Gods of Jade and Shadow

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I was actually anticipating this book since the beginning of 2019. Once I heard about it I knew it was for me: Mayan and Mexican mythology and history, the jazz age, gods and creatures, adventure. When it first came out I heard a few mixed reviews, but I eventually had to read to it anyway. It sounded too much like a “me” book to pass it up because of what other people said. And despite a few things, I liked this novel.

Casiopea Tun serves as a maid to her overbearing grandfather and her spiteful cousin, Martín. When Casiopea’s father passed away, her mother returned to her  family’s household in disgrace after marrying someone her family found undesirable. She and Casiopea became maids to their family because they had nowhere else to go. Casiopea has grown up in this stifling environment all her life and dreams of the freedom to do whatever she wants. After getting in trouble, again, Casiopea is left behind in her grandfather’s mansion to tidy up. She finds a box in her grandfather’s bedroom, and when she opens it, she finds a trapped death god who needs her help. Casiopea gets the adventure she has always dreamed of, but at what cost?

The one thing that I think most people will dislike about this novel is the writing style. It is written kind of like a fairy tale where the magic isn’t explained in detail, the characters feel a little flatter than usual, and you just have to go along with what is happening. Think about the Odyssey. We have characters and events, there’s magic, there’s strange mythological things, but it isn’t like a Brandon Sanderson structured magic system or anywhere near the level of character focus as something by Stephen King. If none of that bothers and you like everything I mentioned in the introduction, you might like this fantasy novel.

The amount of history and culture in the novel was great. The author alluded to trends and issues of the time. We get to see a good bit of the death gods and their realm as well as some other interesting mythical beings. I thought the writing could have been a little more atmospheric (I just love feeling like I am there in the time period.), but places and people were well described, so it was fairly easy to picture the scenes. Admittedly, I had to look up a few older terms and Spanish words, but the book has a small glossary to help in that area.

As for a couple of things I, personally, disliked, I wanted more from the romance. As I said, the characters could have been more fleshed out. The couple had a few cute moments, but it didn’t feel like they could have loved each so deeply after so little time/development. In general, I wish the book had just been longer. I wanted to see more of the land of death, more from the historical era, and more of the characters being together because I felt like they had some potential chemistry that could have built upon more. Though I liked the ending, it didn’t explain as much as I wanted. For example, what happened to Casiopea’s mother and grandfather? I also felt like the book was leading to something about her father, but that, too, didn’t really go anywhere. If there were more pages, maybe we could have had more answers and more fun.

To sum up my feelings, it was a very “me” book, but there were several things that I wanted from the book that it didn’t fully deliver on. I just wanted more, but that doesn’t mean that what was there was bad. I would give Gods of Jade and Shadow three and a half stars, but I rounded up to four stars on Goodreads.

How Long ‘Til Black Future Month

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It is Black History Month, but how long ’til Black Future Month? N. K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth trilogy is one of my favorite fantasy series of all time. I’ve been slowly making my way through her other books and series, and I’ve honestly liked or loved everything, so I decided to pick up her new-ish short story collection. I really wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was very pleasantly surprised with so many great stories that feel familiar but are at the same time completely outside of the box.

Many of the stories deal with very old but very important themes, like love, family, loss, loneliness, etc. But I’ve never read stories that look at these themes from such different and unique perspectives. If I had to say one central theme that permeates all of the stories to some extent, I might go with the word survival. There are stories about hurricanes destroying towns and dragons helping out, a story based on her Broken Earth series where the land itself is shattered and unstable, stories about making sacrifices for the greater good, survival of alien species and other planets, and even a story about humans dying out completely (from the perspective of Death no less)!

Obviously, you could also comb through it and discuss the social, political, and environmental themes and how they relate to being African American or just any person of color. As I said, a lot of these stories contain things we can all relate to, but seeing it all through a lens of primarily characters of color was eye-opening to me on a social, political, and historical level, and it changed how I view sci-fi and fantasy by authors of color. Things have gotten a bit better in recent years, but it is still a struggle for authors of color to even get published, let alone become famous enough to tell the stories they want to tell (see Jemisin’s introduction to the collection in which she explains feeling like she had to write standard Western fantasy to get her foot in the publishing door).

Getting back to the collection, I did not fall in love with every single story, but the majority of them were very entertaining and have kept me thinking about them long after I turned the last page. If you’ve read the collection, my favorite stories were probably “Red Dirt Witch,” “The Effluent Engine,” “Walking Awake,” “On the Banks of the River Lex,” and of course the stories based on her other fantasy series, “Stone Hunger” and “The Narcomancer.” Many of her characters are fully rounded and memorable, and many of her plots were engaging and inspiring. The collection has moments of humor, sadness, justice being served, and a whole lot of heart. I’ve read several short story collections, but this one stands out to me. It is rare for me to give short story collections five stars (I feel as if I have to love every single story to give the whole collections a 5), but many of the individual stories in here blew me away, so I would give How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? a well-deserved 4.5 star rating on my blog, but I had to round up to 5 stars on Goodreads because it was that good.

A Touch Of Death

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A thousand years in the future, humanity has emerged from hiding beneath the Earth to avoid destruction and is slowly rebuilding. Advanced technology and strong laws have given the residents of Cutta a relatively safe and happy life, and although not everyone is satisfied with this life, dissenters are severely punished. Nate Anteros, despite his parents being in the King’s good graces, is one such dissenter. Catherine Taenia, who is to marry Nate’s brother Thom, has lived a quiet and sheltered life in the capital of Cutta. After Nate’s release from prison, he seeks out Catherine and Thom, which upends all three of their lives as they discover secrets about the home they thought they knew and the world they now live in.

This book surprised me with several positive and interesting aspects. To begin with, the world building has a lot of potential. As I read along, many, many questions popped into my head. What exactly happened to Earth? How did people and animals live beneath the ground for so much time? How are the animals, plants, etc. that stayed above ground changed? Are there still people living underground somewhere? The basic concept of the world is very interesting, and I wanted to know everything about the planet as well as how society functions now.

Mutants are a threat and a curiosity to the current society. It appears that not all humans remained safe underground; some stayed above and became mutated. The mutants used to be human, and their presence and relationship to humanity is a major plot point. The characters spend a good amount of time traveling in this book, so we see a few different people and places, but I definitely wanted to know more about all of them. Different cities appeared to have different people, religions, and cultures, but since the book is quite short, we only get a small taste of some of them. This is a series, so I imagine the world is fleshed out much more in subsequent novels.

One thing I disliked was some of the pacing. For example, I really enjoyed the novel’s exciting and dramatic opening, but the pace slowed down a lot for a while afterwards without enough urgency to drive it forward. At other points a character might leave the scene and although part of a day passes, the character returns within the same page. At times scenes feel too abrupt, and at other times the pace slows down a bit too much.

I liked the author’s writing style. It wasn’t overly flowery, but it also wasn’t dry to read. I do wish that there was a bit more descriptive language, but I’m someone who really likes description. I also just wanted a bit more world building in general. I wouldn’t say that the novel is dialogue-heavy, but there is quite a bit. If you dislike the characters, you might not enjoy their banter, but I thought it was fine and even humorous at times.

I gave A Touch of Death 3.5 stars, but since Goodreads still won’t add half stars, I settled for rounding up to 4 stars there. This is a good start to an interesting sci-fi, romance, dystopian series that I think deserves a little more attention!

 

Thank you to the author who kindly provided me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

The Dragon Republic (The Poppy War #2)

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TDRbyRFKThis is the sequel to Kuang’s The Poppy War that many readers (myself included) fell in love with. Released in August of 2019 (in the U.S.), The Dragon Republic follows Rin after she survives the Poppy War and is on the run. The warlords’ loyalty has splintered, and a civil war may be brewing. Rin and her group of shamans must choose where to place their own loyalties as they fight to preserve their country.

This was a solid follow-up novel to The Poppy War. I really liked the beginning of The Poppy War in which Rin and her classmates were learning how to fight at Sinegard, but the latter half with the war itself felt too fast paced for me to really grasp everything that was happening. A lot more action and battles happen in The Dragon Republic, but the pacing is a bit smoother with enough down time between battles/action to process the event and any mental/emotional and political repercussions. The action scenes were well described and easy to imagine, which I found to be a small improvement from the previous novel’s latter half.

This is a dark, action-packed series with an interesting magic system and a heavy dose of Chinese history. In this installment we see what would be considered the “westerners” if Rin and the people of Nikan are considered the equivalent of the “east” in real life. Rin witnesses the culture and religious clash between her people and the Hesperians (westerners), which I thought was a very interesting part of the novel for the author to focus on. Another thing I like about this series (and it was done even better in this sequel) is that the stakes actually feel high. Side characters die fairly often, plans go awry, battles are lost, and even Rin fails and gets knocked down or betrayed multiple times. Rin and many of the other characters are imperfect and do not always make the best decisions, but it all feels fairly realistic. Honestly, I don’t particularly like Rin as a character because of her faults and impulsiveness, but her reactions make sense, especially when you factor in that her hot-headed god has some control over her emotions. I respect Rin, even if I wouldn’t get along with her if she were real. And as this sequel progressed, I found myself agreeing with Rin’s actions more and more, so I would say that is a good gauge of her character developing throughout the series!

This series is pretty dark even when it isn’t based on real history. It doesn’t stray away from tough topics and shows the horrors of war on civilians, which some fantasy series gloss over. I gave The Dragon Republic four out of five stars, and I am ready to see where the next book takes the story.

To the Bright Edge of the World

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To the Bright Edge of the World has a lot going on at once, but it works so well. The main story is twofold. Colonel Allen Forrester has been sent by the U.S. government to explore the untouched reaches of Alaska in the 1880’s. His wife, Sophie, stays at the army barracks in Portland, Oregon while Forrester completes his mission. Both characters keep journals and occasionally write to each other. These letters and journal entries are in chronological order, and the “meta story” is that it is now current day. One of Forrester’s descendants, Walt Forrester, is now an old man, and he wants to give his uncle Forrester’s collection of  belongings to an Alaskan museum. Walt sends the objects to Josh, the museum curator. Both Walt and Josh also send letters to each other, giving rise to their own stories and troubles in the present while they speculate on Allen and Sophie’s story from the artifacts and letters left behind. On top of the two timelines of correspondence, the novel is interspersed with other artifacts, pictures, and poems that make the two separate stories feel realistically tied together.

This book does so many things right or near-perfectly that it was easily a five star read for me. The main characters, Allen, Sophie, Walt, and Josh had easily distinguishable and unique voices. There were a few letters and entries from side characters that rounded out parts of the narrative, and they, too, had unique and engaging narrative voices. I was a little worried that I would miss not having as much exposition in a novel that takes place in the beautiful Alaskan wilderness, but the characters actually describe a lot of sights and sounds vividly in their writing to each other. Allen is exploring the wilderness, so his descriptions are actually needed in journal entries to feel faithful anyway. Sophie is a bit of an artist, so she also provides lyrical descriptions in her journal entries. All of the characters do a fair bit of reflection and introspection in their journals as well, so it is easy to see inside their minds. I adored how you could read between the lines in their writings and see even more of the story unfold. If a character’s journal entry is short, lacks certain events other characters mention, or if they skipped a few days of writing, it makes you wonder what happened that day and why they excluded something. The depth of the world and the characters’ lives travel far outside of what is written on the page.

I have to mention the amount of indigenous people and their culture in the novel. I was a little worried that they would not be portrayed well. I’m not an indigenous person, so I cannot say for sure if this is true, but I felt like the author did a good job of representing their unique cultures in a respectful and educational way while still maintaining an entertaining story. Allen Forrester meets several tribes on his journey through Alaska, and Josh, the museum curator, is an indigenous descendant who gives a more modern-day perspective of what it is like being indigenous in Alaska.

Perhaps this isn’t my most critical review, but I was just so surprised that a book that I have owned since 2016 was a five star read for me! I have thought about this novel a lot since I read it. It was a very engaging, descriptive, realistic, and rather uplifting read that fits the winter season well.

Daisy Jones & The Six

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I loved Taylor Jenkins Reid’s previous release, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo. I loved Evelyn because it focused on a time period I’m fascinated by (old Hollywood), it had a great romance, and the twist caught me by surprise at the end. It just worked as a great novel. The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo was a real chick-flick style page turner, but it also had a considerable amount of depth to the plot and its characters. I saw a lot of similar things I liked while reading Daisy Jones & The Six, but it didn’t quite hit the same marks as The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo.

Daisy Jones & The Six are a fictional rock ‘n roll band from the 70’s. The Six began as their own band, but some collaboration with Daisy, sparked by their shared record label, catapulted the band and Daisy herself into true stardom. The book is in an interview style, taking place many years after the band broke up. Members of The Six, Daisy, their producers, managers, and a few other characters pop up here and there to tell the band’s story. Like any real band from this time period, everything is about sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll.

There was a lot I liked about Daisy Jones and the Six, but it wasn’t perfect. I had several people recommend the audio book over the physical copy because the audio book has a full cast narrating it. I imagine it would have been very immersive to have a different voice for each character, and it would have worked well with the interview style of the novel, but I had not trouble with the physical copy myself. Even without a full cast narrating it, I thought each character had unique voice and style of speaking. I did not have much trouble differentiating between them, and with such a large cast, that takes some real talent, especially when the whole book is essentially dialogue. I do wish that there was a little more orienting information or exposition throughout the novel. There was some at the start of each chapter but not much. I like having a clearer picture of each character and where they are. The characters do discuss what they looked like or the location they were at at the time, but I found myself missing a little more description.

Two areas in which I think this novel really excelled was with the characters and how the story was told. As I said before, the characters all felt very unique and were easy to tell apart just from their dialogue. I also liked that each character had their own motivation and backstory that made sense with their personality and the way they handled issues. I have read several nonfiction books about bands from the 60’s and 70’s, and I had to remind myself a few times that Daisy Jones and the Six weren’t a real band. The characters felt real, their band’s story felt real, and the time period itself could be easily felt and was a fairly accurate representation in my opinion.

What I liked even more was the structure of the plot. Since everything is told in an interview style, one character may retell an event one way, while another character has a completely different view of the event because of what they were feeling at the time, a perceived slight they felt someone did to them, or because they were dealing with something else entirely and barely remembered the event in question. I loved seeing the misunderstandings and differences in memory that the characters had. That not only felt realistic, but it also gave a lot more depth to the plot. Whose version of an event is to be believed? Is someone lying about an event to protect themselves or someone they care about? Is what really happened some combination of multiple characters’ views, or is no one correct at all? These questions rattled around in my head as I read, and it made the whole book more interesting. I loved reading between the lines.

I gave Daisy Jones and the Six four out of five stars. It was a very engaging read, and it was just a well written novel. There was an attempt at a twist near the end that echoed something from The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo. I disliked it and didn’t think it made nearly as much of an impact as the twist in Evelyn, but as always, your mileage may vary.

Crystal Eaters

CEbySJEveryone knows that you are born with a hundred crystals, and as you age, become injured or get sick, your crystal count depletes. Well, everyone in the small town believes this, but in the city things are… different. There is a general distrust between the “backwards” town and the modern city, but each day the city grows nearer. The townspeople may even be making a move against the city. A young girl named Remy lives in the town next to its crystal mine. Remy’s family, like her small town, is in turmoil. Her father is putting up a wall between himself and his emotions. Her brother is locked away in the city prison. And her mother’s crystal count is quickly being declining because of her sickness. Remy sets out to do something no one else has done before. She is determined to increase her mother’s crystal count and therefore her life expectancy with or without the help from the rest of her family.

If you’ve seen my Goodreads rating for this book, you know I wasn’t a big fan. However, I think it had a lot of potential. In the end, my opinion is that it was equal parts me not picking the right book and the book not quite coming together effectively for what I expected. I’ve talked about the publisher Two Dollar Radio on here before. They are from Columbus, Ohio, and they publish some very unique reads that usually involve current problems, social issues, and environmental concerns. I admire the work that they do and the books they put out, but sometimes the books are a little too experimental for my tastes, which is the case with Crystal Eaters.

Based on the blurb and everything I had heard about the book, I expected the following:

  • commentary on the family unit or just a family-oriented story
  • small town vs. big city or nature vs. civilization
  • dealing with and commentary on accepting grief, life, and death
  • some interesting world building
  • general societal commentary

Ultimately, many of these topics are covered, but I didn’t feel that they brought many new ideas to the table.

The story was centered on Remy’s family, and there is a fair bit of reading between the lines when the characters speak, write, or have scenes together. I really liked how there was more going on in the characters’ archs than what was explicitly written on the page, but you also had to look closely to see it. The family members are distant with one another for a number of different reasons, and it was interesting to see how their relationships affected affected each other relationship in the family unit. Grief and the acceptance of death are dealt with in the novel too, but I felt that the novel ended to abruptly to really consider what grief and acceptance of death mean in the novel.

However, the basics of the characters’ personalities did not feel unique. The father is emotionally closed off, the mother suffers in silence, the brother is caught up in something illegal, and the daughter is trying to fix everything even though she is young. We’ve seen these kinds of characters before, but Crystal Eaters did not do much beyond these tropes. I would have liked to have seen the character development go a bit further in order for them to feel more life-life and unique. After reading the novel, I could barely remember even Remy’s name.

The small town vs. big city aspect was there, but again (and this goes with my next point) it could have gone a bit further. I actually focused on this topic a lot in college, so I did not see the small town vs. big city or nature vs. civilization really take a different or interesting turn in Crystal Eaters from previous books I’ve read. There is of course some societal commentary, but I think it would have made many things work better if the world of the novel had been developed a bit more thoroughly. The novel was very experimental with stream-of-consciousness and drug-induced lyrical descriptions, but I did not find as much substance to these descriptions as I would have liked. Developing the word more would have allowed the characters and themes to have more to work with to help them expand more as well.

I gave Crystal Eaters two out of five stars. It bored me where it could have inspired me, but there’s a good possibly that it just wasn’t the right book for me, and that’s OK to admit because it might be the perfect book for you. I still highly recommend anything from Two Dollar Radio and their authors. They don’t sponsor me, but hey, I wish they would!