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ARC REVIEW: The Perfect Assassin by K. A. Doore (4.5 Stars)

Cover of The Perfect Assassin by K. A. Doore, depicting a young man wearing a wrap and tagel who is captured mid-jump and holding a dagger

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

Divine justice is written in blood.

Or so Amastan has been taught. As a new assassin in the Basbowen family, he’s already having second thoughts about taking a life. A scarcity of contracts ends up being just what he needs.

Until, unexpectedly, Amastan finds the body of a very important drum chief. Until, impossibly, Basbowen’s finest start showing up dead, with their murderous jaan running wild in the dusty streets of Ghadid. Until, inevitably, Amastan is ordered to solve these murders, before the family gets blamed.

Every life has its price, but when the tables are turned, Amastan must find this perfect assassin or be their next target. — Goodreads

I requested an eARC of The Perfect Assassin on NetGalley—I’m late reviewing this, I know!—because I’d heard about the queer and specifically asexual representation, and I’m so glad I finally managed to pick this up.

The Perfect Assassin is set in a world that draws inspiration from medieval Persia and Arabia. Ghadid is a city sitting on a platform raised high above the desert sands, with water being pumped up from aquifers that collect the rain water from the storms at the end of the dry season. I thought the world building was fascinating, but it wasn’t as fleshed out as I would have wished. I want to know more about the detailed workings of this world, its history, its technology…

The main character, Amastan, has just completed his training as an assassin belonging to a long line of assassins that supposedly keep the peace in the city of Ghadid. He’s also a historian, and I love historians. But most importantly, he is on the asexual and aromantic spectrum, and he also finds himself entangled in a complicated relationship with another man. Something I really like about Ghadid is that queerness appears to be casually accepted.

He didn’t like flirting. It made him uncomfortable. […] It all seemed a terribly messy ordeal, and to what end? Touching? Kissing? Sex? He didn’t want any of that.

I love this precious aro ace spectrum baby gay. Amastan’s relationship with Yufit isn’t without its complexities, but it was also really cute. It was the first time that Amastan experienced being attracted to someone, and he was left puzzling out his feelings as well as a murder investigation. I’m curious as to whether we’ll see more of Yufit in the sequel. (I hope so, so fingers crossed!)

I also really loved Amastan’s friend, Menna. A brash and brazen girl who trained alongside Amastan to become an assassin, she has the power to banish jaan and to wheedle Amastan incessantly. Though she likes to tease, she’s also a loyal friend and always has Amastan’s back.

Amastan’s narrative voice was very engaging, even though I didn’t always agree with his assessments. He seems invested in doing the right thing, which is something that I tend to appreciate in a character.

“We all think we’re right,” said Amastan, slowly and carefully. “Even the monsters. But how do you know when you’re the monster?”

The mystery and political intrigue were compellingly written and the author left me guessing who the mysterious assassin was for the majority of the book. Overall, this was a very enjoyable read, and I’m excited for the sequel. I would definitely recommend The Perfect Assassin to anyone who enjoys high fantasy in desert settings, religiously inspired magic, and assassins going bump in the night.

Thank you to NetGalley and Tor Books for providing an eARC in exchange for an honest review! All quotes are taken from an uncorrected proof and might not match the published version.


Have you read The Perfect Assassin by K. A. Doore? What did you think? Let’s chat in the comments below!

 

BOOK REVIEW: The Girl With the Red Balloon by Katherine Locke (5 Stars)

Cover of The Girl With the Red Balloon by Katherine Locke, depicting a painted red balloon on a grey background

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

When sixteen-year-old Ellie Baum accidentally time-travels via red balloon to 1988 East Berlin, she’s caught up in a conspiracy of history and magic. She meets members of an underground guild in East Berlin who use balloons and magic to help people escape over the Wall—but even to the balloon makers, Ellie’s time travel is a mystery. When it becomes clear that someone is using dark magic to change history, Ellie must risk everything—including her only way home—to stop the process. — Goodreads

Please see the end of the post for content warnings.

I suspected I was signing up for heartbreak when I picked up The Girl With the Red Balloon, and friends, it did indeed make me cry. The book is told from three different points of view: Ellie’s, first in present day Berlin and then in 1988 East Berlin, Kai’s in 1988 East Berlin, and Benno’s in 1941 in Łódź Ghetto. I usually find it hard to fully immerse myself in books with several POVs, but that didn’t turn out to be a problem here. The shifts weren’t too frequent, and the flashbacks narrated by Ellie’s grandfather Benno really tied the story together.

There was some great diversity, too. Benno is a German Jew who survived the Holocaust and later emigrated to the US, so Ellie is Jewish American with a German background. There are frequent allusions to her Jewishness and it is a strong part of her identity. Kai and his sister are Romani (CN for use of the g-slur, though it is primarily used as a descriptor in the flashbacks), and an important side character, Mitzi, is gay. I personally also read Kai as being on the ace spectrum. (“I’d never understood how people could get distracted so easily” — really, Kai? Sounds ace to me.)

“Magic and balloons,” I whispered, shivering from the cold and the dark. “And Walls and time.”
Kai’s voice was low and sad. “The things that get us out and the things that keep us in.”

I really loved the magical atmosphere of the book, and the idea of magic balloons that can transport people out of places that have imprisoned them. The writing was beautiful but simple, and I highlighted so many quotes that I couldn’t fit them all into one blog post even if I tried. The only thing that threw me off were the poorly translated German phrases here and there, but it wasn’t so egregious that it hampered my enjoyment.

The romance between Ellie and Kai was sweet with a tiny dash of sexy, but I also loved the friendship that developed between Ellie and Mitzi. The ragtag band of characters Ellie encounters in 1988 end up being a found family for her in a time and place she doesn’t belong, a home far away from home.

The theme of finding where you belong, of finding your home, isn’t only brought up with regards to Ellie’s time travel, but also by Ellie and Kai both belonging to peoples that have been historically persecuted and uprooted.

Fernweh, maybe. A longing for a home that didn’t exist. Too many outsiders thought of us Romani like that. Like every human needs the solidity of a place. I didn’t need a place. I wanted the solidity of my own mind, whether or not that required the solidity of a place.

But home and belonging aren’t the only themes that The Girl With the Red Balloon grapples with. It asks profound questions about faith in the face of evil, and about whether or not you could or should go back in time to change history, ultimately coming to the painful conclusion that you cannot save everyone. The book acknowledges the importance of doing what you can when you can, but it also addresses issues of white / gentile saviourism.

At the end of the story, the girl said, “Don’t you Jews have any happy stories? You’ve told me two sad stories. Tell me a happy one.”
“I’ve told you two stories that end in freedom,” I protested. “How much happier could you ask for?”
“But all of the story that comes before that tiny little bit of freedom is sad,” she said.
“If the story was happy, you’d care less about that tiny little bit of freedom.”

This was one of my favourite moments. It encapsulates something essential about this book. The Girl With the Red Balloon is a bittersweet story, and though it is heartbreaking at times, it always glows with the hope that there will be light at the end of the tunnel. This book is not only a journey through time, but an emotional journey as well, and I would highly recommend it to anyone who likes their heartbreak with a dash of the fantastical.

CONTENT NOTES: This book narrates events in a Jewish / Romani ghetto during the Holocaust, including starvation, child death, parental death, deportation, and mentions the terrors of Stasi imprisonment in East Germany several times.


Have you read The Girl With the Red Balloon or any of Katherine Locke’s other books? Let’s chat in the comments below!

MARCH WRAP-UP: Another Hard Month, But Two New Favourite Books!

Hello, everyone! March has been a month of so many ups and downs I’m exhausted just thinking about it. My brain was very overwhelmed with everything that happened, so that I started falling behind on my reading, especially in the ARC department. I spent all of March feeling like I had to constantly play catch up, which made me want to read even less. Thanks, brain, very helpful! However, March also brought me two new favourite authors and books: Victoria Lee’s The Fever King, and Katherine Locke’s The Spy With the Red Balloon, which I both highly recommend.

I didn’t DNF anything this month, but I decided to create a new Goodreads shelf for books I’ve started but don’t have the brainspace to continue at the moment. I don’t know why that didn’t occur to me sooner, but it felt good to move my paused books from the Currently Reading to the Paused shelf, since I don’t want to DNF them. Overall, I read 9 books in March, which isn’t bad at all, but I hope I manage to read more in April!


Read

The Brilliant Death (The Brilliant Death #1) by Amy Rose Capetta
Review — Rating: Rating of three-and-a-half out of five stars represented by bumblebees (3.5 out of 5)

Jane, Unlimited by Kristin Cashore
Review to come — Rating: Four star rating represented by four bumblebees (4 out of 5) — subject to change as I want to reread this one before giving it a final rating

The Fever King (Feverwake #1) by Victoria Lee
Review — Rating: Five star rating represented by five bumblebees

The Ice Princess’s Fair Illusion by Lynn O’Connacht
Rating: Three star rating represented by three bumblebees (3 out of 5)

Once & Future(Once & Future #1) by Amy Rose Capetta and Cori McCarthy
Review — Rating: Rating of two out of five stars represented by bumblebees (2 out of 5)

The Girl With the Red Balloon (The Balloonmakers #1) by Katherine Locke
Review to come — Rating: Five star rating represented by five bumblebees (5 out of 5)

A Blade So Black (A Blade So Black) by L. L. McKinney
Review to come — Rating: Four star rating represented by four bumblebees (4 out of 5)

The Spy With the Red Balloon (The Balloonmakers #2) by Katherine Locke
Review to come — Rating: Five star rating represented by five bumblebees (5 out of 5)

Empress of All Seasons by Emiko Jean
Review to come — Rating: Rating of three-and-a-half out of five stars represented by bumblebees (3.5 out of 5)


Paused Books

Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow

A History of Israel: From the Rise of Zionism to Our Time by Howard M. Sachar

Currently Reading

We Set the Dark on Fire(We Set the Dark on Fire #1) by Tehlor Kay Mejia


Frida of the Month

Frida dog, a small brown dog with long fluffy fur, is curled up into a loaf, eyes mostly shut, with her tongue peeking out

I swear she does things other than snooze, but she’s just so cute when she’s snoozing! Look at that blep.


How was your month? What have you been reading? Let’s chat in the comments below!

ARC REVIEW: Once & Future by Amy Rose Capetta and Cori McCarthy (2 Stars)

Cover of Once & Future by Amy Rose Capetta and Cori McCarthy, depicting a glowing sowrd being grabbed by two hands in elegant armour

Rating: Rating of two out of five stars represented by bumblebees (2 out of 5)

I’ve been chased my whole life. As a fugitive refugee in the territory controlled by the tyrannical Mercer corporation, I’ve always had to hide who I am. Until I found Excalibur.

Now I’m done hiding.

My name is Ari Helix. I have a magic sword, a cranky wizard, and a revolution to start.

When Ari crash-lands on Old Earth and pulls a magic sword from its ancient resting place, she is revealed to be the newest reincarnation of King Arthur. Then she meets Merlin, who has aged backward over the centuries into a teenager, and together they must break the curse that keeps Arthur coming back. Their quest? Defeat the cruel, oppressive government and bring peace and equality to all humankind.

No pressure. — Goodreads

Once & Future is a sapphic King Arthur retelling in space, and as much as that sounds like a recipe for awesome, I unfortunately didn’t enjoy this half as much as I thought I was going to.

The first half is a fun found family space romp that boasts an incredibly diverse cast. The main character Ari is Arab and queer, and her adoptive family consists of her brother Kay and her two moms. Once & Future‘s iteration of Merlin is as gay as a maypole, while Ari’s love interest Gwen is bi-racial white and Asian. Ari’s merry band of knights includes Lamarack, who is black, genderfluid, and an amputee, Val, who is black and queer, and Jordan, who is asexual, though I strongly disliked the way her asexuality was handled.

Jordan’s asexuality was revealed in a plot twist, setting it apart from all of the other queer orientations, none of which the authors felt the need to reveal through a coming out or otherwise treat as a spoiler. Additionally, Jordan’s asexuality was only revealed to explain that she was no threat to the main f/f relationship, regardless of the fact that asexuality does not equal not having any desire for a relationship, romantic or even sexual, or not having any attraction at all. Not to mention the implication that just because Jordan is asexual, someone else couldn’t desire her. Implying that there is no reason to be jealous of asexual people simply on the basis of their sexual orientation treats asexuals as automatically undesirable, and as an asexual reader I found this portrayal hurtful and upsetting, especially coming from two queer authors.

As delightful as the diverse representation otherwise is, the writing could use some work. The purple prose made this space opera veer into soap opera territory more than once. The pacing is off, especially with regards to the emotional arcs, which felt rushed and unsatisfying. Even the character deaths seemed more like an afterthought, so they didn’t have much of an emotional impact on me.

Despite all of the issues with the writing, I enjoyed the first half of the book well enough. However, a revelation early in the second half almost made me DNF Once & Future. MAJOR SPOILER — Ari finally visits her home planet, Ketch, only to find out that the entire population has been wiped out and she is the last the Ketchan, or Arab, in the universe. Even though one of the authors is part Lebanese, using the genocide of an entire planet populated exclusively by Arab people as a plot twist felt extremely gross to me. — END SPOILER

I decided to keep reading because I wanted to see where the story was going, but the book definitely started deteriorating after the major spoiler, and finishing the last third turned out to be quite a chore. The authors kept injecting unnecessary interpersonal drama, and the weird love triangle and its aftermath were particularly frustrating. And then there was the villain, the Administrator, the evil capitalist overlord of the universe, who unfortunately didn’t work for me at all. He was much too comical to actually be scary.

I’m bummed that I didn’t enjoy this more, especially given the super diverse cast. Unfortunately, the great premise was let down by the writing, but the major spoiler event mentioned above is what really, well, spoiled my enjoyment.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Little, Brown for providing me with an eARC in exchange for an honest review.


Have you read Once & Future? What are your thoughts? Let’s chat in the comments below!

TOP TEN TUESDAY: Books On My Spring TBR

TTT-NEW

To learn more about Top Ten Tuesday, a weekly book meme hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl, click here.

This week’s theme is Books On My Spring TBR, but I’m putting a little spin on it, so I will be sharing my ten current library holds with you, which are technically all books I’ll be reading this spring. So… it counts, okay? (Title = Goodreads)


The Weight of Our Sky by Hanna Alkaf

A music-loving teen with OCD does everything she can to find her way back to her mother during the historic race riots in 1969 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in this heart-pounding literary debut.

A Spark of White Fire (The Celestial Trilogy #1) by Sangu Mandanna

In a universe of capricious gods, dark moons, and kingdoms built on the backs of spaceships, a cursed queen sends her infant daughter away, a jealous uncle steals the throne of Kali from his nephew, and an exiled prince vows to take his crown back.

Girls of Paper and Fire (Girls of Paper and Fire #1) by Natasha Ngan

Each year, eight beautiful girls are chosen as Paper Girls to serve the king. It’s the highest honor they could hope for…and the most cruel. But this year, there’s a ninth girl. And instead of paper, she’s made of fire.


Song of the Dead (Reign of the Fallen #2) by Sarah Glenn Marsh

In this enthralling, heartrending sequel to Reign of the Fallen, Odessa faces the fight of her life as the boundaries between the Dead and the living are challenged in a way more gruesome than ever before.

The Hidden Oracle (The Trials of Apollo #1) by Rick Riordan

After angering his father Zeus, the god Apollo is cast down from Olympus. Weak and disoriented, he lands in New York City as a regular teenage boy. Now, without his godly powers, the four-thousand-year-old deity must learn to survive in the modern world until he can somehow find a way to regain Zeus’s favour.

For a Muse of Fire (For a Muse of Fire #1) by Heidi Heilig

A young woman with a dangerous power she barely understands. A smuggler with secrets of his own. A country torn between a merciless colonial army, a terrifying tyrant, and a feared rebel leader. Heidi Heilig creates a world inspired by Asian cultures and French colonialism.

Evermore (Everless #2) by Sara Holland

Jules Ember was raised hearing legends of the ancient magic of the wicked Alchemist and the good Sorceress. But she has just learned the truth: not only are the stories true, but she herself is the Alchemist, and Caro—a woman who single-handedly murdered the Queen and Jules’s first love, Roan, in cold blood—is the Sorceress.


The Gilded Wolves (The Gilded Wolves #1) by Roshani Chokshi

From New York Times bestselling author Roshani Chokshi comes The Gilded Wolves, a novel set in Paris during a time of extraordinary change—one that is full of mystery, decadence, and dangerous desires…

No one believes in them. But soon no one will forget them.

The Thief (The Queen’s Thief #1) by Megan Whalen Turner

The king’s scholar, the magus, believes he knows the site of an ancient treasure. To attain it for his king, he needs a skillful thief, and he selects Gen from the king’s prison. The magus is interested only in the thief’s abilities.

What Gen is interested in is anyone’s guess. Their journey toward the treasure is both dangerous and difficult, lightened only imperceptibly by the tales they tell of the old gods and goddesses.

Truly Devious (Truly Devious #1) by Maureen Johnson

Ellingham Academy is a famous private school in Vermont for the brightest thinkers, inventors, and artists. It was founded by Albert Ellingham. Shortly after the school opened, his wife and daughter were kidnapped. The only real clue was a mocking riddle listing methods of murder, signed with the frightening pseudonym, Truly Devious. It became one of the great unsolved crimes of American history.

True-crime aficionado Stevie Bell is set to begin her first year at Ellingham Academy, and she has an ambitious plan: She will solve this cold case.


Have you read any of these books? Or are any of them on your TBR? Let’s chat in the comments below!

BOOK REVIEW: The Fever King by Victoria Lee (5 Stars)

Cover of the Fever King by Victoria Lee, depicting a bright silhouetted figure from which lightning is forking out all over the dark purple and blue background

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

In the former United States, sixteen-year-old Noam Álvaro wakes up in a hospital bed, the sole survivor of the viral magic that killed his family and made him a technopath. His ability to control technology attracts the attention of the minister of defense and thrusts him into the magical elite of the nation of Carolinia.

The son of undocumented immigrants, Noam has spent his life fighting for the rights of refugees fleeing magical outbreaks—refugees Carolinia routinely deports with vicious efficiency. Sensing a way to make change, Noam accepts the minister’s offer to teach him the science behind his magic, secretly planning to use it against the government. But then he meets the minister’s son—cruel, dangerous, and achingly beautiful—and the way forward becomes less clear.

Caught between his purpose and his heart, Noam must decide who he can trust and how far he’s willing to go in pursuit of the greater good. (Goodreads)

Please see the end of the post for content warnings. 

The Fever King is Victoria Lee’s explosive debut and the first book in her dystopian YA series, Feverwake. It’s so good, in fact, that it’s hard to believe this is even a debut. The author’s narrative voice is strong and compelling, and I enjoyed The Fever King from beginning to end.

I’m not going to lie though, it took me a while to digest what I’d read after I finished the book. The plot unwinds as a layered exploration of right and wrong, and of how far you can go in the service of right before it becomes a wrong of its own. The author combines modern dystopia with elements of Jewish storytelling and a strong theme of seeking to repair the world.

The main character, Noam, brings a fresh gust of air to the dystopian genre. He is both Latinx and Jewish, and openly and explicitly bisexual. The cast overall is ethnically diverse. Noam’s mentor and minister of defense Calix Lehrer is also Jewish, and Noam’s love interest, Dara, is also brown—his name suggests a Persian background—and was raised Jewish.

The son of undocumented immigrants, Noam moonlights as a hacktivist for the immigrant cause. His affinity for technology causes him to become a technopath in the wake of surviving the magic virus, and while at times his abilities seemed maybe a little omnipotent, it was a fascinating take on magic.

But if Noam could use magic—Carolinia’s most treasured resource—for the Atlantian cause, then maybe being a witching wasn’t such a bad thing.

Noam is passionate about refugee rights. As a witching with access to the minister of defense Calix Lehrer, he plans to learn everything he can in his government training program and use it to bring the government down. But the closer he feels to achieving his goals, the more he starts to question whether he really is on the path to making the world a better place. He gets more and more caught up in Lehrer’s machinations until it becomes hard to distinguish between right and wrong.

GIF of Magneto saying
GIF of Magneto saying, “Peace was never an option.” Source.

Lehrer is a character that I felt and still feel very ambivalent about. He is, if not a clear-cut villain, definitely an antagonist. He certainly has some good intentions, but the methods he uses to achieve them are dubious at best. I was able to discuss some of the particulars about Lehrer’s character with some wonderful Jewish friends, whose perspective helped me contextualise Lehrer as a character, for which I am infinitely grateful. One of them compared Lehrer to Magneto, a very fitting analogy:

The cinematic Magneto was never a villain for villainy’s sake, along the lines of “Heh, heh, heh – and now for my malicious plan to take over the world!” He was a reasoned, charismatic villain; yes, he had an extreme agenda, but an understandable one. The new film – the prequel – further elaborates and buttresses Magneto’s backstory. Actually, he is the hero of the film; only later does he become the bad guy. (Source; CN: use of the g-slur)

This quote from the linked article in particular really helped me frame my feelings about Lehrer. He is not a villain for villainy’s sake either, and his villainy is borne of understandable and traumatic circumstances. I think he started out wanting to repair the world in his own way, but his view of the perfect world has become warped. While Noam wants to empower everyone through equal rights, Lehrer wants magic to dictate the distribution of power. (You know, kind of like Magneto wants to put the power in the hands of mutants only.) I’m a huge marshmallow, so I’m not usually very interested in villains, but I truly appreciate the way Lehrer’s character adds dimension to the story here and I’m so intrigued to see what direction the author will take him in the sequel.

A tarot card depicting Dara from The Fever King, captioned with the word
“He who holds firm to good.” Art by bbonbonss; source.

I cannot end this review without mentioning the romance between Noam and Dara, and that Dara owns my heart. He is what it says on the packaging: cruel, dangerous, and beautiful, but he is also so much more. In Persian, Dara means “He who holds firm to good”, and Dara has held firm to good through trauma and abuse as best he could. He is another complex character who, like Noam, is trying to work towards a better world while being tossed around by bigger political players. It’s heart-breaking to see him struggle and all I want to do is protect him.

I loved seeing him fall in love with Noam and Noam with him. They have a fraught relationship from the start because there are things that Noam doesn’t know and that Dara cannot tell him, but they start chipping away at each other’s defenses, opening up to each other in trickles. They are, underneath all of their protective armour, just two soft boys looking for love.

He exhaled softly, breath fogging the window glass. He looked so … happy, as if he’d swallowed one of those stars and it illuminated him from within. Noam was struck with the urge to capture this moment somehow, so Dara could relive it.

They had so many missed kissing opportunities that it made me want to scream, but the author definitely delivered on resolving that sexual tension. I don’t want to spoil too much, but they have a beautiful scene together. Of course, the ending tore my heart apart again—if Victoria Lee doesn’t let my boys be happy at some point in this series, I will have some strong words.

Either way, if you haven’t read The Fever King yet, you should run, not walk. But be warned: it’s not a light read and it will leave you reeling with emotion for a while.

CONTENT WARNINGS: parental death, suicide / hanging (past), substance abuse, physical and emotional child abuse, statutory rape (not explicit), mention of the Holocaust, mention of past medical experiments

All quotes are taken from an uncorrected proof and might not match the published version.


Thank you to NetGalley and Skyscape for providing me with a review copy in exchange for an honest review.


Have you read The Fever King? What were your thoughts? Let’s chat in the comments below!

BOOK REVIEW: The Brilliant Death by Amy Rose Capetta (3.5 Stars)

Cover of The Brilliant Death by Amy Rose Capetta, depicting a dagger with a feather as its blade on a vibrant orange background

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

For Teodora DiSangro, a mafia don’s daughter, family is fate.

All her life, Teodora has hidden the fact that she secretly turns her family’s enemies into music boxes, mirrors, and other decorative objects. After all, everyone in Vinalia knows that stregas—wielders of magic—are figures out of fairytales. Nobody believes they’re real.

Then the Capo, the land’s new ruler, sends poisoned letters to the heads of the Five Families that have long controlled Vinalia. Four lie dead and Teo’s beloved father is gravely ill. To save him, Teo must travel to the capital as a DiSangro son—not merely disguised as a boy, but transformed into one.

Enter Cielo, a strega who can switch back and forth between male and female as effortlessly as turning a page in a book. Teo and Cielo journey together to the capital, and Teo struggles to master her powers and to keep her growing feelings for Cielo locked in her heart. As she falls in love with witty, irascible Cielo, Teo realizes how much of life she’s missed by hiding her true nature. But she can’t forget her mission, and the closer they get to the palace, the more sinister secrets they uncover about what’s really going on in their beloved country—and the more determined Teo becomes to save her family at any cost.

I’ve been yearning to read this book ever since I first heard about it a couple of months ago. Non-binary representation is still few and far between, and being agender myself, discovering a book has non-binary characters is like having my birthday and Christmas on the same day.

The Brilliant Death follows Teodora, who uses her carefully hidden magic powers to rid her family of their enemies. She’s her father’s eldest daughter, but being a girl, she can never inherit the title of family head, and her most fervent wish is to be a di Sangro son. She finally gets her wish when she has to transform herself into a boy and journey to Amalia as her family’s representative in the wake of her father’s poisoning, accompanied by another strega, Cielo.

I occasionally thought that the writing was a little bumpy, and especially in the beginning, the pacing was slightly off. The writing is still engaging though, and the further I got into the book, the less I wanted to put it down.

I really enjoyed Teo’s character development. She grows so much over the course of the book. Growing up as a mafia don’s child has left her with a warped sense of morality, but in her pursuit of power, she re-evaluates right and wrong. At the end of the book, she makes a pivotal decision that I didn’t see coming but cheered for nonetheless.

It felt like I had spent my entire life speaking a secret language and then stumbled on someone else who was perfectly fluent.

I also loved the relationship between Teo and Cielo. As they journey across the mountains and navigate court, they teach each other about magic and power, family and gender. They slowly fall in love, and while they often tease and bicker, they share some deep moments as well. Their attraction to each other is palpable, no matter which form either Cielo or Teo take, and there are a couple of really hot scenes between the two characters. Hoo boy, does this author know how to cook up some sexual tension.

“It’s true that I contain more than one thing,” Cielo said. “And sometimes the balance shifts.”

I do have some critical thoughts on the non-binary representation. I loved Cielo as a character, but the binarism and biological essentialism in the exploration of gender bothered me.

“I can’t figure out if I should be using the word he or she or something else entirely.” (…)

“Either will do,” Cielo said. (…) “Though all of those words feel a bit like coats that are too tight in the elbows.”

I feel like this was a missed opportunity to introduce either they pronouns or maybe even neo-pronouns, instead of pushing the narrative that there are two ill-fitting options to choose from. Cielo is genderfluid, and it rankles that Teo always uses she when Cielo is in their “girlish body” and he when Cielo is in their “boyish body”, reinforcing the idea that certain pronouns match certain bodies.

A true non-binary exploration of gender should challenge the idea that any one type of body has a certain gender, or that certain biological traits mark you as a boy or a girl. Considering the author is non-binary herself, I was expecting a lot better.

The queer representation was great. Neither Teo’s nor Cielo’s sexuality is ever stated outright, but it’s safe to assume from the text that they’re both some flavour of queer, and Teo makes her attraction to women quite clear more than once. Overall, I would have appreciated some more diverse representation, especially with regards to race and disability.

Even though it’s not perfect, I really enjoyed The Brilliant Death, and I’m glad that this book has put Amy Rose Capetta on my radar. I will definitely be checking out some of her other books, first and foremost Once & Future, since I received an eARC for that one. I’m excited!


Have you read The Brilliant Death or any of the author’s other books? Let’s chat in the comments below!

BOOK REVIEW: Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo (2 Stars)

Cover of Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo

Rating: Rating of two out of five stars represented by bumblebees (2 out of 5)

Welcome to the world of the Grisha.

Kaz Brekker and his crew of deadly outcasts have just pulled off a heist so daring even they didn’t think they’d survive. But instead of divvying up a fat reward, they’re right back to fighting for their lives.

Double-crossed and badly weakened, the crew is low on resources, allies, and hope. As powerful forces from around the world descend on Ketterdam to root out the secrets of the dangerous drug known as jurda parem, old rivals and new enemies emerge to challenge Kaz’s cunning and test the team’s fragile loyalties.

A war will be waged on the city’s dark and twisting streets – a battle for revenge and redemption that will decide the fate of the Grisha world. (Goodreads)

Oof. I was hoping that Crooked Kingdom would redeem the series in my eyes, but instead it was a major letdown. Truth be told, I almost DNF’ed this, but I ended up pushing through because I wanted to see how the author would handle some of the things I was taking issue with.

I mentioned in my review of Six of Crows that I struggled with the amount of POV characters, though the frequent shifts ultimately made sense to me. The sequel, however, felt cluttered and incoherent with all of the different point of views. Kaz kept coming up with more and more convoluted plans in order for the crew to get their due, and things stopped making sense to me very early on. The eventual execution of the plan was brilliant, but I had to muddle through confusion for too long to be excited about the pay-off.

The author also repeats lines they deem important way too much in this book. It felt like I was repeatedly being hit over the head with a mallet that says “meaningful!”, while the constant repetition actually reduced the impact those lines and conversations had on me.

I was hoping for more explicit queer rep in Crooked Kingdom, and there was some, but I was pretty disappointed that it was all M/M. I’d heard there was queer lady rep in this duology, and there was at best the barest hint of that.

In my review of Six of Crows I said I hated the trope of a bigot being redeemed by falling in love with a member of the persecuted group. For that reason, I was hoping there would be less Matthias/Nina in the sequel, but instead the pairing became more prominent. Personally, this trope makes me a little nauseous, and it didn’t help that Matthias’s chapters were so woe is me. Being a bigot was really hard for him, y’all! But the real kicker was when the author compared unlearning bigotry to overcoming addiction, and finally Matthias saddling Nina with the task of reforming his fellow bigots.

There is also a white character who is tailored to look like a character with East Asian features. He stays that way for a good long while before he is finally changed back, but before his change, the author makes him experience racism on several occasions. I don’t even know what to say here, except: white authors, if you want to explore the racism people of colour experience, maybe don’t do it with a character who is, in essence, wearing yellowface. Especially not when your Big Bad is a Chinese-inspired country.

Overall, Crooked Kingdom left me feeling disappointed and icky. I wish I had been made aware of at least some of these issues prior to reading the duology myself, which is why I felt it important to write this review for other people who prefer to be forewarned. I understand that many people love the Grishaverse books, and while I don’t begrudge anyone their enjoyment, I will be steering clear of this author from now on.


Have you read the Six of Crows duology? (You probably have; I’m pretty late to the party.) What were your thoughts? Let’s chat in the comments below!

BOOK HAUL: Library Holds and eARCs

Being able to put ebooks on hold at the library so they’re automatically checked out to you when they become available is really convenient, but it can be a bit difficult getting the timing right, as I’ve become very aware these past few weeks! I’ve been waiting for some library holds to come through for ages, and suddenly they’re all coming through at the same time! Read on to see my most recent library check-outs, and click on the book titles to go to each book’s Goodreads page!

The Brilliant Death (The Brilliant Death #1) by Amy Rose Capetta

I’m super excited to finally be reading this book about a mafia don’s daughter who secretly turns her family’s enemies into decorative objects. It sounds very intriguing, and it has non-binary / genderfluid representation.

The Girl With the Red Balloon (The Balloonmakers #1) by Katherine Locke

Time-travelling Jewish girl sounds right up my alley, so fingers crossed this lives up to my expectations!

A Blade So Black (A Blade So Black #1) by L. L. McKinney

This is a retelling of Alice in Wonderland with a bi black protagonist! Retellings can be very hit and miss for me, but this sounds like it could be a hit!

The Queen’s Rising (The Queen’s Rising #1) by Rebecca Ross

I’m not 100% sold on this by the summary alone, but I’ve heard good things about it and the sequel, so we shall see!

Empress of All Seasons by Emiko Jean

This sounds so interesting! A girl who has been training to become empress her entire life, harbouring the dangerous secret of a persecuted identity. I’m really looking forward to reading this.


I was also approved for three eARCs from NetGalley in February! They are:

Dark Shores (Dark Shores #1) by Danielle L. Jensen

Pirate girls! Unlikely alliances! A world inspired by Ancient Rome! Say no more, I’m in.

Once & Future (Once & Future #1) by Amy Rose Capetta, Cori McCarthy

This is a sci-fi retelling of the Arthurian legend, with Arthur being a girl. If the summary is anything to go by, it’s got all the ingredients I need in a book.

The Last Tsar’s Dragons by Jane Yolen, Adam Stemple

This sounds like Temeraire meets the Russian Revolution, and since I love both dragons and Russian history, I can’t wait to read this!


Keep an eye out for my thoughts on all of these exciting acquisitions!

Have you read any of the books mentioned in this post or are any of them on your TBR? Let’s chat in the comments below!

FEBRUARY WRAP-UP: The Importance of Mood Reading and DNF’ing

My February reading was supposed to be drawn mainly from my F/F February Reading Challenge TBR. However, I failed to predict all of the things that February was going to throw at me, from more financial issues, to severe depression, and chronic illness flare-ups.

I quickly lost steam for completing the reading challenge and felt myself sliding into a slump. I was miserable and all I wanted to do was to immerse myself in the comfort of rereading Kate Daniels. I fought it for a while, but in the end I realised that having a set TBR was too restrictive for me, and that mood reading is a huge part of what makes reading so good for my mental health.

So I quietly failed out of the F/F February Reading Challenge. I don’t really see it as a fail though because it taught me something valuable about my reading patterns. Another thing that really helped me this past month was rigorously DNF’ing books that weren’t doing it for me, and even though I can’t help but feel a sense of failure when I do, ultimately it always feels freeing. (ETA: I totally forgot to mention this, but this post about good reading habits by Kaleena @ Reader Voracious played a huge part in my realisation that I fare better with mood reading than with a set TBR.)

All in all, I read 9 books in February, compared to the 14 books I read in January, but to be fair, February is like, only half as long as January. I managed to finish a bunch of ARCs that needed reviewing and to cross a couple of books off my F/F February TBR after all, and given my mental health struggles, I’m honestly glad I managed to do any reading at all, let alone as much as I did. To see what I read in February, take a look at my Goodreads Challenge or read on below! Clicking the book titles will take you to each book’s Goodreads page.


READ

  1. Sawkill Girls by Claire Legrand Four star rating represented by four bumblebees (4 out of 5, REVIEW)
  2. Gunmetal Magic (Kate Daniels #5.5) by Ilona Andrews Four star rating represented by four bumblebees (4 out of 5, Reread)
  3. Magic Gifts (Kate Daniels #5.4) by Ilona Andrews Five star rating represented by five bumblebees (5 out of 5, Reread)
  4. Ash by Malinda Lo Four star rating represented by four bumblebees (4 out of 5, REVIEW)
  5. Sparks of Phoenix by Najwa Zebian Four star rating represented by four bumblebees (4 out of 5, REVIEW)
  6. Magic Rises (Kate Daniels #6) by Ilona Andrews Five star rating represented by five bumblebees (5 out of 5, Reread)
  7. Descendant of the Crane by Joan He Rating of four-and-a-half out of five stars represented by bumblebees (4.5 out of 5, REVIEW)
  8. Magic Breaks (Kate Daniels #7) by Ilona Andrews Five star rating represented by five bumblebees (5 out of 5, Reread)
  9. Crooked Kingdom (Six of Crows #2) by Leigh Bardugo (2 out of 5, REVIEW)

DNF

  1. Marriage of Unconvenience by Chelsea Cameron (DNF @ 30%, REVIEW)
  2. Huntress by Malinda Lo (DNF @ 27%, REVIEW)
  3. Feminine Rising: Voices of Power and Invisibility by Andrea Fekete, ed., Lara Lillibridge, ed. (DNF @ 50%, REVIEW)
  4. Mirage by Somaiya Daud (DNF @ 23%)

CURRENTLY READING

  1. Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow (43%)
  2. The Brilliant Death by Amy Rose Capetta (5%)

(Oops, I clearly need to work on making some progress with Hamilton.)


FRIDA OF THE MONTH

In order to make my blog a little more personal, I’m trying something new: monthly pictures of my dog Frida! Let me know if you like it so I know whether to make this a regular thing!

My small brown dog Frida curled up on a white shaggy rug, sleeping with eyes closed. She's bathed in sunlight and her long fur looks shiny and soft.


How was your February? What did you read? Let’s chat in the comments below!