’m not giving it 8/10 points is that while Sigourney was a super intriguing protagonist, I couldn’t fully root for her and always remained just a bit distant from her emotionally. And the way dark-skinned characters are constantly described the same way. But this was still a fantastic book, an important book, and one that was well worth the long time it took me to read.

MY RATING: 7.5/10 – Very, very good!

Jennifer Marie Brissett – Elysium

I’ve had this book on my radar for a while, because it was nominated for the Otherwise Award, the Locus First Novel Award and the Philip K. Dick Award. To be completely honest, I was curious mostly because the cover kind of stands out (I’m not a fan of it) – but that much acclaim can’t come from nothing, right? When Tom chose this book to be the August Sword & Laser book club pick, I was super excited to finally read it.

ELYISUM
by Jennifer Marie Brissett

Published: Aqueduct Press, 2014
eBook: 190 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7/10

Opening line: >>
>> open bridge
Connecting…
*BRIDGE CONNECTED*

A computer program etched into the atmosphere has a story to tell, the story of two people, of a city lost to chaos, of survival and love. The program’s data, however, has been corrupted. As the novel’s characters struggle to survive apocalypse, they are sustained and challenged by the demands of love in a shattered world both haunted and dangerous.

I love a book that is also a puzzle and this one definitely fits that description. There is a relatively small cast of characters that we follow throughout the story but these characters are… let’s say fluid. The first thing you notice is the gender swap between chapters one and two. Adrienne, our protagonist, is suddenly Adrian. Her boyfriend Antoine turns into Antoinette, their friend (sometimes more than that) Hector becomes Helen, and so on. Sometimes, the protagonists are gay, sometimes straight, sometimes transgender, you get the idea. But character genders and sexuality isn’t the only thing Brissett flips upside down several times throughout this book. The relationship between these characters also shift from romantic partners to friends to various family relations… it’s definitely weird but it’s also kind of fun to discover, in any new chapter, how these people relate to each other now.

The plot continues this general air of weirdness but there is a little more of a red thread to follow. While the cover hints at a post-apocalyptic world, it’s not until late into the book that this actually becomes a plot point. This is one of the hardest books to talk about without spoiling anything, so I hope you’ll forgive me for keeping it super vague.
Each scenario we follow puts Adrianne and Antoine in a close relationship and whether they are romantic partners, siblings or a father-son-duo, it’s their love for each other that is the one constant in this book. We may start out in a relatively normal city setting, but the plot takes us through numerous different versions of this place, some indeed post-apocalyptic, others harder to pin down. Their friend Hector first shows up as the man Adrienne is cheating with but in subsequent chapters, appears simply as a friend, and once as a transgender woman.

In between chapters – or sometimes in the middle of them – we also get lines of computer code, hinting at critical errors, at bugfixes, or at the very least at a program running somewhere in the background. It makes you question the whole idea of this novel. Is anything real? Is one of the characters an android? What the hell is happening?? The thing I said out loud the most while reading this book was “I am so confused!” which at least made my boyfriend laugh a lot.

For about the first half of the book, I kept on reading because I wanted to make sense of the mystery. I wanted to know which set of characters was real, if any. I didn’t mind the gender-flipping but I at least wanted to find out how the characters truly related to each other and which version of the world was the real one, or the one where everything started. Here’s a piece of advice: Don’t try to figure it out. That’s not the point of this novel.
I’m not sure I truly understood the point but by the end,but  at least I could narrow it down to a certain message and a coherent theme.

A brief note on the audiobook. I liked how narrator Jamye Mari Grant told this story and made the voices distinct, especially with the frequent changes in gender and sometimes age. I’m not so sure about the snippets of computer program, but that may be more the book’s fault than the narrator’s. The lines of code were read in a fittingly robotic voice, but many times, these sequences end in a string of ones and zeroes that simply go on way too long. When reading the phyiscal book, these lines can simply be skipped, but for the audiobook someone should have made the decision to cut them down. Two lines of 100100001110010100 would have been enough to get the idea. We don’t need a full 30 seconds of Grant reading out ones and zeroes… But that’s a minor quibble for an otherwise excellently read audiobook.

It’s now a couple of days after I finished listening to this book and I’m still not sure whether it’s brilliant or a bit of a mess. The mystery does get kind of resolved but many questions are left unanswered because they are simply rendered unimportant. I found the themes quite wonderful and I loved how Brissett manages to make her characters real and believable, no matter the setting or circumstances. Adrienne may worry for her very sick partner Antoine in one chapter, and in the next Antoine may be Adrian’s big brother – but in each version, their love felt real. This being a very short book, it’s all the more impressive how quickly the author built a whole new set of rules in each chapter, introduced us to new character dynamics, and made everyone come across as three-dimensional human beings. It also takes a bit of work to forget who the characters were before, because whatever their flaws in one chapter have been, they never existed in the next.

I’ve purposefully left out any information about the later chapters of the book but those were definitely my favorites. The world building becomes a lot clearer, new characters are introduced and the entire book gains a sense of coherence. This is also where the central themes truly get to shine. In the end, it’s hard to know what the author set out to do and whether it was accomplished through this experimental mode of storytelling. Elysium is definitely a book unlike any other I’ve read before. Only time will tell if it leaves a lasting impression or if it was just a book I enjoyed while it lasted. Goodreads tells me that Brissett is publishing a new novel in 2021 with Tor Books and even if Elysium doesn’t stick in my mind until then, I am looking forward to reading that new book. She’s clearly very talented and I am curious to see what she comes up with next.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good