Vonda N. McIntyre – Dreamsnake

Catching up with the winners (and finalists) of the Hugo Awards is a long-term project of mine. It’s been going mostly well, with some works that I disliked. Mostly I see the appeal, though, even if a book is not to my taste. Dreamsnake has won not only the 1979 Hugo but also the Nebula and Locus Award and so it was high up on my list of books I should really check out. It was one of the good ones. 🙂

DREAMSNAKE
by Vonda N. McIntyre

Published: Jo Fletcher Books, 1978
eBook: 288 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8/10

Snake travels the land with her serpents, the rattlesnake Sand, the cobra Mist and the rare alien dreamsnake called Grass, whose bite can ease the fear and pain of death. But the blasted landscape of a far-future post-holocaust Earth is a dangerous place, even for such a highly regarded elite healer . . . especially when an unexpected death sends her on a desperate quest to reclaim her healing powers.

A haunting story of an extraordinary woman on a dangerous quest in a far-future post-apocalyptic world.

This is one of those books that starts as one thing and then turns into quite another. We first meet Snake when she is with a desert people with a very sick young boy. Snake’s work – and part of her character – are revealed to us through the healing of this boy. She uses her three snakes, Mist, Sand, and Grass to create a special kind of poison that will heal the boy. The dreamsnake Grass doesn’t deliver an antidote to Snake’s patients, however, but is rather there to calm them, to help them sleep, and – if the person is going to die – to ensure a serene end. Although Snake makes a friend during her stay with the desert people, she loses a snake! Without Grass, Snake isn’t a proper healer anymore so she decides to return to her people, confess the loss of her snake and hope for the best.

Dreamsnakes being incredibly rare – cloning doesn’t always yield results and breeding them just won’t work – Snake starts her journey in shame and worry. There are already too few dreamsnakes to provide every healer with one, and there are too few healers to deal with all the pain in the world. As we follow Snake on her trip, we encounter not only groups of people from vastly different backgrounds and cultures, but also get to explore this post-apocalyptic world and what has become of it.

This was such a cool book! It starts out reading almost like fantasy with Snake going through the process of making her snake produce an anti-venom to the little boy’s disease, and no mention of technology or modern living anywhere. But as soon as Snake leaves and travels from the desert to the mountains, we realize that this is not a medieval-ish setting but rather a futuristic one where alien contact has happened at least once. Because it’s the aliens who have brought, among other things, dreamsnakes.

Snake’s journey, and this book, was almost episodic but never actually felt like it. Sure, the chapters can be summed up as “where Snake meets that person” or “when Snake stays in Mountainside for a while” but she is always working towards her goal of somehow making the loss of her dreamsnake right. What she doesn’t know is that Arevin, the handsome man from the desert tribe who helped Snake with her healing treatments, is following her.
This was the first thing that impressed me in this book. Snake’s time in the desert with Arevin’s people is very short and the scene they share is even shorter. But McIntyre somehow manages to make the tension between them tangible. It doesn’t make sense but I immediately wanted these two to get together!

I was also surprised with the themes that came up in this book and how they were handled. Reminding myself that this book came out in 1978, I was happy to see diverse relationships depicted here. The sick boy from the beginning has several fathers, Snake meets a polyamorous trio on the road, and enjoys some casual sex herself.
Equally, through the lens of science fiction, the topic of euthanasia is raised. Snake states from the start that she wants to heal people, but even she knows that some diseases or wounds are too terrible to heal. And for those cases, Grass is supposed to help people die. It is never even questioned to deny a patient this treatment, which is why Snake feels so broken after losing Grass.

Until about the second third, this isn’t a particularly exciting book, plot-wise. But it is so intriguing to find out new tidbits about the world in every chapter, all organically through the plot and characters, that I was never bored. Snake is a great protagonist with a sense of responsibility, a good heart, and a strong mind. I enjoyed spending time with her, even though the mood of the book is mostly very bleak. Vonda N. McIntyre ramps up the excitement levels towards the end and delivers a pretty thrilling final “episode” that manages to bring everything together beautifully. I may have a ton of unanswered questions about this world and its history but those things aren’t important for this story to make sense and so they aren’t explained.

In the end, this is one of the books where I can’t really put my finger on why I liked it so much, I just did. The setting, characters, story, and writing all worked for me. It may be a quieter science fiction book but it gave me so much food for thought that I prefer it to an action-packed but ultimately empty sci-fi romp. Easily one of my higher up Hugo winner recommendations.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent

King Arthur Secret Society: Tracy Deonn – Legendborn

This was the group book for the #mythothon readathon that’s running throughout the month of April. I had seen this cover around, many people have recommended the book and I think it might even end up on a Lodestar shortlist (we’ll find out soon!). I’m not super excited about King Arthur retellings, but as this book focuses on other things, that turned out to be a plus for me.

legendbornLEGENDBORN
by Tracy Deonn

Published: Margaret K. McElderberry, 2020
eBook: 512 pages
Audiobook: 18 hours 54 minutes
Series: Legendborn #1
My rating: 6.5/10

Opening line: The police officer’s body goes blurry, then sharpens again.

After her mother dies in an accident, sixteen-year-old Bree Matthews wants nothing to do with her family memories or childhood home. A residential program for bright high schoolers at UNC–Chapel Hill seems like the perfect escape—until Bree witnesses a magical attack her very first night on campus.

A flying demon feeding on human energies.
A secret society of so called “Legendborn” students that hunt the creatures down.
And a mysterious teenage mage who calls himself a “Merlin” and who attempts—and fails—to wipe Bree’s memory of everything she saw.

The mage’s failure unlocks Bree’s own unique magic and a buried memory with a hidden connection: the night her mother died, another Merlin was at the hospital. Now that Bree knows there’s more to her mother’s death than what’s on the police report, she’ll do whatever it takes to find out the truth, even if that means infiltrating the Legendborn as one of their initiates.

She recruits Nick, a self-exiled Legendborn with his own grudge against the group, and their reluctant partnership pulls them deeper into the society’s secrets—and closer to each other. But when the Legendborn reveal themselves as the descendants of King Arthur’s knights and explain that a magical war is coming, Bree has to decide how far she’ll go for the truth and whether she should use her magic to take the society down—or join the fight.

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Bree Matthews is a young Black student who gets to go to UNC-Chapel Hill in an Early College program. Her very first night on campus turns out to be rather exciting, not because of some student party (although there is that) but because she witnesses things that shouldn’t be possible. Selwin Kane, a young and decidedly too handsome student, seems to be wiping people’s memories. Oh and let’s not forget that shimmery magical demon-thing that tries to attack people and is shot down by another student’s arrow – because who doesn’t carry bow and arrow with them when they go to a party? Needless to say, it’s all a bit much for Bree.
Add to this craziness that her mother died only a few months earlier, she seems to be the only Black girl on campus, and even her best friend notices that she hasn’t been the same since her mom’s death.

This novel was not what I expected. Sure, on the surface it’s your very average YA demon hunting secret society book (Clare’s Shadowhunters come to mind, or Buffy the Vampire Slayer when we’re looking at TV). Sure, the secret society is based on the legend of King Arthur, which is new (at least to me), but if that had been all this story was about, I would have been mostly bored and unimpressed. But Tracy Deonn is a Black writer who put a lot of her own experience into this book and it shows.

Not only does Bree deal with the most casual and blatant racism you can imagine, she’s also dealing with grief. Except she doesn’t know how to deal with it and that makes her feel incredibly real and lovable. These were my two favorite aspects of Legendborn but it takes a while to get there. The racism is there right from the start but Tracy Deonn doesn’t just show us the way the university’s dean or a random cop assume things about Bree based on nothing but the color of her skin, she goes much further, exploring the past and the history of the college. Whether it’s a slave owner’s statue that’s standing right there on campus or Bree’s family history, I loved how we got to see different aspects of the Black experience. That sounds strange because, as you can probably imagine, that experience isn’t exactly a nice one, but I hope you know what I mean. It fleshed out the world and gave the characters more depth, it made everything feel a bit more real.

My second favorite part – the way loss and grief is talked about and handled – didn’t appeal to me immediately. In fact, at the very start of the book, I must have missed somehow that Bree’s mother’s death wasn’t all that long ago. I was a bit surprised that Bree kept thinking about herself as a numb person who shuts out all emotions because she was After-Bree and her mother’s death had impacted her so much. I’m sure it was inattention on my part, but I kind of thought her mother had been dead for several years, so I didn’t get why the pain still felt so raw to her.
But I got it after a while and that’s when I started appreciating how Deonn described Bree’s pain and the way she tries to handle it – by shutting it out mostly. Although no person feels the same when they lose someone, I did understand Bree. And there was a moment in the last third of the book that managed to make me cry.

But this book isn’t only some exploration of difficult themes, quite the opposite. On a surface level, it’s an adventure Urban Fantasy story about demon hunters and magic. Plus, the obligatory teen romance.
The whole secret society of the Order was probably the weakest aspect of this book. The society is comprised of people who can trace their bloodlines back to King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. One special person is “the Merlin” and he can use magic like nobody else. Other than hunting and killing the demons that occasionally invade our world, these people do what most other secret societies do. They make sure they have the power and keep it, they hate outsiders, they’re mostly racist and classist, and they live by strict rules that includes oaths and use of magic and a lot of other stuff.
My problem with it was that this particular Order could have been based on anything other than King Arthur and it still would have worked. Sure, each knight’s Scion is granted some special abilities based on what the original knight was like but that doesn’t really have any impact on the plot. Don’t get me wrong, it was still fun to learn about how the Order works, it just doesn’t have much to do with the legend of King Arthur other than the names and/or titles. So depending on what you’re looking for when you pick up this book, you might be in for a disappointment.

I don’t have too much more to say about this book. I enjoyed the characters, although the side characters could definitely be more fleshed-out. Bree was a fantastic protagonist, some of the other more important characters also felt believable and three-dimensional, but the side characters were mostly cardboard cutouts who only existed to further the plot whenever needed.
The plot wasn’t as twisty as I was led to believe by other reviewers, but there are a couple of good surprises in there. I didn’t see either of them coming at all, and that’s exactly how I like it. The main antagonist of this book was a bit on the nose. This moustache-twirling one-track-mind baddie could have been done better, but as this is only book one in a trilogy/series, the true villain is still afoot. Maybe they’ll have a bit more to offer.
The writing was enjoyable and the book was quick to read. The ending almost felt a bit too rounded off. Sure, there are some questions left open, I see a love triangle coming up (hopefully, I’m wrong), and there’s still evil to fight. But this part of the story is done, we get a satisfying conclusion and I am quite happy with how things ended. I don’t see myself jumping on the second part of this series but I absolutely want to read more by Tracy Deonn.

MY RATING: 6.5/10 – Good

They Grow Up So Fast: Tamora Pierce – In the Hand of the Goddess

Although it wasn’t without its issues, I had a lot of fun re-reading Alanna: The First Adventure, the first book in Tamora Pierce’s beloved Song of the Lioness quartet. When I jumped right into the second book, I found it even more readable than the first – meaning I would have finished it in one sitting, had life not interrupted me. But the title for this review is only half in jest. The other half is honest criticism for the crazy pacing.

in the hand of the goddessIN THE HAND OF THE GODDESS
by Tamora Pierce

Published: Simon Pulse, 1984
Paperback: 264 pages
Series: Song of the Lioness #2
My rating: 6/10

Opening line: The copper-haired rider looked at the black sky and swore.

Disguised as a boy, Alanna of Trebond becomes a squire, to none other than the prince of the realm. But Prince Jonathan is much more to Alanna; he is her ally, her best friend, and one of the few who knows that she’s really a girl. Now it will take all of Alanna’s awesome skill, strength, and growing magical powers to protect him from the mysterious evil sorcerer who is bent on his destruction, and hers!
Here continues the story of Alanna, a young woman bound for glory who is willing to fight against enormous odds for what she believes in.

The story picks up about a year after the first book ended and mostly keeps up the series’ breakneck pace. But the writing has matured a bit and Tamora Pierce tried out a few new things in this book. First of all, she takes more time describing individual scenes, making the reading experience more immersive and the world of Tortall a bit more vivid. Secondly, we get glimpses into other POVs! I was positively surprised that we read about the antagonist early on. Although it was obvious from the first book, until his POV we didn’t really get a confirmation that Roger, Duke of ContĂ© is the bad guy who’s trying to take the throne. As villains go, he’s not the most original but he has a lot of patience, I have to give him that.

The story opens with Alanna meeting the Goddess who promptly gives her a magical rock pendant (let’s all wonder if that will be important later). We are also introduced to Alanna’s new feline companion, Faithful, who stole my heart immediately because… well he’s a cat and he’s probably magical and also super smart. And then it’s back to Alanna aka Squire Alan’s life which still consists of training and doing squire-y things but now also includes potential romance.

And this is where my problems with the book begin. Alanna may be a great protagonist for kids to identify with because she is defined purely by her wish to become a knight. Otherwise, she’s pretty blank which makes certain decisions of hers difficult to understand. When George, her thieving friend, declares his love for her, for example, she says she doesn’t want romance and isn’t interested in anything other than being a knight and going on adventures. Okay, that’s cool, I guess. But then a second love intrested comes out and Alanna just goes for it. Towards the end of the book, there is one little dialogue that explores this behaviour and makes more sense of it, but up until that moment, Alanna just comes across as very inconsistent. And because everything in this series is so simplistic, this very real and believable behaviour of a teenage girl just doesn’t work.

The plot is similarly episodic and fast-paced as it was in the first book. Years pass between chapters without it every really feeling like a lot of time has passed. Alanna and her friends even go to war briefly, she’s dreading the upcoming Ordeal – a sort of exam after which she will be a proper knight – and her friends’ reaction when she reveals that she is not, in fact, Alan of Trebond, but Alanna. Things move along so fast that I couldn’t tell you what age Alanna was when they went to war, or when she had her first sexual experience. It’s all a big jumble.
I did enjoy that Alanna’s twin brother, Thom, becomes a more important character in this book. And I suspect he will become even more important in the next instalment. He may even have been the most interesting character here because he is so changed from the 11-year-old boy we met in the first book.

So I didn’t find this book in any way groundbreaking and the writing, although improved, is still very flawed. But I will continue the series because now is when things get really interesting. With Alanna’s training over, it’s anyone’s guess where she will got, what adventures she’ll encounter, and whether (and with whom) she’ll end up if indeed she chooses a romantic partner after all.
I’d recommend this for people looking for a (very) quick and light read without any real surprises but with characters that are easy to like. Bonus points for Faithful, the cat. 🙂

MY RATING: 6/10 – Good

So Begins the Song of the Lioness: Tamora Pierce – Alanna: The First Adventure

I think I must have been around fifteen or sixteen when I first read this book but I sadly never continued the series. There aren’t many things about it I still remembered but one was that it was the first fantasy book I read that mentions menstruation and the second was that I really liked it. No matter how long it’s been, I still want to finish the Song of the Lioness series and in order to refresh my memory, I thought I’d simply re-read the first book. Well done, me!

ALANNA: THE FIRST ADVENTURE
by Tamora Pierce

Published: Simon Pulse, 1983
Paperback: 274 pages
Series: Song of the Lioness #1
My rating: 7/10

Opening line: “That is my decision. We need not discuss it,” said the man at the desk. He was already looking at a book. 

From now on I’m Alan of Trebond, the younger twin. I’ll be a knight.
And so young Alanna of Trebond begins the journey to knighthood. Though a girl, Alanna has always craved the adventure and daring allowed only for boys; her twin brother, Thom, yearns to learn the art of magic. So one day they decide to switch places: Thom heads for the convent to learn magic; Alanna, pretending to be a boy, is on her way to the castle of King Roald to begin her training as a page.
But the road to knighthood is not an easy one. As Alanna masters the skills necessary for battle, she must also learn to control her heart and to discern her enemies from her allies.
Filled with swords and sorcery, adventure and intrigue, good and evil, Alanna’s first adventure begins – one that will lead to the fulfillment of her dreams and the magical destiny that will make her a legend in her land.

There’s something very comforting about picking up a childhood favorite, a book so clearly written for kids that it just lets you relax while you read it. I mean, in the first few pages, Alanna and her twin brother Thom are introduced, decide they are going to switch places because Alanna wants to be a knight and Thom wants to be a sorcerer (their father had different plans) and they see a vision in the fire of the local sorceress promising adventures to come. A lot happens very fast and there is little description but tons of dialogue.

So Alanna cuts her hair, blackmails/convinces Coram, her blacksmith/swordsmaster, to keep her secret and help her out once they’re in the capital, and the adventure begins. Something that fascinated me was how the writing matures over the course of the book, though. Where things happen very, very quickly at first – Alanna arrives at the castle, meets her fellow students, immediately makes an enemy and some friends – things take a bit longer later on. Time moves quickly at first, almost like a montage of Alanna’s everyday life as a page, but then, gradually, more and more scenes come up that the readers can fall into a bit more. These moments let us get to know the characters better and experience Alanna’s emotions more fully. It’s almost like the book starts extremely fast-paced to keep the (young) reader interested and then, once we’re hooked, slowly begins to take its time exploring the world and characters and plot. To me this meant that I enjoyed reading more and more the further along I got and that’s definitely something I can get behind.

I also noticed that the lack of flowery description meant my own brain had to work harder and I had to use my imagination if I wanted to “see” what someone’s clothes looked like or how a room was furnished. Turns out, I really missed that! Fantasy books these days are so well thought out, with perfect world building and clear rules that they often leave little for the readers’ imaginations to fill in. Tamora Pierce’s book is the opposite. You get a character’s hair and eye color, their general body shape (tall, short, muscular, skinny, etc.) but other than that, it’s all up to you what people and places look like.

The one thing I had remembered from my first read and which struck me again this time was that this children’s fantasy book mentions menstruation and just… deals with it. Alanna is pretending to be a boy, which is hard enough when the boys go swimming, but it gets even harder when her monthy cycle begins. What with the twins’ disinterested father and dead mother, nobody told Alanna that her body would change this way, so her first reaction is panic and shame. A trusted woman then explains to her in very simple an straightforward terms what’s up and how Alanna can deal with it. Alanna may be outraged at the annoyance her period poses but she takes it in stride, just like she does all the challenges her life as a page poses.

This book doesn’t really have a big overarching plot but rather sets up everything for the rest of the series. Alanna goes through the rigorous training to become a page, then a squire, then a knight. She makes some friends – among them the charming King of Thieves George, the Prince Jonathan, and her fellow students. She also has to use her magic, altough she doesn’t like it. Which adds another fantasy element to this secondary world novel. Although the magic isn’t explained super well, I love that it’s immediately clear that it has a cost. When a terrible sickness sweeps over the capital, the healers are soon exhausted and get sick themselves because using their magic for healing takes a toll on their own bodies.

My Thoughts Literally!: Series Review: The Song of the Lioness Quartet by  Tamora Pierce

One aspect that I definitely didn’t notice or think about when I read this as a teenager was how the whole “girl pretending to be a boy” thing would feel if a trans person read it. This is a well-known and beloved trope that creates tension and sometimes funny moments, but Alanna is often annoyed at her changing body, her breasts growing, her period starting, and expresses that she’d rather not be a girl because it complicates everything. She is then told in no uncertain terms that she has to accept her body as it is and just learn to live with it. Tamora Pierce probably didn’t have any big thoughts about trans kids reading this because, well, I don’t believe that this was talked about a lot in the early 1980s, but it did make me, reading this in 2021, think about it. I’m not sure hwat kind of a message this book sends to trans children so I would probably think twice about gifting it to one.

At the end of the book, a sort of mini-adventure/side quest happens that is over as quickly as it begins but serves to set up the villain for the next book(s). In general, most chapters are almost self-contained and tell their own little story. Despite the episodic nature and super fast pace, I had so much fun reading this. As I said, the fact that the language does evolve a bit helped. I also liked that we follow Alanna through several years of her life and watch her grow up, all within the matter of 270 pages. As I write this, I’m already halfway through the second book which I can tell you reads much more grown-up, offers new POVs and takes more time telling the story. It may not be a groundbreaking middle grade series for our age, but boy, is it great to help me out of a reading slump and race through books like I did when I was a child myself.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

The Song of the Lioness:

  1. Alanna: The First Adventure
  2. In the Hand of The Goddess
  3. The Woman Who Rides Like a Man
  4. Lioness Rampant

First Contact With an Empire: Arkady Martine – A Desolation Called Peace

Arkady Martine had the hellish job of following her Hugo Award winning A Memory Called Empire with a book that was, somehow, supposed to keep up. To me, this second book set in the Teixcalaanli Empire didn’t quite live up to its predecessor but rather suffered from middle book syndrome. Nonetheless, I would still recommend it because although it fails to come up with much that’s new, it is still a very entertaining story told through fantastic characters.

A DESOLATION CALLED PEACE
by Arkady Martine

Published: Tor, 2021
eBook:
496 pages
Series:
Teixcalaan #2
My rating:
7.5/10

Opening line: To think—not language. To not think language.

An alien armada lurks on the edges of Teixcalaanli space. No one can communicate with it, no one can destroy it, and Fleet Captain Nine Hibiscus is running out of options.

In a desperate attempt at diplomacy with the mysterious invaders, the fleet captain has sent for a diplomatic envoy. Now Mahit Dzmare and Three Seagrass—still reeling from the recent upheaval in the Empire—face the impossible task of trying to communicate with a hostile entity.

Whether they succeed or fail could change the fate of Teixcalaan forever.

Mahit Dzmare is back on Lsel station and people there are not happy with her. After the events of the first book, it was clear that the leaders of her home wouldn’t receiver her with open arms. For one, Mahit’s imago machine has been tampered with, leading to the tumultous events of the first book, and secondly, the secret of Lsel Station is now out as the Empire knows about imago technology and might want to use it for their own gain. So, needless to say, Mahit’s mission counts as failed. The question is, though, what they will do with her. Send her back to the Empire as an embassador? Unlikely. Have her disappear conveniently? Maybe. But thankfully, Three Seagrass and the alien fleet knocking on the Empire’s doors come to the rescue. Sort of.

I loved the introduction of some new viewpoint characters, especially Eight Antidote, the former Emperor’s 90% clone, currently an 11-year-old boy. His exploration of his city, the way he learns about the Empire, about politics, about how people work and how manipulative they can be, was just so much fun to read. Eight Antidote felt like a child but at the same time brought this immense wisdom with him. Most importantly, however, he has a good heart and quickly makes up his mind about what’s right and what’s wrong and everything in between. Through his eyes, we get to see what’s happening in the city of Teixcalaan and what’s up with Nineteen Adze.
But we also get to meet Nine Hibiscus, woh is commanding the Teixcalaanli Fleet currently fighting the aliens. Although I wouldn’t consider her a major character, her relationship with her most trusted friend Twenty Cicada carried most of the emotional impact of this book for me. Mahit and Three Seagrass, in the meantime, join up with the fleet in order to make contact with those aliens. If you ask yourself whether these two are truly the most qualified people in Teixcalaan to do that, you are right. But Arkady Martine explains that away pretty quickly. They soon figure out that, although it’s really nothing like human language and has… interesting effects on them, the aliens do communicate. As soon as they’ve worked out a way to communicate back (at least they think that’s what they’re doing), they go on a mission to see if they can bring peace to the Empire without having to engage in huge battles and losing thousands of Teixcalaanli lives.

“She hadn’t been doing nothing. She’d been trying to recover her balance, her sense of herself, the shape of a life—any life—that could encompass both Lsel Station and Teixcalaan, two Yskandrs and one of her and whoever they were going to be.”

Now here’s the thing. I had certain expectations for this book and I know that is completely unfair and the author must have felt a ton of pressure anyway. I understand that and I acknowledge it. But that doesn’t change that I had those expectations and many of them were left unfulfilled. You see, they weren’t even crazy expectations. What I wanted the most was deeper world building. I wanted to learn more about all those small aspects of Teixcalaan that we only got to see a little in the first book. It was fine to just get snippets of information in Memory because that book had its own plot and didn’t need to go off on a tangent about the Sunlit, for example. But this second book, with a much less straightforward plot, with multiple POVs and settings, was the perfect chance to tell us more about that.
We learn very, very little new stuff about the Teixcalaanli Empire in this book, and most of it has to do with how the military operates. I found that interesting, don’t get me wrong, especially the part about the Shards (no spoilers!). So there are new ideas here that fit well into this galactic empire but, compared to the first book, there’s not much to dsicover. The feeling of that sprawling, well thought-out world Martine gave us in the first promised more to come and gave the impression that the author knows much more about that world and just didn’t tell us yet. Well, she’s still not telling us I guess. Not everyone needs to be Tolkien and actually have an answer to every single world-building question a reader could have. But in a 500 page book, I would expect a bit more than just one science-fictional idea (and one that isn’t new, at that). That’s not too much to ask, is it?

But the Teixcalaan novels aren’t really about the sci-fi technology or the aliens. They are about culture and identity, about belonging somewhere and maybe wanting to belong somewhere else. And in that aspect, Arkady Martine excels yet again! Mahit Dzmare is still utterly in love with the culture that’s trying to suppress and even erase her own. She knows that’s not quite right but she can’t help herself. And her relationship with Three Seagrass doesn’t make things easier. The dynamic between these two has changed considerably since the first book. Where they used to be embassador and cultural liaison – a pair with a clear hierarchy and power structure – they are now more than that. Things got personal but that also means they are more complicated. Does Three Seagrass still think of Mahit as a barbarian? Even if she thinks this lovingly (“my barbarian”), can such a relationship really ever work out? Shouldn’t both people involved feel that the other is their equal? It’s questions like this that the book tackles and handles really well. Without giving any straight answers – because there aren’t any – Martine makes you think and ponder for yourself.

But in this book, another culture (or even species) enters the floor. And although these aliens aren’t super original either, they pose an interesting question for Mahit and the Teixcalaanli Empire. Because we know what the Empire does – it conquers and takes and grows. And, as is the case with Mahit herself, it makes its citizens love it for that. But what if you can’t even communicate with the beings you are fighting? Seeing them as animals or lesser beings is easy when you don’t share a language, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t living beings who deserve respect.

The weakest part of this was the plot. Spread out between multiple POVs, nothing much really happens. Because Arkady Martine is an amazing writer, I enjoyed the book and was never bored, but looking back at it, I can’t say it brought the story that much forward. This is very much a middle book that advances a handful of aspects but leaves us mostly where we started. And if it weren’t so damn well written I would have rated it much lower but the author already made me care fo these characters in the first book and I still care about them now. So although I think it isn’t anywhere as good or original as A Memory Called Empire, I am looking froward to the next book in the series and will continue to recommend it to everyone who likes science fiction that makes you think.

MY RATING: 7.5/10 – Very, very good

Religion on the Discworld: Terry Pratchett – Small Gods

Ah, Discworld! Going back for another adventure is like coming home to a comfortable bed after a long trip. I’m still saving up my unread Discworld novels but after one year of pandemic, various lockdowns, vaccination frustration (mainly because I’m still unvaccinated and the world is a corrupt shithole that would rather save rich people than the ones most vulnerable), it was time for a comfort read. A book I knew would make me smile and give me back some hope in humanity. Enter Terry Pratchett.

SMALL GODS
by Terry Pratchett

Published: Corgi, 1992
Paperback: 400 pages
Series: Discworld #13
My rating: 8.5/10

Opening line: Now consider the tortoise and the eagle.

‘Just because you can’t explain it, doesn’t mean it’s a miracle.’

In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was: ‘Hey, you!’ This is the Discworld, after all, and religion is a controversial business. Everyone has their own opinion, and indeed their own gods, of every shape and size, and all elbowing for space at the top. In such a competitive environment, shape and size can be pretty crucial to make one’s presence felt. So it’s certainly not helpful to be reduced to appearing in the form of a tortoise, a manifestation far below god-like status in anyone’s book.

In such instances, you need an acolyte, and fast: for the Great God Om, Brutha the novice is the Chosen One – or at least the only One available. He wants peace and justice and brotherly love. He also wants the Inquisition to stop torturing him now, please…

Terry Pratchett’s writing always gives me warm and fuzzy feelings and somehow manages to regrow my hope in humanity. I have read just over half of the Discworld novels and with every one I finish, I get a bit sadder that there are fewer left I haven’t discovered yet. Then again, Discworld is not only re-readable but practically begging to be re-read because there are always references and jokes and little asides that you don’t get on your first read. What I’m saying is I am so grateful for Terry Pratchett and his books and this one is giving me a major book hangover and I want to just continue reading Discworld for the forseeable future.

As the title suggests, this book deals with religion on the Disc, specifically with Omnianism (at least at the beginning). We follow young Brutha, a novice at the Citadel, who has no aspirations to become anything higher than that because he has no aspirations at all. He is perfectly happy doing the jobs nobody else wants to do because he is secure in his faith and knows that somebody’s got to sweep the floor and pull out the weeds in the garden. People think he is slow or even stupid when in reality, Brutha is just quite and not particularly eloquent. He is alsounbearbly honest and people just don’t know how to handle that. When, one day, an eagle drops a tortoise into the Citadel garden where Brutha is working, and said tortoise turns out to be the Great God Om who immediately curses Brutha and everyone else who comes near him, things change. Brutha is the only one who can hear the tortoise-who-says-he’s-a-god and Om realizes that his mighty smiting powers aren’t what they used to be. In fact, no smiting is happening at all, no matter how hard Om tries.

Om, Brutha, and we readers are confronted with a mystery. Omnia is, after all, an entire country built on Omnianism, the belief in the One True God Om and his Teachings. Everybody prays to Om, there are priests and high priests and even a Quisition that takes care of non-believers in their own way (you have one guess). And since gods get their strength from the number of people who believe in them, Om should be perfectly able to do all the smiting he wants. And also to take a more elegant animal shape. Bulls or swans come to mind, so why is he stuck as a tortoise, the least dignified creature imaginable?
You’ve got to love Terry Pratchett for putting complex Roundworld ideas and concepts onto the Discworld and making them not only interesting but also funny. It becomes obvious very quickly that belonging to the church in some way does not equal believing in Om. Whether it’s fear of the Quisition and its terrifying leader Vorbis, or simply not thinking about it too hard and just doing what everyone else is doing (saying the prayer but not feeling it, and so on) – rituals and words may have originated from belief but they can very well exist without belief.

As with any Discworld novel, there are myriad little jokes and references, many of which I surely missed. But I did giggle at “Fedecks, the Messenger of the Gods” and the very familiar but slightly different Cut-Me-Own-Hand-Off Dhblah. Brutha and Om form a sort of friendship by necessity. Om realizes that he better hold on to the one true believer he has and Brutha is just a good guy who’s always willing to help. I came to care about Brutha so damn much and it goes to show again what a masterful storyteller Terry Pratchett was. Here you have a character who is presented as slow, whom others consider unintelligent, but who has the purest of hearts! And as is often the case with people who are underestimated, there is more to him than meets the eye. Because although he may not be able to read or write, Brutha has an excellent memory and can recite any of the great books written by Om’s prophets.
Brutha’s abilities are soon noticed by Vorbis, head of the Quisition, and he decides to take Brutha on a trip to Ephebe, the neighbouring country where many gods are worshipped. On this journey, we don’t just see the relationhip between Brutha and Om grow, we see a lot of charachter growth in general. Om is coming to terms with his own past actions and his frail existence as a (now) small god, Brutha is learning that church and belief aren’t the same thing, and Vorbis… well, Vorbis is the type of villain who is easy to hate and even easier to fear, mostly because he is so realistic!

[…]That on the whole, and by and large, if a man lived properly, not according to what any priests said, but according to what seemed decent and honest inside, then it would, at the end, more or less, turn out all right.

Humor is super subjective, we all know that. But there must be something about Terry Pratchett that almost everyone likes. Maybe it’s that he does so many different types of humor. There’s puns, there’s situational humor, there are funny lines and jokes, and there’s the comparison to our world that can make you laugh. So even if you hate puns, there’s still plenty of other funny stuff for you to enjoy. I’m someone who can be left quite cold when authors try their hand at quippy banter (or let’s say I only like a very particular type of quippy banter) but I giggled a lot throughout this book! I did laugh at the puns, I grinned at the references I got (someone shouting “Eureka!” and someone else asking if they’re going to take a bath), I laughed at Om’s outrage at being a tortoise

Bishops move diagonally. That’s why they often turn up where the kings don’t expect them to be.

The theme of this book is religion, or rather organized religion versus true faith, and how the two are not the same thing. But dealing only with religion, corrupt priests, in/exquisitors, and misguided novices, isn’t enough for Terry Pratchett. In Ephebe, things get rather philosophical. Meeting Didactylos (the Discworld’s Diogenes) and Urn was so much fun. Through these two, something that looks a lot like our Greek philosphy turns up on the Discworld, and through Urn’s interest in mechanics and playing around with steam, you can see the first hints of an industrial revolution. And adding the atheist soldier Simony into the mix gives a nice rounded picture of the diversity of belief. Because although this book is very funny, Terry Pratchett never makes fun of religion or people who believe. He doesn’t judge faith, he only judges those who misuse it for their own personal gain, who pretend to believe in order to have power over others.

But the thing that always, always gets me most with Terry Pratchett is his characters and his deep insight into humanity. I cannot tell you how much I love Brutha and how he grew on me over the course of this story. I’ve made this book sound like it’s full of talk about religion and gods and philosophy, but don’t worry, there is also a rather exciting plot. Apart from Brutha’s journey to Ephebe (on a ship!), there is also a trip through the desert – as befits the theme of the novel – and a thrilling climax. There’s lots of danger and moments that made me hold my breath, mostly because I feared for Brutha and, occasionally, for Om.
I held back tears on several occiasions, especially when Brutha realizes something ugly about the world. Because what he does after that realization is understand that, while other people may be greedy and ruthless, that’s now what he is like. So even when he has the chance to let a properly evil person die, he won’t do it. Why? Because it’s not right!

I think every reader of the Discworld novels has their favorite sub-series (mine is the Witches). This book is a standalone, meaning there will be no more stories about Brutha or the other characters. That doesn’t mean that some familiar characters don’t show up. Some of you may remember a certain History Monk named Lu-Tze and – of course – Death himself. I am a little sad that this is the only book with Brutha I’ll ever get to read but it was so impactful and so much fun that I don’t doubt I will re-read it someday. And now I’ll curl up and nurse my book hangover while poring over my Discworld Mapp and maybe cooking something from Nanny Ogg’s cook book.

MY RATING: 8.5/10 – Bloody excellent!

So That’s Why They Call it Grimdark: Joe Abercrombie – Last Argument of Kings

Finishing series is so satisfying that I thought I’d get right on it again in 2021. Picking this chunky tome led to some serious review delay but was also so much fun that I can’t begrudge Abercrombie any of his 670 pages. I said I’d read this book soon after the second book but that was one of those book blogger lies that we like to tell ourselves. 🙂
It’s been 6 years since I read Before They Are Hanged. But I guess better late than never, right? Especially when the ending is such a bombastic, fun thrill-ride!

LAST ARGUMENT OF KINGS
by Joe Abercrombie

Published: Gollancz, 2008
Paperback: 670 pages
Series: The First Law #3
My rating: 7.75/10

Opening line: Superior Glokta stood in the hall, and waited. 

The end is coming.

Logen Ninefingers might only have one more fight in him – but it’s going to be a big one. Battle rages across the North, the King of the Northmen still stands firm, and there’s only one man who can stop him. His oldest friend, and his oldest enemy. It’s past time for the Bloody-Nine to come home.
With too many masters and too little time, Superior Glokta is fighting a different kind of war. A secret struggle in which no-one is safe, and no-one can be trusted. His days with a sword are far behind him. It’s a good thing blackmail, threats and torture still work well enough.
Jezal dan Luthar has decided that winning glory is far too painful, and turned his back on soldiering for a simple life with the woman he loves. But love can be painful too, and glory has a nasty habit of creeping up on a man when he least expects it.
While the King of the Union lies on his deathbead, the peasants revolt and the nobles scramble to steal his crown. No-one believes that the shadow of war is falling across the very heart of the Union. The First of the Magi has a plan to save the world, as he always does. But there are risks. There is no risk more terrible, after all, than to break the First Law…

If you’ve read the first two books in the First Law Trilogy, you already know that Joe Abercrombie is great at writing characters but not so great when it comes to plot. The second book especially was about a quest that led to… nothing. Sure, you could argue that he was using fantasy tropes and turning them on their head but it’s also not very satisfying for a reader to follow a group of misfits on a Super Important Quest and then return home empty-handed. Which is exactly what happened and which is also where this final book picks up again.

Any lack of plot in the first two books (at least concerning some of the story lines) is gone now. Whether you follow Collem West, Dogman and his crew, Sand dan Glokta (oh, how I love Glokta!), Logen Ninefingers, Jezal dan Luthar, or Ferro Maljinn – they each have stories that clearly move forward and even have some spectecular exciting action sequences. Obviously, I can’t spoil any of them but while some are more epic than others, you can expect Big Things to happen for each of our main and secondary characters.

Which leads me, yet again, to my favorite part about this book and this series and Joe Abercrombie’s writing. His characters, while certainly not always lovable, are so life-like and believable that it’s honestly just fun hanging out with them even if they end up doing nothing (like in book 2 for example). The way he flawlessly changes voice and style creates this atmosphere that comes with each character. Logen’s repeated phrase “Say one thing about Logen Ninefingers” for example, or the way Ferro calls white people “pinks”, Jezal’s almost boyish naivetĂ© and, of course, Glokta’s sarcastic thoughts – they are all pretty simple devices if you think about it, but they are so effective. You open the book at any page and you know immediately which character you’re following.

And that’s just me appreciating the craft of it. What really stole my heart are the characters themselves which is a feat in an of itself. Because, let’s face it, they aren’t just “not perfect”, they each do things that are pretty despicable or at the very least morally questionable. My, and everyone else’s, favorite Sand dan Glokta is a torturer, let’s not forget that. Other people’s pain leaves him cold, maybe because he is in constant pain himself, but that shouldn’t excuse his lack of empathy but rather increase his compassion. It doesn’t, because although I love him dearly, he really isn’t a good person!
On the other hand, Jezal dan Luthar, that arrogant, self-absorbed, prancing moron, actually grew on me. The events of the second book did one thing – they made him want to become a better person. The quibbles I had with his sudden change don’t apply here because we clearly see that he wants to be better, we also see him struggling and not immediately doing it. His reunion with Ardee West which happens early on in the book didn’t go at all how I expected and neither of the two acted in a way I saw coming. I like when books surpsise me and when characters seem to have a mind of their own. Even if I don’t agree with that mind.
I also found a new appreciation for Logen in this book. Up until now I thought of his inner struggle and his self-castigation as just a thing he does because he “has a dark past” or whatever. From what we’ve seen of him so far, he’s actually a decent guy who just happens to get into terrible situations that often require killing in order to get out alive. In Last Argument of Kings, however, we see a different side of Logen, one that puts this series firmly in the grimdark subgenre.

As I mentioned already, this book brings all the plot that didn’t happen in the previous ones. There’s a lot of war, several epic battles, sieges, court intrigue, marriages of convenience, secrets that come to life, yearlong plans that come to fruition (or failure, depending on your perspective), and of course magic.
The magic system, if you want to call it that, is probably the series’ weakest aspect but I don’t think Abercrombie even wanted to create a magic system like Sanderson does. That’s not the focus of these books. I also enjoy when magic is something wild and uncontrollable, when it can’t be quantified or put in a neat table where spell X does Y and so on. That’s a little what it feels like here. Maybe there are rules to this magic, but they are so beyond the characters that we, the readers, definitely can’t make sense of it. Depending on what you want from a fantasy book, this may put you off. There is little enough magic as is and what little there is doesn’t make sense. But it looks cool. 🙂

Now I’d really like to talk a little about the ending but I have a no spoiler policy here, so this may not make much sense to people who haven’t read the book. The various plot strings lead to endings of very different kinds. You could say some characters’ stories end mostly well, others really bad, others somewhere in between. What you can’t say is that this book has an overall Happy Ending and I was glad about that. It would not have fit with the tone of these books and Abercrombie’s Lord Grimdark title. But I do have to say that I found certain parts quite unsatisfying.
Some characters reach a sort of point that feels like an end, but it is clear that for them it’s only one further step in their lives and things may still go to shit later. Other characters we just leave mid-story with hints of what’s to come next for them but no clear answers as to what actually happens. I both liked and disliked that. I loved how real it made this book feel. After all, when people disappear from our lives, that’s exactly what it’s like. You may not have seen your school friends since graduation and you may know what they planned to do with their lives but you have no idea what they actually did with their lives. I think my slight dissatisfaction stems from the way fiction tends to be written. We are so used to nicely wrapped up tales that end at a well-rounded point in a character’s life that any deviation from that norm grates somehow.
The overall ending, by which I mean the way this fictional world is left when we close the book, also felt like a lesson. Even if I tried to spoil it, I couldn’t exactly tell you whether I consider it a good or a bad ending. It’s as morally ambiguous as the characters and it doesn’t feel like an end.

Although this is a big book that took me quite a while to read, I enjoyed myself the entire time. There was a part, somewhere in the second half, that dragged on a bit and gave me the feeling that things just weren’t moving along at all. But other than that, there’s not much to complain. It’s been too long since I read the first two books in the trilogy but at least from my general memories of them, I think Joe Abercrombie has developed a whole lot between these books and I will continue reading what he writes. I hope his newer books feature more female characters and ones with a broader variety of personality.
But when I’m next in the mood for a grimdark world where everyone could stab you in the back, where things generally turn out the worst way possible, and where you can find yourself liking a ruthless torturer, I’ll be sure to pick up my next Abercrombie.

MY RATING: 7.75/10 – Very, very good!

The First Law Trilogy:

  1. The Blade Itself
  2. Before They Are Hanged
  3. Last Argument of Kings

Prescient and Hopeful: Octavia E. Butler – Parable of the Talents

It’s probably not a good idea to read post-apocalyptic books when the very real-world pandemic has just passed its first anniversary but if you do, make sure you choose Octavia Butler’s post-apocalyptic books! Having read and loved the first book in the Earthseed duology, Parable of the Sower, recently, I knew this would be dark and I knew I would like it anyway. Much like its predecessor, it manages to be both terrifying and hopeful.

PARABLE OF THE TALENTS
by Octavia E. Butler

Published: Seven Stories Press, 1998
Hardback: 410 pages
Audiobook: 15 hours 26 minutes
Series: Earthseed #2
My rating: 8.5/10

Opening line: They’ll make a god of her.

Octavia Butler tackles the creation of a new religion, the making of a god, and the ultimate fate of humanity in her Earthseed series, which began with Parable of the Sower, and now continues with Parable of the Talents. The saga began with the near-future dystopian tale of Sower, in which young Lauren Olamina began to realize her destiny as a leader of people dispossessed and destroyed by the crumbling of society. The basic principles of Lauren’s faith, Earthseed, were contained in a collection of deceptively simple proverbs that Lauren used to recruit followers. She teaches that “God is change” and that humanity’s ultimate destiny is among the stars.

In Parable of the Talents, the seeds of change that Lauren planted begin to bear fruit, but in unpredictable and brutal ways. Her small community is destroyed, her child is kidnapped, and she is imprisoned by sadistic zealots. She must find a way to escape and begin again, without family or friends. Her single-mindedness in teaching Earthseed may be her only chance to survive, but paradoxically, may cause the ultimate estrangement of her beloved daughter. Parable of the Talents is told from both mother’s and daughter’s perspectives, but it is the narrative of Lauren’s grown daughter, who has seen her mother made into a deity of sorts, that is the most compelling. Butler’s writing is simple and elegant, and her storytelling skills are superb, as usual. Fans will be eagerly awaiting the next installment in what promises to be a moving and adventurous saga.

If, like me, you thought Parable of the Sower was depressing and hopeful at the same time, then prepare yourself for more of the same, except, you know, different. Unlike the first book, this one isn’t told just through Lauren’s diary entries and her Earthseed verses. You still get those, but they are framed by Lauren’s daughter’s first person narration as she reads her mother’s diary and the Books of Earthseed. Interspersed among those are a few written words from Bankole as well, turning this book almost into a little family history.
I immediately liked the mixture of new perspectives with the familiar narration of the first book, especially because the audiobook narration was done really well by all three narrators. (I went all out for this book, getting the gorgeous hardback copies of the duology plus the audiobook for this one.)

But that’s where talking about this book stops being easy. Much like the first book, it deals with many dark themes and comes with a lot of trigger warnings!
Lauren Oya Olamina and her now husband Bankole have been living in Acorn for over five years, the community they built with like-minded people. They support each other, they grow their own food wherever possible, they live together in trust and friendship. And of course, they live by Lauren’s religion Earthseed which has grown a lot over the years. In other parts of the country, people even know about Earthseed as “that cult”. Althought things aren’t exactly idyllic, life is mostly good for Lauren, Bankole and their surviving friends. It doesn’t stay that way…

I will say very, very, very little about the plot of this book. Not because there are so many mind-blowing twists or surprising moments that I don’t want to spoil, but because this isn’t the kind of book where the plot is all that important. Things do happen (and fast!) and they are exciting and terrifying and wonderful and horrible and everything you can imagine. Reading this book for the plot alone will not disappoint you, but that’s not the heart of this novel or, I imagine, any of Octavia Butler’s novels.
In Parable of the Talents, a politician is running for office with the slogan “Make America Great Again” and if that doesn’t send shivers down your spine already, this will: Some of his followers are wannabe Super-Christians who call themselves the Church of Christian America and of course they hate everyone and everything different from their own, narrow world view. Ring a bell? Remind you of anyone? Anyway, add to that a splinter group or a supposedly small, independent part of these Super-Christians, that isn’t satisfied with simply thinking and saying bad things about people of different beliefs, but who actively go after them, beat, rape, enslave, and kill them. It was incredibly chilling, reading about this Church of Christian America and how they try to justify terrible acts (which I can’t imagine any god would condone) in the name of keeping their country “pure”. It would have been chilling at any time, but in the current political climate, it was even worse, simply because what happens in this book doesn’t feel far-fetched at all! We may not have special technology electroshock collars that we use on people to enslave them, but we do have people in this world who believe everyone who doesn’t fit into their own narrow idea of personhood, doesn’t deserve to live. So this may be shelves as science-fiction and near-future but it didn’t really feel like it.

Clashing religions and political unrest aren’t the only themes in this book, however. This is still Lauren’s story and with a baby entering her life, things are about to change. Because we experience the book through flashbacks, we know that Lauren’s daughter grows up to be at least old enough to read her mother’s writing. What we don’t know is whether Lauren herself survives long enough to see her dream of an Earthseed society fulfilled.
I loved how Parable of the Talents approached the theme of family, both blood family and found family. I’m a sucker for found families and the entire duology is pretty much about that, on a large scale. It may start with Lauren building a small community that lives by what Earthseed teaches. But her plan is to convince the entire world that Earthseed is truth and that humanity’s future lies among the stars. Big dreams for a young woman, you may rightly think, but this book tells the story of how such dreams could be realized. Lauren’s approach to teaching her beliefs changes throughout the years and I really enjoyed watching her evolve as a person. I can’t say I always understood or agreed with her, but she is one hell of a fascinating protagonist to read about.

As for the writing style, I enjoyed it as much as I did in the first book. The three narrators each had distinct voices, which was even more obvious in the audiobook than in the paper copy because they were actually narrated by three different people. But I believe if I opened my book at a random point and read a few lines, I could easily tell whose narration I was reading.
I also appreciate how Octavia Butler describes the horrors that happen in her story. It might be tempting for a writer to go into gratuitous detail in the torture or murder scenes, just to elicit emotions from the readers. But Butler went a different route. In fact, the most terrifying events, aren’t described very much at all. They are mostly stated as fact, something that happened, but that we don’t want to dwell on. Considereing this is Lauren’s first person narrative, it makes even more sense to do it that way, because who would recount a traumatic event in vivid detail when they are still under shock?
That said, the sparse descriptions of the various horrors doesn’t lessen their effect at all. I may even have been more shaken by the simple statement of “Yesterday, my friend was raped.” than I would have been if some long-winded description had foreshadowed it. But be aware when reading this book, that although Lauren has a support system now, that doesn’t mean her life gets easier.

The ending of the book came a bit fast compared to the rest, but I found it very fitting and believable. Just like in real life, some things work out the way we hope, and others don’t. Some plot strings lead to nowhere, others aren’t quite resolved, yet others lead to a completely different destination than we had expected. And since I have to stay vague in order not to spoil anything, I’ll just say that I found the way this story wrapped up altogether satisfying. It kept the tone of these books perfectly, showing us that this is an imperfect world with many, many problems, but that there is always hope. And hope can start as the smallest thing. Like a thought in the mind of a young girl, written down in her diary, and tended to until it grows into something so big it might just change the world.

MY RATING: 8.5/10 – Excellent!

Indian-Inspired Fantasy With Strong Characters: Tasha Suri – Empire of Sand

The days of alternate Medieval Europe as the one and only setting for the fantasy genre are well and truly over. The last decade has brought us increasingly diverse fantasy stories told by equally diverse people whose voices feel so fresh and new because they were left unheard for so long. Tasha Suri is only one among those voices but she demands to be heard. Her debut novel Empire of Sand was so good, you guys!

EMPIRE OF SAND
by Tasha Suri

Published: Orbit, 2018
eBook: 402 pages
Series: The Books of Ambha #1
My rating: 7.5/10

Opening line: Mehr woke to a soft voice calling her name.

A nobleman’s daughter with magic in her blood. An empire built on the dreams of enslaved gods. Empire of Sand is Tasha Suri’s captivating, Mughal India-inspired debut fantasy.

The Amrithi are outcasts; nomads descended of desert spirits, they are coveted and persecuted throughout the Empire for the power in their blood. Mehr is the illegitimate daughter of an imperial governor and an exiled Amrithi mother she can barely remember, but whose face and magic she has inherited.

When Mehr’s power comes to the attention of the Emperor’s most feared mystics, she must use every ounce of will, subtlety, and power she possesses to resist their cruel agenda — and should she fail, the gods themselves may awaken seeking vengeance…

Empire of Sand is a lush, dazzling fantasy novel perfect for readers of City of Brass and The Wrath & the Dawn.

There’s a reason Tasha Suri was nominated for an Astounding Award for Best New Writer and everybody seems to love her. It’s because she’s a damn good writer who effortlessly created a Mughal India-inspired fantasy world that feels fresh but still familiar enough for fans of fantasy tropes to enjoy.

Mehr lives a privileged but difficult life. Her father is a wealthy nobleman but her mother – now exiled – belonged to the Amrithi, a nomad people that is outcast from the rest of  society. They are seen as a sort of witches who are, at the same time, looked down upon and feared. For when the daiva come, it is the Amrithi whose blood can keep them at bay.
I fell completely and utterly in love with the world of this novel during the first few chapters. Through Mehr’s eyes, we are introduced not only to the Empire itself but also to some of its societal intricacies. Mehr is called to her little sister Arwa’s room because a daiva (a spirit) is scaring her. With confidence and grace, Mehr handles the situation and shows us not only how competent she is but also how deep her love for her little sister runs and how difficult her life is. Because the girls’ stepmother doesn’t want Arwa to grow up learning about her mother’s culture and beliefs. While it’s too late to keep Mehr from following “heathen” rituals, the younger sister can still be “saved”.

The plot kicks off when Mehr is married off to a man for the usual reasons. Political power, being rid off the half-Amrithi girl, you know the deal. But when Mehr is picked up by the Empire’s mystics and meets her future husband Amun, she soon learns that there is way more to her impening union than meets the eye. Her Amrithi heritage is not only knowing and performing certain rites, or even having special blood that can keep dangerous daiva at bay. And if Mehr doesn’t want to be used by power-hungry people, she and Amun will have to come up with something fast!

Although I wouldn’t consider certain aspects of this book as a spoiler, I am keeping things very vague for those of you who like to be completely surprised. Because let me tell you, this book has a few good surprises up its sleeve.
I loved most things about this story, so I’ll start with the one  I found the weakest: the plot. It starts out well enough, promising an exploration of a rich world with several cultures juxtaposed, societal norms, and a killer premise (force marriage and leaving a beloved sister behind!). Then comes a plot twist and after than, unfortunately, follows a bit of a dragging middle part. At the end, the plot picked up again but it was fairly predictable what would happen. So I was most intrigued at the very beginning. The kind of intrigued where you think about the book constantly when you can’t read it. After the main story was all set up, however, I lost a bit of interest. I still enjoyed reading the book when I picked it up but that urge to go read immediately when I get the chance was gone. Buuuut that was only one aspect of this book and literally everything else about it was phenomenal.

Possibly my favorite thing was the world buildling. Granted, I’m a sucker for non-European settings in fantasy, so I’m easy to please. But, Tasha Suri does more than just set her story in South Asia and give her characters Indian-inspired names. She built an entire world that feels real and lived-in, like it has centures of history that we don’t get to read about but whose influence and impact we feel on the page. I especially loved how easy it was to learn about the differences between Mehr’s Amrithi culture and the predominant cultures and/or beliefs in the Empire. Although they’re not described in great detail, it’s clear that different areas of the Empire aren’t all the same. Just like any kingdom/empire/country large enough, its people aren’t one big homogenous mass but each area has its own little rites, fashions, and behaviours.
I was super impressed how well the world came to life in this debut novel!

Adding to that, Tasha Suri also writes fantastic characters. I was immediately rooting for Mehr, not only because of her bond to her little sister and her strong wish to keep her mother’s heritage alive inside herself, but also because she is mentally strong, hopeful despite the odds, and loyal to a fault. The man she’s supposed to marry, Amun, may come across as gruff at first but at least I found it obvious from the start that there is more to him than you may think at first. His character was a lot of fun to read because his personality slowly unfolded over the course of the story. I really liked him and getting to know him better and better was a joy.
But even side characters, ones that appear only fleeingly and ones that recur, feel like proper human beings with their own hopes and wishes and that’s something that many debut authors struggle with. Many manage to write a compelling protagonist but forget that the other characters are supposed to be three-dimensional, too. Not so Tasha Suri. Even the somewhat tropey “evil stepmother” character didn’t come across like a clichĂ© but rather like someone who means well and is doing her best, in her own (maybe narrow-minded) world. Even though she doesn’t get a lot of time on the page, having this kind of side character makes the entire book so much more compelling.

And after all that praise I haven’t even mentioned the magic yet. I won’t say much about it because discovering how it works is part of the plot and even more part of Mehr’s character growth. But to give you an idea of what to expect: This is not a neat Sanderson-style magic system where every move has exactly one outcome and things feel almost mathematical. It’s the kind of wild magic that refuses to be controlled, that doesn’t always make logical sense (because duh, it’s magic!) but that feels all the more exciting for it. I particularly liked that this magic is performed not through spells or brewing something up, but rather through movement of body. Tasha Suri described her magic well enough to convey it as dance-like but left enough room for the imagination. I sometimes saw the rites as a dance, sometimes as a sort of yoga flow, but it’s definitely something I haven’t seen done before and that’s always a plus.

I picked this book up because I was excited for Tasha Suri’s upcoming The Jasmine Throne and didn’t want to wait until June to sample her writing. Plus, when she was nominated for an Astounding Award, I didn’t get to this book and have felt a bit guilty ever since. Now at least I know that her nomination was more than deserved and I may just read Realm of Ash, the companion novel, before diving into her newest work.

MY RATING:  7.5/10 – Very, very good!

Tropey Romantic Fun In Space: Everina Maxwell – Winter’s Orbit

Boy am I glad every time one of those overhyped books turns out to be actually good! Tor went all out on this one – I swear there wasn’t a single space on the internet that didn’t bombard me with how fun and tropey and perfect this book would be long before it even came out. While the book was far from perfect, it was definitely fun and I wholeheartedly recommend it to people looking for a bit more romance in their SFF.

WINTER’S ORBIT
by Everina Maxwell

Published: Tor, 2021
Hardcover: 423 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7/10

Opening line: “Well, someone has to marry the man,” the Emperor said.

Ancillary Justice meets Red, White & Royal Blue in Everina Maxwell’s exciting debut.

While the Iskat Empire has long dominated the system through treaties and political alliances, several planets, including Thea, have begun to chafe under Iskat’s rule. When tragedy befalls Imperial Prince Taam, his Thean widower, Jainan, is rushed into an arranged marriage with Taam’s cousin, the disreputable Kiem, in a bid to keep the rising hostilities between the two worlds under control.

But when it comes to light that Prince Taam’s death may not have been an accident, and that Jainan himself may be a suspect, the unlikely pair must overcome their misgivings and learn to trust one another as they navigate the perils of the Iskat court, try to solve a murder, and prevent an interplanetary war… all while dealing with their growing feelings for each other.

This is it, the book that was hyped up like crazy for being originally an AO3 story that happily embraces its tropes, such as “there’s only one bed” and “forced marriage”. While I don’t exactly understand that marketing approach, I can tell you that, yes, these tropes are there, but they are neither the strongest parts of this book, nor the most important ones. Everina Maxwell can do way more than just use tropes effectively. I do, however, appreciate that this book may help certain people see that starting (or even staying) in fanfiction is not a bad thing and that it says nothing about an author’s skill or originality.

So, what’s this all about then? Prince Kiem is called to the Emperor who tells him that he is to be married to the recently widowed Count Jainan of Thea because politics. In just a few weeks’ time, a new treaty will be signed between the Iskari Empire and all its vassal planets and for that to work out smoothly, all alliances must be in place and an auditor must be convinced that the alliances were made of free will. The political background is thought out well enough, but as you can guess, it’s not the focus of this story.
Kiem and Jainan are married pretty quickly, and then comes the difficult part: getting to konw each other, getting along, and finding some way to live together, as happily as possible. And this is where Maxwell got to shine.

I loved both Kiem and Jainan, although Kiem stole my heart a lot faster. He is a chaotic, big-hearted, stumbling, talkative guy who seems to never get things right, never be on time, but somehow remains loved by most people and especially by the press. His time is spent mostly at parties and with the press, trying to smooth out whatever went wrong at said parties. Where there’s a scandal, Prince Kiem is usually not far off but he is clearly an adorable guy who means well enough. His personal assistant Bel was also an immediate hit for me. She’s the kind of stoic yet competent person Kiem needs in his life but you can tell right from the start that her cool exterior hides true affection for her boss. She loves her job and she does it well and damn but I love reading this type of character! Also, the world needs to appreciate its assistants more.
Jainan, being quiet and drawn into himself, was a tougher nut to crack. I liked him as well, but his personality took longer to show itself. For a long time, he says almost nothing and even in his POV chapters, all we learn is that he just wants to stay out of Kiem’s way and have the least possible impact on his life. He also lacks confidence and comes across as a bit of a wallflower. Until he gets to talk to someone about engineering, that is. So yeah, Jainan is never unlikable, but he’s so passive that it took a while for me to warm to him. There are reasons for this, just as there are reasons for his behavior, and while it all makes perfect sense, this is the part where you could see that the characters had to bend a little in order to fit certain tropes into this story.

This was the one problem I had with the book. Certain things just dragged on beyond the point of suspension of disbelief. It’s fine that the protagonists misunderstand each other and thus both behave in ways that only make the misunderstandings worse – but only up to a point. Kiem knows that Jainan’s husband died only a month ago and so assumes that Jainan is grieving and that’s his reason for being so quiet and subdued.
Jainan on the other hand believes that a man as well-loved and socially gifted as Kiem couldn’t possibly find him – Jainan – to be an acceptable husband. He feels like he’s not good enough and therefore just stays quiet, hoping not to inconvenience Kiem too much.
It’s a totally okay setup for a slow burn romance but when “slow burn” really means “standstill” for half the book, I just lose interest. For a while, the fact that these two newly married men  barely speak to each other can be explained away. But after a third of the book I started getting annoyed at the ridiculous ways in which they continue to misunderstand each other. It’s like they’re doing it on purpose just to drag the inevitable out a little longer.
Seriously, after weeks of living with another person and seeing how they react to you expressing your opinion, wouldn’t it be natural for you to undertand that it’s okay to keep expressing your opinion?? Actions speak louder than words and humans communicate way more through body language than spoken words. And yet Jainan insists on behaving as if Kiem would freak out whenever they disagree on something, although Kiem has shown him over and over what kind of a person he is.
The author went out of her way to create situations that draw out the moment of truth for the sake of… I don’t know, keeping the readers at the edge of their seats? That part failed for me because as much as I like romantic tension, I still want my stories to be believable, even if they are set on a different planet with futuristic technology.

But around the middle of the book, things finally get going and not only in terms of the romance. The mystery and various other plot threads have been set up nicely in the first half of the book and they are all coming together to create a rather exciting third act. I especially liked how – although they finally did talk to each other and realize that, hey, the other guy also has feelings for me – neither Kiem nor Jainan are suddenly different people. They both still suffer from the same insecurities they had before, but now they each have some hope that there’s someone out there who cares about them and who thinks highly of them. Whether that’s Jainan realizing he is entitled to his own opinion or Kiem understanding that he is, in fact, not stupid or useless, just a bit disorganized, I thought it was really well done and shows character growth in a believable way.

I also quite enjoyed the world building and side characters. Again, the focus of this novel is the relationship between Kiem and Jainan, but these two don’t exist in a vaccuum. I loved learning a bit more about how this galactic empire is set up, what Kiem’s home planet is like and what cultural differences there are between the two protagonists.
I admit I’m not super sure what the Resolution and its auditors are all about or how exactly the larger universe works in this story, but that’s not necessary to understand and enjoy the book.
The revelation of all the secrets, the way the mysteries get resolved and the ending all worked really well, even though I prefer mysteries that give me all the necessary pieces in advance and only fit them together at the end. You know, the kind that makes you go “oh man, I should have seen this all along”. In the case of Winter’s Orbit, there is no way you can guess the solution with the information you are given so the payoff isn’t as satisfying as it could be.

But I am not judging this book on being a great mystery novel, I’m judging it on whether it entertained me and delivered the space romance it promised. And in that respect, I really can’t compalin. Apart from the drawn-out part of wilfully misunderstanding each other, the relationship between Jainan and Kiem was well done. I cared about both of them (and Bel, don’t forget Bel!) and I wanted them to realize that they are both good people who can have a wonderful life together.
For people who read more romance than me and whose expectations may be a bit higher, there is only one romantic scene in this book and it’s not particularly steamy. This romance is more on the sweet side, not the hot and sexy one. So depending on your mood, this may work for your or not. Do I think this is a groundbreaking or award-worthy book? Well, no, but neither was it silly or too light on the world building (which could happen when the focus lies too heavily on the romance). I had a lot of fun reading it and I’m interested to see what Everina Maxwell comes up with next.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good