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.

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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!

Book Review: Roar by Cora Carmack

29939048Title: ROAR
Author: Cora Carmack
Release Date: 2017
Pages: 380
Publisher: Tor Teen
My Rating: ★★☆☆☆(1.5/5)
Review on Goodreads

Never in my life have I seen such a fantastic concept executed so, so terribly.

The first few chapters had me hooked. We are introduced to a world ruled by storms, forces of nature like hurricanes or tornadoes that attack randomly and can only be controlled by Stormlings, who are normally the ruling families (this reminded me a bit of the world in N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season, but it veered off in another direction at the end). The mythology behind storms and Stormlings is so utterly fascinating too, and there’s even a creepy cult that worships them! The book hits the ground running, with protagonist Aurora preparing for her arranged marriage to Cassius Locke, a Stormling prince. It is revealed that Aurora is powerless, with no ability to temper storms, and so she must be married off to Cassius so that her kingdom can have a Stormling’s protection.

It’s a fantastic premise. I even was fascinated by Cassius; it seemed like he was being built up to be a super problematic dude but possible ally and anti-love interest. From the get-go he was domineering and controlling and just plain gross, but it almost seemed like the author was gearing up to deconstruct the trope of this kind of YA love interest, since Cassius was built up as the villain. I was even more fascinated when it is revealed that Cassius may have an ulterior motive for wanting to marry Aurora. So, one night, Aurora follows him to try to learn something, and this is where everything went downhill, and a promising fantasy devolved into an eye-rolling, nauseating romance. (This makes so much sense now that I know this author has previously only written romance.)

Basically, Aurora learns that Stormlings are not the only people with storm abilities, that in fact you can gain abilities by acquiring the heart of a storm (at least I think – the explanation on this was a bit shaky). So she joins a band of “hunters” – people who hunt storms – in order to acquire magic for herself so she doesn’t have to marry Cassius. What follows is a bunch of pointless, boring chapters of Aurora “training” to fight storms and falling in love with Locke, one of the hunters.

The romance is sickeningly heteronormative and misogynistic. Locke is possessive and domineering, frequently making references to how much he wants to “own” Aurora and how he wants her to belong to him. There are also several instances where he talks about being unable to control himself around her and forcing decisions on her. He’s a moody asshole a lot, with changes in temper that remind me strongly of abusive behavior. When they’re training, there’s a scene where he becomes sexually aroused when he physically overpowers her (yeah, I’m serious). At so many points I literally stopped reading and said aloud, “That is so fucking gross.” One example that nearly had me retching was when Aurora tells Locke she’s a virgin, and he says, verbatim:

“I’m the first to touch this mouth? To taste it?…That means it’s mine. My territory. And I’m prepared to protect it, every hour of the day if I must.”

If I hadn’t been reading on my Kindle, I think I would have physically hurled the book away at that point.

Just as disturbing are the constant references to Aurora’s body by the men around her. I feel like I know more about what she looks like than anything else in this world, and what she looks like is the embodiment of a traditionally beautiful thin white woman. There is so much emphasis on her thinness, her slim fingers, the curve of her waist, her hips, her perfect white skin, her gorgeous blue eyes, her red lips…and this happens constantly, to the point of being fetishistic. It’s fucking creepy, almost like a horny teenage boy was writing this. It constantly took me out of the narrative to roll my eyes.

Aurora, the protagonist, is bland as hell. She could have been likeable! In fact I was intrigued by her at the start, a bookish and shy princess trying to put on a brave face for her husband-to-be. She’s naive and extremely sheltered and idealistic, but it makes sense given her upbringing, and it works well. I got Sansa Stark vibes, and Sansa Stark is one of my favorite characters of all time! But Aurora’s personality development falls victim to the romance, which completely overtakes the book. There are entire chapters (chapters! plural!) devoted only to Locke and Aurora flirting and talking about how much they want to get in each others’ pants. In between these chapters Aurora spends a lot of time doing absolutely nothing but traveling aimlessly (I’m really starting to hate ~quest~ novels).

There are some scenes that take us back to Aurora’s home, where Cassius and his family have taken advantage of Aurora’s absence. Aurora’s childhood friend Nova, who helped Aurora fake her kidnapping, is imprisoned by Cassius after being suspected of having helped kidnap her. These scenes of Nova and Cassius were ten times more interesting than anything happening with Locke and Aurora. Nova is a fascinating character with her own secrets and her own power. Her scenes with Cassius were some of the most engaging in the whole book.

And a technical issue: the dialogue. Oh, the dialogue. Besides being peppered with laughably dramatic declarations, it constantly lacks contractions. Perhaps this is a personal annoyance, but nobody speaks without contractions; it’s stiff and stilted and just plain weird. And why would common people in particular be speaking it? Not that I like it when authors do this to try to differentiate upper-class from lower-class, but at least then it would make some sense. Instead, in this book, dialogue switches between super casual and super formal, to the point of being disorienting.

Everything about this plot is bland and cliche, which is such a shame, because this concept is too good to waste like this! I’m literally sitting here grieving about how this book decides that two horny teenagers are more interesting than potentially sentient natural disasters! At least if the romance were well done it might have been bearable, but instead we have a boring caveman male love interest who falls head over heels for a mysterious beautiful girl at first sight and then constantly talks about how he wants to possess her. No thanks.

Book Review: The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin

31817749Title: THE STONE SKY
Author: N.K. Jemisin
Release Date: 2017
Pages: 396
Publisher: Orbit
My Rating: ★★★★☆(4.5/5)
Review on Goodreads

I will begin with my one complaint, which is not even completely a complaint. But I spent nearly the entire book feeling vaguely lost, unsure if I was lost because I didn’t remember enough of book two or because things were just getting confusing. For in the conclusion to The Broken Earth trilogy Jemisin does give you all the answers you want about the origin of the world and the Seasons and the stone eaters – I’m just not sure I understood all of it. That is a testament to the complexity of Jemisin’s worldbuilding. It is the type of book that, once you finish, you want to begin all over again just to absorb it properly. In fact I feel like I want to re-read the whole trilogy, making highlights and annotations and using post-its to connect things and truly understand. That is what I mean when I say my complaint isn’t really a complaint, but rather an appreciation for the richness of the story. But I do think there could have been a way to make things more clearer, more straightforward and blunt, to help hammer in understanding.

Like the first two books in the series, The Stone Sky deals in tragedy, in exploitation and cruelty, justice and injustice. There are so many themes and incidents and characters in this book that resonated so strongly with me; they so powerfully mirror the current state of the world that I was utterly mesmerized. Essun and Nassun are finally reunited, in the last chapters, and it is as heartbreaking as you might imagine. Mother and daughter have both been through unimaginable horrors, and come out the other side hardened. But underneath all the tragedy, there is a tide of furious, fierce hope, a hope that things can be better if you force them to be.

The worldbuilding is spectacular. I know this even if I didn’t completely understand it. Jemisin showcases a society rooted in biotechnology, that uses the Earth’s magic to create tech that will grants convenience, a strong metaphor for our world’s use of fossil fuels and the like. It is an impressively creative way to combine science and magic. Like all of Jemisin’s books, and the reason why she is heralded as one of today’s best fantasy writers, The Stone Sky’s worldbuilding borrows little from existing societies or histories. It is wholly original, fresh, truly fantastical, the sort of fantasy that isn’t just faux-(insert historical civilization here), but completely unique.

At the close of the trilogy, the story wraps up beautifully, in a way that explicates the series’ narrative style, which, as I have come to understand, is Hoa weaving a complex story. It’s absolutely brilliant. The entire series is a masterful achievement of epic, that quality in fantasy that makes chills run down your spine from the awe of it all. What a grand, epic adventure.

Book Review: Now I Rise by Kiersten White

22817331Title: NOW I RISE
Author: Kiersten White
Release Date: 2017
Pages: 471
Publisher: Delacorte Press
My Rating: ★★★★☆(4.5/5)
Review on Goodreads

One of the weaknesses of book one was that, being the first in a series, it had a lot of introductions to make. That lent itself to a lot of expository narrative that wasn’t particularly gripping, and as a result the plot was somewhat slow. This second book suffers no such issues

Picking up right where book one left off, Lada is back in Europe, trying to win back Wallachia, while Radu is by Mehmed’s side at all things. Alternating between both Lada and Radu’s perspectives, the narrative serves us two climaxes in paralleling story lines that leave us with a pair of disillusioned siblings.

From the get-go the plot races. Radu is sent to Constantinople to be a spy for Mehmed, while Lada tries to win alliances to get her throne back. Radu does so many things that weigh on his conscious that he grows disenchanted. Lada’s cruelty and viciousness grows even stronger, but in the process she also becomes jaded. The two siblings constantly think of one another, of how the other might do things, of how they need one another, and by the end I was longing for their reunion. Both of them also develop more complex feelings for Mehmed, still love, but mingled with other, more negative feelings as well, feelings that result from Mehmed’s actions as he himself grows in ambition and viciousness.

I’m also very pleased that all our characters continue to grow in complexity. I didn’t think I could love Radu more, but as we continue to learn more about him I find he’s quickly becoming one of my favorite male characters in literature. I appreciate Lada just as much, as well as Nazira, Radu’s wife, and the new character of Cyprian. White does such a fantastic job capturing the nuances of various characters. I’ve read a lot of books with forgettable characters so I love that the characters here are all so memorable and unique.

This is going to be a rather short review, as I don’t have too much to say other than that this book is just as well-written as the first only with a faster, more engaging plot. I will, however, say that the book ends with a spectacularly badass scene on Lada’s end, a scene that showcases how much her viciousness has grown. It was bloody beautiful. I’m so excited for the third part in this trilogy.

Book Review: The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee

29283884Title: THE GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE TO VICE AND VIRTUE
Author: Mackenzi Lee
Release Date: 2017
Pages: 513
Publisher: Katherine Tegan Books
My Rating: ★★★★★ (4.5/5)
Review on Goodreads

The first time I heard about this book I was attending a MadCap Writing Cross-Culturally Retreat. It came up when one of the presenters wondered whether there were any YA books that actively critiqued white male privilege. That’s really all I knew about the book, but I added it to my TBR. Discovering it was an adventure romp though 17th century Europe featuring two queer protagonists was an added bonus.

This book is unabashedly queer, and I love it for that. Perhaps it’s anachronistic, but I don’t even care. Henry “Monty” Montague, privileged son of an earl, is heading off for his Grand Tour of Europe, along with hist best friend Percy (a biracial young man) and his younger sister Felicity. Things don’t go quite as planned, however. After Monty pulls an embarrassing stunt, he and his company are set on by bandits. As they flee, they end up caught in an alchemical conspiracy which leads them to run from Marseilles to Barcelona to Venice to Santorini.

Part of the fun of this novel is the descriptions of all these cities – Mackenzi Lee has visited most of them, and it’s clear in her writing. Her details just feel authentic, vividly bringing to life these wildly different places frequented by the gang. In addition to her spectacular writing, her dialogue is absolute fire! There are so many entertaining conversations between these characters. And of course I have to mention the narration itself – it’s first person POV and being in Monty’s head is like being at a comedy club run by a rather sardonic fellow.

I loved Monty. I loved him in the way you have to love rakes and scoundrels and unlikeable characters (to the Great Comet crowd: he reminded me of Anatole!). He grows over the course of his adventure, with the help of Percy and Felicity, who are constantly calling him out on his privilege. I adored sweet and sensible Percy as well! The pair balanced each other quite well and their romantic scenes together were so sweet (and sexy). And of course, Felicity! To illustrate how badass she is, let me tell you that at one point she nonchalantly begins stitching herself up without even wincing. I loved her friendship with Percy and the bonding moments she had with her brother Monty. I’m so excited the sequel is going to be about her.

This was an absolutely wild ride from start to finish, but it’s also a book with substance. Not only does it tackle issues of race and gender, but it looks at mental illness as well. None of it feels forced, either. Sure, the conversations the characters have regarding these issues might be a bit anachronistic, but I don’t care. They’re executed well and they only serve to improve the characters’ relationships. This was such great fun!

Book Review: Into the Water by Paula Hawkins

33151805Title: INTO THE WATER
Author: Paula Hawkins
Release Date: 2017
Pages: 386
Publisher: Riverhead Books
My Rating: ★★★★☆ (4/5)
Review on Goodreads

Into the Water is the sort of book that would make an incredible BBC series, in the vein of Broadchurch. It’s set in a tiny and beautiful English town with a river running through it, which would provide us with ample gorgeous scenery. It’s a murder mystery, sort of – the main focus is this river/pond that women have drowned in throughout the years, stretching back to witchhunts in the 1700s. It also doesn’t focus on any one single character, but rather has something like ten different POVs.

I would say that is my one major criticism – there are way too many different POVs here. It works in something like epic fantasy, when you’re spread across different areas, but this is a tiny English town. We didn’t need to be in all those characters heads; several of the POVs (like Mark’s or Josh’s) added little to nothing to the plot. This would have been a much better, tighter book had it only focused on perhaps three characters (in my opinion the characters should have been Jules, Erin, and Lena, the latter two ended up being my favorites). The characters’ development would have been so much more satisfying, because I think the author truly has some great characters in Jules, Lena, and Erin. My other pet peeve regarding the POVs is that they alternated between third and first person. I’m not saying this can never work – N.K. Jemisin and Marie Lu have both done it well – but here it was simply jarring.

My other criticism – which goes hand in hand with the aforementioned – is that I think the author could have delved more into the mystery and symbolism of the drowning pool. I really loved the aesthetic of this novel; the few times the author delved into the meaning and metaphor of the pool and what it means to be in the water I felt like she was on the precipice of something truly profound, but she could never quite get there. I feel like there was so much more she could have explored particularly regarding water’s symbol as a purifier – but I suppose, in the end, this is a thriller, not a philosophical tome.

And thrilling it is! At the beginning of this book, it’s not even clear that there is a mystery to be solved: Jules receives a call that her older sister Nel is dead, but most people think it’s a suicide. It’s only after more and more secrets are dug up (mainly because of the determination of Erin, a newcomer to the small town) that the suicide turns into a murder investigation. The mystery is gripping and the reveals are all interconnected and layered atop one another, with one thread uniting them: the cruelty of men towards women.

Misogyny was explored pretty openly in this book, and while some people might think it was heavy-handed, I actually liked that it was tackled head-on. It felt very realistic to me and it was satisfying to see the book ending with a rather healthy relationship between two women who both need each other for support.

In general, I liked this much better than The Girl in the Train. While the two books share some similarities, I think Into the Water is more realistic, with the kind of reveal that makes perfect sense in a sad, quiet sort of way.