Book Review: Nevernight by Jay Kristoff

nevernightTitle: NEVERNIGHT
Author: Jay Kristoff
Release Date: 2016
Pages: 429
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books
My Rating: ★★★★★(4.5/5)
Review on Goodreads

I am so in love with this kind of fantasy; the kind that gives you thrills and chills through the power of complex worldbuilding alone. But this book also delivers on humor and character development, and though it took me a while to get into it, by the end I was hooked.

First, I’ll address three things: why I struggled to get into this book at first, the primary reason other people struggle to get into this book, and the problematic aspects to this book.

1. I struggled to get into this book because of the first 100 pages, which, frankly, needed hefty editing. I mean, it’s difficult with high fantasy because there’s so much background you need to introduce to your readers before the story really finds its feet, but I think an author with as much skill as Kristoff should have found a better way to do this. It is only after 100 pages that Mia actually arrives at the Red Church to begin her training, and everything before then feels like filler.

2. The writing. Not only does Kristoff utilize…unusual metaphors and similes, the story is told through the eyes of a seemingly omniscient narrator who knew Mia, and the book utilizes footnotes. I will say the footnotes did take some getting used to. I was not sure how I felt about them at first; they distracted me from the narrative, and I assumed they were just a way to infodump. The infodump part is partly true, but I actually didn’t mind at all? I enjoyed the worldbuilding so much I grew to look forward to the footnotes because I wanted to know more about this world, plus the narrator is absolutely hilarious. As for the writing, yes, I will admit that Kristoff uses some seriously weird expressions, some that had me rolling my eyes, some that had me reeling back in confusion. However, I didn’t mind this! These funny hyperbolic similes were pretty funny, and they never really overtake the narrative at all. Mostly, they’re just tossed in here and there as added spice, but for the most part the writing is fine. (Though, keep in mind that I am a fan of purple prose!) So, while I see where some reviewers are coming from, I think the complaints about the writing are themselves hyperbolic.

3. In this book there are a race of people called the Dwymeri (I’m probably spelling that wrong). They are dark-skinned pirates with dreadlocks and facial tattoos. You would think that any author with any semblance of sense would know not to depict his only dark-skinned race as barbaric savage rapists. Like, it just seems so obvious, no? Apparently the Dwymeri have been likened to the Maori – because of my own background, I didn’t read them as Maori at all, but rather as North African/Amazigh (who also have a tradition of facial tattoos). They probably are based on the Maori, though, given that Kristoff is Australian. Either way, this was kind of a facepalming moment. I think Kristoff was trying to do something with subverting expectations here, with the half-Dwymeri character of Tric, but it just…didn’t go so smoothly. It wouldn’t, when your only POC analogy are famous for being rapists. Just… Not a Good Look.

Okay, now, onto the things I loved!

Worldbuilding: I’ve been reading high fantasy for as long as I can remember, and one of my favorite things about the genre is discovering the intricacies and details of a new world. And Kristoff delivers. I’m reminded a bit of A Song of Ice and Fire, in that various little details the narrative offers literally give me chills! It’s clear Kristoff put a ton of effort into this worldbuilding, and even with the footnotes, it’s evident that this is only the tip of the iceberg. Heavily inspired by old world Venice and the Roman Empire, where the worldbuilding truly shines is with its religion, which is heavily tied into the world’s ever-present three suns. I don’t know how to keep praising the worldbuilding without actually describing it in intense detail, which would take up much more time than I want to devote to this review, so I will just say that this book is reminiscent of old-school high fantasy that truly feels like a new world rather than just a rip-off of our own. In other words, this ain’t fantasy lite, folks.

Characters & Dynamics: I was excited to meet Mia, our main character, but I was also surprised at how much I enjoyed all of the other characters here. They’re all so very much their own people. Mia’s romantic interest, Tric, felt so real as a teenage boy: mostly sweet, occasionally surly, prickly, easily sparked temper, proud. I have to admit that I wasn’t especially partial to his and Mia’s romance because I am already aware that there’s a f/f relationship coming up between Mia and another character I absolutely adored, but if it weren’t for that I think I would have liked the romance, which is to say, it was well done (and I’ll say this for Kristoff, his sex scenes are excellent).

Mia’s a fantastic heroine, and I have to say that one of the dynamics I enjoyed the most was her connection to Mister Kindly, the shadow demon thing that is tied to her power over shadows and darkness and who is always by her side. When I first started reading I was wary about this cat-but-not-a-cat anthropomorphic shadow thing (I don’t like talking animals in my fantasy), but by the end Mister Kindly and Mia became my favorite thing ever. They have such a fascinating relationship – Mister Kindly manifested when Mia was a child, as a result of her trauma and her life being in danger. He feeds off her fear, and as a result Mia is always calm and unafraid, but it also means that Mister Kindly is invested making sue Mia has reasons to be stressed out and afraid. But at the same time it’s clear he cares deeply for her; after all, he is her shadow, with her at all times.

Realism: I know, why am I talking about realism in a high fantasy book? I’m not even sure this is the proper word to use, but I shall explain. So, I’ve seen this book described as Hogwarts with assassins, and that is a super apt description! That is definitely what came to mind when I first started reading it. But, given that the Red Church trains assassins, it’s about as vicious as you might expect. The instructors aren’t there to coddle you; they are actively trying to thin the herd, to weed out the weaklings. So, they torture their students, they poison their students, they test them in all sorts of horrible ways. There are some seriously gruesome and cruel scenes in this book, but it all just lends the story authenticity. It’s a school of assassins, after all.

Plot: Honestly, even by the mid-point of the book I was preparing to bemoan the plot in my review, because it seemed like it was kind of flimsy. I mean, it was very well-written and engaging, but it didn’t seem strong to me. By the end, however, I was eating my words (or thoughts, as it were). This book was just so thrilling and enjoyable! There’s amazing twists (none of which I could see coming, which always makes me happy) and fantastic action scenes and mysteries and unanswered questions and things just got more and more interesting as time went on, building up to a superb climax.

Humor: Yes, this needs its own category. This book is freaking hilarious. Not only is the omniscient narrator witty and snarky as hell, but Mia herself is pretty funny, and a lot of the dialogue made me laugh out loud. It was just a ton of fun.

Okay, this review has gotten much longer than I wanted it to be. Just, overall, a well-written book with great characters and incredible worldbuilding and a Cool Factor and a fun plot if you just get past the hurdle of the first 100 pages. If you like fantasy, you need to read this.


Reading Habits Book Tag

I haven’t done anything that’s not a book review in a while, so here, have a book tag! I found it on Thrice Reads. Ping back to me if you decide to do this!

Do you have a certain place at home for reading?

  • I wish! One of the reasons I don’t like reading at home is because I can never get comfortable. We don’t really have a living room in my house, so we don’t have chairs or sofas that  I can curl up in. So I usually either end up contorted on my bed in a weird and uncomfortable position or sitting in my desk chair, which would be fine if I didn’t have such terrible lighting in my room.

Bookmark or random piece of paper?

  • BOOKMARKS. I love bookmarks so much. I delight in having multiple bookmarks with various types of designs and styles.

Can you stop reading anytime you want or do you have to stop reading at a certain page, chapter, part ect.?

  • Any time! I mean, I can’t deny that I get a thrill of satisfaction if I stop reading at the end of a chapter just as my subway stop arrives, but generally I’m not too picky about it.

Do you eat or drink while you read?

  • I don’t usually eat when I read; if I do, it means the book is so good I can’t put it down. This rarely happens (the last book to hold this honor was Alison Goodman’s The Dark Days Club). Drinking, sometimes! I like to have tea with my books for The Aesthetic.

Can you read while listening to music/watching TV?

  • Definitely not TV, and as for music, I could, but I’d prefer not to. I’ll get distracted. I can’t even write while listening to music that isn’t instrumental ( and even then, sometimes I’ll turn it off so I can concentrate).

One book at a time or several at once?

  • It’s funny, I used to be very staunch about reading one book at a time, but in the past year it’s become anathema to me. Now I usually read 2-4 books at once, usually 3.

Reading at home or everywhere?

  • Oddly enough, I do most of my reading on the bus and subway because that’s where I can concentrate the most! I think it’s because I have nothing else to distract me – not my family nor the internet.

Reading out loud or silently in your head?

  • I hate reading out loud; my mouth gets dry wicked fast. And my throat hurts.

Do you read ahead or skip pages?

  • No way. The only time I might skim is if I’m nearing the end of a terrible book.

Breaking the spine or keeping it new?

  • Breaking the spine. I’d love to keep the book looking new, but then it’s torture for me to read it that way. I’m more practical than anything, I’m afraid.

Do you write in books?

  • Well, for fiction books I rarely have a reason to write in them, but I’m not against the idea! I write and highlight in my non-fiction books all the time.

Book Review: Policing Egyptian Women by Liat Kozma

Author: Liat Kozma
Release Date: 2011
Pages: 121
Publisher: Syracuse University Press
My Rating: ★★★★★(5/5)
Review on Goodreads

Policing Egyptian Women is an incredibly detailed and fascinating look at the way the state and the police became involved in policing women’s lives in 19th century Egypt. To conduct her research, Liat Kozma utilized a bevy of archival sources located in the Egyptian National Archives. Mainly, the sources consisted of court and police records, which provided a wealth of information about the way women navigated various aspects of their lives.

The book is neatly divided into five chapters.

The first, Egyptian Legal Reform, provides an overview of the changing legal system in 19th century Egypt.

The second, Medicine, Law, and the Female Body, is what made me fall in love with this book. Kozma details the various practices of midwives in 19th century Egypt, practices which were more often than not rooted in superstition. She then reveals that a French doctor called Clot Bey was commissioned by Egypt to open up a boarding school to train Egyptian women as “hakimas,” which was the closest equivalent to doctor women could be at the time. Utterly flouting traditional social codes of the time that insisted women were not rational enough to work in medicine, this chapter is an enthralling look at a largely unknown (and sadly, short-lived) chapter in history.

The third, Female Slaves, Manumission, and Abolition, discusses the practice of slavery in 19th century Egypt, as well as the abolition movement. Police became absolutely essential for manumitted slaves who needed to prove that they were, in fact, freed.

The fourth, Prostitutes and Other Women of Ill Repute, details the lives of prostitutes. Prostitution in 19th century Egypt, before the British occupation of 1882, was neither criminalized nor regulated; mostly, the populace did their best to ignore it and keep it away from “respectable” women. The police played a huge role in this as they policed prostitutes’ actions: where they did their business, where they lived, how they dressed in public, etc.

The fifth and final chapter, Virginity, Honor, and Premarital Defloration, discusses the cultural and religious conceptions of honor and virginity and establishes that the police and the courts emerged as a forum for disputing and debating women’s respectability (which was tied to their sexuality).

The book’s organization is stellar, with each chapter clearly delineating its topics. The writing, which one might expect to be dry and academic, is neither; it is straightforward, clear, and engaging. Kozma peppers her analysis with various anecdotes that she has pulled straight out of the archives, making for – dare I say it? – a thrilling read.

Seriously, though, as an Egyptian fascinated by 19th century Egypt (it’s my favorite time period!), I couldn’t stop smiling as I read this book! I mean, to be clear, some of the details are absolutely horrifying accounts of how terribly women were treated, and I certainly didn’t smile at those (more like scowled and grimaced) but what I mean is there was just so much incredible information buried in this book’s pages! Like, learning about that hakima boarding school? That is screaming to be turned into a historical fiction novel. And I’m honestly just super grateful to Kozma for wading through all these archival sources and turning them into such an intriguing and readable narrative with a solid thesis.

Book Review: Ace of Shades by Amanda Foody

ace of shadesTitle: ACE OF SHADES
Author: Amanda Foody
Release Date: April 10, 2018
Pages: 400
Publisher: Harlequin Teen
My Rating: ★★★★☆(3.5/5)
Review on Goodreads

This is a solid book! It was engaging from start to finish, taking place over ten days, featuring a few central mysteries that get partly resolved by the end of the book. While I didn’t fall in love with this book, I don’t know that there’s anything specific I can point to that this book did wrong. I enjoyed it, but I didn’t love it.

First shout-out has to go to the worldbuilding, which is pretty damn cool! As far as I can tell, it’s set in a late 19th-early 20th century mash-up of London and…Italy? Maybe? Anyway, it’s a far cry from your usual pseudo-medieval setting; Foody’s City of Sin glitters with neon lights and seedy casinos. New Reynes is still suffering from the effects of a revolution that left the monarchy dead and replaced with a Republic; as it is, the city is still quite unstable. The magic system is built into bloodlines; everyone is born with two “talents” – ranging from acrobatics to fire manipulation – depending on their parents. Telling someone your family name essentially reveals your talent. I was really, really into this; it reminded me of old-school fantasy, but in a fresh setting.

The story begins when Enne Salta arrives in New Reynes, better known as the City of Sin, in search of her mother Lourdes, who has been missing for several months. Enne has little to go by, except for the last letter her mother sent, instructing her to seek out Levi Glaisyer, who turns out to be a young street lord in a very precarious situation of his own. Levi owes an exorbitant amount of money to one of the city’s mafia families, with payment due in ten days. When he and Enne meet, he promises to help her once she promises she’ll pay him. The story is told in both Enne and Levi’s POVs, in third person past, which was a refreshing change of pace from the usual first-person POV.

Both Enne and Levi are likable enough. For some reason, I keep seeing comparisons to Six of Crows, particularly to Kaz and Inej, but frankly I couldn’t see any similarities, and I think it’s to this book’s detriment that this comparison keeps being brought up! I don’t want to be comparing this to Six of Crows as I read; they are two completely different books with completely different characters. Frankly, Levi is no Kaz, which is not an insult to Levi’s character – they’re just two totally different people! In fact, the narrative makes it a point to establish that Levi is more kind and compassionate than other characters (including Enne!), so he’s pretty much Kaz’s opposite.

Enne is a very relatable heroine. She comes to New Reynes scared and clueless in search of the only family she has in the world. She is at various points scared and weepy and frustrated, but all her reactions make sense, so I was never irritated by her. Over the course of the ten days the novel takes place in she develops into a stronger, surer person, but it is not an abrupt character change. It’s not as though Enne suddenly becomes someone else, but existing aspects of her persona morph into more ruthless counterparts. I loved that about her.

Second shout-out is to the casual diversity in this novel; Levi is explicitly black and bisexual. Enne’s mother is said to be gay and genderfluid. There’s several casual mentions of people’s sexuality, which was super refreshing to see! Also, this isn’t anything to do with diversity per se, but I liked this book’s mature approach to sex. There’s an actual female masturbation scene here, and I literally don’t think I’ve ever seen that before in YA.

The inevitable romance did not make me want to bash my skull into a wall, so that’s good! I didn’t love it, I didn’t hate it. The plot was solid, particularly for the first book in a trilogy. There was a lot of introductory material that is clearly setting up for a trilogy, but it was handled smoothly.

Overall, a good book, and I’ll probably check out the sequel.

Book Review: Girls Burn Brighter by Shobha Rao

girls burn brighterTitle: GIRLS BURN BRIGHTER
Author: Shobha Rao
Release Date: March 6, 2018
Pages: 304
Publisher: Flatiron Books
My Rating: ★★★☆☆(3/5)
Review on Goodreads

I’m struggling to decide just how I feel about this book. So, first off, if you’re going in completely clueless like me (why do I not read book summaries properly), massive content warning for rape. This book deals with human trafficking, so you can imagine the content here. This is kind of why I was so unsure of what I thought when I finished it, but that’s no fault of the book itself – I just don’t really like reading books about things like rape and human trafficking. Which isn’t to say that the scenes in this book were overly graphic or exploitative, but there were still some instances where I felt like it was a bit too much, like all this trauma was just being piled on and on with no real purpose (there were definitely some scenes I, and the narrative, could have done without). I expected something totally different of this book, but I don’t like to give a book a low rating just because it didn’t meet my own expectations, especially when the book is objectively well-written.

That’s the second thing I want to talk about: the prose. I thought this was a really beautifully-written, thoughtful book. The narration is kind of omniscient, which I don’t always like, but here it meshed well with the lush, lyrical prose. The prose and some of the narrative choices give this book a kind of mythic quality; indeed, there are so many coincidences occurring it seems one would have to suspend disbelief to be able to enjoy this book.

At its heart, it is a story of friendship between two women, Savitha and Poornima. Though they spend much of the book apart after being separated, Poornima spends literal years structuring her life in ways that will lead her to find Savitha. This is also a book about misogyny’s ugly depths. Most of us know men are demons, but this book elucidates that truth unflinchingly. Is there a single male character in this book who isn’t absolute trash? Perhaps Savitha’s father had redeeming qualities in his youth, but otherwise all the men are pretty horrific, and even some of the women have become warped by internalized misogyny.

But I liked how the misogyny was presented through a distinct cultural lens. Though we all live in a patriarchal world, misogyny takes different forms depending on where it is manifesting. American misogyny is going to look very different from Indian misogyny. For example, dowry is a big issue in this book. Dowry is the payment a bride’s family is expected to provide to the bridegroom and his family upon marriage, seemingly for the upkeep the new bride will require. As you can imagine, the great financial strain this puts on bride’s family’s means that the impoverished will begin resenting their daughters. In one harrowing incident in this book, Poornima’s father recounts a anecdote when he almost let Poornima drown as a child because he sees daughters as expendable and expensive.

My main issue with this book, narratively speaking? That goddamn ending. There’s no payoff. Literally the entire book has been building to a very particular climax and then, right when you’re expecting the payoff, that moment of climax and resolution, the book simply ends abruptly. I literally double-checked the ARC I had to make sure I wasn’t skipping pages or missing an epilogue, because the ending was so abrupt! Perhaps this is just a pet peeve of mine as a reader, but I like closure, which this book desperately needed. Otherwise, with the way it is, it just feels incomplete.

Book Review: Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

freshwaterTitle: FRESHWATER
Author: Akwaeke Emezi
Release Date: February 13, 2018
Pages: 240
Publisher: Grove Press
My Rating: ★★★★★(4.5/5)
Review on Goodreads

How does one talk about a book that is essentially a very personal memoir? Freshwater is a semi-autobiographical tale about a young Nigerian-Tamil woman named Ada who lives with multiple selves. That is, her consciousness appears to be made up of a group of ogbanje, spirits from Igbo folklore. They are one and they are many; the book’s narration is delivered from three perspectives, that of all the ogbanje, one particular manifestation named Asughura, and Ada.

To say that this book was mind-blowing is an understatement. I had seen a lot of hype surrounding Freshwater on Twitter, and I had sort of come to the conclusion that this was going to be a straightforward metaphor for multiple personality disorder. It’s not, and not just because the author has straight-up said that it’s not. You’ll find yourself doubting as you read. It’s actually quite a spiritual tome, which I was not expecting, so I found myself constantly having to adjust my expectations and my perceptions.

That’s the thing about Freshwater: it completely challenged all of my perceptions of reality, particularly the traditional Western understanding of psychology. It’s easy to forget that the field of psychology is artificially constructed, that mental illnesses are not ontological realities but very human and very Western categories created mostly by men who came with their own biases and particular worldviews. To my understanding, this is what Freshwater is challenging. Ada is considered mentally ill by some of the people in her life, but she – and her ogbanje – do not believe it to be so. Are we meant to take the ogbanje literally, then? Are we meant to believe they are real? Perhaps. I have to say I’m not entirely certain. I would love to sit down with the author and just have a lengthy, in-depth conversation about this book.

The prose is absolutely stunning. I found myself re-reading entire paragraphs multiple times to savor the lyrical and sensual prose. It maintains a certain elegance throughout, even as the events occurring in the narrative veer from ugly to mundane. There’s something about it that almost makes you want to believe this <>is a story told from the perspective of ageless spiritual beings. For my fantasy readers, this has elements of age-old epic fantasy that made me shiver in delight. I’d recommend this book to absolutely everyone, for it is an unprecedented foray into unfamiliar realities.

Top 5 Tuesday: Top 5 Cover Buys


Top 5 Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by the fantastic Bionic Bookworm. This week’s topic:

FEBRUARY 6TH – Top 5 Cover Buys

Now, I don’t actually buy a ton of books, so I just talked about the books that I added to my TBR because of their cover. Not just because of their cover, though – their summaries enticed me to, but the major draw was the cover.  I…kind of overdid this a bit, since I have nine and not five books, but oh well. Pretty covers and all.

Does anyone see the pattern? Because I sure do! It seems I love really detailed, busy covers with a ton of color and pattern-work.  I think the exception is The Crimson Ribbon? I especially love it if covers are bordered in the corners (I’m sure there’s a word for this), like Under the Pendulum Sun (the only book here I actually own, purchased without reading the summary, because THAT COVER), Jane Steele, A Curious Beginning, and Beast.

Don’t get me wrong; I sometimes like simple, minimalist designs as well, but there’s just something about this style that makes me feel like the artist is taking full advantage of the fact that they’re, well, an artists.  You know? Pretty much anyone can make a decent minimalist cover design, but these covers here take some serious skill.

P.S. I have to give a shout-out to The City of Brass and the two books in the Dreamblood Duology.  They don’t really match the style I discussed above, but they’re absolutely gorgeous and take some serious artistic skill too.

If I ever get a book published and I get to have some say over the cover, I’m showing them this post.