Book Review: The Bloodprint by Ausma Zehanat Khan

34017058Title: THE BLOODPRINT
Author: Ausma Zehanat Khan
Release Date: 2017
Pages: 425
Publisher: Harper Voyager
My Rating: ★☆☆☆☆(1.5/5)
Review on Goodreads

Ugh. That was painful. Actually, physically painful, and I am so disappointed. This book was one of my most anticipated releases of the entire year. I actually pre-ordered this book! I purchased it! Paid money for it because I was sure I would want to have it on my shelf forever to read and reread! Instead, from the very first chapter I found myself struggling to get through it. This is a novel with great potential that was executed terribly. Let’s go through the problems one by one:

→ It is undeniable that Khan has created an intriguing world, though much of it is based on ours. The parallels between the antagonists, The Talisman, and Daesh/ISIS, are painfully obvious and heavy-handed. The Claim, ancient religious words inscribed with power, is clearly meant to be the Quran. Now, there is nothing wrong with any of this – in any other book I might have relished it – but here everything is so confusing and mashed up together that I had a difficult time following along. The main character, Arian, is a First Oralist trained in the power of The Claim – and yet it is never exactly clear what precisely the Claim is or how its magic works or how Arian uses it against her enemies. Given that Arian’s powers make up the crux of the plot, leaving it unexplained greatly hindered my understanding of the overall plot. This is not the only bit of worldbuilding that was left unexplained, or touched on only vaguely. Khan throws a lot into this book and very little of it makes sense until the very end.

→ Despite the aforementioned, this book also somehow constantly delivers plodding exposition to explain worldbuilding rather than revealing it organically. The narrative comes to a shuddering halt to explain something (and not very well, either). It’s very jarring and is the mark of an inexperienced writer. There is just so, so much telling rather than showing, and it’s not even a little bit subtle.

→ I suspect it is the lack of skill in writing that makes the whole book so very, very bland. From the first chapter, which should have been a harrowing, nail-biting scene as our protagonists endeavor to save a group of women from slavery, is dull. From the get-go I just Did Not Care. And I tried, oh did I try. I wanted to care, I wanted to like this book. But there were no characters I cared about (Arian, the lead, is painfully, painfully bland) and the stakes were established properly to get me to give a damn about anything that was happening. The writing isn’t technically bad, but there’s just no spark to it. This book is lifeless.

→ The author uses omniscient narration, but she does it very, very badly. First of all, it took me a while to figure out it was omniscient narration, because the book at first gives the impression that it’s in third person limited, with most of the POV given to the protagonist, Arian. But there are throwaway chunks and sentences that are in other characters’ perspectives, even very minor characters, that just shove their way into Arian’s thoughts. And then the narrative will flit back to Arian’s POV. It’s clumsy, messy, and confusing.

→ The overall plot was terrible. First off, I’m beginning to think that ~journey~ stories take a supremely talented author to pull off, and the ~journey~ in this book was very badly paced. It’s taken me over a month to finish this book because it was just so damn boring. I literally had to force myself to finish it. And not only was the overall plot uninteresting, but even the few scenes that should have been exciting felt empty because they were written so badly! Big, action moments that should have been exciting were barely given a sentence (sometimes I barely even noticed that something huge had happened). What should have been big reveals were not revealed properly, and so they didn’t deliver any punches.

→ This is clearly being marketed as a ~feminist~ story, but unfortunately even that falls flat. Our two heroines spend the whole book ogling handsome men and having their fates controlled by them. Daniyar is introduced as Arian’s love interest and an extremely handsome man, and the author won’t let you forget it. His beauty is constantly referenced, Arian’s companion Sinnia is constantly talking about how desirable he is, and Arian herself is in love with him for reasons that baffle me, since he’s very much an asshole. This obsession with handsome men and the women in love with them doesn’t just feature with our protagonists, but with various minor characters as well, making the book not only borderline misogynistic but also shockingly heteronormative (there are NO queer characters here).

→ Arian’s companion, Sinnia, is black. The author doesn’t let you forget this either. References are constantly being made about the strangeness of her dark skin, how ~exotic~ she is, how pale Arian is in comparison, how jealous Sinnia is of Arian, etc, etc. And she is the only black character. It was extremely fetishistic and made me very uncomfortable, especially given that Sinnia’s entire existence seemed to be rooted in being Arian’s loyal companion. We are given little to nothing of her backstory, her wants or desires, despite the omniscient narration.

→ I want to touch again on how utterly boring and lifeless this book was. The author just couldn’t make me care about anything in this book. The plot was a fairly straightforward journey, with little to no intrigue or suspense. For me, this book only got mildly interesting in the very last ten pages, when there were two big reveals and twists, one of which I’d been expecting since the last third of the book. And then the book ended on a cliffhanger that I don’t particularly care about because I don’t care about anything in this book.

I don’t have much else to say. I really disliked this book, I nearly DNF’ed it multiple times, I had to drag myself back into reading it, and I’m just so relieved to be done with it.  What a damn shame.

Advertisements

Book Review: The Dark Days Club by Alison Goodman

15993203Title: THE DARK DAYS CLUB
Author: Alison Goodman
Release Date: 2016
Pages: 482
Publisher: Viking Books for Young Readers
My Rating: ★★★★★(5/5)
Review on Goodreads

I. Love. This. Book. You know when you’ve come to enjoy a book so much you don’t want it to end? I was torn between finishing this book quickly to find out what happens, and reading it slowly to savor every scene. I was hooked from the very first chapter, where the setting is quickly and fastidiously established as Regency England. A fascinating time period, and the skill of Alison Goodman’s research shines from every page! I truly felt like I was in Regency London; Goodman pays close attention to fashion, smells, common foods, popular dances, weather, locations, and so on. It all lends the book an extreme authenticity that makes it an absolute pleasure to read. I feel like I’ve just received an intriguing history lesson on Regency London! When I say this I don’t at all mean to indicate that this felt dry or textbook-like! On the contrary! But as a history nerd I do enjoy all the little details that popped up.

In The Dark Days Club, Lady Helen Wrexhall discovers that there is more darkness in the world than she first thought, and that she is inextricably bound to it. As she is introduced to this underbelly she discovers her new powers and abilities, all under the guidance of the mysterious and detested Earl of Carlston, a man who shares Helen’s powers but is also suspected of killing his wife. He and Helen share a budding but unresolved romance – in true Regency fashion, it is quite a slow burn and for the most part remains within the bounds of propriety. I think he’s a little bit of an asshole, but for me that’s what makes him interesting, that he’s so imperfect – he’s a good person, but he doesn’t have great bedside manner, so to speak.

Helen is a much more pleasant character – bright, curious, kind, but also not the stereotype I expected. She is more realistic than that: not quite rebellious, not quite so eager to shirk the boundaries of normal life and society, merely tiptoe around them. She’s a modern day women magically inserted into a Regency-era world to be the ~Exceptional Woman~. Rather, she is a realistic Regency-era woman who is heavily shaped by the customs of her time and place. She also shares a camaraderie with her maid (who becomes her partner in crime in a way), which was so refreshing to see! Female friendship is always appreciated.

The mythology here is fantastic! Not supremely original, but executed brilliantly, in a way that makes sense but doesn’t overwhelm the reader with too many details. Goodman created such an interesting world here, one with suitably high stakes that kept the tension high throughout the novel. By the 80% mark I was walking around my house doing things with my Kindle in my face because I simply could not put the book down! I absolutely love books that turn into compelling page-turners, and I love books that feel like home, which this book did. I’m a sucker for period drama set in England, and this book hit on everything I ever wanted: high-society drama, historical accuracy, the supernatural, loads of gory murder, sardonic dialogue, and nail-biting mystery!

I’m going to stop babbling because this review is long and effusive enough, but hopefully it has managed to convey the depth of my enjoyment of this book!

Fancast: War and Peace

war and peace fancast

I’ve been planning a War & Peace fancast since before I started the actual book! I’ve been playing around with casting ideas in my head for months now, so I’m really pleased I finally sat down and put it all together.

There were some characters who just jumped out at me and I immediately knew who I wanted to cast for them.  However, I thought I should wait until I had finished reading the novel.  Then I was struggling to cast a particular pair of characters so I set it aside again.  But I’ve had some casting epiphanies again recently, and now I have my cast!

Now, obviously, I couldn’t possibly include every single character in War and Peace (I mean, I could, but I don’t want to).  There are going to be some important characters missing (for example, Denisov) because I just didn’t have any particularly inspired casting thoughts about them. Then there are other characters who may seem minor but whose castings jumped out at me.

So let’s get started!


NINA DOBREV AS HELENE KURAGINA

helene

Nina was the very first person I cast.  I think she is absolutely perfect for Helene: she is  gorgeous, with a mesmerizing smile and enchanting eyes.  I would see her gaining some weight to more accurately resemble Helene, who is described as plump, but it’s not like casting directors have paid any attention to that (looking at you, BBC War and Peace).  Nina has this charm and magnetism to her that makes her so damn sexy, which is imperative for anyone playing Helene.  (Helene is my favorite character so she comes first!)


LUKE PASQUALINO AS ANATOLE KURAGIN

anatole

If you want to feel better about certain terrible decisions you’ve made in the past, go take a look at who BBC decided to cast as Anatole in their adaptation of War and Peace. I’ll wait for you to recover from the shock.  Alternately described as a weasel (thanks Rachel), a lizard (thanks Tumblr), and the scrawny nerd from your high school chemistry class (thanks moi), Callum Turner as Anatole Kuragin has got to be one of the worst casting decisions in history.  Anatole is above all hot.  Like his sister, he’s beautiful and charming and sexy; the whole reason Natasha is so drawn to him is because of his gorgeous looks! Now, personally I think Lucas Steele is the best Anatole Kuragin there will ever be in the history of time, but sadly, as he is approaching forty, he’s too old to portray Anatole in an adaptation. But I think Luke Pasqualino would do a pretty fantastic job too! He’s a fabulous actor (check him out in The Musketeers), and he is certainly swoon-worthy.  Plus he and Nina make a pretty pair (and they’ve got the same coloring!).


DIEGO LUNA AS FEDYA DOLOKHOV

dolokov

Also one of the first people I cast! There’s something really intense, magnetic, and sexy about Diego Luna that I think would suit Dolokhov really well.  As a character Dolokhov quite odd: part wild, part absolutely nuts, part romantic.  I think Diego could play all those parts and bring them together brilliantly.


ADELAIDE KANE AS NATASHA ROSTOVA

natasha

Addy was the second person I cast! Having seen her on Reign, I’ve witnessed her incredible acting chops.  On that show, she went from naive young girl to badass queen, and Addy acted the hell out of all of that character’s phases. She’s utterly striking, yet has this guileless look about her, along with Natasha’s “full mouth” and a smile that would utterly dazzle you. I also think Addy would do a fantastic job acting out Natasha’s energy.  (Also, Natasha has BLACK HAIR which adaptations always seem to ignore in order to cast her as the ~virginal blonde~ which really annoys me.)


NATALIA DYER AS SONYA ROSTOVA

sonya

Originally I was going to cast Sarah Bolger for Sonya, but I’ve been liking Natalia’s performance on Stranger Things, and I think she could really give Sonya a lot more depth than the character is usually allowed to have.  Don’t get me wrong, I still think Sarah Bolger would do a fantastic job, but it would be interesting to see Natalia branch out into a period drama like this, and I think she has a particularly interesting energy that would really lend Sonya more complexity.


KIT HARRINGTON AS NIKOLAI ROSTOV

nikolai

Nikolai is described as stout and dark-haired, so Kit fits that description perfectly! This is probably somewhat of a weird casting decision, but I think Kit’s got that perfect combination of intense and adorable that makes up Nikolai. Plus we’ve seen Kit pull off brotherly affection and brooding misery, and both are needed for Nikolai!


EDWARD HOLCROFT AS ANDREI BOLKONSKY

andrei

I had an extremely difficult time casting Andrei because, like many people, I think James Norton was absolutely perfect in the role on BBC’s War and Peace, like he was born to play it. However, I think Edward could give him a run for his money.  He’s got this sharp, rugged, serious face which I associate with Andrei, and in the only performance I’ve seen him in he’s played intense rather well.


OONA CHAPLIN AS MARYA BOLKONSKAYA

maryab

Okay, so Oona is not exactly plain like Marya is described, but she’s also not traditionally pretty. She’s got some striking features and gorgeous eyes, though.  I also think she would be fantastic playing someone as religiously devoted as Marya.  Plus she and Edward look like they would play off each other really well.


CHARLOTTE SPENCER AS LISE BOLKONSKAYA

lise

Poor Lise, Andrei’s ill-fated first wife! Tolstoy spends a lot of time talking about her pert upper lip and how even at rest you could see some of her teeth.  I tried to find an actress with that feature who wasn’t Felicity Jones, and I think Charlotte somewhat fits the bill.  She’d have to dye her hair dark to match Lise’s looks, but otherwise I think she could do a great job in this minor role.


ELOISE SMYTH AS MADEMOISELLE BOURIENNE

mdmbourienne

Oddly enough, this casting was inspired, meaning I didn’t have to think too hard about it.  It just came to me. Eloise hasn’t done much besides Harlots, and I’ve only seen her in an episode or two in that, but Bourienne only has a minor role anyway. She’s beautiful and blonde and flirts with Anatole. I think Eloise can capture that playfulness to her.


HELEN MCCRORY AS MARYA DIMITRIYEVNA

maryad

Helen is perfect for this role, in my opinion! She’s gorgeous and has that fierceness required to play Marya D.  And she’s so elegant; she does really well in period pieces!


KYLE SOLLER AS PIERRE BEZUKHOV

pierre

I’m still not too sure about this casting – for a long time I considered Howard Charles for the role, but thought he looked too old. The thing is, Pierre is always described as large and ungainly, and it’s such a huge part of how other people see him and how he walks through life.  But BBC War and Peace’s choice of Paul Dano was spectacular, despite Dano being so diminutive.  So I thought I stopped trying to find someone frighteningly large and just focused on finding someone who could play guileless.


JOHN BRADLEY WEST AS PIERRE V.2

pierre2

Rachel and I were chatting about this very post when she randomly came up with John Bradley West for Pierre and he was too perfect not to add here! Not only his physicality, but his demeanor, I think he could portray both Pierre’s naivete as well as his self-righteousness.  But seriously, his physicality is perfect for Pierre. He would be so incredible!


DANE DEHAAN AS BORIS DRUBETSKOY

boris

I don’t have much to say about this as I don’t have much to say about Boris.  He’s kind of a sneaky, ambitious character who I didn’t find particularly likeable.  He’s also rumored to be having an affair with Helene, so there’s that.


YAY! What do y’all think? If you’ve read War and Peace, do you think my casting choices fit? Have you watched BBC’s War and Peace? Let me know in the comments!

 

End of the Year Book Tag

ENDOFYEARBOOKTAG

I was tagged for this by the lovely Steph at Lost Purple Quill! Thanks Steph! I haven’t done a book tag in forever. (I’m also pretty certain someone else tagged me for this as well at some point…I’m SO BEHIND on things I’m tagged on.)

ETA: OMG, I just realized why I thought I was tagged for this before! I was, way back in September, by Rachel! I can’t believe I didn’t remember this at all.  My answers are totally different!

1. Are there any books you started this year that you need to finish?

I don’t usually like to leave books hanging for a long time, so nothing aside from what I’m reading now! I am determined to finish The Bloodprint before the end of the year, though it’s turning out to be one hell of a slog and I have to force myself to read it.

2. Do you have an autumnal book to transition into the end of the year?

Hmm, not particularly, although I am finding myself partial to a particular brand of historical fiction at the moment. I’m currently reading The Dark Days Club, which takes place in Victorian London, and I don’t want it to end! I’m finding it super cozy and charming.

3. Is there a new release you’re still waiting for?

I don’t believe so…Jade City just came out so I’m really excited to get my hands on that, but I don’t think there’s anything else at the moment. Not that I would remember if there were!

4. What are three books you want to read before the end of the year?

You know what I’ve been realizing? That planning out what I’m going to read has kind of been bumming me out.  Like, it’s fine to make vague plans of what I want to read in the future, but to structure it strictly like I did for the past two months really took the joy out of it. One of my favorite things to do, when I’m on the verge of finishing a book, is go through Goodreads summaries on my TBR to rediscover a book I want to read. That way there’s a bit of a surprise in it for me!

That being said, I would really love to read The Hate U Give, which I have waiting on my Kindle at the moment! Everyone and their mother has read this, it’s being turned into a film (actors have already been cast!), and I think it’s still on the NYT bestseller list. I really need to get on this.

5. Is there a book you think could still shock you and become your favourite book of the year?

I doubt it. I’ve just read too many awesome books this year! I’m sure I’ll enjoy The Hate U Give, but I don’t think a contemporary will take the place of my favorite book when I’ve read some incredible fantasy books this year.

6. Have you already started making reading plans for 2018?

Vaguely! As I said, I’m trying not to plan too strictly.  I know I’m definitely starting Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles in a buddy read led by Chelsea at Spotlight on Stories, which I’m very excited for.  And I think Chelsea wants to read Jane Eyre around then, so I’ll likely join her in that. I also really want to read Libba Bray’s Diviners series.  Oh, and the sequel to The Traitor Baru Cormorant is coming out, so I’m planning a re-read of the first book before the second, since I’ve surely forgotten everything, and I think Rachel is planning on reading it with me!  LOL, I realize this is already pretty strict planning…alas. I’m still super excited for these reads.


I suck at at tagging and I think this meme has made the rounds already, so do it if you like, and do ping back to me so I can read your answers!

Top 5 Wednesday: Books I’m Thankful For

top5wedfloral

I haven’t done Top 5 anything in a while, but I thought I could give this week’s Top 5 Wednesday a shot! The topic is Top 5 Books You Are Thankful For.  It ended up being…a little demoralizing.  Let me explain. When I first saw the topic, my mind immediately jumped to books with f/f pairings, just because this has been on my mind lately.  In particular, YA books with f/f pairings. But as I went through my list of books read this year, I realized that none of the books I’ve read this year feature any prominent f/f pairings.  There is a thread on Twitter that recently talked about how few f/f books there are in YA and in fantasy, particularly compared to m/m, and f/f books tends to be sidelined as “special interest” or something.  All of which is to say: please, please, recommend f/f books to me! Preferably fantasy, but I will take contemporary as well! Give me recs guys!!!

Anyway, I didn’t mean to turn this into an essay on the state of the YA market. Despite the aforementioned blow, I did manage to find five books I am thankful for, and for various reasons! In no particular order:

20764879A Gathering of Shadows by V.E. Schwab: Aside from being a spectacularly written book with incredible tension and a romance that makes me giggle (a rare thing), A Gathering of Shadows also features Lila Bard, an absolute tour de force of a character. So often women with magic are reluctant to use their powers or stumble into them. Not so with Lila.  Lila actively seeks out her power. She is not frightened by her abilities; she is impressed by them. She wants to be the most powerful of them all, so she trains as hard as she can, even when others tell her not to. She takes ridiculous risks and she’s full of herself and she’s not frightened of anything. She is an absolutely incredible woman, an incredibly written female character, and I am so thankful she exists.


31123249Saints and Misfits by S.K. Ali: This was one of my favorite books of the year.  Ali writes about Muslim community with such grace, such love, such complexity! In Ali’s book, Muslims were real and human, lovable and flawed, loving and cruel.  Ali wrote about a niqabi who also happens to be an outspoken badass – talk about flipping the stereotype of oppressed Muslim women right on its head! The narrator is witty and engaging, and the writing is high-quality. I am thankful this book exists because it is such a great example of diversity in literature done right.


33574143The Beautiful Ones by Silvia Moreno-Garcia: Probably one of the stranger books I’ve read this year, but also one of my favorites! It’s a novel of manners a la Jane Austen with a touch of magic (telekinesis, to be specific). At its heart, it’s a romance. However, what drew me to it was the elegant writing, the prettily crafted world, and the compelling main characters.  The moment I finished this book I was inspired to write a novel of manners of my own (Egyptian inspired, in my case). So, I am thankful this book exists, because without it, I wouldn’t have my current WIP, which is one of my favorite projects that I’m working on.


29396738Monstress by Marjorie Liu: This one’s a little different, since it’s a graphic novel. I don’t normally read those, but I was drawn to Monstress.  Let me quote the Goodreads summary at you so you understand why: “Set in an alternate matriarchal 1900’s Asia, in a richly imagined world of art deco-inflected steam punk, MONSTRESS tells the story of a teenage girl who is struggling to survive the trauma of war, and who shares a mysterious psychic link with a monster of tremendous power, a connection that will transform them both and make them the target of both human and otherworldly powers.” I mean. Need I even say more? This book is absolutely wild, so freaking original, with that overwhelming epicness that so many fantasy books strive for but don’t achieve. I am thankful that something this original exists.


16235Sister of my Heart by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni: Not only am I partial to f/f relationships, I am super fond of friendships between women. Sister of my Heart features one of the most beautiful, intimate, and enduring friendships between two women that I’ve ever seen.  Two girls, Anju and Sudha, from different worlds, grow up together, close as sisters, and their love for each other goes beyond anything.  There were so many beautiful scenes in this book, but the one that I remember most clearly is Anju watching Sudha look at the moon. Sudha is topless, but her hair is covering her chest, and Anju is thinking she is beautiful.  There were of course flaws in this book, and I’m sure if I went back and looked with a more critical eye I would find them. But I don’t want to. As much as I want to go back and reread this book I’m afraid reading it now, with my more critical eye, might ruin it for me. So I am simply thankful this book has given me such a beautiful and powerful female friendship to think about.

Book Review: Bird Box by Josh Malerman

18498558Title: BIRD BOX
Author: Josh Malerman
Release Date: 2014
Pages: 262
Publisher: Penguin Books
My Rating: ★★★★☆(4/5)
Review on Goodreads

I both love and hate dystopic fiction. I love it because it’s a fascinating exploration of survival. I’m always intrigued by how humans manage to survive without technology, without society, without order. Does the social contract break down? Where do people get food? What becomes important in a new world? Is survival enough?

I hate dystopic fiction because it’s depressing as fuck, and Bird Box certainly delivered on that.

I loved this book’s concept, which had notes of Lovecraftian horror all over it. Basically, there is something – some creature, some unknown, just something – outside. When you see it, you go mad and start tearing yourself apart until you die. Nobody knows what it is or where it came from or what it wants. Or how to stop it. But it’s trapped the survivors indoors, and if they venture outdoors they must have their eyes shut at all times. There are certain passages which were absolutely seeped with Lovecraftian influence – characters talking about our minds having a ceiling and the unknown creatures being beyond that ceiling, beyond human capacity to understand…it’s juicy, creepy stuff.

The narrative is centered on Malorie as she and her two children row a boat down a river attempting to find better shelter. The story is told in alternating timelines, between Malorie in the present and Malorie in the past, with a ragtag group of survivors who have holed up inside a house together and are just trying to survive. Even ordinary scenes in this book drip with tension; I was completely sucked in. When reading this book the world around me ceased to exist. There were some scenes that had my heart racing with anticipation. There is plenty of gore, but there is also a ton of psychological horror, building on the fear of the unknown.

I have some criticisms. The dialogue I found was often stilted, a bit unnatural. Malorie’s ragtag group of survivors were difficult to tell apart. There was Tom, the leader, and Don, the combative one, and then…a bunch of other people who were just there. In horror novels like this it’s important for characters to be distinct and interesting, and they weren’t. We don’t know what these people look like, what they did in their old lives, how they think and feel now. And there is zero diversity – all the characters are white. I felt like they were all cardboard cutouts, not characters but plot devices, there as a means to an end. Even with Malorie, I felt like I had a hard time getting into her head and getting a sense of her as a person. I felt her fear and desperation, certainly, but everyone in this world is afraid and desperate – what more is there to know about her?

Otherwise, I loved this book. I could not put it down for a moment, and it made my 90 minute commute feel like 10 minutes. I missed my train stop when reading the ending, because it was just so damn intense! I had been in an utter reading funk lately, and this book wrenched me out of it. Highly, highly recommend this creepy, intense, and thrilling read!

Thanks to Rachel @ pace, amore, libri for the recommendation!

Book Review: Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C. Dao

33958230Title: FOREST OF A THOUSAND LANTERNS
Author: Julie C. Dao
Release Date: 2017
Pages: 363
Publisher: Philomel Books
My Rating: ★★★★☆(4/5)
Review on Goodreads

I had almost forgotten that this is supposed to be an East Asia-inspired retelling of Snow White’s Evil Queen. In the beginning there are few allusions to the tale, but as the story progresses the narrative reflects the fairy tale in subtle, clever ways.

Xifeng is beautiful. Growing up in poverty with her abusive aunt Guma, she clings to her beauty, her only power as a woman in a world of men. But according to Guma, Xifeng has a great destiny: she is fated to become Empress of Feng Lu, if she plays her cards right. After some prodding from Wei, Xifeng’s childhood love, she finds the courage to flee Guma and head to the palace, planting herself in court and clawing her way to the top.

Some minor technical complaints first: the story takes a long time to get going. This is partly necessary, as it is the first in what I assume will be a trilogy, and Xifeng needs time to leave her old life behind and rise to become Empress. Still, it was a bit slow, and most of the action takes place in the last third of the book, with reveals and plot advancements occurring in nearly every chapter. It felt a bit unbalanced.

Otherwise, damn, I love my complex unlikable anti-heroine stories! Xifeng is selfish, vain, arrogant, and ruthless. Eventually, she becomes a murderess. In short, she’s not someone you want to have much to do with. But she revels in her power and ambition, she is unapologetic about what she has to do to claw her way to power, and I loved her. She’s such an unusual protagonist; we don’t see too many women like her in YA. Speaking of unusual, this book does away with a lot of YA tropes. It’s quite adult in a lot of ways. Xifeng chooses power over love and ends up with a man much older than her. The violence in this book is bloody and raw; it was spectacularly gory.

Others have mentioned Xifeng’s disdain of all other women, so I have to mention it. This is a very prominent thread running through the book, but it makes sense: Xifeng is deliberately unlikable, deliberately arrogant, and the reader is left with the certainty that Xifeng is unreliable in her determinations of these other women. They are all humanized by the narrative despite Xifeng’s scorn. Even Xifeng’s foremost enemy is humanized in such a way that her cruelty is understood to be her shield; in fact, in this antagonist I saw a reflection of Xifeng.

The worldbuilding ties in directly with Xifeng’s plot (and the Snow White tale), and it was gloriously epic. Xifeng maintains her youth and beauty by eating hearts, a gift granted to her by a dark god who longs to rise again. I won’t say too much because spoilers, but it seems like this series is foretelling the reincarnation of an ancient feuds between gods in the form of a feud between two women, one of them Xifeng. I am so here for this.

In short, this book is gory and creepy and features a delightfully unlikable anti-heroine who chooses power and ruthlessness over love and goodness again and again, while becoming hopelessly mired in a dark god’s vengeance plot. While this first book was dragged down somewhat by the inauspicious beginning, I’m certain the second book will be even better, now that Xifeng has been established and we can do away with all that exposition. A promising beginning to a promising series!