Category: Fantasy

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.

MXTX Mini Reviews

Today I’ve got three danmei (m/m romance) novels by Chinese writer Mo Xiang Tong Xiu (MXTX), recently translated officially into English for the first time. All three are also xianxia, a Chinese fantasy genre where the characters cultivate near-magical abilities through meditation or other practices that allow them to direct their life force. One of these novels, The Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation, is the source material for the popular television series The Untamed on Netflix, starring Xiao Zhan and Wang Yibo. Originally published as web novels, they’ll debut in English in multiple installments over the next year, so I’ve covered the first volume of each here.

The Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation

Cover image for The Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation (Mo Dao Zu Shi) by Mo Xiang Tong Xiu

Volume 1 of 5

ISBN 9781648279195

“No matter how thoroughly Lan Wangji was praised as an unrivaled rare beauty, nothing could help the fact they he looked profoundly embittered, as if he had lost his wife.”

Once deemed one of the most talented young cultivators of his generation, Wei Wuxian met a tragic end after he deviated from the orthodox path and invented demonic cultivation in order to put an end to an otherwise unwinnable war, only for his allies to turn against him when peace was achieved. When he is unexpectedly reborn thirteen years later in the body of an abused young man named Mo Xuanyu, he finds himself in the middle of a mystery that has unexpected connections to unfinished business from his first life. To solve the case, he’ll need to work with Lan Wangji, with whom he has a tumultuous history. But unbeknownst to Wei Wuxian, Lan Wangji has many regrets about not standing by Wei Wuxian the first time around, and he won’t allow this second chance to slip away. Mysteries and politics abound, but the real draw here is the complex relationship between Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian. As a self-sacrificing character who is often oblivious to others’ regard for him, Wei Wuxian becomes absorbed in the mystery, refusing to allow himself to confront his feelings for Lan Wangji, or accept that they may have been reciprocated all along. As they work together to solve the mystery, incidents from their past are slowly revealed, eventually forcing a reckoning between the two.

The Scum Villain’s Self-Saving System

Cover image for The Scum Villain's Self-Saving System by Mo Xiang Tong Xiu

Volume 1 of 4

ISBN 9781648279218

“Dying for Shizun or dying together with Shizun, either one is something this disciple will gladly do”

Mo Xiang Tong Xiu’s first novel, The Scum Villain’s Self-Saving System, has a more humourous tone than her other works. In many respects, it is a satire of a certain type of web novel. Shen Yuan is an avid reader of such stories, and he dies cursing the terrible writing of Proud Immortal Demon Way by Grandmaster Airplane Shooting Towards the Sky (a pen name like Mo Xiang Tong Xiu). He awakens within the world of the novel, having being transmigrated into the role of Shen Qingqiu, the evil master of Proud Immortal Demon Way’s protagonist, Luo Binghe. In the original novel, Shen Qingqiu meets a terrible fate. If Shen Yuan wants to survive, he’ll need to find a way to avoid becoming the antagonist. However, he is bound by certain rules of the System, a video game-like structure that governs the changes he is trying to make to the plot of the novel in order to save himself. This book is cracky, snarky, meta, weird, and deeply fannish as Mo Xiang Tong Xiu skewers tropes and upends clichés. The new Shen Qingqiu bumbles through, never realizing that Luo Binghe’s feelings for him are more than a disciple for his master. After all, in Proud Immortal Demon Way, Luo Binghe always gets the girl. Shen Yuan is just hoping not to end up dead.

Heaven Official’s Blessing

Cover image for Heaven Official's Blessing (Tian Guan Ci Fu) by Mo Xiang Tong Xiu

Volume 1 of 8

ISBN 9781648279171

“On the night of Zhongyuan Festival, sometimes when people strolled they might discover a road that never existed before. Such a road should never be taken, because if they walked the wrong one, they would enter the Ghost Realm and never return.”

Mo Xiang Tong Xiu’s most recent novel is also her longest, with a projected eight volumes for this English translation. It’s perhaps no surprise then that I felt this first volume was a bit of a slow start, mainly serving to introduce the vast array of characters. We meet Xie Lian, former crown prince of the lost kingdom of Xianle, when he ascends to the Heavenly Realm for the third time. While it isn’t unusual for a god to fall from grace, to fall and then rise again not once but twice is not just unusual but laughable. Xie Lian is known among the other gods as the Laughingstock of the Three Realms. When his third ascension destroys the palaces of two other heavenly officials, he must descend to the Mortal Realm to investigate a case in order to earn merits to repay his debt. Along the way he encounters San Lang, a mysterious youth who seems to be unusually knowledgeable about everything and unperturbed by even the most unnatural events. If you enjoy novels about gods behaving badly, the officials of the Heavenly Realm are no better behaved than the Greek gods. Shenanigans are afoot, and Xie Lian is about to drag his own messy history right into the middle of the heavenly politics he has spent the better part of eight hundred years trying to ignore.

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

Across the Grass Green Fields (Wayward Children #6)

Cover image for Across the Grass Green Fields by Seanan McGuire.

by Seanan McGuire

ISBN 9781250213594

“Regan had known from the beginning that Laurel’s love was conditional. It came with so many strings that it was easy to get tangled inside it, unable to even consider trying to break free. Laurel’s love was a safe, if rigid, cocoon.”

Regan Lewis only ever wanted to be normal. Unfortunately for her, fate had other plans. Knowing that there is nothing but social ostracism waiting for her back at school after she reveals a secret, she find her doorway to the Hooflands, a realm of unicorns and centaurs perfect for a horse girl like her. But when humans come to the Hooflands, it means something is coming, something that requires a hero. And it is very useful for heroes to have thumbs and fit into small spaces, after all. But the centaur herd that finds Regan looks at her and sees a child, not just a human hero. And so they decide to keep her safe for as long as they can, until her quest presents itself.

Across the Grass Green Fields is part of Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series in that it involves a child going through a doorway to a fantasy world. However, it stands apart in that Regan neither starts nor ends at Eleanor West’s school, and meets none of the series’ recurring characters along the way. It has been suggested that you could reasonably start here rather than with Every Heart a Doorway, but that would mean missing out on a lot of the interconnected structure and logic of the portal worlds. The series is in many ways cumulative, and even entirely separate stories are in conversation with one another.

One of the striking things about this series is that McGuire writes like an adult who remembers childhood viscerally. Not just the fun and the magic, but the vulnerability and confusion, the casual cruelty and fickle whims. The most compelling part of Across the Grass Green Fields is perhaps what Regan goes through before she finds her door, not the adventure that she discovers beyond it. Regan’s playground friendships are fraught, clearly depicting the “strange feuds, unexpected betrayals, and arbitrary shunnings” that many adults seem to have forgotten. In this it reminded me of the complex friendship depicted between Lundy and Moon in the fourth book in the series, In an Absent Dream.

Regan is a people-pleaser, and the only thing she dares to claim for herself is her love of horses. It is not so strange as to get her ostracized by her peers, an acceptable obsession for girls. In everything else, she bends to the whims of her dictatorial best friend Laurel, and tries not to completely lose herself. When Laurel ostracizes their mutual friend Heather for not being the right kind of girl, Regan choses Laurel without hesitation. It is not until Regan finds her door, and meet the centaur girl Chicory that she discovers a friendship that gives and takes in equal measure, and demands that neither party give up parts of themselves for the sake of the other.

Regan’s quest comes late and fast, and is in some ways anti-climactic to the rest of her adventures. She has experienced much of her personal growth in the Hooflands long before she goes to the palace to meet the Queen. This is simply where she proves that she has learned what the Hooflands had to teach her about friendship, destiny, power, and the importance of being yourself.

You might also like Over the Woodward Wall by A. Deborah Baker

Black Water Sister

Cover image for Black Water Sister by Zen Cho

by Zen Cho

ISBN 9780451487995

“Jess didn’t know how much of herself would survive the process, what of her would come out the other side. But you had to die before you could be reborn.”

After nineteen years in America, Jessamyn Teoh and her family are moving back to Malaysia. With a freshly minted Harvard degree, Jess feels like the next chapter of her life should be starting. She should be finding a good job and moving in with her girlfriend, Sharanya. Instead she’s broke, unemployed, and moving into her aunt’s house with her parents, where she needs to remain deeply closeted. The last thing she is expecting when she arrives back in Penang is to be visited by the spirit of her estranged grandmother, Ah Ma, who was in life the medium for the god known as the Black Water Sister. Ah Ma has unfinished business with a local gangster turned real estate developer who plans to tear down the god’s temple to build a condominium tower. She has chosen Jess to be her medium to help her get her revenge on the developer and save the temple. Failure means facing the wrath of the god, but success may be no less costly.

The story begins with the family returning to Malaysia, and Jess’s time in America quickly begins to feel like a different life. Although Jess is in a long-distance relationship, we do not learn much about her time with her girlfriend. Soon, she begins “to feel like she’d made Sharanya up, like she’d never had a girlfriend at all.” This serves to characterize how all-consuming Jess’s situation in Penang has become, but it also leaves the reader with minimal investment in the relationship when Jess’s erratic behaviour begins to cause some strain between them. Sharanya feels even less real to the reader than she does to Jess. Ultimately, however, this is a story that is more about family and history than romance. Jess’s mother has never spoken much about her family, and that silence contains a vast sea of omissions.

Jess has an American brashness about her that quickly gets her into trouble as she tries to navigate the unfamiliar waters of Penang, where bribery and corruption run rampant, and seemingly upstanding businessmen often have dark pasts. Even a simple mechanic can be more than he seems, as Jess discovers when she learns that her mother’s brother is also a spiritual medium, a dangerous and not necessarily lucrative lifestyle. Opposition to the impending condo development lands her uncle first in the hospital and then in jail, and Jess faces multiple beatings and an attempted rape as she becomes more deeply involved in Ah Ma’s vendetta. Through dreams and memories, Jess also shares in the experiences of her grandmother’s hardscrabble life, and the short life and violent death of the woman who would become the blood-thirsty god known as the Black Water Sister.

The standout character of this story is one who is dead before it even begins. Jess’s maternal grandmother Ah Ma has a sharp tongue and a steely core. She is a woman who lived a hard life, and the pragmatism that necessitated has followed her into the afterlife. A little thing like death is not going to keep her from exacting her revenge on Ng Chee Hin or saving the temple from his greed. Ah Ma can also be surprisingly funny. “Sometimes I don’t pay attention lah. You think your life is so interesting meh?” Ah Ma says dismissively when Jess interrogates her about what measure of privacy she can expect when she’s being haunted, and why Ah Ma doesn’t know everything that is going on around them. If you enjoyed characters like Mak Genggang in Cho’s previous work, Sorcerer to the Crown, Ah Ma is cut from similar cloth and has a commanding presence in the story. Powerful, complicated, and determined, she is forced to contend with a granddaughter who has all the same capacities but not necessarily the same priorities.

Black Water Sister is a truly standout fantasy about magic, superstition, and family secrets. Through her time in Penang, Jess learns many things her parents have been hiding from her, even as she is keeping the secret of her own sexual orientation from them. She must contend with her family’s history and her own decision to lie by omission as much as with the gods before she can open the next chapter of her life. It is only by returning to Malaysia that she can confront what has been holding her back.

You might also like Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho

Top 5 Fiction 2021

Although I took a blogging hiatus for much of 2021, I was still reading. This year featured a lot of comfort (re)reads, an unexpected dive into the romance genre, and lots of science fiction and fantasy. Here are my top five fiction titles read or reviewed–but not necessarily published–in 2021. Check back next week for my top non-fiction picks!

Boyfriend Material

Cover image for Boyfriend Material by Alexis Hall

by Alexis Hall

ISBN 9781728206141

Boyfriend Material is a fake dating romance featuring Luc the unmitigated disaster and Oliver the polished barrister. Lucien O’Donnell works for an obscure environmental non-profit but his real problem is his D-list celebrity fame as the son of two estranged rock stars. When the paparazzi snaps a compromising photo, Luc is forced to do damage control with the charity’s stodgy donors; he needs to find a respectable date for the annual fundraiser. Enter Oliver Blackwood, a criminal defense lawyer who also needs a date for a big event—his parents’ upcoming ruby wedding anniversary garden party. The secret sauce of this romance is that under his polished exterior Oliver is, in his own way, just as much of a disaster as Luc, with a string of failed romances behind him and a tense relationship with his family. But their chaos is complimentary, which is perhaps why their mutual friend Bridget has been trying to set them up for years (though Luc insists it is because they are her only two gay friends). I liked this romance so much I read it not once but twice in the last year and enjoyed it just as much the second time through. I’m really looking forward to the sequel, Husband Material, due to be published in the summer of 2022!

Tags: Fiction, Romance, LGBTQ+

The Heart Principle

Cover image for The Heart Principle by Helen Hoang

by Helen Hoang

ISBN 9780451490841

Anna Sun’s life seems to be in free-fall. After burning out in her musical career as violinist following an unexpected bout of YouTube fame, she feels adrift. Then her boyfriend tells her that he wants an open relationship before they decide if they should marry. Steeling her nerve, Anna decides that if her boyfriend is going to sleep around, she can too. And this time she won’t pick a man just because her family approves. The Heart Principle is the third in Helen Hoang’s series of romances featuring people with autism as heroines or love interests; the first was 2018’s The Kiss Quotient. The series is tied together, and love interest Quan Diep is the business partner of Michael Phan, the love interest from the first book. With his motorcycle and tattoos, Quan is nothing Anna’s parents would ever approve of, but when a crisis strikes in Anna’s family, Quan is there for her in ways that are more than she ever could have expected from a fling. In fact, it feels a lot like love. Unlike the other installments in the series, The Heart Principle is written in the first person, lending a heart-wrenching immediacy to Anna’s struggle with her burnout, paralyzing repetitive behaviours, and controlling family. Despite this darker element when I was generally turning to romance for heart-warming fluff, I absolutely ripped through this book, and it may be my favourite novel in the series.

Tags: Fiction, Romance

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 alone 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.

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+

This is How You Lose the Time War

Cover image for This is How You Lose the Time War

by Amal El-Mohtar and 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. 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. 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. The story is told is the form of a novella with alternating points of view, including the letters passed between Red and Blue. It is not entirely epistolary, but significantly so. This is How You Lose the Time War is highly focused on the main characters. The two rival futures are rarely depicted, and the sides little described, so that there is no clear idea of either faction being definitely right or wrong. The war is a vague, nebulous thing, while Red and Blue shine crisp and clear. To say I was obsessed with this book this year is an understatement; I read it twice through and listened to the excellent audiobook as well!

Tags: Fiction, Science Fiction, LGBTQ+

What were your favourite fiction reads during 2021? Any unexpected trends in your reading this year?

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+