Category: LGBTQIA+

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

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.  

You might also like Winter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell

10 Years of Required Reading: Best YA

Welcome to the last round up for my first decade of blogging! My reading continues to include a lot of YA novels (particularly fantasy) so this category clearly needed its own dedicated post. Here are five of my favourites from the past ten years.

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown

Cover image for The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black

by Holly Black

ISBN 9780316213103

Vampirism is a terrible reality in Tana’s world, a raging epidemic that took her mother, and almost cost her her own life. Vampires who choose to feed without killing their victims have spread the infection like wildfire, and the government has responded by sequestering vampires and their victims alike into Coldtowns across the country. When Tana wakes up in a bathtub after spending a party hiding from her ex-boyfriend, Aidan, she expects to find the usual morning-after chaos. Instead the house is deathly quiet, probably because all of the partygoers have been slaughtered by vampires. But in one of the bedrooms Tana finds Aidan tied to the bed covered in vampire bites, and a vampire named Gavriel shackled to the bedframe. Horribly familiar with the risks of infection, Tana sets out for the nearest Coldtown to turn the lot of them in. The Coldtowns are a mix of decadence and squalor, plotting and trading, where the most powerful vampires are internet reality stars. The glamour lures people into coming voluntarily to the Coldtowns with the promise of vampirism and immortality, but once inside, humans become an invaluable food source, rarely achieving their dreams of eternal life. Tana is willing to go into the Coldtown, but she’s also determined to hold onto her humanity and find her way back out. Holly Black makes the vampire narrative fresh with unique rules for her world, and unusual social consequences. At the same time, The Coldest Girl in Coldtown was clearly written by someone with a deep love of the classics of vampire literature.

Categories: Fantasy

Every Heart a Doorway

Cover image for Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire

by Seanan McGuire

ISBN 9780765385505

A long time ago, a little girl named Ely West found a doorway, and went on an adventure to a Nonsense world, where she was very happy, until one day she was too grown up to tolerate all the nonsense. Now Eleanor West runs a school for other children who have found doorways that led them home, only to be forced back into a mundane world where no one understands what happened to them. No one except Eleanor. The newest student at Eleanor’s school is Nancy Whitman, and she has just returned from the Halls of the Dead. After years spent perfecting the art of stillness for the Lord of the Dead, everything about this world seems too hot, and fast. Her parents insist on things being just like they were before, meaning colourful clothing, regular meals, and dates with boys, even though Nancy has realized she is asexual. So Nancy is sent to Eleanor’s school to recover from her “ordeal,” and there she meets other children who have had the same experiences. But soon after Nancy arrives, someone begins murdering students. So begins the Wayward Children series, which now has seven volumes and received the Hugo award for best series this year.

Categories: Fantasy, LGBTQIA+

Himawari House

Cover image for Himawari House by Harmony Becker

by Harmony Becker

ISBN 9781250235565

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 growing up 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 Magic Fish

Cover image for The Magic Fish by Trung Le Nguyen

by Trung Le Nguyen

ISBN 9780593125298

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 fiction, and 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 Novel, LGBTQIA+

Six of Crows

Cover image for Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo

by Leigh Bardugo

ISBN 9781627792127

Kerch is a land that worships gold and industry, and in this respect the slum rats of the Barrel are no different from the more supposedly more upstanding merchers of Ketterdam. Kaz Brekker has spent years building up the Dregs gang from nothing, creating the Crow Club, and laying a territorial claim to Fifth Harbour. With such a ruthless reputation, it is no surprise that a mercher might approach him with an unusual job, one that cannot be entrusted to just anyone. A Shu scientist has been captured by the Fjerdans, and is being held in the impregnable Ice Court. He holds the knowledge of a new drug, jurda parem, which can take Grisha power from miraculous to unimaginable, with terrible consequences, both for the Grisha, and for the world market. Kaz assembles a crew of his best pickpockets and thieves to travel to Fjerda during the Hringkalla festival, and attempt the impossible—breach the Ice Court, and extract Bo Yul-Bayur, before anyone else gets to him. Six of Crows is the first installment in a duology set in the world of Shadow and Bone. It is an extremely well-paced story, balanced between the past and the present, as well as action and character development. I’d particularly recommend the audiobook, which is performed by a cast of excellent narrators.

Categories: Fantasy

Thanks for celebrating 10 Years of Required Reading with me this week! If you missed the series, you can catch up beginning with a review of my most popular posts.

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

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.

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