Reading the Hugos 2020: Best Short Story

It’s Hugo Awards reading season! To celebrate all the amazing finalists, I thought I would do a series of short reviews for each category as well as show you what my ballot will most likely look like. Ballots are definitely subject to change, especially in categories where I had several favorites.
Every Monday, we’ll look at a different category until I run out of time – or out of steam. I’m still catching up with the finalists, especially in the series category, but I hope I can keep up this schedule.

  • Best Short Story
  • Best Novelette
  • Best Novella
  • Lodestar
  • Best Graphic Story
  • Best Novel
  • Best Series

I’m not a big short story reader. In fact, I almost only read short stories that are Hugo finalists because there’s just too much out there and I mostly don’t get a lot out of it. I usually want my stories bigger and meatier but there is something to be said for an author who can evoke an emotional response in the span of only a few pages. Here are six of them on one of my favorite Hugo shortlists ever.

The Finalists for Best Short Story

  • Alix E. Harrow – Do Not Look Back, My Lion
  • S. L. Huang – As the Last I May Know
  • Shiv Ramdas – And Now His Lordship is Laughing
  • Rivers Solomon – Blood is Another Word for Hunger
  • Fran Wilde – A Catalog of Storms
  • Nibedita Sen – Ten Excerpts from an Annotated Bibliography  on the Cannibal Women of Ratnabar Island

This went differently than expected. I loved Alix E. Harrow’s winning short story last time, so I fully expected her story to be in my top spot again. But the competition is tough!

I didn’t like Fran Wilde’s YA novel Updraft at all, so I was surprised at how deeply I cared about the characters in A Catalog of Storms. The story is about the weather and yet it utterly engaged me! Sila, the youngest of three daughters, is the first person narrator who shows us how she and her family live. Storms have been ravaging their home, so much so that humans mostly stay inside and hide. That is, until the weathermen appeared. These people learned to name the terrible storms and thus control and fight them. To become a weatherman is a great honor, although they usually end up dissolving into weather themselves. When Sila’s sister shows signs of turning into a weatherman, the family has to deal with that loss.
I can’t believe how much Wilde packed into this short story! Not only did she make me care for all the characters but she also immersed me in a highly original world. I was deeply impressed!

Alix E. Harrow may not have written my favorite of the nominated stories, but Do Not Look Back, My Lion was still very good. It’s about a warrior people who brand their babies right after birth to become fierce warriors. Eefa, husband to the legendary warrior nicknamed the Lion, has had enough, though. She is a healer and as such has very low social status. But she doesn’t want to watch her children go off to war and come back injured. Or maybe not come back at all.
While I loved the central relationship and the character growth in this story, I felt the world building just didn’t work for me. There were nice touches, like the gods of Life and Death, but to me the question of why these people are eternally at war remained until the end. It’s not the point of the story at all but it kept nagging at the back of my mind.
But for the excellent character work and beautiful writing, I still loved this story.

I know S. L. Huang as the author of the Russell’s Attic series as well as the super-heartbreaking The Little Homo Sapiens Scientist. I never read her trilogy but I know she can get me all emotional with her stories. But As the Last I May Know does more than that. It’s set in a future where weapons of mass destruction can only be used with the proper codes (so far, so normal), except these codes are embedded in a child who the president personally has to kill in order to get the codes. This idea alone was so mind-blowing that I wouldn’t even have needed the characters to love this story. But we do follow the ten-year old protagonist who is chosen to carry those launch codes and we see her spend a few years close to the president. Because there is a serious war going on and he may have to kill her in order to save his country…
I cannot put into words the emotional roller coaster this tale put me on. It’s a brilliant idea but we see it through such wonderful characters that every little change in the war physically hurts. It poses questions about ethics, about the value of a human life, about the Greater Good, and it kept me thinking a long time after I finished reading it. This is what all the best stories should do.

I loved Rivers Solomon’s novella, The Deep, and I was almost as taken with their short story, Blood Is Another Word for Hunger. It has one of the best (and longest) opening lines I’ve ever read and the prose is just beautiful. It starts with Sully, a slave girl, slaughtering the entire family for whom she works, and then suddenly being struck pregnant and giving birth to a girl that grows up to be a teenager within minutes. The universe needs balance, after all, and with five people dead, it seems only fair that five others come back to life – in this case, via Sully’s womb. This way, a little family grows and they start to make a life for themselves.
While I enjoyed reading this story, I’m not quite sure what Solomon was trying to achieve with it. Obviously, a slave rising up to take control of her own life was satisfying enough to drive the plot, but the story as a whole and especially the ending left me a bit puzzled.

Shiv Ramdas’ story And Now His Lordship is Laughing is about an old woman in India who makes beautiful – and somewhat magical – dolls. When her craft attracts the attention of an English lord, she refuses to make a doll for his wife because that’s just not how things are done. You don’t demand a doll, you are given one as a gift if the maker so chooses. What follows is a period of poverty, terrible hunger (and death following that hunger) because the English take things from the people to supply their own armies. When eventually, the protagonist does agree to make a dool for His Lordship’s wife, it comes with a caveat. She wants to hand the doll over herself and show the English lady how to make the magical toy laugh.
I loved how this story managed to say so many things about colonialism, cultural differences and the ways we perceive them, and the cost of an empire. It’s a beautifully written story but, unfortunately, a rather predictable one. Satisfying as the ending was, it didn’t really surprise me. The one truly emotional moment for me happened much sooner and is the catalyst for what happens next. I enjoyed it and I want to read more by Ramdas but on this ballot, it will be ranked rather low.

The last story I read messed up my entire ranking up until that point. Ten Excerpts not only has important things to say but also does so by playing with its medium. Nibedita Sen presents her story just like the title suggests – as excerpts from a bibliography on the women of Ratnabar Island. Through these very (!) short snippets, we get a story that spans generations and continents! I can’t even imagine how difficult it must be to write something like this. When colonists “discovered” the women of Ratnabar island, they took some of them with them to England for a “proper education”, starting something much bigger and more vicious than they probably knew.
I won’t say much about the plot, if you can call it that, but holy shit, this story was mind-blowing. It’s so easy to fill in the parts of this history without having to be explicitly told, and I loved how Sen presented excerpts from different sources that have varying opinions on Ratnabar Island and its inhabitants. Most striking were probably the excerpts from the now displaced second- or even third-generation Ratnabarian women living abroad. My gut reaction after reading this was: Yeah, this is my top spot.

My ballot (probably)

  1. S. L. Huang – As the Last I May Know
  2. Nibedita Sen – Ten Excerpts from an Annotated Bibliography  on the Cannibal Women of Ratnabar Island
  3. Fran Wilde – A Catalog of Storms
  4. Alix E. Harrow – Do Not Look Back, My Lion
  5. Rivers Solomon – Blood is Another Word for Hunger
  6. Shiv Ramdas – And Now His Lordship is Laughing

You’ll see that the Nibedita Sen story is not in my top spot but that’s only because I have stewed over this ballot for quite a while. I may yet change the top two spots, depending on how I feel about these stories once a little time has passed after reading them. I am silmpy so very taken with Huang’s basic premise and her characters were the ones that felt most fleshed-out on this ballot that I don’t want to take it from my top spot at the moment.
I’m happy with Fran Wilde on my third spot, but after that, it gets difficult again.
I enjoyed all these stories and they all did interesting things, were written beautifully, and got some emotional reaction out of me.
The reason Shiv Ramdas’ story is currently at the bottom is simply because it was the most predictable one for me, so my pure enjoyment of it was just a tad less than with the other stories.
Rivers Solomon’s story was fantastic but I’m still not quite sure about the ending. And Alix E. Harrow’s story simply had standout character work. So nothing on this ballot is really secure, I may shift around a lot of things, but nothing will jump from the very top to the very bottom or vice versa.

Except for Wilde and Harrow’s tales, all the stories deal with issues of race, colonialism, or slavery and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that these stories resonate so much with WorldCon members. These topics are more timely than ever and I am so grateful that I got to see them through the eyes of such brilliant, talented writers. There’s not a single bad story on here and I want to read more by each of these authors. So we’re off to a pretty amazing start when it comes to this year’s Hugo reading! And I believe can all use something to keep our hope and spirits up in these trying times.

Up next week: Best Novelette

Bolivian Myth and Magic: Isabel Ibañez – Woven in Moonlight

Sometimes, all it takes is a striking cover to catch my interest. Alright, I’ll admit it, a lot of times that’s all it takes. But if you then bait me with mythology and a fantasy-Bolivian setting, a spy at court who’s also a decoy condesa, plus magic to do with moonlight and weaving – I have literally no way to stay away from that book. I’m so glad that I ended up enjoying this as much as I did, even though it turned out to be less fantasy and more exploration of a people who has been through revolution and simply yearns for peace.

WOVEN IN MOONLIGHT
by Isabel Ibañez

Published: Page Street Books, 2020
Hardback: 384 pages
Series: Wovenin Moonlight #1
My rating: 7/10

Opening line: My banged-up spoon scrapes the bottom of a barrel that should’ve held enough dried beans to last for three more months.

A lush tapestry of magic, romance, and revolución, drawing inspiration from Bolivian politics and history.
Ximena is the decoy Condesa, a stand-in for the last remaining Illustrian royal. Her people lost everything when the usurper, Atoc, used an ancient relic to summon ghosts and drive the Illustrians from La Ciudad. Now Ximena’s motivated by her insatiable thirst for revenge, and her rare ability to spin thread from moonlight.
When Atoc demands the real Condesa’s hand in marriage, it’s Ximena’s duty to go in her stead. She relishes the chance, as Illustrian spies have reported that Atoc’s no longer carrying his deadly relic. If Ximena can find it, she can return the true aristócrata to their rightful place.
She hunts for the relic, using her weaving ability to hide messages in tapestries for the resistance. But when a masked vigilante, a warm-hearted princess, and a thoughtful healer challenge Ximena, her mission becomes more complicated. There could be a way to overthrow the usurper without starting another war, but only if Ximena turns her back on revenge—and her Condesa.

Ximena has lived almost her whole life pretending to be someone she is not: the condesa Catalina, rightful heir to Inkasisa, and leader of the impending revolution to take back what’s hers. Although the real condesa is Ximena’s best friend, it is Ximena who carries all the burdens of tough decisions and the threat of being in the public eye. This becomes all the more dangerous when King Atoc, the usurper, decides he will marry to condesa in order to cement his claim to the throne.  Ximena goes to court, ostentatiously to follow the King’s order, but really looking for the Estrella, a secret weapon that may help her people rise up again and claim back what they have lost.

There were some things that Ibañez did really well in her story of revolution and romance and a people past war-time, and there are others that could have been done better. Because my overall enjoyment outweighed my nitpicks, I’ll start with the good stuff.
Ximena is a great protagonist. She may be somewhat impulsive and headstrong, but she is open minded, full of empathy, and willing to learn. She also has her heart in the right place and doesn’t shy away from rethinking things she’s been taught all her life were true. The side characters were all somewhat overdrawn, but they did a great job in showing that the two peoples in conflict aren’t actually all that different from one another. Everyone just wants to live a happy life, with food on their table and a roof over their head – whether it’s Ximena’s Illustrians or Atoc’s Llacsans.

I also really loved the magic in this book, although its execution was one of the weaker points. As the title suggests, moonlight and weaving both play a part. Ximena can use moondust as a sort of sleeping powder which comes in pretty handy when you have to knock out your guards in order to explore the castle. She is also a gifted weaver whose tapestries are… let’s say not quite ordinary. I don’t want to spoil what exactly the magic is here, but it’s a brilliant idea that simply wasn’t used or explored enough. If I were in Ximena’s position and had her magic, this story may have turned out very differently. Maybe the author thought that would be too much for what is essentially a YA fantasy romance, or maybe she never wanted the magic to be so dominant. The fact that the magic doesn’t do all that much doesn’t really hurt the story, but I can’t help but feel there was potential for more.

But the main themes of this book are clear from the start. How to get back (or even to find for the first time) a way of living that can work for all people, even the ones who seem irrevocably on opposing sides of a fight? And how to become who you truly are when you’ve been pretending to be someone else all your life? Ximena, young as she is, has to deal with both of these tough questions. Not too much is said about the revolution that happened when Ximena was little, except that it cost her her parents and her people their rule. But Ximena also discovers what it was like for the other side. Llacsans didn’t have a great life before the revolution. And while they also may not have a great life under Atoc’s rule, who can fault them for escaping what amounts to slavery? Ximena learns all these things throught the people she meets. She enters the Llacsan world filled with prejudice and her own firm ideas on what the world is like, so it comes as quite a shock to see that she likes some of these people who are supposed to be her sworn enemies!
There is also a masked vigilante, El Lobo, who poses something of a mystery. He steals from the rich and gives to the poor but he doesn’t seem to make a difference between Illustrian and Llacsan, and that doesn’t go with Ximena’s world view.

While both El Lobo’s identity and the love story were rather obvious and predictable from early on, I didn’t mind the lack of surprise at their eventual reveal. That’s not what this book is about. The heart of it is its people and the question of how a divided country can find a way to exist in peace together. It’s a very pertinent question in this day and age.

This may not be a great fantasy book but it is a great book, period. It’s about people coming together with open minds, being open to new world views, trying to do the right thing even if that means sacrificing something they personally love. It’s about a young girl finding her place in the world and figuring out who she is when she’s not pretending to be her best friend. And most importantly, while the ending comes to a satisfying conclusion for this story, things aren’t all happy and perfect! A divided people can’t simply be swayed to accept what they’d feared or hated for so many years. But you have to start somewhere and Ximena plans to do her best for her home, with old and new friends by her side. And that’s all anyone can really do.

Also, make sure you have snacks on hand when you read this. There is a lot of food porn that made me crave all the things! 🙂

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

SFF Plagues: Connie Willis – Doomsday Book

Apparently, I’m the kind of person who feels the need to read books about epidemics during an acutal real-world pandemic. I understand that many people are different and want to steer away from post-apocalyptic fiction and zombie novels as long as the world is in lock-down, but I find a strange kind of comfort in reading about situations similar – but thankfully, different enough! – to ours. This book hit me very hard, it put me through all the emotions, and I still have wet eyes as I type this.

DOOMSDAY BOOK
by Connie Willis

Published: Bantam, 1992
Ebook: 593 pages
Series: Oxford Time Travel #1
My rating: 8/10

Opening line: Mr. Dunworthy opened the door to the laboratory and his spectacles promptly steamed up.

For Kivrin, preparing an on-site study of one of the deadliest eras in humanity’s history was as simple as receiving inoculations against the diseases of the fourteenth century and inventing an alibi for a woman traveling alone. For her instructors in the twenty-first century, it meant painstaking calculations and careful monitoring of the rendezvous location where Kivrin would be received.
But a crisis strangely linking past and future strands Kivrin in a bygone age as her fellows try desperately to rescue her. In a time of superstition and fear, Kivrin–barely of age herself–finds she has become an unlikely angel of hope during one of history’s darkest hours.
Connie Willis draws upon her understanding of the universalities of human nature to explore the ageless issues of evil, suffering, and the indomitable will of the human spirit.

It’s the year 2054 and Oxford historians travel back in time to do their research. Among them is young Kivrin who has been dreaming of going to 1320 since she was little. Until recently, the Middle Ages had been rated a 10 on the danger scale, disallowing historians to travel there, but as developments change, Kivrin does get her chance. Her tutor Mr. Dunworthy tries to keep her from going but she will not be deterred. And of course, things go terribly wrong…

This is a book told in two timelines. In one, we follow Kivrin into the Middle Ages, in the other we worry with Mr. Dunworthy in the present (well, his present). And while the jump into the past seems to have gone well, the technician who is supposed to read the necessary data to bring Kivrin back in two weeks, has fallen suddenly ill. A new kind of ill. A virus that quickly spreads thorughout Oxford and has the city under quarantine in no time. Mr. Dunworthy has to turn the college into wards for sick people, his friend Dr. Ahrens basically lives in the hospital, and something didn’t go right with Kivrin’s time travel… except Badri, the technician, is to ill to tell anyone.

There’s a lot going on here! Dealing with an epidemic is one thing, but mostly what the chapters in the present (I’m just going to call it that, even though it is technically our future) deal with is Dunworthy making lots of calls, waiting for people to call him back, getting other technicians into Oxford, making more calls, and dealing with the people around him, who are in various states of panic.
Kivrin, on the other hand, arrives safely in the Middle Ages, although something also doesn’t seem to be right. Not only does she fall ill immediately (but how? She has been inoculated against all the possible diseases she might catch from that time period), but her translator doesn’t appear to work. So she can’t understand what people are saying and she can’t make herself understoo! Her cover story gets thrown out of the window as she simply tries to stay alive, learn the language, and not get herself burned at the stake as a witch.

What really made this book for me was the characters. The protagonists grew dear to me very quickly, as it’s really hard not to love courageous Kivrin and her father figure Dunworthy. But also the side characters – even the ones I didn’t like – were amazing. Dr. Ahrens’ 12-year-old nephew gets sort of dumped on Dunworthy but he turns out to be way more resourceful than first expected. Dunworthy’s assistant (if that’s what he was, I can’t be quite sure) Mr. Finch also outdoes himself taking on most of the organisational duties that Dunworthy can’t take care of himself. Mary Ahrens, who fights for every patient that comes to her hospital and who still has kind words of reassurance for her friends even though she is overworked. The technicians and historians – some of whom are actually just idiots – all felt like real people.
The same goes for the people Kivrin meets in the past. I was probably fondest of the child Agnes and Father Roche, who made the small village where Kivrin spends her time come alive despite the restricted setting. I saw them all vividly in my mind, I thought of them as real people, so I was all the more involved in their fate. Every once in a while I kept reminding myself that – even if Kivrin makes it out of this alive and can return to the present – all of these people will have been dead for 700 years, with or without a deadly plague, and it totally killed me. If you can get me to care that much about your characters, you have done something right!

Connie Willis is doubtlessly a great writer, but one really annoying habit she has in this book is the constant repetition of important facts. Two characters would have a conversation about when the plague came to England (1348, in case you’re wondering, and I’ll probably never forget it) to make sure us readers are up to date on this important bit of information. Then a character would be thinking the exact same information – sometimes even in the exact same words – to himself again. And in the following chapter, there’d be at least two other incidences where someone thinks or mentions when the plague came to England. The same goes for the three types of plague, how a virus spreads, what medieaval doctors tried to cure the plague, etc. etc.
I understand that the author wants her readers to have a good knowledge base for the story to work but just because someone doesn’t know very much about the Middle Ages doesn’t mean we’re all morons who have to be told the same thing 50 times in a row. We’re already involved in these characters’ lives – we care. So vital information is more likely to stick anyway because we’re just as worried about Kivrin as Mr. Dunworthy is. And we’re just as aware of the danger Dr. Ahrens is in because she’s treating hundreds of sick, contagious patients every day.

With that little rant out of the way, let me tell why I still loved this book. It is precisely because I was so besotted with the characters that I didn’t care how the author kind of talked down to me. Yeah, fine, so you think I need to be reminded yet again how each of the three plague types manifests, but if that’s what it takes for me to see what happens to Kivrin, then so be it. Were this not such a great story, I probably would have been much more annoyed with this, but because I adored the ideas and the characters and the plot, it was easier for me to just let it go. And I did learn a great deal about the time period and about diseases in general…

Connie Willis does a fantastic job of slowly building up her world and her characters, of making readers care for them, flawed as they may be, and then cranking things up to eleven on the emotion scale. I cried almost constantly throughout the last quarter of the book for various reasons. Characters dying, characters showing incredible courage, humanity working together in spite of terrible odds… It’s true I may have been a bit more susceptible to scenes like that because we’re dealing with similar situations in our world. Doctors working without sleep for days, nurses trying to make very ill patients as comfortable as possible, regardless of the danger to themselves – it’s all here in this book and it’s happening in our world right now too! And because now I know just how close to home Connie Willis hit with her fictional tale, I was all the more weepy.

If you’re currently reading only books to escape the real world, steer clear away from this one. But once this Corona pandemic is over and we have returned to some kind of normality (however that will look), I urge you to pick this up. It didn’t win a Hugo and a Nebula for nothing. This book makes me understand why Willis has so many die hard fans and why she keeps getting nominated for awards. It will proably be a while until I dare to pick up another book by her because I can only handle so many emotions at a time, but after reading Doomsday Book, I fully plan on reading her entire back catalogue. What a an amazing book!

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent

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