Books I Re-read in 2021

Re-reading is one of the greatest joys of being a reader. I’m the type of person that will watch the same movies and shows over and over, listen to the same songs over and over and yes, you guessed it, read the same books over and over. When I love something I go in hard, what can I say? 😂

The fun of re-reading a book is in experiencing a story, world and characters I love all over again with a greater appreciation for them. I tend to notice finer details on re-reads that I missed the first time around, learn more about the world, connect more to the characters and fall even more deeply in love with the things that I loved about the book the first time. I particularly love re-reading books when I’m in a slump because turning to books I love reminds me of what I love most about reading and reignites my desire to read. So here are the four books I re-read this year and my thoughts following the re-read.

Wuthering Heights

Anybody that has read any of my other posts will already know Wuthering Heights is my favourite book of all time, so it’s no surprise that it’s on this list. I re-read it right at the start of the year in February and the dreary, gothic tone of the book fit perfectly with the winter season. I did an annotated read and took my time to read it, really immersing myself into the story. I filled the pages with endless annotations and picked up on the many layers of this novel. I loved my re-read even more than my first time reading it because I was able to really sit with the book and feel the emotions of it. It’s a book that I have a constant craving to re-read simply because there’s something about the atmosphere and the characters that is so compelling and completely immerses me into the words on the page. The re-read only cemented it as my favourite and reminded me of its brilliance and uniqueness.

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo

I turned to The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo during a reading slump near the beginning of the year and it achieved exactly what I wanted and reminded me why I love to read. This book feels more like a film than a book. I can picture everything so clearly in my mind and I feel like I’m watching it on the big-screen as I’m reading. Evelyn is such a complex character and her life so crazy that I loved being able to further analyse her. This re-read actually inspired my post ‘Queerness and bisexuality‘ where I wrote about the depiction of sexuality in the book. It’s one of the few books I’ve read that not only has a main character that’s bisexual but actually claims the identity and uses the word bisexual to describe herself. There were certain plot twists that didn’t hit the same the second time around but I loved re-visiting Evelyn and the relationships in this book.

Daisy Jones and The Six

After finishing The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, I couldn’t resist picking up Daisy Jones and the Six. I was pleasantly surprised by this book the first time I read it and wasn’t sure it would hold up on a re-read, but I was wrong. I actually loved this book even more the second time round. During my first read I was completely invested in Daisy and Billy, but this time I was able to appreciate the other characters more. I still loved Daisy and Billy, of course, but was also more connected to the stories of the minor characters. It reminded me that Taylor Jenkins Reid was able to create characters that feel so real that at times it felt like I was reading a memoir about a real band.

Twilight

Now this is a re-read I never expected to happen but after binge watching the films on Netflix one weekend, I felt the urge to dip my toes back into the books for the first time since I was a teenager. It was a strange re-read because on one hand I found myself really enjoying it, and on the other I was very bored. I’d forgotten just how much of this book was Bella gushing about what a stunningly handsome and perfect adonis Edward is. As someone that doesn’t particularly enjoy reading romanc, it was a snooze-fest at times, but I did enjoy the nostalgia of returning to the series. I’ve seen the films so many times that they’ve replaced my memories of the books so it was fun getting back to the roots of the Twlight universe and being reminded of little details that I’d forgotten. I’m hoping to continue with my re-read and may even do some posts dedicated to it in the future 👀

Do you enjoy re-reading books? Did you re-read any books in 2021? If so, share in the comments, I’d love to hear about the books you re-read and whether your opinions or feelings towards the book changed.

Stay safe, my lovelies and keep reading.

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 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.

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.

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.

My Current Favourite Fantasy Series

Fantasy is one of my favourite and most-read genres. There’s nothing quite like being transported to an entirely new world with its own unique socities, cultures, beliefs and magic. I love how much fantasy can teach us about our own world by exploring themes that we experience in our daily lives and incoporating fun, fantastical elements. Some of the characters and worlds I’ve found in fantasy are the ones I remember most vividly and think about everyday. I’m constantly debating which new fantasy novel or series to pick up and it’s an ongoing struggle because there are SO MANY great fantasy books out there. In this post, I’ll be sharing my five favourite fantasy series that I’m currently in the process of reading.

Nevermoor (Jessica Townsend)

This middle-grade series is absolutely brilliant. If you love Harry Potter, it’s almost a guarantee that you will love Nevermoor. It’s whimsical, fun and quirky with a wonderful world, charming characters, heartwarming friendships and an interesting plot. It’s light-hearted, but also has darker themes around bullying, prejudice, discrimination, power and corruption. Despite being targeted at a younger audience, Jessica Townsend’s writing style and storytelling is so beautiful that it has the potential to appeal to audiences of all ages. This is going to be a nine book series, and I’ve read two out of three books that have currently been released. I cannot wait to read Hollowpox (Book 3) and to see where the rest of this series goes.

The First Law (Joe Abercrombie)

The First Law series drew me in from the very first chapter of the first book. This world is gritty, gruesome and dark with a cast of characters that are so well-written and complex that I feel like I know them. Joe Abercrombie’s character work and world building is top-knotch. I feel myself being pulled back to the world time and time again, and craving to read a book from this series if I’ve gone a few months without picking one up. I’m deeply attached to the characters and they are some of the few characters that I regularly think about. Their characterisation and development is some of the best I’ve read in any fiction full stop. So far I’ve read five out of the nine books in the series (excluding short stories). This universe continues to be built upon in each book and I cannot wait for the next book I plan to read, Red Country.

The Poppy War (R. F. Kuang)

The Poppy War is a series that I was reluctant about when I first started, but the first book blew me away and was a five star read. R. F. Kuang’s ability to weave Chinese history into a fantastical setting and plot is incredible. The action and stakes in this series have me on the edge of my seat. Despite being her debut series, Kuang demonstrates her flair for fantasy and talent in writing. The political intruige, military focus and exploration of complex dark human emotions such as grief, anger and depression all make this a great series. I’m currently reading the third and final book in this series, The Burning God, and will be posting a full review for the series when I’ve finished so keep your eyes peeled if you’d like to know my thoughts.

The Farseer Trilogy (Robin)

This series is a new discovery for me. Assassin’s Apprentice was the February pick for the monthly book club I have with my friends and I throughly enjoyed it. Robin Hobb’s prose and writing style was a joy to read. Although I found the pacing to be slow, the magic, characters and plot kept me engaged. The main character Fitz is so complex and well-written, and every single character was interesting. I’ve only read the first book in this trilogy, but there’s a lot of promise. I’m already invested in the characters and the world. I want to uncover some of the mysteries surrounding the magic system and to see more of some of the minor characters that intruiged me in the first book.

Discworld (Terry Pratchett)

What can I say about this series? It’s the most recent series I’ve discovered on this list but I’m already captured by it. Terry Pratchett’s wit, creativity and humour make for such a fun read. Although I’ve only read one novel in full – Mort – I’m currently reading my second novel from the series (Reaper Man) and loving it. This 41 book series is expansive and I can’t wait to work my way through it. There’s so much detail and the variety in the types of books that are in this series is exciting.

There are a few other fantasy series that almost made the cut and lots more I’m planning on reading this year that I predict could become new favourites, but these 5 series stand out in my mind for their world-building and character work. What are your favourite fantasy series? I’m always on the look out for recommendations, so share in the comments.

Stay safe, my lovelies and keep reading.