Tag Archives: Fantasy

Review for The Crystal Ribbon by Celeste Lim

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My Summary: Li Jing lives in a village that is protected by the Great Golden Huli Jing. Her name promises a great destiny but also invites mockery from other children. Because her family is poor, at the age of eleven, she is sold to be the bride and caretaker of a three-year-old boy. Her new home brings her suffering and more danger, until she decides to run away. With the help of some friends, she sets off on a quest to go back home and find herself.

Review:

After reading Grace Lin’s Where the Mountain Meets the Moon series, I was craving more [#ownvoices] middle grade Chinese fantasy, and The Crystal Ribbon was exactly what I needed. Set in the Song Dynasty and drawing on Chinese folklore, this book brings to life a wonderful tale of resilience, family, and friendship.

The Crystal Ribbon has some Cinderella-esque elements to it. Instead of an evil stepmother and two stepsisters, she has a mother-in-law and two sisters-in-law who are nasty to her and treat her like a servant because they can. Thankfully, she’s not alone. There is a kind cook who looks after her well-being, and she meets a spider and a nightingale who help her along the way, among others. She also has a letter from her younger brother and memories of her family to hold onto.

Far from being helpless, Jing fights against the people and forces that try to beat her down. She plots and acts to escape her horrible situations and doesn’t give up despite the odds being stacked against her. Her story is one of hope and light in dark times, something I needed for my current low in life.

One of the magical things about reading this book was the familiar cultural references woven into the story. From the history, to the literary allusions, to the holiday celebrations, to the superstitions and religious/spiritual practices, I felt at home. Even some of the language used was taken directly from common Chinese sayings/idioms.

Though it’s not a horror story, there were definitely some creepy elements and scenes to this book. Jing is forced to be out at night during the Ghost Festival and witnesses the supernatural come to life. Also, a prominent part of the story are the jing (精) that Jing’s name is a homophone for. I’d loosely translate jing as fae. They are supernatural beings that can take different forms, and you never know whether they are friend or foe, for the sinister jing feed on the chi of humans. The good and powerful ones serve as protectors of villages.

I have two minor criticisms of the book. One is that the romanization wasn’t consistent throughout. In some places, ch was used instead of q. A notable example was chi, though that might simply be because chi is familiar to English-speakers. Another thing that didn’t follow consistent rules was the spacing in disyllabic names. Some had spaces between syllables and others didn’t.

My other criticism was that the prose read awkwardly in some places because it sounded like the narration (first-person from Jing’s perspective) was directed to someone who’s a cultural outsider. As a result, it came off as overly explain-y and heavy-handed with the info-dumping.

For example, the dizi, which is a transverse flute, was described as being a “Chinese transverse flute.” However, you would call it a Chinese flute and not just a flute when the default “flute” is assumed to be the Western flute. In a story where Chinese culture is the norm, there wouldn’t be a need to refer to dizi as a Chinese flute.

Another example is the references to the “lunar calendar” and “Lunar New Year.” To someone who was immersed in Chinese culture during the Song Dynasty, the calendar they used wouldn’t be referred to as a “lunar calendar,” nor would the New Year be called the Lunar New Year since the lunar calendar was the default calendar. When someone in the West says “lunar calendar,” the lunar descriptor is marking it as in opposition to the solar/Gregorian calendar, which is used as the standard calendar.

Other than those small nitpicky things though, I absolutely adored the story.

Recommendation: Lovingly recommended. Trigger warnings for extreme physical punishments/abuse.

Review for Zahrah the Windseeker by Nnedi Okorafor

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Note: This book was published with the author’s name as Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu.

My Summary: Zahrah is an outcast for being born with dadalocks, which according to rumor, mark her as having special powers. The only person who doesn’t shun her is her best friend Dari. Then, when the two are the process of exploring her newfound power, Dari is hurt. Zahrah is the only one who can save him. She must venture into the Forbidden Greeny Jungle to face her fears alone in order to find the cure.

Review:

Like Akata Witch, Zahrah the Windseeker is packed with creativity unlike anything I’ve seen in fantasy. The wondrous, the strange, and the terrifying collide in this coming-of-age adventure.

Through lush details and immersive storytelling, we are introduced to Zahrah’s world, one where Earth is but a myth that people tell stories about. Zahrah lives in the Ooni Kingdom, which is home to a diverse array of peoples but isn’t free from prejudice. Those who are born dada, with the telltale dadalocks that contain vines, are feared for the rumored powers. Through Zahrah’s character and the Forbidden Greeny Jungle, the story explores the nature of prejudice and the role of fear and ignorance in motivating discrimination and isolation.

The worldbuilding for this story blends fantasy and science fiction elements, with magic and technology coexisting or fusing together. Like in Akata Witch, there’s an emphasis on knowledge and learning, which I absolutely adore. Zahrah and Dari visit a library to obtain more information on the mysterious Greeny Jungle that everyone is warned away from stepping into. They find a guide by a group of people known as the Great Explorers of Knowledge and Adventure Organization, who are dedicated to exploring and documenting the depths of the Greeny Jungle for posterity and fighting against the fear that surrounds it.

With this field guide in hand, Zahrah sets off to find the cure that will save Dari from dying from the poison that infects him during their first visit to the Jungle. The guide isn’t complete, so Zahrah has to fill in some of those gaps for herself through first-hand experience. Lots of it. The wonderful thing about this adventure of hers is that you never what will get thrown at her next. Just when you think it can’t get worse, it gets worse. More importantly, Zahrah is absolutely terrified throughout the whole ordeal. You are there with her as she is running, screaming, hiding, flailing, etc.

I think sometimes people get caught up in the idea that not feeling or expressing fear is the ideal way to be a kickass girl, but that’s a reductive and unrealistic way of understanding fear and bravery. It’s perfectly natural to feel afraid of things that are going to come and attack you out of nowhere. And unless you’re some kind of trained martial arts expert, you’re not going to know exactly how to handle something jumping at you from the bushes. You act on your untrained reflexes and it’s a mess.

The author isn’t hesitant to show Zahrah’s awkwardness and screw-ups. The important thing is that she slowly but surely learns from her mistakes as she faces these tough situations and gets smarter and more experienced at preparing for what’s ahead. And she persists in spite of the overwhelming fear because the risk is worth the reward: saving her friend Dari. It’s vital to teach girls not to see fear as weakness, and to demonstrate that they can cope with fear in order to do the things that matter.

In my opinion, Zahrah is a perfect balance of a flawed but admirable heroine. Although she has special powers, she isn’t all-knowing or all-powerful, and much of her strength comes from her emotional resilience rather than anything outwardly apparent or flashy. This is what makes her real and compelling protagonist. Beyond the speculative elements, her character development is what carries the story.

There were three problematic lines I noted. One was the association of menstruation with womanhood, which is trans-exclusionary. The second was a place where “men and women” was used to the exclusion of non-binary people. The last was some ableist language where Zahrah calls Dari a “lunatic.” Other than that, there wasn’t anything majorly problematic that I noticed.

Recommendation: Highly recommended to fantasy-lovers. Although it’s categorized as YA, since the main character is fourteen and there isn’t any sexual content, it would be appropriate for upper middle grade readers as well.

Review for A Crown of Wishes by Roshani Chokshi

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Note: This book is the sequel to The Star-Touched Queen, which I reviewed here. The book can stand alone, but I still recommend reading The Star-Touched Queen first.

My Summary: Gauri has been exiled from Bharata and thrown into the hands of her rival and enemy kingdom, Ujijain, by her own brother. Vikram is the heir to the Ujijain throne and seeks legitimacy and validation from people who scorn his common background. For the sake of claiming their respective thrones, they set aside their enmity and enter the Tournament of Wishes together. Danger looms on all sides as they go through grueling trials to win the prize of a wish, but the real danger may be the prize itself because as they say, you should be careful what you wish for.

Review:

Trigger/content warnings: mentions/discussion of transphobia

My word for The Star-Touched Queen was “gorgeous,” and the word for this sequel is “swoon-worthy.” Roshani Chokshi further builds upon her world with more breathtaking descriptions and whirlwind adventures in a previously unexplored realm, Alaka. Alaka is a kingdom in the Otherworld and the home of Kubera, the Lord of Treasures and guardian of the North.

As with the first book, we have plenty of riddles, puzzles, and things that are not quite what they appear to be in A Crown of Wishes. Add capricious immortals to the picture, and you never quite know what to expect. The whole story is a mystery gift waiting to be unwrapped and unboxed, brimming with magic and beauty.

A Crown of Wishes is more action-packed than its predecessor, but the narrative doesn’t lose sight of the heart of the story, which lies in the emotional and psychological worlds of its main characters, Gauri and Vikram. Beneath the veneer of ambition and confidence lie regrets, doubts, deeply human vulnerabilities.

And of course, we have the romance of the first book but with a different dynamic. Gauri and Vikram make a very entertaining duo. Gauri is very much “fight first, ask questions later” while Vikram is much more of an academic and subtle type who will scope things out and plot accordingly. Gauri is cynical and heavily guarded whereas Vikram is a person of starry-eyed idealism and faith, making them very much an “opposites attract” couple.

If you want slow-burn, this is slow-burn but with endless bickering to fill the space. Their barbed exchanges are full of humor and wit and are in some cases laugh-out-loud hilarious. Of course, it’s not all jokes and banter; they have more serious moments of reciprocal disclosure and deeper bonding to give their dynamic substance. But the bickering is definitely a highlight. The alternating narrative viewpoints (first-person for Gauri, third-person for Vikram) help bring the two and their dynamic to life.

This book brings back familiar faces (my favorite included!) and introduces some new characters as well. Chief among these new characters is the curious and earnest Aasha, who is a secondary viewpoint character in addition to Gauri and Vikram. She is the youngest of a group of sister courtesans who feed on desire and whose touch is poison (what a concept). All she wants is to experience being human, something that was denied her when she was turned into a vishakanya from a mortal at a young age. She is the definition of a precious cinnamon roll, and you can’t help but love her and wish the best for her. On the plus side, she’s most likely bisexual based on a statement she made. I have been starved for bisexual representation in historical fantasy, so Aasha is a welcome addition to the small circle of bi girls in fantasy.

Between all of the things I’ve mentioned, A Crown of Wishes was a jewel of a read. However, there was one thing that bothered me in the story. In one scene, Vikram recalls a time when he was fifteen and tried to sneak into the harem of his father’s court by dressing as a courtesan. He managed to pass as a woman and was accosted by a womanizing palace guard as a result, forcing him to reveal his disguise. Although I’m down for guys looking great in drag, I didn’t like the way it was played off for humor. The context of his crossdressing is very reminiscent, however unintentionally, of the transphobic rhetoric directed against trans women about them supposedly being “predatory men who dress as women to gain access to women’s spaces.” There was also a line later on where Vikram says, “I considered wearing your (Gauri’s) outfit, but chest hair lacks certain feminine charms.” Rather than affirming gender nonconformity, these bits reinforced the stigma against it, and the book would have been better off without them.

Recommendation: Recommended with warnings for incidental transphobia.

Review for The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi

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My Summary: Maya’s horoscope promises death and destruction with her marriage. Her father marries her off for political convenience, and through a strange twist of events, she is wed to Amar, king of Akaran. This marriage brings both passion and secrets, and unraveling those secrets becomes vital to Maya’s survival and the fate of all the realms.

Review:

If I were to pick one word to describe this book, I’d have to say “gorgeous.” The descriptions are so vivid and textured that they practically leap off the page at you. I wish I had this level of command over language.

Some people might find the story to be a bit slow, but personally, I liked that I got to immerse myself in the details and rhythms and tucked-away corners of Maya’s world. I hate seeing wasted potential when it comes to worldbuilding in fantasy, and The Star-Touched Queen delivers the amount of substance I want. And here, the worldbuilding isn’t just a superficial info dump to dazzle for a moment; it is interwoven with Maya and Amar’s evolving relationship, it creates suspense and tension through the mysteries and secrets that emerge, and it plays a part in Maya’s character development as she explores not only physical spaces but also her inner psychological landscape.

I think the thing that really captivated me about this story was that beyond the “saving the realms” arc, the heart of the narrative is actually about self-discovery and the struggle to find agency when your environment is restrictive. Interpretation and perspective are key elements in Maya’s growth as she is pushing the boundaries of what she can be. Even though there are some external constraints placed upon us, a lot of our limits are also self-imposed, and this story definitely tackles that theme.

Another thing that stood out to me is Maya’s ambition. In a society where girls are taught to not reach too high or too far, it’s important to have stories that challenge that, that say, be ambitious, dare to aim high, channel the power you have. Watching Maya make decisions explicitly based on ambition was satisfying and encouraging to me as someone who has held myself back out of self-doubt or internalized beliefs that I shouldn’t take up too much space or want too much.

If you’re tired of YA where girls are constantly being saved by guys, then this is your book. Maya is truly the heroine of her own story. Even when confronted by obstacles, she refuses to back down and accept defeat. Her power and her growth shine through in the last one-third of the story in particular, building up to one hell of an ending.

The supporting characters don’t steal the spotlight at the expense of the main character, but they’re still memorable and lovable in their own ways. Gupta is a nerd in the classic sense–well-read, prone to gushing about random subjects that capture his interest, not that great with social niceties–and I love that about him because it’s like seeing a fictional version of myself. That said, my absolute favorite supporting character is Kamala, who is a talking, flesh-eating horse. Yes, you read that correctly. Read the book and you’ll understand why she is so great.

Personally, one of the things I loved about this book was the incorporation of reincarnation into the story. I grew up with a lot of stories where reincarnation is involved since it’s part of Taiwanese and Chinese religious and spiritual beliefs, so it was nice to see a story make use of that familiar concept. I’ll admit I’m a sucker for romances that involve reincarnation because it opens up so many more possibilities.

Knowing that A Crown of Wishes follows as a sequel and companion, I feel like The Star-Touched Queen did a great job of laying the foundation for the second book. The pieces I got were just enough to tease and pique my interest in what will happen to Gauri and Vikram. Thankfully, I have the ARC of A Crown of Wishes in hand ready to be devoured, otherwise I’d be with the rest of the world crying for March 28th!

Nothing stood out to me as majorly problematic, but there was one place where Maya said that maybe her body was too straight and boyish to be attractive to Amar, which can be read as internalized misogyny but is also cisnormative since it reinforces the idea that certain body types/shapes should correspond to certain genders. Even as YA is pushing the boundaries of gender roles, it would be nice to see more critical takes on the gendering of bodies and beauty standards.

Recommendation: Lovingly recommended to fantasy lovers who want to be swept away.

Review for The Ship Beyond Time by Heidi Heilig

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Note: This book is the sequel to The Girl From Everywhere (review linked).

My Summary: Just when Nix thinks she has her fate in her hands, she learns of a terrible prophecy: she is destined to lose the one she loves to the sea. Desperate to save Kash, she sets off on a quest to a mythical utopia to find a man who claims he can change history and therefore the future. Except this utopia isn’t quite the perfect place it’s said to be, and changing history may create more problems than it solves…

Review:

The Ship Beyond Time has all of the charms of The Girl From Everywhere and continues to build on the relationships and themes from the first book while introducing a few new characters and conflicts.

The central relationships between Nix and Kash and Nix and Slate are deepened and complicated through their new adventures and obstacles. Plus, we get to see more of Bee and Ayen, who are married with Nix, Kash, and now Blake as their adopted children (so cute!), as well as Rotgut, who reveals that he once had a lover who became a monk instead (I am 100% down with queering up the cast even more, yes).

My favorite thing about the scene involving the latter is that the crew asks Rotgut about this unnamed former lover with, “What was their name?” One important way of challenging cisheteronormativity is by using gender neutral pronouns to refer to unknown or hypothetical people in general and when it comes to crushes, partners, spouses, etc. It’s small but significant because the language we use matters.

Although some people might call it a love triangle, I never really saw Blake as genuine competition for Nix’s affection because it’s pretty clear from the beginning of the book that Nix loves Kash and only sees Blake as a friend. What was more interesting and engaging to me was the interactions and dynamic between Kash and Blake, who share certain things in common and are in this adventure together despite their [perceived] rivalry over Nix.

One of the things I really liked about the character arcs and development was that they always connected back to a common theme of exploring the implications of Navigation. With Blake, it’s about the question of whether to change history when it involves injustice like the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy. With Kash, it’s the sort of existential crisis that inevitably arises when you consider that he came from a place that was imagined and made up by a random French author. With Nix and her father Slate, it’s about whether the sacrifices are worth it when it comes to trying to save the one you love.

From the beginning, this book grabs your attention and your heart and doesn’t let go. It is fast-paced and hard-hitting with so many twists and revelations. Beyond driving the plot forward, most of these twists and revelations also pack an emotional punch and saturate you with so many intense feelings. I don’t want to spoil anything important, so I’ll just say that I spent a lot of time screaming internally while reading this book (partially because everyone in my house was asleep), and the ending was unexpected but still great. Even after you finish the book, the story and the characters will stay with you and live on. Although this book is the conclusion to the series, there is room for more adventures with Nix, and I would not object at all to more books being added.

As with the previous book, there is bonus material at the end of the book discussing the origins and histories of various characters and locales that come from real life or myth. I always love reading background information about the books I read because it adds to my enjoyment and understanding of the book.

Recommendation: Highly recommended for fantasy-lovers who want to be emotionally ruined by a book.

Review for The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf by Ambelin Kwaymullina

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Note: I read this book as part of the #DiversityDecBingo reading challenge. You can find my list of books that I read and the links to the reviews for those books here.

Note 2: Parts of this review were originally published as a part of my Favorite Books of 2016 post or showed up in the #DSFFBookClub discussion during December 2016.

My Summary: In a post-apocalyptic world in which tectonic shifts have merged all land masses into one continent, Ashala Wolf is a leader of a Tribe of young Illegals, children who manifest supernatural powers that are seen as a threat to the sacred Balance of the world. A mission gone awry results in Ashala’s capture, and she must resist the government’s attempt to forcibly take her memories from her to use against the Tribe and escape the clutches of people who see her as an abomination.

Review:

This was one of the last books I read in 2016 but also among my favorites. I’ll admit that one of the gaps in the scope of my reading is indigenous authors (Native American or otherwise), so I was glad to find this gem by an indigenous Australian (Pylaku) author in my favorite genre (SFF).

One of the things I really liked about this book was the worldbuilding. People with supernatural abilities are mostly seen as a threat and are classified as “Illegal,” but it’s a little bit more complicated and nuanced than that. There are some whose powers are mild and/or useful enough for them to be granted exceptions by the government and thus exploited. And there are others that can “pass” as normal and therefore slide under the radar. I can’t help but think about the parallels that can be drawn between this system and systems of oppression in the real world, whether it’s assimilation into the dominant group, attempts to “pass” as a member of the dominant group, or striving to become more “acceptable” to the dominant group in some way.

Ashala’s character is descended from the indigenous people of former Australia (“former” because in the story, all of the continents collided and reshaped to form a supercontinent). Although the story is supposed to take place in a “post-racial” world, it isn’t completely divorced from real world notions of difference in terms of culture/ethnicity/race. Ashala in particular is able to communicate with a powerful divine entity, the Grandfather Serpent, who is among the creators of her ancestral people and the Firstwood, where she and her Tribe take shelter. Her conversation and relationship with the Grandfather Serpent and the Firstwood anchor the story in a deeply spiritual place. That was an aspect of the story I really enjoyed.

The structure of the story is nonlinear since it takes you backward in time multiple times as more of her memories are revealed. Moreover, there’s unreliable narration. The misdirection is written so skillfully that you don’t realize just how much you’ve been tricked until the reveal comes along and yanks the carpet out from under you. It’s layered in such a way that each new memory shifts your perspective and what you understand to be true.

Although there are many books that tackle the question of human progress vs. nature, this one stood out to me in the execution. The idea of balance is normalized into an ideology that structure the society and politics of the dystopia. Moreover, the narrative calls into question whether the dichotomy of humanity vs. nature is really valid, and whether what we view as “unnatural” is necessarily bad.

As far as problematic content goes, most of it was minor. There was one place where a character’s eyes were described as “almond-shaped,” which is a stereotypical shorthand for East Asian features that I wish would die in a fire. In another, the narrative used “his or her,” thereby excluding non-binary people. The more repetitive issue was ableism. One of the villains was described as mad and necessarily mad in order to do the morally depraved things she did. That was the one damper on this otherwise great book.

Issues aside, I’m eager to read the sequel, The Disappearance of Ember Crow. The third book, The Foretelling of Georgie Spider, is coming out on May 9th in the U.S.

Recommendation: A good book for people looking for diverse SFF in YA.

Review for Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho

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Note: I read this book as part of the Dumbledore’s Army Readathon challenge. You can find out more about it here.

My Summary: Zacharias Wythe has a lot on his hands: he’s the newly instated Sorcerer Royal, people are accusing him of murdering his mentor and predecessor, and the magic of England is dwindling for unknown reasons. He goes off to the border between England and Fairyland to investigate and in the process, meets Prunella Gentleman, a powerful young woman with a mysterious past. Together they will change the face of thaumaturgy and magic in England.

Review:

If I had known that both of the main characters of this book were POC, I would have read it earlier. It wasn’t readily apparent from the book blurb, so I didn’t realize it until I saw people talking about it on Twitter. Anyway, I’m glad I finally got to this book.

I’m not altogether unfamiliar with Regency fantasy. I read Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer’s Sorcery & Cecilia series years ago and enjoyed the books. Sorcerer to the Crown isn’t really YA, though, and it has a different approach to the genre. Namely, instead of the usual white British protagonists, we have a Black man and a biracial Indian woman front and center.

Sorcerer to the Crown refutes the idea that historical fantasy based on the real world has to be white. POC existed in that time, and it’s only their erasure from history that makes people think they didn’t. It also challenges the belief that historical fiction can only reproduce but not criticize the prevailing social norms of its setting.

Far from side-stepping the issue of race, Sorcerer to the Crown actively engages in critical commentary on the dominant racial attitudes of the time. The Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers consists only of white men until Zacharias is brought forth by his mentor, Sir Stephen. He publicly proves himself more than capable of advanced magic; however, that does not deter many of the bigots from questioning his competency because of his skin color.

The book addresses all the subtleties and nuances of being the only POC in a white-dominated environment. For example, Zacharias feels the fear associated with having to act as a representative of his entire race. He experiences stereotype threat at first. He has a complicated relationship with Sir Stephen, whom he respects and loves as a father figure and mentor but also resents as someone who was torn away from his birth parents and at times treated more like a curiosity or pet than a child. He faces rumors that he didn’t become the Sorcerer Royal by just means. He is blamed for the decline in ambient magic levels in England.

Prunella’s experiences are shaped by the intersection of race and gender. Not only is she a POC, she’s a woman of color. Even outside the realm of magic, she is viewed through a prejudiced lens, assumed to be a morally depraved and sexually “indecent” woman. The white men of the magical establishment barely deign to recognize the magical skills of upper class white women, who are forced to purge themselves of any magic “for their own good,” let alone a biracial brown woman. The idea that she might be trained in sorcery is absurd to the Society members.

But train her Zacharias does, to both their benefits. While everyone else is making a fuss plotting to have Zacharias removed from his position and even killed, he and Prunella are working together to fix issue of the missing magic and avoid diplomatic disasters for the Crown.

Aside from tackling race and gender, the book also calls out classism. The Society members are all gentlemen from prestigious, “well-bred” families, and they largely disdain the magical spells of the working class as inferior and unsophisticated, even though objectively speaking they’re no less artful or intricately constructed than those of the rich. Zacharias doesn’t have his head too far up his ass to realize this, so he has a mind to reform not only the gender restrictions but also the class restrictions on becoming thaumaturges.

I’ll be honest and say the beginning was slow and hard to get through, but once I adjusted to the old-fashioned writing style, it was smoother sailing. The dialogue is witty and the magical elements original. I really loved the dynamic between Zacharias and Prunella, and the supporting characters were a diverse lot with their own charms. The last half definitely picked up a lot in terms of pacing, and the ending was a blast. I’m eagerly awaiting the second book in the series. The only thing that was missing from this book was queerness and disability rep.

Recommendation: Highly recommended! If you like historical fantasy with an explicitly social justice bent, this book is perfect for you.

Review for Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor

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Note: I read this book as part of the #DiversityDecBingo reading challenge. You can find my list of books that I read and the links to the reviews for those books here.

My Summary: (reposted from my 2016 favorites post) Nigerian American (Igbo) 12-year-old Sunny was born in the U.S. but moved to Nigeria at age 9. Sunny has a hard time fitting in at school because she’s American-born (“akata” is a pejorative/slur Nigerians use for Black Americans and foreign-born Black people) and an albino, to boot. Then, her life takes a dramatic turn when she finds out that she’s a free agent Leopard Person, someone with gifted magical abilities. Alongside three friends, she learns about magical history, juju, and more, all while trying to hide this other life from her parents. But her magical powers aren’t just for fun and show, and she’s soon recruited to track a serial killer.

Review:

I’ve had all of Nnedi Okorafor’s books on my TBR for a while and decided to pick up Akata Witch for #DiversityDecBingo.

Some people have compared this book to Harry Potter, but that’s like comparing apples and oranges and doesn’t do Akata Witch justice. Sure, there is friendship and magic and a dangerous villain, but its approach to magic is vastly different and doesn’t follow a Eurocentric tradition.

Before I go into depth about the magical elements, I’d like to talk a bit about the characters.

Sunny, our main character, is a second generation Nigerian American, and I totally relate to her experience as a second gen person going back to the motherland. I’m decently fluent in Mandarin and Taiwanese, but whenever I visit Taiwan, I always feel like I stick out like a sore thumb, from my fashion sense to my not-quite-fluid speech (I still talk to my family in Mandarin/Taiwanese, but not enough these days). Sunny’s issue of being “too American” for people back in the motherland is both frustrating and relatable.

Sunny also appeals to me as a fellow nerd, if I may call her that. She enjoys learning about magic and is energized by learning, which is totally me. Her mundane school assignments bore her, but her extracurricular magic lessons engage her interest and are among the bright points in her life. School was okay-ish for me as far as being interesting, but I did a lot of extracurricular reading for leisure, especially during college, before I added Asian American studies as a second major and was silently suffering through engineering. My extracurricular reading during those years was largely non-fiction and academic texts, and while that probably sounds extremely dull to most people, it was what kept me going and led me to finally admit that I wasn’t happy with my major and needed to change something.

Aside from being a nerd, Sunny is also a good soccer player. She squares off against boys and proves that girls can do as good as or better than boys.

Sunny’s three friends and fellow students are also Nigerian or Nigerian American. They have their own distinct personalities and specialties/talents that create a unique dynamic for the group. They bicker and tease but they also have one another’s backs and learn to work together. I really liked the portrayal of their friendships.

The four of them also get paired up romantically, two sets of girl-and-boy couples, which is kind of heteronormative, but that’s not a huge part of the story, which focuses more on them developing their powers and sense of maturity and responsibility. However, the narrative did get sexist and cisnormative during certain scenes.

Ironically, there is a named non-binary character in the book, who is genderfluid between male and female with alternating she/her and he/him pronouns, but she is only mentioned in passing and isn’t even human but rather a giant, intelligent, and magically gifted spider. I’m leery of the fact that the only non-binary character is non-human, but at the same time his character’s concept is also intriguing to me, and I wish the author had given more information on her. I’m hoping he appears in the sequel.

Now, for the magic. Although there are rules to how magic operates that govern everyone, there is still a lot of room for individual style to show through. Different Leopard People approach magic differently and have different proclivities and innate talents.

Instead of the classroom setting like in Harry Potter, the students have individual mentors. Their learning process is much more organic, the pace set by each individual’s own progress rather than by some arbitrary standard, which feels more like my ideal type of learning environment. Their use of magic is very much personalized and unique, so no two people perform the same exact magic, and there is more than one way to achieve a goal. For assignments, they’re sent to complete various quests and tasks that test their mettle and their skill on the fly.

On top of having very hands-on assignments, they are not given grades for what they do, nor do they take standardized tests. Instead, they earn and collect chittim, rods made of various kinds of metals, which materialize out of thin air and can be traded for various things. Chittim can only be gained through learning. For this reason, money and material things do not rule the world of Leopard People, knowledge does. I thought this was a wonderful concept, though I’m biased because I happen to love learning a lot.

The one thing that did bother me about the fantasy elements was that magical disabled person trope was used. Sunny’s power is tied to her albinism, and her photosensitivity due to albinism is also magically cured. In general, a Leopard Person’s disability reflects their power. There’s a more thorough and nuanced review of these elements and the representation of albinism in the book written by a POC with albinism here.

Recommendation: Recommended for the strong and likable heroine, the realistic and touching friendships, and the highly original fantasy worldbuilding. Would not recommend it if you are looking for accurate albinism/disability representation.

Review for Archer’s Quest by Linda Sue Park

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My Summary: Twelve-year-old Kevin couldn’t care less about centuries-old history or his Korean heritage. They’re boring and irrelevant to him. But then the mysterious Archer appears in his bedroom. Kevin soon learns that Archer is a legendary king from Korean history who has mistakenly traveled to 1999 from the First Century B.C. Now, Kevin must rely on his wits, his math skills, the Chinese zodiac, and some Korean history research to deliver Archer back to his time before it’s too late.

Review:

Korea has an extremely long and rich history and folklore, so it’s a shame that not many authors have written fantasy based on Korean culture because it tends to get eclipsed by Chinese and Japanese cultures, which are more familiar to most people. This is the only book I know of besides the three in Ellen Oh’s Prophecy Series that is an #ownvoices Korean fantasy.

Rarity aside, I really enjoyed the book for itself. The math puzzles, the references to the zodiac, the incorporation of Korean myths, and the research that Kevin did at the museum made it fun for me as a puzzle-lover, a mythology nerd, and a frequent patron of museums/zoos/etc. (I’m That Person who reads everything on the exhibits until I realize there’s not enough time for me to get through everything if I do.)

Not surprisingly, the theme of the book centered on a sense of appreciation for one’s history and culture. I was lucky in that I grew up with parents who instilled in me pride in my heritage, and I was privileged to be able to visit Taiwan frequently (until recent years) so that I never really lost that connection to my ancestral homeland. Yet even though my experiences are different from Kevin’s in many ways, that doesn’t mean I can’t empathize, having grown up as second generation kid with the pressure to assimilate and been forced to learn white people’s history in school, often with less-than-engaging methods.

Kevin is lucky in that he lives in a fictional world, and he gets to learn through epic adventures that actively incorporate knowledge of history and myth into them. What I wouldn’t give to be able to meet legendary figures in the flesh! Even with a pre-existing interest in Korean culture, reading this book piqued my interest even more. It only really mentions one historical/legendary figure from one time period in any detail, which is barely scraping the surface of the thousands of years of Korean history and gives you an idea of how much more there is to learn and explore. It’s like an appetizer for a twelve-course meal.

Another reason I enjoyed the book is that I really love archery as a sport/art and actually joined my university’s archery club for a semester but was forced to drop it because I got too busy to keep up. Archery may not be as dynamic as, say, team sports, but it’s so cool to me (also probably appeals to my sense of laziness, oops). So this book was practically made for me and my interests.

Yet another thing that made the book a good read was the humor. The culture clash Archer experiences as a time-traveler from the distant past make for peak comedy. I literally busted out laughing a few times. But maybe that’s just me?

Lastly, this book actually got the language stuff mostly right, re: time travel. Archer was born in China in 55 B.C. and speaks Chinese, but a very, very old variant that’s not intelligible to modern-day speakers of Chinese languages, and the book actually points out that fact. Whatever proto-Korean language Archer speaks would likewise be incomprehensible to modern-day Korean-speakers, as a large percentage of modern Korean vocabulary is Sino-Korean and wasn’t borrowed into the language until around the Tang Dynasty and later, well after Archer’s time. Though the book doesn’t mention this particular detail, it does have an in-narrative explanation for why Kevin and Archer can understand one another despite their native languages being completely different. So my inner linguistics nerd is fairly satisfied.

Recommendation: If you have little to no knowledge of Korean history/culture, this is a very accessible book that introduces you to it in an engaging fashion.

Review for Wolf at the Door by J. Damask

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Note: I read this book as part of the #DiversityDecBingo reading challenge. You can find out more about it here.

Note 2: I’m reviewing the book based on the 2016 edition published by Gerakbudaya, the regional publisher.

My Summary: Jan Xu is part of a clan of Singaporean Chinese Lang, or wolf-people, and an ex-vigilante who fought against supernatural beings run amok in the city. In recent years, she’s settled into a life as a mother of two children. However, that life is threatened when her estranged sister, Marianne, comes back to visit with a new boyfriend in tow. Jan’s instincts tell her that this boyfriend is dangerous, and Marianne is behaving strangely as well. Something is amiss, and Jan may be the one who has to set things right.

Review:

I’ve been feeling the dearth of Southeast Asian fiction in mainstream U.S. publishing, so I remedied that by finding indie and self-published writers from Southeast Asia. The first I came upon happened to be Joyce Chng (J. Damask is a pen name she uses), so I put her stuff on my TBR. Wolf a the Door is my first exposure to her writing, and it’s a great place to start. Urban paranormal fantasy with Asian werewolves set in Singapore? Bring it.

I’ll just note here at the beginning that there were some typos here and there that should be fixed if the book gets republished. There were also a few places where the language felt off, but since I’m not familiar with English dialects outside of Standard American English, I can’t really say for sure whether they were grammatical errors or just dialect differences. It wasn’t major enough that it caused any problems in reading comprehension, so it’s not a huge black mark or anything. Just thought I’d note it for the sake of being thorough.

Now, to the actual content. One of things that really got me excited was that right off the bat, the narrative acknowledges the multicultural landscape of Singapore. A lot of times fantasy doesn’t really make room for cultures other than the dominant one (read as: white culture, in the case of fantasy set in the U.S.), so it’s nice to see fantasy that shows the coexistence and interactions of different mythologies and folklores. From naga people to apsaras to fox women and fairies and vampires, the different ethnic groups that live Singapore all have their own supernatural beings that live among the regular humans and mingle with one another. These beings are referred to as Myriad.

You can’t understand the urban landscape of any cosmopolitan city like Singapore without acknowledging history, particularly migration and the formation of diasporas. In Wolf at the Door, diaspora and migration history are as much a part of Jan’s identity as they are for normal humans, which lends a heightened sense of realism to the worldbuilding. Her identity as Lang is contextualized and linked to her Chinese heritage. Her celebration of holidays with family carry meaning for her not only as a diasporic Chinese but also as Lang. Mid-Autumn Festival for Chinese werewolves? I love it.

This is probably a personal thing for me as someone who speaks two Chinese languages (Taiwanese Mandarin and Taiwanese Hokkien), but all the instances of code-switching in the book made me happy. People who don’t know any better think of Chinese language and culture as a monolith, but there are so many regional/linguistic differences, and so-called Chinese dialects are rarely mutually intelligible. Mandarin may be the most widely spoken Chinese language, but a large number of diasporic Chinese across the globe are from the southeast, particularly Guangdong and Fujian, so they speak languages like Cantonese, Teochew, Hokkien, Hakka, etc. Hokkien is the most commonly spoken language in Taiwan after Mandarin, and the same is true in Singapore, so it was cool to find connections to the story through the use of Hokkien. I saw ang ku kueh mentioned and freaked out and got a craving for them. (They’re red tortoise cakes, made with glutinous rice flour and sweet filling, often red bean paste.)

It was also nice to have a story where nonwhite people are the majority because it’s easier to decenter whiteness. In fact, the main antagonist is a white British guy, and I was like yes! Because let’s be real, white British guys are romanticized in media a lot despite their role in being the face of colonizers to about half the world. The appeal of the British accent (Received Pronunciation, to be specific) and mannerisms has everything to do with power and prestige and little to do with the inherent superiority of Britishness.

One of the prominent themes of the book was hybrid identity, which carries a double meaning for Jan because not only she is part of a diaspora that has mixed with other cultures, she is also a werewolf living among humans. The werewolf aspect brings a very visceral element to that hybridity. The authors description captures with a vivid and poetic precision the feeling of being a wolf who sometimes wears a human skin.

Race and analogies of race become an issue in the story because the antagonist is advocating for the “purity” and dominance of wolves, with gross eugenic implications as it concerns mating and breeding for werewolves and their relationships with humans. Thankfully, the grossness of the idea is directly called out within the narrative.

Aside from issues of race and species, the book also focuses on family ties, which are central to Chinese and Lang culture, and Jan’s friendships with other Myriad. The narration alternates between past and present, connecting the dots between events and people, cause and effect. These flashbacks provide insight into Jan’s growth into the person she is at the beginning of the narration. Although the Myriad are not really human, they ares still people, with the emotional depth and psychological complexity of humans. Their lives don’t just revolve around their supernatural forms and powers; they also have more “mundane” lives and concerns: careers, hobbies, relationships, and so on. This balance between the magical and mundane was something I really liked about the story.

Jan’s identity as a mother and middle aged woman is refreshing, as it’s usually young people in their prime who get the spotlight and the heroic arc. You could say that she used to be the archetypal YA heroine, but has since matured and settled down. However, that doesn’t preclude her being a compelling protagonist or a person capable of heroism. It’s just that her perspective and motivations are different from those of a teenager. She is a refutation of the idea that marriage and motherhood make women weak sideshows to men or cannot coexist with depth, individuality, and agency.

The one thing that bothered me was the ableism that popped up a few times. Although depression was treated with greater sensitivity, psychosis wasn’t as much. There was a link made between schizophrenia and ideological fanaticism. Although schizophrenia does lead to paranoia and delusional thinking, having schizophrenia doesn’t make you evil. You can be paranoid and delusional without being bigoted and violent. Unfortunately, the equation of mental illness and moral depravity is pervasive, so scapegoating mental illness is common.

Recommendation: If you’re tired of lily-white werewolves and the idea that nonwhite people are less relatable and less human that mythical creatures, Wolf at the Door is the book for you, killing two birds with one stone, and then some.

P.S. The cover art is gorgeous. There are two different images, one on the front cover and one on the back. I wish publishing had more of these kinds of illustrations, drawn from scratch and really specific to the details of the book’s setting, characters, genre, etc., instead of stock photo manipulation that only vaguely captures the essence of the story.