Book Review: The Witch and the Tsar by Olesya Salnikova Gilmore

I fully admit this is one of those books that I splurged on the hardback edition because the cover is so beautiful. More than that, I’m also endlessly fascinated by Slavic and Russian folklore and history, and the tale of Baba Yaga. This is “The Witch and the Tsar” by Olesya Salnikova Gilmore, a very prescient historical fantasy by an ethnic Russian American author and lawyer.

I really enjoyed this one, mostly how the author was able to deftly weave the stories of the old pagan religion of Russia in with myths of witches and magic and the encroachment of the Orthodox Christian Church. This is told as the real story of Yaga, a half-goddess, half-mortal vedma, or witch, who prefers to think of herself as a healer who communes with animals, and her connection with Anastasia, the tsarina and wife of the tsar who would become Ivan the Terrible. But Ivan the Terrible is manipulated not by court politics but by forces older than any of the new Russia can possibly understand.

Even though this was fiction, I found it endlessly fascinating how even in the 1500s, Russia’s history was dark, dystopian and dominated by bloodthirsty autocrats, carrying echoes of today. I liked how the author described Yaga’s magic; she described the old gods in a unique, non-tropey way, as if they are only real if you believe in them, and the belief and the memory of the people is fading. I liked how this was a woman-led fantasy in which the women were the ones in the story who really had the power and influence behind the scenes, while wrestling with their own demons.

I did not like how some of the narrative felt like a forced sequential rush of events instead of being present and immersed in Yaga’s world. It felt a bit like the author was stampeding to get from one phase of her life to the next, but there were some wonderful descriptions of gods and a conflicted love for Russia and the old ways that kept me riveted till the end.

Book Review: Remote Control by Nnedi Okorafor

Nnedi Okorafor’s Remote Control is a gorgeous novella of impeccable worldbuilding. In a future Ghana in which people are glued to their phones, robocops patrol streets, and autonomous vehicles mingle with foot traffic, a mysterious corporation called LifeGen controls technology behind the scenes. A young girl the people call the Adopted Angel of Death, also known as Sankofa, has the power to end life and destroy any technology she touches after a strange alien artifact lands on Earth near the girl’s beloved shea tree on her family’s farm.

Loved everything about this book. Okorafor painted Sankofa as a complex character, doomed to wander from town to town with nothing but her pride, making connections and only to ruin them in the most devastating ways. She’s shown brilliantly as a child with experience beyond her years, and yet still a child whose closest companion is a fox, who climbs trees and talks to cats, who is asked to wear a hijab because of the awful things she has seen and done.

The worldbuilding in such a short space was stunning. Sankofa is an anachronism in a highly technical world, and you get the idea that there is much more going on than meets the eye; but it still feels as if a novella length is enough to tell the story. Okorafor’s world is rich in imagination, detail and folklore, layers of ancient and modern tradition, and thrumming with the incredible speed at which a community can turn into a violent mob when faced with something that does not belong in their world but cannot be stopped.  

Book Review: The Final Strife by Saara El-Arifi

I’m back to doing book reviews on my blog! Took a long hiatus due to burnout, but I am taking a different approach with them. Here’s the most recent book I finished.

This book had me at epic fantasy with roots in Ghanian and Arabian folklore, and a sapphic enemies-to-lovers romance.

“The Final Strife” by Saara El-Arifi is Book 1 in a trilogy that centers on the main character Sylah. In this repressive empire on this dystopian world, people are divided into castes based on their blood. Embers, who have red blood, have the most power because they can do bloodwerk magic; using their blood to activate rune patterns. Dusters are second-class citizens and Ghostings are slaves who once rebelled against the ruling class and have been punished for centuries by their overseers dismembering their tongues and hands.

Sylah is one of the Stolen, Ember children kidnapped from their families, raised from infancy to compete in trials to choose new leaders; sleeper agents who will overthrow the government from the inside. But her people are killed and Sylah becomes a drug addict, hopeless and alone. Until she meets Anoor, the Duster raised in her place who needs help with training to compete in the trials.

The “revenge against the colonizer” trope has become so commonplace in fantasy now that frankly, I’m tired of it. There’s always some Chosen One who’s going to overthrow an evil empire. But I loved this book because the characters were complex and it didn’t go the way I expected. Loved the slow-burn romance and that Sylah’s bisexual. I also appreciated the way the author handled her drug addiction; it was sensitive without being trite.

Will definitely be reading more in this series.

Book Review: Olga Dies Dreaming by Xochitl Gonzalez

I had such mixed feelings about “Olga Dies Dreaming” by Xochitl Gonzalez. On the one hand, it’s a beautifully written book, with simply gorgeously crafted sentences, an interesting protagonist, and important insights into the Puerto Rican independence movement as well as the immigrant experience. On the other hand, I felt as if the plot was trying to do too much and grew muddled from the middle onwards. 

This is the story of Olga Acevedo, a wedding planner for wealthy clients who has reached a certain level of celebrity in her hometown of New York, appearing on morning shows giving lifestyle advice; and Pietro, her brother, a Congressman who’s done important work for his people but also made questionable ethical decisions. 

It is also a love letter to New York, the New York as second-generation Puerto Rican families experience it instead of the New York you most often see in movies and musicals. Through Olga’s eyes, I saw all the sights, smells, changes and joys of her neighborhood, a New York where you could still find yourself in a small town among a tight-knit community that stood by you no matter what. 

At first you think it is going to be a contemporary women’s novel or romance, with the single Olga unlucky in her love life and lost in her career journey. But then the plot complicates, converging on a backdrop of political intrigue. This is also the story of Olga and Pietro and their complicated relationship with their mother, who abandoned their family when they were teenagers to pursue independence for Puerto Rico at any cost and becomes radicalized toward the violent kind of revolution. We never actually meet their mother, except through passive-aggressive, manipulative letters that she sends them throughout their lives to let them know she’s still watching. 

I think in the end we were supposed to admire Blanca, the mother, and all the sacrifices that must be made for resistance and revolution, but I did not. I liked her the least out of everybody in the book. I found her to be an interesting villain, a character I hated for the way that she used everyone she encountered in order to further her own agenda; which, though a worthy cause, didn’t necessarily make her a good person. That’s the kind of villain I like, though, someone who’s not complicated simply because they’re sympathetic. 

I loved maybe the first half of the book, which I found joyous and prescient; and then I felt like it lost its thread and tried to do too much with too many themes. It became not just a book about Olga and Pietro and their awakening as people independent from their mother’s psychological tricks, but the Puerto Rican-American experience as a whole. I’m still giving it four stars because I did think it was well written even so, but I have some complicated feelings about this book. An intriguing debut to say the least. 

Book Review: Jade Legacy by Fonda Lee

Wow. The thrilling conclusion to the miraculous Green Bone Saga left me breathless till the very end, not wanting it to end and to find myself torn asunder from this incredible universe. Typically I am wary of fantasy series and have a bit of a stigma about trilogies; so often they are publishing’s way to make a commercial success of an idea that only has the stamina for one book. This was thankfully not the case with Jade Legacy by Fonda Lee, the third and final book of this gripping and adventure-filled Asian-inspired fantasy series. 

In this book, a 713-page whopper, we are once again thrust into the fortunes, tragedies and loves of the Kaul family, the leaders of the No Peak clan as it seeks to assert itself in the geopolitical tides beyond Kekon’s borders. A now familiar and well-loved cast of characters has become as familiar as a family we’ve grown up with, watching with awe as they earn our trust, respect and loyalty. Make no mistake, I’m a Green Bone loyalist. I am a complete and total nerd for this series. I’m not even a big fan of martial arts flicks or gangster movies and books, but this series is so much more than that. This series won my heart and makes me want to be green in the soul. 

In the third book we watch Anden find love, become a doctor, use his influence with the clan as a way to win international respect for jade medicine, and soar to even greater heights, all without using jade to become the killer he had once feared he’d become at age 18. We follow Shae as she finds love with her longtime advisor, gives birth to a daughter, and realizes that what makes jade special is not the gemstones themselves and their unique power, but the integrity of the warriors who wear them. We also see her grow the Weather Man’s office into a complex, powerful international enterprise. And finally there is Hilo, who started out as a hotheaded, reckless young Pillar and has since evolved into a compassionate leader who commands respect even from his enemies. 

That’s the core part of this family but then it has grown, to include Lan’s son Niko, Hilo’s children, and others. One of the things I really love about this series is its ability to make you care about even minor, unlikeable characters who have done despicable things. We meet Bero, for example, the jade-addicted youngster eager to throw his weight around, in the opening scene of the first book, and that thread is carried through to the final scene, but not in the way you would expect. Even cruel baruken gangsters (half-blood jade-wearing mobsters) spill the beans to protect their secret families. 

In this new world the clans must contend with geopolitical forces and encroaching modernity, like the radical terrorists of the Clanless Future Movement, who see the clans and the Green Bone way of life as obsolete. You see not only characters evolve, with the stakes raised ever higher until you’re clinging to the story with a torrent of emotions, but the clans themselves. 

Infusing an impressive cast of characters with such warmth takes great skill and sophistication. Then there is the Green Bone way of life itself. Foreigners see it as barbaric and outdated, but when you become immersed in it, when you follow everyone’s story arcs and the bold, immutable dignity with which they lead their lives, you realize that this is a way of life that is noble, and one worth preserving even as the irrepressible tide of modernity seeks to crush it. Like Shae, you realize that what makes No Peak rise above its enemies and secure its place on the world stage is not any special advantage other than family. It is a family filled with unconditional love for its disparate, unwanted, cast-aside parts, and these parts fit into a puzzle that propels No Peak, and jade itself, into a place of destiny. 

The clan is my blood, and the Pillar is its master, as the oath goes. I swear allegiance as a reader and a fan. 

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My Top 10 Books of 2021

As you can see I have been pushing these last two weeks to squeeze in a few more book reviews at the end of the year and make a final crunch of progress on my Goodreads 2021 Reading Challenge, but I am going to call it quits for the year at 44 books. I am still pretty pleased with myself. That is more than last year, which I believe was only 30. My goal had been 50, but that will just be next year’s target.  

For my last blog post of the year I will round up my top 10 favorites of those 44. I didn’t write reviews for all 44, as I go through phases of review fatigue where I need breaks from writing them. But this year I tried to see reviews as a sort of reading log, taking notes to remember what I read, and I kept them short and concise. That has helped me be more consistent with writing them. 

The first six months of 2021 I was trying to figure out a focus for this blog so I didn’t do a whole lot of book reviews. But the last six months of the year, I really got into keeping up with them. I find it’s an easy source of fresh blog content and if people like your taste in books, they’ll engage with you more. Book lovers are a wonderful community of folks from all walks of life. Without further ado…

My top 10 of 2021: 

Jade City by Fonda Lee

I’m currently reading Jade Legacy so expect that review in January. But Jade City is the start of the Green Bone Saga and it is simply fantastic. Asian-inspired epic fantasy with martial arts action and jade gemstones that give warriors wearing them special powers. Read my review here

A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine

Space opera about the arrival of Ambassador Mahit Dzmare at the Teixcalaanli Empire to investigate the murder of her predecessor. I just love fantasy inspired by non Western cultures and there were some really great examples of that published the last few years. Read my review here

Soul Mountain by Gao Xingjian

A wonderful literary epic set in China of the romantic and yet complicated early Communist past told in alternating points of view. 

All About the Benjamins by Zev Good

You rarely read self-published literary contemporary character studies anymore; it’s all vampire romances and cozy mysteries. So this was a refreshing change of pace about a family man who comes out as gay later in life. Read my review here

The Orchid and The Lion by Gabriel Hargrave

The best self-published book that was released in 2021 that I read all year. A wonderful erotic space opera about a femme gay sex worker and his trans man partner set against the backdrop of political intrigue. Read my review here.

The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo

A wonderful, literary novella with more Asian-inspired fantasy. Read my Goodreads review here

Odessa by Jonathan Hill

A wonderful graphic novel epic following a family’s journey through a dystopian setting. Read my review here

Lonely Receiver by Zac Thompson

A graphic novel about love and what it means to be human or robot. Read my review here. 

Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence

Finally got around to reading this grimdark classic. It’s an excellent study of a morally grey character, too. Read my review here

The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken (Vish Puri, #3) by Tarquin Hall

Lovely escapism in the form of a cozy mystery set in India following the travails of Indian PI Vish Puri. I definitely plan to read more of this series in 2022.

Looking ahead at next year’s reading goals

Thank you for reading my blog and following my reviews this year! Reading goals for next year include:

  • Read 50 books (1 book a week)
  • Be more consistent with posting reviews and keep them short and concise
  • Read more contemporary literary fiction (i.e. more Pulitzer and National Book Award winners, etc.). I get too fixated on science fiction and fantasy sometimes, immersed in the genres for my own writing and what I naturally gravitate to for pleasure reading, that I forget to expand my intellectual horizons.
  • Read more self-published authors; they always get a lot more engagement than traditionally published books do
  • Mix up my genres. I would like to keep reading epic fantasy trilogies but also historical fiction, mysteries and nonfiction.

Until next year, friends in literature! Thanks for coming along with me for the second year of this humble little blogging adventure of mine. More to come.

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Book Review: Mouth Full of Ashes by Briana Morgan

My Kindle became well-used during the pandemic, which finally made me get over my stigma about e-books. But then I found myself missing the tactile sensation of holding a book in your hands and flipping through the pages, so I’ve bought more paperbacks and patronized the library more often lately. There is just something about the smell of a new book. 

I bought the paperback for “Mouth Full of Ashes” by Briana Morgan and didn’t regret the purchase. I often find myself disappointed by self-published books, which is why I usually buy them in ebook form; if the quality of the writing stinks, at least it’s not taking up space on my shelf. But I was glad to have “Mouth Full of Ashes” on my shelf. For one thing the cover art is beautiful and minimalist, and the formatting is well done; no large text with skinny margins. It was professional, and edited cleanly. I feel like that is something you always need to remark on for self-published books. It’s so rare that it’s remarkable sometimes. 

“Mouth Full of Ashes” is the queer vampire story you wish traditional publishers would embrace but since they have decided that we are in a post-Twilight era, vampires are hackneyed now. Indeed, I too have a slight stigma about vampires. There is just so much vampire content out there, it’s difficult to do something original with the subject anymore. But I really loved “Mouth Full of Ashes.” It was just the kind of escapist, comfort horror that I was looking for. 

This is the story of Callie Danoff and her grief over the loss of her sister in a car accident. The family, still in mourning, moves back to her mother’s hometown, a place with a boardwalk and carnival and a string of disappearances of local girls. Callie’s brother Ramsay meets a guy who works at the carnival on a dating app, and they fall in with a gang of pickpockets – Jabari, Elijah, and Maeve and Tahlia. Soon Callie finds herself pulled along with the maelstrom of this gang, and finds out the truth about the darkness on the edge of town. 

The writing style was strong and vivid, with lovely descriptions that made me feel as if I was right there in the action, smelling and hearing the sights on the boardwalk. It had a literary pastiche to it that I appreciated. The characters of Callie and her family were well-developed but I wanted a little more history and background of the vampire gang; we only really got surface level with them. At first I found it hard to believe that Callie would feel like she knew Maeve so well after only two days, but I really enjoyed their romance and its constant pull of danger. Part of me wanted this book to be longer to get more back story but part of me thought this was the perfect length for an escapist, dark circus fantasy. 

All in all, well done, and I’d read more by this author. 

Book Review: A Spindle Splintered by Alix Harrow

At first I wasn’t sure how I felt about this story. I was sold by a feminist retelling of Sleeping Beauty, but when I started reading I realized how heavily influenced by Disney versions of fairy tales and the Spider-verse this was and I started thinking it was too Millennial for me. Yes, I am one, but I’m at the back end of the generation and my sensibilities are not superhero and Disney, but more old-school folk tales and the science of quantum parallel universes. 

But I love Alix Harrow’s writing style, and it was only a novella, so I took a deep breath and pressed on through the assault on the meta senses. I found myself rather enjoying the story, in the end. Revealing too much of why I enjoyed it would give away too many spoilers for such a short book. But let’s just say that the Disney movie ‘verse was just one parallel universe, the parallel universe that meant something to the main character. 

Let me back up first, though. This is the story of Zinnia Gray on her twenty-first birthday. Zinnia has her own Sleeping Beauty story, afflicted with a rare and uncurable deadly disease from early childhood. Her best friend, Charm, and her parents want to make this the best birthday ever for her, because they know it’s her last. Zinnia is so obsessed with fairy tales that she went to college early to major in folklore. The Sleeping Beauty tale was always her favorite, because only dying girls like Sleeping Beauty. Charm sets up a sleeping-beauty birthday party for her best friend, complete with a spinning wheel. When Zinnia pricks her finger, she tumbles through time. 

The story eventually grew on me, because of the aforementioned spoilers. It is quite Millennial but not as obnoxiously Millennial as I feared. This is a meta fairy tale book for people who are in love with stories and the magic that narrative has over our lives. I also really loved the illustrations. I bought the hardcover edition and almost every page is illustrated by Arthur Rackham, who also gets a meta mention in the story, to blow your mind even further. I really like to see books like this that break the bounds of storytelling, halfway between a graphic novel and a proper novella. 

Overall, this was just a fun, refreshing read, something to curl up with by a crackling fire with the snow outside and forget about the world for awhile. This is going to be a series of fractured fairy tale novellas and I don’t think I loved it enough to keep going in the series, but for the right reader this would be the perfect blend of escapism, feminism and charm. 

Book Review: Jade War by Fonda Lee

Often fantasy trilogies disappoint me. I find publishers want authors to write trilogies for the money, so authors think they need to write trilogies. They had a great idea for a solo book, but then the idea loses its legs and it wanes its brightness in the second and third book, like the author was just phoning it in. Not so with The Green Bone Saga by Fonda Lee. 

I read “Jade War,” the second book in this amazing trilogy, and I was just as wowed as I was by the first book. Once again we return to the richly detailed world of Kekon, a place I never wanted to leave as soon as I finished the first book. I felt like I was at the dining table eating supper with old friends, immersed once again in their strange and wonderful world steeped in tradition and sacrifice. “Jade City” was ambitious enough, the story of the war between the clans and a very regional plot, focused on the No Peak clan and the struggles of the Kaul family. Once again we journey into a world where the island of Kekon is the only place in the world that mines jade, a special gemstone that gives its wearers superhuman powers. 

In “Jade War,” the author brings in the geopolitical tensions of the greater world. The No Peak clan tries to form trade partnerships and diplomatic alliances with Espenia, sending the Kauls’ foster son Anden to study there. At first it feels like an exile, but Anden soon finds Green Bones even in Port Massy, Green Bones that must hide their jade and who face prejudice for being Kekonese. He finds the local clan and its Pillar, even though these Green Bones would never be green enough for Janloon. He finds his first love. 

Meanwhile, war is brewing, and the drug SN1 or shine, which allows non-native Kekonese to wear jade, is doing a brisk black market trade. A confluence of tightly ordered events, like jigsaw puzzles, smashes together. Once again we delve into the loyalties, loves and pain of the Pillar of the No Peak clan and his Weather Man, his sister Shae. Only now Hilo is a family man, with two babies of his own and the late Pillar Lan’s son Niko. Jade War cemented my first crush on a fictional character. How much do I love Shae? She’s everything a strong, badass woman leader should be, a woman not afraid to fight for dominance by any means necessary while also showing her vulnerability. 

The political machinations have been building up to the thrilling conclusion. From the hints and chess pieces in play, I hope “Jade Legacy” will be about how Kekon joins the modern era and the world interfaces with jade in a way in which Green Bones can still keep their culture and way of life. I’m not sure I want to live on Kekon but I was thrilled to be a tourist in this crazy, awesome world that blends Asian cultures and martial arts action. Luckily, I don’t have to leave just yet; I have one last book to read. I hope Shae and Anden will find love again, Hilo will grow into his role as not just a local clan boss fighting for turf but a globally-focused leader who knows his place in the world; and Green Bones will cling to a new, evolved legacy. But I have a feeling this author will just make me cry and I must admit I am looking forward to it. 

Graphic Novel Review: Radiant Black Vol. 1 from Image Comics

I had to snap a picture of my copy of “Radiant Black,” published by Image Comics, because this cover art is exactly what I love about comics. For this comic exclusive variant covers were created for local comic book shops. This was the cover created for my local comic book shop, Things From Another World.

“Radiant Black” was written by Kyle Higgins, with artist Marcelo Costa, and guest writers and artists for various chapters. Fans of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers will love this but even if you don’t know a thing about them like me, you’ll appreciate the story.

Radiant Black follows failed novelist Nathan Burnett, who just turned thirty and moves back home from LA, saddled with impossible credit card debt and no published books to propel him to the fame and fortune of his dreams. Instead he’s back home with his parents, who tell him to be practical, to get a real job, like driving for a rideshare service.

He hangs out with his best friend from high school, Marshall; the two of them used to dream up story ideas together and plan for the future. One night after an evening at a bar, the buddies encounter a strange black orb floating around in the sky that suddenly envelopes around Nathan and encases him in a strange suit with superpowers.

In one of his first acts as a reluctant superhero, Nathan learns there are others with suits like his – only one’s a bank robber. He encounters them and they get in a fight. The bank robber leaves behind a bag of cash. Instead of taking it to pay off his debts, Nathan turns it into the police. Moments like that define a person’s character, and that’s just the kind of person Nathan is.

This was a wonderful, classic superhero tale, fresh and briskly paced. Nathan is the type of protagonist to whom everyone who’s ever had creative dreams can relate. The story isn’t predictable though, and through some dead ends and twists and turns, it takes you on a ride you won’t soon forget.

I really enjoyed the art as well, and its use of light and dark tones to set the atmosphere and mood. All in all, a lovely story and engaging book.