These Violent Delights by Chloe Gong // Book Review

These Violent Delights by Chloe Gong // Book Review

This was definitely a very loose interpretation of Romeo and Juliet, but I loved every single moment of it. It reminded me a lot of Jade City by Fonda Lee except set in 1920s Shanghai and the magical components were a tiny bit different. However, I loved it and I cannot wait for book two come out!

Here’s more about These Violent Delights

The year is 1926, and Shanghai hums to the tune of debauchery.

A blood feud between two gangs runs the streets red, leaving the city helpless in the grip of chaos. At the heart of it all is eighteen-year-old Juliette Cai, a former flapper who has returned to assume her role as the proud heir of the Scarlet Gang—a network of criminals far above the law. Their only rivals in power are the White Flowers, who have fought the Scarlets for generations. And behind every move is their heir, Roma Montagov, Juliette’s first love…and first betrayal.

But when gangsters on both sides show signs of instability culminating in clawing their own throats out, the people start to whisper. Of a contagion, a madness. Of a monster in the shadows. As the deaths stack up, Juliette and Roma must set their guns—and grudges—aside and work together, for if they can’t stop this mayhem, then there will be no city left for either to rule.

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My thoughts

I absolutely loved Juliette and Roma. While they were nothing like their characters in Romeo and Juliet, I loved how compassionate Roma was and how headstrong Juliette was. Their personalities clashed, but both being the heirs of their respective gangs, I can only imagine much of that is colored by the ruthless blood feud between their families.

Of course, the other characters surrounding Juliette and Roma had similar names to the characters in Romeo and Juliet, so you get an idea that maybe certain things will happen to certain people, but if you’re looking for a straightforward retelling you’ll be sorely disappointed. It’s also not a fantasy story. In fact, I would put this as a genre-bending book with historical fiction (the rise of the communist party in China is a major component to this book) with a tiny bit of mystery, science fiction, and very little romance.

But I loved it. I loved that Chloe Gong was able to take this story and make it her own. In all honestly, this is one of the best retellings up there with Legendborn by Tracy Deonn where you’re not getting an iteration of the story, but something completely different and so well imagined that you’re just blown away when it does reference the other book. It was action packed filled with suspenseful moments, skillful surprises, and just really made me excited to keep reading.

I loved that the romance between Roma and Juliette wasn’t that obvious. It was actually after their romance that the story takes place, so all that was left is the bitter rivalry of their families that seems to affect Juliette more than it did Roma. Both of them have something to prove as well. In the wings, Juliette’s cousin, Tyler, is waiting for her to make a mistake so that he can take over the business. Meanwhile, Juliette is constantly trying to prove herself worthy enough to be called a Scarlet.

Roma doesn’t feel like he’s as dedicated to his gang, The White Flowers, as much as Juliette is. In fact, he gets queasy with murdering people and doesn’t sit well with violence. But his father doesn’t really respect him as heir either and relies mostly on another person to do the dirty work. But both Roma and Juliette definitely have the best in mind for their people and want to do their best to keep the peace and also solve what’s happening.

Because there’s a weird madness going around where people are literally ripping their own throats out and it looks to mostly affect both the gangs. This was the weird science fiction part, which really blew my mind at the end. I was so grossed out by the madness the entire time and Chloe Gong has the writing chops to make things just so vivid. It was definitely the central plot of the book, but I also absolutely loved learning more about Juliette and Roma. In many ways this is how the book reminded me of Jade City. There’s a big plot happening in the city they both run, but in the meantime there’s so much to divulge about the characters and their worlds.

I absolutely loved that Chloe Gong kept a lot of details close to the chest and as you read the book, it just unfolded and really showed you what she’s capable of. I will admit it does drag a little. There were parts where I thought it would be obvious to the characters who did it and having them come to realizations and truths much faster than they did in the book, but the slow burn is very much worth it. However, I would just trust Chloe Gong and her writing ability to explain everything, show you why she wrote the book she did, and just capture you in this weird little world.

I cannot wait for book two. There’s enough at the end to make you reach for the second book for answers and I definitely want to know what happens.

Along the Saltwise Sea by A Deborah Baker // Book Review

Along the Saltwise Sea by A Deborah Baker // Book Review

It feels like I read the first book in this series like a week ago, but it was more like two weeks ago lol. I love it when I’m able to catch up on a new series that I’m into and I’m so glad to have read this one to add to my love of Seanan McGuire. Thanks to Tor dot com for the gifted book.

Here’s more about Along the Saltwise Sea

After climbing Over the Woodward Wall and making their way across the forest, Avery and Zib found themselves acquiring some extraordinary friends in their journey through the Up-and-Under.

After staying the night, uninvited, at a pirate queen’s cottage in the woods, the companions find themselves accountable to its owner, and reluctantly agree to work off their debt as her ship sets sail, bound for lands unknown. But the queen and her crew are not the only ones on board, and the monsters at sea aren’t all underwater.

The friends will need to navigate the stormy seas of obligation and honor on their continuing journey along the improbable road

Writing as A. Deborah Baker, New York Times bestselling and award-winning author Seanan McGuire takes our heroes Avery and Zib (and their friends Niamh and the Crow Girl) on a high seas adventure, with pirates and queens and all the dangers of the deep as they continue their journey through the Up-and-Under on their quest for the road that will lead them home….

Welcome to a world of talking trees and sarcastic owls, of dangerous mermaids and captivating queens in this exceptional tale for readers who are young at heart in this companion book to McGuire’s critically-acclaimed Middlegame and the sequel to Over the Woodward Wall.

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My thoughts

If you’re wondering if you need to read book 1 before you read this one, have no fears. Seanan McGuire does a really excellent job of catching you up right at the beginning of the story. I think my favorite part of both of these books is the narrator. At one point, the narrator does break the fourth wall and speak to us and honestly, it was so good. It’s got this fairy tale like quality to it as if you can easily read this on audiobook and feel like a kid at reading time listening to a story unfold.

While I’m not 100% sure if this story is for kids, I did love following along while Avery, Zib, Niamh, and Crow Girl continued their journey to the Impossible City. This time, they fall down a well and land in a clever ocean that helps them find someone who can point them in the right direction.

I feel like a lot of this book was setup and explanation for what happened in the first book. Unlike the first one, this had very little action and really didn’t move the story much along. In fact, it very much read like the second book in a series; you know, the one that explains some things a bit more and sets you up for the next book. It did have some really interesting character development and I was intrigued by the pirates and the adventures, but it felt more like an explanation. I felt like book one was about Crow Girl and how she lost her name and turned into a murder of crows and this one is about the drowned girls and the Lady of Salt and Sorrows (the patron of Niamh’s world).

It’s not a fault of the book, I was expecting more of the action I saw in book one, but when I readjusted and realized this book was going to explain some things and actually build on the character development, that’s when I liked it more.

Because it’s more about the characters than the plot, I felt like it had way more quotable moments. I was finding myself dog-earing every few pages with the beautiful words about life, finding yourself, and being who you’re supposed to be. There’s a lot of growth happening for Avery and Zib. Not only are they learning about this weird world they found themselves in, but they’re also learning things about themselves. Like how Avery is learning to let go of everything being perfect and how Zib is learning that she’s not defined by the body she’s born into.

While this story doesn’t have a lot of action, there’s a lot in the book that’s worth exploring. The worlds may be different from ours, but the lessons feel the same and it’s always fun to see where the adventures takes Avery and Zib.

Overall, this is a good one especially if you’re a fan of fairy tales. The storytelling is excellent and while the plot doesn’t move much, it’s definitely got merit in learning more about the kids, the Up-and-Under, and what they’re both capable of.

Over the Woodward Wall by A Deborah Baker // Book Review

Over the Woodward Wall by A Deborah Baker // Book Review

If you’ve read Middlegame, then you probably already know about A Deborah Baker and Over the Woodward Wall. But if you’re not aware, it’s the pen name for Seanan McGuire for a book that’s mentioned within the pages of Middlegame. From the book’s reference, Over the Woodward Wall was a children’s series written by A Deborah Baker to explain the more complex phenomenon between Rodger and Dodger, their abilities, and what these children may look like and act. However, you don’t need to know any of this to read Over the Woodward Wall. It’s almost a bonus for those who already know the context of the story. Get ready to enter The Up-and-Under. Thanks to Tor dot com for the gifted book.

Here’s more about Over the Woodward Wall

Avery is an exceptional child. Everything he does is precise, from the way he washes his face in the morning, to the way he completes his homework – without complaint, without fuss, without prompt.

Zib is also an exceptional child, because all children are, in their own way. But where everything Avery does and is can be measured, nothing Zib does can possibly be predicted, except for the fact that she can always be relied upon to be unpredictable.

They live on the same street.
They live in different worlds.

On an unplanned detour from home to school one morning, Avery and Zib find themselves climbing over a stone wall into the Up and Under – an impossible land filled with mystery, adventure and the strangest creatures.

And they must find themselves and each other if they are to also find their way out and back to their own lives.

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My thoughts

I have to admit, I was so excited to read Over the Woodward Wall after finishing Middlegame. I love it when authors get creative with their stories and then write subsequent stories to bolster it. Honestly, it’s always a treat when an author continues to share more stories from a universe they’ve built. And like I mentioned, this book doesn’t require you to have read Middlegame before you’ve read it.

I’m always surprised by how much story can be told in such a short book. In the 200-page novella, Seanan McGuire really captures the world within the Up-and-Under introducing a myriad of characters that I hope to follow throughout the series and providing some interesting story line to help us root for the children and boo at the villains.

It reminded me a lot of Wayward Children series where the kids leap over a mysterious wall in the middle of their neighborhood and enter a world where owls talk to them, girls can be made up of a murder of crows, and the kings and queens have nefarious dealings throughout the lands they rule. It’s got Alice in Wonderland vibes, Wizard of Oz vibes, and all the vibes of any other story where children are transported to another world that’s a bit topsy-turvy.

The narration of the story felt like you were sitting at story time with a bunch of kids. It would probably be a really good audiobook to get into because the way its written really feels like you’re being told a story rather than actually experiencing it. The way it’s written makes you think this is a fairy tale with all the possibilities available to Zib and Avery. They start off so plainly and then as they travel through the Up-and-Under, they learn about themselves, each other, and what really matters to them. They start off as unassuming kids at the beginning, but what they learn while they’re forced to survive in a world without parents or authority is something most of us only learn when we become adults.

I will say that the ending is a little bit abrupt, but it’s also a longer series so I have no doubts that the next one will be better. Overall, this was such a magical journey that I really loved and appreciated. I’ll definitely be getting into book 2 once it’s out.

A Clash of Steel by CB Lee // Book Review

A Clash of Steel by CB Lee // Book Review

I’ll be honest, I really wanted to like this one. Swashbuckling pirates, destinies to chase, coming-of-age, and treasures to find. It was honestly the perfect setup for a super fun pirate book. However, it just didn’t hit the mark for me. Thanks to Fierce Reads for gifting me a copy of this book.

Here’s more about A Clash of Steel

1826. The sun is setting on the golden age of piracy, and the legendary Dragon Fleet, the scourge of the South China Sea, is no more. Its ruthless leader, a woman known only as the Head of the Dragon, is now only a story, like the ones Xiang has grown up with all her life. She desperately wants to prove her worth, especially to her mother, a shrewd businesswoman who never seems to have enough time for Xiang. Her father is also only a story, dead at sea before Xiang was born. Her single memento of him is a pendant she always wears, a simple but plain piece of gold jewelry.

But the pendant’s true nature is revealed when a mysterious girl named Anh steals it, only to return it to Xiang in exchange for her help in decoding the tiny map scroll hidden inside. The revelation that Xiang’s father sailed with the Dragon Fleet and tucked away this secret changes everything. Rumor has it that the legendary Head of the Dragon had one last treasure—the plunder of a thousand ports—that for decades has only been a myth, a fool’s journey.

Xiang is convinced this map could lead to the fabled treasure. Captivated with the thrill of adventure, she joins Anh and her motley crew off in pursuit of the island. But the girls soon find that the sea—and especially those who sail it—are far more dangerous than the legends led them to believe.

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My thoughts

In many ways, this book has all the things I’m looking for in a really good pirate story. It has adventures to mysterious lands, pirates with quirky personalities, a little bit of romance, and a whole lot of coming-to-age and understanding that your parents aren’t always the superheroes. It has everything and even buried treasure to be found with an encrypted map that only a handful of people could actually understand. It had the potential to be a phenomenal story, but I think I came away from this book really wanting more.

Much of the story felt like a historical YA story rather than a historical pirate story. The focus was more on Xiang, her life, her upbringing, the people around her, and her mysterious father. She wears a pendant she was told was a token from her father before he passed, but that’s pretty much all she knew about him. The beginning shares her sheltered life. She lives in a super small village with her caretakers and her mentor. The only exploration she knows is what she’s traveled through town and in the books she reads.

Then one day, she asks her mother to take her to Canton to see what the rest of the world looks like. While she’s there, she meets Anh who steals her pendant and reveals to her that the pendant actually had something hidden inside of it; a treasure map to one of the most famous pirate’s buried riches.

In a desperate attempt to make Xiang’s mother proud of her (and avoid the marriage proposals her mother keeps pushing on her), Xiang leaves with Anh and her family’s ship to set sail for a world of exploration, daring adventures, and finding out more about the treasure map she found.

From that point on, the story has so many twists and turns. The drama in Xiang’s life is so unreal and with each new surprise, I was drawn to finding out more. I wish I can talk about them here, but I might give too much away. But be prepared to find how much Xiang’s family has been keeping from her.

I also really loved the characters in this book. The entire crew on Captain Hoa’s ship were all interesting characters that I wish had more time to learn about them. I wanted to know so much about each of the characters and how they make up this beautiful found family. Xiang and Anh’s relationship also deepens as they get to know each other. Xiang learns to fight, the importance of working hard, and discovers a lot about her past that’s been kept hidden from her. Honestly, I was so surprised with all the reveals that kept rolling in.

The pacing in this story felt a little out of sorts. At first, it was slow-paced, which I liked. I felt like I was getting into a seriously big story with tons of adventure and action, but then the second half of the book seemed to rush focusing less on the treasure and more on the drama. I think if I had set my expectations a little differently when I started the book then I would have enjoyed it more than I did.

Overall, it was a fun adventure story filled with a lot of learnings, surprises, and pirate-y action. While it wasn’t my favorite, I know many folks out there will really love this one.

Luminous by Mara Rutherford // Book Review

Luminous by Mara Rutherford // Book Review

What if you had the power of a star only to have it hidden away for a very long time? What if you finally understood how to use it only to know how precious it could be? And what if you knew if you used too much, you could do what stars do and burn out? Well, this story dives into a world where a young girl unleashes her star power only to understand both the pros and cons of the magic. Thanks to Inkyard Press for the gifted book.

Here’s more about Luminous

Liora has spent her life in hiding, knowing discovery could mean falling prey to the king’s warlock, Darius, who uses mages’ magic to grow his own power. But when her worst nightmare comes to pass, Darius doesn’t take her. Instead, he demands that her younger sister return to the capital with him. To make matters worse, Evran, Liora’s childhood friend and the only one who knows her secret, goes missing following Darius’s visit, leaving her without anyone to turn to.

To find Evran and to save her sister, Liora must embrace the power she has always feared. But the greatest danger she’ll face is yet to come, for Darius has plans in motion that will cause the world to fall into chaos–and Liora and Evran may be the only ones who can stop him.

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My thoughts

This was a super fast read with tons of action and adventure, romance, and big decisions for young people to make that wraps it all up within less than 400 pages. It’s got powerful mages, creepy monsters, the balance between good and evil, and big conversations about being a young person. It was so fast that I read this within a few days without stopping much to come up for air. There was so much packed between the two covers that I was surprised this was a standalone story.

And honestly, as much as I want to read more standalone fantasy books, I kind of wish this was longer and maybe spread itself out into a duology. There is so much that this book shares that if it had the space to get into it, I think it would have been even better. But because it was a standalone, I felt like much of it was skipped over or truncated to fit into the running time. I’m honestly disappointed that this is only a standalone because a bigger series, even a duology, would have answered all the questions more fully, given it room to really breathe, and make you truly fall in love with all the different characters. The potential is there and it really drove me to keep reading, but it needed the space to be fully actualized and be so much more robust.

Much of this story feels like it’s about Lorial removing the veil of ignorance from herself to understand her magical power, how it works, and how she’s been hidden away from what should be a natural thing for her. While there were components outside of this to draw readers into the book like the Lusiri, the magical abyss Margana creates, the fact that some of the royal family was woven into life, the abuse of the mages under Darius’s rule, and the political intrigue Darius is involved with, it all stems back to Lorial and what she’s going through and feeling. All these points were such a draw to the book as a bigger whole, but it all wrapped up so suddenly. It almost felt like the rest of the story was just a maguffin for the real story; a young girl who’s been sheltered her entire life finding out the truth behind her magic, her family, and taking hold of what she can do.

And in many ways, it makes the story more of a coming-of-age story amidst a fantasy book. Honestly, this could have been a contemporary YA roamnce story with the way it read. It was more focused on Evran and Lorial and I don’t have any problems with that, but I wanted the other parts to have the same kind of attention this couple got. I also really loved the other characters introduced in the story and would have loved to have them contributed more to the story. However, I didn’t think that it harmed the story that they weren’t as bigger parts.

A lot of the relationship between Lorial, Darius, and Evran felt so much like Alina, Mal, and The Darkling from Shadow and Bone. I know that will be a huge draw for folks who loved the show and the books and I really loved the romantic parts to the book, but again, I really wanted more. I was also confused by Darius’s motives. Earlier when I was reading, I thought that maybe he’s being manipulative to try and get what he wanted. This was also before I learned that this is a standalone series, so then when I finally learned Darius’s motives and how villainous he is, I was even more confused. I kept thinking that this was all some bigger plot, but it didn’t turn out that way. I just finished reading that part with a big “huh.”

The other part that I wasn’t a huge fan of is Lorial’s “Mary Sue” abilities. It didn’t take too much away from the story from me, but it’s truly hard to believe that someone who’s only learning about her powers has more abilities than someone who’s been training for over 100 years. It kind of makes you stop and think how possible that can be and that always ends up being what I think about over reading the story.

Overall, this was a good one and I really loved how quick of a book it was. I loved the usage of magic and the adventures Lorial goes on. I even loved the romance between her and Evran and seeing Lorial gain so much pride and confidence while she journeys to find herself. But there were too many flaws for me to overlook despite how much I loved the world and wanted to get into it more. It definitely had the potential to be great, but it just missed the mark for me.

Starsight by Brandon Sanderson // Book Review

Starsight by Brandon Sanderson // Book Review

The second book in the Skyward series and I’m so glad I read it before the third book arrived. I know that this is a four-book series, but it’s the first series in a really long time that I’m actually caught up!

Here’s more about Starsight

All her life, Spensa has dreamed of becoming a pilot. Of proving she’s a hero like her father. She made it to the sky, but the truths she learned about her father were crushing.

Spensa is sure there’s more to the story. And she’s sure that whatever happened to her father in his starship could happen to her. When she made it outside the protective shell of her planet, she heard the stars–and it was terrifying. Everything Spensa has been taught about her world is a lie.

But Spensa also discovered a few other things about herself–and she’ll travel to the end of the galaxy to save humankind if she needs to.

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My thoughts

In many ways, I loved Starsight more than I loved Skyward. Skyward was so great introducing Spensa and the characters along Detritus. I loved learning about the world and the introductions to all the characters who will be playing a role. I especially loved the introduction of cytonic powers and how Spensa has the ability to hone it. That was a bit of a spoiler, but this is the second book so I highly suggest checking out the first book before you get into this one.

In Starsight, we go to space and OMG I was living for it. While the book starts off a little slow with Spensa fighting off more Krell ships and understanding how they’re all prisoners on a prison planet, the tiny group of people living on this planet finally realized that they needed to escape using the hyper drives that the Krell ships use to come in and out of Detritus’s space.

When a mysterious star fighter shows up at the planet, Spensa and the others find it an opportunity to infiltrate the Krell base and steal the hyper drives they need to escape Detritus. Using holograms to hide her identity, Spensa flies off to Starsight, a massive spaceship that houses a whole bunch of different alien species that live under the ruling of The Superiority. Here, Spensa is told that she’s being trained to help destroy the delvers; a shadowy creature that destroys everything in its path that have somehow started to show signs of being a threat again.

Ok, I did a lot of explaining, but this book has so much to unpack that I felt like I needed to explain the setup a little bit before I headed into the rest of the book. I really loved this story and I loved going deeper into this world with the different alien species and how they all co-exist together. Of course, there were the Krell that we all know from book one, but we’re also introduced to many others with different gender identities, government aspects, and personalities from Detritus. It was really interesting to see all the other aliens that occupy this space and how Brandon Sanderson dives deep into each type including their own history and traditions. I love this part about Brandon Sanderson’s writing. He’s so capable of creating worlds that can never exist, but also getting super deep into how they exist, how they live their lives, and how they’re not so different from us. It’s one of the strongest components of this book.

And as Spensa starts training to defeat the delver, you get to know these characters much deeper and how Spensa is able to learn and adapt to the worlds around her. While the training components of the story were a bit slow, I still loved reading these parts to see how Spensa reacts to different worlds and species within the universe. I loved how human Spensa is and how frustratingly wrong the aliens have it about the human race as well.

But the most intriguing part was the ending when things started to come together and you understand more about everything. You learn about what the Krell use for their hyper drives. You learn about the bigger plot that’s being laid out for us. You learn so much more about what Spensa is capable of and how her humanity really plays a part in saving the aliens and herself from the bigger threat. I also loved that there was a little political intrigue thrown in the mix as well.

Overall, I loved this story. It was action-filled with tons of exposition on the world. I loved learning more about Starsight and the aliens that existed on the space station. I absolutely love a spy story as well and I was completely on Spensa’s side the entire time hoping that she wouldn’t be caught too soon or too late for her to do anything. This definitely sets you up for the third book, but also just intensely good on its own as well. I cannot wait to see what book three has to offer.

A Spindle Splintered by Alix E. Harrow // Book Review

A Spindle Splintered by Alix E. Harrow // Book Review

When I first picked up this book, I thought I was about to dive into another Sleeping Beauty retelling, but from the first page, this book has already exceeded my expectations and really blew me away with its creativity. Thanks to Tor dot com for the gifted book.

Here’s more about A Spindle Splintered

It’s Zinnia Gray’s twenty-first birthday, which is extra-special because it’s the last birthday she’ll ever have. When she was young, an industrial accident left Zinnia with a rare condition. Not much is known about her illness, just that no one has lived past twenty-one.

Her best friend Charm is intent on making Zinnia’s last birthday special with a full sleeping beauty experience, complete with a tower and a spinning wheel. But when Zinnia pricks her finger, something strange and unexpected happens, and she finds herself falling through worlds, with another sleeping beauty, just as desperate to escape her fate.

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My thoughts

I can’t believe I started this book thinking it was going to be just another fairy tale retelling. It’s not. It’s so not and I’m actually a little glad for it. The moment I read Zinnia pricking her finger on the prop spindle at her 21st birthday that transported her to another world, I knew I would be hooked and I absolutely loved it.

The world itself was your typical fantasy world with castles and royalty and an evil fairy who casts the spell on Primrose, but what I also loved is the perspectives from the evil fairy. Always with these stories we never see what the other side of the story thinks and seeing that perspective really made you understand that sometimes destiny is cruel and unusual. I also loved the other little nods like Primrose acting like a royal princess. I’m not talking about spoiled or vapid, but actually raised to be a leader and demanding a certain level of respect. It was interesting to see.

I think my favorite character was Charm with her can do attitude and her willingness to help Zinnia in the situation she found herself in. It was weird that Zinnia was still able to text Charm (and a little irresponsible that she didn’t text her family where she was), but I loved that Charm is one of those thick and thin friends who aren’t mad at you for long and will help you out of any situation.

I absolutely loved the multiverse and multiple Sleeping Beauties aspect to it. Although, their time in the book felt a little truncated and it would have been cool to get to know all the different version of Sleeping Beauty and how they can help each other overcome the destinies they’ve been handed. But I did love seeing them all in the same room with the same goal to help Primrose from her fate and help Zinnia get back to her real life before her medication ran out.

And that part I loved. I loved the whole message of taking hold of your own destiny. Zinnia being a terminally ill patient has always felt like she had no control over what will happen and it made her live a sort of zombie life. It makes me so happy that she finds purpose by the end and realizes that despite destiny, you can rewrite the story and make it work for you.

The only part that really nagged at me and probably won’t nag anyone else is the explanation for the multiverse and how Zinnia was able to travel through them. I wish this was a bit more explained just because there are so many ways this is used in stories and knowing how it’s used in this one would help me really envision Zinnia moving from one space to another.

Overall, this was a pretty epic story in a very small package. I just read that it’s a series, so I can’t wait to see what other stories Alix E Harrow rewrites!

Pahua and the Soul Stealer by Lori M Lee // Book Review

Pahua and the Soul Stealer by Lori M Lee // Book Review

I picked up my second middle grade fantasy book of the year and I have to tell you how much I’ve been loving these books. I haven’t read middle grade since I was a middle grade student, but these books (especially the ones with a lot of diversity) are really making me feel so much for the characters and I keep rooting for them to all succeed.

Here’s more about Pahua and the Soul Stealer

Pahua Moua has a bit of a reputation for being a weirdo. A lonely eleven-year-old Hmong girl with the unique ability to see spirits, she spends her summer days babysitting her little brother and playing with her best friend, a cat spirit no one else can see.

One day Pahua accidentally untethers an angry spirit from the haunted bridge in her neighborhood–whoops. When her brother suddenly falls sick and can’t be awoken, Pahua fears that the bridge spirit has stolen his soul. She returns to the scene of the crime with her aunt’s old shaman tools, hoping to confront the spirit and demand her brother’s return. Instead, she summons a demon.

Thankfully, a warrior shaman with a bit of an attitude problem shows up at the last minute and saves her butt. With the help of this guide, Pahua will have to find her way through the spirit worlds and rescue her brother’s soul before it’s too late. Little does she know she’ll have her own discoveries to make along the way. . . .

With its unforgettable characters, unique nature-based magic system, breathtaking twists and reveals, and climactic boss battle, this story based on Hmong oral tradition offers everything a fantasy lover could want.

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My thoughts

This was definitely your chosen one/hero’s journey and I was all for it. I loved Pahua and her destiny, discovering more about being a shaman with Zhong by her side, and really being much bigger than the average 11-year-old. This was such a funny book with a ton of heart and it made me so excited to read and ignore my adult responsibilities. She’s got a cat familiar, which I just adored. I’m a huge fan of characters with talking pets/spirits that guide them along the way. They are always sassy in the books I end up reading.

Pahua isn’t your typical strong character. There were some moments when it felt like she can do more than you expect her to at that point, but I loved that she and Zhong were a team who worked closely together despite there being some obvious animosity from Zhong. Pahua is also dealing with a lot in this story and it’s not just losing her brother’s soul to a mysterious spirit. She’s also struggling with the loss of her father from her life. After her parents separated, it seems like she feels neglected and lost with what to do next. I can definitely relate to that in many ways and compounded on top of that, she’s ostracized at school for being Asian without anyone to help her. It was so relatable to me that I could feel my heart pulling for Pahua’s.

Despite some of the heavier themes, the book was still exciting with a lot of action and adventure as Zhong and Pahua journey into the spirit realm and back again. I loved meeting all the different kinds of spirits while they were traveling. From the aunties who fed them when they were hungry to the old woman watching over the Tree of Souls, there was a warmth to the spirits in these worlds that felt so absent from Pahua’s reality. Even the demons and dragon boys were fun at times.

The adventures don’t quit either. Seriously, once Pahua and Zhong figured out one piece of the puzzle, there was another something they needed to battle or face. It made the story really compelling and I wanted to keep on reading to see what happens next!

One of the aspects I really loved about Pahua is how non-violent she is. Instead of running right at the problem with her ax, she talks to the enemy or negotiates with them. To me, that’s just big brain thinking and I loved having Zhong be the anti-thesis of this as well, but it really surprised me to see Pahua take a different route.

Overall, it was such an action packed story with tons of adventure and friendship. I loved learning about the Hmong culture and folklore through Pahua and Zhong’s journey. It made me laugh super hard and root for these girls to save the day.

Jade War by Fonda Lee // Book Review

Jade War by Fonda Lee // Book Review

The sequel to Jade City definitely delivers and I think this world is a new obsession for me. Thanks to Orbit Books for the gifted book. My opinions haven’t been influenced by the publisher or the author.

Here’s more about Jade War

In Jade War, the sequel to the World Fantasy Award-winning novel Jade City, the Kaul siblings battle rival clans for honor and control over an Asia-inspired fantasy metropolis.

On the island of Kekon, the Kaul family is locked in a violent feud for control of the capital city and the supply of magical jade that endows trained Green Bone warriors with supernatural powers they alone have possessed for hundreds of years.

Beyond Kekon’s borders, war is brewing. Powerful foreign governments and mercenary criminal kingpins alike turn their eyes on the island nation. Jade, Kekon’s most prized resource, could make them rich – or give them the edge they’d need to topple their rivals.

Faced with threats on all sides, the Kaul family is forced to form new and dangerous alliances, confront enemies in the darkest streets and the tallest office towers, and put honor aside in order to do whatever it takes to ensure their own survival – and that of all the Green Bones of Kekon.

Jade War is the second book of the Green Bone Saga, an epic trilogy about family, honor, and those who live and die by the ancient laws of blood and jade.

My thoughts

This was such an incredible book and literally so much intrigue in this one that you can get lost in all of it. This time, the story foucsed less on the rivalry between the two clans (the Mountain and the No Peak clans), and focused on how these clans were planning their next step.

A this point, it’s not as simple as claiming territory on the small piece of land in Kekon, but expansion out into the other countries. After the Mountain clan revealed that they’ve been doing dealings overseas, the No Peak clan also wanted to get a little of that action focusing their effort to expand in Espenia. But with a huge war between two countries happening, refugees from those countries coming to Kekon, and jade in desperate demand, there was money to be made even if it muddled the major ideologies behind wearing jade.

I was truly surprised by this ending and what all the political dealings surmounted to. I may have seen it if I were paying more attention to the story and the political components of the book, so it was surprising to see how all the war and turmoil and war turned out to be a bigger plot device! Both families have some interesting business happening and while you’re only reading the No Peak side, it’s still quite interesting to see how they decide to expand their business.

Of course this was also a much deeper development into Hilo, Shae, and Anden and the characters that surround them. They’re not only acclimating into the roles they’re designated, but you see them try to push so hard against it as well. It was really interesting to see Shae try to become the Weather Man. While she’s got the mind for business, it also felt like she tried to keep some semblance of herself in the mix by having a relationship and trying to avoid the more gruesome sides of her job. However, there were things that were just unavoidable and watching Shae reluctantly step deeper into the role of Weather Man was heartbreaking in some ways.

The same goes for Anden as he’s shipped off to Espenia to live a life without jade. While he’s there, he somehow stumbles into the Green Bone families of that island and becomes a bigger component to the No Peak clan. It was interesting to see both Shae and Anden discover their true selves while also being pulled into the worlds their family built. My favorite character was probably Wen who grows massively from this story. Don’t let a Stone Eye with a heart of green fool you!

I will say the story felt a bit slower for me. Focusing more on the political and economical gains for the families didn’t make much for a compelling story. It felt more character-driven with the No Peak clan family being its driver. Granted, that’s pretty much until the ending when a lot of the really big points in the novel take place. There are other moments throughout the book to drive your interests, but I kept asking myself where all of this was going at a few points.

Overall, this was such a great story and sequel to Jade City. It really felt like The Godfather Part two where Michael starts dealings with Cuba and legitimize the business, but similarly to the movie, it did drag a little as everything set itself up for the final chapter.

Light from Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki // Book Review

Light from Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki // Book Review

What does a violin teacher from Hell, a trans runaway, and an alien donut shop owner have in common? Well, I was skeptical too, but then I read Light from Uncommon Stars and now I feel like anything is possible. Thanks to Tor Books for the gifted book.

Here’s more about Light from Uncommon Stars

Shizuka Satomi made a deal with the devil: to escape damnation, she must entice seven other violin prodigies to trade their souls for success. She has already delivered six.

When Katrina Nguyen, a young transgender runaway, catches Shizuka’s ear with her wild talent, Shizuka can almost feel the curse lifting. She’s found her final candidate.

But in a donut shop off a bustling highway in the San Gabriel Valley, Shizuka meets Lan Tran, retired starship captain, interstellar refugee, and mother of four. Shizuka doesn’t have time for crushes or coffee dates, what with her very soul on the line, but Lan’s kind smile and eyes like stars might just redefine a soul’s worth. And maybe something as small as a warm donut is powerful enough to break a curse as vast as the California coastline.

As the lives of these three women become entangled by chance and fate, a story of magic, identity, curses, and hope begins, and a family worth crossing the universe for is found.

My thoughts

This book is incredible. Full stop.

Beautifully written and smartly displayed. It gave me TJ Klune and Becky Chambers vibes. It gave me donuts and so much delicious Asian food. It made me think of my violin-playing youth. And it was a massive love letter to the Asian communities of LA. I honestly was so astounded by the beauty, the embrace, and the creativity this book provided. It’s definitely one of my favorite books of the year.

I don’t even know where to begin with how to explain my feelings. Let’s start with the characters. There are several different characters that this book follows, but the main ones are Lan, an interstellar alien trying to escape from a deadly plague that’s ravishing star systems around the universe. She’s escaped to Earth where her family work to rebuild their ship and as a cover they run an old donut shop. Shizuka was a violin virtuoso back in the day, but not anymore. In fact, she’s spent the last 49 years cultivating young violin students, bringing them great fame and fortune, only to lose them all to tragic ends. Why? Because she works for the devil and collecting the souls of virtuoso is what she does. Katrina is a young trans youth who’s recently run away from home. Without a place to stay, money to get food, or anyone to turn to, she’s made her way doing sexual favors. That is, until one day, when Katrina plays her violin in the park and Shizuka just happens to hear.

The story surrounds these three individuals and their lives become more and more intertwined learning about each other, themselves, and what they’re all capable of doing when given a little bit of love. The beauty of this story is surrounding their relationships and how they each grow so drastically in the pages within. Honestly, it’s so incredible reading this book and watching how these people become the people they’re supposed to be.

Of course, the story wasn’t without its truths. There was a lot of heartbreaking depictions of Katrina as she struggles with being loved by someone unconditionally, with coming-to-terms with what’s happened to her in the past, and how she finds herself through her music and the support of Shizuka and Lan. But there were also some uplifting moments where Katrina and Shizuka’s relationship really made you believe in the good of people; even if they’re actually conditioning their souls for the devil.

It was interesting to see Shizuka grow as well because she’s been literally grooming children for death and eternal damnation. To see her change little by little with Katrina just makes you think there’s possibility for bad people to be good again. And Lan, she changes immensely as well. Coming from a pragmatic people who don’t understand why people would want a variety of donut flavors or why they waste their time with video games, you see how important these things are to humans and how this level of entertainment can be the exact thing the universe needs to keep moving forward.

Then, there was the violin play. Honestly, the violin was its own character in this book. As someone who has played violin for 10 years of her adolescent life, actually played Schradieck and tried her hand at Paganini, these violin references were SPOT ON. Even down to the kinds of bridges used and the kinds of sound the instrument can make if you use the right strings. It’s literally so accurate that I thought Ryka Aoki was a long-time player like me. It was surprising when I realized that Ryka Aoki doesn’t actually play the violin. She really fooled me because she had everything from the makers of violins to the differences a bow can make read like she was as experienced at the violin as Shizuka was.

The descriptions of the violin reminded me so much of The Red Violin; one of my all-time favorite movies. It was this idea that the violin held someone’s soul and the music it played was seductive, embracing, and completely spell-binding. There was something free and beautiful about the violin that everyone coveted it and throughout the movie, you see how it makes its way around the world and touches everyone that plays it. You can watch the trailer here. So much of that feeling was deeply held to the violin parts in this book. I was honestly so moved by the way Ryka Aoki wrote the violin and the way it touched both Shizuka and Katrina’s lives.

The ending is where you see everything come together. Honestly, I was so surprised. I had a feeling the ending would go a certain way; an ultimate sacrifice, but then it was completely thwarted and put a huge smile on my face. It was an incredible ending to finish off such an incredible experience.