Falling in Love With Death: Martine Leavitt – Keturah and Lord Death

This is a fairy tale-esque book I’ve been meaning to read forever. It’s part 1001 Nights, part Hades and Persephone, and part medieval romance. Its simplicity is at the same time what makes it so lovely and also what will probably make it disappear from my memory quite fast.

KETURAH AND LORD DEATH
by Martine Leavitt

Published: Boyds Mill Press, 2006
Ebook: 216 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7/10

Opening line: “Keturah, tell us a story,” said Naomi, “one of your tales of faërie or magic.”

Keturah, renowned for her storytelling, follows a legendary hart deep into the forest, where she becomes hopelessly lost. Her strength diminishes until, finally, she realizes that death is near—and learns then that death is a young lord, melancholy and stern. She is able to charm Lord Death with a story and gain a reprieve, but he grants her only a day, and within that day she must find true love. A mesmerizing love story, interweaving elements of classic fantasy and high romance.

Keturah lives in a small village that has come into disrepair and wants very little of life. She wants her grandmother to be well, her best friends Beatrice and Gretta to be happy, and a true love for herself. When she gets lost in the wood and almost freezes to death, she meets a tall dark stranger who turns out to be none other than Lord Death himself. Not wanting to die without having experienced love yet, she tells him a story but leaves out the ending, bargaining for another day in which she can prove to Death that she can find her true love and marry him.

So begins the fairy tale of Keturah and Lord Death. Keturah doesn’t mess around but promptly seeks out the village wise woman (read: witch) for a charm to let her know which of the eligible bachelors in town may be Keturah’s own true love. And then go and follow her in her daily business, get to know other characters and see that, to Keturah’s dismay, none of the village boys seems to be her true love, no matter how much she likes them or how much they admire her.

This story is a very simple one but that doesn’t mean it’s easily dismissed. Not only does Keturah have to keep bargaining with Death – by use of unfinished stories – for another day, and another after that, but the way her home town sees her also changes. They accuse her of witchcraft, of having met fairies, of being in league with Death! The only people who always, always stick by Keturah’s side are her grandmother and her two best friends. It seems silly to mention in a tale like this because it really does read like a fairy tale, but the female friendships were truly heartwarming. Beatrice and Gretta not only try their best to help Keturah but even offer up the men they are secretly in love with for her to marry – just so she can escape being taken by Death.

For a book this slim, there’s actually a lot going on. The town expects a visit from the King, there is a threat of plague (how timely…), and a big celebration is coming up, including a cooking contest that Keturah needs to win in order to potentially marry one of the boys in town – men in his family only marry Best Cook because tradition. The fairy tale-like writing style worked pretty well and while not much happens that couldn’t be predicted from the first page, I was never bored.
But it was also the writing style that makes this book a little forgettable. I quite enjoyed it while I read it but it really did feel like reading an old tale that I had read many times before. There were no twists, no real villains, there was just a bunch of essentially good people and beautiful Keturah, who is possibly the best of them all.

The conclusion also doesn’t come as a surprise, and I don’t think it tried to. For us readers, it’s clear from the start who Keturah’s true love is and who she will end up marrying, but watching Keturah herself slowly learn this truth was a lot of fun. Even though I feel bad for the boys who clearly had a crush on her.

If you want a quick read that reminds you of being a child, reading fairy tales in bed, do pick this up. It’s a lovely little story with wonderful characters. And even though I’ll probably forget all their names within the next week, I will remember the feelings this book gave me fondly.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

A Breath-Taking Debut: Joan He – Descendant of the Crane

This book is a sneaky bastard, in the very best of ways! It was actually the first book I read during my vacation but because there’s just so much contained within these two covers, my review took a bit more time. I picked this out mostly because I loved the cover and while I hadn’t heard much about it, every review I had read was glowing. And then, like other readers before me, I fell head over heels in love with this brilliant debut.

DESCENDANT OF THE CRANE
by Joan He

Published: AW Teen, 2019
Ebook: 416 pages
Standalone (for now!)
My rating: 8,5/10

Opening line: A well-conceived costume is a new identity, the father used to say as he put on his commoner’s cloak.

Tyrants cut out hearts. Rulers sacrifice their own.
Princess Hesina of Yan has always been eager to shirk the responsibilities of the crown, but when her beloved father is murdered, she’s thrust into power, suddenly the queen of an unstable kingdom. Determined to find her father’s killer, Hesina does something desperate: she engages the aid of a soothsayer—a treasonous act, punishable by death… because in Yan, magic was outlawed centuries ago.
Using the information illicitly provided by the sooth, and uncertain if she can trust even her family, Hesina turns to Akira—a brilliant investigator who’s also a convicted criminal with secrets of his own. With the future of her kingdom at stake, can Hesina find justice for her father? Or will the cost be too high?
In this shimmering Chinese-inspired fantasy, debut author Joan He introduces a determined and vulnerable young heroine struggling to do right in a world brimming with deception.

Hesina’s father has just died and she is the only one convinced that it was not because of natural causes. Without any proof however, she takes a dangerous step and commits treason by seeking the help of a soothsayer. With the bits of information gained this way, she plans for a trial to prove her father was murdered and to find out who the killer was. For that, she needs the support of a convicted criminal but also lots of help from her brother and her two adopted siblings.

This book starts out like your standard YA fantasy fare. The Chinese-inspired setting is intriguing, there is a sort of magic system to discover – although magic in the form of soothsayers has been outlawed for many years – and there’s a whole fictional country’s history to learn about. So I liked the book right from the start. But then Joan He slowly reeled me in with new ideas, secrets within secrets, tangled plot strings, and characters that are so amazing and come in all shades of morally grey, by about a third of the book, I absolutely loved it!

I almost don’t want to tell you anything about the plot because discovering all the twists and turns for yourself is part of what makes the reading experience so great. But the story has a lot more to offer than just a great plot. Hesina makes for a phenomenal protagonist. She is a good person at heart and deep down, she disagrees with the rule that says all soothsayers must be killed because they were used for evil during the war. She sees them as people but she is unable to state that opinion because that would get her executed as well. Then there’s the fact that she is to become queen and the responsibility weighs heavy on her. Add to that the strained relationship with her brother Sanjing, and the even worse relationship between him and their adopted brother Caiyan. While Hesina is trying to find her father’s killer and keep her treasonous actions and thoughts secret, strange things happen at Yan’s borders and it looks like the new queen will also have her hands full preventing a war.

I can’t really explain to you why this book worked so well or which aspects convinced me of its brilliance first, because it all kind of snuck up on me. I started as an interested yet somewhat distant reader, then a hundred pages later I wanted to strangle certain characters, I gaspedin shock at other characters’ betrayals, I marveled at the wonders this world holds, and I wanted Hesina so very, very badly to be okay! Let me just give that girl a hug. And I can’t put my finger on how or when that happened, but by the end, I was so damn into this story that I still can’t believe the author wasn’t immediately asked to write a sequel or twelve.

For a debut novel especially, I was impressed with how well Joan He juggled the various aspects of this book. I mentioned great world building before but I haven’t told you that most of it is worked organically into the plot. There are no expositions, no characters explaining to others what they should already know. The picture we have of Yan and its history simply grows clearer and clearer the more we read. It helps that every chapter begins with quotes by One of the Eleven and Two of the Eleven – two of the heroes who saved the kingdom and created a system for society that appears like a pretty solid democracy. I say “appeared” because we all know no utopia is actually a utopia and while Yan’s political system is mostly quite fair, it has its pitfalls.

“The masses may be misguided, but their hearts are true.”

Even without the added bonus of a rich history, Yan was such an intriguing place to discover. And since we see it through Hesina’s eyes, we also understand that everything is political. Whether it’s the people’s fear of and hatred for soothsayers or the way they strictly adhere to the rules set by the Eleven, I loved every aspect of it. Not because it’s necessarily a perfect, happy kingdom but because it felt so realistic! Humans can be shitty and full of prejudices but that doesn’t mean they are all bad people. Hesina learns this lesson over and over again as she navigates the court and has to make the most difficult decisions. She also has to learn that sometimes the ones you mistrust are actually on your side while a trusted friend may be working against you… I’m not saying that is the case here but, yeah, it totally is the case and you still won’t be able to guess who is who. That’s probably what made the many twists so much more painful.

I also enjoyed the writing style. I’m not sure if this is marketed as YA but I thought the style definitely had that quality where the text just seems to flow, letting you concentrate completely on the images in your mind. There is also a bit of romance, although I appreciated immensely that it’s never the focus – Hesina’s got much more important stuff to deal with – but it evolved throughout the story almost as a side note. And it felt all the more real and important for that. The same goes for the relationships between Hesina and her remaining family: her seemingly cold-hearted mother, her twin siblings, and her blood brother. Each of these characters is a different person at the end of the book than they were at the beginning and Hesina’s relationship to each of them grows. That is such a rare thing in any kind of book, but especially in YA, where side characters are often rather bland and the focus lies more on the protagonist and the love interest(s).

“What is truth? Scholars seek it. Poets write it. Good Kings pay gold to hear it. But in trying times, truth is the first thing we betray.”

By the end of the book, Hesina has been through a cascade of ever more dangerous and harrowing situations, she has dealt with moral dilemmas, and she has to come to terms with the truth about her own beliefs and her country’s past. And while I got some satisfaction out of this story and it definitely has a finished story arc, quite a few questions remain unanswered and many problems unsolved. When I closed this book I let out a long breath and immediately googled when the sequel would come out. Alas, none is scheduled just yet. The author has plans to write one if the publishers deem the first book a big enough success. So I urge all of you to pick up this book and go on that emotional journey with Hesina because (a) it’s awesome and (b) I really need a second book!

MY RATING: 8,5/10 – Excellent!

The Women Are the Heroes: Marion Zimmer Bradley – The Mists of Avalon

This is probably one of the oldest books I own. Not by publication year but by the sheer amount of time it has spent in my possession, unread. Finally – thanks again to Ashley from Bookkeeping for the recommendation – I picked up this mighty tome and dove into this world of myths and magic and powerful women.

THE MISTS OF AVALON
by Marion Zimmer Bradley

Published by: Ballantine, 1982
Hardcover: 912 pages
Series: Avalon #1
My rating: 8/10

First line: Morgaine speaks… In my time I have been called many thigns: sister, lover, priestess, wise-woman, queen.

Here is the magical legend of King Arthur, vividly retold through the eyes and lives of the women who wielded power from behind the throne. A spellbinding novel, an extraordinary literary achievement, THE MISTS OF AVALON will stay with you for a long time to come….

We’ve all heard the story of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, but never quite like this. If I had to sum up this book quickly, I’d say it’s Arthur’s story but from the women’s point of view – except that doesn’t even scratch the surface of what Bradley delivers in this epic story.

It begins before Arthur is even born, with his mother Igraine, who is unhappily married to Gorlois, a man twice her age. The very beginning of this book already sets the tone of the entire novel. I remember first picking up this book at a young age (I want to say 14 or 15 years old?) and being shocked that a young girl of 14 could be married off to some duke or prince and already have had her first child! While I may know a little more about history now, I still felt the same unease when I read about Igraine – essentially still a child herself – think about childbirth and her marriage bed and wifely duties. And of course love has no place in that world. But Igraine’s roots are in the magical island of Avalon and her ties to that world of magic lead Viviane and the Merlin to Tintagel Castle one day to prophecy that Igraine will bear the King who will unite all of Britain.

I won’t recount all that follows afterwards. This is an epic tale that spans many years, introduces new characters, sees beloved characters die, but always focuses on the women. If there is a protagonist, it surely is Morgaine, Igraine’s daughter who is sent to Avalon to become a priestessof the Goddess. Meanwhile, Britain is at war with the Saxons, and another war rages, quieter  perhaps, but even more dangerous to all those who hold with the old faith. Christianity is on the march and while those who still live the pagan way have no problem accepting people of other beliefs, we all know the Christian God will have no others stand beside him.

The plot often revolves around who will marrie whom, who should succeed the King, who can bear a male heir to whom, and so on. That may sound boring but Bradley made it really exciting. It also shows the divide between love and “usefulness”. Lancelet and Gwenhwyfar’s romance is a well-known part of Arthurian legend but I liked how it was shown here. It’s not even so much a matter of lust but actual love. These two just want to be together but are forbidden by the rules of religion and society.
Gwenhwyfar was actually my least favorite character. She is crazy pious and hates everything to do with magic and Avalon and the old faith. But at the same time, that makes her a highly interesting chracter to follow because her own dreams and wishes go so decidedly against her faith. She wants Lancelet, even if that means she would be an adulteress.

The other main focus of the story is just that – faith against faith. While Morgaine and Avalon fight for their place in the world, Christianity rages over the country with no respect for what was there before. Throughout the book, pagan rites slowly become fewer and fewer, people bearing the tattoos of Avalon are less respected, there are accusations of witchcraft, and things generally don’t look good for Avalon and the Goddess. The women of Avalon also have a very different outlook on love and sex than Christian women. For a priestess, it is her who chooses the men she spends time with, and if she wants to sleep with several man, that’s fine. As you can imagine, the more pious Christian women think of the priestesses as harlots. To them, the man decides and they are basically their husband’s property, even if, deep down, they may not agree with that.

There is no way for me to tell you in one short review just how many things happen in this book. It’s 900 pages long, so that should give you a good idea… it’s a lot! When I think about it, there was plenty of talk about marriage and succession and religion, but the amazing characters made those mundane topics interesting. Marion Zimmer Bradley not only put women front and center, she also made them varied and believable. None of them are purely good or evil, they each have their own hopes for the future, their own reasons for behaving the way they do. Some of their actions are questionable, others understandable. But even though I did not like all of them, I appreciated each and every single one of these women as characters. That doesn’t mean that men are powerless – given the time and setting, men still hold most of the power, but the women surrounding them don’t shy away from pulling a few strings here and there.

It took me almost two months to read this book (I read other ones in between, savoring this one) and I feel almost sad to let it go now. While I can’t say that the plot was always riveting or action-packed, I also couldn’t point to a single boring moment. I found the world Bradley has created immersive and magical and it definitely made me want to read more Arthurian legends. I don’t know if I’ll continue with this series anytime soon because The Mists of Avalon can easily be read as a standalone and I’m quite happy with the way it ended.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Very, very good!

Politics, Schemes, and Magic Battles: Fonda Lee – Jade War

One positive thing about being at home sick is that there is plenty of time to read. Granted, I currently have the tendency to fall asleep while reading (not because of the book, but because I’m ill and it makes me tired), but I managed to get through this highly awaited sequel nonetheless. If you haven’t read the first book, Jade City, I urge you to do so – it’s like The Godfather with magic-fuelled martial artists. I promise you it’s just as awesome as it sounds. Also: Beware of spoilers for book one below!

JADE WAR
by Fonda Lee

Published by: Orbit, 2019
Ebook: 600 pages
Series: The Green Bone Saga #2
My rating: 7,5/10

First line: It was madness to rob the grave of a Green Bone. 

In Jade War, the sequel to the Nebula, Locus, and World Fantasy Award-nominated Jade City, the Kaul siblings battle rival clans for honor and control over an Asia-inspired fantasy metropolis.
On the island of Kekon, the Kaul family is locked in a violent feud for control of the capital city and the supply of magical jade that endows trained Green Bone warriors with supernatural powers they alone have possessed for hundreds of years.
Beyond Kekon’s borders, war is brewing. Powerful foreign governments and mercenary criminal kingpins alike turn their eyes on the island nation. Jade, Kekon’s most prized resource, could make them rich – or give them the edge they’d need to topple their rivals.
Faced with threats on all sides, the Kaul family is forced to form new and dangerous alliances, confront enemies in the darkest streets and the tallest office towers, and put honor aside in order to do whatever it takes to ensure their own survival – and that of all the Green Bones of Kekon.
Jade War is the second book of the Green Bone Saga, an epic trilogy about family, honor, and those who live and die by the ancient laws of blood and jade.

There is a lot going on in this follow-up to the amazeballs Jade City. There’s no easy way to sum it all up, so let me just say, every single character has their hands full. Shae is dealing mostly with politics, both inside the Clan, in Janloon City, on Kekon in general, and internationally. Hilo has his hands full with some of the same, but he also has a baby on the way, a fairly new wife, he’s still looking for his brother’s murderer, and the Jade smugglers are making more trouble than ever before.

The beginning of the novel is used mostly to remind us readers of what happened before and I was immensely grateful for the way Fonda Lee eased me back into this world. Without info dumping, we get to hear who all the key players are again, we’re reminded of how the Clans are organized, how Green Bone culture works, what is at stake, and how opening up jade trade to the wider world has impacted life in Kekon. These first chapters may not be super action-packed but in my eyes, they were necessary to get back into the world of the Green Bone Saga. Even after that, the plot takes a long while to truly kick off. Many, many pages are spent setting up new characters, new locations, new conflicts. It is to Fonda Lee’s credit that none of those chapters could be called boring. She writes her characters so deftly that even a scene where people sit in a room and discuss a trade agreement can feel interesting. If you’re looking for a lot of action all the time, however, be warned that you’ll have to be patient.

Things have changed in the No Peak Clan since the ending of Jade City. Hilo and Shae have grown more into their roles, they have a functioning network of people, spies, and Lantern Men, but they also have more on their plates than they can possible handle. While Shae is dealing with the Espenians on the subject of Jade trade, Hilo is looking for Lan’s killer and trying to somehow gain an advantage over Ayt Mada and her Mountain Clan. And so begins a game of back and forth, where one Clan always seems slightly ahead of the other, only to change in the next chapter. While it can’t be called “action”, I found this really fun to read about. Following the No Peak characters and seeing how they are choosing each of their moves, how clever they are, was very entertaining. The problem is that sometimes, Ayt Mada is even cleverer and all of Shae and Hilo’s efforts are for nothing.

And let’s not forget Anden! After refusing to ever wear Jade again, he is promptly exiled to Espenia – although Shae makes it sound (and probably also means it) like a chance for an education, for seeing more of the world, for getting an outsider’s perspective. As much as Anden hates the idea initially, he eventually grows into the local Green Bone community in Port Massy, the Espenian city that is to be his home for a while. There is even a surprising romance, one that I didn’t see coming, that made me so happy for him and that also kind of broke my heart. Also, like in any good mafia story, Anden may not want to be part of the Clan as a Green Bone, but that doesn’t mean he won’t make himself useful otherwise. I loved that we got to see more of the world and especially a culture that viewed Jade completely different from all our protagonists. While Green Bones from Kekon look at Jade with reverence, as a status symbol, something that can be won in duels and must be worn with pride, the Kekonese in Espenia are quite different. Discoving this new culture along with Anden was one of the highlights of this book for me.

I’m not going to give any important plot points away. Rest assured that you will get some of the amazing action scenes that made the first book so thrilling. But they are few and far between. This volume is mostly concerned with politics. Whether it’s meetings between important people, assassination attempts of important people, spying on important people, and using the information gained that way to manipulate important people… you get the idea. While I love all the characters and enjoyed reading about their quieter moments very much, I do have to say that the book was just a bit too long. Sure, opening up the world to include other nations, a violent conflict on a different continent, and the smugglers working off another island – that all takes time to set up and explain. But maybe Fonda Lee tried to do a little too much at once in this book. It felt like there were always five subplots going on, all with different characters, many of whom don’t even survive until the end.

So where the first novel was streamlined and exactly as long as it needed to be to tell a kick-ass story, this one dragged on a bit. There were a lot of scenes that could have easily been cut. Wen meeting up with a spy, Shae spending time with her boyfriend, Anden’s time with his new Keko-Espenian friends, and so on. I understand that these scenes serve a purpose – whether it’s to show us more of the characters or advance the plot – but this is what editors are for. To do several things at once, like show us a character’s growth while moving the plot along.
Despite all my gripes, this book was highly entertaining and well written throughout. The last third or so delivered exactly the kind of action-packed finale that I had hoped for. There are shocking twists, good and bad surprises, and at least one epic fight scene. The ending leaves many questions open and No Peak in just as precarious a position as before. So despite being well written, this book suffers a lot from middle book syndrome. This book set up sooo many subplots. Only one of them gets any kind of conclusion, so it almost feels like it was added as an afterthought to give this middle book some kind of beginning, middle, and end.

So it wasn’t as good as the first book, but there is no denying that Fonda Lee is a master of writing characters, writing action scenes, and creating a fantastic world. It’s rare that world-building includes the economy as something just as important as, say, military strenght, and I loved how she incorporated it into her story. I will definitely check out the final book when it comes out in 2020, because I’m pretty sure all the set up that happened in Jade War will come to an explosive conclusion. Fingers crossed!

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very good

Pretty yet disappointing: Alix E. Harrow – The Ten Thousand Doors of January

There was one book in 2019 that I had been looking forward to more than any others. I adored Alix E. Harrow’s Hugo-winning short story (“A Witch’s Guide to Escape”, her blog, her writing in general, and the synopsis of her first novel sounded so utterly perfect that I had it pre-ordered as soon as it was listed on Amazon. Then the rave reviews came in and I was sure I was in for a treat. But – and this is my theme of 2019, apparently – hypes around certain books are not to be trusted. This was by no means a bad book! But it didn’t deliver what was promised and that was enough to leave me disappointed yet again.

THE TEN THOUSAND DOORS OF JANUARY
by Alix E. Harrow

Published by: Redhook, 2019
Hardcover: 384 pages
Standalone
My rating: 6,5/10

First line: When I was seven, I found a door.

In the early 1900s, a young woman embarks on a fantastical journey of self-discovery after finding a mysterious book in this captivating and lyrical debut.
In a sprawling mansion filled with peculiar treasures, January Scaller is a curiosity herself. As the ward of the wealthy Mr. Locke, she feels little different from the artifacts that decorate the halls: carefully maintained, largely ignored, and utterly out of place.
Then she finds a strange book. A book that carries the scent of other worlds, and tells a tale of secret doors, of love, adventure and danger. Each page turn reveals impossible truths about the world and January discovers a story increasingly entwined with her own.
Lush and richly imagined, a tale of impossible journeys, unforgettable love, and the enduring power of stories awaits in Alix E. Harrow’s spellbinding debut–step inside and discover its magic.

January Scaller lives in a big old house with Mr. Locke, the man who has taken her in as a ward and given her father a job hunting for archeological artifacts. As a girl who’s not white (although nobody is sure just what color her skin is and with which specific prejudices people should meet her) in the early 20th century, January is constantly reminded how lucky she is to have such a benefactor. January gets an education, has a myriad of odd things to discover in Locke’s house, and yet never feels quite right.

We meet January as a meek but curious (in the sense of interested) girl who is bound by the laws of her time and her benefactor. Be quiet, stay in the background, be polite, don’t show too much emotion, don’t try to grow above your station… those are the rules January has to live by and she knows they suck just the way I knew it when I started reading this book. So it’s easy to feel sympathy for our protagonist but despite that sympathy, I had a hard time truly caring about January. She was like a portrait to me. Distant, a specimen, a sketchy character study rather than a person who felt real. Early on in this book, we are told (sometimes shown, but on many occasions just told, in exceedingly pretty words) that January is bookish, yearns to belong somewhere, kind of misses and doesn’t miss her absent father, and kind of loves but maybe doesn’t really love Locke, who has been more father to her than her actual one.

But not totally feeling the protagonist is not a reason to give up on this book. The language – oh, the language – was so lovely, I thought it might keep me reading all by itself. Who cares about plot or character when there are such words, strung together to paint pictures in my mind. It turns out, I did care eventually. The writing style, though without a doubt beautiful and lyrical, also gave me a sort of… studied impression. I don’t know how to explain it better (I wish I had Harrow’s talent for words right now!), but I never had the impression that those gorgeous descriptions flowed organically, but rather that they were researched and thought about and put there precisely at the right point with a scalpel. That may not change anything about how beautiful the prose is as such, but it left a sort of bitter aftertaste for me.

As for the other characters, most of them felt as distant to me as January. We are told many things about the small cast, but for my taste, we didn’t see enough of their actions to truly get to know them. Even Bad, January’s dog, didn’t excite me – and I’m usually a sucker for animals in stories. Sure, I wanted the good guys to win and the bad guys to fail, but I wasn’t really in it. Speaking of the bad guys. If the revelations at the end of the book were supposed to be unexpected plot twists, they failed miserably. It was very obvious from a very early point that there is something wrong with certain people and it didn’t even take that much imagination to figure out most of the truth, minor details excluded.

Which leads me to the plot as such. It is slow! It takes a long, long time to truly get started because the book is so focused on producing pretty words to describe things that almost nothing happens for the first half of the book. Well, almost nothing. My favorite part of this story – and the part that should have been a whole entire book, if I had anything to say about it – was the book within a book. January finds a book called “The Ten Thousand Doors” one day and starts reading it. We get to read that book too, in alternating chapters (one chapter January story, one chapter book within a book), and while it also took me a chapter to warm to that story, I ended up really loving it. I cared about the characters in that story, I wanted to learn more about them and more about the world they come from. So, the actually fictional “Ten Thousand Doors” was a fantastic book for me, but sadly way too short, as it’s only part of the real world Ten Thousand Doors of January.

That title and the synopsis on the back of the book also imply things that are simply not delivered. Of course I didn’t expect to actually discover ten thousand doors into other worlds with our protagonist, but I was hoping for at least a few of them. We only really get to see one in any detail, and the world building for that had its own kind of magic that reminded me of Strange the Dreamer. It was everything I’d hoped for. Unfortunately, we spend most of our time in the real world, so this is more historical novel than fantasy (again, not a bad thing, but marketing led me to believe differently and I feel a little cheated). There simply wasn’t enough magic for my taste, at least during the first two thirds of the book.

Now, the last third finally got going. Every gripe I’ve mentioned above sort of goes away toward the end. January finally acts instead of just reacting to her surroundings, the plot turns into a thrilling ride with dangerous situations, plenty of magic and mythology, and I finally got the message of this story. It’s about love, spanning decades and worlds, about family and belonging, about finding out who you are and carving out your own place in the world. I really loved the ending of this book, but I can’t say it made up for the hours I spent reading just so I could get it done. I was bored for long stretches of this book and even the pretty writing didn’t help me get over my disappointment of finding something very different from what I had expected.

I know I’m pretty alone with that opinion and, believe me, I wish I was one of the many voices who raved about this book and gave it the highest ratings. I love Alix E. Harrow’s writing in general and I will definitely check out whatever she does next. But this book right here ended up being only okay for me.

MY RATING: 6,5/10 – Good

A Charming Middle-Grade Fairy Tale: Silvia Moreno-Garcia – Gods of Jade and Shadow

October has been kind of a reading slump-y month for me and I’ve come to realize why. Because expectations are a bitch! Whether it’s a book hype on Twitter and Goodreads or simply misleading marketing by the publisher, once I’ve formed certain expectations and they aren’t met – even if the book is otherwise fine – it puts me off reading a book. While this book wasn’t a disappointment the way Gideon the Ninth was, it still was so completely different from what the cover, synopsis, and general buzz about it made me expect that it took me a while to get into it.

GODS OF JADE AND SHADOW
by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Published by: Del Rey, 2019
Ebook: 352 pages
Standalone
My rating: 6/10

First line: Some people are born under a lucky star, while others have their misfortune telegraphed by the position of the planets.

The Mayan god of death sends a young woman on a harrowing, life-changing journey in this dark, one-of-a-kind fairy tale inspired by Mexican folklore.
The Jazz Age is in full swing, but Casiopea Tun is too busy cleaning the floors of her wealthy grandfather’s house to listen to any fast tunes. Nevertheless, she dreams of a life far from her dusty small town in southern Mexico. A life she can call her own.
Yet this new life seems as distant as the stars, until the day she finds a curious wooden box in her grandfather’s room. She opens it—and accidentally frees the spirit of the Mayan god of death, who requests her help in recovering his throne from his treacherous brother. Failure will mean Casiopea’s demise, but success could make her dreams come true.
In the company of the strangely alluring god and armed with her wits, Casiopea begins an adventure that will take her on a cross-country odyssey from the jungles of Yucatán to the bright lights of Mexico City—and deep into the darkness of the Mayan underworld.

Jazz Age, Mexico, Mayan gods! These are only three things that made me excited for this book. I had also heard nothing but great things about the author herself and I love mythology retellings, especially when they are written for adults (like Circe or The Golem and the Jinni). But this was also my first mistake. Nowhere – and I mean nowhere – did I see any mentions that this was a YA book or, how I would categorize it, a middle-grade one. The cover doesn’t look particularly like YA, it is shelved as “Adult” on Goodreads, and none of the reviews I’d read made me expect anything but an adult mythology retelling with a teenaged protagonist.

So the writing style was the first thing that threw me. Casiopea Tun lives a Cinderella-like life in her grandfather’s house, where she cleans, cooks, fetches things for her insufferable, arrogant douche of a cousin Martín, and can only dream of the wider world. Until, that is, she opens a chest which contains some bones. These bones happen to belong to the Mayan god of the Underworld, Hun-Kamé who has been imprisoned by his jealous brother who now sits on the throne of Xibalba. Because Casiopea freed Hun-Kamé and also got a piece of bone stuck in her thumb, these two are now connected and she has to go with him on a quest to retrieve his missing pieces that will restore him to full power. Adventure ensues.

The plot is pretty straight-forward, nothing unexpected happens, and the whole book reads more like a fable or (and that’s a plus, in my book) a fairy tale than anything else. The writing is quick and to the point, there is a lot of telling instead of showing, the plot moves fast and felt almost episodic. Each chapter is a new city, a new piece of Hun-Kamé to retrieve, a new enemy to defeat or mythological creature to meet. None of these adventures were bad. I enjoyed most of them a lot, to be honest, but at the same time it all felt so incredibly simple, so child-like. Even the romance, which I found sweet and subtle, was fitting for 12-year-old readers. The only reason this bothered me so much was because that’s not at all what the book promised! Had I known from the start what kind of novel I was picking up, I would have probably loved it from the start. But since I had to adjust my expectations, I only started really liking this after the first third.

Another disappointment were the setting and the time period. The setting lived mostly through its mythology and I loved learning about Xibalba, various mythical creatures and Mayan rituals. But Mexico didn’t really come to life for me. The Roaring Twenties aspect was represented even less. Sure, most chapters begin with a short introduction of the place Casiopea and Hun-Kamé are visiting, but mentioning bobbed hair and fast dances here and there does not make any of this come to life. This didn’t make the reading experience less pleasurable, but it also did nothing to enhance what was already a very simplistic story. There was so much potential for depth, for turning this fast-paced children’s book into what it was sold as. But apart from the fact that Mayan gods are characters, this story could have happened anywhere and during any number of time periods.

Now that I’ve got the gripes out of the way, let me tell you why this book is worth your while anyway! First of all, you, faithful readers, are aware of what you’re going to get yourselves into. Don’t pick this up if you want something like The Song of Achilles, pick it up if you feel like a light-hearted fantasy read with interesting mythology. Because what you’ll get is actually a really sweet tale of a young girl breaking out of her sad life, finding confidence, falling in love for the first time, and growing up a bit. Casiopea may be the protagonist but – just like in a lot of children’s books – she is almost a little bland. Although we’re told how feisty and headstrong she is, mostly she’s just a really good person who happens to be a teenager and thus wants things, such as freedom and pretty dresses and to be kissed by a boy. I liked her enormously, but from a storytelling persepective, I found Hun-Kamé and Casiopea’s jerk cousin Martín even more interesting. Martín is the kind of spoiled brat who believes himself a gift to whomever may walk in his presence and I loathed him with a passion. But then he gets his own point of view chapters and you realize there is more to him than meets the eye. Not much more, mind you, but more nonetheless.

Hun-Kamé, that dark, mysterious god was the perfect romantic interest for a YA novel. Kind of brooding, super sexy, protective of the heroine… but being a god who’s missing some of his pieces, and thus some of his power, he’s also going through an interesting development. As a piece of his bone is stuck in Casiopea’s finger, her humanity is swapping over to Hun-Kamé just as she gets some of his godly powers. I felt that Hun-Kamés slow turn from godly aloofness to an almost human young man was fantastically done. Just like the romance, the changes happen gradually. It is subtle at first and becomes more and more obvious as the story progresses. Because I hate insta-love and enjoy character-focused stories, I really liked that part of the narrative.

In the reviews I’ve since read of this book, some readers were disappointed in the ending but I really liked it. Much like the plot that came before, I didn’t really find it surprising but even in its predictability, it had a lot of charm. Casiopea’s story felt well-rounded, she had grown as a person, seen more of the world, experienced romantic feelings – oh yeah, and also fought terrifying creatures, helped the god of the Underworld, and seen places others can only dream of. Although this book absolutely isn’t what it appears to be, it is a lovely kids’ adventure story with Mayan mythology.

MY RATING: 6/10 – Good

The Grand Finale: Katherine Arden – The Winter of the Witch

Sometimes, it’s important to read a book at the right time. I started this at a bad time, which is why I put it aside halfway through, only to rush through the ending last week. The lesson I learned from this is that, no matter how much you loved the first books in a trilogy and how much you trust an author, forcing yourself to pick up a book when you’re just not in the mood is a bad thing. Even if that means reading a book months after publication, after everyone else has already learned how the story ends.

THE WINTER OF THE WITCH
by Katherine Arden

Published by: Del Rey, 2019
Hardcover: 372 pages
Series: The Winternight Trilogy #3
My rating: 8/10

First line: Dust at the end of winter, and two men crossed the dooryard of a palace scarred by fire.

Following their adventures in The Bear and the Nightingale and The Girl in the Tower, Vasya and Morozko return in this stunning conclusion to the bestselling Winternight Trilogy, battling enemies mortal and magical to save both Russias, the seen and the unseen.
Reviewers called Katherine Arden’s novels The Bear and the Nightingale and The Girl in the Tower “lyrical,” “emotionally stirring,” and “utterly bewitching.” The Winternight Trilogy introduced an unforgettable heroine, Vasilisa Petrovna, a girl determined to forge her own path in a world that would rather lock her away. Her gifts and her courage have drawn the attention of Morozko, the winter-king, but it is too soon to know if this connection will prove a blessing or a curse.
Now Moscow has been struck by disaster. Its people are searching for answers—and for someone to blame. Vasya finds herself alone, beset on all sides. The Grand Prince is in a rage, choosing allies that will lead him on a path to war and ruin. A wicked demon returns, stronger than ever and determined to spread chaos. Caught at the center of the conflict is Vasya, who finds the fate of two worlds resting on her shoulders. Her destiny uncertain, Vasya will uncover surprising truths about herself and her history as she desperately tries to save Russia, Morozko, and the magical world she treasures. But she may not be able to save them all.

The Winter of the Witch picks up pretty seamlessly after the events of The Girl in the Tower. As the world is already established and the characters well-known, the readers are thrown straight into action with Vasya running for her life. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that she escapes that first attempt on her life (otherwise, what would the other 250 pages be about?), but Vasya’s road takes her to decidedly new places that may have their roots in Rus but definitely aren’t to be found on any map. This book also delivers one of the hardes blows right at the start. Maybe that was part of why I had to put it away for a while, because let me tell you, I could not handle what happened. I’ll have to be this vague for fear of spoiling it for you but be prepared for heartbreak and have tissues ready when you read this!

I loved how Katherine Arden not only brought together the first two books of this trilogy but also incorporated other Russian myths such as Baba Yaga or the Firebird. All of these elements are there in Vasya’s story but they make perfect sense for her tale, not simply as cameo appearances from other fairy tales. As Vasya learns to walk the Midnight Road, she tries her best to save her family, her country, and the chyerti from invading Tatars, invading Christianity, and from the rage of the chaos spirit Medved  – he’s the bear we met in the first book, remember?

This volume also progresses Vasya’s relationship to Morozko, the winter-king. Being a fangirl as I am, I had long hoped for a romance to develop between these two, but as this story went along, I felt that Vasya’s fate was bigger than that. Her whole point is to not be bound to a man or have her life dictated by one. Which doesn’t mean she’s immune to hormones or the wish to have a partner. But Arden did a great job in making clear that Vasya’s purpose in this story is so much bigger than her finding a man – even a magical one – but rather, you know, saving the world and stuff.

Mostly, what this book does is turn the intial conflict of The Bear and the Nightingcale up to eleven, add an invading force of Tatars to the mix, tensions in the world of the chyerti, and what you get is an epic tale with Vasilisa Petrovna at the center. I cannot say how much I loved her character development, not only because she is finding her place in the world, learning what she has to do in order to save her people, and discovering some long-hidden truths about her heritage. But also because she finds out she has a dark side. Vasya isn’t pure good – she would be a boring character if that was the case – but she is aware of this fact and so she also knows that any pleasure she takes in others’ pain takes her closer to someone she doesn’t want to be. She is constantly walking a knife’s edge between good and evil (if you want to call it that) and she is desperately trying to keep the chyerti alive while also feeling compassion for those who follow the Christian faith.

It’s hard to say much more without spoiling the plot, but let me leave you with a few thoughts on the ending. Rus is looking to fight a battle with the odds stacked very much against it; Vasya wants to find a way for the old faith and the new to live alongside each other, which is also not looking too good. Medved is spreading chaos (and zombies/vampires… did I mention those?), Konstantin is spreading lies, Morozko is a creature of winter and so no great help during summer. So things look pretty grim all around. And I’m not saying everything will turn out alright because that would also be boring. But Katherine Arden stuck the ending on a perfect, bittersweet note, adding one little extra that made my heart soar with joy.

Having read these books in the year they came out, I wonder what it would be like to devour them one right after the other. Maybe one day I’ll make myself do a Winternight readathon and dive into the gorgeous, mythical world that Katherine Arden has created, inspired by Medieval Russia, but filled with original ideas and the best characters a reader can hope for.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent

Growing Up in a Fairy Tale: Lisa Goldstein – The Uncertain Places

This is a book that I would normally never pick up. Yes, yes, don’t judge a book by its cover, but let’s be honest – we all do it to a certain degree. And this cover has been begging me not to read the book. But it did win the Mythopoeic Award in 2012, I read all the other nominees and thought, if this book won over Cat Valente’s Deathless, there must be something to it. And it was definitely much better than the cover made me expect. But not so good that I personally would have given it an award.

THE UNCERTAIN PLACES
by Lisa Goldstein

Published by: Tachyon, 2011
Paperback: 237 pages
Standalone
My rating: 6,5/10

First line: It was Ben Avery who introduced me to Livvy, Livvy and her haunted family.

An ages-old family secret breaches the boundaries between reality and magic in this fresh retelling of a classic fairy tale. When Berkeley student Will Taylor is introduced to the mysterious Feierabend sisters, he quickly falls for enigmatic Livvy, a chemistry major and accomplished chef. But Livvy’s family-vivacious actress Maddie, family historian Rose, and their mother, absent-minded Sylvia-are behaving strangely. The Feierabend women seem to believe that luck is their handmaiden, even though happiness does not necessarily follow. It is soon discovered that generations previous, the Feierabends made a contract with a powerful, otherworldly force, and it is up to Will and his best friend to unravel the riddle of this supernatural bargain in order to save Livvy from her predestined fate.

Will Taylor tells the story of how he met Livvy Feierabend and learned about all the strange things that surrounded her family. Will and his best friend Ben are college students in the 70ies, soon they both go out with the elder Feierabend sisters Livvy and Maddie, and not long after that, Will discovers that there is something strange about that family. It’s not just the strange, massive house they live in, or the fact that their vineyard has always been going well. It’s the behaviour of the three daughters as well and the way they react when people make innocent jokes about fairy tales.

Fairy tales, you see, are something the Feierabends have some real experience of. I don’t think the first quarter of the book can be considered spoiler territory, so I’ll tell you that Will discovers why the Feierabends always seem to succeed in whatever they do, and what kind of prize they pay for that. Naturally, young and in love as he is, Will wants nothing more than to break that blessing/curse because he dreams of being with Livvy forever.

What follows is an interesting tale that intertwines fairy tale elements with real world issues. We get to see Will and his friends grow into adults, some even into parents. We see the effect that dealing with people from the Other Realm has on everybody’s lives and we delve deeper into the past to find out the truth of the fairy bargain at the heart of this novel. There was much to discover and lots of hints to well-known fairy tales. The particular tale that is important in The Uncertain Places may not be one we know in the real world but it feels like it could be and there certainly are many variants of its plot. As a fairy tale lover, I really enjoyed how well Goldstein managed to mix these fictional bits in with fairy tales we have in our world as well.

The plot was also quite  fun. Breaking a curse and dealing with faeries (or whatever you want to call them) usually guarantees a thrilling book. And there were scenes that I had to rush through because I needed to know what happened next. But there were also chapters that deal more with everyday issues, such as Will’s job, his marriage, or traveling from one place to another to see how old friends are doing.

The only problem I had – and sadly, it’s a big one – was that I didn’t connect with any of the characters. Sure, Will was likeable and I wanted him to succeed, but I didn’t really care about anyone. I was watching them, doing their thing, hoping that everything would turn out well in the end, but the story didn’t absorb me, it didn’t evoke any particular emotional response in me. And what makes it worse is that there was so much potential. The Feierabend family were all put in a really interesting situation that involved hard choices. The girls grew up with a cloud of tragedy hanging over their heads, knowing that any day, the bad thing that happens could happen. But the story is told by Will, in first person, so we never really get to see the more intersting characters’ point of view.

Had this book told through multiple POVs or even in third person omniscient, I think it would have been a much more exciting story. By showing us Will’s limited point of view, the best parts of the story are kept at a distance. I wanted to know what it was like being Maddie or Livvy growing up, or Rose, the third daughter who was always left out of the elder girls’ games. Or even Sylvia, their mother, who may be blessed with fortune but has been left by her husband and constantly has to worry about her daughters. But we only get glimpses of that through Will’s eyes and if you ask me, those eyes, perceptive as they may be, only see a small part of what’s there.

All that said, I did enjoy this book. It was a quick read, but neither the writing style nor the characters felt in any way award-worthy to me. This is the kind of book that I like to compare to a night at the movies, where you enjoy the movie while you’re watching it but when you get home afterwards, you already forget all the details. A week later, you don’t know what the characters were called and the whole thing turns out to be not particularly memorable. As well as the fairy tales were interwoven with a story set in our world, it didn’t lift the book over an average rating for me.

MY RATING: 6,5/10 – Good

The Godfather With Magic: Fonda Lee – Jade City

Here’s a book I read a while ago and which completely swept me away. With the second in the series newly published, I wanted to go back and collect my thoughts about this fantastic series. If you like mafia movies (or even if you don’t) and magic, and diverse settings, then definitely check this book out. It is more than the sum of its parts, however, and I can’t wait to return to these characters that have grown so dear to me.

JADE CITY
by Fonda Lee

Published by: Orbit, 2017
ebook: 560 pages
Series: The Green Bone Saga #1
My rating: 8,5/10

First sentence: The two would-be jade thieves sweated in the kitchen of the Twice Lucky restaurant.

The Kaul family is one of two crime syndicates that control the island of Kekon. It’s the only place in the world that produces rare magical jade, which grants those with the right training and heritage superhuman abilities.
The Green Bone clans of honorable jade-wearing warriors once protected the island from foreign invasion–but nowadays, in a bustling post-war metropolis full of fast cars and foreign money, Green Bone families like the Kauls are primarily involved in commerce, construction, and the everyday upkeep of the districts under their protection.
When the simmering tension between the Kauls and their greatest rivals erupts into open violence in the streets, the outcome of this clan war will determine the fate of all Green Bones and the future of Kekon itself.

Jade City is one of those books that are best read without much prior knowledge, so I’ll tell you very little about the plot itself. Two opposing clans control the island of Kekon and their conflict reaches new heights throughout the course of this book. On this island, magical jade is produced which gives the people who wear it – if they are trained! – superhuman powers. Needless to say, jade is much sought-after and a large part of Kekonese culture is based on its magical properties. Whether it’s the fact that business owners swear fealty to one clan or another, or the magic schools in which promising young people are trained to use jade responsibly – Kekon is a magical place, albeit one with many dark sides.

But as amazing as the world building was, what really got me invested in the story were the characters. We follow the younger generation of the No Peak Clan and how they deal with the fact that they’ll soon take over certain responsibilities. These young Kauls –  Lan, Hilo, and Shae – are vastly different people with different goals in life. Lan struggles with the weight of responsibility as he is to become leader of the clan. Hilo is impulsive, prone to violence, and has to be held in check so he doesn’t accidentally (or not so accidentally) start a full-out war with the Mountain Clan. Shae has been gone from Kekon for a while and is just returning at the beginning of this book. She has her own troubles, not least of which is reuniting with her family after the unheard of act of leaving them. Apart from the general unrest brewing in the city, these siblings also don’t exactly get along. Figuring out why, and what has happened in their past to create this conflict, was just another layer that made this book so much fun to read.
And I haven’t even mentioned the fourth main character, a Kaul cousin named Anden, who is currently in training to become a Green Bone Warrior.

Which leads me to the magic system. The short version: It is AWESOME! A combination of magic and martial arts, it is the kind of magic that exacts a price. Using it drains energy, which is why you have to be trained before you can use jade, and why only the most powerful Green Bone Warriors wear a lot of jade on their body. The fight scenes, which can be difficult to do in  prose rather than a movie, were fantastically written. I always felt like I was right there, watching these amazingly powerful people battle each other.

There are also some greater conflicts at work in Kekon. Not only do the tensions between No Peak and Mountain reach a new high, but the larger world is involved as well. As I mentioned, jade is quite the popular material, because  of its magical properties, so it is only natural that other nations want it for themselves – for money, war, power… the usual. But jade in untrained hands can be more than dangerous, not just to the person wielding it, but to many others as well.

You see, there are so many things that come together in this book, and turn it into an almost perfect novel. Whether you prefer thrilling action scenes, quieter character moments where the protagonists have to make hard decisions, even a bit of romance (though very little of that), or simply a fantastic world that feels like a magical mafia story, it’s all there. And it’s all really well done! I couldn’t pick a single thing that Lee tried to do and didn’t succeed at. Her magic system follows its own  rules and makes sense (as much as magic can make sense, but you know what I mean), the characters all grow throughout the story and are definitely not the same people they were at the beginning of the book. The world itself is such an interesting place that I want to pack a suitcase and simply go out and explore what else there is to learn.

If it hasn’t come across yet, I was quite taken with this novel and I’m not even a big fan of mafia movies. But it is so easy to get swept up in the fate of the Kaul family because I cared so much about the characters, even the ones who don’t seem very likable at first. Fonda Lee has done a brilliant job in creating a magical world, multi-layered characters, family drama, and political intrigue. This book has pretty much everything that I love about fantasy and science fiction and I hope to read the sequel, Jade War, very soon!

MY RATING: 8,5/10 – Truly excellent!

Magical Immigrants: Helene Wecker – The Golem and the Jinni

Sometimes I’m a bit slower than the rest of the world to discover great books. The Golem and the Jinni had been on my radar since it was first published and then it even went on to win a Mythopoeic Award (along with many other award nominations), which I follow closely because the nominees are usually books I end up loving. Thanks to the Retellings Reading Challenge I finally picked this one up and it was everything I had hoped.

THE GOLEM AND THE JINNI
by Helene Wecker

Published by: Harper, 2013
Hardcover: 486 pages
Series: The Golem and the Jinni #1
My rating: 9/10

First sentence: The Golem’s life began in the hold of a steamship.

In The Golem and the Jinni, a chance meeting between mythical beings takes readers on a dazzling journey through cultures in turn-of-the-century New York.
Chava is a golem, a creature made of clay, brought to life by a disgraced rabbi who dabbles in dark Kabbalistic magic and dies at sea on the voyage from Poland. Chava is unmoored and adrift as the ship arrives in New York harbor in 1899.
Ahmad is a jinni, a being of fire born in the ancient Syrian desert, trapped in an old copper flask, and released in New York City, though still not entirely free.
Ahmad and Chava become unlikely friends and soul mates with a mystical connection. Marvelous and compulsively readable, Helene Wecker’s debut novel The Golem and the Jinni weaves strands of Yiddish and Middle Eastern literature, historical fiction and magical fable, into a wondrously inventive and unforgettable tale.

The story begins with the creation of the Golem, initially thought up to be a companion to a carpenter moving to New York. He wakes up the Golem on the ship (although he wasn’t supposed to), and promptly dies, leaving the Golem without a master, without a purpose, stranded in a new world, with not a single friend to guide her. She may look like a human woman, but she is a newborn Golem with no idea how human society works.

Almost at the same time, Arbeely, a tinsmith in Little Syria, is brought an old copper flask to fix, out of which emerges a Jinni. The Jinni has been imprisoned in the flask for ages, is bound into human form by an iron clasp around his harm, and battles against the loss of his magic, his life in the desert, and the world he has now been thrown into.

You can see, the idea and the characters alone are intriguing enough for a novel. The Golem, later called Chava by a kind rabbi who knows her for what she is and takes her in, and the Jinni, named Ahmad by his now-employer Arbeely, are living through a special kind of hell. Because Chava has no master, whose thoughts she can hear and obey, she now hears everyone’s thoughts, their dreams and desires, their anger and frustration – naturally, that gets overwhelming fast. And as is her nature, she wishes to fulfill those needs, to grant those wishes, not knowing that it’s not always possible. Ahmad, in the meantime, finds some solace in the metalwork he does for Arbeely. With the use of his (quite magical) hands, he forms metal the way no human could. They get by, in a way. But they are both without direction, without purpose.

At first, this book is just magical. Two mythical beings, trying to hide their true selves from humanity, trying to make a living, to find a reason to live in their new society, was just beautiful to read. Once Chava and Ahmad meet and form a tender sort of friendship, things get even better. The dynamic between these two very different beings was bound to be tense. Chava, built to be obedient, to always behave properly, and Ahmad, impulsive like the fire he is made of, thinking more of his own pleasure than other people’s feelings. Don’t expect quippy banter like you’d find in a YA romance novel, but rather deep conversations about important Life Stuff – but with a hint of banter. Everything I like about bickering couples (although Chava and Ahmad are friends, not lovers) is there, it’s just more subtle, and therefore maybe more powerful.

But there is even more to this book, simply on a plot basis. Ahmad does not remember how he came to be bound in his flask. In flashbacks, we find out exactly how that came to be. His life in his glass palace in the desert, his meeting with a group of humans, and ultimately his capture. Chava’s creation is clear from the start, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have repercussions. Her creator, Yehuda Schaalman, meddles in dark forces (otherwise how could he have created a Golem so life-like as to pass for a human woman?) and gets it into his head to search for the power of immortality. The synopsis is wrong, by the way. Chava’s master dies at sea, her creator remains alive and kicking in Poland! Until, that is, he decides to follow his creation to America.

Although I would describe this as a quiet sort of book, a lot of things do happen, and there’s even an epic showdown at the very end. Whether it was descriptions of Chava’s work at the bakery, Ahmad’s romantic escapades, or their nighttime walks together, it always felt like something was going on. So this is the sort of quiet book that doesn’t have loud action on every page but feels like it nonetheless.  I can’t even tell you what I loved best about it. The Golem and the Jinni became very dear characters in a short amount of time, but so did the humans that surrounded them. These side characters don’t simply remain on the sidelines, their stories get told too, and they are sometimes more tragic and more beautiful than the Golem’s or the Jinni’s. Helene Wecker has built a whole little world, peopled with believable, sympathetic characters, that I didn’t want to let go of.

And I haven’t even mentioned the setting. We’re at the turn of the century (1890ies-ish) and while Chava is taken into the Jewish community by Rabbi Meyer, Ahmad lives in Little Syria. As I said, some side characters have their story told, but even the ones that don’t help to create a vivid, culturally diverse setting that felt vibrantly alive. Simply reading about neighborly interactions between the habitants of Little Syria brought a smile to my face. They may not be family by blood, but these people look out for each other. Similarly, although culturally different of course, the Jewish community that Chava moves within sticks together and wants the best for its people. Chava’s workplace becomes a whole little family of itself, and Chava, although she is seen as strange by many, is welcomed into it. Again, what a joy to read!

The writing is just exquisite. It isn’t particularly flowery or particularly stark, it’s just always right for the part of the story it’s telling. When things get rushed, the writing adapts, when there’s a quiet character moment, there is more description, when the protagonists experience happiness, the writing feels happier (if that makes sense). When we’re in Chava’s head, different things are in focus than when we’re in Ahmad’s head. I don’t know how to describe it other than always just right. And although I didn’t think this book would have an ending as thrilling as this, even then Wecker managed to seamlessly carry us readers into the action-packed scenes that make up the finale. I may have shed a tear or two…

This book was an absolute pleasure to read, from the very first page to the very last. So you can imagine I am more than thrilled that a sequel of sorts is in the works. Whatever Helene Wecker decides to write next, I’ll be there for it!

MY RATING: 9/10 – Nearly perfect!