A Restless Truth (The Last Binding #2)

Cover image for A Restless Truth by Freya Marske

by Freya Marske

ISBN 9781250788917

“There was a high, firm wall beneath the constant performance that was Violet Debenham. She was the opposite to Edwin; his walls were all up front, the warmth there beneath them if you had the patience to wait to be granted entry. Violet’s warmth was on the outside. Sweets spread temptingly out on a blanket. Pause and let yourself accept the entertainment, the offering, and you might not notice the wall at all.”

In an effort to help her brother, Maud Blythe has set sail for New York to find Emily Navenby, one of the women who protects a piece of the Last Contract. Following the death of Flora Sutton, it is more important than ever that the other pieces be protected. However, things go amiss when Mrs. Navenby is murdered on the return journey to England, and all her silver is stolen in an attempt to recover her piece of the Last Contract. In order to solve the shipboard mystery before the RMS Lyric arrives in Southampton, Maud will need to enlist some unusual allies, including the actress Violet Debenham, and the former magician Lord Hawthorn.

A Restless Truth is a follow up to Freya Marske’s 2021 debut, A Marvellous Light. In this installment, the focus is on Maud Blythe, Robin’s sister, who played a minor role in the first book. In some ways this seems like a more fitting focus for this series, which has at its heart a coven of older women who broke away from the patriarchal British magic system and went their own way. They not only defied expectations and cultivated magic that should not have been possible, they made an active choice to protect against the greed of men who would seize power, even at the expense of their own personal relationships. Unfortunately, most of these bad ass elders are dead or dying, including Emily Navenby, with whom the prologue begins. In a fun twist, however, Mrs. Navenby’s unfinished business results in a ghost, meaning that we do get to enjoy the continued presence of her character, albeit in a less corporeal form. The series turns on the next generation of misfit magicians figuring out how best to protect the legacy of the Forsythia Club.

As if the murder mystery were not enough, the journey is also full of personal revelations for Maud. Violet’s somewhat scandalous company forces Maud to consider that perhaps her previous lack of interest in romantic relationships has less to do with her capacity for them, and more to do with her assumption that such a relationship would have to be with a man. Even having lived with her brother and his partner, Maud has not quite made the leap to considering how such a concept might apply to herself. I became invested in her character and didn’t miss Robin and Edwin as much as I feared I would when I learned that the second book was changing perspective.

Violet is an interesting character in her own right, a bright, shining façade that hides a girl who has put up barbed defenses to protect herself from ever being hurt or taken advantage of again. Having run away from home several years ago, she has lived in the world enough to have had the lesson that trust is a luxury beaten into her bones. Maud, however, has little respect for Violet’s walls, and the injuries they might be protecting. Maud’s determination to go on a journey of self-discovery at times ties into Violet’s agenda for causing scandal, at other times wars with her instinct for self-protection, creating a push-pull dynamic that was both frustrating and compelling.

A final installment in the series, due out this fall, will focus on Lord Hawthorn, who was once part of the very magical elite they are fighting against, before he lost all his powers. While each book has its own romance, the series is best read in order.

You might also like:

Even Though I Knew the End by C.L. Polk

This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

A Taste of Gold and Iron by Alexandra Rowland

Messy Roots

Cover image for Messy Roots by Laura Gao (Gao Yuyang)

by Laura Gao

ISBN 9780063067776

“People always said the skies in Texas were unparalleled. An endless canvas splattered with blues, purples, and oranges, towering mightily over miles of suburbia. But I found them suffocating. Here, I could run as far as I could and still not escape. Scream as loud as I could and still not be heard.”

Laura Gao was born in Wuhan but grew up in Texas. Although she attended weekend Chinese school and her parents had a Chinese church community, at school she was surrounded by white kids and faced with the daunting prospect of fitting in. As she quits mathletes in favour of basketball and then basketball in favour of art, she tries to figure out her place in a world where she doesn’t quite seem to fit anywhere.

Gao, who uses shey/they pronouns, began writing about their experience in response to the rise of sinophobia in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, releasing a short comic called The Wuhan I Know that later became the basis of this memoir. The outbreak was still being referred to as “Wuhan virus” and Gao was frustrated by this one-dimensional image of her home and its people. Gao blends Wuhan’s food, culture, and history with the story of her own family. Cousins and grandparents remain behind in Wuhan, while Laura’s parents strike out for America.

The tripartite cover of Messy Roots shows Wuhan, San Francisco, and Texas, the three places that have formed Gao’s identity. The story opens in January 2020, when every mention of Gao’s hometown is related to the COVID-19 pandemic and rising anti-Asian sentiment. This is an abrupt change for Gao, who is used to none of her (mostly white) American friends ever having heard of Wuhan. However, the story quickly turns to her family’s immigration to Texas when she was four, and her struggle to fit in as she learns English and chooses the English name Laura for herself—after the first lady because what could be more American?

When her family finally obtains green cards and can travel back to Wuhan for the first time when she is about ten, Gao is faced with the fact that she both does and does not fit in in the place she has been thinking of as home. Her cousins are surprised that she still speaks Wuhan dialect, but there are glaring gaps in her vocabulary as her cousins have grown up without her. Gao discovers that Wuhan is both home, and not home, leaving her a bit adrift. For her younger brother Jerry, who was born in Texas, it is a whole new world entirely.

Back in the United States, Gao enters her teenage years, bringing with it confusing feelings about boys, and the daunting prospect that she might prefer girls, just one more way she would not fit in in Texas. Many of her choices are defined by her fear of “fobby” Asians, which she is not forced to confront until she escapes to college in San Francisco. Suddenly her desire to fit in at all costs brands her a “twinkie” among her now numerous Asian peers from a variety of backgrounds. As she takes steps towards reconciling her identity, her last visit to Wuhan comes in the fall of 2019, blissfully unaware of the disaster lurking on the horizon.

Messy Roots is a timely coming-of-age graphic memoir of a queer Chinese American caught between the various aspects of their identity in the crucible of a pandemic.

_

You might also like:

The Magic Fish by Trung Le Nguyen

Himawari House by Harmony Becker

Even Though I Knew The End

Cover image for Even Though I Knew the End by C.L. Polk

by C.L. Polk

ISBN 9781250849458

“I had done the worst thing anyone could imagine. Soul-bargaining was the only likely act in the whole Anathemata—who had ever seen a unicorn or an angel, much less killed one?”

A decade ago, Helen sold her soul to save her younger brother, Ted. For her trouble, she was exiled from her remaining family and the larger magical community. Now she gets by doing magical odd jobs, knowing that her clock is ticking; a demon bargain only gets you ten years, and her time is almost up. That is, until Helen is offered a new, once in a millennium bargain. All she must do is find the serial killer known as the White City Vampire and she can have her soul back, along with a chance to make a new life with her girlfriend, Edith.

Even Though I Knew the End is a noirish mystery novella set in a magical version of 1940s Chicago haunted by angels and demons alike. Helen is a magical private eye, but she must tread carefully in order to avoid the Brotherhood, the magical order from which she was expelled as anathema. When Helen takes one last job from a wealthy client in order to put by a little more money for Edith, she stumbles into more than she bargained for: a serial killer being hunted by the Brotherhood, including her own estranged brother Teddy.

Helen is a gruff character who plays her cards close to the chest. She hasn’t told Edith, her girlfriend of two years, about her bargain, even though she has been putting her affairs in order so that Edith will inherit all her earthly goods. The possibility that Helen and Edith might get to be together after all adds a thrumming core of urgency to the mystery. Only three days remain before Helen’s bill will come due but perhaps if she solves this mystery they can still fulfill their dream of moving to San Francisco and buying a little house together in a city that “didn’t mind us much.” However, Helen is far from the only one keeping secrets in this relationship.

While there is a certain magical romanticism to Polk’s Chicago, it also has an undeniable dark side. Raids are an ever-present threat for queer clubs like the one where Helen and Edith first met. Sometimes women disappear from their community, perhaps found out by their families or worse. When they visit an asylum for women to try to interview a victim, Helen is confronted by the imprisonment of a woman she recognizes from the club. We are reminded that this is a setting where electroshock aversion therapy is considered a valid treatment for homosexuality. At the same time, in a world where demons and angels are real, Polk makes it extremely clear that “the revulsion for homosexual love is a human prejudice.”

With an excellent setting and characters, Even Though I Knew the End is a haunting story with a bittersweet ending. It is the kind of novella that makes you absolutely want more, even while you grudgingly acknowledge that it doesn’t need to be any longer than it is.

You might also like:

Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo

This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle

Top 10 Reads 2022

Happy New Year, everyone! Normally I like to get my top reads posted before the end of December but this year–for the first time since the pandemic began–I had a busy holiday travel schedule and just didn’t get to it amidst all the festivities. I’m also mixing it up a bit from past years, and posting a combined fiction and non-fiction list since my reading leaned heavily towards fiction this year. Without further ado, these are my favourite books read or reviewed (not necessarily published) in 2022.

Babel

Cover image for Babel by R.F. Kuang

by R.F. Kuang

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher. 

When his family dies of cholera in 1820s Canton, a boy whose birth name we never learn finds himself healed by magic, and spirited away to England by his mysterious benefactor, Professor Lovell of Oxford’s Institute of Translation. The boy becomes known as Robin Swift, and learns that there has been a purpose behind the English books and British nanny that have been a feature of his home for as long as he can remember. Translation and silver power magic, and Robin is fated for Babel, the Oxford college that trains the translators that fuel the silver industrial revolution. But ultimately the university serves the empire, and as Robin completes his degree, the First Opium War is looming, placing him in an impossible position between the country of his birth, and the Empire he has been groomed to serve. Babel is a meditation on loving something—a place, a language, a literature—that cannot love you back. In fact, it may hate you and people like you, but you love it nonetheless. Robin and his cohort must grapple with that love, and with their place at the university because violence lies only slightly beneath the polished surface of Oxford’s seeming gentility.

Note: Babel is published by HarperVoyager, an imprint of HarperCollins. Please note that the HarperCollins Union has been on strike since 11/10/22 to get a fair contract for their workers. Visit the HarperCollins Union linktree to learn how you can support their fight for a fair contract. The union has NOT asked for a boycott on purchasing HarperCollins titles at this time.

Categories: Fiction, Fantasy

Black Water Sister

Cover image for Black Water Sister by Zen Cho

by Zen Cho

After nineteen years in America, Jessamyn Teoh and her family are moving back to Malaysia. With a freshly minted Harvard degree, Jess feels like the next chapter of her life should be starting. She should be finding a good job and moving in with her girlfriend, Sharanya. Instead she’s broke, unemployed, and moving into her aunt’s house with her parents, where she needs to remain deeply closeted. The last thing she is expecting when she arrives back in Penang is to be visited by the spirit of her estranged grandmother, Ah Ma, who was in life the medium for the god known as the Black Water Sister. Ah Ma has unfinished business and she has chosen Jess to be her medium to help her resolve it. Failure means facing the wrath of the god, but success may be no less costly. Black Water Sister is a standout fantasy about magic, superstition, and family secrets. Through her time in Penang, Jess learns many things her parents have been hiding from her, even as she is keeping the secret of her own sexual orientation from them. She must contend with her family’s history and her own decision to lie by omission before she can open the next chapter of her life. It is only by returning to Malaysia that she can confront what has been holding her back.

Categories: Fiction, Fantasy, LGBTQIA+

Himawari House

Cover image for Himwari House by Harmony Becker

by Harmony Becker

Nao’s family left Japan for California when she was young, but in many ways her heart remained behind. Recently graduated from high school, she decides to spend a gap year in Japan, trying to regain the mother tongue that has largely slipped away from her in America. She moves into Himawari House, where she meets Tina and Hyejung, who have come to study in Japan, and Masaki and Shinichi, two Japanese brothers who also live there. For Nao, Japan was once home, but now she feels cast adrift, an adult with the language skills of a young child. Together the girls navigate life in a foreign country, taking their first steps into adulthood cast free of the expectations they left behind at home. The story takes place over the course of a year, and is a series of slice-of-life chapters capturing different seasons and experiences. The sensibility mixes Japanese manga style with the Western graphic novel tradition. Although the through-line of the graphic novel is in English, Himawari House is a story as multilingual the characters who inhabit it, incorporating Japanese and Korean into this tale of found family.

Categories: Graphic Novel

The Empress of Salt and Fortune

by Nghi Vo

This is the first in a series of novellas that will follow the non-binary cleric Chih, a disciple of the Singing Hills abbey. Chih is an archivist and keeper of stories, and they are trained to find and record the most interesting tales—perhaps especially those tales that some people would rather were never told. Following the death of the formidable Empress In-yo, Chih is drawn to Old Woman Rabbit, and soon finds that they are in the company of the Empress’s long-time handmaiden, companion, and confidante. The relationship between the foreign bride who seized a kingdom and the servant girl who opted to follow her into exile is one of choices, about what they are and are not willing to sacrifice for one another, and for ambition. In this short but perfectly honed novella, Chih quietly peels back the layers of Rabbit’s life, until they uncover a secret that could bring down a dynasty.

Tags: FictionNovellaFantasyLGBTQIA+

Last Night at the Telegraph Club

Cover image for Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo

by Malinda Lo

Growing up in 1950s San Francisco, in the heart of Chinatown, Lily Hu has always known her place as a good Chinese daughter. But when she spots an ad for a male impersonator in the San Francisco Chronicle, she feels a strong pull, and discovers a question about herself that she hardly knows how to ask. But it isn’t until she meets Kath Miller that Lily finds the nerve to visit the Telegraph Club to see Tommy Andrews perform. There they discover a whole community of women living lives they could barely have imagined. In Kath, Lily finds not only someone she might love, but someone who helps her see herself more clearly, not just her sexual identity, but also her dreams for a future career at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. But even liberal San Francisco is not a friendly place for two girls to be in love in the 1950s. It is a story about growing pains—growing up and apart from childhood friends, and coming to question the values your family and community taught you to hold dear. But at the core it is a story of first love in the face of adversity.

Categories: Fiction, Historical Fiction, LGBTQIA+

The Magic Fish

Cover image for The Magic Fish by Trung Le Nguyen

by Trung Le Nguyen

Thirteen-year-old Tien doesn’t know how to come out to his mom and dad. It’s more than just the fear of rejection; he literally does not know the Vietnamese words to explain what he’s feeling to his immigrant parents. But if there’s one way Tien has always been able to connect with him mom, it’s through the many books they borrow from the library, particularly fairy tales. Through the power of stories, Tien and his mother find a way to bridge the language gap, and communicate the things that have been allowed to go unspoken for too long. Blended with Tien’s coming-of-age story are three fairy tales. Trung Le Nguyen uses three types of colour panels to emphasize the different aspects of this interwoven tale. Blue for the fairy tales Tien and his mother read together, red for their real life, and yellow for his mother’s past in Vietnam. Nguyen does amazing work within the confines of these limited colour palettes, employing shading and texture to great effect, alongside his beautiful line work. The Magic Fish combines striking art with a moving family story for an unforgettable read.

Categories: Graphic NovelLGBTQIA+

Red Carpet

Cover image for Red Carpet by Erich Schwartzel

by Erich Schwartzel

Money has always shaped what gets made in Hollywood, but with the American box office stagnating, profits from global markets have become increasingly important. The most powerful overseas market is China, with its large population and growing middle class. Author Erich Schwartzel reports on Hollywood for the Wall Street Journal, and in Red Carpet he examines China’s complicated relationship with the American film industry. It begins with two controversial 1997 films about the Dalai Lama: Kundun directed by Martin Scorcese and Seven Years in Tibet directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud. These films marked a turning point, with China flexing its increasing economic power to influence releases that were never intended for the Chinese market. Schwartzel chronicles the growing difficulty of getting American films into China amidst opaque censorship rules, and the difficulty of predicting which American movies will be popular with Chinese audiences. Meanwhile, the Chinese film industry has been growing, with a better bead on what domestic audiences want, and what authorities will allow. Schwartzel’s in-depth reporting highlights the unexpected effects of globalization on one of America’s most notable exports.

Categories: Non-Fiction

She Who Became the Sun

Cover image for She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan

by Shelley Parker-Chan

China has been under Mongol rule for the better part of a century when a drought sweeps through the Central Plains, shortly followed by a terrible famine. In Henan province, a peasant girl scrapes by on the edge of starvation as all the other village girls perish around her in a society that feeds its sons first. According to the local fortune teller, she is destined for nothingness, while her brother possesses a fate that “will bring a hundred generation of pride” to the Zhu family name. Following the deaths of her father and brother, she lays claims to her brother’s name, and his fortune, becoming Zhu Chongba, destined for greatness. When the Mongol overlords burn the monastery where Zhu has taken refuge, she finally sees the path to the great fate she has claimed, and joins the Red Turban rebellion. The Great Khan has lost the Mandate of Heaven, and a new dynasty must rise to take its place. Having stolen her brother’s fate, Zhu grapples with imposter syndrome at every turn, while at the same time realizing that she has time and again overcome challenges that would have destroyed her brother. The strength of her desire to survive burns at the heart of this story, and the dark side of her character lies in the discovery that there is very little she will not do in the name of first self-preservation, and then ambition.

At the time I wrote my initial review back in May, the sequel had no confirmed title or release date, but He Who Drowned the World is now due for a August 2023 debut!

Categories: Fiction, Fantasy, LGBTQIA+

A Taste of Gold and Iron

Cover image for A Taste of Gold and Iron by Alexandra Rowland

by Alexandra Rowland

Prince Kadou has no interest in the throne; his older sister, Zeliha, makes a much better ruler for their kingdom. All Kadou wants is to support his family, help his sister take care of their people, and see his niece grow up to succeed his sister as a wise and just leader. After a deadly incident during a hunting party, Kadou is assigned a new bodyguard. Evemer is freshly promoted to the core guard, the highly trained soldiers that serve and protect the Mahisti royals before rising to become government ministers of Arasht. Evemer has pledged his life to the crown, so he is disappointed to find himself in the service of a prince who seems flighty and unreliable. Nevertheless, he will do his duty to try to help Kadou solve a mysterious break-in that may be connected to a counterfeiting ring. Arashti currency is trusted by traders throughout the world precisely because a large percentage of its citizens can touch-taste precious metals, thus making counterfeit coins all but unusable within the country’s borders. Kadou and Evemer must work together to solve the counterfeiting mystery before it undermines the country’s reputation. Despite the court politics set dressing, and the counterfeiting scheme, A Taste of Gold and Iron is largely joyful and tropey and soft. In fact, if you don’t enjoy tropes this is probably the wrong book for you, given that we start out with a prince/bodyguard, enemies-to-lovers romance, and then add in a fake-out make-out, and some hair washing and bedsharing, and really it’s just tropes all the way down.

Categories: Fiction, Fantasy, LGBTQIA+

This is Not a Book About Benedict Cumberbatch

Cover image for This Is Not a Book About Benedict Cumberbatch by Tabitha Carvan

by Tabitha Carvan

Australian author Tabitha Carvan’s memoir, which I read twice in 2022, is subtitled The Joy of Loving Something–Anything–Like Your Life Depends on it. And that in a nutshell is what the book is actually about; the theft of joy, and how we can counteract it by refusing to be ashamed of the things that make us happy. Yes, even if that thing is a celebrity crush on British actor Benedict Cumberbatch. Carvan is the stay-at-home mom of two young kids in Canberra, Australia, when she finds herself unexpectedly seized by Cumbermania. This new obsession was special not in and of itself, but because it roused Carvan from the “stultification of early motherhood” and forced her to examine the ways society encourages adults–but particularly women and mothers–to give up joy and hobbies and fun. Author Gretchen Rubin has described enthusiasm “a form of social courage. It’s often safer to criticize than to praise; it can seem cooler and smarter to be ironic, detached, or critical. Enthusiasm is more fun, however. It’s brave, generous, unself-conscious, warm-hearted, and a bit goofy.” Carvan’s memoir examines this social courage, and the social and emotional benefits we can reap from unabashed enthusiasm

Categories: Non-Fiction, Memoir

That’s it for me! What were some of your favourite reads in 2022?

Ocean’s Echo

Cover image for Ocean's Echo by Everina Maxwell

by Everina Maxwell

ISBN 9781250758866

“They were working together, they were rooming together, and every time he turned around, there was Tennal—unpredictable and razor-edged, crackling like the end of a live wire. Surit worked in a universe of fixed possibilities. Tennal was a chaos event. Surit was drawn to it like a gravity well.”

Tennalhin Halkana is a reader, capable of perceiving the emotions of those around him and even their thoughts if he pushes deeper. But deep reading is incredibly illegal in Orshan, and even a rebellious runaway like Tennal has moral limits. Unfortunately for Tennal, his powerful aunt will stop at nothing to bring him back into the fold. Conscripted under questionable orders into Orshan’s military, Tennal may find himself permanently bound to an architect who is charged with controlling his reader powers and bending them to their only acceptable use: navigating the maelstrom of chaotic space.

Lieutenant Surit Yeni is the son of an infamous traitor, his own so-far exemplary military career notwithstanding. Intent on securing a pension for his one surviving parent, Surit accepts a questionable transfer to the regulators for a salvage mission. While Surit is surprised by his orders to sync with a reader, he is shocked when he finds that the reader is neither a volunteer nor under a properly sanctioned court order for abuse of their powers. Surit believes the orders he has received are illegal, but when his superior officers refuse to listen, he and Tennal strike upon an unusual plan: fake a sync bond for as long as it takes to help Tennal escape.

Ocean’s Echo is set in the same universe as Winter’s Orbit, but otherwise stands alone with little crossover. Orshan, like Iskat, is part of the Resolution but wary of its influence. Neuromodified readers and architects are forbidden by the Resolution to leave Orshan space, and Orshan has done everything in its power to avoid drawing attention to their military use of these assets. In terms of genre, it’s neither entirely science fiction nor really romance, and I think this may be a sticking point for some readers as everyone will be looking for a different balance of these two elements. This installment has an even slower burn on the romance side than its predecessor, pushing the balance slightly towards science fiction.

I was initially rather confused by the world building surrounding readers and architects, and why it would be socially acceptable for architects to control people, but taboo for readers to perform even surface reading, which provides little more information than body language or tone of voice. It took the story going on a bit for it to become evident that this wasn’t a bug, but one of the central conflicts Maxwell was building the narrative around. Control is useful to governments, but readers have proven difficult to control and can access information the government would prefer to keep secret. Tennal, snarky chaos incarnate, is prime example of this difficulty, although his reader powers are honestly the least of his problems given his struggles with drugs and other self-destructive behaviour (full content warnings are available on the author’s site). As the primary POV character, it isn’t always easy being inside his head.

Tennal and Surit come to their relationship under the most fraught circumstances. Surit’s brief is to sync and control Tennal, but while his scruples prevent him from carrying out the order, he is still Tennal’s superior officer for as long as he is nominally in the military. In other circumstances, however, the power tilts in Tennal’s favour; he is the son of a powerful family, nephew of the Orshan Legislator, while Surit is the orphaned son of a traitor. It is no surprise, then, that the slow build towards deeper feelings is complex and fraught with both political and emotional landmines. And while Surit vows that he will never sync Tennal under any circumstances, events constantly conspire to push them towards this end, tempting them to seize the one tool at their disposal.

You might also like A Taste of Gold and Iron by Alexandra Rowland

Demon in the Wood

Cover image for Demon in the Wood by Leigh Bardugo and illustrated by Dani Prendergast

by Leigh Bardugo

Illustrated by Dani Prendergast

ISBN 9781250624642

“I would burn a thousand villages, sacrifice a thousand lives to keep you safe.”

Eryk has lived his life on the run, with his mother Lena as his only companion. Eryk and Lena share a secret, a unique power that divides them even from the other Grisha who can summon or manipulate the elements. Eryk has been taught to trust no one, to don a new name and a new backstory at a moment’s notice, but he longs for a place of safety to call home, for other people who he can trust and confide in. When Eryk and Lena decide to winter in a Grisha camp on the border of Ravka and Fjerda he meets Sylvi and Annika and begins to harbour a tiny hope of a home. But when the truth comes out, the consequences of his secret will have a terrible price.

Others have described Demon in the Wood as the Darkling’s villain origin story, but really it is more like a single step along that path. In this case, it is the story of how a boy temporarily going by the pseudonym Eryk discovers the depths Grisha will sink to in order to protect themselves in a world that believes the only good witch is a dead witch. Rather than turning him against his own people, it drives him to imagine a world where Grisha have an exalted place, and their power raises them up rather than making them a target of persecution. But the methods he is learning as he begins the pursuit of that agenda hint at the dictator he will one day become.

The Darkling’s mother, going by the name of Lena for the moment, is perhaps the more interesting of the two characters. Lena recognizes that their power is unusual, even among Grisha, and tries to teach her son to protect himself from those who would use him, whether mundane or magical. However, the lengths to which she is willing to go to protect her son, and the value she teaches him to place on his own life above the lives of others will have dark echoes down the years. Both characters have understandable motivations, but they have many years yet to be twisted and warped before we encounter the characters we know from Shadow and Bone as Baghra and the Darkling.

Demon in the Wood is developed from a short story that was originally published in 2014 as a bonus item alongside the release of the third Grishaverse book, Ruin and Rising. Like The Language of Thorns and The Lives of the Saints, this is a beautiful edition for fans of Bardugo’s work, but not an essential addition to the main story. Dani Prendergast joins Daniel J. Zollinger and Sara Kipin among the ranks of artists that have done striking work to bring Bardugo’s world alive through their illustrations. Her colours and lines are particularly evocative at depicting Grisha powers in action, from shadow to water and especially ice.

A Taste of Gold and Iron

Cover image for A Taste of Gold and Iron by Alexandra Rowland

by Alexandra Rowland 

ISBN 9781250800381 

“Reciprocity was a thing you had to learn. Someone had to tell you, first, that you deserved to be treated well, before you knew it for yourself.” 

Prince Kadou Mahisti of Arasht has no interest in the throne. It’s more than stressful enough being the brother of the sultan; his older sister, Zeliha, makes a much better ruler for their kingdom. All Kadou wants is to support his family, help his sister take care of their people, and see his niece grow up to succeed his sister as a wise and just leader. Unfortunately, politics pull in even unwilling participants, and something has shifted at court since the birth of his sister’s heir. After a deadly incident during a hunting party, Kadou is assigned a new bodyguard. Evemer is newly promoted to the core guard, the highly trained soldiers that serve and protect the Mahisti royals before rising to become government ministers of Arasht. Evemer has pledged his life to the crown, so he is disappointed to find himself in the service of a prince who seems flighty and unreliable. Nevertheless, he will do his duty to try to help Kadou solve a mysterious break in that may be connected to a counterfeiting ring. Arashti currency is trusted by traders throughout the world precisely because a large percentage of its citizens can touch-taste precious metals, thus making counterfeit coins all but unusable within the country’s borders. Despite their differences, Kadou and Evemer must work together to solve the counterfeiting mystery before it undermines the country’s reputation. 

Throughout the book, Kadou is suffering from extreme anxiety, a condition which seems to have grown worse since his sister became pregnant with her first child, with all the dangers that entails. He is also socially anxious, replaying his interactions with the people around him, and constantly questioning his own capabilities and actions. This was written realistically enough that it was sometimes difficult to inhabit his POV. Additionally, his world does not have vocabulary to describe these experiences where he is struggling with his mental health. Those closest to him are aware of the prince’s strange affliction, which manifests in dizzy spells, and other physical forms. Kadou himself describes it as cowardice. This was hard to read, and while over the course of the book Kadou gains some healthier coping strategies, anxiety is an essential part of his character that cannot simply be healed by a new relationship. In fact, the main relationship is built around Evemer coming to understand that the behaviours he dislikes in Kadou are maladaptive coping mechanisms for a much deeper problem, but one that hides a prince who cares deeply for his country and his people, often at his own expense.  

Despite the court politics set dressing, and the counterfeiting scheme, A Taste of Gold and Iron is largely joyful and tropey and soft. In fact, if you don’t enjoy tropes this is probably the wrong book for you, given that we start out with a prince/bodyguard, enemies-to-lovers romance, and then add in a fake-out make-out, and some hair washing and bedsharing, and really it’s just tropes all the way down. Rowland dedicates the book to “the fanfiction writers, who taught me everything I know— including, most especially, the pursuit of joy,” and that joyful provenance is evident in the writing choices they make throughout the story.  

Beyond the romance, I particularly liked how Rowland handled the development of Tadek’s character, and the evolution of his new relationship with Kadou after their sexual connection comes to an end. We’re getting into mild spoiler territory here, so feel free to skip the rest of this paragraph! Early on, I was concerned that Tadek was trying to build a faction around putting Kadou on the throne, and that he might also be tied in some way to the counterfeiting ring that Kadou and Evemer are investigating. Instead, we get two men learning how to be friends instead of lovers and figuring out how to handle the fact that Kadou has moved on romantically, with someone who is Tadek’s polar opposite. It would have been easy to turn Tadek into a bitter spurned lover out for revenge, but Rowland makes the more complex choice. Tadek and Kadou aren’t good for one another romantically but that doesn’t make them enemies.  

Overall, A Taste of Gold and Iron is much more about the relationships than the mystery plot. In fact, there were several places in the story where relationship building conversations took place in the midst of, and even derailed, significant action beats. However, I think this may be as much a matter of expectations as good storytelling; if you are aware that the writing is prioritizing the development of relationships above world building or solving the mystery, the pacing makes a great deal more sense, and these choices seem less out of place. While this book certainly won’t be for everyone, I had a lot of fun along the way.  

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Mercury Pictures Presents

Cover image for Mercury Pictures Presents by Anthony Marra

by Anthony Marra 

ISBN 9780451495204 

“The money her mother raised bought the false assurances of charlatans. Annunziata knew the bribes were wasted, but when you’re desperate, every open pocket is a wishing well.” 

Once, the Laganas were a prosperous family in Rome, and Guiseppe Lagana was a sought-after lawyer who took his daughter to the cinema every Sunday when his wife thought they were at church. But the rise of Mussolini turned their fortunes, first to unemployment, and then eventually to prison. After her father’s arrest, Maria Lagana and her mother join the tide of refugees fleeing the rise of fascism in Italy. They move to California, where three of Annunziata’s aunts live, running an Italian diner well into their cantankerous old age. Maria finds her way into the film industry, determinedly clawing her way up to be the first female executive at her studio. She is just poised to claim her first producer’s credit when Pearl Harbor draws America into the war, and Maria finds herself and enemy alien in her new home.  

Anthony Marra’s fascinating second novel follows the emigres and outcasts who make up the war-time staff of Mercury Pictures, a second-rate studio always hovering on the verge of bankruptcy under the rivalrous management of twin brothers Ned and Artie Feldman. Since many of the crew are enemy aliens of German or Italian extraction, they are ineligible for the draft, even as many of their American-born colleagues disappear into the war machine. Together, they are charged with making the propaganda pictures that fuel support for America’s war effort, even as many of them left loved ones behind in Europe, often to unknown fates. 

Absent from this group are any Japanese characters, given the internment of Japanese Americans during the war. However, Maria’s boyfriend is Eddie Lu, a Chinese American actor who has been struggling for years to break out of stereotypical bit parts into roles where his talents can really shine. With the onset of war, Eddie is in more demand than ever before—to play simplistic Japanese villains in propaganda films. Eddie has long struggled with the bargain he has made to work in Hollywood as an Asian man, but these propaganda films force a reckoning with his own conscience. Eddie is loosely inspired by Korean American actor Philip Ahn, and his story arc is one of the most poignant aspects of Mercury Pictures Presents.  

While the story is set in Hollywood, it is more fundamentally about displacement, about losing one’s place in the world, and strugglingperhaps futilely—to rebuild it. Again and again, characters are asked to make impossible choices or compromises. One minor character in the story is Anna Weber, who makes a terrible sacrifice in order to be able to leave Nazi Germany and escape to America. Once an architect, she finds a job at Mercury Pictures as a miniaturist. When the military comes calling for her services despite her enemy alien status, I realized with dawning horror the real historical military project that Anna was going to be asked to participate in. Marra blends his fictional characters seamlessly with stranger-than-fiction truths, and the evidence of the research that went into this is detailed in his hefty acknowledgements. The result is a richly layered novel that abounds with interesting historical texture, and characters that feel true to life.  

Also by Anthony Marra:

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

The Tsar of Love and Techno

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