Category: Fiction

10 Years of Required Reading: Best Fantasy

Fantasy is easily one of the largest categories on my site, with over 125 posts. So when it came time to make a list of some of my favourite books from the past decade, it’s no surprise that there were a lot! Here are five of the best. In the interest of avoiding duplication, I didn’t include anything that made the Best Fiction list from earlier this week, or that will be on tomorrow’s Best YA list.

Certain Dark Things

Cover image for Certain Dark Things by Silvia Morena-Garcia

by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

ISBN 9781250099082

Domingo is a street kid who scrapes by as a junk collector on the streets of Mexico City, one of the few vampire-free zones in a world that learned in 1967 that vampires are all too real. Domingo is fascinated by the pop-culture lore of these creatures, but he has never seen one until Atl drops into his life. The scion of a powerful northern narco-clan, Atl is on the run after a disastrous clash with a rival clan. Sneaking into Mexico City is risky, but she needs to buy the papers that will allow her to escape to South America. Atl wants to get in and get out quickly and quietly, but she needs a source of blood that will not draw suspicion or attention. Unfortunately, her rivals are much less discreet, and soon the human gangs and cops of Mexico City become aware that vampires have invaded their territory. Silvia Moreno-Garcia pulls together a diverse variety of vampire lore that showcases a deep love of the genre, and is able to incorporate many different traditions. Originally published in 2016, Certain Dark Things briefly went out of print, but it is now available again in paperback!

The City of Brass

Cover image for City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty

by S.A. Chakraborty

ISBN 9780062678102

Despite her abilities as healer, plying her con on the streets of French-occupied Cairo, Nahri has never really believed in magic. But when she stages an exorcism for a disturbed child, she accidentally summons a djinn who claims that she is that last descendant of the Nahids, the former rulers of the hidden djinn city of Daevabad. With murderous ifrits close on their heels, Dara vows to return Nahri to the home of her ancestors. But far from offering safety, Daevabad is a nest of politics that put the streets of Cairo to shame. While Nahri is a canny operator, she is naïve to the rules and traditions of her ancestors. The stand out feature of City of Brass is the complex dynamic S.A. Chakraborty has created between the different magical beings of this world, and even within the ranks and classes of the djinn themselves. In particular, the shafit—part human djinn—are an underclass poised on the edge of revolt. Happily this trilogy is now complete, plus a book of short stories that came out this fall, so you won’t have to wait impatiently for the sequels!

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Cover image for The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

by Neil Gaiman

ISBN 9780062280220

A man returns to Sussex for a family funeral, but instead of attending the reception he finds himself exploring the scenes of his childhood. He is drawn down the old flint lane to the Hempstock farm, a property and a family so old they are listed in the Domesday Book. Sitting by the duck pond, he remembers his childhood friend Lettie Hempstock, who called the pond her ocean. But he also suddenly remembers other darker, more impossible things, things that cannot possibly be true. When he was seven years old, the suicide of a boarder at the edge of this ancient property set off a chain of supernatural events, unleashing a malevolent force convinced of its own beneficence. Magic is rife in The Ocean at the End of the Lane, but explanations are sparse and, for me at least, would only spoil the sense that children know but adults have forgotten. This novel is for those adults who do still want to read about daft things like “Narnia, about secret islands and smugglers and dangerous fairies.” If you were ever a bookish child, and if you’re an adult who still loves tales of unbelievable magic, you don’t want to hear any more about this book. You want to go read it.

Sorcerer to the Crown

Cover image for Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho

by Zen Cho

ISBN 9780425283370

Following the death of his guardian, Sir Stephen Wythe, Zacharias Wythe finds himself Sorcerer to the Crown, and head of the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers, the chief magical body of England. It was Sir Stephen’s dearest wish that Zacharias succeed him, but that does not stop rumours from circulating that Zacharias murdered his benefactor in order to seize the Staff. Worse, sorcerers disgruntled by Zacharias’ sudden rise to power have chosen to blame the ascent of a black orphan to the nation’s highest magical office for Britain’s longstanding decrease in magical atmosphere. Hoping to uncover the reason for the ebb of magic, Zacharias travels to the British border with Faery. Along the way he acquires a traveling companion, one Miss Prunella Gentleman, the mixed-race daughter of a deceased English magician who brought her to England from India shortly before his untimely demise. Prunella causes Zacharias to question the Society’s longstanding prohibition on women performing magic, for this untrained young woman may be the most powerful magician he has ever seen, and hold the key to unlocking the flow of magic into England. Since first reading Sorcerer to the Crown in 2016, I’ve been constantly recommending it to fans of Jane Austen and Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, as well as following Cho’s other works.

The Starless Sea

Cover image for The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern

by Erin Morgenstern

ISBN 978038554123

Zachary Ezra Rawlins is a graduate student who studies video games, but has a passion for story and narrative in all its forms. Visiting the nearly-deserted library between terms, Zachary stumbles across an old book of short stories, an improperly catalogued and mysterious donation to the university’s collection. But what is truly remarkable about this book is that Zachary is in it; the third story perfectly describes a real incident from his childhood, one that he never dared to speak of, let alone commit to paper. Yet here it is, recorded in a book whose publication clearly predates his birth. And if his real story is recorded in Sweet Sorrows, is he to assume that the other stories, of pirates and bees, guardians and rabbits, owls and acolytes are true as well? And what then was recorded on the missing pages that have been torn from the book?  The Starless Sea is a story that is less about individual people than it is about our collective propensity for storytelling, and our need to make meaning, and myth, and symbol into impossibly overlapping confections without beginning or end. It is about our love affair with the concept of Fate, and our fear that it might be real, and the way we both cling to it, and lash out against it. If you love stories more than you love breathing, this is the book for you.

10 Years of Required Reading: Best Fiction

Today marks ten years since I launched this blog with a review of the YA novel The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. Since then I’ve read and reviewed hundreds of books, but for the anniversary I wanted to round up some of my absolute favourites, beginning with fiction. All five books listed below are ones that I’ve read more than once. They stand up to rereading, and make reliable quick picks when someone has asked me to recommend a book as a gift or for their book group.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

Cover image for A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

by Anthony Marra

ISBN 9780770436407

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Sonja escaped from war-torn Chechnya on a scholarship to study medicine in London. But she is pulled back home by the disappearance of her beautiful but troubled sister, Natasha, just in time to be trapped by the outbreak of the first Chechen war of independence. Against all odds, Sonja thrives, taking charge of a decrepit hospital and becoming a surgeon renowned by rebels and Feds alike. Miraculously, Natasha is returned to her, a shattered wreck rescued from a prostitution ring in Italy. They slowly begin to rebuild their lives, only to have them smashed again by a second war, and Natasha’s second disappearance. The story is an exercise in contrasts, filled with exquisite, lyrical prose counterpointed by brutal, senseless violence. Dark and depressing on one hand, and buoyed by hope on the other, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena delivers the highs and lows life under difficult circumstances. Full of beautiful, striking details, this moving and resonant novel captures the heartache of war, and the depths of human resourcefulness. I discovered this novel after meeting the author at ALA Annual 2013, and it is a frequent recommendation for people who like books about sibling relationships.

Station Eleven

Cover image for Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

by Emily St. John Mandel

ISBN 9780385353304

At a production of King Lear in Toronto, Jeevan Chaudhary charges onstage in the middle of the show to perform CPR on lead actor Arthur Leander. Unbeknownst to everyone, this is the last night of the old world; even as the show goes on, recent arrivals on a flight from Moscow are flooding into local hospitals, stricken with the Georgia Flu that only days before seemed like a distant European epidemic. Fifteen years later, Kirsten Raymonde, who played the child-version of Cordelia in that long ago production of King Lear, is a member of the Traveling Symphony, a group of musicians and actors that perform Shakespeare. When the Symphony arrives back in St. Deborah-by-the-Water after a two year absence, eagerly anticipating a reunion with two members of their group left behind there, they find the settlement irrevocably altered. A Prophet has taken over the town, driving many residents away, and bringing the rest under his sway. When the Prophet demands one of the Symphony’s young women to be his next wife, the Conductor and her people flee south into unknown territory. Station Eleven is intricately woven from multiple perspectives and shifting timelines. I first read this book in 2016, when I discovered it on the Canada Reads longlist, but it has taken on a new resonance since the COVID-19 pandemic.

Categories: Speculative Fiction, Canadian

This is How You Lose the Time War

by Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone

ISBN 9781534431010

The future is malleable, shaped and reshaped by agents from rival factions, traveling up and down the threads of history to mold events to suit their own agendas. Red is among the best operatives for the techno-utopian Agency, winning against the agents sent by organic-futurist Garden time and again. But amidst the ashes of what should be her greatest victory, Red senses something amiss, a salvo from a rival operative that will change everything. In the ruins of the battlefield she finds a communication from an agent on the opposing side, one of the most challenging operatives Red has ever gone head to head with, her most worthy opponent. The letter is a taunt, an invitation, a beginning. In the midst of this endless war, Red and Blue strike up a secret correspondence that transcends the central dichotomy of their existence. As they continue to do battle, and exchange their hidden messages, they discover that they have more in common than they ever could have imagined. But what possible future is there two people trapped on opposite sides of a war that never ends? The letters begin with rivalry and taunts, but bend towards intimacy and mutual understanding as the correspondence progresses. Together they meditate on hunger, loneliness, trust and the nature of living out of time. For the first time, they discover what it is to want something for themselves, rather than simply wanting to win. This beautifully written short novel gripped me so thoroughly that I read it twice in a row, and listened to the audiobook as well.

Categories: Science Fiction, LGBTQIA+

The Poppy War

Cover image for The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang

by R. F. Kuang

ISBN 9780062662569

Rin is a war orphan, being raised by the Fang family only because the government has mandated that families adopt such children, and because they find it convenient to use her to help them in their drug smuggling business. Living in the deep rural south of the Nikara Empire, Rin dreams of passing the Keju exam, and traveling north to study at one of the empire’s elite schools. But when her hard work pays off and she tests into Sinegard, the top military academy in the country, Rin discovers that her trials are only beginning. Sinegard’s military and political elite have little time or sympathy for a dark-skinned peasant girl from the south. Desperate to prove herself, Rin unlocks a supposedly mythical power that enables her to summon the strength of the gods, but immortals exact a terrible price. When I received a free ARC of this debut novel from the publisher in 2018, I was more struck by the cover art by Jun Shan Chang than anything else. I had no idea I was discovering one of my new favourite writers, who has since completed the Poppy War trilogy and gone on to write Babel.

Categories: Fantasy

Washington Black

Cover image for Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

by Esi Edugyan

ISBN 9780525521426

Born into slavery on Faith Plantation in Bardbados, George Washington Black has never known any other life. When his master dies, the slaves expect the estate to be broken up and sold off, but instead two brothers arrive, nephews of the old owner. Erasmus Wilde proves to be a cruel man who drives his slaves harder than the old owner ever did. But his brother, Christopher “Titch” Wilde, is a man of science, and while the other slaves on Faith Plantation are doomed to a harder lot, Wash is selected to help Titch with his experiments, and his seemingly impossible dream to launch an airship called the Cloud Cutter. However, being selected as Titch’s assistant will come at a price Wash could never have expected, and their strange, uneven relationship will change the course of Wash’s life forever, for better and for worse. Washington Black is a novel full of adventure and travel, from Titch and Wash’s improbable escape from Faith Plantation, to encounters with bounty hunters, expeditions to the Arctic, and the escapades of cutting edge scientists diving for marine zoology specimens for an ambitious new undertaking. However it is the depth of the characters, and the nuance with which their situations are portrayed that earns this novel a place on this list.

Categories: Historical Fiction, Canadian

Because this could easily have been a list composed entirely of fantasy novels, I’ll be back later this week with a genre-specific list!

The Oleander Sword (The Burning Kingdoms #2)

Cover image for The Oleander Sword by Tasha Suri

by Tasha Suri

ISBN 9780316538534

“Love and love. Like two opposite points she was forever reaching for, stretching her thin. Love for Malini and love for home. Love like a future, and love like sacrifice.”

With a prophecy backing her claim, Malini is determine to wrest the throne of Parijatdvipa from her cruel brother Chandra, even as certain factions of her army would still rather see her brother Aditya wear the crown. With a war of succession inevitable, Malini and Priya are separated by duty and by circumstance. Malini has an empire to secure, and Priya a newly independent Ahiranya to help rule as one of only two thrice-born temple elders. But when a battle goes wrong, and Malini calls Priya to her side to serve as her secret weapon, Priya sets aside her new duties to answer. Their fates and their hearts are still bound, but a battlefield is a poor place for a love story.

The second volume of The Burning Kingdoms trilogy continues to be full of dark political intrigue, spinning out around two central characters whose romance must always take a back seat to their larger destinies. However, their yearning nevertheless permeates The Oleander Sword, even as political events outpace them. As in the first volume, the narrative perspective shifts through a variety of characters, both major and minor. Malini and Priya march on Harsinghar to challenge Chandra for the throne, while Bhumika remains in Ahiranya, once again caught playing diplomat between two factions whose understanding of the world are fundamentally at odds.

Something old is stirring in Ahiranya, and Priya is separated from her home and her people at a critical time, leaving Bhumika to navigate the treacherous political situation alone. In some ways Bhumika continues to have the most unenviable lot; there is no grand love story for her, no easy answers, just an unending series of compromises and the hope that she is doing enough for people, and now for her daughter. Although much of the action takes place outside Ahiranya in this installment, the events that occur there promise to be significant to the culmination of this series. The setting expands to the larger Parijatdvipa, but the troubled relationship between the two nations continues to simmer; Malini’s allies do not trust Priya, and the silence from Ahiranya is deafening.

Even with an army at her back, Malini must still fight against a system that fundamentally believes her place in the rightful order of the universe is to burn willingly on the pyre of the mothers of the flame, for the good of her people and her country. Power comes with a price, as Priya is also discovering. From maidservant to Temple Elder, Priya has never had more power at her fingertips, and yet she is still treated with suspicion by Malini’s other allies. Worse, the price for being thrice-born is becoming increasingly evident—the gods will always take their due. Whether characters are worshippers of the mothers of the flame, the nameless god, or the yaksa the demands of belief are not inconsequential. Tasha Suri’s religious world-building is richly layered and deeply tied to interesting magic systems, yet there is a deep ambivalence about both religious institutions and the powers that enable them.

The Jasmine Throne was one of my favourite books of 2021 and The Oleander Sword is both a fascinating book in its own right and an extremely strong sequel the expands perfectly on both the characters and their world; I can’t wait to see what Suri has in store for us in the finale.

You might also like She Who Becomes the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan

Babel

Cover image for Babel by R.F. Kuang

by R.F. Kuang

ISBN 9780063021426

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher. Expected publication date: August 23, 2022.

“Later, when everything went sideways and the world broke in half, Robin would think back to this day, to this hour at this table, and wonder why they had been so quick, so carelessly eager to trust one another. Why had they refused to see the myriad ways they could hurt each other?”

When his family dies in a cholera outbreak in 1820s Canton, a boy whose 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. Here 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 pursue knowledge and 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.

R.F. Kuang, a Marshall Scholar, studied at both Cambridge and Oxford during her scholarship. An author’s note at the beginning of the book covers what was drawn from real facts about Oxford and its historical setting, and what has been changed or embellished for fictional purposes. From the setting to the subtitle to the myriad footnotes, Babel bears the stamp of an author intimately familiar with the ivory tower. Kuang explores dark academia through the lens of anti-colonialism and the appropriation of non-English languages to feed the exploitative magic of the British Empire.

The magic system in Babel rests on a silver-powered industrial revolution where spells are cast on rare metal by the impossibility of a perfect translation. The friction between an English or Latin or French word and its Chinese or Arabic or Sanskrit counterpart manifests a magical effect when it is embossed on silver and the incantation spoken by someone who is fluent in both languages and can hold that dichotomy in their mind. But language is alive and power shifts; as the European languages share increasing numbers of loanwords, the magical power of translation between them begins to lose its effectiveness. To maintain their power, the government and the academy look to the East, recruiting scholars born to tongues that are uncommon in England. Robin and his unusual cohort of classmates find themselves caught in the crux of this quest for new sources of power.

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. Scratch it, and the overt racism and sexism come bubbling up, and quickly spill over into physical altercations. The first of these occasions happens even before Robin arrives at the university, when his benefactor Professor Lovell beats him brutally for accidentally missing his lessons because he was absorbed in a novel. And then, in his first week at Oxford, Robin meets Griffin, a Babel dropout and member of the elusive Hermes Society. Having concluded that change could not be effected by peaceful means from within the academy, Griffin has vowed to bring down Babel by whatever means necessary, and he wants Robin to help him do it.

Babel bears the subtitle The Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution. This is, then, the story of the radicalization of Robin Swift, who began life in a mansion in Peking, spent his childhood in the alleys of Canton, and found himself in the hallowed halls of Oxford but never quite at home. The story is told predominantly from Robin’s point of view, but each of the other members of his cohort get an interlude at a critical moment. In the end, the traitor is not a surprise, but more of an inevitably, in as much as the reader may wish for it not to be so. The allies, however, are sometimes surprising, adding faint glimmer of hope to this dark historical fantasy.

You might also like:

The Library of Legends by Janie Chang

She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan

Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao

The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

The Library of Legends

Cover image for The Library of Legends by Janie Chang

by Janie Chang

ISBN 9780062851512

“At first, she had found humans’ hopefulness endearing. Valiant even. Now she couldn’t begin to count all the ways they managed to delude themselves.”

 In the fall of 1937, Hu Lian hopes to somehow get from Nanking to Shanghai to reunite with her mother, her only living relative. However, the Japanese bombing of Nanking throws off her travel plans, and instead Lian finds herself evacuating Minghua University with her fellow remaining students. On foot, they will make the arduous trek from Nanking inland to Chengtu, where they will establish an interim wartime campus. The students of Minghua also have a special charge; they will carry with them the Library of Legends, more than a hundred volumes of ancient stories that were once part of a larger encyclopedia. They will need to preserve this heritage while also continuing their education on the road, so that they can become the generation that rebuilds post-war China. However, politics are simmering among the students as old families with Nationalist loyalties come up against the rising ideals of the young Communist Party of China and the journey will not be without its dangers.

The Library of Legends takes place between 1937 and 1938, in the early days of the Japanese occupation of China. The evacuation of the universities of Nanking takes place in September 1937, about two months before the eventual Nanking Massacre. While many young people are joining the war effort, China’s university students are encouraged to preserve the country’s cultural heritage and intellectual future by remaining in school, training to eventually become the generation that will rebuild China after the invaders are repelled. The story is inspired by true events, and Chang’s father was among the university students who made the inland trek to escape Japanese bombers while struggling to continue their educations. However, Chang also brings a fantasy element to the narrative, telling the tale of how gods, spirits, and creatures of legend are making a westward trek of their own to the Kunlun mountains, where the Queen Mother of Heaven has thrown open the gates—but only for a short time. Soon things that were once real will pass into the realm of legend forever, and the world will become a little more mundane.

Using third person point of view, Chang follows Hu Lian, but also her wealthy classmate Liu Shaoming and a number of other characters, including Professor Kang, who is leading their group of students to Chengtu. While I enjoyed both the historical and fantastical plots that commingle in the novel, I struggled with the narration. It created a certain distance from the characters, and also had a tendency to switch at unexpected moments. Sometimes it would focus in on a minor character who had only just walked into the narrative and then leave just as abruptly. In these moments, I felt that Chang was trying to give a glimpse of the broader war experience happening outside the university group, but these additions tended to disrupt the flow of the main narrative. Interestingly, Chang mentions in the author’s note at the end of the book the she struggled with the point of view while writing the novel.

I had expected the book might incorporate myths from the Library of Legends into the story, but Chang only invents the story of the Willow Star and the Prince, loosely based on the Chinese myth of the Cowherd and the Weaver Girl. The Willow Star made a bargain with the Queen Mother of Heaven for her Prince to be reborn again and again, but only if he remembers their love in his new incarnation can he join her in the heavens. Instead of just stories within stories, the fantastical element is actually much more real than what I had been expecting. Among the servants of Minghua University is an immortal being, who has dedicated herself to helping guide the students and faculty to safety, along with their precious treasure. Along the way she meets other immortals, though most of the humans cannot recognize them as such. She carries with her the message that the gates are open, but that when they close, they will close forever. The guardians are leaving this world, and with this comes the melancholy sense that China will never be the same again.

You might also like Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo

She Who Became the Sun

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

by Shelley Parker-Chan

ISBN 9781250621801

“They were two things of the same substance, their qi ringing in harmony like twin strings, interconnected by action and reaction so that they were forever pushing and pulling each other along the path of their lives and towards their individual fates.”

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 after bandits steal the last of their food, she lays claims to her brother’s name, and his fortune, becoming Zhu Chongba, destined for greatness. When the Mongol overlords burn the monastery when 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.

She Who Became the Sun is a loose historical fantasy set in the transition from the Yuan dynasty to the Ming, in the mid-1300s. After nearly a century of foreign rule, the Mongol grasp on China is slipping, with famine and peasant revolts fueling the belief that the Khans have lost the right to rule, known as the Mandate of Heaven. The subtle fantastical elements are drawn from Chinese mythology and folk belief, including Zhu’s ability to see the hungry ghosts that linger in the human world after death.

Zhu Chongba’s chief antagonist, General Ouyang, has something of the stereotype of the devious, scheming eunuch who is preoccupied with what has been stolen from him. For many years he has bided his time as the most capable general of the Prince of Henan, serving the very Mongol overlords who executed his family to the ninth degree, and ended his family line by castrating him. He has fought alongside the Prince’s eldest son as his brother in arms, and his accolades surpass those of the younger son, an embittered scholar who prefers to serve as the province’s chief accountant and administrator. Despite my initial reservations, I found Ouyang to be a complex and fascinating character even in his villainy, particularly when set alongside Esen and Lord Wang to show the different facets of (toxic) masculinity in this world.

Both Zhu Chongba and General Ouyang are grappling with the tension between what they believe to be their immutable fates, and the evidence that they might have agency over their own destinies. 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. Yet Zhu struggles to accept those strengths, worrying that to draw upon them is to attract the attention of the heavens, and have the gods realize that an imposter has slipped into Zhu Chongba’s shoes. 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.

General Ouyang, on the other hand, believes that his is a fate that has always been waiting for him, from the day that the Mongols killed his family. It was a slumbering but inevitable giant, waiting to be roused, and it is Zhu Chongba who has awoken it. For Ouyang—who is more than a little in love with Esen, eldest son of the Prince of Henan—this is an unforgivable catalyst that will harm the only person he cares about. What he fails to realize is that it is his own shame and self-hatred that is the true root of this destruction. His love for Esen is both humanizing and tragic, poisoned as it is by his preoccupation with fate and vengeance.

I was drawn to this novel expecting a Chinese historical fantasy, but in the end the aspect of the story that grabbed me and would not let go was juxtaposition between Zhu and Ouyang, two gender nonconforming characters who recognize one another as being “of the same substance.” They can each see things that the people around them miss with their binary view of the world, but still differ in their ability to accept the ways in which they themselves do not fit in. She Who Became the Sun has a satisfying arc for a single novel, following both characters to pivotal moments in their narrative, but I am also tremendously looking forward to the planned sequel. In addition to following Zhu and Ouyang to their fates, I am particularly hoping to see further development of Ma Xiuying, the daughter of a disgraced Red Turban warlord who marries Zhu after her fiancé also falls from grace. Unfortunately, the sequel currently has no confirmed title or release date.

You might also like The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

Asian YA Fantasy and Romance Mini Reviews

This month my book club is reading books by Asian or Asian American authors. I predominantly picked up YA romances and fantasy that fit this theme, and I’ve gathered a few picks together here, with a focus on East Asian stories.

A Pho Love Story

Cover image for A Pho Love Story by Loan Le

by Loan Le

ISBN 9781534441958

“In different circumstances, this could happen. This is possible in an alternate reality.”

Linh Mai and Bao Nguyen’s families are sworn rivals. For the last six years, their families have operated competing pho restaurants across the street from one another in La Qinta, California’s Little Saigon neighbourhood. But despite the deep enmity, Linh and Bao are curious about one another, and it doesn’t take much to push them together. When open-hearted Bao does a favour for Linh and her family without their parents’ knowledge, it becomes the beginning of a secret friendship, and maybe something more. Soon Bao and Linh are working together on the school newspaper, with Bao writing restaurant reviews that Linh illustrates. Bao has always felt directionless, but through this project he begins to find himself as a writer, while Linh struggles with the knowledge that her parents will never support her choosing a career as an artist, despite her obvious talent. A Pho Love Story is told in alternating chapters, switching between Linh and Bao’s perspectives. Unfortunately I didn’t find that the two had distinct voices, and it was easy to forget whose chapter I was reading. However, I was invested in the family mystery, and learning more about the complicated history that tied Linh and Bao’s families together long before the competing restaurants, sparking a bitter rivalry. Loan Le also excels at food descriptions, and this book made me positively hungry.

Tags: Fiction, Young Adult, Romance

XOXO

Cover image for XOXO by Axie Oh

by Axie Oh

ISBN 9780063025011

“You agreed to share your whole life with your fans, so that they can love you without fear that you’ll disappoint or hurt them.”

Jenny has her future clearly planned out: graduate high school at the top of her class and be admitted into one of America’s best music conservatories before pursuing a career as a cellist. Boys and dating don’t figure into this plan, until Jenny meets Jaewoo at her part-time job at her uncle’s karaoke bar. Jenny spends one whirlwind evening with Jaewoo before he disappears back to Korea and she expects she’ll never see him again. But then Jenny’s grandmother needs surgery, and Jenny and her mother will be traveling to Seoul to help her halmoni through the recovery. Jenny enrolls at a prestigious arts academy, only to discover that among her classmates are the members of the K-pop boy band XOXO—and Bae Jaewoo is the most popular member. Jenny should be focused on her future, and as an idol, Jaewoo is absolutely forbidden to date. In fact, XOXO barely survived a recent scandal when one of Jaewoo’s bandmates was photographed with a girl. Both Jenny and Jaewoo are confined by expectations in their own way, trying to figure out how a music career fits into their future. XOXO was a cute, fast paced romance. However, the effort to keep the pacing brisk did mean that many scenes ended abruptly, with some rough transitions. Events that perhaps should have taken place on page are also passed over with a sentence or two, and the overall effect was somewhat jarring.

Tags: Fiction, Young Adult, Romance

The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea

Cover image for The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea by Axie Oh

by Axie Oh

ISBN 9781250780874

“You claim the gods should love and care for humans. I disagree. I don’t think love can be bought or earned or even prayed for. It must be freely given.”

When Mina sacrifices herself to save her brother and the girl he loves, she finds herself in a palace beneath the sea, home of the Sea God. Every year, Mina’s kingdom has sacrificed a bride to the Sea God, searching for respite from the storms that have plagued the coast for the past hundred years, but every year the storms return. Perhaps Mina can finally be the true bride who breaks the Sea God’s curse, and saves her kingdom. But caught in the realm between life and death, Mina instead finds herself a ward of Shin, the Sea God’s right hand man and most trusted protector. Still determined to find a way to help her people before her limited time in the spirit realm runs out, Mina must contend an implacable man who blocks her at every turn. The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea is based on a Korean folk tale, however that story is about Shim Cheong, the dutiful daughter. Oh’s retelling is told in the first person by Mina, who makes the rebellious choice to save Cheong, who she regards as a sister, and give her a future with Joon, Mina’s older brother. Mina becomes the heart of this new story, rising to the unexpected challenge she faces, and using her voice a storyteller, which also allows Oh to weave in other Korean myths.

Tags: Fiction, Fantasy, Young Adult, Fairy Tale, Romance

An Arrow to the Moon

Cover image for An Arrow to the Moon by Emily X.R. Pan

by Emily X.R. Pan

ISBN 9780316464055

“Her parents’ expectations had become a paperweight, and she was meant to hold still, nearly flattened.”

Emily X.R. Pan’s second novel is Romeo and Juliet meets the Chinese legend of the moon goddess Chang’e and the hunter Houyi. Pan blends the two tales together, along with nods to the 1996 Baz Luhrmann film. Luna Chang and Hunter Yee have grown up in Fairbridge, where their fathers are academic rivals at the local university. However, the enmity between the two families seems to run deeper than mere professional rivalry can explain. Both the Changs and the Yees come from Taiwan, but have differing stances on Taiwanese independence. An Arrow to the Moon is set in 1991, seventeen years after the Terracotta Warriors were unearthed in Shaanxi, an event with magical significance for Luna and Hunter, who were born on the day the tomb was opened. When Hunter and Luna accidentally meet at a party, the world shifts beneath their feet—literally. Things begin changing in Fairbridge, first manifesting as mysterious cracks in the ground. Hunter’s tense relationship with his parents grow more fraught, while Luna learns that her mother has committed an unforgivable betrayal. As their relationship grows, it threatens to unearth family secrets, call in old debts, and unleash a magic that was never of this world.

Tags: Fiction, Fantasy, Young Adult, Fairy Tale

The Empress of Salt and Fortune

Cover image for The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo

by Nghi Vo

ISBN 9781250750303

“History will say that she was an ugly woman, but that is not true. She had a foreigner’s beauty, like a language we do not know how to read.”

This last title isn’t YA but I read it as the same time as the others and it fits thematically! The Empress of Salt and Fortune is the first in a series that will follow the 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 chose 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: Fiction, Novella, Fantasy, LGBTQIA+

You might also like:

The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao

Daughter of the Moon Goddess by Sue Lynn Tan

Where the Drowned Girls Go (Wayward Children #7)

Cover image for Where the Drowned Girls Go (Wayward Children #7) by Seanan McGuire

by Seanan McGuire

ISBN 9781250213624

“She did not look back and she did not cry. For the first time in her life, she was leaving a place she loved because she had chosen to do so, and there was power in that.”

Many children who come back through their doorways seek to find them again. They struggle to fit into a mundane world that does not believe the doors are real at all, that any memories they might have of other worlds are simply fantasies built to repress unspeakable trauma. These misfit children find a home at Eleanor West’s School for Wayward Children, among those who also hope to find their way home once more. But there are other children who really do want nothing more than to forget what they saw on the other side of their doors, to reintegrate into their home world and forget their travels ever happened. These children belong to the Whitethorn Institute, where the headmaster promises his wards that he can help them forget, so that they can become useful members of society once more.

The seventh book in Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series opens on Cora Miller, who is back at Eleanor West’s school after her adventures with Kade and company in Come Tumbling Down. The Drowned Gods continue whispering to her, threatening to pull her back to the Moors. And worse, Cora is that afraid that even if her own door ever comes back for her, she would pollute the beautiful world of the Trenches by letting the Drowned Gods follow her there. After months of nightmares, Cora decides that she needs to try something different. In desperation, she requests a transfer to the Whitethorn Institute, which Eleanor reluctantly grants. When Cora departs like a thief in the night, she never expects to see any of her traveling companions again.

At the Whitethorn Institute, Cora hopes to find a way to weaken the Drowned Gods hold on her. And while she does find that, the methods are extreme, and she also discovers a sinister institution that is crushing the spirits of its inmates. Here we encounter Regan Lewis, the protagonist of Across the Grass Green Fields, who is now an inmate of Whitethorn. On the verge of graduation, Regan breaks down, causing Cora to question the Whitethorn method, and what is really happening at the Institute. But to unravel the mystery she will need allies, something extremely hard to come by in an authoritarian school that enlists students to police one another. Fortunately for Cora, one of her former classmates has followed her to Whitethorn, determined to extract Cora from its clutches and bring her home. Their investigation hints at a possible larger conflict between the schools that may have profound implications for the rest of the Wayward Children series.

New to the Wayward Children series? Start here with Every Heart a Doorway.