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BOOK REVIEW: Reverie by Ryan La Sala (5 Stars)

Book cover of Reverie, depicting the title in white swirly letters on a dark blue background with light blue, light pink, and orange dots and swirls

Rating: 5/5

Five star rating represented by five bumblebees

All Kane Montgomery knows for certain is that the police found him half-dead in the river. He can’t remember how he got there, what happened after, and why his life seems so different now. And it’s not just Kane who’s different, the world feels off, reality itself seems different.

As Kane pieces together clues, three almost-strangers claim to be his friends and the only people who can truly tell him what’s going on. But as he and the others are dragged into unimaginable worlds that materialize out of nowhere—the gym warps into a subterranean temple, a historical home nearby blooms into a Victorian romance rife with scandal and sorcery—Kane realizes that nothing in his life is an accident. And when a sinister force threatens to alter reality for good, they will have to do everything they can to stop it before it unravels everything they know.

This wildly imaginative debut explores what happens when the secret worlds that people hide within themselves come to light.

It’s been a while since I’ve come across such an unexpected instant favourite. Reverie by Ryan La Sala was vaguely on my radar, but I wasn’t planning on picking it up. That is, until it popped up in my library’s recent acquisitions and I was seduced by the stunning cover. Can you blame me?

The blurb describes Reverie as “Inception meets The Magicians in the most imaginative YA debut of the year!” I don’t think that comparison does the book justice in its whimsy and in all its queer glory. La Sala’s writing completely submerged me in a dream-like atmosphere that felt both magical and chaotic, taking on a more and more nightmare-ish quality the deeper you get. The suspense of Kane trying to recover his memories in order to understand all of the strangeness he keeps encountering kept me turning page after page, barely able to put the book down at all.

The diverse cast of characters was a delight from start to finish. From our Latinx gay protagonist, Kane; to his elusive love interest; to his group of maybe-friends, a Jewish boy, a strong tall athletic girl, a black sapphic ballerina; to a mysterious black drag queen who seems to hold the keys to Kane’s lost memories; and finally to Kane’s (I think) bisexual sister… there’s not a single character I didn’t love.

Kane shoved down his curiosity, knowing it was useless to expect a drag queen to do anything other than exactly what she wanted.

As much as I love Kane’s romantic story arc, I love a strong connection between siblings even more. For a while, it seems that Kane’s secrecy might be destroying their relationship, but in the end the love Kane and his sister Sophia have for each other is central to the story’s conclusion.

There was one thing I found frustrating: Kane’s complete inability to do as he’s told, even when he is aware of the dangers of going rogue. There were some huge mishaps that could have been avoided if that boy hadn’t been so goddamn bullheaded! In the end, it was easy to forgive his stubborness, because he ultimately has a big heart and just wants to do what’s right. I also caught a couple of instances of him potentially being coded as neurodivergent. They were few and far between so I hesitate to tag for disability representation, but there is definitely subtext if you’re looking for it.

He shook himself out, hopping in a small circle, then hopping in the reverse direction to undo the coil. These small rituals often worked for him, and the tension eased from his body.

I could have easily quoted a dozen passages from the book; it’s so beautifully written, so atmospheric and submersive. It also just feels queer, and not only because of the many queer characters. La Sala has imbued his writing with queerness in a way that I think will make many a queer reader feel as welcome in the world he has created as I did. I would recommend this book to anyone who loves magical realism, teenage friendship, and a thrilling mystery needing to be solved before the clock runs out.


Have you read Reverie by Ryan La Sala? What do you think? Did you love it as much as I did?! Let’s chat in the comments!

BOOK PLAYLIST: The Black Veins by Ashia Monet

Hi everyone, I’m back! And I’m extremely excited to bring you my contribution to the Guardians Blog Tour for Ashia Monet’s forthcoming debut The Black Veins. The tour was organised by CW and you can find the introduction post over on The Quiet Pond.

Author photo of Ashia Monet, a smiling black woman with pastel pink hair
Ashia Monet is a speculative fiction author whose work almost always includes found families, diverse ensemble casts, the power of friendship, and equal parts humor and drama. Some of her favorite things are The Adventure Zone, Ariana Grande, and the color pink. You can follow her on Twitter @ashiamonet and Instagram @ashiawrites.


SO WHY SHOULD YOU READ THE BLACK VEINS?

If any of the following sound like your cup of tea, The Black Veins is definitely for you:

  • a badass black bisexual girl protagonist whose weapon of choice is a magical hockey stick
  • a road trip with lots of road blocks
  • an unlikely found family full of queer kids, trans kids, and kids of colour
  • teenage girls discovering their magic and their worth
  • YA urban fantasy without romance

Before we move on to the playlist, take a look at this awesome cover and the official blurb:

Cover of The Black Veins by Ashia Monet, depicting the title in neon white, blue, and pink writing on a brick wall background

In a world where magic thrives in secret city corners, a group of magicians embark on a road trip—and it’s the “no-love-interest”, found family adventure you’ve been searching for.

Sixteen-year-old Blythe is one of seven Guardians: magicians powerful enough to cause worldwide panic with a snap of their fingers. But Blythe spends her days pouring latte art at her family’s coffee shop, so why should she care about having apocalyptic abilities?

She’s given a reason when magician anarchists crash into said coffee shop and kidnap her family.

Heartbroken but determined, Blythe knows she can’t save them alone. A war is brewing between two magician governments and tensions are too high. So, she packs up her family’s bright yellow Volkswagen, puts on a playlist, and embarks on a road trip across the United States to enlist the help of six strangers whose abilities are unparalleled—the other Guardians. — Goodreads


PLAYLIST: GET IN, LOSER, WE’RE GOING TO ELECTRIC CITY

With this playlist, I’ve tried to capture the mood of the book while also picking up some of the prevalent themes like friendship and the importance of believing in yourself. The songs I used are mostly by queer and / or poc artists, and I really hope you enjoy it! You can listen to the playlist on Spotify, or click on the respective song title in the track list below to listen to each song on YouTube:

  1. 2nd Floor Window — Terence Blanchard
  2. Unholy War — Jacob Banks
  3. Run Away – Manila Killa
  4. Didn’t Cha Know — Erykah Badu
  5. Friendship Station — Le Tigre
  6. Can’t Be Sure — Tei Shi
  7. Standing in the Way of Control — Gossip
  8. Remain — Jay Som
  9. City Lights — Blanche
  10. Disparate Youth — Santigold

If this post has piqued your interest, please preorder The Black Veins at any of the following links: Amazon | Barnes and Noble | Indigo | Apple Books

And don’t forget to check out the other blog tour posts by my amazing co-contributors!

THE BLACK VEINS BLOG TOUR SCHEDULE

Banner for The Black Veins Blog Tour, with the book's title in neon white, blue, and pink writing on a brick wall background

11th July
CW @ The Quiet Pond (Introduction + Review)

12th July
Fran @ The Ramblebee (List + Playlist)
Fadwa @ Word Wonders (Review + Aesthetic)

13th July
Melanie @ Mel to the Any/BookTube (Review only)
Sage @ sageshelves (Review + Discussion Post [Benefits of No Romantic Arc])

14th July
Kate @ Your Tita Kate (Review only)
Vinny @ Artsy Draft (Review + Lockscreen/Wallpapers)

15th July
Lili @ Utopia State of Mind (Review + Hand Lettering)
Noémie @ Tempest of Books (Review + Discussion [‘No Romance’])

16th July
Marie @ Drizzle and Hurricane Books (Review only)
Surina @ Book Reviews by the Bloggisters (Review + Author Interview)

17th July
Saoudia @ Recs From Ur Friend (Review + Quiz [Which Guardian Are You?])
Gretal @ Books and Breadcrumbs (Review + Discussion [No Romantic Arc])

18th July
Kate @ Reading Through Infinity (Review + Author Interview)
Vanessa @ The Wolf & Books (Review + Moodboard OR Playlist)


Thank you so much to CW @ The Quiet Pond for organising this blog tour, and to both CW and Ashia for letting me be a part of my first ever blog tour!

BOOK SERIES REVIEW: Sidekick Squad by C. B. Lee (3.5 Stars)

Cover of Not Your Sidekick by C. B. Lee, depicting an Asian girl jumping across a gap, with a superhero zooming behind her on an orange background

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

Welcome to Andover… where superpowers are common, but internships are complicated. Just ask high school nobody, Jessica Tran. Despite her heroic lineage, Jess is resigned to a life without superpowers and is merely looking to beef-up her college applications when she stumbles upon the perfect (paid!) internship—only it turns out to be for the town’s most heinous supervillain.

On the upside, she gets to work with her longtime secret crush, Abby, who Jess thinks may have a secret of her own. Then there’s the budding attraction to her fellow intern, the mysterious “M,” who never seems to be in the same place as Abby. But what starts as a fun way to spite her superhero parents takes a sudden and dangerous turn when she uncovers a plot larger than heroes and villains altogether. — Goodreads

Not Your Sidekick is such an enjoyable read. It was different from what I was expecting though, which almost caused me to DNF it after the first third. While Sidekick Squad is a YA series and the characters are YA age, the overall tone reads much more Middle Grade to me. However, I was able to settle into the read more easily after I realised that C. B. Lee’s style was intentionally casual and a bit cartoonish.

The plot bumbled along pretty slowly in the first half of the book and I never really got invested in the big-picture stakes. The book is trope-y to the point of being slightly predictable, but a well-written trope can be super fun. The romance between Jess and Abby is filled with fun tropes, like Jess crushing on her crush’s secret identity, and I loved it! It’s just kind of invigorating to get to read about queer girls falling in love in cute scenarios.

Overall, what really made Not Your Sidekick for me was the diverse representation. The main characters are all characters of colour and my favourite, Bells, is a Black transmasculine bi dude. The characters ask for each other’s pronouns when they meet and treat others in caring and respectful ways. I also loved Jess finding respect for herself and starting to realise her worth. The tone and writing may not have been a perfect fit for me, but the characters won me over and made me love this book in the end.


Cover of Not Your Villain by C.B. Lee, depicting a Black boy balancing on hovertrain tracks on a green background

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

Bells Broussard thought he had it made when his superpowers manifested early. Being a shapeshifter is awesome. He can change his hair whenever he wants, and if putting on a binder for the day is too much, he’s got it covered. But that was before he became the country’s most-wanted villain.

After discovering a massive cover-up by the Heroes’ League of Heroes, Bells and his friends Jess, Emma, and Abby set off on a secret mission to find the Resistance. Meanwhile, power-hungry former hero Captain Orion is on the loose with a dangerous serum that renders meta-humans powerless, and a new militarized robotic threat emerges. Everyone is in danger. Between college applications and crushing on his best friend, will Bells have time to take down a corrupt government?

Sometimes, to do a hero’s job, you need to be a villain. — Goodreads

This second book in the Sidekick Squad series is told from the point of view of Bells, who was my favourite character in the first book. I was really excited when I picked up Not Your Villain, but my excitement waned a little when the first third of the book was mostly spent rehashing the events of Not Your Sidekick. But since it had taken me about that long to get into the first book, I persevered and was definitely not disappointed!

I love Bells so much. While his being trans is treated as a pivotal part of who he is, it’s not his defining trait. I really enjoyed the casual references to Bells wearing binders, injecting T-shots, and shapeshifting his body to assuage gender dysphoria. It’s just not the kind of rep you get to see every day, and it made me very emotional. My breaking point was when Bells arrived at a secret hide-out location after having to run and finding that his dad had taken emergency T-patches for him. I’m not going to lie, I teared up a little. Even though my own experiences don’t line up with Bells’ 100%, this representation still meant so much to me.

Again, I ended up loving this book in spite of not entirely jiving with the writing. I think the Sidekick Squad series would be great for both younger and older readers. If you’re looking for a read with low-ish stakes and tropes galore, this is one for you, especially if you hardly ever see yourself represented.

Not Your Back-Up, the third book in the series told from Emma’s point of view, is coming out today, and I will definitely be picking it up as soon as I get a chance. In Not Your Villain, Emma comes out to Bells as aromantic / asexual questioning. Being aroace myself and having read the previous two books and cherished the representation, I already know this will be another emotional but fun-packed read.


Have you read any of the Sidekick Squad books? Are you as excited for Not Your Back-Up as I am? 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!

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: 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!

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: 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!