Book Review: Mooncakes by Suzanne Walker & Wendy Xu (2019)

Tuesday, December 3rd, 2019

A sweet, character-driven fantasy story.

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for intended parallels to homophobic violence, child abuse, and homelessness in the LGBTQ community.)

A story of love and demons, family and witchcraft.

Teenager Nova Huang has a pretty full life: an apprentice witch, she’s employed part-time at the family magic shop-slash-bookstore, Black Cat Books, and also does plenty of volunteer work in her New England community. Though her parents are literal ghosts, having died in a tragic accident when Nova was a child, her Nanas take good care of her (and, being a witch and all, she gets to visit with the ‘rents on special occasions). There’s also her bestie Tat; the two might not always see eye-to-eye – Tat’s a scientist-in-training who has precious little patience for the inexplicable nature of magic – but they make it work.

When Nova ventures into the woods surrounding their town – recently bedeviled by spooky green lights and a seemingly rabid wild horse – she’s unexpectedly reminded of what’s been missing. There she stumbles upon her childhood friend Tam Lang, battling the creature solo. Tam and their family just up and left one day, no warning or explanation. Turns out that Tam’s a werewolf, their step-father is in cahoots with a devil-worshiping cult, and Tam’s werewolf magic might be the end of us all.

That is, unless Nova, Tam, Tat, and the Nanas can harness the magic of family and sisterhood to thwart their plans. And maybe even save a demon in the process? (WHAAAAAT!)

Mooncakes is a super-sweet graphic novel that’s brimming with heart, humor, and some pretty awesome characters. Tam is nonbinary, in case it wasn’t already apparent, and Tam and Nova make an adorable couple.

The Nanas are great (though I couldn’t tell if both are Nova’s biological grandmothers, i.e., both maternal and paternal, or if they are a F/F couple), and so is Tat, especially the playful back-and-forth she has with her extended/adopted witch family.

The plot is serviceable, I guess, though not terribly suspenseful; if I had to, I’d describe Mooncakes as more of a character-driven story. The rest just feels like an excuse to bring Nova and Tam together, which is why I’m giving it three stars instead of four.

That said, I do quite love the little plot twist with the horse demon. Down with the kyriarchy!

I also really appreciate what the artists are trying to do vis-à-vis Tam’s homelessness; though it’s given a supernatural cause in this story, Tam’s plight does parallel and draw attention to the increased risk of homelessness faced by LGBTQ youths.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

Book Review: The Black Mage by Daniel Barnes & DJ Kirkland (2019)

Tuesday, October 29th, 2019

Surprisingly fun for a comic book about racism and the KKK.

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for depictions of racism.)

When teenager Tom Token is accepted into the historically all-white boarding school St. Ivory Academy as part of its “Magical Minority Initiative,” he’s understandably skeptical. Sure, the facilities are state of the art, and the education can’t be beat, but at what cost? His melanin-challenged classmates assail him with aggressions both micro and – in the case of the Headmaster’s rich jock son Bryce – physical. Tom’s pet bird, Jim the crow, is even injured in the crossfire (though happily not beyond magical repair).

But race relations at St. Ivory are far worse than Tom could imagine (or maybe not: the Headmaster’s robe bears a suspicious resemblance to a KKK hood). When he receives an anonymous tip that he’s not the first black mage to walk St. Ivory’s halls, Tom embarks on a journey to find out what happened to his predecessors. With the help of the ghosts of Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, and do-gooder fellow classmate/student liaison Lindsay Whitehorn, can Tom get justice for the other black mages sacrificed to keep St. Ivory afloat – or will he, too, be fed to the racist machine?

The synopsis describes The Black Mage as “The School for Good and Evil meets Dread Nation,” but I got a ton of Harry Potter vibes. I half expected Barnes to swap the race of one of the more minor characters halfway through the narrative, a la Lavender Brown. It just feels right, given Barnes’s sense of humor (and I mean that in the most awesome way possible).

Some readers will undoubtedly describe the book’s racial politics as heavy-handed – and the references are pretty numerous and not terribly subtle – but I think it’s done in a clever and engaging way: rather cheeky with a “I said what I said” kind of energy. The comic is remarkably fun for a book about racial violence, which I suspect is the point: disarm your audience with charming artwork, plucky sidekicks, and a plethora of pop culture references so that they absorb the message before they can say “Riddikulus!”.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

Book Review: Middlegame by Seanan McGuire (2019)

Tuesday, June 4th, 2019

“The Midwich cuckoos have nothing on us.”

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for suicide.)

Reaching into her pocket, she produces a handful of coal dust streaked with glints of silver. The coal came from a mine where a disaster claimed the life of over a hundred men; the silver, melted down from the jewelry of a woman whose husband had choked the life from her body before bedding his mistress in her marital bed. It’s a subtle, complex thing, is alchemy.

History is an equation. It can be changed under the right circumstances. It should be terrifying, but it’s really just wonderful, because it means so many of their mistakes have been curated ones, deemed necessary by themselves in the future.

Everything is perfect. Everything is doomed.

Roger Middleton and Dodger Cheswich are two extraordinary human beings…first and foremost, because they aren’t really human beings after all. Not entirely. The identical-on-the-inside, fraternal-on-the-outside twins were created in an underground lab, by a human who also isn’t quite human.

An alchemical construct like them, James Reed was the crowning achievement of his maker, Asphodel Baker, arguably the greatest alchemist of her time, and a wildly successful children’s author to boot. That is, until Reed murdered Baker in his pursuit of the Impossible City, “the alchemical apex which waited at the peak of all human knowledge and potential.” To Reed, Roger and Dodger are just one more brick in the improbable road.

The latest in a long line of experiments (all with cutesy rhyming names: Erin and Darren, Seth and Beth, etc.), Roger and Dodger were made to embody the Doctrine of Ethos. Roger was given the power of language; Dodger, mathematics. Separately, the two are geniuses; together, they have the power to rewrite the fabric of the universe. Which is why, as babies, Roger and Dodger are separated: placed in different adoptive homes on opposite sides of the country. Yet, try as Reed might to keep them apart, the two always find their way back to one another, linked as they are by a psychic connection.

Can Roger and Dodger forgive each other for repeated trespasses, manifest their powers, and defeat Reed’s forces before he discovers the secret of their subjugation – or abandons them in favor of a pair that’s easier to control?

This is their story. This is the story of the world.

Middlegame is … well, it’s wild. I love Seanan McGuire, and have come to expect the unexpected from her, but Middlegame is unlike anything I’ve ever read before – for better and worse. I lean towards science fiction over fantasy, and so this might be the first book I’ve read wherein alchemy is a driving force of the story. (I dug it! The Hand of Glory, whoah. There are truly gruesome bits in here.)

But the stuff about the Doctrine of Ethos proved a little more difficult to wrap my head around. One word that seems to pop up in nearly every review of Middlegame is “ambitious,” and for good reason. Often, and especially in the first quarter or third of the book, I found myself getting stuck up in the philosophical underpinnings of the story and, yuck, who wants that. (I took Philosophy 101 my first semester in college and suffice it to say, it was not as fun as I’d hoped.) Once I learned to just let go and let the action carry me along, I had a much more enjoyable time of it. I guess you can take as little or as much from the narrative as you want.

The chapters jump back and forth in time, which can be a little confusing if you’re not paying attention, but I loved it. Time travel is my jam, and it comes in many forms in Middlegame. Roger and Dodger have a really interesting, complex relationship that evolves and changes over decades, and I am so here for that. (Though I thank the gods that McGuire didn’t have them hook up, like another closely bonded sibling pair of hers who shall remain nameless.) And yay for guinea pigs gone rogue! Roger and Dodger are not the only embodiments who yearn for freedom, and the shifting loyalties and conflicting goals keep everyone on their toes.

Middlegame is a must for Seanan McGuire fans, and for those who like their sci-fi and fantasy with particularly wibbly wobbly time-y wimey stuff. The only rule here is that THERE ARE NO RULES!

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

Book Review: Vagrant Queen, Volume 1 by Magdalene Visaggio & Jason Smith (2019)

Friday, April 5th, 2019

A Fun Enough Shoot ‘Em Up Space Opera

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through NetGalley.)

Elida Al-feyr’s ancestors were … not very nice people. At the edge of a galaxy (not ours), they developed a mind-control device called the Bezoar of Kings. With it, they brainwashed the people of Arriopa into believing that they were gods, accepting their will without question. By the time Elida was crowned Queen of the Divine Monarchy – at the tender age of ten – the Bel-iors had not relied upon the amulet’s power for generations. Yet this doesn’t quell a popular, violent uprising, in which the monarchy is overthrown and replaced by a republic. Elida and her mother escape certain death, but barely – and the last two remaining members of the royal family are separated within the year.

Fast-forward fifteen years. Elida is in hiding, making a living by scavenging wrecks and reselling her finds. A not-so-chance encounter with an old frenemy named Isaac sends her in search of her mother, said to be imprisoned in the Monastery of Wix. But is Isaac double-crossing her, or triple-crossing someone else? Is the long-lost Bezoar of Kings merely myth, or is it out there, somewhere, just waiting to be found? And if it is, what responsibility does Elida bear for its misuse?

Vagrant Queen is a fun, shoot ’em up space opera. There’s not a whole lot that’s noteworthy or especially memorable about the plot, but it’s a fun enough ride while it lasts. Some elements work better than others; Elida is a badass anti-hero, but Isaac’s bad boy schtick feels played out. That said, his facial hair is a thing of wonder. Ditto: Elida’s ‘do, which almost feels like a throwback to Aeon Flux. Ten-year-old Elida is a compelling character, and I’d love to see more of her in future issues. (And her fro? Even more glorious than her future self’s locks.) For those who like gory, over-the-top violence, Vagrant Queen has it in spades; to wit:

While I love the diversity in this story, it feels a little weird to see a Black family enslave a bunch of white people. Like, is this progress? Just dessert? Post-racial, race-blind storytelling? Or maybe I’m just reading too much into it? Idk what to think.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

Book Review: Monstress, Volume 1: Awakening, Marjorie M. Liu & Sana Takeda (2016)

Monday, August 15th, 2016

Devastatingly Gorgeous Artwork & Intricate World-Building Make Monstress a Must-Read

five out of five stars

To quote the poets…murder is terribly exhausting.

— 4.5 stars —

I pre-ordered Monstress based on the cover alone; and, the more I learned about it, the more excited I became. A steampunk fantasy set in turn-of-the-century Asia, featuring a diverse cast of mostly-female characters, written and illustrated by two women of color? Sign me up!

As it turns out, Monstress is everything I’d hoped for and then some. The story takes place in 1920s Asia, though you might not know it at first glance: this alternate ‘verse is so very different from our own. Humans are not the only – or even the first – sapients to walk the earth. (To borrow a term from The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet.) We were preceded by Cats, the children of Ubasti: Multi-tailed, talking creatures, who can wield a weapon as easily as a sarcastic comeback. The immortal Ancients assumed the forms of beasts and, like their Greek cousins, enjoyed toying with humans. It is from such relationships that Arcanic halfbreeds were born: some are human in appearance, while most are not; yet all Arcanics possess great powers, powers which can be extracted from their very bones. Last but not least are the Old Gods, of which precious little is known. Some believe them to be monsters.

While humans and Arcanics coexisted in peace for generations, war broke out for reasons that aren’t entirely clear. An infernal bomb, which rained destruction down upon the city of Constantine, resulted in a stalemate. Now both races live on their respective sides of the wall. Yet the Cumaea – a powerful order of nun-witches that rules the human federation – is intent resurrecting the war and exterminating the Arcanics.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: The Secrets of Life and Death, Rebecca Alexander (2014)

Wednesday, October 8th, 2014

A Mostly Fun Mix of Urban Fantasy & Historical Fiction

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free ARC for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewers program.)

It is said in Poland that nowhere is the line between alive and dead finer, than in Transylvania. Only when a corpse is bloated and festering, or entirely beheaded, is it believed dead.

Poland, 1585. The scientist-slash-sorcerer Dr. John Dee and his assistant Edward Kelley are summoned to the castle of His Majesty King Istvan Báthory of Poland, King and Duke of Lithuania, King and Viovode of Transylvania, Prince of Hungary (say that five times fast!). His sister’s daughter, the Countess Elisabeth Báthory, is dying of a mysterious illness – one with symptoms eerily similar to the sickness that claimed her mother Anna and grandmother Katalin before her.

Caught between the warring forces of the Vatican and its brutal Inquisition; Elisabeth’s husband, the fierce Ferenc Nádasdy; and the angels (or are they demons?) who communicate with Dee through Kelley, the scientists risk death if they fail to cure the Countess – and possibly their mortal souls should they succeed.

(More below the fold…)

DNF Review: Enchantress: A Novel of Rav Hisda’s Daughter, Maggie Anton (2014)

Friday, October 3rd, 2014

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review through Goodreads’ First Reads program.)

DNF (did not finish) at 18% / 66 pages.

I took a chance on Enchantress: A Novel of Rav Hisda’s Daughter in a Goodreads giveaway; unfortunately, it’s just not for me. While Anton does a commendable job of explaining ancient Jewish beliefs, customs, and phrases for the reader, I often found myself lost and confused. I also didn’t realize that this is the second book in Anton’s Rav Hisda’s Daughter series, which is slated to be a trilogy. It’s hard to say whether reading the books in order would have drastically affected my enjoyment of Enchantress – which, for what it’s worth, I think can also be read as a standalone story.

I might have been willing to power through had I found any of the characters even remotely interesting or engaging – but, as it turned out, the only character for whom I could muster up any sort of feelings was Rava, who is a just an all-around shitty human being: sexist, arrogant, presumptuous, entitled, and narcissistic. And that’s just in the first 66 pages.

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Book Review: City of Stairs, Robert Jackson Bennett (2014)

Friday, August 29th, 2014

Stunning World Building, Complicated Characters, & a Refreshing Take On Religion

(Full disclosure: I received a free ARC for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewers program.)

five out of five stars

More than a thousand years ago, the Divinities stepped out of their world to walk among humans. They were six – Olvos, Kolkan, Jukov, Voortya, Ahanas, and Taalhavras – and among their godlike powers was the ability to alter the very fabric of reality; to bend the laws of nature to suit their desires – and the needs of their followers. The Divinities found an eager and devoted flock on the Continent, which they carved up into six spheres of influence, each governed by the ruling Divinity’s own rules and realities. For their allegiance, the Continentals became the Divinities’ chosen ones, destined to rule over their godless neighbors.

For nearly five hundred years, the Divinities and their followers fought amongst themselves. Seemingly overnight, and perhaps realizing the strength to be found in numbers, the Divinities gathered in the central city of Bukilov – thenceforth known as the Seat of the World – for the Night of the Convening, during which they agreed upon a treaty. This led to the onset of the Continental Golden Age, during which time the Continent experienced a surge in outward expansion as the allied Continentals raided, colonized, and subjugated the people of other countries, including those of Saypur.

Around this time, and apparently spurred by her disapproval of the other Divinities’ increasingly harsh actions, Olvos – arguably the most compassionate and enlightened of the otherwise barbaric gods – withdrew from the world.

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Book Review: The Ugly Princess: The Legend of the Winnowwood, Henderson Smith (2014)

Wednesday, June 25th, 2014

ALL the scars! (Instead of stars! See what I did there?)

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review through Goodreads’ First Read program. Also, this review contains clearly marked spoilers towards the end.)

I wondered if in the history of the world there had ever been a Princess as ugly as me? I doubted it. But was there ever a Princess in the history of the world who saved their kingdom twice from annihilation by the time they were eighteen, and I doubted that as well. I gave myself a brave smile then attached the veil to my crown and appraised myself – well, it was a beautiful dress.

So there’s this princess named Olive, see.

But she’s also a magical creature called a Winnowwood – the last of her kind.

In addition to being troll-like in appearance, Winnowwoods can control nature, speak to animals, assume animal form, even heal their fellow earthlings. But every time a Winnowwood uses her magic to change something outside of herself – such as to heal her nonhuman friends – she becomes uglier on the outside: she sprouts a new boil or wart, for example. But to the animals she just grows more and more beautiful.

Hundreds of years ago, the lands were teeming with Winnowwoods. But a witch called Cassandra the Dragon Slayer cursed them with a knife, the Blade of Winnowwood, which tempts the Winnowwoods with physical beauty: should they use it to sever their crux (an extra joint on their pinky which is the source of their powers), they will lose their magics in exchange for youth and beauty. This is why all the Winnowwood save for Olive are gone – having long since died or succumbed to the curse. The beauty a Winnowwood will attain after “winnowing” is inversely related to how ugly she is at the time of the ceremony.

Beauty is all Olive’s younger sister Roseline ever wanted. As a child, she rarely used her magic, for fear of becoming uglier than she already was. But the day of her winnowing ceremony, she made a rare visit to the glen, where she spent hours torturing a doe – slashing her chest, breaking a leg with a hammer, etc. – so that she could heal the deer over and again, becoming uglier and uglier with each act of magic. And, ultimately, more and more beautiful that night. (Spoiler alert: Olive found the doe her sister left for dead and healed her – or her physical scars, anyway.)

The whole time I’m reading this, I’m thinking: yeah, but what about dinner time? You don’t eat your friends: cows, pigs, chickens. Awkward.

Turns out that Olive and her mom Opal are both vegetarians! (Roseline was, but not since her winnowing.) It’s not vegan, but I’ll take it.

Up until this point, I’d slowly been falling in love with The Ugly Princess: The Legend of the Winnowwood. But page 57? That’s when I gave my heart over to it fully. This is one beautiful story, people. Inside and out.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: The Girl from the Rune Yard, Eric Guindon (2014)

Monday, May 19th, 2014

A Pleasant Surprise!

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic copy of this book for review through Library Thing’s Member Giveaways program.)

Filled with runic metals from the Time Before, the Rune Yard – the center of Kyria’s existence, so tantalizingly close yet still beyond her reach – is a place of mystery. Peril. Taboos and dark magic.

When she was just ten years old, a man died in the yard; Kyria watched the other workers carry his lifeless body out on an improvised stretcher. When she was sixteen, Kyria burrowed under the fence separating the Yard from the ramshackle house occupied by her family; once inside, she had a near-death experience of her own.

All her life, she’s felt a strong connection to the Rune Yard. Sometimes Kyria can even hear it whispering to her. Yet, until that fateful night when the metals came crashing down on her, Kyria’s parents forbid her from working in the Yard, or even entering it. After that brush with death, Kyria’s father decided it would be best to train the headstrong young girl to run the Yard, since it was clear that she’d find her way in anyway.

(More below the fold…)