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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!

ARC REVIEW: Dark Shores by Danielle L. Jensen (4 Stars)

Cover of Dark Shores by Danielle L. Jensen, depicting a ship with furled sails over a compass rose and a sword

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

In a world divided by meddlesome gods and treacherous oceans, only the Maarin possess the knowledge to cross the Endless Seas. But they have one mandate: East must never meet West.

A PIRATE WITH A WILL OF IRON

Teriana is the second mate of the Quincense and heir to the Maarin Triumvirate. Her people are born of the seas and the keepers of its secrets, but when her closest friend is forced into an unwanted betrothal, Teriana breaks her people’s mandate so her friend might escape—a choice with devastating consequences.

A SOLDIER WITH A SECRET

Marcus is the commander of the Thirty-Seventh, the notorious legion that has led the Celendor Empire to conquer the entire East. The legion is his family, but even they don’t know the truth he’s been hiding since childhood. It’s a secret he’ll do anything to protect, no matter how much it costs him – and the world.

A DANGEROUS QUEST

When an Empire senator discovers the existence of the Dark Shores, he captures Teriana’s crew and threatens to reveal Marcus’s secret unless they sail in pursuit of conquest, forcing the two into an unlikely—and unwilling—alliance. They unite for the sake of their families, but both must decide how far they are willing to go, and how much they are willing to sacrifice. — Goodreads

Please see the end of this review for content notes.

This book has three things I’m a huge sucker for: a world inspired by Ancient Rome, pirate girls, and unlikely alliances. I was really excited to read this, and I loved the feel the author created, but though the Ancient Rome inspired setting was really cool, I almost wish we had spent more time sailing with the Maarin.

The main character, Teriana, was great. She belongs to the Maarin, black sea-faring folk with eyes the colour of the sea. She is loyal to her own people to a fault, funny, capabable, confident, and yet filled with self-doubt about her decisions. She was so relatable and I loved her a lot.

Her unlikely ally is Marcus, a legionnaire from a noble Celendrian family, who has a cruel and violent reputation as legatus of the Thirty-Seventh Legion, a reputation the reader quickly comes to doubt, but then perhaps to believe again. He harbours more than one dangerous secret, and is afflicted with asthma brought on by stress and allergies.

A relationship develops between these two unlikely allies, and I really enjoyed watching it bloom on the page. I do think that Marcus’s descriptions of Teriana occasionally bordered on fetishisation, but overall they had a great dynamic. I loved seeing a teenage girl in YA be sexually in charge, in charge of her body and her choices. There was also some background queer representation, but it only consisted of MLM relationships in the legion, and I would have liked to see more queer characters.

I also wish that the author had explored issues of imperialism a bit more deeply, and employed more nuance with regards to whether you can be good, whether your intentions matter, when you’re part of an evil machine. I think Teriana’s development and questioning of her choices was interesting and well done, but even though Marcus also grappled with his deeds, I found his development in that regard a little lacking.

However, I did really enjoy this book. The writing was engaging and the world-building was intricate. One thing I loved in particular was the religion and mysticism of the Western cultures, and I hope (and suspect) that those will be explored further in the series. If you love fantasy in Ancient Rome inspired settings, you should definitely give Dark Shores a read.

CONTENT NOTES: violence, gore, graphic torture, execution, child murder, slavery, mention of sexual violence

Thank you to NetGalley and Tor Teen for providing me with an eARC in exchange for an honest review!


Dark Shores is the first in a new YA series by Danielle L. Jensen and was out May 7. Have you read it yet? Are you planning to? What are your thoughts? Let’s chat in the comments below!

BOOK REVIEW: For a Muse of Fire by Heidi Heilig (5 Stars)

Cover of For a Muse of Fire by Heidi Heilig, depicting the silhouette of a girl against a background of flames wherein a dragon is visible

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

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. In this first book in a new trilogy, Heidi Heilig creates a world inspired by Asian cultures and French colonialism.

Jetta’s family is famed as the most talented troupe of shadow players in the land. With Jetta behind the scrim, their puppets seem to move without string or stick a trade secret, they say. In truth, Jetta can see the souls of the recently departed and bind them to the puppets with her blood.

But the old ways are forbidden ever since the colonial army conquered their country, so Jetta must never show never tell. Her skill and fame are her family’s way to earn a spot aboard the royal ship to Aquitan, where shadow plays are the latest rage, and where rumor has it the Mad King has a spring that cures his ills. Because seeing spirits is not the only thing that plagues Jetta. But as rebellion seethes and as Jetta meets a young smuggler, she will face truths and decisions that she never imagined—and safety will never seem so far away. — Goodreads

For content notes, please see the author’s note on Goodreads.

Earlier this year, I read and loved The Girl From Everywhere by Heidi Heilig, and I knew from the moment that I picked up For a Muse of Fire that it would be another five-star read. Set in an alternate universe 1874, it combines an ambience of historical fiction with fascinating magic elements. It takes place in South East Asian inspired Chakrana, a country occupied by French inspired Aquitan, and the author explores issues of colonialism through a Chakran lense.

I love Heidi Heilig’s writing. It completely draws me into the world she’s creating on the page. For a Muse of Fire combines different ways of story-telling: chapters from the main character Jetta’s point of view are interspersed with theater scenes in an homage to Jetta’s family tradition of performing shadow plays, as well as letters, telegrams, songs, and folklore. This probably isn’t for everyone, but to me, it felt like the perfect way to tell this story.

Jetta is a wonderful main character. Her magic was so cool and breath-taking, though in the course of the book she also discovers a darker and scarier side to her powers. Learning that she might not be who she has always thought she was leads her on a journey of self-discovery. She questions her existence and where she belongs, and the exploration of the meaning of family was beautiful and heart-wrenching.

“Blood may matter to the spirits. But what we share is even better.”

The words come slowly. “And what is that?”

“We share history,” he says. “We share tradition. We share years and memories and everything that makes a family.”

“But not blood.”

“What is blood?” he says with a gentle smile. “We share a heart.”

Shh. I’m not crying, you are.

But there’s more! For a Muse of Fire has by far the best and most honest mental illness rep I have ever seen in fantasy. Like the author, Jetta has bipolar disorder. She longs to go to Aquitan to bathe in the healing springs and cure herself of her “malheur.” Even though Jetta is desperate for a cure, Heilig avoids the usual trappings of the ableist “miraculous cure” trope. Instead, she shows the value in accepting your illness, but also the legitimacy of seeking a way to mitigate its effects. Through the course of the book, Jetta struggles both with the symptoms of the illness itself and the way people perceive her because of it.

“Les Chanceux is supposed to cure madness.”

The word is sibilant—a hiss in the dark. I swallow. “That’s what they say.”

There is a long silence. He cocks his head and glances at me. “Are you sick, Jetta?”

I open my mouth to give an answer—a single word. It should be simple, easy, but it sticks in my throat.

I also want to say that Heidi Heilig is the only author allowed to write F/M romance from now on. I’m sorry, but those are the rules. Not only does she have a knack for writing compelling relationships, but considering that F/M romance between Asian (inspired) characters has not been allowed to be explored as freely as white F/M romance, we have to allow space for that to continue to happen. The love story between Jetta and Leo was very sweet, even though their path was littered with obstacles of obligation, betrayal, and existential dread. Every time they found their way back to each other, my heart jumped happily in my chest. Plus, there’s some delightful background WLW rep.

For a Muse of Fire was exactly as stunning and entrancing a read as I was hoping it would be, and the sequel, slated for publication in October 2019, cannot get here soon enough.


Have you read For a Muse of Fire? What did you think? Let’s chat in the comments below!

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

Cover of The Spy With the Red Balloon by Katherine Locke, depicting two red balloons on a background of the star-speckled night sky and search light beams

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

Siblings Ilse and Wolf hide a deep secret in their blood: with it, they can work magic. And the government just found out.Blackmailed into service during World War II, Ilse lends her magic to America’s newest weapon, the atom bomb, while Wolf goes behind enemy lines to sabotage Germany’s nuclear program. It’s a dangerous mission, but if Hitler were to create the bomb first, the results would be catastrophic.

When Wolf’s plane is shot down, his entire mission is thrown into jeopardy. Wolf needs Ilse’s help to develop the magic that will keep him alive, but with a spy afoot in Ilse’s laboratory, the letters she sends to Wolf begin to look treasonous. Can Ilse prove her loyalty—and find a way to help her brother—before their time runs out? — Goodreads

Please see the end of the post for content warnings.

The Spy With the Red Balloon is the second book in The Balloonmakers series and set in the same universe, though it doesn’t feature the same characters. It’s more of a prequel delving into the origins of balloon magic, and I loved it even more than The Girl With the Red Balloon. It’s one of my favourite reads so far in 2019, and Katherine Locke is now definitely on my list of favourite authors.

I loved both Ilse and Wolf so much. The book alternates between their POVs, and even though I tend to prefer to stay with a single character throughout a book, I enjoyed both of their narrative voices a lot.

16-year-old Ilse is the bolder of the two siblings, while her older brother Wolf is more reserved. Ilse is a physics genius, and she is using her scientific knowledge to study the magic that is in their blood. When Wolf is sent to Europe to complete his mission of sabotage, Ilse finds a way to stay in touch via magical means. Ilse, for her part, is enlisted to study ways to employ magic in delivering a nuclear bomb, she is more interested in sending Wolf useful magic equations all the way across the world. Their sibling relationship is so wonderful, and it’s clear that they love and admire each other, and value each other’s opinions.

“I’m going to miss you.”

“I’ll miss you, too,” I said softly. How cold I ever have wanted to leave her shadow? All she’s ever wanted to do was stand in mine. For all her genius, Ilse was still my little sister. She still looked up to me, without ever realizing how she outshone me.

Ilse and Wolf are Jewish, and they’re also both queer. Ilse is bisexual and falls in love with another girl in the course of the book. Her science group of magic-practicing girls is delightful and I loved all of them, especially Stella. Stella is black and therefore continuously underestimated even though she is brilliant, even more so than Ilse, but I loved how much respect Ilse had for Stella and her superior knowledge. It was also incredibly sweet to read about Ilse discovering her bisexuality, her blossoming feelings for Polly, and her scientific approach to determining whether she really liked girls, kissing a girl being an important step in this particular scientific experiment.

Meanwhile, Wolf is off in Europe receiving rudimentary training for spying and soldiering, and is reunited with his childhood best friend Max, whom he hasn’t seen since Max enlisted a year ago. They parted on bad terms and have to find their way back to each other, Wolf grappling with the fact that his complete disinterest in anything romantic or sexual seems to have a Max-shaped exception. I loved their relationship so much! I said on Twitter that it was giving me strong Bucky/Steve vibes except that they actually get to kiss—and they use parachutes, unlike some people who will remain nameless. Wolf and Max are far from a carbon copy of Bucky and Steve, but their relationship dynamics and circumstances reminded me strongly of them, and just got me right in the feelings.

There’s also some disability representation, although I was at first a little hesitant to tag it as such. I still really want to mention it, but it’s mildly spoiler-y, so if you’d rather avoid that, skip to the next paragraph! Max suffers some head trauma mid-book that impacts both his intellectual and physical functions. It’s not clear for the majority of the book whether or not it’s just a temporary injury, though by the end of the book it’s confirmed that the injury will have a lasting impact on Max’s health, as he continues to suffer from debilitating headaches. That’s a kind of disability rep we don’t see often, hence why I’m tagging it as rep even though the disability is acquired late in the book.

And of course, I loved the world-building. I’m a huge fan of history retellings but with magic, and Katherine Locke strikes the perfect balance between the historical and the fantastical. I was fascinated by the balloon magic in the first Balloonmakers book, and I was once again absolutely spellbound. Combine that with spies and intrigue, and you’ve got the recipe for what to me is a perfect book.

I truly cannot express how much I love The Spy With the Red Balloon and I want everyone to read it! You can read it as a standalone, although I also highly recommend  The Girl With the Red Balloon. (You can read my review of it here.) Please everyone love my queer Jewish babies! Katherine Locke is an amazing author, and I can’t wait to see what they have in store next.

CONTENT NOTES: Holocaust mention, explicit description of the murder of Jewish prisoners, character death, physical abuse of a minor during an interrogation, racism, racial segregation, homophobia.


Have you read The Balloonmakers series or any of Katherine Locke’s other books? What did you think? 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!

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 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.

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.