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BOOK REVIEW: No True Believers by Rabiah York Lumbard (4.5 Stars)

Cover of No True Believers showing a girl in a black hoodie on a background of jumbled words

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

Salma Bakkioui has always loved living in her suburban cul-de-sac, with her best friend Mariam next door, and her boyfriend Amir nearby. Then things start to change. Friends start to distance themselves. Mariam’s family moves when her father’s patients no longer want a Muslim chiropractor. Even trusted teachers look the other way when hostile students threaten Salma at school.

After a terrorist bombing nearby, Islamaphobia tightens its grip around Salma and her family. Shockingly, she and Amir find themselves with few allies as they come under suspicion for the bombing. As Salma starts to investigate who is framing them, she uncovers a deadly secret conspiracy with suspicious ties to her new neighbors—but no one believes her. Salma must use her coding talent, wits, and faith to expose the truth and protect the only home she’s ever known—before it’s too late.

I’ve been on a real mystery kick lately. I can’t get enough of them, but unfortunately diversity is still lacking in that corner of YA. So when I came across No True Believers by Rabiah York Lumbard, I knew I had to pick it up, both for the diverse cast and the intriguing premise.

Salma is a Muslim American high school senior. Her mother is a white American and Muslim convert and her father is North African Amazigh. Salma describes herself as white-passing, but she has a strong connection to and pride of her culture and religion. I think Islam is a beautiful religion and I enjoy learning about it, so I loved that the book was peppered with Salma’s descriptions of what Islam means, both in general and to her.

In a way, that’s the whole point of Islam—to empty the heart (and mind) of everything but God and love. And to know that the two are one and the same. To feel that awe and to humbly submit to it, with gratitude.

The following line resonated with me particularly strongly, and I feel like we could all learn a lot from Islam:

There’s a verse in the Quran that basically says: Each soul is as valuable as the entire universe.

Salma’s ethnicity and religion are not the only thing that set her apart though. To my shock and delight, Salma has Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, which just so happens to be the chronic illness I have! I could barely believe my eyes when I read this next passage.

I was first diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome when I was five. EDS is a genetic disorder that affects roughly one in five thousand people. So: Lucky me! Basically it means I have more elastic tissue and weaker ligaments than most people. It also means I can wake up feeling extra fatigued and achy. (Like today.)

Representation for chronically ill teens is incredibly scarce, and even more so for lesser known and misunderstood illnesses like EDS. The author doesn’t make Salma’s illness the focal point of her identity; she just exists with her illness. At one point, she is shoved and dislocates her knee when she falls, so she has to go to physical therapy and use crutches and a brace for a while. In a dicey situation, she dislocates her shoulder in order to fit through a small window, and I actually gasped. Dislocations aren’t fun, but it was thrilling to see someone use their disability to their advantage in this way.

Unfortunately, the amazing disability representation makes instances of casual ableism on the author’s behalf stand out even more. The word “lame” is used as a negative descriptor throughout the book and one of Salma’s friends plays a prank on a teacher, exploiting a food sensitivity to make the teacher throw up. The teacher definitely deserved repercussions for not stepping in when a fellow student was perpetuating Islamophobia, but I don’t think it’s ever okay to joke about pranking someone with a food sensitivity or allergy by making them come in contact with an allergen. Too many people with food allergies are too scared to consume anything they haven’t prepared themselves because these things happen, and they should never be portrayed as cool.

That being said, I really loved No True Believers. Although it wasn’t heavy on the mystery at first, I enjoyed reading about Salma’s life, her friendships with other girls, and her romance with Amir. Salma and Amir are so incredibly sweet together and very respectful of each other.

The mystery itself was introduced slowly, with the tension starting to simmer halfway through before coming to a boil. I was able to guess some minor details, but only due to some historical knowledge I have that it’s plausible and fair for Salma not to know. Other than that, I was at the author’s mercy, and she got me completely hooked on the conspiracy.

Salma was a total badass. Dislocating her shoulders is only one of a number of awesome things she did to uncover who was framing her. Her kind but investigative nature and her hacking prowess ultimately save the day. She’s the Muslim American heroine we need.

TRIGGER WARNINGS: Islamophobia / racism, white supremacy, ableism, spousal and child abuse.


Have you read No True Believers or will you pick it up? Let’s chat in the comments below!

MINI REVIEWS: Empress of All Seasons by Emiko Jean (3.5 Stars), We Set the Dark on Fire by Tehlor Kay Mejia (4 Stars)

Cover of Empress of all Seasons by Emiko Jean, depicting a naginata sword on a blue floral background

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

Each generation, a competition is held to find the next empress of Honoku. The rules are simple. Survive the palace’s enchanted seasonal rooms. Conquer Winter, Spring, Summer, and Fall. Marry the prince. All are eligible to compete—all except yōkai, supernatural monsters and spirits whom the human emperor is determined to enslave and destroy.

Mari has spent a lifetime training to become empress. Winning should be easy. And it would be, if she weren’t hiding a dangerous secret. Mari is a yōkai with the ability to transform into a terrifying monster. If discovered, her life will be forfeit. As she struggles to keep her true identity hidden, Mari’s fate collides with that of Taro, the prince who has no desire to inherit the imperial throne, and Akira, a half-human, half-yōkai outcast.

Torn between duty and love, loyalty and betrayal, vengeance and forgiveness, the choices of Mari, Taro, and Akira will decide the fate of Honoku. — Goodreads

Empress of All Seasons has been on my TBR for a while, so I was very excited to finally get to read it. I loved the Japanese-inspired setting and the way the world-building draws from Japanese legends.

I loved Mari so much. An outcast within her own class of yōkai, the Animal Wives, due to her plain looks, Mari’s objective isn’t to win over a husband with her charms and beauty, but with her fighting skills and resilience. I found the concept of a competition to survive the palace’s seasonal rooms really interesting, but I was disappointed in how the competition played out. The summary makes it sound like there will be a heavy focus on the competition, and unfortunately to me it all felt a bit rushed, preventing me from becoming invested in any of the other competitors.

Mari’s relationship with Taro also progressed rather quickly. I enjoyed their interactions, but I wish there had been more build-up to them falling in love. Overall, I feel like Empress of All Seasons may have fared better as a series instead of a standalone, giving the author more time to explore the story and its complexities.


Cover of We Set the Dark on Fire by Tehlor Kay Mejia, on a stencilled background with flowers, doves, and flames

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

At the Medio School for Girls, distinguished young women are trained for one of two roles in their polarized society. Depending on her specialization, a graduate will one day run a husband’s household or raise his children, but both are promised a life of comfort and luxury, far from the frequent political uprisings of the lower class. Daniela Vargas is the school’s top student, but her bright future depends upon no one discovering her darkest secret—that her pedigree is a lie. Her parents sacrificed everything to obtain forged identification papers so Dani could rise above her station. Now that her marriage to an important politico’s son is fast approaching, she must keep the truth hidden or be sent back to the fringes of society, where famine and poverty rule supreme.

On her graduation night, Dani seems to be in the clear, despite the surprises that unfold. But nothing prepares her for all the difficult choices she must make, especially when she is asked to spy for a resistance group desperately fighting to bring equality to Medio. Will Dani cling to the privilege her parents fought to win for her, or to give up everything she’s strived for in pursuit of a free Medio—and a chance at a forbidden love?

I was so thrilled when We Set the Dark on Fire came off hold at my library because queer Latinx girls! It took me a while to get into it because the pace was a little slow for me, but I’m ultimately glad I persevered. My favourite thing about this was definitely the relationship between Dani and Carmen. They were so into each other and I was so into them!

The plot and pacing weren’t entirely my cup of tea, and while I found the ending confusing, the book was well-written. I enjoyed Dani coming into her own, and discovering her strengths as well as her feelings for Carmen. If societal intrigue, spies, and forbidden love are your thing, you will love We Set the Dark on Fire.


Have you read these books? What did you think? Let’s chat in the comments below!

MINI REVIEWS: A Blade So Black by L. L. McKinney (4 Stars), Everless by Sara Holland (DNF)

Cover of A Blade So Black by L. L. McKinney, depicting a badass looking black girl holding a dagger

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

The first time the Nightmares came, it nearly cost Alice her life. Now she’s trained to battle monstrous creatures in the dark dream realm known as Wonderland with magic weapons and hardcore fighting skills. Yet even warriors have a curfew.

Life in real-world Atlanta isn’t always so simple, as Alice juggles an overprotective mom, a high-maintenance best friend, and a slipping GPA. Keeping the Nightmares at bay is turning into a full-time job. But when Alice’s handsome and mysterious mentor is poisoned, she has to find the antidote by venturing deeper into Wonderland than she’s ever gone before. And she’ll need to use everything she’s learned in both worlds to keep from losing her head . . . literally. — Goodreads

I’ve seen A Blade So Black described as Buffy meets Alice in Wonderland and that’s exactly what you’re signing up for. Our Alice is a black bisexual badass. I loved her a lot. She isn’t afraid to mouth off to anyone, even royalty, except her mom. She is fierce but vulnerable, and she finds strength in overcoming her fears. Her narrative voice is casual, even conversational at times, and very engaging. My only criticism is that it sometimes veered into purple prose territory (no normal person describes eyes as “ice-blue orbs”).

I also disliked the unnecessary friendship drama, though that was resolved beautifully, or the love triangle. But other than these minor points, A Blade So Black is very enjoyable, and I’m eagerly awaiting the sequel coming out in September!

CONTENT NOTES: parental death, some things that might be triggering to child abuse victims (e.g. Alice’s mom taking Alice’s bedroom door off its hinges as punishment), police brutality and off-screen murder of a black girl


Cover of Everless by Sara Holland, depicting an hourglass containing a red silhouetted face in the top half dripping down into the bottom half towards a castle

DNF @ 23%

In the kingdom of Sempera, time is currency—extracted from blood, bound to iron, and consumed to add time to one’s own lifespan. The rich aristocracy, like the Gerlings, tax the poor to the hilt, extending their own lives by centuries.

No one resents the Gerlings more than Jules Ember. A decade ago, she and her father were servants at Everless, the Gerlings’ palatial estate, until a fateful accident forced them to flee in the dead of night. When Jules discovers that her father is dying, she knows that she must return to Everless to earn more time for him before she loses him forever.

But going back to Everless brings more danger—and temptation—than Jules could have ever imagined. Soon she’s caught in a tangle of violent secrets and finds her heart torn between two people she thought she’d never see again. Her decisions have the power to change her fate—and the fate of time itself. — Goodreads

I originally read Everless at the beginning of last year and gave it four stars. I was planning to reread it ahead of reading the sequel, but it’s not holding my attention. I have become more judicious in assigning star ratings, and I think I should probably have given this three stars to begin with. It would probably be enjoyable enough, but I have so many other amazing books to read that I don’t want to waste my time on books that are just okay. (Most of the time, at least.)


Have you read either of these books? What did you think? Let’s chat in the comments below!

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!

 

ARC REVIEW: Descendant of the Crane by Joan He (4.5 Stars)

Cover of Descendant of the Crane by Joan He, depicting a woman looking up at a giant crane, surrounded by flowers

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

Tyrants cut out hearts. Rulers sacrifice their own.

Princess Hesina of Yan has always been eager to shirk the responsibilities of the crown, dreaming of an unremarkable life. But when her beloved father is found dead, she’s thrust into power, suddenly the queen of a surprisingly unstable kingdom. What’s more, Hesina believes that her father was murdered—and that the killer is someone close to her.

Hesina’s court is packed full of dissemblers and deceivers eager to use the king’s death for political gain, each as plausibly guilty as the next. Her advisers would like her to blame the neighboring kingdom of Kendi’a, whose ruler has been mustering for war. Determined to find her father’s actual killer, Hesina does something desperate: she enlists the aid of a soothsayer—a treasonous act, punishable by
death, since magic was outlawed centuries ago.

Using the information provided by the sooth, and uncertain if she can trust her family, Hesina turns to Akira—a brilliant investigator who’s also a convicted criminal with secrets of his own. With the future of Yan at stake, can Hesina find justice for her father? Or will the cost be too high? (Goodreads)

Descendant of the Crane was completely different from what I expected, and at the same time so much more than what I could have imagined. I’m very grateful to have had the opportunity to read this book prior to publication, as I was lucky enough to receive an eARC from the author.

Due to the eARC being a PDF with no way to change the font type or size, I was only able to read it for about an hour at a time before I had to rest my eyes, but all in all it only took me three-ish sittings to finish it and I feel like I might have been able to fly through this in one sitting if it had been in a more accessible format. I’m not bringing this up in order to complain, only to say that I read this at what for me was unusual speed. It always took me a couple of pages to get back into the book after taking a break, but as soon as I was drawn in again, I was utterly entranced.

Hesina, the main protagonist, is a no-nonsense, at times even brash character, but she is also kind, very human, and very relatable. I enjoyed her narrative voice, and the way she viewed the world around her. Descendant of the Crane takes place in a Chinese-inspired setting that Joan He brings to life with her lush world-building without ever overburdening the narration with detail.

For a book whose premise is primarily based on political intrigue, Descendant of the Crane is very accessibly written, which really surprised me. The plot is complex and full of unexpected twists and turns, but the author effortlessly guides the reader through the story without being patronising. There is a natural flow to everything which makes it hard to put this book down.

The only thing I was disappointed by was the final plot twist, as it felt a bit anticlimactic to me, but I don’t think it takes away much from the story. I would love to see a sequel in which the author gets to expand on the possibilities she opens up in the epilogue. As it is, Descendant of the Crane remains unique and engaging, and I would wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who enjoys fantasy with a dose of politics, and even to those who don’t because Joan He’s writing might just be your gateway drug.

Thank you so much to Joan He for providing an eARC in exchange for an honest review!


Preorder or library request Descendant of the Crane by Joan He to receive some swag from the author! (Here’s how.) Also because you really want to, believe me. Have you read Descendant of the Crane yet or are you still eagerly awaiting the publication date? Let’s chat in the comments!

ARC REVIEW: Sparks of Phoenix by Najwa Zebian (4 Stars)

Cover of Sparks of Phoenix by Najwa Zebian depicting golden wings on a dark blue background with lightning bolts

Rating: Five star rating represented by five bumblebees (4 out of 5)

In Sparks of Phoenix—Najwa Zebian’s third book of poetry—she takes her readers on a powerful journey of healing.

As the phoenix emerges from its ashes, Zebian emerges ablaze in these pages, not only as a survivor of abuse, but as a teacher and healer for all those who have struggled to understand, reclaim, and rise above a history of pain. The book is divided into six chapters, and six stages of healing: Falling, Burning to Ashes, Sparks of Phoenix, Rising, Soaring, and finally, A New Chapter, which demonstrates a healthy response to new love as the result of authentic healing. With her characteristic vulnerability, courage, and softness, Zebian seeks to empower those who have been made to feel ashamed, silenced, or afraid; she urges them, through gentle advice and personal revelation, to raise their voices, rise up, and soar. (Goodreads)

I only recently read and was rather disenchanted with Amanda Lovelace’s the mermaid’s voice returns in this one, and if I had to describe Sparks of Phoenix in one sentence, I would say it’s what the mermaid’s voice is trying to be. Najwa Zebian’s writing really spoke to me and my own experiences of emotional abuse, and it made my heart soar more than once.  The powerful theme of remaking yourself in the aftermath of abuse is matched by the author’s powerful voice.

For every broken soul,
there is a
once upon a happy soul.

Some of the pieces were a bit basic and formulaic for my taste, and I feel that the collection could have benefitted from cutting some of those pieces. However, I found myself bookmarking page after page, and there are enough pieces that show what Zebian can really do that I wasn’t too bothered by the more redundant pieces.

My hands melted into my face,
and all of my words transformed
into action.

One of my absolute favourite pieces was the poem Excuse me, sir. Zebian weaves her words into something stunning and defiant in this piece, and this was when I truly fell in love with her writing.

Excuse me, sir.
My body is not a place for your conquest.
(…)
I carry with my body
the cities of the world.
I have, carved, on my body
streets that you want me to hide
because you see them as scars.

Overall, the collection was beautiful, but just missing that last little bit of oomph and freshness. I would still recommend it if you want to be taken on a journey of burning and healing, and I think it would be accessible and enjoyable even to people who don’t usually read a lot of poetry.

All quotes are taken from the eARC and may not match the final release.

Thank you to NetGalley and Andrews McMeel Publishing for providing an eARC in exchange for an honest review. 

MINI REVIEWS: Ash and Huntress by Malinda Lo, Marriage of Unconvenience by Chelsea Cameron #FFFebruaryReads

Cover of Ash by Malinda Lo, depicting a girl in a white dress curled up on a black background

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

Ash by Malinda Lo is a (sort of) Asian and lesbian retelling of Cinderella. I’ve read the book before, many years ago, and I remember being disappointed, but I wanted to give the it another chance for F/F February.

The book roughly follows the basic pattern of the original fairytale; Ash is orphaned and forced to live with her abusive stepmother and perform menial tasks around the house, wishing for a better life. During my first read, I was bothered by the lack of any sort of romance between Ash and the Prince, and I thought the romance developing between Ash and the king’s huntress instead was predictable. I didn’t feel this way at all this time around, and I’m not entirely sure why. Maybe it’s because I knew what to expect and went in very much wanting to read about Ash and Kaisa falling in love?

Either way, I loved their slowly blossoming romance. It was so cute and I really found myself rooting for them. The relationship between Ash and the fairy Sidhean felt somewhat superfluous and ended quite anticlimactically, but other than that, I was absolutely entranced. The book is slow-paced, but the writing flows so easily that it pulls you in and leaves you wanting to turn the page. I’m glad I gave Ash a second chance.


Cover of Huntress by Malinda Lo, depicting a young Asian woman holding a staff in a fighting pose

DNF @ 27%

Huntress by Malinda Lo was also on my F/F February TBR. It is set in the same world as Ash, though several hundred years earlier, but both books can be read as stand-alones. After enjoying Ash, I was really looking forward to delving into this book, but it turned out to be a bit of a disappointment. The story itself sounded interesting, and this book is again focussed on an F/F romance, but the writing threw me off. The point of view kept shifting without rhyme or reason, sometimes every couple of sentences, and it was driving me nuts. It’s bewildering, since Ash had none of these same issues. I wonder what happened here.


Cover of Marriage of Unconvenience by Chelsea M. Cameron, depicting a young white woman in a wedding dress on a pink background

DNF @ 30%

I’m sorry to say that Marriage of Unconvenience by Chelsea Cameron was another disappointment. I’d been excited to read it ever since I first read the summary of trope-y goodness, but I couldn’t force myself to keep wasting time on it after the first few chapters.

The writing is in desperate need of editing. It just drags on and on, and the author keeps contradicting herself. The most egregious example is the main character’s need to marry for money, while she is also spending money left and right seemingly without a second thought. She splurges on not one, but two engagement rings (both for herself and her prospective wife) while at the same time worrying that she won’t be making rent. It was confounding.

I had also been expecting this to be white, but not quite so painfully white. There is of course queer / wlw representation, and one of the side characters is a trans man, but unfortunately that didn’t make up for the lackluster writing.


What have you been reading lately? Have you read any books mentioned in this post? Are you participating in F/F February? Let’s chat in the comments below!

BOOK REVIEW: Sawkill Girls by Claire Legrand (4 Stars) #FFFebruaryReads

Cover of Sawkill Girls by Claire Legrand, depicting a young woman with a mass of hair falling in her face and white moths crawling over her

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

Who are the Sawkill Girls?

Marion: the new girl. Awkward and plain, steady and dependable. Weighed down by tragedy and hungry for love she’s sure she’ll never find.

Zoey: the pariah. Luckless and lonely, hurting but hiding it. Aching with grief and dreaming of vanished girls. Maybe she’s broken—or maybe everyone else is.

Val: the queen bee. Gorgeous and privileged, ruthless and regal. Words like silk and eyes like knives, a heart made of secrets and a mouth full of lies.

Their stories come together on the island of Sawkill Rock, where gleaming horses graze in rolling pastures and cold waves crash against black cliffs. Where kids whisper the legend of an insidious monster at parties and around campfires.

Where girls have been disappearing for decades, stolen away by a ravenous evil no one has dared to fight… until now.

I’m not usually a horror reader because I don’t enjoy gore, violence, or even just being scared. I mainly picked up Sawkill Girls because of the promise of queer girl representation to read as part of my F/F February Reading Challenge, which I’m also using as motivation to read outside my usual confines. The promise of queer girls was more than fulfilled, and I ended up enjoying this for what it was as well, so this was a definite success.

However, this book does contain some pretty dark and heavy stuff. I’m putting all of the trigger warnings I can think of after this paragraph in transparent text. If you want or need more detail, feel free to hit me up on Twitter. SPOILERS TW parental death, sibling death, suicidality (parent and other), abduction and brutal murder of teenage girls, gore, sexual abuse (implied), emotional and physical abuse (parental and other) END SPOILERS

Sawkill Girls treads the line between horror and magical realism, and especially at the beginning, it is sometimes hard to tell what is real and what isn’t. Marion’s visions and dreams are confusing and unsettling, but they are consolidated into a terrifying reality. I do think that the mystery would have been more compelling if it had been more contained, both in terms of POV and location. I feel that including Val’s POV took away some of the mystery, and the reveal of a world-spanning battle against evil, complete with a secret organisation, was a bit much.

I did love the girls and their relationships though. I found it really refreshing that Zoey immediately believed Marion when she shared her experiences with her, and that the girls didn’t invalidate each other even when confronted with the unbelievable.

All three girls were wonderful, strong and interesting in their own ways. The book accompanies all three of them on a journey of finding their strength and standing up for themselves, while navigating friendship and love. The romance between Marion and Val was really sweet. Their attraction to girls is quite clear in the text, and there’s a lovely sex scene between the two of them. They are both explicitly WLW, although neither of their sexualities is spelled out. I believe that Marion, at least, is bisexual, and the author actually mentions the word, and not in a derogatory manner! I wish that wasn’t still so exceptional, but since it is, I felt it important to mention.

And speaking of spelling out queer orientations: Zoey is explicitly asexual, and it’s great. There is some acephobia in the book, and even though it is thoroughly called out, I couldn’t help but feel a bit upset by it. I’m ready for more asexual acceptance rep! We can be just as happy with and proud of our orientations as everybody else is, and I’d like to see more of that. I would also have loved to see some more ethnic diversity because even though Zoey is black, she and her father are the only people of colour in Sawkill Girls as far as I am aware.

Nevertheless, this was really enjoyable and I was surprised by how much I didn’t want to put it down! It was also upsetting for my sensitive little self, so please heed the content warnings! Overall, this was an amazing story about female friendship, wlw romance, and finding and combining strengths.

Hope, she thought, breathing with the tide, was a choice that only those with resolute hearts dared to make.

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

Cover of Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo

Rating:

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 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.