Category: Fantasy

Sci-Fi and Fantasy Mini Reviews

Daughter of the Moon Goddess

Cover image for Daughter of the Moon Goddess by Sue Lynn Tan

by Sue Lynn Tan

ISBN 9780063031302

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

As the daughter of the moon goddess Chang’e, Xingyin grows up in exile, her very existence hidden from the vengeful Celestial Emperor and his court. When her existence is discovered, Xingyin must flee the moon palace, descending to the Celestial Realm to make her way alone. There she finds herself in an unexpected friendship with Liwei, a young man who turns out to be the son of her parents’ (im)mortal enemies. As Xingyin learns to harness her magic and serves the very Celestial Kingdom that banished her mother, she holds out hope that by proving herself in the Celestial army, she can win back her mother’s freedom. Daughter of the Moon Goddess is a mythical romance and adventure, in which Xingyin finds herself caught between Prince Liwei, who is promised to another, and Captain Wenzhi, a fellow soldier who has risen through the ranks from nothing. But though her heart pulls her in multiple directions, throughout Xingyin is bound to her familial legacy, hoping to free her mother, and learn her mortal father’s fate. Sue Lynn Tan draws on Chinese mythology in this first volume of the Celestial Kingdom duology, using the legend of Chang’e and Houyi as the basis for her debut novel.

Expected publication: January 11, 2022

Tags: Fiction, Fantasy, Fairy tale retellings

The Jasmine Throne

Cover image for The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri

by Tasha Suri

ISBN 9780316538527

Tasha Suri’s first adult fantasy is dark political intrigue rife with magic. The Jasmine Throne employs a large and complex cast of characters with competing interests, and the point of view shifts frequently. However, the two central characters are Malini and Priya. Malini is a princess of Parijat, but she has been exiled to an outlying province by her brother the emperor for refusing to go willingly to the pyre as a sacrifice to the gods. Priya is a maidservant in the household of Ahiranya’s colonial governor, but once she was something more, a forbidden history that lies dormant and half-forgotten. When the exiled princess is imprison in the Hirana, Priya is among the members of the governor’s household sent to attend her and her jailer. Ahiranya chafes under Parijati rule, but the dissidents do not agree on how to regain autonomy. Ashok leads the guerilla rebels, while Bhumika, the governor’s Ahiranyi wife, has married the enemy to try to keep her people safe from the ravages of life under the thumb of the empire by more diplomatic means. These are subtle politics with no easy answers; everyone thinks that their way is the right way, that they have drawn the right lines in the sand. In the midst of all this, Malini and Priya are drawn into an unlikely romance, but is far from the centre of the story, which focuses around imperialism and colonial politics. The Jasmine Throne is book one of the Burning Kingdoms series, with The Oleander Sword expected to be published in 2022.

Tags: Fiction, Fantasy, LGBTQ+

A Memory Called Empire

Cover image for A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine

by Arkady Martine

ISBN 9781529001587

It has been twenty years since Lsel Station sent an Ambassador to the Teixcalaan Empire, and fifteen years since that ambassador last visited home when suddenly the Emperor Six Direction demands a new Lsel Ambassador. Hurriedly implanted with the outdated imago-machine of her predecessor, Mahit Dzmare arrives at the heart of the empire to find that the former ambassador is dead, likely murdered. Guided by her cultural liaison Three Seagrass, and the shadow of Yskandr provided by his old, possibly sabotaged imago-machine, Mahit must uncover the truth even as Teixcalaan seethes on the edge of a succession crisis. The secret of the imago-machine may be Lsel Station’s salvation, or it’s undoing. A Memory Called Empire provides a unique and well-built world, and a mystery that is steeped in religion, politics, and technology crafted by a writer who knows what she is about—Martine has degrees in history, religion, and city planning. Teixcalaan is a pervasive military and cultural juggernaut with hints of both the Byzantine and Aztec empires, among others. The threat of cultural if not political assimilation looms constantly over Lsel Station. After studying Teixcalaanli language, literature, and history all her life Mahit finally gets to experience the culture she dreamed of, only to confront the fact that to the Teixcalaanlitzim, she will never be more than a barbarian.

Tags: Fiction, Science Fiction, LGBTQ+

Winter’s Orbit

Cover image for Winter's Orbit by Everina Maxwell

by Everina Maxwell

ISBN 9781250758835

On the eve of crucial intergalactic treaty negotiations, the Emperor of Iskat summons her erstwhile grandson and commands him to renew a marriage alliance with Thea after the unexpected death of Prince Taam. Without Taam, there is no sealed alliance between Iskat and the rebellious outlying planet of Thea, and so Kiem must step into his cousin’s shoes and marry his widower. Affable Prince Kiem and reserved Count Jainan make a political match at the emperor’s bidding, but neither is expecting the simmering sexual tension that complicates what should have been a straightforward arrangement. Jainan strives to do his duty to bind Thea to the Iskat empire, while Kiem tiptoes around Jainan’s loss, unsure of exactly how deep the relationship between Prince Taam and Jainan may or may not have been. However, Jainan and Kiem’s public relationship comes under scrutiny when Taam’s death is deemed suspicious, and Jainan is identified as a person of interest. A slowly unraveling political mystery paired with a series of revelations about Jainan’s relationship with his dead husband kept me invested despite the slow burn between Jainan and Kiem. Winter’s Orbit is currently billed as a standalone, but I would absolutely read more in this world.

Tags: Fiction, Science Fiction, LGBTQ+

Canada Reads Along 2021: The Midnight Bargain

Cover image for The Midnight Bargain by C.L. Polkby C.L. Polk

ISBN 9781645660071

“Beatrice didn’t want to hear what she would have if she were a man. She didn’t want to be a man. She wanted to be a magician.”

In Chasland, magic is the realm of men. Among women, only widows and crones can pursue the arcane arts. Married women are locked into warding collars that shield them from magic in order to prevent spirits from possessing their unborn children. Problematic daughters may be collared even before their weddings. Young women with magical talent are valued only as the mothers of the next generation of male magicians. Each year brings bargaining season, when the ingénues descend on Bendleton for a series of balls, parties, and marriage negotiations. Beatrice Clayborn is about to make her debut in desperate bid to save her family from desperate financial straits, but in her heart she would prefer to pursue life as a magician, even if it means being called a thornback. At the beginning of bargaining season, Beatrice finds a grimoire in a bookshop that may hold the key to making the greater bargain with a spirit and staving off marriage forever. But the book is taken from under her by the wealthy heiress Ysbeta Lavan and her brother Ianthe, who have traveled from Llanandras for bargaining season. Ysbeta is as desperate as Beatrice for a solution to the marriage problem, but she will need Beatrice’s help to decode the grimoire.

Ysbeta and Ianthe come from Llanandras, a country with a more liberal policy towards women and magic; women are only shielded during their pregnancies. Nevertheless, their mother has brought Ysbeta to the Chasland marriage mart in hopes of brokering an advantageous alliance for their trading company, regardless of the cost to her daughter personally. Ysbeta would prefer to remain unwed, and as she and Beatrice get to know one another, it becomes clear that her plans for the future involve neither marriage nor children. Beatrice, by contrast, dreams of a world where she can have it all, while her younger sister Harriet has made her magic small in order to focus on her own future bargaining season. I appreciated that the book showed women with a variety of dreams for the future, and centered their right to make that choice for themselves rather than positioning a single outcome as the ideal. Although the book is currently a standalone, I would absolutely read a follow up from Ysbeta’s perspective.

In addition to marriage, The Midnight Bargain also explores the conflicts between women created by the patriarchal system they live under. Beatrice’s own sister betrays some of her secrets to their parents when she believes something bad may have happened to her, only to unleash a worse punishment. When Beatrice and Ysbeta seek help from a network of women magicians, the power wielded by their families and the potential backlash of aiding the escape of two ingénues is deemed too risky for the rest of the network. Both girls are facing potential betrayal by their own mothers, who are shepherding their daughters towards a terrible future. I was particularly curious to know more about Beatrice’s mother, who makes some difficult choices in the course of the narrative that show she is not entirely at peace with her situation despite outward appearances. I particularly liked that Beatrice and Ysbeta became allies rather than rivals, even though their alliance is often an uneasy one since their aims are sometimes at odds.

Ianthe is Beatrice’s love interest, and a more tolerant and liberal-minded young man that she is used to meeting with. For the first time, marriage doesn’t seem quite so unthinkable; Ianthe listens to her ideas and would clearly allow her more freedom than her mother has ever enjoyed. In some ways, however, this complicates the narrative. Beatrice would be free to hate a husband she took only to save her family. If she managed to make the greater bargain with a spirit and become a fully-fledged magician, she would never regret passing up the chance to wed any of the local men. Ianthe represents a compromise she must decide if she can make without coming to hate him, or herself. C.L. Polk adds depth to their relationship by acknowledging the sacrifice Beatrice would still be making in marrying Ianthe; though he might seem the obvious choice, it would still represent a loss of Beatrice’s freedom and self-determination to place the key to her collar in his hands.

The Midnight Bargain was defended on Canada Reads 2021 by Olympian and broadcaster Rosey Edeh. She touted her selection as an immersive narrative appropriate for a wide range of readers, and also highlighted the fast pacing and linear narrative as benefits in a time when many of us are stressed and distracted. However, she also urged readers to look to the complexity beneath the surface, for a story about race, magic, complex friendships, and self-determination. The book has a subversive undercurrent that might initially be missed beneath the romance, magic, and world building, creating a richly layered story.

Day Two of the debates opened a round table format that allowed each defender a one minute opening statement, followed by a discussion of their books by the other panelists. Each defender was then given a thirty second closing before the votes were cast. The Midnight Bargain first came under fire from Devery Jacobs, who also spoke against the book on Day One. She argued that the book had some problems with repetition that made her feel like the author was spoon feeding her. Edeh’s rebuttal focused on the importance of repetition and reinforcement in a journey of the mind where the character is setting herself against society in order to achieve what everyone says is an impossible goal.

Roger Mooking’s criticism of the book focused more on the believability of the fact that Beatrice would give up the grimoire to Ysbeta in the bookshop, the inciting incident for the entire narrative. He felt that this was implausible, while Edeh argued that this moment, in addition to setting up the conflict, is a powerful illustration of Beatrice’s social training, the very thing that she needs to overcome in order to reach her goal. She is keenly aware of the problems her actions may cause her family, and also of the power imbalance between the Clayborns and the Lavans in terms of both their wealth and their station in society. That she concedes in this moment both kicks off the story, and provides an important act of world-building while helping us understand her character.

When the time came to cast the ballots, Devery Jacobs and Paul Sun-Hyung Lee voted against The Midnight Bargain, with Lee citing the fact that he felt it was the type of story he had read many times before. Devery Jacobs had also voted against the book on Day One. Both Rosey Edeh and Roger Mooking cast their votes against Jonny Appleseed by Joshua Whitehead, creating a tie between two books. Scott Helman, who initially voted against Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots, was called in to be the tie breaker. Helman was a free agent today after the elimination of his pick, Two Trees Make a Forest, on Day One. Citing the fact that he became a little bit tired with the Regency aspect, and the wealth of the characters, he elected to eliminate The Midnight Bargain, making it the second book voted off of Canada Reads 2021.

You might also like Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho

Howl’s Moving Castle

Cover image for Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jonesby Diana Wynne Jones

ISBN 9780062244512

“What an outspoken old woman you are! I’ve reached that stage in my career when I need to impress everyone with my power and wickedness. I can’t have the King thinking well of me. And last year I offended someone very powerful and I need to keep out of their way.”

All the residents of Market Chipping have heard of the terrible Wizard Howl, whose moving castle lurks over the hills and moors surrounding the town. The Wizard Howl is a terrible fiend known for stealing and eating the hearts of young girls. Sophie Hatter is the eldest of three daughters, and everyone knows that in fairy tales the eldest is doomed to meet the worst fate, while the youngest has all the adventures and marries the prince. Sophie tries to tell herself she is resigned to her fate, sewing hats in her father’s shop. But when she accidentally runs afoul of the Witch of the Waste, Sophie leaves home to seek her fate, despite being the eldest daughter. Cursed to look like an old woman, Sophie seeks out the moving castle, and strikes a bargain with Howl’s fire demon that will have far reaching consequences.

Howl’s Moving Castle is perhaps my favourite Studio Ghibli movies, so it is a bit surprising that it took me this long to get around to reading the book it was based on, which was originally published in 1986. Part of the appeal of this narrative is Sophie, a strong-willed character, but one who has been hiding her opinions and forcefulness behind the polite, timid façade expected of a young woman and dutiful eldest daughter. The witch’s curse, which transforms Sophie into an old woman, frees her from much of that expectation, allowing her character to come through more strongly. Diana Wynne Jones writes that “as a girl, Sophie would have shriveled with embarrassment at the way she was behaving. As an old woman, she did not mind what she did or said. She found that a great relief.” She is well-matched against the tumultuous and mercurial Howl in temperament, and her new life also frees her to discover her own magic.

One of my favourite aspects of the novel was the emphasis on the portal fantasy, including Howl’s connection to our world. As in the film, the castle has four entrances, each in a different physical location. In the book, but not the movie, the black door leads to our world, specifically to Wales, where Howl—aka Howell Jenkins—has left behind his sister, niece, and nephew. The addition of Howl’s family adds an important dimension to his character, and provides an angle of attack for the Witch of the Waste that is missing from the film. This eventually leads to a confrontation with the witch’s fire demon, the source of her power, and possibly also the cause of her wickedness. Overall, the witch’s storyline is more satisfying and coherent in the book as a result of these developments.

The book has room to flesh out characters and subplots that were cut from the film, including Sophie’s family as well as Howl’s. In the book, Sophie has two sisters, one apprenticed to a baker, the other to a sorceress, while Sophie stays at home to inherit the hat shop. Their father dies early in the story, leaving Sophie, her sisters, and stepmother to pick up the pieces. The book also develops a variety of connections between the characters, such a romance between Howl’s apprentice Michael—who is a teenager rather than a young boy as in the film—and Sophie youngest sister, Martha. Miyazaki’s film did excellent work with the source material, but the extra layers of detail and character development allowed for in the book add something to this whimsical and endearing story that is now hailed as a forerunner to modern British fantasy.

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You might also like:

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire

Over the Woodward Wall by A. Deborah Baker

Wicked Fox

Cover image for Wicked Fox by Kat ChoKat Cho

ISBN 9781984812353

“Gu Miyoung’s relationship with the moon was complicated, as are most relationships centered around power.”

Gu Miyoung has recently moved to Seoul with her mother, and started school as a perpetual transfer student. Miyoung is half-human, half-gumiho, the nine-tailed fox spirit of legend, which preys upon men in order to retain immortality. Miyoung is used to being a loner, but something goes wrong her very first hunt in Seoul, when she encounters a dokkaebi, a sort of goblin. Only the interference of a human boy helps her save herself, although she also saves the boy. But in the fight, she expels her yeowu guseul, the fox bead that is the essence of the gumiho. The boy, Anh Jihoon, touches the bead, forging an unintentional connection between them. Miyoung hopes that she can ignore the boy, and focus on figuring out how to reabsorb her bead, but then she lands in class with Jihoon, forcing them to face their newfound connection.

Parent-child relationships form an important part of Wicked Fox, and Miyoung has long had a rift with her mother, Gu Yena, over the method of feeding that keeps gumiho alive. Yena extracts the life force, or gi, from men by consuming their livers. Miyoung will only hunt on the full moon, when she can siphon the gi painlessly from her victims, sparing them a violent death even if she must take their lives. She has also secretly begun selecting her victims with the help of a shaman, who can commune with ghosts, and help lay those hungry spirits to rest by having Miyoung avenge their deaths, ensuring that her victims are only the vilest of men. Still, Miyoung is not at peace with what she must do to survive. Although she has trusted her mother implicitly for most of her life, Miyoung cannot tell her the truth about what has happened with her yeowu guseul without putting Jihoon’s life in danger; Yena would not hesitate to eliminate him for knowing too much. Miyoung tries to solve the problem on her own, but she is limited by the secrets that her mother has been keeping from her.

Wicked Fox intersperses the narrative chapters with mythological interludes on the history of the gumiho in general, and Gu Yena in particular. Author Kat Cho engages with the complexity of the gumiho legend, and how it interacts with beliefs about women’s sexuality. When Jihoon asks his halmeoni how the gumiho became evil, she replies that “men fell in love with gumiho because they were beautiful. Then they blamed their adultery on the creatures instead of accepting their own mistakes. Maybe it happened often enough that it became normal to say gumiho lured men into cheating on their wives.” Cho also includes a chonggak dokkaebi, a male goblin that attracts women in a similar way, balancing out the mythologies.

Although Miyoung and Jihoon form a romantic attachment, Wicked Fox is about interpersonal relationships in many forms. Jihoon has a close relationship with his grandmother, but is estranged from his mother, who abandoned him when he was young, and eventually started a new family. He also contends with how the secrets he keeps for Miyoung impact his friendships with his human friends Changwan and Somin. Cho cautions that “love and lies do not mix well,” and this plays out again and again across all kinds of relationships. For her part, Miyoung has only ever been allowed to be close to her mother, but she is drawn into Jihoon’s group at school despite her efforts to keep them at arm’s length. Miyoung sees her own monstrousness in the things she must do to survive, but fails to consider that “isolation is the enemy of humanity. Loneliness is a threat to empathy.”

Wicked Fox builds to the climax I was expecting by the midpoint of the book, then takes a turn for the second half, widening in scope. The ending is left open for a sequel that explores the consequences of the choices Miyoung and Jihoon make, and the losses they have endured.

Spin the Dawn

Cover image for Spin the Dawn by Elizabeth Lim by Elizabeth Lim

ISBN 9780525647010

“You will hold the seams of our family together, Maia. No other tailor in the world can do that.”

As the youngest child and only daughter of Master Tailor Kalsang Tamarin, Maia knows that she will never inherit her father’s title. Not only does she have three older brothers, but the title cannot be held by a woman in her own right. Nevertheless, Maia is the most dedicated to the family’s trade, while her brothers dream of other things. Then war comes to A’landi, and two of Maia’s brothers are taken, and the third severely injured. After five years of fighting, Emperor Khanujin strikes a marriage alliance with the shansen’s daughter, Lady Sarnai, to bring peace at last. In honour of their wedding, a new imperial tailor will be selected, and Kalsang Tamarin is summoned to the Summer Palace to compete for the position. Too broken by drink and grief, Maia’s father has not sewn in years, while her youngest brother is still recovering from the war, and cannot equal his father’s skill anyway. Disguised as Keton Tamarin, Maia answers the call to represent her family, plunged into a world of imperial politics, and impossible challenges set by a reluctant bride who has been sold by her father in exchange for peace. Only with the help of the Lord Enchanter may Maia have a chance to survive the intrigues of the court and prove her skill as the best tailor in the land.

Spin the Dawn in the first in a duology that follows the trials and adventures of Maia Tamarin. Elizabeth Lim has divided the novel into three parts, including The Trial, The Journey, and The Oath. The first part of the book focuses on Maia’s arrival at the imperial court, and the fierce competition for the position of imperial tailor. The incumbent died under mysterious circumstances, and the selection of his successor is looking to be equally fraught. As the youngest candidate without a reputation of her own, Maia is in a weak position despite her evident skill. She has also drawn the attention of the Lord Enchanter, who may know her secret, or have some other reason for watching her so closely. The other tailors are determined to win the post at any cost, and the Lady Sarnai has no interest in making the competition any easier. In fact, it seems that the shansen’s daughter will do anything to delay her marriage to the emperor. After setting a series of impossible challenges in the competition, she throws down the final gauntlet; the winner must gather sunbeams, moonlight, and the blood of the stars in order to sew the three dresses of the Goddess Amana for the imperial wedding.

Lady Sarnai is one of the more interesting characters in the book, but not one that we get much chance to explore deeply, as she disappears from the narrative when Maia leaves on her journey to gather the materials to make the legendary three dresses of Amana. Honestly, I would have been more interested to see what could have come from an alliance between Maia and Lady Sarnai than the romance that is developed in the second half with Maia and the Lord Enchanter. A fierce huntress with ideas of her own, Lady Sarnai has been betrayed by her own father, who promised never to marry her off. She is reportedly in love with Lord Xina, but has been forced into a marriage alliance instead, with a man who has been the enemy of her people. Biased by the differences of a five year war, she and Maia are set at odds where perhaps they could have been allies.

The second part of the book takes Maia out of the palace to gather the magical materials demanded of her impossible task. She is accompanied by Edan, the Lord Enchanter, who has become an unexpected ally but one she does not know much about or have a great deal of reason to trust. However, she needs his magic and knowledge to accomplish her impossible task. Over the course of their journey, Maia comes to understand the nature of Edan’s binding to Emperor Khanujin, and how he has been forced to serve the throne of A’landi for generations. On the road, the two fall in love as they face the dangers of the Halakamarat Desert, Rainmaker’s Peak, and the Forgotten Isles of Lapzur. They are racing against time, as the Lady Sarnai has declared the dresses must be complete by the time the Red Sun rises on the ninth day of the ninth month.

The final part of the book wraps up the challenge of the dresses of Amana, but opens a new challenge for Maia and Edan, surrounded by the circumstances of his oath, and the consequences of the choices they made on their journey. As I was not particularly invested in their relationship, I think that I will be unlikely to finish this series.

You might also be interested in The Star-Touched Queen 

Over the Woodward Wall

Cover image for Over the Woodward Wall by A. Deborah Bakerby A. Deborah Baker

ISBN 978-0-7653-9927-4

“Are you sure you want an ending? Endings are tricky things. They wiggle and writhe like worms, and once you have them, you can’t give them back again. You can hang them on hooks and sail the seas for sequels, if you realize you don’t like where your story stopped, but you’ll always have had an ending, and there will always be people who won’t follow you past that line. You lose things when you have an ending. Big things. Important things. Better not to end at all, if you can help it.”

Once upon a time, on an ordinary street, in an ordinary suburb, in an ordinary town, two perfectly ordinary children wake up on what should be an entirely ordinary day, only to find themselves on an adventure. Restless and quick, Zib Jones loves messes and surprises, and playing in the woods behind her house. Quiet and steady, Avery Grey is a boy who likes order and polish, and long hours spent at the library looking for the secrets of the universe. Though they are neighbours, these two very different children have never crossed paths, so the paths are about to cross for them, whether they will it or not. Despite being students at two entirely different schools, both children find a mysterious wall cutting through their neighbourhood where it has no right to be, blocking their way to school. On the other side is the Up-and-Under, and the adventure that awaits them there.

Over the Woodward Wall is the middle grade debut of fantasy author Seanan McGuire, writing as A. Deborah Baker (she also writes horror as Mira Grant). Tor describes it as a companion book to Middlegame, one of her books that I have not read yet. In many ways, however, it actually feels like a sibling book to McGuire’s Wayward Children series, but for a slightly younger audience. A wall leads to the Up-and-Under, not a doorway, but what comes next is much of a kind, a portal fantasy with two children on an adventure that is about self-discovery and finding their place in the world(s). This is as much about knowing where you do not belong as where you do, the choices that you make along the way, and the companions that you choose or discard.

Over the Woodward Wall employs a fairly self-conscious narration style, wordy and clever, one that draws attention to the fact that the story is being narrated rather than allowing you to relax into it. Baker does not want you to forget that this is a story, and that stories have rules, even if rules are meant to be broken, or at least interrogated. Although it is like a fairy tale, it is one that warns children against many of the things fairy tales sometimes perpetuate. The Queens of the Up-and-Under are beautiful, but “it is a myth that goodness is always lovely and wickedness is always dreadful to behold; the people who say such things have reason for their claims and would rather those reasons not be overly explored,” Baker warns. Similarly, “sometimes anger is a good, true thing, because the world is often unfair and unfairness deserves to be acknowledged. But all too often, anger is another feeling in its Sunday clothes, sadness or envy or—most dangerous of all—fear,” she cautions.

This book is only two hundred pages, and the ending still came more quickly than I expected, but Over the Woodward Wall is listed as first in a series, so there is likely more to come for Zib and Avery. I’ll definitely be sailing the seas for that sequel.

The Burning God (The Poppy War #3)

Cover image for The Burning God by R. F. Kuangby R.F. Kuang

ISBN 9780062662620

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

“Every day since the end of the Third Poppy War, Rin had learned that her victory on Speer mattered less and less. War hadn’t ended when Emperor Ryohai perished on the longbow island. War hadn’t ended when Vaisra’s army defeated the Imperial Navy at the Red Cliffs. She’d been so stupid to once think that if she ended the Federation then she’d end the hurting.  War didn’t end, not so cleanly–it just kept building up in little hurts that piled on each other until they exploded afresh into raw new wounds.”

Disillusioned with the Dragon Republic, Fang Runin has broken with Yin Vaisra and his Hesperian backers, and returned to the South, seeking new allies among the rag tag armies of the Southern Coalition. Nikan remains riven by civil war, and Rin finds to her dismay that the men who lead the Southern forces are no more willing to put a young woman in charge than their Northern counterparts, no matter if she is one of the last shaman in the Empire, able to call down the Phoenix, god of fire and vengeance, onto the battle field. Unable to trust her supposed allies, Rin will be forced to reach high and low, turning the common people to her cause, while also making dangerous bargains with former enemies as the Hesperian threat looms larger, and Yin Nezha mounts a final clash between the Republican army, and Rin’s forces.

The final installment of R.F. Kuang’s Poppy Wars series follows Rin as she makes the latest in a series of bad bargains with untrustworthy allies who both fear and covet her power. As the last Speerly, and one of only a scant handful of shaman, she is a wild card that can find no comfortable home, and like all of the god-touched, her grip on reality is tenuous at best. The Burning God is a visceral finale that forces Rin into reckoning with the carnage wrought by her rash decisions and shifting alliances, even as she attempts to mentally retreat and wall herself off from the catastrophes Nikan will have to overcome in order to ever have any hope of recovering from the cataclysmic power struggles that have poisoned rivers, flooded towns, laid waste to crops, and displaced large portions of the population. The series maintains a strong military focus, with a series of battles that take Rin and her allies across the empire and back again.

Displaced and defeated, former Empress Su Daji would seem to have no place here in The Burning God, with her empire in ruins and her crown lost. Indeed, I expected a deeper focus on Hesperia, and perhaps an increased role for General Tarcquet or the Grey Company. But in reckoning with the cycle of history, and intergenerational trauma, Kuang brings Daji back in a new capacity, with the deposed Empress as a tantalizing potential source of shamanic power and information for an increasingly desperate Rin. With the power struggle between Rin and Nezha reignited by her break from his father’s Republic, Rin finds herself increasingly interested in the power struggles of the Trifecta, and how the Vipress became the last shaman standing, ruling the Nikara Empire alone. But it remains to be seen if Rin can grasp the cautionary tale of their downfall, or if she will simply succumb and repeat their mistakes in her quest for power. While fundamentally different characters, there are fascinating echoes between Rin and Daji, and their approaches to ruling.

The relationship at the heart of this final volume is the one between Rin and Kitay, her best friend and her anchor, and the one person who has never betrayed her. As she wins victories and gains power, she comes into responsibilities for which she is wholly unprepared, and reliant upon his logistical and strategic talents. Kitay also represents her greatest weakness; without him near, she cannot call the fire, and if he dies, so does she. For an increasingly isolated and paranoid general, such a bond is both a touchstone and a secret to be guarded at all costs. Kitay is also her conscience embodied, her voice of reason, the measured response that counterbalances her impulsive nature and more violent tendencies. In many ways, he is the key that keeps us following Rin deeper into madness; what does he see in her that inspires such loyalty?

Kuang brings her first trilogy to a close as it began, in fire and blood, and with many questions for which there are no easy answers or neat solutions. If Rin and her fiery god win, is tyranny inevitable? If Nezha and Hesperia triumph, does colonization and erasure follow? These are uncomfortable questions that do not lend themselves to a tidy conclusion, and the scope of Nikara history stretches beyond the final page with possibilities that are both tantalizing and terrifying, shadowed by the real Chinese history on which Kuang has been masterfully drawing throughout her epic series.

The Poppy War

The Dragon Republic 

Vampires Never Get Old

Cpver image for Vampires Never Get Old edited by Zoraida Cordova and Natalie C. ParkerEdited by Zoraida Córdova and Natalie C. Parker

ISBN 9781250230003

“There is no one way to write the vampire. After all, a being with the power to shape-shift should wear many faces and tell many tales.”

Vampires Never Get Old brings together a variety of stars from the world of young adult fiction to provide fresh takes on the vampire story, with a particular focus on diversity and inclusion. The collection consists of eleven short stories, each with their own spin on the vampire mythology. To each story the editors add a quick note on the aspects of the vampire tradition used, transformed, or subverted in that tale. The stories include a wide variety of LGBTQ+ and BIPOC protagonists, as well as a fat slayer and a vampire with a disability.

For unique form and dark and creepy vibes, I want to call out “Mirrors, Windows & Selfies” by Mark Oshiro. The story is written in the form of an online diary or blog, but the commenters perceive it as a work of ongoing fiction, which gains in popularity over time. The writer is a young vampire who was born, not made, and although I really hate this trope, I still enjoyed Oshiro’s execution. Cisco has been moved around the country his entire life by his vampire parents, but as he nears adulthood, he begins to question the secrecy and the rules, and wonders why exactly his parents have been keeping him hidden and isolated from vampire society.

Perhaps the most chilling tale is “In Kind” by Kayla Whaley, a dark revenge fantasy in which a disabled teenage girl is murdered by her father, an act which the press dubs a “mercy killing.” Grace then faces the choice about whether to use her new powers to punish her father for what he has done. The story is also notable in that while becoming a vampire makes Grace stronger and more powerful in many ways, it is not able to restore her ability to walk. Her vampirism is empowering, without being a miracle cure for her disability, which is a core part of her identity.

The funniest story belongs to Samira Ahmed, who contributes “A Guidebook for the Newly Sired Desi Vampire.” A brand new vampire wakes up alone in a dark warehouse, and has to undergo Vampire Orientation 101 by Vampersand, a newly minted vampire tech start up for young Indian vampires who have been unexpectedly turned by careless British vampire tourists. Filled with snark and anticolonial bite, this was the only story that made me laugh out loud.

Most of the stories stand alone well, but several had strong potential as novel starters. In particular, I would definitely read a f/f novel with a vampire and a slayer, something that Julie Murphy explores in “Senior Year Sucks,” and which Victoria Schwab also features in her tale, “First Kill.” However, the stand out in this regard was absolutely “The House of Black Sapphires” by Dhonielle Clayton, in which the Turner women return to New Orleans’ Eternal Ward after centuries away. Descended from vampires, but distinct, Eternals can only be killed by Shadow Barons, but none of the Turner girls have ever met one until they return to their mother’s home in New Orleans, and discover that their mother was once in love with a Shadow Baron herself. This story had atmosphere and world-building potential galore, and I would dearly love to read an entire novel set in this world.

Vampires Never Get Olds marks a delightful return to the mythology of vampires, filled with unique tales and fun little extra nuggets. Read through the author bios to find out each contributor’s favourite vampire, and check out the copyright page for a vampire-themed book curse! If like me you’ve been missing vampires, this collection might just quench your thirst, at least for a while.

For more vampires, you might also like:

Urban Fantasy Vampires

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown

Certain Dark Things