Wednesday 15 November 2023

#bookreview: Wings of Truth | Aaron DeMott

Wings of TruthWings of Truth by Aaron DeMott
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Two warring nations separated by a deep dark secret, a captured queen, an honourable crown prince, cultural misunderstandings, secret factions that might just destroy the whole world... and only! one! tent!

It is also a clean read, despite that trope.

Is this science fantasy? I feel like it's science fantasy because it reads very fantasy with these non-human characters (the Vincetii are purple-skinned and have wings) plus they drink this strange metal thing to... I guess regain power? And Enrik, the Alandran Crown Prince, has a magical sword called Vinrid, which I really thought stood for "getting rid of the Vincetii" lol.

BUT when you get into the details of the Obelisk and other Weapons of Power, it all starts to sound very sciencey in a "we kinda destroyed the world and now we don't know how all this tech works" way and now they need to find out how. Like with secret manuals and underground labs.

It's a light, enjoyable read and leans into the fun and fantastic. Enrik and Natiah have great chemistry, even if they fall in love really, really quickly lol.

There MAY be a slight squick moment when Natiah reveals that her vow either makes her Enrik's wife or slave, which again is very on-brand with current fanfic type tropes, but it's also very squint-and-you'll-miss-it because this is, as I said, a very clean story. No sexy times, a lot of war deaths, but nothing really described in detail.

Overall, Wings of Truth is a solid story simply told, if a little trope-ish.

Note: I won this book in a giveaway! :)

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This is November's updated book on the 2023 TBR Challenge. I may, unfortunately, have to skip this month's stretch goal again, but we'll see.

Wednesday 8 November 2023

#NetGalley #bookreview: The Book of Witches | Jonathan Strahan (ed)

The Book of WitchesThe Book of Witches by Jonathan Strahan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I picked this up for review from NetGalley because I thought it would go well with my October TBR, and what better way to end the month with some witchy stories! Unfortunately, this review is coming in late because I overestimated my personal capacity for reading multiple stories about witches in one sitting and had to pace myself lol.

Two overarching themes stand out in this anthology: the disempowered woman snatching back power for herself and ignoring the wise woman at your own risk. It may even seem a little sexist from a certain lens: there are few men with magical power here, and the antagonist(s) - while sometimes other women or various sections of society - feel mostly of the male persuasion. It's no surprise, really, given the idea of witches and what they usually stand for.

Speaking to that gender point, "What Dreams May Come" by C. L. Clark is a thoughtful exploration of what it means to be transgender. If the Dreamscape is only meant for women, what happens when Pol transitions to be a man? What then happens to his magic - and why does he still have access to the Dreamscape after his transition?

Yet despite the similarity in themes, these are all very different stories (and poems; I will admit upfront that I kinda skimmed the poems). I normally associate witches to a more rural, old-school context, but a surprising number of stories playing around with the question of how magic would interact with tech - "Good Spells" by Ken Liu was an entertaining example. And if you're looking for something in the mystery vein, "The Liar" by Darcie Little Badger would fill that (various members of the "Coven" group chat are going missing and turning up dead - who's the one killing them?)

Apparently, there's a trope in this anthology that I enjoyed more than the others, which I'll call "BUT WHO ARE THE REAL MONSTERS?" This has a predictable answer: Not The Witch. The ones that stood out to me were "The Witch is Not The Monster" by Alaya Dawn Johnson, "The Nine Jars of Nukulu" by Tobi Ogundiran, and "Orphanage of The Last Breath" by Saad Z. Hossain.

To round up this review, I'll just throw in some of the other stories that I really liked:
"Through the Woods, Due West" by Angela Slatter
"The Cost of Doing Business" by Emily Y. Teng
"John Hollowback and The Witch" by Amal El-Mohtar

Note: I received a digital ARC of this book from HarperCollins via NetGalley. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.

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Wednesday 1 November 2023

#bookreview: To Form a Passage | Sharon Rose

To Form a Passage (Arts of Substance, #1)To Form a Passage by Sharon Rose
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There's this thing about Sharon Rose's books, at least for me. For every new series of hers that I start, it takes a while for things to gel together. It's like there's this high price of admission - you need to be persistent, to press on, to get to the payoff.

But, as with all her novels, oh boy, what a gem. You'll be glad you persisted. You'll close the book with a sigh, eager to read the next one.

To Form a Passage takes place in an all new fantasy world, one where the people live underground and have special gifts from Ellincreo that help them survive. There are the Formers (which I capitalise, even though Rose doesn't, so I kept stumbling over it) who can form stone and metal. There are the Streamers, who can sense water and guide them to wherever they wish. And then there are the Wind Weavers, who do the same with air and wind.

Living underground, emphasis is placed on Formers who are fundamental in making sure that the roofs are stable, that new caves and light sources can be found, that metal and ore can be extracted to trade for food. Streamers help with finding water and rivers - often food sources in their own right and necessary for living - but Wind Weavers are almost forgotten, because who remembers about the air until it runs out?

And so (obviously) there is a catastrophe, and suddenly everyone underground is cut off from the land above, including access to food, resources, and their main government in the form of the King and his Judges.

Whilst this struggle to survive encompasses the core of the conflict, visions and gifts are the most important aspect of To Form a Passage. The novel revolves around Devron in Jourandia and the vision he saw right before the catastrophe. It's beautiful and awe-inspiring, and Devron is convinced that it came from Ellincreo. It's something he feels compelled to build, as dangerous as it is. But as fear grips the underground cities, the gifted - especially the Formers - are banned from using their gifts, despite the fact that it is those very gifts that have kept them alive so far.

Thematically, much of this struggle pings my Christian radar, as if Rose is pondering on that verse in Matthew 25:29 which says:
For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.
Or Luke 12:48(b) which says:
From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.

Because as the story progresses, and the ban on using their gifts continues, Devron has to ask the hard question: Are the Formers not using their gifts because they are blindly obedient to the law? Or is it because they have lost them altogether?

And what now should he do with the vision which may be both Jourandia's salvation and his death?

Weighty reflections indeed, wrapped in a fantastic story.

Note: I received a digital ARC of this book from the author. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.

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Wednesday 25 October 2023

#bookreview: The Christmas Appeal | Janice Hallett

The Christmas Appeal (The Appeal, #1.5)The Christmas Appeal by Janice Hallett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I hadn't really been looking to add ANOTHER ARC to the review list, but when the notification popped on Edelweiss saying that I'd been granted this DRC, I just had to make an exception.

EVERYTHING about the blurb appealed to me. The stage play, the Christmas setting, the murder mystery! What's not to love? On one hand, it was a sure hit because of the themes and tropes. On the other, it could turn out to be super generically uninspired...

What makes The Christmas Appeal an unconventional read is that there is no long-form narrative at all. I've read a few short stories that incorporate forms of text messaging and emails, but not a whole novella that's written entirely in emails, WhatsApp/text messages, police transcripts and the occasional newspaper article. It does, however, take a bit of easing into because of the way it's written. (Or maybe if you're forewarned by this review, you'll be able to sink into it right away.)

The Christmas Appeal is a comedy of errors, and it's pretty hilarious. You're seeing the events as it happens through the communications between the characters. It's not quite unbuffered thoughts, but you get to know them in the ways that they express (or expose) themselves to others, unhindered by side thoughts, or narrator's thoughts, or other kinds of wordy buffer. There were many oh ho! points especially when you get to some of the more backstabby and gossipy characters, so it was pretty fun to read through some of those texts (and also get annoyed by how stupid and/or annoying some of them are lol)

At any rate, as much as I enjoyed it and sped through it, it's not quite a 5-star read for me for the following reasons:
- It's framed around a bored, retired KC sending the communications (or notes from the "case") to his ex-students, who take it upon themselves to try to solve the mystery which, I guess, is okay - however, it felt like the weakest point of the entire setup.
- The body doesn't turn up until quite late in the story so the story could have stood alone as a farce without any murder.
- At the risk of a spoiler (?), the "murder" isn't really actually connected to anything that's currently happening. So that felt a little like a let down.

There were some allusions to the previous case (The Appeal) that I haven't read. I think that might have given more background to some of the characters but I could follow it easily enough without knowing what happened in the earlier book.

As a last note, I'm usually one for e-books nowadays, but this novella is probably best read/navigated in printed form. Despite the fact that it was written in mostly digital comms formats.

Note: I received a digital ARC of this book from Simon & Schuster via Edelweiss. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.

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The Christmas Appeal releases on Oct 24! Affiliate link below:

Friday 20 October 2023

#bookreview: Hantu Macabre | Jill Girardi

Hantu MacabreHantu Macabre by Jill Girardi
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Hantu Macabre started off great. Suzanna Sim, the half-American, half-Malaysian protagonist is based in George Town, Penang, so I started off loving the Penang vibes. The setting is described with so much detail and love that you can tell that Girardi really did enjoy living here. There's a series of grizzly murders and Sim sets off to solve them with the help of her assistant, a toyol named Tokek. Some of the cases take Sim to other parts of Malaysia as well, but I felt those places weren't described with as much care or detail as she did George Town.

The thing that ultimately felt off to me was the way it was written and/or structured. The series of murders are all interconnected, but in many ways, it felt like a bunch of short stories/novelettes that were put together instead of a cohesive novel.

Part I, the one titled "Hantu Macabre" itself, felt like the best part of the book.
Part II was a leeeeetle bit too outlandish for me, involving magical Japanese swords and undying generals from the Japanese occupation. But whatever. Here's where we figure out who the recurring antagonist is, and that she's going to be the actual main nemesis in this book.
Part III flipped back to a more Malaysian paranormal crime feel, and also reveals more about Suzanna Sim's past. It's the most substantial part of the book and should've probably been the climax. See, there was this big black magic event that happens and felt like it could be the Big Battle but it doesn't... end... there.
In Part IV, Sim spends a lot of time doing nothing especially interesting before the final show down happens. It does, however, also solve the mystery of Sim's past besides resolving the main crime issue of the whole book. And then it ends on a line, which I guess sets it up to have more books in the series.

Ultimately, I felt like, as a novel, Hantu Macabre started off with great promise but kind of petered out.

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I've been behind on posting reviews, so I figured eh, whatever, I'll post even if it's not a Wednesday. lol. So, bonus post, I guess? Or belated one.

This one's for October's TBR challenge. I have a couple of ARCs to read this week for books that are releasing in October, so I'll probably be skipping the stretch goal. 


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Wednesday 11 October 2023

#bookreview: The Blue Monsoon | Damyanti Biswas

The Blue Monsoon (Blue Mumbai, #2)The Blue Monsoon by Damyanti Biswas
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I took a while to write this review because I've been having a tough time trying to reconcile my feelings about The Blue Monsoon. Where The Blue Bar was gripping and easy to love, ending on quite a hopeful note, this one picks up again two years later on a somewhat dreary note. And as the rains and flooding in Mumbai threaten Arnav's case, so does the dreariness sometimes overwhelm the reader.

When I say dreary, I don't mean that the story is slow in any way. It's quite as gripping as The
Blue Bar
, maybe even more so because we already know, and are invested in, the main characters. In this one, Arnav is faced by how much he doesn't perceive or understand because he is a high caste man in Indian society; Tara is struggling with her lack of independence due to her high-risk pregnancy and injury; Sita is just trying to do her job without complicated relationships; and in the midst of it all, the deaths--dismembered men with tantric symbols carved in flesh--and threats keep coming. Links to influencers and hopeful politicians again push these cases into the limelight... and maybe there's a point where Arnav's weariness seeps through the narrative and makes everything feel too much, too bleak.

In many ways, The Blue Monsoon is a critique on the lingering caste system in India; but more than that, it attempts to show how privilege blinds one to injustices, how affirmative action policies don't quite solve anything (and sometimes makes them worse), and how gender (or rather, being female) exacerbates everything. It's not an easy read by any means, but then again, none of Biswas's books are.

Overall, the Blue Monsoon is a dark, gritty, crime procedural/thriller and probably should come with some trigger warnings. (Some gore, including castration; sexual abuse and harassment; difficult pregnancies; discrimination/slurs against transwomen)

Note: I received a digital ARC of this book from Thomas & Mercer via NetGalley. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.

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Wednesday 13 September 2023

#bookreview: The Epic of Bidasari and Other Tales

The Epic of Bidasari and Other TalesThe Epic of Bidasari and Other Tales by Aristide Marre
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There are four tales included in this book, which was first published in 1901. This edition doesn't seek to retranslate or even clean up much of the text, so the writing isn't exactly...stellar lol.

The Epic of Bidasari itself is amusing, a Snow White type of fairy tale written in epic verse that's divided into six songs. There are several key differences: Bidasari is a lost princess; the evil queen (Lila Sari) isn't related to Bidasari in any way; there's no magic mirror (heh) but the queen sends out her maidens to scour the land for "a face more beautiful than mine". It's not just pure vanity, though. The reason she does this is because her husband tells her TO HER FACE that if he finds anyone more beautiful than her, he'll take her as his second wife. Which, I mean, I can sympathise a little?

But of course, as this is a fairy tale, this very act of Lila Sari looking for the beautiful maiden then makes it a self-fulfilling prophecy. It's nice to note that the actual stepparents in the story (well, not really "step" but the merchants who find and adopt Bidasari) are the good guys.

There's hints of Sleeping Beauty, insofar as after escaping the palace, Bidasari is cursed to sleep throughout the day until the spell is broken. But seeing that her prince charming is a married man who's all like "I love you because you're more beautiful than my wife" and who goes back to visit his first wife and says "but it's all your fault that I married her because you beat her and hid her from me!!"... ugh.

Yeah, so not very romantic at all. Anyway, it's all very dramatic and twisty, with a lot of false accusations, quests and side quests, and "I cannot bear to part with you!" declarations so maybe it's worth it for that kind of OTT drama. Which kind of feels on par of what little I know of the stories of that era. (Most of these would have been told orally, and probably incorporated music and dance and singing.)

The main problems with the readability of this text (besides it being really old-school) is the inconsistency in titles (lack of modern editing!), where Lila Sari is Queen on one page, but Princess on another, and Djouhan Mengindra is sometimes Sultan, sometimes King, sometimes Prince. It's fairly easy to follow at first, but when the other Kings/Princes from other lands come into play, that's where the reader needs to track who's who very carefully. It's rather amusing, though, to look at transliterations from an earlier century and snigger a little at how odd they look - eg: dyang, mantri, tjempakka - or to try to puzzle out what on earth that word was really supposed to be.

I skimmed through the second one, Sedjaret Malayou, because I've read the full text of (Sejarah Melayu: The Malay Annals) which is a much, much better (and complete) translation. I feel like I should get around to reading the newest translation, though (The Genealogy of Kings), which would probably be more accurate and less clunky, seeing that it's a 2020 translation by Muhammad Haji Salleh.

The Princess Djouher-Manikam is another fascinating tale, this time set in Baghdad. It's about a princess who really has no agency and is just shunted from place to place and through harrowing events "because of God's will" (but mostly because of horny men who think they should own every pretty woman they see). It gets a little annoying the longer goes on, but towards the end, the princess does take matters into her own hands in a meaningful way to direct her own life, albeit by dressing up as a man. It's hard to criticise this meaningfully because those were the constraints of the time, for a woman in her culture.

The final piece in this book is Makota Radja-Radja (The Crown of Kings), which isn't so much a single narrative, but a collection of stories/extracts about various kings that's intended to showcase how a king should act. It was a little jarring to read at first because most of the stories are centred around Middle Eastern countries, but the foreword sheds light that it was originally written in the 1600s by a Bokhari who lived in Djohore (Johor). The text jumps around a lot and doesn't have any meaningful arrangement or sequence, though I don't know if that's a translation problem or the fact that it feels like just a fragment of the original text.

ANYWAY. Read this for the TBR challenge. I don't know if I'd recommend it as a "you should read this" but if you're on a fairy tale/folklore kick and want to know more about stuff from Asia, this would fit. I'd say just focus on The Epic of Bidasari and The Princess Djouher-Manikam though.

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This was supposed to be August's stretch goal but it took longer than expected, because I had other books to review and post. Plus, I did change my book at the last minute.