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Category: Book Reviews

Spoiler-Free Review: The Calyx Charm by May Peterson (Out 7/13/21)

Cover of The Calyx Charm by May Peterson

Genre: Fantasy romance
Audience: Adult
Series?: Book 3 of The Sacred Dark

Rating: Loved it!

For fans of: A Taste of Honey, Pet, Cemetery Boys, Ana Mardoll, Shakespeare AUs, childhood friends to lovers, hurt/comfort, cat boys, … I want to say fantasy trans and queer cultures but I’ve never read them like this

Note: I’m going to discuss abuse dynamics both in the context of The Calyx Charm and in real life.

Often, when a powerful person (employer, mentor, parent, or partner) hurts someone they are supposed to protect, their victim takes on the responsibility for covering up that harm. The dynamics of power and survival prioritize avoiding conflict and maintaining appearances over victims’ abilities to even name what has happened to us: We weren’t sexually harassed, we “were just joking around.” We weren’t abused, we were “taught the importance of discipline.” We weren’t raped, we “have regrets.”

There’s a lot to love about The Calyx Charm, May Peterson’s third entry in her dark fantasy romance series The Sacred Dark, but what I love most is that it rejects this responsibility on two levels. First, the book itself is explicit and specific in naming the abuse and oppression its characters experience. Second, both its leads are learning to say, “Yes, I used to protect you from what you’ve done to me, but no more.”

Violetta Benedetti was the Honored Child. With her twin abilities to predict the future and make anyone she focuses on invincible, she was the weapon that won her parents’ revolution and made her cruel father prince elector. Now, at seventeen, she’s escaped her abusive father’s household to try to make a life for herself, supported by a community of trans people who live on the margins of society:

The secret heartbeat of the city, the artists and crafters and storytellers and smugglers, flowed from places full of mollyqueens and androgynes and tomkings, and with queer lovers of all kinds.

Violetta’s childhood friend, Tibario Gianbellicci, is also his parents’ weapon. Shortly after Violetta’s escape, Tibario’s mother attempts to use him to kill Violetta’s father. He dies and is reborn (the way non-magical people sometimes are) as a moon-soul, an immortal teleporting shapeshifter. Also, he gets a cat tail.

After his second assassination attempt also fails, Tibario’s mother asks Violetta to prophecy what’s protecting her father. But reading the future is not a science. Instead, Violetta fortells the end of the world as they know it, in two weeks or less.

Violetta’s instinct is not to try to prevent the apocalypse, but rather to live well in the time she has left:

Mollyqueens so seldom had futures to claim. We had todays. We had the little time we could claim for ourselves.

Maybe these would be the last days of my life, and maybe they would matter the most.

What follows is partially sweet, second-chance romance between childhood friends who finally find the courage to admit they’ve always loved each other, and partially scarred, scared people convincing each other they’re allowed to ask for more. Not just an end to suffering but a long life full of love and respect and a community that shelters them.

The community that embraces Violetta and Tibario is really lovely. It’s rare for cishet women in romance novels to have genuine female friends. I can’t think of any novel in any genre where the trans woman lead has friends who are also trans women, let alone trans women who are as fleshed out and lovely as Rosalina, who runs a bar and tearoom that is a safe place for trans women and the people who love them, complete with guest rooms and medical assistance. Medical assistance made possible by her girlfriend, who smuggles tea, sugar, and hormones into the country for her.

Can the next Sacred Dark novel be about Rosalina, please?

Another thing I’ve never seen in a romance novel: Violetta is honest with Tibario about what dating is like for her as a trans woman and a rape survivor, and Tibario never once says, “Oh damn, that sucks. Fortunately, I, an unproblematic cis guy–” He actually listens to her. He admits his shortcomings. He checks in with her often.

Their relationship is just so tender and heartwarming. I don’t usually go for romances with so little conflict between the main characters, because I think they tend to lack tension, but Violetta and Tibario have so much else going that it’s hard to argue they don’t deserve one nice, safe thing in their lives.

My only qualm with The Calyx Charm is I think I should have read the previous books in The Sacred Dark prior to this one. In my defense, I didn’t look very closely at the book prior to submitting my NetGalley request. I didn’t realize it was part of a series until I started reading it.

However, most romance series I’ve encountered have been made up of interconnected standalones. That is sort of the case here, but I think the degree of world building involved made it usually hard to get into. Also, at one point, something important happens involving a side character who is a main character in a previous book, and it’s never made clear what exactly that is. I’m hoping this is also an event in the other book, and Peterson expected readers to already get it.

That clearly isn’t a huge problem, though, because I’ve already recommended the series to a friend, and I’m recommending it now to you. I intend to purchase the rest of the series as soon as I whittle down my pile of overdue library books.

Disclosure

I received a free ARC via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Content Warnings

This is exactly the kind of book that makes content warnings so hard. Putting “rape of a child by a parent” and “a trans woman lovingly and consensually penetrating her partner” in the same list implies a kind of equivalency that is way more harmful than any of the content in this book.

Yet I know that both of those things could be triggering to readers. If I just say, “There is a lot of transmisogyny and child abuse in this book,” am I responsible for people who encounter triggers that weren’t on my list? I don’t want that either.

I don’t know the right thing to do here. If you have any specific concerns, please feel free to ask in the comments or email me (jz at jzkelley dot com), and I’ll do my best to answer.

More Info

Publisher: Carina Press
Paperback Page Count: 286

May Peterson is on Twitter. In addition to her books, she offers developmental, line, copy, and sensitivity editing via her website.

Preorder The Calyx Charm (available July 13) on Amazon..

Review: Lying with Lions by Annabel Fielding (Out 6/20/21)

Genre: Historical Fiction
Audience: Adult
Series?: Standalone (?)

Rating: Not for me

For fans of: Downton Abbey, Call the Midwife, lyrical prose, Cersei Lannister, royal family special editions of US Weekly

Spoiler alert: I’m going to talk about the ending of Lying with Lions. Like, right now.

Ready?

Okay.

In the last 10% of Lying with Lions, the protagonist, Agnes Ashford, and her lover/patron, Lady Helen Bryant, are confronted with a terrible choice: either sacrifice Helen’s wealth and independence, or the crimes she and Agnes committed to protect it will be revealed to the public. Agnes feels torn between her survival instinct, her loyalty to Helen, and her conscience. Every scene raises the stakes until Agnes is driven into desperate action with real consequences.

It’s a satisfying ending to Annabel Fielding’s turn-of-the-century gothic drama. Unfortunately, it also seems to belong to a different draft than the previous 90% of the novel.

Fielding’s writing is sometimes confusing (with frequent tense shifts that I hope will be caught in a final edit before it’s released on the 20th), but it’s more often beautiful, even poetic. I frequently highlighted passages I found moving or insightful:

It was a careful labour of months, to insulate herself from the pain [of her father’s death]. The art of half-forgetting. She did it so thoroughly, drawing borders of cool sensibility from dawn to dusk.

Chapter 2

[Helen’s daughter] has always been a swallow darting in and out of Agnes’ life, smiling the way every girl learns to smile if she wants to see some kindness from the world.

Chapter 6

She, Agnes, had thought once that pain is something that happens. It is like a wave, she thought, to hit you and then recede back into the depths, and if one is steadfast enough, if one is serene and solid rock in the ocean, one could weather it.

But she was wrong. Pain seeps into our bones; it changes their shapes forever. It changes the colour of our blood.

Chapter 11

Agnes and Helen are complex, often unlikable women with both agency and power. It’s clear that their lives and personalities are based on real Edwardian women. Even when they’re reckless or cruel, their actions are logical and grounded in a way I should have found compelling.

Best of all, every detail of their world is consistent and (as far as I can tell) accurate. Fielding is a history blogger, and she cites dozens of texts as sources for this novel alone. It’s clear that it was important for her to give readers a sense of what it was like to live in Edwardian England, from politics to social norms to infrastructure and even lighting.

So why didn’t this book work for me?

I think my problem was almost entirely structural. Though it’s a single novel, the plot of Lying with Lions is unusually episodic. Agnes and Helen will recognize they have a problem. Agnes will (briefly, without much emotion) contemplate the problem for a few pages, while Helen develops a solution offscreen. Agnes will execute the solution. Then, we get an equal number of pages of sightseeing or current events. Repeat for 200 pages.

This structure doesn’t allow the kind of tension that keeps me reading until 2 in the morning. Instead, I felt discouraged from worrying about the characters, because the repeated pattern of problem, contemplation, quick and tidy solution lulled me into thinking nothing truly bad could happen to Agnes or Helen. Neither Agnes nor Helen even seemed to suffer from guilt or anxiety at any point, even when their solutions have body counts.

Even the romance between Agnes and Helen suffers from this structure. There is no time for yearning. There are no tender, playful moments between the couple. There are some sex scenes, but these are really only settings for the conversations in which Helen gives Agnes instructions and Agnes reports her results.

It’s clear that Helen values Agnes’s loyalty and obedience, but that’s about it. Helen takes what she wants from Agnes, and Agnes gives it without conflict or self-doubt or even much prolonged joy, just the satisfaction of a job well done.

Again, the ending of this book is fantastic, but it’s also confusing. Agnes suddenly does mind their body count. She does care about the impact of her actions on other people. She does want to do the right thing. Not because anything happened or she had a change of heart; it’s just presented as though this is the character Agnes has been the entire time. I wish it were.

I think readers who are primarily interested in historical fiction for the details of the setting will love Lying with Lions. I also think it could be adapted into an incredible movie or mini-series. The right actors, with the right on-screen chemistry, could make the relationship between Agnes and Helen really compelling. However, readers seeking a historical lesbian romance are likely to be disappointed by the novel.

Disclaimer

I received a free ARC from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

More Info

Publisher: Self published
Hardback Page Count: 233

Annabel Fielding blogs about history and historical fiction at History Geek in Town. You can also find her on Twitter.

You can preorder Lying with Lions (out June 20th) on Amazon.

Review: Queerleaders by M. B. Guel

Genre: Contemporary Romance
Audience: YA
Series?: Standalone

Rating: Liked it

For fans of: But I’m a Cheerleader, Mean Girls, Glee, high school AU fanfiction, Dr. Pepper lip balm

This post contains minor spoilers for Queerleaders.

One quick aside before I never read another negative Goodreads review for a book I like ever again (ha): I wish readers showed as much grace to #OwnVoices writers as we do to (presumed) more privileged writers of similar stories.

Or maybe I just wish the readers with seemingly inexhaustible patience for privileged writers would pick up little indie queer books more often.

The Road To El Dorado gif where the characters say, "Both?" "Both?" "Both." "Both is good." (I don't know who these characters are, sorry!)

The only way I can describe this delightfully campy little novella is But I’m a Cheerleader meets Mean Girls meets Glee. If you like all of those properties, you will like this book. If the satirical homophobia of But I’m a Cheerleader and Mean Girls is too much for you, you will not like this book.

If you’re like, “That sounds great, but I’d literally rather die than listen to another Lea Michele cover,” good news! There is no audio component to this book. I don’t think any of the characters even mention a song in passing, though I could be mistaken about that.

The protagonist of Queerleaders, Mack, is a closeted lesbian in her senior year at a Catholic high school. She has a best friend who goes everywhere with her, the kind of supportive parents you really only see in teen comedies, and a crush on the head cheerleader, Veronica, who she believes is secretly much smarter and kinder than everyone gives her credit for. To prove to her friend that Veronica is a worthy love interest, Mack makes a list of Ronnie’s admirable traits.

Naturally, Veronica’s football player boyfriend finds the list and uses it to out Mack in front of everyone. Mack, who has never been kissed, vows to get revenge by stealing all of the football players’ cheerleader girlfriends.

Clea Duvall as Graham in But I'm a Cheerleader smokes a cigarette in an obnoxiously pink bed.

This is the most fanficy premise I’ve encountered in a professionally published book since Fifty Shades of Grey. I messaged it to my friends. Then I sent them a copy. Then I, in the depths of my Asian Readathon selections and desperate for something simple and sweet, checked it out of the library and stared at it every day until June 1.

Keeping in mind Corey Alexander’s very good essay on what we call fluff, I need to clarify that this book was simple and sweet for me because I have been out of high school for almost 12 years. Some of the bullying Mack experiences—particularly a scene in which someone sets her up for public humiliation, and the fallout from that—comes close enough to what I went through that I might have found it difficult if it were fresher. Then again, these scenes are brief, and Mack gets a satisfying teen romantic comedy ending shortly thereafter. Maybe I would have found it cathartic.

Aside from the premise and the sweet ending, my favorite part of Queerleaders was the romance. So many sapphic romances in YA feel like friendships with extra tragedy. Where’s the tension? Where’s the yearning? Queerleaders delivers on both passion and desire, along with a love interest unlike any I’ve seen in sapphic or straight romance before.

More Info

Publisher: Bella Books
Paperback Page Count: 148

M. B. Guel posts pictures of their adorable pets on Instagram.

You can support your local independent bookstore by buying Queerleaders on Bookshop.org, or grab it on Amazon. Also make sure to preorder their forthcoming novel Internet Famous (December 2021).

Spoiler-Free Review: The Wolf of Oren-Yaro by K. S. Villoso

Cover of The Wolf of Oren-Yaro

Genre: Fantasy
Audience: Adult
Series?: Chronicles of the Bitch Queen

Rating: Liked it

For fans of: The Farseer Trilogy, The Unbroken, Ursula Le Guin, family dramas, political fantasy, strong female characters, slow burn romance, Suffering

Asian Readathon is over, and I am only reading cute, fluffy books with lots of kissing and minimal dead cats from now on. I deserve it after The Wolf of Oren-Yaro.

K. S. Villoso’s Filipino-inspired family drama-cum-epic fantasy is narrated by Queen Talyien, possibly the only Strong Female Character to say, “I can take care of myself, thanks,” and then do so. Talyien is the first female ruler of Oren-yaro. She was betrothed at first to the last end of a rival faction in order to end her country’s brutal civil war. Then her worthless garbage truck of a husband fled on their coronation day, abandoning her with their two-year-old son to rule alone.

Talyien believes (and Goodreads reviewers seem to agree) that her primary flaw is continuing to love her husband through the five years of his absence. There’s some textual evidence for this: When her husband asks Talyien to meet him in a hostile and much more powerful neighboring country, she does, and almost everyone she trusts either dies or betrays her as a result.

I disagree. I think Talyien is so strong people fail to notice what’s actually going on with her: She’s traumatized. She’s trying to live up to not only the expectations of an entire fractious nation but also the idealized image of her dead father. Yes, it would be better for her to put her hope and faith in someone (anyone) who deserves it more than her absent husband, but this is what traumatized people often do. We love people who don’t deserve it.

This isn’t a story about a dysfunctional marriage so much as it is about a dysfunctional family, all three generations of it.

It’s also a character study. Yes, there’s (so much) violence and politics and forbidden magic, but all of those things serve to propel Talyien’s journey from queen who’s always been surrounded by servants to beggar wandering the slums in a hostile country to the person she becomes at the end of the series.

I say “series” rather than book because The Wolf of Oren-Yaro feels very much like the beginning of a trilogy rather than a standalone novel. Which makes sense: It was originally self published. K. S. Villoso knew she didn’t need a publisher’s permission to continue.

However, it makes this a difficult book to review. The character arcs are incomplete. The good guys are still in danger, and even the bad guys who have died feel like they might make a comeback. Talyien has seen some of the world outside her (comparatively) sheltered life as a queen and gained some surprising insights about the people she thought she knew best, but it remains to be seen what she’ll do with those insights. There’s no resolution, merely a pause.

I wanted to hold off on writing this review at all until I finished the series, but I decided to push ahead for two reasons. One: It’s hard to post a full-series review on Goodreads and Amazon, where authors need reviews the most. Two: I don’t know when I’ll feel up to returning to Talyien’s world.

The Wolf of Oren-Yaro is beautifully written, but it isn’t a pretty book. There’s very little hope or light. Even the settings are ugly: dank prison cells, barred windows, and slums filled with starving children and dead cats. Talyien is rarely free from threats of rape and murder. Even in her dreams, she’s reliving childhood traumas. She does get to spend a few sweet pages with a normal, loving family, but then she’s immediately back to fighting for her life.

Here’s what I can say at this point: K. S. Villoso is a strong, genre-savvy writer. Despite the sprawling world and the shifting politics, I never felt lost. There is no glossary or cast list at the end of the book because it’s unnecessary. I never needed to flip back to remind myself who a character was or what they wanted.

And they felt real. One of the reasons I’m so reluctant to read The Issekar Falcon right now is how much I cared for Talyien. She’s a flawed, fully developed, and deeply wounded character. I want someone to come along, prove they’re worthy of her trust, and give her a hot meal and a nice long bath. I want her to learn to set boundaries and get comfortable with disappointing her father’s memory. I want her to be okay–and because she’s a flawed, fully developed, and deeply wounded character, I know that won’t happen for at least another book and three quarters.

Asian Readathon

This is my final book for the 2021 Asian Readathon. I’m counting it for challenge 3 (favorite genre)

K. S. Villoso is Filipino Canadian.

Content Warnings

This book is heavy. I never want to try to provide a complete list of all triggers, for fear of missing one, but I didn’t see anyone else talking about the extent of sexual violence in this book. It’s a lot.

The Wolf of Oren-Yaro contains frequent and often detailed threats of rape, human trafficking, verbal descriptions of past rape, and rape on the page.

More Info

Publisher: Orbit
Paperback Page Count: 496

K. S. Villoso is on Twitter and Instagram.

You can support your local independent bookstore by buying The Wolf of Oren-Yaro on Bookshop.org, or grab it on Amazon.

Spoiler-Free Review: A Crown of Wishes by Roshani Chokshi

Genre: Fantasy
Audience: Young adult
Series?: The Star-Touched Queen Duology

Rating: Loved it!

For fans of: GracelingThe Library of FatesRaybearer, enemies to lovers, high stakes fantasy games and tournaments, talking monster companions

A Crown of Wishes is lush, colorful, and delicious. It’s a fast-paced adventure with such rich sensory detail that I feel like I dreamed it, and I want to go back tonight. Plus, it manages to feel fresh and contemporary while also delivering heaps of my favorite tropes:

  • Enemies to lovers
  • Spooky animal companions
  • Found family
  • Capricious gods
  • Monsters with hearts of gold
  • Soft boys who love prickly girls
  • Healing, um … kisses

It’s the story of heirs to rival kingdoms, who have not yet met when are chosen by the Lord of Wealth to compete as partners in the Tournament of Wishes. If they can find a way into the Otherworld of magic and monsters and survive two challenges and a sacrifice, there’s still no guarantee they’ll both be allowed to leave with their lives. But for a chance at a Wish, they’ll have to risk it.

Princess Gauri is the angry girl of my dreams: “A beast. A monster. A myth. A girl. What was the difference?” She’s a princess without a country, desperate to return. To protect her people, she trained as a soldier to fight in her cruel brother’s armies, and eventually to overthrow him. However, her need to protect has made her paranoid and afraid of being vulnerable. Her coup failed, and her brother dropped her over the border in an enemy kingdom with orders for her execution.

On paper, Prince Vikram is the heir to that enemy kingdom, but his father’s council knows he is adopted and has no intention of letting him wield real power when he takes the throne. He’s a good match for Princess Gauri, first as a reluctant ally and eventually as a love interest. Despite her martial prowess, Gauri doesn’t frighten the comparatively peaceful Vikram, who accepts her initial distrust with cockiness that isn’t hiding anything.

Vikram is genuinely confident that their quest is going to make him into a true ruler. As a result, he is almost recklessly kind and trusting with the people they meet on their journey in a way Gauri can’t allow herself to be, yet.

Despite the protagonists’ tragic backstories and desperate circumstances, this is a cheerful book. It was such a relief after–you know, everything, that I almost wish it weren’t such a quick, breezy read. I’m definitely going to pick up the other books in this series as soon as I shrink my TBR pile a bit.

Asian Readathon

This is the third book I finished for the 2021 Asian Readathon. I’m counting it for challenge 2.

Roshani Chokshi’s mother is Filipino and her father is Indian.

More Info

Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin
Hardback Page Count: 384

Roshani Chokshi is on Twitter and Instagram.

You can support your local independent bookstore by buying A Crown of Wishes on Bookshop.org, or grab it on Amazon.

5 Personal Essays to Read if You Liked The Collected Schizophrenias

Cover of The Collected Schizophrenias by Esme Weijun Wang

I have a migraine and no idea how to review a book like this, so I’m not going to, except to say that I liked it. A lot of disability memoirs read like the writer is an astronaut all alone in the dark void of Illness, which is probably why they appeal more to readers who don’t think of themselves as sick or disabled. The essays in The Collected Schizophrenias are all in conversation with people and communities. They feel like they were written for us.

Instead of a review, I’m going to give you a list of other personal essays I think you’d like if you liked The Collected Schizophrenias. Which is a sneaky way of saying that if you like these essays, you’ll probably like The Collected Schizophrenias.

Also, my favorite quote, which comes late enough in the book that it would probably be considered a spoiler if you could spoil people’s real lives:

Rebecca Solnit says in The Faraway Nearby, “There is a serenity in illness that takes away all the need to do and makes just being enough,” which has not been my experience. After all, prolonged and chronic illness stitches itself into life in a different way than acute illness does … The absolution from doing more and dreaming big that I experience during surgeries and hospitalization is absent during chronic illness.

The Essays

“Lyme Disease Changed My Relationship with the Outdoors” by Blair Braverman (Outdoors)

After all, until then, my health had always made sense to me. It didn’t occur to me that might change—that my ability to move and work and be outdoors, to live the life I’d built, could dissolve in a week.

“What Did My Mother the Chemist See in Betty Crocker?” by Celeste Ng (The New York Times)

Then, as an adult, I actually read the text and discovered that woven into the recipes were tidbits of advice for the 1960s homemaker: The man you marry will know the way he likes his eggs. And chances are he’ll be fussy about them. So it behooves a good wife to know how to make an egg behave in six basic ways.

“What It’s Like Having PPD As A Black Woman” by Tyrese Coleman (Buzzfeed)

When life was hard, there was no luxury to wallow. Don’t nobody have time to be depressed! There were children to feed, bodies to bathe, houses to clean. I know there are black women not so strong, but I don’t remember seeing my mother cry.

“After Years of Writing Anonymously About Fatness, I’m Telling the World Who I Am” by Your Fat Friend/Aubrey Gordon (Self)

As I wrote, my perception of the life I’d lived began to shift. I had long thought of myself as living a charmed life, and for the most part, I did. But that perception was contingent on continuing to ignore experiences that were the direct result of anti-fat bias.

“We Don’t Talk About Mental Illness In My Family” by Larissa Pham (Buzzfeed)

We speak of it in whispers, though everyone’s been treated for it at some point, Prozac and Zoloft and Lexapro all the way down the family tree, and yet here I must also admit we’re all just as apt to believe in ghosts as to believe in something like brain chemistry. What is depression, anyway, when you’ve already passed through the fire and returned?

Bonus

One of the essays in The Collected Schizophrenias, “Who Gets To Be The “Good Schizophrenic”?,” was originally published on Buzzfeed. Read it for a sample of Weijun Wang’s writing. Send it to your friends.

Then, if you haven’t already, buy the book on Bookshop.org or Amazon.

Spoiler-Free Book Review: Thorn by Intisar Khanani

Early in Thorn, Intisar Khanani’s YA fantasy retelling of “Goose Girl,” the protagonist’s talking Horse advises her with the book’s central theme and conflict:

It is rare for someone who wants power to truly deserve it.

Princess Alyrra is patient, gentle, generous, curious, and honest to a fault. After years of abuse at the hands of her mother and brother, she’s almost relieved to have her identity stolen on the road to the neighboring kingdom, where she is to wed the prince. Alyrra has no desire to rule. If only she could be sure the imposter would not harm the prince, Alyrra would be content as a goose girl, trading hard physical labor for freedom from court politics.

Thorn is a deceptively heavy novel. Despite its colorful cover and accessible writing, themes of abuse, injustice, and revenge permeate almost every scene. Intisar Khanani handles these themes with consideration and respect not only for their weight but also for the reader. I particularly appreciated the nuanced discussion of defensive versus offensive violence. And amid the darkness, there are much-needed moments of humor and beauty, including stubborn horses, a sweet found family that loves Alyrra the way her family of origin couldn’t.

Of the retellings I’ve read, Thorn is among the most faithful to its original fairytale. The cast is broader and more developed, and there is a side plot about human trafficking and thieves guilds. However, the primary plot points largely mirror those of “Goose Girl.”

That isn’t necessarily a problem. Based on a quick skim of Goodreads, I’m one of many readers for whom this was our first exposure to “Goose Girl.” Khanani also worked in a few twists that would have surprised me even if I had been familiar with the inspiration. However, there is one event in the original fairytale that doesn’t make much sense to me in that context, and it made even less sense to me in Thorn. To avoid spoilers, I’ll just say I kept waiting for something important to happen as Alyrra passed through the gates, and it never did.

I also wish Khanani had done more to develop Alyrra’s world and to push back against the fairytale trope of characters that are either all good or all evil. The primary villain, who orchestrates the theft of Alyrra’s identity, is complicated and sympathetic, but no other antagonist gets the same treatment. However, I enjoyed the quieter, more contemplative scenes immensely, and I’m eager to see what Khanani writes next.

Thorn is most likely to appeal to fans of trauma narratives that are light on romance, like Raybearer and Deerskin. However, it’s also a beautiful found family story, and I think people who prefer the parts of Disney movies where princesses cheerfully clean the house with the help of their animal sidekicks would enjoy it immensely.

Asian Readathon

This is the first book I finished for the 2021 Asian Readathon. I’m counting it for challenge 1, though it could also fulfill challenge 2 or 3, or all 3 if I only wanted to read 3 books.

Intisar Khanani’s family is Pakistani.

Content Warnings

I’m still conflicted about listing these, but apparently it’s a thing I’m doing now.

Thorn by Intisar Khanani contains physical, verbal, and emotional abuse; violence against animals; torture; human trafficking of children; onscreen threats of sexual violence; offscreen sexual violence; and torture.

More Info

Publisher: Orbit
Paperback Page Count: 528

Intisar Khanani is on Twitter and Instagram.

You can support your local independent bookstore by buying Thorn on Bookshop.org, or grab it on Amazon.

Spoiler-Free Book Review: The Unbroken by C. L. Clark

Cover of The Unbroken by C. L. Clark

The Unbroken is the literary equivalent of being kicked in the ribs for 500 pages, and I loved it. Mostly.

Told in alternating perspectives, it’s the story of two women trying to quash an uprising in the Balladairan colony of Qazāl. Touraine is a soldier, Qazāli by birth but conscripted into the colonial army as a toddler, who trusts only her fellow conscripts and the strength of her body. Luca is the future Balladairan queen, an idealistic and book-smart but unproven leader, whose rank and disability estranges her from everyone but her personal guard. When Touraine saves Lucca from an assassination attempt, Lucca sees an opportunity to recruit an ambassador the Qazāli might trust enough to negotiate a peaceful end to the rebellion.

Clark’s world building is immaculate. Both French-inspired Balladaire and Arab-inspired Qazāl feel like real, living countries, with their own geography, culture, history, and approach to magic and religion. Their writing is intense and cinematic. Despite the violence and despair that permeates much of the book, I found myself staying up too late to finish “just one more” chapter and daydreaming about the characters when I was supposed to be working. And I loved the layered, flawed characters, even though most of them only make good decisions by accident.

I only have one critique, and it’s that I found the sexual violence subplot almost unbearable. If I were to describe exactly what happens, on paper, it would seem fairly unremarkable. It’s nowhere near what happens in an episode of Game of Thrones. There are hundreds of YA novels with more detailed depictions of sexual violence that go on for much longer than what happens in The Unbroken, and none of them have gotten under my skin in quite the same way.

To be clear, I don’t think Clark’s use of sexual violence is inappropriate. It’s a way of emphasizing how powerless even respectable, comparatively high ranking Qazāli are against Balladairans. It raises the stakes and underscores the novel’s themes, and it’s treated with the gravity it deserves. I just think there was probably a way to do all of that without exposing what I imagine is an audience of primarily queer women and/or women of color to yet more depictions of sexual violence against queer women of color.

That said, I have recommended The Unbroken to several friends and will continue to do so, with the necessary caveats.

I think it will especially appeal to fans of Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel series and N. K. Jemisin’s Dreamblood duology, but anyone who loves political fantasy with meticulous world building should give it a try. It’s ambitious and textured and spectacularly well written. I’m glad I read it, and I look forward to the sequel. I’m just going to make sure I have something fluffy to chase it with.

Content Warnings

I’m always torn on whether or not I want to provide detailed content warnings for the books I review. Some people consider them spoilers, some people consider them essential. More importantly, I don’t want anyone who depends on my list to come across an unexpected trigger because I failed to remember or mention it.

Fortunately, C. L. Clark has a list on their website, so I’m just going to quote that here:

depictions of colonial violence, gore, past attempted rape, threats of rape, threats of torture

More Info

Publisher: Orbit
Paperback Page Count: 544

C. L. Clark does a terrifying number of things all around the world. On top of writing novels and short stories, they’re the co-editor of Podcastle, an academic, an English teacher, and a personal trainer. Follow them on Twitter.

You can support your local independent bookstore by buying The Unbroken on Bookshop.org, or grab it on Amazon.

Book Review: Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Minor spoilers for the first half of Gods and Jade and Shadow here. I’m not ruining any reveals, but if you’re touchy about spoilers, come back when you’ve read it.

Gods of Jade and Shadow is the first book I’ve read by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, and when I said I “read” it, what I mean is that I inhaled it. You know how sometimes you’re in a slump, you have no motivation to read anything, and you can’t seem to even find any books to try to read that you don’t instantly hate? Then you get a book kind of at random, and it takes your breath away and makes you want to stop sleeping and bathing so you can spend more time reading?

Gods of Jade and Shadow was that book for me. It strikes the perfect balance between fairytale and coming-of-age romance, darkness and optimism, quick pacing and deliberateness. Everything about this book feels thoughtful and controlled, but it’s still fun and even pretty light-hearted, which I desperately needed between reading Passing Strange and The Unbroken.

The story is a Mayan-inspired fantasy about Casiopea Tun, a seventeen-year-old with “a knack for quiet insurrection,” who lives as a servant in her maternal grandfather’s home. Although she lives in the largest house in their small town, Casiopea is an outsider, walled off from her neighbors by her family’s wealth but simultaneously abused and neglected by her family for her father’s indigenous heritage.

She hopes to someday return to the city where she lived with her father. She wants to swim in the ocean at night, to dance to fast music, and to learn to drive a car. Until then, she lives in fear of her cruel older cousin, Martin, and of the Catholic priest, who:

… eyed every woman in town with suspicion. Each diminutive infraction to decency and virtue was catalogued. Women were meant to bear the brunt of inquiries because they descended from Eve, who had been weak and sinned, eating from the juicy, forbidden apple.

Then she accidentally frees the death god Hun-Kame from a box in her grandfather’s bedroom. A bone-shard lodges in her finger, binding her to the god, who draws life from her blood. The connection is dangerous to them both. With every moment he remains dependent upon her, Hun-Kame becomes more mortal, and Casiopea comes closer to death. She must join him on a journey to recover the parts of his body his twin has stolen in order to regain his full power and his godhood.

Casiopea is a delight, well rounded and flawed and just incredibly charming. If you’re tired of Strong Female Character who have to constantly wield their anger as a weapon but don’t long for a return to the Cinderella/Sleeping Beauty/Snow White mold, you’ll love Casiopea. She’s practical but hopeful, kind but with a backbone.

And she has no particular special powers! She’s just curious enough to get herself in trouble and brave enough to get herself back out again.

I loved Moreno-Garcia’s narration. Sometimes, with fairytale retellings that strive to capture a fairytale style, I have a hard time connecting to the characters and the stakes. That was a problem for me with Malinda Lo’s Ash, but it didn’t come up for me here. I think Moreno-Garcia strikes a good balance between didactic asides (“Martin, who had a rather atrophied imagination, incapable of considering for long periods of time anything that was not directly in front of him as worthy of imagination …”) with intensely personal, heartfelt moments and exciting conflicts.

There are a lot of fantasy and fairytale tropes at work here, but Moreno-Garcia uses them with such care that they feel original to Casiopea’s story. Two examples that stand out to me:

  1. Casiopea is Obliviously Beautiful in a way that both makes sense and ties into the themes of the story: colonialism, cultural changes, abuse, trauma, etc. Of course a Mayan death god would see more beauty in her indigenous features than she does, initially.
  2. There’s a pretty extreme Age-Gap Romance going on here between Casiopea, who is seventeen, and Hun-Kame, who is … several thousand years old, probably? I know I literally just said the only way to make this okay would be for the elder to have been in a coma for most of his life, but I take it back. I think Gods of Jade and Shadow pulls it off without that, though you’ll have to read to see if you agree. It isn’t one particular event or explanation, it’s the book as a whole that made me okay with it.

This book is getting a lot of comparisons to Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, but I think that only holds up if you’re comparing premises. Gods of Jade and Shadow is both more hopeful and more fun.

I think a better comparison is Kate Elliot’s Cold Magic trilogy. You have a brave, strong girl going to right generational wrongs in the company of a powerful, grumpy man who’s made better, braver, and kinder by knowing her. However, Gods of Jade and Shadow is less focused on romance than Cold Magic, and Hun-Kame is less of an ass than Andevai.

I also wanted to compare it to A Wrinkle in Time, in that Casiopea is an ordinary girl who triumphs over extraordinary obstacles, and her flaws are ultimately her strengths. Then I googled Kamazotz (giant Mayan bat monster) because the name sounded familiar, and it turns out that’s where L’Engle got the name of her dystopian planet, which made me feel a little icky. So, um, forget that comparison, I guess, although I would still recommend this book to anyone who liked A Wrinkle in Time.

Or, honestly, anyone. I can’t think of a single person I would want to recommend books to who wouldn’t like this one. Go read it and then come back and talk to me about it. It’s all I want to talk about.

More Info

Publisher: Del Rey
Hardcover Page Count: 334

You can find Silvia Moreno-Garcia on Twitter or her website. Buy the book and support your local independent bookstore on Bookshop, or get it on Amazon.

2021 Asian Readathon: May 1 through 31

The Asian Readathon is an annual event created by YouTuber withcindy to challenge readers to explore more Asian books. It takes place in May to to coincide with Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month.

You can find all the challenges, readalongs, book clubs, giveaways, and other resources, including book recommendations, on the Google Doc Cindy created. To get updates and connect with other participants, follow @asianreadathon on Twitter and use #asianreadathon on all the socials.

The Challenges

(I’m stealing these straight from the Doc, but I’m pretty sure Cindy doesn’t make ad revenue from that so it’s probably fine.)

  1. Read any book written by an Asian author.
  2. Read any book featuring an Asian protagonist.
  3. Read any book written by an Asian author in your favorite genre.
  4. Read any nonfiction book written by an Asian author.
  5. Read any book written by an Asian author that’s not US-centric.

We are allowed to fulfill multiple challenges with the same book.

However, only one book per author/character Asian ethnicity can count towards the challenge. For example, I plan to read Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo for challenge 2, so I cannot use The Wall of Storms by Ken Liu to fulfill any of the remaining challenges.

Books I Plan to Read

Will I review any of these books? Will I even read them? No one knows!

Challenges 1, 2 & 3 : Any Asian Author, Any Asian Protagonist & Favorite Genre
A Crown of Wishes by Roshani Chokshi
The Wolf of Oren-Yaro by K. S. Villoso
Thorn by Intisar Khanani (Click to see my review!)

Challenge 4: Nonfiction –
The Collected Schizophrenias by Esme Weijun Wang

Challenge 5: Not US-Centric –
Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

Other Asian Books I Want to Read Eventually

Struggling with your own list? Pick one of these and tell me how it is.

Chop Suey Nation by Ann Hui
The Beauty of the Moment by Tanaz Bhathena
The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee
The Fisherman King by Kathrina Mohd Daud
The Ones We’re Meant to Find by Joan He (available May 4)
The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang
There’s Something about Sweetie by Sandhya Menon
To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han