Review: Forest of a Thousand Lanterns

Forest of a Thousand LanternsTitle: Forest of a Thousand Lanterns
Author: Julie C. Dao
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 363
Publisher: Philomel Books
Review Copy: Library
Availability: Available now!

Summary: An East Asian fantasy reimagining of The Evil Queen legend about one peasant girl’s quest to become Empress–and the darkness she must unleash to achieve her destiny.

Eighteen-year-old Xifeng is beautiful. The stars say she is destined for greatness, that she is meant to be Empress of Feng Lu. But only if she embraces the darkness within her. Growing up as a peasant in a forgotten village on the edge of the map, Xifeng longs to fulfill the destiny promised to her by her cruel aunt, the witch Guma, who has read the cards and seen glimmers of Xifeng’s majestic future. But is the price of the throne too high? Because in order to achieve greatness, she must spurn the young man who loves her and exploit the callous magic that runs through her veins–sorcery fueled by eating the hearts of the recently killed. For the god who has sent her on this journey will not be satisfied until his power is absolute. [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Review: There’s something about retellings of the Evil Queen legend from Snow White that almost always captures the imagination. She’s a fascinating figure — evil, beautiful, and destined to be undone by some sweet girl with a taste for apples. The retelling that haunts me the most is Neil Gaiman’s chilling short story.

I think it’s safe to say that Forest of a Thousand Lanterns has usurped that particular throne. This story, influenced by the culture and history of Imperial China, is beautifully written — fitting for a story about a surpassingly beautiful empress-to-be. It tells the dark path Xifeng must take to rise above her humble origins and become queen.

Of course, that path is not easy. Xifeng struggles to free herself of the evil within her, along with the voice of her abusive aunt who all along has pushed her to pursue her powerful destiny and her conflicted feelings for her love, Wei. She’s a sympathetic figure, torn between her loyalty to the flawed people in her life and her unyielding ambition. As you follow along with her struggles, it’s easy to forget the framework of the story and who she’s meant to become – the Evil Queen from Snow White.

And at other times, it’s not so easy to forget. Xifeng’s ambition means that she regards most women as beneath her in one way or another, and she often does or says things that are cruel and vicious. At the same time, the conniving, backstabbing nature of the imperial court means that no one — except for, like, two men early in the story — comes out looking good. And I don’t know how I feel about one key (super spoilerly) reveal and its implications. This is definitely a tale told from the perspective of a rising villain, and no punches are pulled. At least for me, it’s hard to be comfortable with that.

Finally, I have to mention the worldbuilding. The details and imagery is just gorgeous. Every mention of a meal left me hungry (sugar dusted persimmon cakes! want!). This, along with the hint of the future Snow White storyline, is why I’m looking forward to the sequel. I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for that. If you love a good fairy tale reimagining, you’ll want to check this book out.

Recommendation: Get it soon!

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New Release

This week we found one new release and it looks like a fascinating fantasy.

Beasts Made of Night by Tochi Onyebuchi
Razorbill

In the walled city of Kos, corrupt mages can magically call forth sin from a sinner in the form of sin-beasts – lethal creatures spawned from feelings of guilt.

Taj is the most talented of the aki, young sin-eaters indentured by the mages to slay the sin-beasts. But Taj’s livelihood comes at a terrible cost. When he kills a sin-beast, a tattoo of the beast appears on his skin while the guilt of committing the sin appears on his mind. Most aki are driven mad by the process, but 17-year-old Taj is cocky and desperate to provide for his family.

When Taj is called to eat a sin of a royal, he’s suddenly thrust into the center of a dark conspiracy to destroy Kos. Now Taj must fight to save the princess that he loves – and his own life.

A gritty Nigerian-influenced fantasy.

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Review: Wild Beauty

Wild BeautyTitle: Wild Beauty
Author: Anna-Marie McLemore
Genres: Fantasy, Romance, LGBTQIA
Pages: 320
Publisher: Feiwel & Friends
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: Available for purchase now

Summary: Love grows such strange things.

For nearly a century, the Nomeolvides women have tended the grounds of La Pradera, the lush estate gardens that enchant guests from around the world. They’ve also hidden a tragic legacy: if they fall in love too deeply, their lovers vanish. But then, after generations of vanishings, a strange boy appears in the gardens.

The boy is a mystery to Estrella, the Nomeolvides girl who finds him, and to her family, but he’s even more a mystery to himself; he knows nothing more about who he is or where he came from than his first name. As Estrella tries to help Fel piece together his unknown past, La Pradera leads them to secrets as dangerous as they are magical in this stunning exploration of love, loss, and family.

Review: So, it’s been a while since I ugly sobbed my way through the climax and resolution of a book, but here I am, wanting you to have the exact same experience. In a book where love can—and often does—bring tragedy, it goes without saying that there would be a lot of heartache in store. There’s bucketfuls of it, passed on from generation to generation, of lovers vanished or sent away before the Nomeolvides curse can take hold of them.

Wild Beauty starts off with a bang, when Estrella and her four cousins discover that they have all fallen (a little) in love with Bay Briar, a queer non-binary girl whose extended family owns the land they live on, La Pradera. The girls’ rush to sacrifice their precious things to La Pradera in an attempt to keep Bay from vanishing is what causes a boy called Fel, who has no memory of who he is or where he came from, to appear in their enchanted garden. And while Fel tries to figure out who he is, the girls, their mothers, and their grandmothers all have to wrestle with what Fel means as the only person to have ever been given back by La Pradera.

Anna-Marie McLemore tackles love in its many forms, and there is an abundance of queer characters, young and old. The tragedy of the Nomeolvides family isn’t in who they love—it’s in the curse that steals anyone and everyone from them without warning. There is a wide range of love in this book, and some of my favorite moments were when love and caring and gratitude were given physical form through the cooking and sharing of food. Another major theme in the book is how privilege and the lack of it both radically shape opportunities and lives. Reid’s character in particular is a close-up examination and condemnation of powerful men who believe they are above others, and the heroes’ confrontations with and strategies to manage him were all too real.

Continuing the pattern established by McLemore’s previous books, Wild Beauty has duel protagonists who alternate chapters. Estrella and Fel were excellent narrators, and the richness of their inner lives is a great fit for the lush prose. I really enjoyed the way the two of them connected and grew together.

While there were occasional moments where I felt the story got bogged down by description, the meandering pace and lingering on the details generally enhanced the story and was a good reminder that the setting—La Pradera—is just as important as any of the people. This world is a fantastical one, with curses and women who grow flowers with their hands, and it is also a familiar one, where injustice and blood leave lasting scars that shape future generations.

Recommendation: Buy it now if you want a big dose of queer characters and magical realism. McLemore’s newest offering is another great addition to any home or school library. Fans of McLemore’s previous work will find more of what they loved before in Wild Beauty, and the book will be just as welcoming to new readers. I’m looking forward to reading it again.

Extras

Better Know an Author: Anna-Marie McLemore

Anna-Marie McLemore’s ‘Wild Beauty’ Is A Magical Story Of Love, Loss, And Family Curses

Interview with Anna-Marie McLemore, author of “When the Moon Was Ours” and “Wild Beauty”

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Book Review: Buried Heart

Title: Buried Heart (Court of Fives #3)
Author: Kate Elliott
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 465 pages
Publisher: Little, Brown & Company
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: In Bookstores

Summary: In this third book in the epic Court of Fives series, Jessamy is the crux of a revolution forged by the Commoner class hoping to overthrow their longtime Patron overlords. But enemies from foreign lands have attacked the kingdom, and Jes must find a way to unite the Commoners and Patrons to defend their home and all the people she loves. Will her status as a prominent champion athlete be enough to bring together those who have despised one another since long before her birth? Will she be able to keep her family out of the clutches of the evil Lord Gargaron? And will her relationship with Prince Kalliarkos remain strong when they find themselves on opposite sides of a war?

Review: I enjoyed the first two installments of Kate Elliott’s Court of Five series so I was really looking forward to seeing how Elliott would end Jessamy’s story. Buried Heart picks up moments after the end of Poisoned Blade as Jessamy, Kal, and their families are running from Saryenia after Nikonos pulls a deadly coup and takes over the city. I expected most of the book would focus on Jessamy and Kal working together to unite the Commoners and Patrons and somehow overthrow Nikonos. I have to say I was surprised by what actually happened in the novel. Working with her father, Jessamy and Kal are able to takeover the throne fairly easily at that happens only a quarter of the way into the book. After that, the novel takes on an interesting turn where Jessamy is captured by Lord Gargaron and is separated from everyone she loves. While I hated that Lord Gargaron had the upper hand over Jessamy at one point, but this allowed Jessamy to find an inner strength and leadership ability that she didn’t know she had. It fully allowed her to choose a side and when it came time to fight for Efea, Jessamy was able to use her skills from the Five Court and her new found leadership skills to truly help turn the tide of the war.

One of the many aspects I liked about Poisoned Blade was that we traveled with Jessamy and saw more of the world of Efea, and in Buried Heart we experienced more of the same, but we learned more about the people of Efea (i.e. the Commoners). We also learned more about the customs and beliefs of the Efeans before the Saroese (Patrons) invaded and took over the land. Learning more the history of Efea and it’s colonization, bring a deeper meaning to the novel. At it’s core, through the story of Jessamy, Buried Heart is the story of an oppressed people rising up, and of the privileged people learning how to recognize their role in oppression and working with the oppressed to make change.

Even though Jessamy and Kal spend a lot of time apart in this novel (again) this time it was much more satisfying to me, as in their time apart they grew into the adults they were going to be, and their relationship grew as well. At the beginning of the novel, Jessamy and Kal are so sweet together, but their relationship is much more mature based on their first separation. Kai truly accepts Jessamy for who she is, the good and the ugly, though Jessamy tries to still “protect” Kal’s more innocent nature. It’s sweet at the beginning, but devastating for Jessamy when she must watch Kal make tough choices when he becomes king, a position he never wanted. However, with this second separation, both have to make tough, adult decisions and each lose their innocence in a way. They both change because of their experiences in the war and when they are able to finally come together (if only for a brief moment) they see each other as true equals. I loved that Elliott wrote a relationship that was equally balanced where each of the lovers grew not just together but on their own. Both Jessamy and Kal look out for each other and push each other to be better, which is a very healthy relationship not often seen in many books. The tension between them came from outside sources and these two had to find a way to create their happiness and find a way to be together. To me, that is what made their love story so touching.

There is so much more I could say about Buried Heart, but I would be giving away so much of the story. So I will say this, Buried Heart is a fitting end to a wonderful trilogy that had a beautiful love story, a villain you just loved to hate, complex family drama, and a world that was so complete it felt real, but at it’s heart was an amazing heroine that us readers could root for.

Recommendation: If you have been waiting for this third book to come out you need to run to your nearest book store and buy it. If you haven’t read the Court of Five series, you also need to run to your nearest book store so you can begin the adventure and read the whole series in one sitting!

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Review: The Epic Crush of Genie Lo

The Epic Crush of Genie LoTitle: The Epic Crush of Genie Lo
Author: F.C. Yee
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 336 pages
Publisher: Amulet Books
Availability: Available now!

Summary: The struggle to get into a top-tier college consumes sixteen-year-old Genie Lo’s every waking thought. But when her sleepy Bay Area town comes under siege from hell-spawn straight out of Chinese folklore, her priorities are suddenly and forcefully rearranged.

Her only guide to the demonic chaos breaking out around her is Quentin Sun, a beguiling, maddening new transfer student from overseas. Quentin assures Genie she is strong enough to fight these monsters, for she unknowingly harbors an inner power that can level the very gates of Heaven.

Genie will have to dig deep within herself to summon the otherworldly strength that Quentin keeps talking about. But as she does, she finds the secret of her true nature is entwined with his, in a way she could never have imagined… [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Review: Way back in 2016 (feels like a millenia ago, huh?), this tweet by Zen Cho about a new book came across my dash. And because I’m easily persuadable, I was immediately on board. The bit about the heroine becoming powerful enough to “break through the gates of Heaven with her fists” was my jam.

Imagine how psyched I was when, over a year later, the book came out and I saw mentions of the monkey king. Sun Wukong in YA lit? Hell yes. Get me some toast, because this was even more my jam. I know I say this a lot, but this book did not disappoint.

The heroine Genie Lo is a super motivated elite SF prep student with her eyes on nothing but the prize – Ivy League glory and a better life. When new kid on the block Quentin Sun shows up and tell her that she’s really someone straight out of Chinese mythology, she has to step up to bat to defend the people she loves against a host of monsters. Genie’s character – cynical, motivated, yet unwaveringly protective of her friends and family – is what drives the story and kept me reading through the night. And it was awesome to see how she clashed and then worked with Quentin.

Speaking of Quentin… I’m not going to spoil anything. But, also, that reveal of who Genie was? I laughed, then had to take a reading break while I digested what had happened. That was amazing.

Basically, this is a must-read for everyone. But if you’re Chinese American (or, like me, Taiwanese American), this is a next level absolutely-no-excuses-must-read. There were so many moments that I knew all too well — like the relief of seeing your mom get to have a meaningful conversation with someone else in Chinese and be happy. Not only that, I’m from the Bay Area and attended a super competitive, majority (86%!) Asian school growing up. What Genie was going through was a hauntingly familiar creature.

Now I’m just rambling. Look, just put The Epic Crush of Genie Lo on your reading list. You’ll love it, I promise you. And if there’s going to be a sequel, someone tell me ASAP.

Recommendation: Buy it now!

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Review: The Library of Fates

Title: The Library of Fates
Author: Aditi Khorana
Publisher: Razorbill
Genre: Fantasy
Pages: 354
Review copy: Library
Availability: On shelves now

Summary: No one is entirely certain what brings the Emperor Sikander to Shalingar. Until now, the idyllic kingdom has been immune to his many violent conquests. To keep the visit friendly, Princess Amrita has offered herself as his bride, sacrificing everything—family, her childhood love, and her freedom—to save her people. But her offer isn’t enough.

The palace is soon under siege, and Amrita finds herself a fugitive, utterly alone but for an oracle named Thala, who was kept by Sikander as a slave and managed to escape amid the chaos. With nothing and no one else to turn to, Amrita and Thala are forced to rely on each other. But while Amrita feels responsible for her kingdom and sets out to warn her people, the newly free Thala has no such ties. She encourages Amrita to go on a quest to find the fabled Library of All Things, where it is possible for each of them to reverse their fates. To go back to before Sikander took everything from them.

Stripped of all that she loves, caught between her rosy past and an unknown future, will Amrita be able to restore what was lost, or does another life—and another love—await?

Review:The Library of Fates is a timely book that calls for action on the part of individuals. Amrita is not sure who she is, but in the midst of turmoil she must find out what she is willing to do and what she believes. Mala, the woman who helped raise Amrita, explains that you find out who you are by the choices you make and the actions you take. When we reflect on what we do and how we decide things, we see what is actually important to us. I really love that in this discussion Mala also tells Amrita “Develop some swagger” and “You’re far more powerful than you know.” I think many young people can stand to hear such encouragement.

As Khorana mentioned in her author’s note, some issues in our nation right now seem to be much like the things happening in this book. The Emperor Sikander comes from a place where things are wonderful for the wealthy, “but if your poor, or disabled, if you’re a foreigner, or even a woman, Macedon isn’t so kind. This country is built on the backs of the disenfranchised.” The author explains the moral of the story at the beginning of the book. “When we act with only our selfish interests in mind, disregarding the rights and experiences of others, everybody loses. But when we act in the service of the greater good, even if it costs us something–even if it costs us a lot–we are deeply and profoundly transformed by love, empathy, and wisdom.” If things matter to us, we can’t stand by and just watch – we must act and create change. Amrita decides to do something, but definitely struggles as she tries to figure out how best to help her kingdom. There are so many unknowns and that is more than a little terrifying to her. Amrita’s physical and emotional journeys are both intriguing.

Amrita has grown up hearing stories of magic, but she has also been taught that as royalty, logic and strategy can save the day. Amrita hasn’t put a lot of faith in magic, but as her world is crumbling and she sees possible evidence of magic, she begins to question her unbelief. The book is filled with magic and reminds me that there is more to our world than what we can see. I tend to believe that if we are still and listen, the world will share its mysteries with us. They may not be quite as fantastic as what Amrita and Thala experience, but there are still plenty of mysteries to discover if we only pay attention.

And yes, there are also some romantic relationships within this tale. The relationships do have a physical aspect, but companionship tends to have a high priority.

Recommendation: Get it soon especially if you enjoy fantasy with a little romance.

Extras:
Interview

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