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BOOK REVIEW: Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo (4 Stars)

Cover of Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo


Four star rating represented by four bumblebees
(4 out of 5)

Ketterdam: a bustling hub of international trade where anything can be had for the right price–and no one knows that better than criminal prodigy Kaz Brekker. Kaz is offered a chance at a deadly heist that could make him rich beyond his wildest dreams. But he can’t pull it off alone…

A convict with a thirst for revenge. A sharpshooter who can’t walk away from a wager. A runaway with a privileged past. A spy known as the Wraith. A Heartrender using her magic to survive the slums. A thief with a gift for unlikely escapes.

Six dangerous outcasts. One impossible heist. Kaz’s crew is the only thing that might stand between the world and destruction—if they don’t kill each other first. (Goodreads)

I definitely wasn’t desperately whispering “please live up to the hype” as I opened Six of Crows on my Kindle and I have no idea where you’ve heard that.

Reading a hyped-up book that I want to love is always scary because so many of those haven’t lived up to my expectations—and at first I thought Six of Crows would fall into that category as well. For the first quarter of the book, it was incredibly hard for me to immerse myself due to the frequent POV shifts between multiple characters. I’m a single POV person at heart because shifts tend to interrupt my focus and confuse me, so Six of Crows switching between five different POV characters was daunting.

However, once the heist properly got underway, I was finally hooked. That’s also when the multiple POVs started making sense to me; they allow the reader to stay with the characters during their part of the heist, painting a complete picture of a complicated undertaking. I still could have done away with at least one POV; I didn’t like Matthias and his portions of the story were the least interesting to me, to the point where I would occasionally skim parts of his chapters.

Leigh Bardugo’s writing is overall great, though, and a well-written heist never fails to draw me in. I love reading about teams working together under pressure like the cogs in a well-oiled machine, each putting their particular skills to use. The world building was excellent, and as someone who loves the Netherlands and is longing to go back, I especially enjoyed the Dutch-inspired setting of Ketterdam.

Kaz’s team is diverse, with people of different ethnicities, genders, and body types. I’ve been told that there’s some queer rep in this duology, but so far there have only been hints, so I’m really crossing my fingers that there will be some explicit queerness in the sequel.

I’d also heard a lot about the disabled rep, and I would say it was decent. Kaz has chronic pain and walks with a cane due to an old leg injury that never healed right. Sure, he’s a crook, but in this book everyone is, and Kaz isn’t portrayed as a villain, nor is his disability ever used for shock value. It was nice to have a casually disabled character who uses a mobility aid but can also stand his own in physical situations, though I do feel ambivalent about Kaz also using his cane as a weapon. Still, a confident leader who just so happens to be disabled, written by a disabled author, is a win in my book.

I disliked the narrative of the persecution of magic users, and I was uncomfortable with the plot point of medical experiments being performed on Grisha. Additionally, there’s an entire arc dedicated to the will-they-won’t-they romance between a reforming bigot falling in love with a member of the group he formerly persecuted, and that is always going to be a no from me. It’s not cute or romantic, and if I never read this particular trope again it’ll be too soon.

When I picked up Six of Crows, I was fully expecting to give it five stars since I had heard so many good things about it. Although it was a page-turner, due to the issues mentioned above it only merits four stars from me, but I’m still excited to read the sequel as soon as my library hold comes through. (ETA: Click here to read my review for Crooked Kingdom.)

BOOK SERIES REVIEW: The Girl From Everywhere by Heidi Heilig

Series Rating: Five star rating represented by five bumblebees (5 out of 5)

Cover of The Girl from Everywhere by Heidi Heilig, depicting a ship with red sails riding a wave on a black background

Nix has spent her entire life aboard her father’s ship, sailing across the centuries, across the world, across myth and imagination.
As long as her father has a map for it, he can sail to any time, any place, real or imagined: nineteenth-century China, the land from One Thousand and One Nights, a mythic version of Africa. Along the way they have found crewmates and friends, and even a disarming thief who could come to mean much more to Nix.

But the end to it all looms closer every day.

Her father is obsessed with obtaining the one map, 1868 Honolulu, that could take him back to his lost love, Nix’s mother. Even though getting it—and going there—could erase Nix’s very existence.

For the first time, Nix is entering unknown waters.

She could find herself, find her family, find her own fantastical ability, her own epic love.

Or she could disappear.

I loved this book so, so much. The premise is promising and the author delivers a riveting adventure. I loved the unique take on time travel, a ship not only sailing through space but also through time. The pacing was exactly right for me, diving straight into the action. The plot moves along quickly, but leaves room for world-building and introspection.

The Temptation is crewed by a diverse cast of characters that I immediately fell in love with. The crew consists of half-Chinese Nix, her father Slate, Kashmir, a boy rescued from a mythical place, ex-buddhist monk Rotgut, Bee, a black African gay woman, and arguably her ghost wife Ayen. They are such a wonderful found family and I was so invested in every single one of them.

But the character I loved most of all was, of course, the main character Nix. Her narrative voice is clear and strong, even when she goes through patches of doubt or existential angst. She has encyclopedic knowledge of history and mythology, and is mostly in charge of picking where they will Navigate to next. Her dream is to learn to Navigate through space and time herself and to set out on her own, but she is struggling with making a decision that would mean leaving behind her father and her home, the Temptation. Nix is a conflicted character, but she has a good heart and wants to do what’s right, even if it means self-sacrifice.

Nix’s conflict also extends into her love life. Kashmir has been her best friend and travelling companion for years, but she toys with the possibility of a relationship with a new arrival in her life. Although I’m not usually a fan of love triangles, this one was actually not that bad, and blessedly mostly void of jealousy. I could even see Nix, Kashmir, and Blake in a poly relationship, but alas, I didn’t get an OT3 ending.

In The Girl From Everywhere, Nix learns to navigate her relationship with her father, blossoming love, and eventually time and space. While this first book in the series is packed with action, it also largely acts as a set-up for the sequel. The ending is very open, so I was glad I was able to delve right into The Ship Beyond Time.

Cover of The Ship Beyond Time by Heidi Heilig, depicting a ship with red sails on a cresting wave on a white background

After what seems like a lifetime of following her father across the globe and through the centuries, Nix has finally taken the helm of their time-traveling ship. Her future—and the horizon—is bright.

Until she learns she is destined to lose the one she loves. To end up like her father: alone, heartbroken.

Unable to face losing Kashmir—best friend, thief, charmer extraordinaire—Nix sails her crew to a mythical utopia to meet a man who promises he can teach her how to manipulate time, to change history. But no place is perfect, not even paradise. And everything is constantly changing on this utopian island, including reality itself.

If Nix can read the ever-shifting tides, perhaps she will finally harness her abilities. Perhaps she can control her destiny, too.

Or perhaps her time will finally run out.

Again, I was engrossed in this book from start to finish. Heidi Heilig is an amazing writer, and in The Ship Beyond Time she masterfully interweaves history and myth in a fascinating story.

Pulling on the Breton myth of Ker-Ys, Heilig creates a fantastical setting for the crew of the Temptation. I wasn’t previously aware of this somewhat obscure myth, and finding out more about it was really interesting. I love both history and mythology, and this book asked a lot of questions about what makes something history or myth, and what that means for the characters’ identities.

In her quest to figure out changing history, Nix again grapples with herself and with what’s right. Even though she is originally driven to Ker-Ys by selfish motives, her drive to do the right thing and to help others always wins in the end. I really like characters discovering power and its ensuing possibilities, and grappling not only with whether or not they can, but also with whether or not they should.

In this book, we also got some insight into Kashmir’s thoughts via a few chapters from his POV scattered throughout the book. At first, I wasn’t too thrilled about this because I thought the POV shifts would be regular and I wanted to stay with Nix, but the author managed to intersperse Nix’s narrative with the perfect amount of Kashmir chapters, and I ended up loving them, too.

I only wish that there had been better queer rep because the only queer character having lost their spouse, though remaining married to their ghost, tastes a bit sour with the lack of overall wlw representation. Bee’s and Ayen’s relationship is incredibly sweet, but it would be improved by both of them being alive. It’s also a shame that there wasn’t any disability rep, unless you count Slate’s addiction.

Ultimately, though, this series so well-written and filled with things I love (history! mythology! heists! found family!) and the POC representation was so good that I really can’t envision giving The Girl from Everywhere anything but the full five stars.

Have you read The Girl From Everywhere? Did you like it? Let me know what you think in the comments below!

BOOK REVIEW: Let’s Talk About Love by Claire Kann

Cover of Let's Talk About Love by Claire Kann depicting a black girl with a beautiful big afro

Rating: Rating of three-and-a-half out of five stars represented by bumblebees (3.5 out of 5)

Alice had her whole summer planned. Non-stop all-you-can-eat buffets while marathoning her favorite TV shows (best friends totally included) with the smallest dash of adulting–working at the library to pay her share of the rent. The only thing missing from her perfect plan? Her girlfriend (who ended things when Alice confessed she’s asexual). Alice is done with dating–no thank you, do not pass go, stick a fork in her, done.

But then Alice meets Takumi and she can’t stop thinking about him or the rom com-grade romance feels she did not ask for (uncertainty, butterflies, and swoons, oh my!).

When her blissful summer takes an unexpected turn, and Takumi becomes her knight with a shiny library employee badge (close enough), Alice has to decide if she’s willing to risk their friendship for a love that might not be reciprocated—or understood.

Let’s Talk About Love is Claire Kann’s debut YA novel featuring Alice, a black asexual biromantic girl, as the lead. It’s this promise of amazing representation that made me pick up this novel, even though I don’t usually go for non-speculative YA. It’s not that I don’t like or respect the genre, but I tend to not enjoy it as much as speculative fiction. I just don’t get as easily invested when the stakes are interpersonal relationships rather than, say, the fate of the world, but I don’t feel like that’s a shortcoming of the genre.

However, I did feel like the drama in Let’s Talk About Love was sometimes overly manufactured, to the point where it honestly didn’t make sense to me. This especially goes for the conflict between Alice and her almost life-long best friend Feenie. Feenie’s issues with Alice seemed completely unreasonable to me, but that’s not how they were treated, which was confusing and frustrating.

In addition, the narrative voice tried a tad too hard to be whimsical, while missing the mark on humour for me. I was still able to enjoy it though, and I ended up being very invested in the outcome of Alice’s relationship with Takumi. And most importantly, the asexual representation made me feel so seen and understood.

I’ve never in my life read a book with an asexual main character whose asexuality was spelled out so explicitly. Although it irked me that the author chose to include objects and animals under aesthethic attraction, there were other passages that made me feel so happy. There is some ace-phobia that’s also intertwined with racism and the hypersexualisation of black women, but it is made clear that those attitudes are ace-phobic and racist. That doesn’t mean they might not still be upsetting for some people, hence why I’m including this warning.

Ultimately, though, I found this a heartwarming read. Let’s Talk About Love is going to be so important for so many asexual kids out there, especially asexual black girls, and just for that I’m glad it exists even though it didn’t tick all the boxes for me personally. And now I’m going to leave you with my absolute favourite passage from the book that may or may not have made me tear up a little.

I want someone to give me flowers and take me on dates. I want to fall in love and wear a giant princess dress at my wedding. I want to have a happy ending, too, and all that other magical stuff. I want what books and TV and the world has promised me. It’s not fair that I should have to want sex to have it.

Cover of If It Makes You Happy by Claire Kann featuring a beautiful fat black girl with braids

Also, there’s good news for YA lovers: Claire Kann has another YA rom-com featuring a queer fat black girl and a baking competition, If It Makes You Happy, coming out in June 2019. It sounds great, so I’m definitely considering giving it a read.

BOOK REVIEW: Brooklyn Brujas Series by Zoraida Córdova

Labyrinth Lost (Brooklyn Brujas #1) by Zoraida Córdova

Cover of Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Córdova

Rating: Five star rating represented by five bumblebees (5 out of 5)

I was chosen by the Deos. Even gods make mistakes.

Alex is a bruja, the most powerful witch in a generation…and she hates magic. At her Deathday celebration, Alex performs a spell to rid herself of her power. But it backfires. Her whole family vanishes into thin air, leaving her alone with Nova, a brujo she can’t trust, but who may be Alex’s only chance at saving her family.

I first read Labyrinth Lost in May of last year. I finally got around to reading the sequel, but since I couldn’t remember much from the first book, it seemed like an opportune moment for a reread.

The main character Alex is a bisexual Latinx girl, and like most of the main cast she is repeatedly described as dark-skinned with unruly hair. It’s great representation, and it’s well-written, with an engaging plot and a relatable main character. Even though in the beginning Alex makes a couple of unsympathetic choices, she more than redeems herself in the course of the book.

According to my Goodreads review from last year, I docked half a star for what I then perceived as an unnecessary love triangle. I like to think that I’ve become (and still am becoming) a more nuanced reader, and I definitely had a more nuanced read on that this time around. There is an underlying possibility of a love triangle and it is clear in the text that Alex is attracted to Nova, but I feel now that more than anything it serves to establish Alex’s bisexuality rather than to create unnecessary tension. She’s very obviously in love with Rishi, her best friend, who is also a queer girl of colour. Their relationship is adorable and delightful, and it’s so gratifying when they end up together.

The most important bond in Labyrinth Lost however is between Alex and her family, her mother and her sisters Lula and Rose. Like every family, they have their conflicts, a lot of them based around their magical heritage and the absence of the girls’ father after his mysterious disappearance. There is some very realistic bickering among the three sisters. However, they are incredibly close and protective of each other, and would go to the ends of the world for each other — which Alex actually ends up doing. The prevalent themes in this first book of the series are accepting power and finding love, embedded in the context of family and Latinx magic traditions.

Bruja Born (Brooklyn Brujas #2) by Zoraida Córdova

Cover of Bruja Born by Zoraida Córdova

Rating: Five star rating represented by five bumblebees (5 out of 5)

Three sisters. One spell. Countless dead.

Lula Mortiz feels like an outsider. Her sister’s newfound Encantrix powers have wounded her in ways that Lula’s bruja healing powers can’t fix, and she longs for the comfort her family once brought her. Thank the Deos for Maks, her sweet, steady boyfriend who sees the beauty within her and brings light to her life.

Then a bus crash turns Lula’s world upside down. Her classmates are all dead, including Maks. But Lula was born to heal, to fix. She can bring Maks back, even if it means seeking help from her sisters and defying Death herself. But magic that defies the laws of the deos is dangerous. Unpredictable. And when the dust settles, Maks isn’t the only one who’s been brought back…

Bruja Born was an incredible read. This second book of the series is told from the point of view of Alex’s older sister, Lula, the stereotypical “pretty one.” She has the gift of healing, and even in the first book, her warmth and unconditional love for others shines through. I love Lula’s narrative voice even more than Alex’s.

At the beginning of the book, she is still healing from the trauma of being imprisoned in Los Lagos, and struggling with depression and her father’s unexpected reappearance in her family’s life. After she and her boyfriend almost die in an accident, she tries to save Maks by healing him and by calling on treacherous powers. She causes an outbreak of casimuertos, and ends up having to race against time and her weakening body to fix her mistake.

I’m usually a slow reader, but I inhaled this book in the span of two days. In Bruja Born, the author introduces some new players, such as the Hunters and the Thorne Hill Alliance. At first I felt like they were kind of ushered in, but it ended up being a neat expansion of world-building after the first book was mostly set in a different realm. I actually preferred the stronger urban fantasy vibes of the sequel.

Watching Lula grow and heal and learn to let go was a wonderful journey. I fell more in love with all three of the bruja sisters and their unique strengths with every page. Lula, Alex, and Rose are all brave and amazing in their own ways, and I love how inseparable they are. Bruja Born was one of my absolute favourite reads this year, and I legitimately cannot wait for the third book to come out, which will be about the youngest sister Rose and the mystery surrounding their father.

BOOK REVIEW: Rebel of the Sands Trilogy by Alwyn Hamilton

Rating: Rating of four-and-a-half out of five stars represented by bumblebees (4.5 out of 5)

Mortals rule the desert nation of Miraji, but mythical beasts still roam the wild and remote areas, and rumor has it that somewhere, djinn still perform their magic.  For humans, it’s an unforgiving place, especially if you’re poor, orphaned, or female.

Amani Al’Hiza is all three.  She’s a gifted gunslinger with perfect aim, but she can’t shoot her way out of Dustwalk, the back-country town where she’s destined to wind up wed or dead.

Then she meets Jin, a rakish foreigner, in a shooting contest, and sees him as the perfect escape route. But though she’s spent years dreaming of leaving Dustwalk, she never imagined she’d gallop away on mythical horse—or that it would take a foreign fugitive to show her the heart of the desert she thought she knew.

The Rebel of the Sands trilogy was hands-down one of my favourite reads of 2018. I had been meaning to read it for absolute ages, and it was an incredible read with fast-paced action set against a fascinating backdrop of a desert country teeming with ancient magic. I’m always a sucker for fantasy based in non-Western mythology, and the author’s world-building really did the setting justice.

I also love a girl who is good with a gun and quick with her tongue, so the main character Amani was an absolute delight. It’s not always easy to make a character who can’t keep her mouth shut sympathetic, but the author definitely succeeded. In general, the writing was engaging, and the twists and surprises just kept coming. If you’re looking for a series that will keep you on your toes, Rebel of the Sands is for you.

So why is my rating not five stars if I loved this trilogy so much? The reason is the lack of queer representation and the unsatisfactory way disability representation was handled. My discussion of both issues includes spoilers up to the very end of the trilogy, so if you haven’t read the series yet and want to remain unspoiled, skip ahead to the last paragraph.

I enjoyed the main m/f relationship in the first book, but as the series progressed, the romance lost its shine. After initially getting together, Amani and Jin spent the better part of two books in a will-they-or-won’t-they state that really made me question whether Amani was even in love with this guy anymore, especially since she spent far more time thinking about another female character, Shazad, than she ever did about Jin.

Amani keeps expounding on all of Shazad’s admirable (read hot) qualities and her beauty, describing her as “breathtakingly gorgeous”, and not only do they share sleeping quarters but also clothing. They seem to always know what the other is thinking, understand each other without words, always look to each other, and when they’re reunited after being apart, it always reads something like this:

And then she saw me and that sloppy smile broke over her face as she closed the distance with a hug. I felt my own arms, like they were finally untethered, fling themselves around her.

I don’t know about you, Harold, but I personally think they’re lesbians. Not convinced yet? Maybe this will do the trick:

Shazad appeard next to me […] Neither of us spoke or broke our pace as we came together, like two currents merging into a river.

And when it’s time to choose who she wants to receive a Djinni’s gift of survival, transferred by a kiss, Amani of course chooses… Shazad.

We’d made a habit of saving each other, Shazad and I, of having each other’s back. Except I couldn’t watch her back on the battlefield this time. And she couldn’t save me from my fate.

“Yeah,” I said, leaning toward her, looping my arm around her shoulders. I leaned my head against hers and dropped a quick kiss on her cheek. Like a gesture between sister […]

Except we weren’t sisters. We’d chosen each other. And now that I’d given her that kiss from Zaahir, and the promise of a life longer than this battle, she wouldn’t be coming anywhere with me.

I was internally screaming during this entire scene, and the screaming mostly consisted of make Amani kiss her girlfriend on the mouth, you cowards! I could go on indefinitely. Don’t get me wrong, I loved their friendship, but they had such chemistry, and I do feel like not making them girlfriends is a huge missed opportunity.

The only other relationship that could be read as queer is that of two background characters, Imin and Navid, both of whom end up dead. Imin is a shapeshifting demdji, meaning they can take any human form, which could have been an interesting exploration of gender if the author had taken a less binary approach to it. When Imin takes “the form of a man”, they are referred to by others with he pronouns, and when they take “the form of a woman”, they are referred to with she pronouns. However, there was no indication that Imin’s gender actually changes along with their physical form, but even so matching the character’s pronouns to what gender they are perceived to be peeved me as a non-binary reader.

The disability representation was decent in quantity but lacking in quality. I do have to give props to the author for including a character who was disabled from birth, which is still shockingly rare in disability representation. Tamid was born with a twisted leg and walks on crutches, and later uses a prosthesis when part of his leg has to be amputated. Unfortunately, Tamid ends up being a morally ambivalent and vindictive character, which is not a problem in itself, but equating disability with villainy is an all-too-familiar harmful trope that we could all do without for a while.

I was similarly unsatisfied with the fact that another amputee character who was missing fingers used her gift for illusion to hide her disability. Hala had also escaped an abusive marriage, only to be later killed in a way that felt unnecessary. Additionally, the main character Amani is also temporarily disabled and repeatedly incapacitated by chronic pain. However, she is cured of her pain in the grand finale of the series, another popular trope which takes away from disability representation. END SPOILERS

All that said, I still enjoyed the series a lot. I flew through it at unusual speed and could barely put my e-reader down. Considering I often have brain fog and concentration issues, it says a lot about Alwyn Hamilton’s writing that I was hooked on Rebel of the Sands from beginning to end.

BOOK REVIEW: They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera

My library hold of They Both Die at the End came through right after the author, Adam Silvera, had initiated a Twitter debate by scolding readers for pirating his book. I don’t condone piracy in general, but I disagree with the popular stance that books are luxury items, and I strongly believe that poor marginalised readers, especially kids and teens, should not be blamed for large-scale industry problems. (Some tweets about this issue.)

The solution to writers being systematically undervalued by the publishing industry is not to scold poor people, it’s to change the industry in a way that will allow authors to make a living wage even while broadening access to their works. Poor marginalised readers often have restricted or no access to books they can see themselves in, while at the same time having the greatest need for them, and I do not blame anyone in that situation for accessing these books the only way they can. But I digress.

What I’m getting at is that this situation caused me to pick up They Both Die at the End with some trepidation. I always like to give marginalised authors a fair chance though, so I tried to approach it with an open mind in spite of my reservations.


Rating: one (1 out of 5)

On September 5, a little after midnight, Death-Cast calls Mateo Torrez and Rufus Emeterio to give them some bad news: They’re going to die today.

Mateo and Rufus are total strangers, but, for different reasons, they’re both looking to make a new friend on their End Day. The good news: There’s an app for that. It’s called the Last Friend, and through it, Rufus and Mateo are about to meet up for one last great adventure—to live a lifetime in a single day.

For a book promising a “great adventure”, They Both Die at the End moves rather slowly. It’s a very short book, and much of it is wasted on boring exposition, but without ever delving into how our world evolved into what it is in the book. To me, that was relevant information, so the lack of explanation was grating.

The main characters are Mateo and Rufus, both queer Latinx boys. Unfortunately, I immediately developed an intense dislike for both of them because they’re insufferably melodramatic and self-important. Mateo, a boilerplate decent human, is repeatedly described as being oh so quirky for being kind. Rufus, on the other hand, is introduced while almost beating another boy to death out of jealousy over a girl. That’s pretty damning behaviour in my book, but the author is adamant about trying to convince the reader that the beating was an out of character transgression, and that Rufus is really a good person.

These characterisations really turned me off the main characters, and it was hard to connect with them or for the emotional stakes to ever get off the ground. I was ecstatic when I found myself rooting for them at one point in the last third of the book, but the emotional connection didn’t last.

The world-building and introduction of seemingly random but in fact interconnected characters kept hinting at a bigger overarching plot that the author never delivered on. The ending was very anticlimactic and the only emotions it left me with were confusion and dissatisfaction. The story consisted entirely of meandering strings that the author refused to wrap up. Silvera may have been aiming for profundity with the open ending, but the execution was floundering and struggled to create any emotional pay-off. In general, the writing was too heavy on pathos and melodrama to be enjoyable for me.

I know a lot of people love this book, and it’s exciting that Silvera is writing own voices books about queer boys of colour, but for me, this really missed the mark. To top it all off, the author included a completely unnecessary jab at homeless people, which re-confirmed that even people coming from poverty can have deeply internalised classist attitudes. Considering these attitudes of Silvera’s and my general dislike of his writing, it’s unlikely that I will be picking up any other books by this author.

MINI REVIEWS: Aru Shah and the End of Time, Scarlett Undercover

I just finished Aru Shah and the End of Time, but it’s been a while since I read Scarlett Undercover. I still wanted to share my thoughts about it though, and since both of these have shared themes of mythology and sisterhood, I figured I’d stick them in a Mini Reviews post together.

Aru Shah and the End of Time by Roshani Chokshi

Cover of Aru Shah and the End of Time by Roshani Chokshi

Rating: Three star rating represented by three bumblebees (3 out of 5)

Twelve-year-old Aru Shah has a tendency to stretch the truth in order to fit in at school. One day, three schoolmates show up at Aru’s doorstep to catch her in a lie. They don’t believe her claim that the museum’s Lamp of Bharata is cursed, and they dare Aru to prove it. Just a quick light, Aru thinks. Then she can get herself out of this mess and never ever fib again.

But lighting the lamp has dire consequences. She unwittingly frees the Sleeper, an ancient demon whose duty it is to awaken the God of Destruction. The only way to stop the demon is to find the reincarnations of the five legendary Pandava brothers and journey through the Kingdom of Death. But how is one girl in Spider-Man pajamas supposed to do all that?

I’m a huge fan of Rick Riordan and I love learning about mythology. I’ve been looking forward to picking up the Rick Riordan Presents books ever since they were announced, and Aru Shah and the End of Time was no exception.

Going especially by the more recent Riordan books, my expectations may have set an unfair example for Aru Shah and the End of Time to live up to. It just just skewed a bit younger than I was expecting, which dampened my enjoyment a little. The writing was on the simpler side, and everything seemed to happen too quickly for my taste. It felt like the solutions to the protagonists’ problems kept falling into their laps more often than not.

However, I still think this would be a very enjoyable book for younger kids. Aru is a spunky but vulnerable heroine, and I loved the relationship between her and her found sister, Mini. Another focal relationship is the one between Aru and her mother, which grows closer as Aru learns more about the past and her family’s secret. The bits from Hindu mythology were sometimes fun, sometimes brutal, always fascinating – as mythology tends to be.

I don’t think I will be picking up the next book in this series because it wasn’t entirely my cup of tea, but I will definitely still be giving Chokshi’s books for older readers a try!

Scarlett Undercover by Jennifer Latham

Cover of Scarlett Undercover by Jennifer Latham

Rating: Five star rating represented by five bumblebees (5 out of 5)

Meet Scarlett, a smart, sarcastic, kick-butt, Muslim American heroine, ready to take on crime in her hometown of Las Almas. When a new case finds the private eye caught up in a centuries-old battle of evil genies and ancient curses, Scarlett discovers that her own family secrets may have more to do with the situation than she thinks — and that cracking the case could lead to solving her father’s murder.

I was in a weird headspace while reading this book so I’m a little fuzzy on the details, but this was without a doubt one of my favourite reads of 2018. Some time had passed between this first landing on my TBR and my finally picking up and I didn’t reread the synopsis then, so I was surprised and delighted by the supernatural and mythological elements of this.

With regards to tone and subject matter, this might best be described as Veronica Mars meets Rivers of London, but it’s so much more than that. It’s unique, the main character has an engaging voice, and the action is fast-paced and character-driven. Again, I especially enjoyed the bond between Scarlett and her older sister Reem who both clearly love each other a lot. I appreciated that Reem wasn’t entirely relegated to the maternal role even though they are orphans, but is a kick-ass in her own right.

The representation is great. Aside from having a diverse cast of Muslim American characters, this book is also repping Black Jews, which is still all too rare. I’m not sure whether there will be a sequel, but if there was I would snap it up in seconds. Scarlett Undercover is definitely a candidate for a reread. I would recommend it to anyone who loves a gumshoe mystery with a supernatural twist (with content warnings for parental death and teenage suicide.)

BOOK REVIEW: The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton (1 Star)

Cover of The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton, depicting a beautiful young black woman in a gown, with flowers decorating her afro

Rating: one (1 out of 5)

Camellia Beauregard is a Belle. In the opulent world of Orléans, Belles are revered, for they control Beauty, and Beauty is a commodity coveted above all else. In Orléans, the people are born gray, they are born damned, and only with the help of a Belle and her talents can they transform and be made beautiful.

But it’s not enough for Camellia to be just a Belle. She wants to be the favorite—the Belle chosen by the Queen of Orléans to live in the royal palace, to tend to the royal family and their court, to be recognized as the most talented Belle in the land. But once Camellia and her Belle sisters arrive at court, it becomes clear that being the favorite is not everything she always dreamed it would be.

Behind the gilded palace walls live dark secrets, and Camellia soon learns that the very essence of her existence is a lie—that her powers are far greater, and could be more dangerous, than she ever imagined. And when the queen asks Camellia to risk her own life and help the ailing princess by using Belle powers in unintended ways, Camellia now faces an impossible decision.

With the future of Orléans and its people at stake, Camellia must decide—save herself and her sisters and the way of the Belles—or resuscitate the princess, risk her own life, and change the ways of her world forever.

The synopsis of this book is intriguing, but unfortunately it’s also the most exciting thing about it, along with the stunning cover. The premise is quite unique, even though it did remind me of The Lone City trilogy by Amy Ewing in some aspects.

Clayton’s world-building is disappointing. She introduces some fascinating concepts (the vivant dresses, steampunk-inspired knick-knacks such as the post-balloons), but fails to ever get into the nitty-gritty of how they work. There’s nothing wrong with painting with a broad brush, but the world-building of The Belles barely had any depth at all. The writing is bland, and the descriptions of opulent Orléans consist of superficial enumerations.

The characters were all rather one-dimensional. Clayton mostly fails to give her characters more than one defining trait, and their actions very clearly reflect whatever the author needed from them at any given moment. As a result, none of the characters ever fully come to life.

This extends to the main character, Camellia Beauregard, whose main aspiration is to become the royal favorite. Once that dream has been fulfilled, the author tries to provide Camellia with a few different motivations, but none of them are ever fleshed out and pursued in earnest. Camellia is supposed to carry the plot, but her flitting back and forth between opposite decisions only serves to frustrate. Equally irritating is her tendency not to question any inconsistencies about her very existence until the plot suddenly calls for it. After reading the synopsis, I was expecting a high-stakes fast-moving story, not the inconsistent mess that I got.

The romance in The Belles was extremely lackluster. There was no chemistry between Camellia and her love interest at all. What was intended as playful banter actually translated into pages upon pages of unengaging dialogue, even causing me to skip some parts just to get back to the plot. Overall, the dialogue was info-dumpy and lacking in flow, not to mention that Clayton is overly fond of the dialogue word “holler.”

I could have forgiven all of this as well as all of the little mistakes made in the French the author used. But Clayton made one mistake that I found truly unforgivable: she buried her gays. There were two queer women in The Belles, both in relationships with other women, and by the end of the book both of them were dead.

Additionally, another one of the characters is actually a trans woman, which at first I thought was amazing, until she, too, ended up in what could be a fatal situation. Her fate is unresolved at the end of the book, but I’m not holding my breath for the sequel.

I was originally going to give this two stars, but in writing my review I realised how much I actually disliked it. It’s a shame that what could have been a wonderful diverse book written by a woman of colour turned out to be such a disappointment.

BOOK SERIES REVIEW: The Graceling Trilogy by Kristin Cashore

I only really warmed up to the Graceling trilogy by Kristin Cashore with the second book, Fire (haha, get it? warmed up?) I’m so glad I stuck with it after my initial reservations because it just kept getting better and better. This is why all three books ended up with different ratings:

Graceling: Three star rating represented by three bumblebees (3 out of 5 Ramblebees)

Fire: Four star rating represented by four bumblebees (4 out of 5 Ramblebees)

Bitterblue: Five star rating represented by five bumblebees (5 out of 5 Ramblebees)

The overarching theme of the trilogy is young women finding their place in the world in the face of difficult choices, and reclaiming their kindness in adverse circumstances, both of which happen to be some of my favourite tropes.

The covers of Graceling, Fire, and Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore

Graceling is the first book in the trilogy. It tells the story of Lady Katsa, niece and executor to her tyrannical uncle, King Randa of the Midluns in the Seven Kingdoms. Marked as a graceling by her differently coloured eyes and graced with killing, she’s a threat to all who cross King Randa, until she decides to defy her uncle. She builds an underground organisation known as the Council which fights against the many abuses of power in the Seven Kingdoms. In the course of her work with the organisation, Katsa realises King Leck of Monsea is not all that he claims to be. As she races to rescue his ten-year-old daughter from his tyrannical clutches, she not only discovers new truths but new strengths as well.

Fire, the second book in the trilogy, is a prequel to Graceling. Set in a country East of the Seven Kingdoms, it tells the story of the Lady Fire, a so-called monster with colourful hair and the gift of reading and molding people’s thoughts. Her now dead monster father and abuser, once adviser to the king, has plunged the kingdom into upheaval with his taste for chaos. With civil war imminent, Fire has to decide whether or not to use her abilities without becoming like her father.

The third book, Bitterblue, picks up eight years after Graceling left off. The now eighteen-year-old Bitterblue is Queen of Monsea but feels like she has no knowledge about or control over her kingdom. Her advisers’ curious lies and evasions both about her father’s past reign and the present conditions in the kingdom lead her to investigate. With the support of Katsa and her Council friends, Bitterblue sets off in search of the truth and discovers that the wounds from her father’s reign she considered healed are more present than ever, and that it will be a long road towards recovery.

I enjoyed Graceling well enough, but it had a few flaws that nearly made me abandon the trilogy. The world-building was interesting and I liked the characters and their relationships with each other, especially the bond between Katsa and Bitterblue. However, plot-wise the book felt closer to a draft than a finished product. All of the important story elements were there, but they were rather loosely connected and didn’t quite knit together into a satisfying arc. The story could have benefitted from being stretched out a little, which would have made the plot twists less predictable.

I had gone into this book with high expectations because it had been recommended to me as great asexual representation several times, so I was a bit disappointed that the writing let down the great premise and characters. However, a friend assured me that I would enjoy the remaining books in the trilogy which led me to pick up Fire after all.

Fire still had some of the same weaknesses that Graceling did, but less markedly so. I again would have preferred a bit more stringency in pulling all the different story elements together, but the plot was overall coherent and satisfying. In spite of this, I found myself wishing time and time again that Fire had been the first book in the trilogy. I suspect that the author chose to publish the books out of chronological order so that the revelation of Leck’s grace would have more of an impact, but as mentioned above the twists in Graceling were predictable due to its slight incoherency. Only a couple of tweaks would have been necessary to publish the books in chronological order, which in my opinion would have worked in favour of coherency. Looking back while reading Fire, I appreciated Graceling a lot more, and I feel like I would have enjoyed it more if I had read Fire first.

The final book in the trilogy, Bitterblue, unequivocally blew me away. It picked up all the loose ends from the previous two books and combined them masterfully into a nail-biting finale. Cashore’s writing evolves wonderfully throughout the trilogy, and it was fascinating to see her real skills unfold and shine in this third book. The characters’ motivations were more implicit, which held me in suspense waiting for the myriad questions and inconsistencies to be resolved. Being fed the conclusion trickle by trickle was sweet agonising torture and I loved every bit of it. Bitterblue coming into her own as both a woman and a queen was exciting to watch. It was a bit different from both Katsa’s and Fire’s arcs considering that both of them had an inherent physical power that they needed to come to grips with, while Bitterblue had to consolidate and grow into a less tangible power, but the overarching theme was still very much present, tying all three of the books together.

I appreciated the fact that all three of the female main characters were allowed to be emotional and unreasonable at times without being labelled as hysterical. Emotional outbursts were treated as natural, and they didn’t result in the other characters respecting either Katsa, Fire, or Bitterblue any less.

In addition to her great treatment of women, Cashore also had a diverse cast of characters. Characters’ differing looks and complexions were described casually. There were a number of physically disabled characters. One important character and love interest loses his eyesight, another supporting character is without use of his legs and uses a wheelchair, and one of the main characters loses two fingers due to frostbite and has to relearn how to use her hand. Of course, there are also a whole slew of characters who suffer from trauma and related mental illness. A word of warning though: the circumstances that these characters’ trauma results from are brutal and upsetting, including emotional and physical abuse and even rape, so the trilogy might be triggering for some readers.

The queer representation was okay. Katsa can very easily be read as being on the asexual and aromantic spectrum, while Fire explicitly states her attraction to women and men. In spite of two out of three main characters being queer women though, all of the main relationships in the Graceling trilogy are M/F, which I found a bit disappointing. There are however two explicitly queer supporting couples, one of them F/F and one of them M/M.

Overall, I really ended up loving this trilogy, even though it didn’t start out as strong as it could have.