The Sword of Kaigen – Book Review

✨ Spoiler Free ✨

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Author: M. L. Wang
Genre: Fantasy
Series: Theonite
Publication year: 2019
Audience: 16+
Content warnings: War, violence, gore, rape, trauma, depression, suicide, major character death, death of a child.

Synopsis

The Sword of Kaigen is a high fantasy novel inspired by 19th-century Japan. It follows mother and son – Misaki and Mamoru – from the powerful Matsuda family, all of whom are jijaka’s who have the ability to wield water for combative purposes. When conflict breaks out in their small town of Takayubi, the Matsuda’s must fight to protect what they love.

What I liked

  • Complex characters
  • Character development
  • World building
  • Exploration of family
  • Writing style

What I disliked

  • Slow pacing
  • Choice of POV characters
  • Dense worldbuilding

Plot and Structure

The plot was military-centric with elements of family drama, romance and female empowerment. The characters were more of a driving force for the plot than the plot itself. I did find it difficult to grasp exactly what the cause of the war was, who the enemy was and why they were attacking, so I wasn’t too invested in the plot for that reason. I was more invested in the themes surrounding the plot and characters rather than the plot itself. There were high stakes throughout, but the plot did feel quite disjointed. There were shocking moments and it maintained intruige throughout. However, there were lulls in the pacing numerous times. The beginning was a very slow start and around the mid-point it lost my attention and I ended up putting it down for a few weeks before coming back to it. Ironically, the last half of the book picked up hugely and I became more invested as the focus shifted more towards the characters.

Structurally, the tone shifted dramatically making it feel like there were three distinctive parts. In the first third, it was focused on the younger POV character and his time at school; the second third was focused on the war and battle; and the final third focused on the characters emotions and process of dealing with the aftermath of the fighting. Generally, it was chronological but with some flashbacks to Misaki’s past. Although I appreciated the flashbacks for Misaki’s character development, they did sometimes feel a bit haphazard and didn’t fit within the wider story. I also didn’t particularly like that her past mainly served as a romantic sub-plot which was unnecessary and didn’t add much to her character or the story.

World Building and Magic

Considering this novel is a standalone, the world-building was fantastic. So much was packed into the 600 pages but it rarely felt like there were info dumps. The culture, norms, hierachies and gender roles were well established, but
I would’ve liked more context for the history and politics of the world, particularly around the conflict and government structure. These things were hinted at or mentioned in passing but needed more focus. I struggled at multiple points to distinguish the different families, countries, towns, cities, languages and cultures in the world. Since it is Japenese-inspired I also struggled with more minor language uses and phrases. There was a handy glossary in the back, but reading the Kindle edition made this less accessible and more difficult to go between as I was reading. Nonetheless, objectively the world-building here was phenomenal.

The magic system was rooted in elemental magic and those that possess this magical ability are called Theonites. There are two types of Theonites – Jijaka that manipulate water and Fonyakalu that manipulate wind. The magic system wasn’t outlined in extensive detail, but anybody that’s read my previous fantasy reviews will know that I prefer softer magic systems so I was happy with this. Different characters wielded their abilities in different ways and had varying levels of power, which was used creatively in battle. I loved how the Matsuda’s magic was characterised as a part of them and how connected their magic was to their environment, connecting them to their heritage and homeland. I also liked that the magic wasn’t used as a substitute for combative skill, but to elevate their abilities. It’s not a unique magic system, but was fun, interesting and blended well within the wider world. Sometimes the use of magic in fantasy can feel clunky, but it seamlessly fit within the story here. It was an important aspect of the world, but didn’t dominate everything at the expense of other worldbuilding details.

Writing Style

As a self published novel, the writing style really impressed me. It was clean with few grammatical errors and was incredibly well-edited. M. L. Wang’s writing style was immersive and detailed. She created vivid imagery of the mountain setting and provided detailed worldbuilding. When writing about the characters, it was highly emotive and emphatic. This was a positive in regards to enabling me to connect with the characters and empathise with them. However, at times too much time was spent on dissecting the characters every emotion and thought, becoming repetitive and losing its impact. The tone was melancholic, focusing on the depressive emotions of the characters and hopelessness of their situation, although towards the end the tone did become more hopeful. Overall, I really liked the writing style. It was clear, detailed and descriptive striking a good balance between dialogue, exposition and description.

Power was born into a person and lived in the wordless depths of their soul.

Characters and Relationships

This is where this book truly shone. The two main POV characters – Misaki and Mamoru – brought a fresh perspective to the fantasy setting through the eyes of mother and son. Their internal struggles contrasted each other. As a child, Mamoru’s worries and perspectives are more innocent and black and white, whereas Misaki’s worries weigh heavily on her and we see how this impacts her as a mother, and how in turn, this impacts her children.

Misaki stole the spotlight. She’s one of the best written and complex female protagonist’s I’ve found in fantasy for a long time; a complex female character that is physically, mentally and emotionally strong, yet vulnerable, flawed and emotional. She can be hard and she can be soft; forgiving and vengeful; loving and hateful; compassionate and unempathetic; cold and warm. She’s a myriad of conflicting things and her development throughout the book was a joy to read. I appreciated that motherhood was such a core component of her character and that her love and devotion to her children paired with her personal struggles at times impaired her ability to be the type of mother she wanted to be. I wish that more had been done with her flashbacks that went beyond a romantic sub-plot, because I actually felt like this didn’t fit with her character.

Unfortunately, I didn’t connect as much to Mamaru, and would’ve preferred to have other POV characters, such as Misaki’s husband, Takeru. Takeru had a lot of valuable insight to add to the story and although we did get one chapter from his perspective, he should’ve been introduced as a main POV character earlier on. Takeru was a mysterious character during first half, but towards the end more was revealed about his character and he really grew on me. His relationship with Misaki was so interesting and their dynamic was one of my favourite aspects of the book. The focus on these two as individuals and a couple is what made the second half work so well for me.

The family dynamics between the Matsuda’s was another strong point of the book. Misaki’s relationships with her children, her husband and her sister-in-law, Setsuko. The female solidarity and sisterhood between Misaki and Setsuko was a refreshing break from the dreariness of the story. Their scenes were always coloured with love, support and compassion. Generally, I really liked the portrayal of community and family.

Concluding thoughts

The Sword of Kaigen is a strong high-fantasy standalone with detailed worldbuilding, an interesting magic system and well written characters. Although the plot itself wasn’t captivating, the characters relationships and development propelled me forward with the story, even during the lulls in pacing. Some more detail could’ve added to the richness of the world and helped me to feel more invested in the plot, but the shift in focus to the characters and their relationships in the second half made up for my lack of enjoyment in the first half. The writing style was succinct and meticulous, connecting me to the characters and setting. My favourite part of the book was Misaki and the relationships she had with her family. Misaki has immediately jumped onto my list of all time favourite female characters. Her relationship was her husband was a fascinating examination of a loveless, toxic marriage and was a unique and refreshing take from the usual romances that are in fantasy. I did go into reading this book with high expectations and not all of them were met, but it was an enjoyable read overall and I would highly recommend it for fantasy readers.

I’d recommend The Sword of Kaigen if:

You’re looking for an Asian inspired, military, fantasy standalone that gives you The Poppy War vibes, has high emotional stakes, a depressive tone and a complex female warrior character.

Have you read The Sword of Kaigen or are you planning to read it? Let me know in the comments!

Stay safe, my lovelies and keep reading.

The Outsiders – Book Review

✨ Spoiler Free ✨

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Author: S. E. Hinton
Genre: Classic
Publication year: 1967
Audience: 12+
Content warnings: Abuse, neglect, gang violence, bullying, criminal activity, major character death, arson, violence, murder, grief, suicide.

Synopsis

Set in the span of two weeks, The Outsiders, follows 14-year-old Ponyboy Curtis and his friends the “Greasers”. When a gang war breaks out between the “Greasers” and “Socs”, a series of tragic events follow.

What I liked

  • The social commentary
  • Fast paced plot
  • Character development
  • The friendships between the characters
  • The emotional stakes of the story

What I disliked

  • Nothing?

Plot and Structure

As stated in the synopsis, this book is set in a two week period and is structured chronologically. The plot can be best described as a gang war and friendship drama. The main character, Ponyboy and his friends, are part of the Greasers who are enemies with another gang, the Socs. After an altercation takes place between the Greasers and the Socs, a series of dramatic events unfolds with devastating consequences. The gangs are defined by social status and class with the Greasers coming from the working class and the Socs from the middle/upper classes. It’s a fast-paced, relentless plot which keeps building and building, creating high emotional stakes and multiple climaxes. Although I enjoyed the plot and it kept me invested in the overall story, it was the characters, friendships and social commentary which I loved the most.

Writing Style

Since S. E. Hinton was only a young teenager when she wrote this, the writing style is very simple and accessible. It’s a YA book and the writing style is accessible for all age groups and reading levels. I wasn’t in love with the writing style, but it was solid and in-keeping with the overall tone and plot of the story. It wasn’t very descriptive in nature but closely examined the characters’ thoughts and emotions, particularly of Ponyboy as the POV character. But despite the concise writing style, I felt that S. E. Hinton sprinkled in some wonderful quotes and metaphors which tugged on my heart strings. She was also able to convey the complexity of the class issues she was exploring in a beautiful and clear way. Considering just how multi-layered the themes were in this book, they were presented in a relatable and authentic way with little exposition.

It seemed funny to me that the sunset she saw from her patio and the one I saw from the back steps was the same one. Maybe the two different worlds we lived in weren’t so different. We saw the same sunset.

Characters and Relationships

The characters in this book stole my heart. Reading this for the first time as an adult enabled me to connect with the characters way more than I think I would’ve if I had read it as a teenager. I was able to put into context just how young these boys were and how awful the neglect, abuse and instability they were enduring was. I immediately felt a sense of love, protectiveness and empathy with these boys who were all lost in their own way and looking for a place to belong. I just wanted to give them a big hug!

Most of them are orphans or have absentee/neglectful parents, no positive adult role models and are school drop-outs (except Ponyboy). They’re living in an impoverished neighbourhood where there’s a lack of opportunity, high crime rates and on-going gang feuds. Although the characters are far from perfect, in many ways they’re victims of circumstance making them incredibly sympathetic. Perhaps the saddest part is that they’re aware that the lives they’re living were unfulfilling, miserable and toxic, but they don’t have the tools to break the cycle and choose a different path.

Each character is well-developed, authentic and has a different way of dealing with their situation. Darry sacrifices his own hopes and dreams to elevate those of his younger brothers (Ponyboy in particular); Soda masks his pain with his “free-spirit” attitude and optimism; Dally is apathetic and hardened to a world that he acknowledges is cruel and unfair; Johnny wants things to change but doesn’t know how to change things so goes along with it because the gang is all he has; and Ponyboy actively challenges their lifestyle and plans to escape by succeeding at school and moving out of the neighbourhood.

Ponyboy as a POV character was so insightful and relatable. Despite only being 14 years old, he has wisdom beyond his years and is able to reflect on situations from a fresh perspective. Where his brothers and friends are blinded by their prejudices, he tries to remain open-minded and optimistic even in the most hopeless of times. Seeing the world through his eyes was equal parts hopeful and heartbreaking. Ponyboy is the future and the potential for him to break the cycle feels close yet so far.

Dally, the typical “bad boy” archetype, had me rolling my eyes at the start. I’m not a fan of this archetype at all but S. E. Hinton exectued it so perfectly by creating a flawed, complex and sympathetic character. Dally being a “bad boy” is not just a mask to hide his vulnerability but part of who he is and a reflection of the philosophy he has developed as a result of the hardships he has faced. At no point is his behaviour or attitude justified, but we do get to see other sides to him and to understand his actions and motivations.

Obviously, it goes without saying that I loved the relationships every bit as much as the characters. They’re kids that have had it tough and deserve a chance, but to the rest of the world they’re delinquents and wasters. Nobody sees or hears these kids and nobody cares. It’s heartbreaking to see how little they matter in the wider world and how aware they are of that. For most of them, all they have to live for is each other. Since many concepts of masculinity are synonymous with detachment from emotion and a lack of intimacy with other males, I loved that the characters were sensitive, emotional and deeply connected to each other. These guys love each other and they might not always openly express it, but their devotion to each other is obvious from their actions. The loyalty, compassion and sacrifice that these guys make for each other made me cry…more than once! It’s a prime example of found family trope done right.

Concluding thoughts

The Outsiders both touched my heart and broke my heart. S. E. Hinton’s achievement in writng this at 17 years old cannot be understated. She captured the complexities of life in the wider context of class, inequality, violence and crime so vividly. It gets to the heart of what it is to be forgotten, side-lined and unloved, and through the stories of Ponyboy and the gang, reflects the lives of many young working class boys who are being left behind by society today. The complexity of the characters and their relationships with each other was palapable, and the heart and soul of the story. As the reader, you form a deep attachment to them because you see how little the world cares about them. Despite how short the book is, it’s so tragic, raw and honest that it makes for an unforgettable read and is one of my favourites. The characters will stay with me for the rest of my life and the injustice and the class inequalities that are explored resonated with me so deeply based on my personal experience and the work I do with disadvantaged young people.

I’d recommend The Outsiders if:

You’re looking for a short, face-paced modern YA classic which is full of drama, friendship and emotion, and explores complex themes surrounding social class and masculinity.

Have you read The Outsiders or are you planning to read it? Let me know in the comments!

Stay safe, my lovelies and keep reading.

The First Law Trilogy – Book Series Review

✨ Spoiler Free ✨

Overall rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Author: Joe Abercrombie
Genre: Fantasy
Books: #1 The Blade Itself; #2 Before They are Hanged; #3 Last Argument of Kings
Publication year: 2006-2008
Audience: 18+
Content warnings: War, graphic violence and injuries, torture, mutilation, gore, death, trauma, misogyny, kidnapping, imprisonment, explicit sexual scenes, rape. Since this trilogy is grimdark it contains lots of dark themes so there may be some I’ve missed from this list.

Synopsis

The First Law universe is a dark, politically unstable world characterised by war and unrest. The trilogy follows 6 POV characters on their respective journey’s as they navigate the conflict and political games that will determine their fates.

What I liked

  • THE CHARACTERS!!
  • Character dynamics
  • Strong character development
  • Writing style and prose
  • World building
  • Dark themes
  • Morally grey characters

What I disliked

  • Slow pacing
  • Lack of plot
  • Open and rushed ending

Plot and Structure

This trilogy is known for not being big on plot, but that’s not to say that there is a complete absence of plot. Similar to most multiple-POV fantasy stories, the trilogy has six plot threads running through it focused on the six main characters. At various times throughout the three books, the characters’ stories intersect with thrilling results. The plot is focused on two central conflicts – the one between the Union and the North and the second between the Union and the Gurkish Empire. It’s primarily a war-focused plot, analysing the conflicts that take place from military, political and social perspectives.

Despite getting off to a relatively slow start in the first book, I really enjoyed the plot. There were lots of twists and turns, political intruige and fantastic action scenes. The plot was built upon more with each book, but I personally enjoyed the plot in Before They Are Hanged (Book #2) most. Although the fantastical elements were low, there was enough to keep me intruiged and I liked learning about the world’s magic and history. The ending was somewhat underwhelming and rushed. It was too open-ended for my liking and I felt that there were some characters that were done an injustice and questions that remained unanswered, but I appreciated that the ending generally fit with the tone of the world. It was bittersweet to say the least.

Structurally, each book is divided into two parts with alternating POV chapters between Logen Ninefingers, Sand dan Glokta, Jezal dan Luthar, Collem West, The Dogman and Ferro Maljinn. It’s narrated in chronological order for the most part with a handful of flashbacks relevant to establish the plot and characters’ back stories. The diverse personalities of the POV characters and their different stations and locations provided a broad perspective on the world and plot as it unfolded. I enjoyed every POV character, which is rare for me, and an attestment to how well Joe Abercrombie writes characters.

World Building and Magic

The world building in this trilogy was incredible. It’s one of the most detailed worlds that I’ve been able to create in my imagination; from the side alleys to the grand buildings and vast deserts, I see it all in vivid detail and felt as though I was living in the world with the characters. Abercrombie took the time to establish the world, drip feeding the information throughout the three books at a steady pace. Yet from the very first chapters I felt anchored in the world and had a strong sense of how it looked, smelled and felt. Through his writing, Abercrombie drew on all of the senses which connected me to the world even more. Although it’s a very dark and unpleasant world, it’s one of my favourite fantasy universes that I’ve read to date.

There was a lot of ambiguity around the magic system. More was revealed about the function of magic and the First Law the series is titled after – which outlaws contact with the Other Side – in the second and third books. Most of the information about the magic system was established through history and a lot of it was left unexplained. As a fan of soft magic systems, I personally liked this. The magic was prominent at times but for the most part it was a low hum in the background; I could sense it but it wasn’t tangible. Overall, the magic system was a lower priority in comparison to the characters and world building.

Writing Style

Joe Abercrombie writes with intention and is meticulous with how he chooses his words. His writing is carefully chosen to match the setting and characters. Each character had their own manner of speaking characterised by different sentence lengths, colloquialisms, dialects, phrases and patterns of thinking. I am yet to read another author that so distinctly differentiates between their characters. His flair for writing dialouge is equally fantastic. It’s sharp, witty and engaging. The style wasn’t flowery but eloquently conveyed the tone and emotion of the story and characters. There was extensive descriptions of the setting which enabled me to build clear images of the setting and world but it wasn’t too indulgent. Description didn’t overshadow the other elements of the writing and the balance between the various aspects was balanced well. Abercrombie also has a talent for writing war and action. All action and battle scenes were detailed, fast paced and thrilling. Likewise, his ability to write gut-punching and captivating scenes is fantastc. There are so many memorable scenes from this series that will stay with me for a long time. Overall, the attention to detail in Abercrombie’s craft was apparent. From dialogue to descripton to prose, it was concise, strongly written and it immersed me in the world and story completely.

Round and round in circles we go, clutching at successes we never grasp, endlessly tripping over the same old failures. Truly, life is the misery we endure between disappointments.

#3 Last Argument of Kings

Characters and Relationships

The characters were the triumph of this trilogy. They were simply phenomenal. Each one was complex, morally grey and awful yet oddly sympathetic. I couldn’t help but develop a love-hate relationship with them. They were compelling and unpredictable, but also completely consistent and fully fleshed out. Even when characters took turns I didn’t expect (which happened a lot!), it was authentic and believable. Each character had a complete arc and journey across the three books which was well written, developed and executed. Their development wasn’t linear, and some characters regressed in many ways, but that was very fitting with the nuance of the characters and is also reflective of the reality of being human. Growth is hard and messy and doesn’t happen easily. Sometimes it doesn’t happen at all.

There wasn’t a single poorly written character. I loved every single one of them. The only character that felt a little weaker to me was Ferro, which was disappointing since she was the only main female character. In fact, my biggest critcism of Abercrombie’s characters is that there was a complete lack of female characters and the ones that were featured felt less developed than the male characters. However, having read two of the First Law standalones (Best Served Cold and The Heroes), I know that this is something he improves on later on in the series.

Admittedly, the characters won’t be to everyone’s tastes because they are so terrible. Unless you really enjoy characters that are genuinely terrible and morally corrupt, you won’t connect with these characters. They did awful things, sometimes for survival but sometimes simply because they could, because they wanted to or because it was the easier choice. They’re not the type of characters that are relatable or that readers can necessarily empathise with, but I became invested in them as people that were unfortunate to be born into such a volatile world that forced them to extremes for the purpose of self preservation.

I could take the time to individually analyse each character because there’s so much to say, but I will just mention my personal favourites – Logen, The Dogman, Jezal and West. These characters surprised me and developed immensely across the trilogy. Despite their flaws and darkness, there was a core sense of humanity that I connected with. That’s not to say the other characters weren’t as equally strong, because they were. The characters stand out in my mind as some of the best in fantasy. In the future, I plan to write character analyses on some of the First Law characters, so keep an eye open for that, if you’re interested.

Because the characters were so great, the character relationships wrote themselves and were so fun to read. Before They Are Hanged (Book #2) was my favourite book for this because of the new, unlikely friendshps that were made. I really enjoyed the dynamics between the Northmen – Dogman, Threetrees, Grim, Black Dow and Tul Duru. Despite their friendships being shallow on the surface, since their bond was formed on a need for survival, the dependence, loyalty and cooperation between them was touching. There wasn’t much emphasis on romantic relationships which I appreciated, since I can sometimes find that romance is shoe-horned into fantasy unnecessarily. I also liked that the romantic relationships that did form weren’t idealised and were actually quite un-romantic. It was in keeping with the tone of the book.

Concluding thoughts

The First Law is a dark, gritty, character driven fantasy trilogy set in a rich universe inspired by medieval Europe. Despite a slow burn plot, it’s a thrilling, compelling and encapsulating story with plenty of twists and turns. I was diappointed by the lack of female characters, but the trilogy makes up for it with the complex, dynamic and intruiging cast of characters it does have. It also makes up for this short-coming in other areas such as its attention to detail, world building, character development and well crafted writing style. Abercrombie’s sharp minded wit and dark humour makes for some brilliant dialogue, character moments and character dynamics. All of this comes together to create an immersive, exciting and unforgettable read which kept me on my toes and made me feel the broad spectrum of emotions from elation to sadness to anticipation and shock. Overall, this trilogy is centered on the characters and is a must-read for character driven fantasy readers like myself.

I’d recommend The First Law trilogy if:

You’re looking for a character driven grimdark fantasy with low magic, complex morally grey characters and a dark world akin to George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones.

Have you read The First Law or are you planning to read it? Let me know in the comments!

Stay safe, my lovelies and keep reading.

Pride Month Wrap Up

At the end of May I shared my Pride Month TBR and I wanted to give an update on the books I read in June. So, I read five LGBTQIA+ books last month, four of which were from my TBR and one which was a birthday gift from a friend. Here are my summaries of the books and my thoughts on them all spoiler free .

In the Dream House

Carmen Maria Machado

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Genre: Nonfiction
Publication year: 2019

In the Dream House is the first book I read from my TBR and it blew me away. It was an emotional and hard-hitting read with the author Carmen Maria Machado, recounting her experience of being a domestic abuse victim in a same sex relationship. The writing style was unique and encapsulating, and Machado’s voice swept me away in the story of her life. It’s value in raising awareness of abuse in queer relationships cannot be understated and this is one I’d highly recommend for everyone, particularly those interested in LGBTQIA+ topics and rights. You can read my full review for In the Dream House here.

The Passion

Jeanette Winterson

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Genre: Historical Fiction
Publication year: 1987

Reading The Passion was a wonderful experience. I was swept away by Jeanette Winterson’s stunning prose, writing style and storytelling. Despite how short it is in length, I was invested and connected to the characters and story. Set in the Napoleonic Wars, it follows two characters – Henri and Villanelle – whose fates collide leading to an unlikely relationship and journey. The characterisation of Henri and Villanelle was incredible. Winterson was able to establish them so well within 150 pages that I came away feeling a deep affinity to both characters. Their dynamic was authentic, complex and emotional, and anchored the entire story.

It’s very steeped in metaphors, symbolism and thought-provoking prose, so I don’t think a book as complex as this can be fully comprehended or appreciated on one read. I plan to come back to it re-read it at a slower pace, taking the time to sit with the words and fully reflect on the language and meaning. I was so close to rounding this up to 5 stars, but it just lacked that full emotional gut punch that typically leads me to give a full rating. Nonetheless, I loved this book.

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe

Fannie Flagg

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐

Genre: Historical Fiction
Publication year: 1987

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe is the story of a small fictional town in Alabama called Whistle Stop. It primarily follows Mrs Threadgoode, an elderly lady in a reitrement home, and her daughter-in-law, Evelyn as they develop a close bond and Mrs Threadgoode shared the history of Whistle Stop and its residents. The story spans across decades, weaving together past and present with chapters alternating between the present with Mrs Threadgoode and Evelyn chatting in the retirement home, stories from the past from residents of Whistle Stop and articles from the Whistle Stop newsletter, “The Weems Weekly.”

Thematically, this book explored a lot of things that are of interest to me – family, community, identity, feminism, lesbianism, racism – but unfortunately, I found it difficult to connect to the story or the characters. I appreciated what Fannie Flagg was trying to achieve but it didn’t have the emotional weight it should’ve and was generally a rather underwhelming read as a result.

We Can Do Better Than This: 35 Voices on the Future of LGBTQ+ rights

Amelia Abraham (ed.)

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Genre: Nonfiction
Publication year: 2021

This book was bought for me by a friend as a birthday present and I devored it within two days. With a diverse range of voices from within the LGBTQIA+ community, this anthology of essays is wide-reaching and explored a variety of issues that queer communities are currently facing and have endured throughout history. It’s an intersectional approach to LGBTQIA+ rights with queerness being explored in the context of race, disability, faith, culture and legislation. As with all anthologies, there were some essays that I connected to and enjoyed more than others, but generally the quality was high.

It was a very emotional read and I cried multiple times, but it was also hopeful and empowering. Although there was a lot of representation, I did feel that there could’ve been improvements with this. There was a high proportion of essays written through the lens of being gay, trans and non-binary, but a clear absence of multisexual identities including bisexuals, pansexuals, omnisexuals and polysexuals. There was also only one chapter about asexuality and none about aromanticism. Although ths is a lesser known identity, there are plenty of asexual and/or aromantic public figures and activists that could’ve contributed to the anthology. Nonetheless, I appreciate that with 35 essays there’s limited time and space and overall, it did a brilliant job at capturing the core issues in LGBTQIA+ activism and the diversity of the community.

Ace: What Asexuality Reveals about Desire, Identity and the Meaning of Sex

Angela Chen

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐

Genre: Nonfiction
Publication year: 2020

This book was a fascinating and insightful read. It’s an journalistic perspective on asexuality within the context of Western society which is rooted in what she coins as “compulsory sexuality”. I wasn’t a big fan of the writing which felt clunky and jumped from one topic to another haphazardly, but Angela Chen opened up very important converations which apply to everyone regardless of sexual orientation. She uses asexuality to question the societal norms and expectations placed on people around sex and relationships, asking why sex is assumed to be such a focal point of all of our lives when for many people (asexual and non-asexual), sex simply isn’t a priority in our lives.

As a Chinese American, Chen adopted an intersectional perspective of asexuality looking at disability, race and religion and how those characteristics can interact with asexuality. She did a good job at capturing the diversity of the ace spectrum and debunking common myths surrounding asexuality. She also offered some food for thought and provided me with the opportunity to evaluate the ways in which socal norms and compulsory sexuality has impacted me as an asexual woman. However, it wasn’t a particularly mindblowing read since it felt like it was targeted more at non-asexuals as an introduction to the issues that asexuals can and do face. Having said that, asexuality is widely misunderstood, overlooked and stigmatised both in and out of the LGBTQIA+ community so to see books like this being published is essential for raising awareness and building momentum within the ace community.

Overall, I had a great experience reading these books and I’m looking forward to reading the other books that are on my Pride Month TBR but that I didn’t manage to get to in June.

Have you read any of these books or do you plan to? Let me know in the comments!

Stay safe, my lovelies and keep reading.

The Final Empire – Book Review

✨ Spoiler Free ✨

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Author: Brandon Sanderson
Genre: Fantasy
Series: Mistborn (The Final Empire, Book #1)
Publication year: 2020
Audience: 16+
Content warnings: Abuse, murder, violence, major character death, slavery.

Synopsis

The Final Empire is set in a dystopian world characterised by a red sun, showers of ash and rolling mists. Kelsier recruits a ragtag crew of allomancers to undertake the greatest heist in history to overthrow the Lord Ruler and free the oppressed peoples, Skaa.

What I liked

  • Vin’s character
  • Setting and world building
  • Unique magic system
  • Entertaining

What I disliked

  • Writing style
  • Prose
  • Slow pacing
  • Poor/slow character development
  • Complicated magic system
  • Too much exposition

Plot and Structure

The plot was a fairly standard fantasy heist plot – what you expect is what you get. A group of individuals are brought together and work to overthrow the Big Bad – the Lord Ruler – by using their allomancy and a cunning plot. There were some surprises along the way but overall it delivered on the premise very well. I didn’t love it, but I didn’t hate it; it was good but not necessarily to my tastes. There were a lot of pacing issues until around the 70% mark, at which point the plot went into over-drive and the action soared. I really enjoyed the last 30%, but unfortunately, the first three quarters were very slow and dragged in parts.

There were two main POV characters – Kelsier and Vin – and chapters alternated between the two of them, with snippets from history books at the start of each chapter to familarise the reader with the historical context of the present. Kelsier takes Vin under his wing and mentors her, teaching her how to wield and understand her allomancy. Throughout the story the two develop a father/daughter type relationship which was very endearing, but more about that later on in the review. Generally, the structure was clean, despite the slow pacing and served the plot well.

World Building and Magic

Sanderson is most well known for his world building and magic systems, and generally, he delivered. Despite being introduced to the world Scadrial (which is not explicity named in the book), I developed a keen sense of the world and felt very immersed in it. The descriptions of the setting enabled me to build up an intricate and detailed image of the world, to such an extent that I felt like I was walking through that world with the characters. I also really enjoyed the dysopian setting which added tension throughout. The history of the world was well established and sprinkled throughout adding to the authenticity of the world and firmly grounding me in the world. It’s through the history that the reader is able to understand what is happening in the present and why. It was an interesting world and one I’d be eager to learn more about.

The magic system – Allomancy – is central to the world and consists of groupings of metals which are used in a multitude of ways by Mistings or Mistborns to enhance and unlock certain abilities. I found the magic to be very polarising. On the one hand, it was a unique and interesting concept unlike anything else I’ve come across in fantasy. On the other hand, it was overly detailed, complex and technical. This comes down to personal preference, but I’d generally prefer a softer magic system in fantasy and this was a very hard magic system. The rules, effects, boundaries and laws involved with the magic were clearly established and reinforced throughout. It became a tad repetitive and was sometimes confusing, particularly in the beginning, due to the number of different metals there are and the different abilities they unlocked. Generally, I appreciated the uniqueness of the magic and how much time went into developing it, but on a personal level, it simply wasn’t for me and there was too much exposition around it which constantly pulled me out of the story.

Writing Style

My largest critcism of this book is by far the writing style. Sanderson’s language use was simplistic and written like it’s targeted at young teenagers rather than adults. The prose was plain and dry and prevented me from being able to get into the flow of the story. It was also very expository, reading like a mechanical process, which created a disconnect between myself, the characters and the story. I was constantly pulled out of scenes by the clunky writing, especially during action scenes which were so clumsily written that I had no idea what was going on. They read like an instructon manual of, “He did X, and then he did Y and in response, she did Z. Next, he did X again until Y happened and finally did Z.” It was tedious and completely unimmersive. This really comes down to a creative choice by Sanderson to invest his time and energy into world building and magic systems at the detriment of his prose, tone and overall writing style.

Our belief is often strongest when it should be weakest. That is the nature of hope.

Characters and Relationships

Like most other aspects of the book, the characters and relationships have mixed results from me. Generally, I liked the relationships and character dynamics more than the characters individually, except for Vin. Vin was the highlight of this book for me. Although her character draws on a lot of typical fantasy archetypes, her growth throughout this book was incredible. She’s a lovable character; sympathetic, brave and talented. A chosen one, but still real enough that she felt relatable. I also really enjoyed Elend – Vin’s love interest (who weirdly gave me Draco Malfoy Vibes) – for his charisma, intrigue and wit. He brought a freshness to the story that I enjoyed as one of the only other young main characters besides Rin.

Unfortunately, the other characters fell rather flat for me. Kelsier’s character was very underwhelming and I found it impossible to connect to him. I couldn’t even get a read on his character for at least the first quarter of the book, if not more. He seemed inconsistent and shady. The rest of the crew were all indistinguishable. I know their names, but that’s pretty much all I know about them.

Fortunately, I loved the character dynamics. I really liked seeing Vin and Kelsier’s relationship blossom. Kelsier acted as her mentor, teacher, friend and parental figure, and although I found it difficult to connect to him as a character in the moments he shared with Vin, he felt much more human. It was refreshing for the main female/male dynamic to be one of mentor and mentee rather than lovers. I appreciated not having the romantic entanglements between Vin and Kelsier. Speaking of romance, I adored Vin’s dynamic with Elend. Their relationship was well-built and the chapters featuring Elend were some of my favourites. Generally, I also enjoyed the dynamics between the crew, despite not vibing with them individually. The friendships felt authentic and I liked the way they bounced off one another.

Concluding thoughts

The Final Empire is a book I went into with high expectations because of how highly regarded Sanderson and Mistborn are in the fantasy world. In terms of plot, it was satisfyng and built to a fast-paced fun last quarter and epic conclusion. The world building met those expectations and was completely immersive, vivid and encapturing. The magic system was intricate, unique, well developed and central to the world. Although the hard magic system and general emphasis on magic was not to my tastes, I was impressed and intruiged by the allomantic magic. Sanderson’s writing was a rather significant hinderance to the story due to its exposition and clunkiness. My favourite aspect of the book excluding the world building, was Vin. I adored Vin as a protagonist and despite finding it difficult to connect to the other chracters, I enjoyed their character dynamics. Overall, The Final Empire was an entertaining read with lots of promise but fell short of meeting my expectations based on the hype surrounding it. My issues with the writing and magic system are personal preferences, but have led me to the decision to not continue with the Mistborn series.

I’d recommend The Final Empire if:

You’re looking for a smooth transition into epic fantasy with complex world-building, an intricate magic system and entertaining heist plot.

Have you read The Final Empire or are you planning to read it? Let me know in the comments!

Stay safe, my lovelies and keep reading.

Persuasion and Villette – Snapshot Book Reviews

Snapshot reviews are short book reviews of around 200-250 words.

Persuasion

✨ Spoiler Free ✨

Rating: ⭐⭐

Author: Jane Austen
Genre: Classic
Publication year: 1817
Audience: All ages
Content warnings: Sexism.

Review

Persuasion is widely regarded as one of Jane Austen’s best novels and one her strongest works. It follows Anne Elliot, a 27-year-old unmarried woman whose life is thrown into a tailspin when her former lover, Captain Wentworth returns to her hometown. Characteristic of an Austen novel, it’s light on plot and very slow paced with a focus on characters and character dynamics.

Of the four Austen novels I’ve read (the others being Emma, Pride and Prejudice and Northanger Abbey) this was my least favourite. Whilst I usually enjoy the slow pace, this was too slow. It was meandering and uneventful. I also found myself getting lost in the large cast of characters all of whom were indistinguishable from one another. As a protagonist Anne was bland and difficult to connect with in comparison to Emma and Lizzie.

The second-chance romance was a refreshing change from the other Austen romances. However, the romance wasn’t much of a focus until the end. My lack of connection to the characters also made it difficult for me to connect to the romance. The ending felt rushed and unearned.

Unfortunately, Persuasion was not an enjoyable reading experience for me. Although I’ve enjoyed all of the other novels I’ve read from Austen, I found it difficult to find redeemable qualities with this one. It lacks the fun, wit and lightheartedness that I have come to expect from Austen and the lack of plot paired with my inability to connect to the characters ultimately meant that it didn’t work for me.

I’d recommend Persuasion if:

You are an Austen fan that enjoys slow paced classics with large casts and a second chance romance.

Villette

✨ Spoiler Free ✨

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐

Author: Charlotte Brontë
Genre: Classic
Publication year: 1853
Audience: 16+
Content warnings: Sexism, misogyny, depression, mental illness, paranoia, grief, verbal abuse, anti Catholicism.

Review

Villette is Charlotte Brontë’s third and final novel. It tells the story of orphan, Lucy Snowe as she moves to the fictional French town of Villette to pursue her independence and a new life. It’s a slow paced story which is primarily a character study of Lucy Snowe; a polarising and complex protagonist. My reading experience was very mixed, with some parts boring me to tears and others compelling me to read more.

The slow pacing was difficult to get through at times and the relentless passages of French repeatedly pulled me out of the story. Nonetheless, I was strangely enamoured by Lucy’s character, despite her being a generally unlikeable person. I particularly enjoyed the unreliable narration from Lucy and how her memories, biases and conscious decision to withold certain information provided insight into her character. It also prevented me from ever fully grasping the truth, leaving lots of room for interpretation and analysis.

Villette is destined to live in the shadow of Jane Eyre, and whilst generally readers are more likely to favour the latter, the former has a lot of merit. Charlotte’s writing style is encapsulating; her descriptions are wonderfully visual and her ability to capture emotion is fantastic. There was a fascinating exploration of mental health and despite the toxic love interest, I appreciated that there was a portrayal of unrequited love and an ending which didn’t fulfil the cliche “happily ever after” trope. Overall, this is a feminist tale of a young woman, alone in the world seeking purpose and belonging.

I’d recommend Villette if:

You’re looking for a slow paced classic set in France with a complex female protagonist and themes of feminism, love, loss, mental health and finding purpose.

Have you read Persuasion or Villette or do you plan to? Let me know in the comments!

Stay safe, my lovelies and keep reading.

In the Dream House – Book Review

✨ Spoiler Free ✨

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Author: Carmen Maria Machado
Genre: Nonfiction/Memoir
Publication year: 2019
Audience: 18+
Content warnings: Domestic abuse, emotional abuse, physical abuse, body shaming, adult/minor relationship, homophobia, biphobia, explicit sexual references, PTSD, trauma.

Synopsis

In this abstract and surreal memoir, the author shares her experience of being in a long-term abusive lesbian relationship. Drawing on themes of domestic abuse, queerness and feminism, Machado seeks to raise awareness of abuse in queer relationships which is often excluded from domestic abuse discourse and activism.

What I liked

  • The audiobook narrated by Carmen Maria Machado
  • Writing style
  • Storytelling techniques
  • The themes that were explored

What I disliked

  • Nothing?

Structure

Structurally this memoir was bizarre, but it really worked for me. It wasn’t presented in a linear way or chronologically but instead in fragmented pieces, almost like a jigsaw. Machado briefly touched upon this fragmented structure in the book itself and I think it was genius. It was refreshing, unique and raw. Psychology has proven that scientifically memory is very unreliable – we forget events, details become distorted and the more often we recall a memory the less accurate it becomes. Choosing to structure the book this way felt authentic in a way few memoirs do because it was an acknowledgment that memory is unreliable and that some incidents of abuse have faded from Machado’s memory or that she cannot recall specific details. It worked because it enabled her to tell her story and stay focused on the central themes of the book without going through a play by play of her life from birth until the present day in a stagnant, stylistcally dry style as many memoirs do.

Themes

The primary theme of this memoir was the abuse Machado endured for years at the hands of her long-term girlfriend framed within the context of queerness and feminism. She included research on domestic abuse in queer relatonships between women accompanied by discussions about the ways in which perceptions of domestic abuse have been shaped by heteronormativity and gender (e.g. domestic abuse = hetreosexual relationship between cis man and cis woman with the man as the abuser and woman as the abused) and how this, unfortunately, often exludes queer relationships from the discourse and research. She did a brilliant job at demonstrating the ways in which the lack of education and awareness of LGBTQ+ topics blinded her (and many others) to the abuse she was experiencing at the time. Her assumption that men were the perpetrators of abuse meant that the possibility of abuse being present in a same gender relationship was unthinkable to her.

In the Dream House served as a metaphor for the illusion of the perfect happily ever after that a lesbian relationship represented for Machado and for many other queer women. Chapter by chapter and piece by piece, she dismantled the dream house, revealing the ugliness that lay within and shattering any preconceptions she may have had prior to entering into this relatonship. Her insight into this experience was fascinating and touched upon the abuse and harm that queer people can inflict other queer people. She pointed out that whilst the LGBTQ+ community exists to protect queer people, sometimes it does not always provide the safe spaces and relationships that are expected.

Writing Style

I adored Machado’s writing style. It was definitely more flowery than I’d typically expect from a memoir, but absolutely stunning. There was a lot of symbolism, metaphors and similies paired with a deeply emotive style. Her writing was eloquent, thought-provoking and sincere. The narrative voice was uniquely hers, which was undoubtedly elevated by the experience of reading the audiobook, and despite the shortness of the book, I felt close to Machado as though I knew and understood her. I also loved that there was a self-awareness throughout with the author explaining or justifying her writing process such as her choice of structure, the unreliability of memory and the effect of trauma throughout time.

I speak into the silence. I toss the stone of my story into a vast crevice; measure the emptiness by its small sound.

Concluding thoughts

In the Dream House was an emotional and harrowing tale of domestic abuse in a queer relationship. Although it wasn’t necessarily enjoyable to read because of the emotional impact of the content, the structure and writing style were uniquely brilliant and captured the essence of the author’s story honestly and authentically. It provides educational value in regards to abuse in the queer community and the necessity for more education on LGBTQ+ relationships. I gained a deeper insight into a topic I was quite unaware of and I deeply connected to Machado’s storytelling style which capture the complexity of the human experience, emotion and memory. Her story, thoughts and arguments were eloquently presented and had a profound impact on me as a reader. Overall, the message from In the Dream House highlights the importance of raising awareness of the complexity of domestic abuse and of including queer people’s voices in the research, discourse and activism.

I’d recommend In the Dream House if:

You’re looking for a unique, thought-provoking, emotional memoir from a queer woman that touches heavily on gender and sexuality, advocates for LGBTQ+ rights and raises awareness of abuse in queer relationships.

Have you read In the Dream House or are you planning to read it? Let me know in the comments!

P. S. This is my first new 5-star read of 2021! 🥳

Stay safe, my lovelies and keep reading.

Everyday Sexism and Feminists Don’t Wear Pink – Snapshot Book Reviews

Snapshot reviews are short book reviews of around 200-250 words.

Everyday Sexism

✨ Spoiler Free ✨

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Author: Laura Bates
Genre: Nonfiction/Feminism
Publication year: 2014
Audience: 18+
Content warnings: Sexism, misogyny, sexual harassment, sexual abuse, abortion and mental health.

Review

Everyday Sexism is a feminist book divided into 12 chapters, each focused on a specific topic from motherhood to women in politics, education, the media and the experiences of girls. Laura Bates draws on research from her project Everyday Sexism – a website where girls and women can anonymously submit their experiences of sexism – and combines the voices of these girls and women with statistics and personal commentary.

In some ways I consider this is a must read because it’s informative on topics around systemic sexism, sexual assault and consent. On the other hand, this book could be potentially harmful and misleading, particularly for young people that read it. Therefore, I’d be reluctant to recommend it to anybody under the age of 18 or those unfamiliar with feminist texts.

My main gripe with this book is that it makes sweeping generalisations, exaggerates and fear mongers by promoting the message that females cannot step outside their door without experiencing sexual harassment or assault. It bombards the reader with horrifying stories of women’s trauma from the harassment and abuse they’ve faced to make a point. This was not only unnecessary, but repetitive and exploitative.

Nonetheless, it is an eye-opening read which touches upon some key aspects of feminism. Bates’ feminism doesn’t match mine but I appreciated the argument that we need to tackle minor incidents of sexism if we ever expect to reduce more extreme cases of sexism which cause real harm to girls and women.

I’d recommend Everyday Sexism if:

You are interested in learning more about the inequalities and discrimination women face, specifically sexual harassment and abuse.

Feminists Don’t Wear Pink (and Other Lies)

✨ Spoiler Free ✨

Author: Scarlett Curtis (curator)
Genre: Nonfiction/Feminism
Publication year: 2018
Audience: 16+
Content warnings: Sexism, misogyny, sexual harassment, sexual abuse, mental health, strong language, graphic sexual imagery.

Review

Feminists Don’t Wear Pink is a curated selection of essays from a variety of public figures about their experiences, thoughts and feelings about being a woman and a feminist. It’s divided into three main categories (with a poetry section in the middle) – epiphany, anger and joy – which is supposed to represent the three parts of the journey to becoming a feminist. It’s a relatable and accessible read, which makes it ideal for younger readers or those that are just discovering feminism. 

Unfortunately, it wasn’t the collection of essays it was marketed as and more a collection of diary entries. The entries were informal and the contributors had too much creative freedom. This resulted in a lot of repetition and entries that varied hugely in quality. Each entry was short but many of them were also fairly pointless such as timelines or random lists. The curator, Scarlett Curtis, needed to take more creative control to resolve these issues and provide more of a template and structure for the book.

These minor issues aside, I found the book to be motivational and I appreciated the diversity of the contributors. There were women of colour, trans women, mothers, business owners, activists and LGBTQ+ women all telling their own stories in their own voices. In terms of accessibility, it’s ideal and is a good starting point for people looking to familiarise themselves with feminist history and issues.

I’d recommend Feminists Don’t Wear Pink if:

You’re interested in breaking into feminism with an accessible book with a diverse collection of voices on what being a woman/being a feminist means to them.

Have you read Everyday Sexism or Feminists Don’t Wear Pink or do you plan to? Let me know in the comments!

Stay safe, my lovelies and keep reading.

The Poppy War Trilogy – Book Series Review

✨ Spoiler Free ✨

Overall rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Author: R. F. Kuang
Genre: Fantasy
Books: #1 The Poppy War;#2 The Dragon Republic; #3 The Burning God
Publication year: 2018-2020
Audience: 18+
Content warnings: War, genocide, self-harm, drug use, substance addiction, misogyny, abuse, animal cruelty, rape, death, graphic violence, torture, child death, starvation, mutilation, gaslighting, suicide, cannibalism, mental illness, human experimentation, racism and gore. This trilogy contains every single content warning imaginable, so I apologise if I’ve forgotten any. Just be aware this is a very dark series with a lot of disturbing and upsetting content which is often explicit and graphic.

Synopsis

The Poppy War trilogy weaves fantastical elements with twentieth century Chinese history. It follows Rin, a young dark-skinned orphan, soldier and shaman from the south, who has a pivotal role to play in the future of her home as the Nikan Empire enters into the Third Poppy War.

What I liked

  • Historical influences
  • Realistic depiction of war and its consequences
  • Character dynamics
  • Ambitious plot
  • Combat/fighting scenes
  • Interesting magic system
  • The darkness of the story

What I disliked

  • Unrealised character potential
  • Pacing
  • The under-utilisation of strong characters
  • Redundant plot points
  • Limited character POV
  • Too plot focused
  • Not enough exploration of the magic system

Plot and Structure

This trilogy is very plot focused. Since R. F. Kuang wrote the books based on Chinese history, the timeline is plotted out based around key events in the timeline of that history, drawing specifically on the Second-Sino Japanese War and Chinese Civil War. As a history academic, historical accuracy is important to Kuang and many of the key plot points are pulled straight from history texts but with a fantastical twist. Unfotunately, there are some plot points that are dropped or wrapped up conviniently easy. I also didn’t necessarily like the choices that were made with the plot and felt that with some minor shifts in the focus, it could’ve gone from a great trilogy to a mindblowing trilogy.

Although I wasn’t in love with the plot, I admire how ambitious it is, particularly for a debut series. Kuang expertly takes real history to create a fictional world that has enough parallels with Chinese history to provide valuable insight and commentary on the history of our world, but that also has enough differences that it feels fresh and unique. The ultimate goal of this trilogy is to examine the consequences of colonisation and war in our world through a fantastical, fictional lens and in that she undoubtedly accomplishes what she set out to do.

Structurally, each book is divided into three parts. It’s almost exclusively from the protagonist’s perspective, Rin and generally follows a chronological order with a handful of flashbacks usually in the opening of the book or the start of a chapter. Generally, the structure is clean and easy to follow but I would’ve preferred more flashbacks to get more insight into the back stories of the characters. I also found the choice to have only one POV very limiting. I’m personally a huge fan of multi-POV books, particularly in fantasy, and the way the plot is set up, particularly in the second and third books, meant that we desperately needed other character POV’s.

World Building and Magic

Considering this is Kuang’s debut, the world building was decent. Due to the nature of the book, lots of time was spent developing the history of the world but there was also time given to establish the cultures, politics, social structures and geography. However, since it is based on China, a lot of the world building is heavily reliant on the real-life history, geography, culture and people of China. This means that it cannot be credited with authentic world building, since it is using an existing place and only makes a few minor changes. Personally, I did find the world immersive and imagined the setting vividly in my mind. Unfortunately, other reviewers have commented on the fact that the immersion and appreciation of the world building can be negatively impacted the more familiar the reader is with China which is a huge draw back.

I found the shaman magic system so intriguing. I personally haven’t read many books that have this type of magic system so it was fun for me to learn about it. It’s definitely a soft magic system, which was good for me because I personally prefer soft magic systems. Having said that, I felt like the magic system was played with too fast and loose and there were a lot of inconsistencies about how it works, its limitations, how it’s accessed and used. The concept was fun, but the execution wasn’t quite up to scratch. However, I did like the way that drug use was incorporated into the use of shamanism because it provided the opportunity to explore the impact of drug addiction and substance misuse, which is generally handled well.

Writing Style

Kuang’s writing style is succinct and harsh, fitting the tone of the overall story. The writing is particularly effective for war and combat, and the intricate details around war tactics, strategy and battles are unparalleled. There’s vivid descriptions which enabled me to build tangible images of the setting and scenes. It’s rare for authors to craft a world and scenes that feel so real to me that I can still picture them clearly in my mind months and years later, but I know that this world and certain scenes from all three books will stay with me for a long time. Yet offsetting that, there’s a lot of introspection and emotionality. Striking a balance between description and emotion is difficult to achieve, but Kuang pulls it off. However, the sheer power of the emotions and themes she explores is so powerful that at times it did feel like over-kill. Since Rin is a highly emotional, reckless and intense character, the emotional stakes feel like they’re always at their height and as a reader, that can be emotionally exhausting. Overall, there’s an over-arching intensely passionate tone, which conveys Kuang’s personal attachment to the history and culture of her home-country and heritage which is woven into the books.

I am the force of creation, I am the end and the beginning. The world is a painting and I hold the brush. I am a god.

#3 The Burning God

Characters and Relationships

The characters are probably the hardest aspect of this trilogy to review because I have so many mixed feelings. At times, I felt deeply connected to the characters and thought they had great development, and others they felt very vague and underdeveloped. Since Rin is the POV character, her characterisation is given the most time and attention. Rin is a polarising character. She’s an anti-hero that has a corruption arc across the three books and as much as I can see how much time was invested in developing Rin’s every thought, emotion, behaviour and action, I found it very difficult to connect to her or sympathise with her in any way. On paper, she’s a very complex character with a lot of layers but I never felt anything towards her. Her characterisation is complicated and contradictory and I could never truly get a sense of who she was as a person. Her motivations seemed to jump around and change constantly with little explanation and that paired with her utter instability was difficult for me to wrap my head around.

The other characters ranged from “forgettable” to “average” to “had potential” to “great”. There are a lot of characters that have quite a lot of page time but who are one dimensional and/or used as a plot device. My favourites were Altan, Nezha, Kitay and Venka, all of which fluctuate between being in the “had potential” to “great” categories. Mostly they’re in the “had potential” because although I really liked these characters I don’t feel like any of them were fully realised or used to the extent they could’ve within the story. Altan, Nezha and Kitay all could’ve been POV characters and it’s a crime that Nezha wasn’t. Books 2 and 3 could’ve been elevated to an entirely new level if it’d been a dual perspective between Rin and Nezha. There’s so many unanswered questions around these characters, so little backstory and barely any time devoted to developing them beyond a couple of areas.

Admittedly, there’s still some unfulfilled potential in the relationships but not quite as much. The relationships are what connected me to the books and were the reason that I cried at the end of Book 1 and Book 3 (Book 2 almost got me, but not quite). Rin’s relationship with her best friend Kitay was a breath of fresh-air. I have a soft spot for well-written friendships and male-female friendships are so rarely depicted well so I adored Rin and Kitay. Rin’s intense and turbulent relationship with Altan was what first made me fall in love with the trilogy. Likewise, her fraught enemies-to-friends relationship with Nezha was addictive. Rin and Nezha have such an interesting and complex dynamic which does manifest itself particularly in Books 2 and 3, but overall, it’s done a huge disservice and I felt robbed of what we could’ve had. Regardless of that, the relationships are a true highlight of this book. It’s not just Rin’s relationships that I enjoyed, but the bonds of friendship and family between other minor characters too.

Concluding thoughts

The Poppy War is a powerful, intense and emotionally explosive fantasy trilogy which breaks away from traditional Westernised fantasy to provide a world and story inspired by Chinese history and culture. Rin is perhaps one of the most complex and polarising protagonists I’ve read recently in fiction and whether readers hate her or love her, her development is staggering. The world building, plot, characters and relationships all had enjoyable parts to them but overall, I was left feeling that the trilogy failed to reach its full potential. All of the ingredients for a fantastic fantasy story were there but weren’t chopped, combined or cooked in the right order or the right way. Nonetheless, I’m glad I read the trilogy; it took me on a wild ride of highs and lows, the first book blew my head off in the best possible way and the story packed a strong emotional punch. Kuang has demonstrated that she has a flair for writing historical fantasy and I think that with more experience and progression in her writing career, she will overcome these minor flaws and publish books that will absolutely knock my socks off and be 5 star reads across the board.

I’d recommend The Poppy War trilogy if:

You’re looking for an intense, dark, emotional fantasy story inspired by Chinese history with a complex, anti-hero POV.

Have you read The Poppy War or are you planning to read it? Let me know in the comments!

Stay safe, my lovelies and keep reading.

The Vanishing Half – Book Review

✨ Spoiler Free ✨

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Author: Brit Bennett
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publication year: 2020
Audience: 16+
Content warnings: Domestic abuse, racism, lynching, trauma, death of a parent, transphobia, sexual assault of a minor.

Synopsis

Identitcal twin sisters, Desiree and Stella Vignes, are inseparable as children but break apart and take different paths as adults – one living as a black woman and the other a white woman. In this multi-generational tale, we follow the Vignes sisters on a journey of love, loss and family.

What I liked

  • The emphasis on family and family dynamics
  • Writing style
  • Exploration of race and racism

What I disliked

  • The lack of detail on certain topics
  • The ending
  • How surface-level and unsatisfying a lot of the plot points and arcs felt
  • The lack of development of some of the main characters

Plot and Structure

Spanning 50 years from the 1940s to the 1990s, the book primarily focuses on Desiree and Stella and their families across three generations. The story opens with the return of Desiree to her Southern hometown, Mallard, after running away with her twin Stella at age 16. It’s then divided into sections by date and pieces together the events leading up to and after Desiree and Stella leave Mallard. Since this is a historical, literary fiction it isn’t particularly plot heavy and is focused on family drama with emphasis on the impact of racism on Desiree and Stella’s lives. It was rather slow paced, but engaging throughout because of how authentic the characters and their struggles felt.

The exploration of white passing was particularly fascinating. Stella’s ongoing struggle between her true identity as a black woman internally and a white woman externally was palpable. It’s impossible not to sympathise with the difficult choices she made to live the life she wanted and the sacrifce that went with those choices. Her character contrasted perfectly with Desiree who chose to live as a black woman and endure the discrimination, inequality and struggle that went with that.

Unfortunately, there was something missing within the story; a depth and emotionality that it just fell short of. There were so many interesting and important themes – racism, white passing, classism, transgenderism – but it only breezed past them. It felt like there were so many conversations between the characters that were omitted, details left out and the impact of certain events not fully explored. By the end, I was underwhelmed by the anti-climax of the sisters reunion and felt that a lot of what had been building was left by the wayside.

Structurally, I did find it a bit odd. Despite being divided into sections based on date, it wasn’t chronological and flashbacks were scattered througout which seemed to undermine the timeline. I love flashbacks in my books and liked how the flashbacks provided deeper insight into the characters and their past, but it did conflict a little with the timeline structure, in my opinion.

Writing Style

This is the first book of Brit Bennett’s that I’ve read but it certainly won’t be the last. Her writing style is beautiful. She’s able to craft a vivid setting and write complex, relationships and characters. The detail she provides is focused on the human aspect of the characters; their emotions, experiences and perceptions. Her use of dialogue is well chosen to represent each character, which is particularly effective in a story such as this which examines race and has both Southern and Northern American characters. The manner of speaking and colloquialism of certain characters reflected their geographical, racial and class background. However, I did feel that her writing focused a lot on experience and this resulted on some aspects of the narrative and characters not resonating with me as much as they could’ve.

There were many ways to be alienated from someone, few to actually belong.

Characters and Relationships

There was a good representation with the cast of characters. It was particularly refreshing to see a depiction of a trans character. The minor characters were interesting and time was taken to develop unique minor characters which I appreciated. However, the main characters weren’t the strongest. Desiree was the most complex and developed main character, but the rest of the characters never felt fully realised. I don’t really feel like I know any of the characters. I also felt that certain characters like Kennedy (Stella’s daughter) didn’t go beyond stereotypes.

However, the relationships were fantastic and probably my favourite aspect of the book. The romantic relationships were refreshing, understated and authentic, but the family relationships are what stole the show. The relationships are so complex; they’re fraught with tension, secrecy, pain, betrayal and hurt, but beneath that there’s love. There was acknowledgement of the dilemma between the family we are born into and our chosen family. Despite how family centric the book was, I liked that family wasn’t portrayed as something that was easy or a given. Love between families doesn’t always overcome hardships and sometimes people will choose themselves above the duty and obligation they have for their family. Generally, the relationship between Desiree and Stella was thought provoking and encompassed a lot of the conflict that can exist between siblings when they’re fundamentally different and want to establish themselves outside of that sibling relationship.

Concluding thoughts

The Vanishing Half is a wonderful, multi-generational family drama which captures the struggles of race, identity and family. The writing style is captivating and does justice to the heavy themes that are explored. Although the book fell short for me in regards to characters and the way in which certain plot threads and topics were brushed over, it was engaging and thought-provoking throughout. It’s a valuable read and the commentary around family and identity resonated with me on a personal level.

I’d recommend The Vanishing Half if:

You’re looking for a slow-paced family-centric historical novel which examines race in 1940s America.

Have you read The Vanishing Half or are you planning to read it? Let me know in the comments!

Stay safe, my lovelies and keep reading.