Category: Fantasy

The Everlasting Rose (The Belles #2)

Cover image for The Everlasting Rose by Dhonielle Clayton by Dhonielle Clayton

ISBN 978-1-4847-2848-2

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

“What is the truth in Orléans?… You and your sisters spent your entire existence altering appearances, shifting reality, catering to the most shallow whims. The birth of this world came out of a rotten, poisonous seed—and now, the framework is laced with it. Everyone spends all their time trying to look like something else. The masses will believe what is presented to them, as long as it is compelling and beautiful. Thanks to you, they no longer have any idea what’s real—what’s true.”

Camille, Edel, and Rémy are on the run from the tyrannical Princess Sophia, soon to be crowned Queen of Orléans, unless they can find the rightful heir, the recently awakened Princess Charlotte. Sophia claims her sister is dead, and that she will present her body to the court before her coronation, but Camille has to believe that she is still alive, and she knows that the dead Queen Celeste would not want her cruel younger daughter to inherit the crown. But it seems impossible that they will find Charlotte before Sophia’s ascension, and the scheming Princess is already hard at work ensuring that new imperial decrees will make it almost impossible to unseat her once she is crowned. A resistance movement is afoot in Orléans, but can the Belles really make common cause with the Iron Ladies, a group of women who reject beauty treatments altogether in favour of living with the gris?

I was excited to return to Orléans, but reading The Everlasting Rose reminded me that while I mostly enjoyed the world of The Belles, I was still upset about Claudine’s fate, as she was by far my favourite character in the first volume. Claudine’s lover, Violetta, reappears here, and it did seem at first as if Clayton was going to cast her as the grieving avenger with a grudge against Camille. Fortunately she does not significantly pursue that tired angle. However, there were a couple more deaths that felt engineered for heavy-handed melodrama, in ways that seemed merely intended to traumatize Camille. I was more interested in the parts of the book that explored the origin of the Belles, the calcifying control over their traditions, and the possibilities for a different future. In short, the society, rather than the plot, grabbed my attention.

With the remaining Belles either captured or on the run, The Everlasting Rose relies heavily on interjected new snippets to convey what is going on elsewhere in Orléans, and keep both the reader and the rebels apprised of Sophia’s machinations. Of course, the news nets are not entirely to be trusted, as Sophia manipulates certain outlets to her own ends. Only the underground newspapers can fully defy her censorship. While the first book was set mostly at court, the second volume is free to range over Clayton’s world, to explore the other cities and teahouses, and the shadowy corners no regular Belle would ever have a chance to see. This tour also incorporates a few fun nods to Clayton’s colleagues, including a peacock named after her Tiny Pretty Things coauthor, and a millinery named for Justine Larbalestier.

I expected the Iron Ladies to play a more significant role in the story based on the plot description, but they do not feature in the early parts of the book. It is only later that they form an uneasy alliance to depose Sophia, and set Charlotte in her place. But ultimately, the Belles and the Iron Ladies have different goals, and different visions for the future of Orléans, and I expect we will get to see this dynamic play out further if this series gets another installment. Currently, no third book has been announced.

You might also like Tiny Pretty Things by Dhonielle Clayton and Sona Charaipotra

Slayer

Cover image for Slayer by Kiersten White by Kiersten White

ISBN 978-1-53440495-3

 “And that’s my struggle, the truth of my life among the Watchers, growing up and aiding a society that exists because of Slayers: I hate them. What they are, what they do. And I hate none of them as much as I hate Buffy.”

When Buffy destroyed the Seed of Wonder, magic went out of the world. The hell mouths were sealed, cutting Earth off from the infernal realms. But the demons who were on Earth when the portals closed are now trapped here forever. Some latent magic still remains; vampires have not stopped existing, though they can no longer properly sire new vampires, and all of the Potentials who became Slayers still have their powers. Nina is the last Slayer, her powers activated in the final moments before magic left the world forever. And as the daughter of Watchers, this is the last thing she ever could have wanted. Because Nina hates Slayers, and Buffy in particular. Her father died serving as Buffy’s first Watcher, after all. Buffy is the Slayer who rejected the Watcher tradition Nina was raised to respect and uphold. And Buffy is responsible for destroying magic, taking away what little power the remaining Watchers had to protect themselves in this brave new world.

The group of young Watchers that form the cast of Slayer are among the last survivors of the ancient organization that has watched over the Chosen One for generations. There are a handful of older Watchers, forming what is left of the Council, and a few very young children, but teens Nina, Artemis, and Rhys, along with the slightly older Honora, Leo, and Imogen make up the bulk of the survivors. Together, they form the Watcher version of the Scooby Gang, figuring out how to fight evil and stay safe in a world that is somehow no less dangerous for magic’s passing. The once-warded Irish castle they now call home has been stripped of its protections, vengeful demons might be lurking anywhere, eager for a bit of revenge, and the end the Watcher line forever.

I think some people will probably find Nina’s hatred of Buffy off-putting, because it is an intense and ill-founded dislike of the character at the heart of this universe. However, it felt like a genuine and honest motivation for someone who has never actually met the Slayer in person, but has suffered for her choices nevertheless. Buffy and other characters from the original canon do not appear directly, but do make various cameos by way of mention, as well as dream sequences. Wesley’s status as a fallen Watcher working for a vampire detective, for example, is the butt of many jokes. Nina also has her own characterization and backstory beyond hating the Slayer. She has carved out a place for herself as healer, since she has never been deemed strong enough for proper Watcher training, while her twin sister Artemis is more of the warrior. Her relationship with her mother is fraught, but she is tight with her sister, and her best friend Rhys

The tone of the book is very much in keeping with the middle seasons of the show, where Buffy was about the same age as Slayer’s protagonists. Kiersten White is on point with the quippy dialogue and off-beat humour in the face of danger that characterized the show’s writing style. The camp and melodrama counter-points the typical teen angst of the Buffyverse, making for a familiar return to a beloved world, even if the characters are different.

Sorcery of Thorns

Cover image for Sorcery of Thorns by Margaret Rogerson by Margaret Rogerson

ISBN 9781481497619

“She would never dare give voice to such a thought aloud. The sentiment verged on betraying her oaths to the Great Library. But a part of her rebelled against the idea that in order to be a good apprentice, she should close her eyes and pretend she hadn’t seen. How could a warden defend against something they didn’t understand? Surely it was better to face evil than cower from its presence, learning nothing.”

As a child of the Great Libraries of Austermeer, orphaned Elisabeth Scrivener has been raised surrounded by the magical grimoires that house the arcane secrets of the kingdom. Since sorcery is only possible via demonic bargain, magic users are necessary to the security of the kingdom, but also suspect, and never to be trusted. Librarians and their apprentices, like Elisabeth, tightly control access to magical knowledge, and are responsible for containing and protecting the most dangerous books. Worse, if a grimoire is a damaged, it can transform into a violent Malefict, wreaking havoc until it is bound or destroyed. When a disaster at the Great Library of Summershall forces Elisabeth to ally with the taciturn young sorcerer Nathaniel Thorn, and his demonic servant, the precepts of the Great Libraries are called into question, with the fate of Austermeer hanging in the balance.

In Sorcery of Thorns, Margaret Rogerson has created a tantalizing world, both filled with magic, and where magical knowledge is forbidden, with the practice of sorcery tightly controlled by law. But while sorcerers are dangerous, they are also powerful, and the checks and balances of power in such a world make for intriguing politics. Who gets access to knowledge, and who gets to decide? What have the old magical families kept in reserve, even after the Reforms that stripped them of the right to practice their craft freely? Elisabeth does not come from one of the old sorcery families; in fact, she has no family at all save for the Warden who chose to raise her in the Great Library. As a young, non-magical woman, she has very little power, and even less credibility, making her quest to discover what really happened at Summershall all the more difficult.

Fortunately, of course, Nathaniel Thorn has the power and prestige that Elisabeth lacks, though he has tried his best to remain aloof from the politics of Austermeer’s magical elite. With all his relatives dead, he has largely cut himself off from society as much as he can get away with while still serving his duty as a sorcerer to the crown. Elisabeth’s problem is to convince him to let down his walls, and forge an alliance with her, even as she is uncertain whether or not she should be trusting any sorcerer. Her circumstances leave her with little choice, but it is a constant tension that defines the course of the narrative. Keeping company with Nathaniel changes not only her idea of the world they live in, but her conception of herself and what she imagines for her future.

The third point of the triad at the heart of Sorcery of Thorns is Silas, the hereditary demon of the Thorn clan. The names of high demons are passed down from father to son, and when the father inevitably pays the price for his bargain, it is the duty of the son to recall the demon, and continue the family’s legacy and duty to the kingdom, whatever the personal cost. Demons are to be trusted even less than sorcerers, but something about Silas seems different from the other high demons Elisabeth encounters after she travels to the capital. However, the more time she spends with Nathaniel and Silas, the more she learns about the terrible price the Thorns have paid to keep him bound into their service over the centuries.

Sorcery of Thorns has not been billed as a series, and it contains a strong standalone plot that is concluded within the volume. The magical setting results in a thoroughly immersive reading experience, and Elisabeth’s stubbornness and curiosity make for a heroine who is inevitably going to push boundaries and ask hard questions as she outgrows the world of her childhood. Mix in some romance, action, and intrigue, and you have the recipe for a fascinating read.

You might also like Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho

Flamebringer (Heartstone #3)

Cover image for Flamebringer by Elle Katharine White by Elle Katharine White

ISBN 978-0-06-274798-3

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

 “You humans with your saints and heroes. Learn the truth as I did, both you and your husband: they will always disappoint you. If Alastair returns to Pendragon a wiser man for my honesty, then I will have done some good. It is all I have left to offer House Daired.”

Weary and disenchanted by their adventures in the north of Arle, Aliza, Alastair, and Akarra return south bearing a dire warning. Their old enemy Wydrick lives, ghast-ridden and merely the harbinger of a greater evil yet to come. Old things are stirring in Arle and abroad, and war is coming. The Silent King of Els is coming to Edonarle, even as the Tekari range ever further southward, terrorizing the towns and villages in their path. But will either the dragons or the human rulers of Arle listen to their warnings, or it will it be up to the Daireds to mount a lonely defense against the old grudges that are finally being called to account?

While Heartstone began as a Pride and Prejudice adaptation, by the third volume that scaffolding has largely fallen away, as Flamebringer is well beyond the bounds of that plot, leaving only the characters to hint at the origins of the tale. The story becomes about grappling with history and tradition, both for Aliza and Alastair personally, and the Kingdom of Arle as a whole. The return of Tristan Wydrick forces both Aliza and Alistair to face up to their previous relationship to him, and the social disparities that led him down his current path. As the plot develops, it becomes evident that Wydrick’s fate ties back to old Daired secrets, which House Pendragon has wilfully forgotten, but other still remember, and do not forgive. House Daired is an old power in Arle, but on what foundation was that power built?

After setting Dragonshadow in the north of Arle, and separating Aliza and Alistair from their family and friends, Flamebringer returns south, catching up with the Bentaine sisters, as well as Julienna Daired and Cedric Brysney. Bearing dire news about the war to come, Aliza hesitates to share all of her misadventures in the north with her sister, even though she is delighted to be reunited with Anjey. Their reunion sparks doubt in Aliza, as she realizes that Anjey has embraced the identity of Rider as her own, training and fighting alongside her husband. Still more healer than warrior, and attuned to the fact that Rider culture will never fully accept her, Aliza has a harder time leaving her old life behind as she tries to settle into the new one. Together the two form an interesting contrast in adapting to a new culture, and new life circumstances. The complex relationships depicted between the sisters remain one of my favourite aspects of the series.

Dragonshadow (Heartstone #2)

Cover image for Dragonshadow by Elle Katharine White by Elle Katharine White

ISBN 978-0-06-274796-9

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

“I won’t play this game. Aliza is your wife, not your servant. You can’t dismiss her and you certainly can’t slip away in the night without telling her. Frankly, I’m a little ashamed to see you try.”

The Greater Lindworm is dead, and Aliza Bentaine and Alistair Daired are happily wed and settled at House Pendragon. But only a couple of weeks into their honeymoon, reality has come calling. The Tekari continue to wreak havoc on the Kingdom of Arle in the aftermath of the Battle of North Fields, and the offers for Alistair and Akarra to take a new contract are mounting. The question of which contract to accept is settled when a desperate messenger from the far north of the kingdom collapses on their doorstep, bringing news of a threat that hunts Idar, and has now begun to claim human victims as well. But as Alistair and Akarra prepare to travel north, Aliza is determined not to be left behind

The second installment in this series follows on Heartstone, which could be best described as Pride and Prejudice with dragons. However, Dragonshadow stands alone, having left the parameters of the original scaffolding story behind. I was curious to see if White would try to pull in another narrative, perhaps using elements of a different Austen story, but Dragonshadow instead delves deeper into the fantasy elements to explore the fallout of the Battle of North Fields. Old, dark things are stirring in Arle, and the lindworms were only the beginning. While humans freely harvest heartstones from the Tekari, they do not take them from the Idar, and wearing the heartstone of a Shani is unthinkable. But meeting some of the Idar, and talking to one Centaur in particular, causes Aliza to beginning thinking about how these distinctions among Arle’s magical creatures arose in the first place.

Many of the supporting characters from Heartstone do not feature in Dragonshadow, as Alistair and Aliza wing north to Castle Selwyn with Akarra. None of Aliza’s sisters make an on page appearance, and nor does Alistair’s sister Julienna feature. I found this a bit disappointing, since I really enjoyed the sibling dynamics in Heartstone, but White highlights other relationships here. I particularly enjoyed the dynamic between Aliza and Akarra. Although Akarra is bonded to Alistair, she accepts Aliza into that bond as an equal, despite her lack of Rider pedigree. More than that, she calls Alistair on his nonsense when his protectiveness borders on infantilizing. It would have been easy to set up a conflict between Aliza and Akarra, but their friendship is much more interesting.

This final point is a bit spoilery, but also falls into the category of content warnings. Over the course of the story, Aliza discovers, and then loses, a very early pregnancy. It’s rare to see miscarriage depicted in a fantasy novel at all, let alone sensitively handled. I was a bit worried that it would be used as a destructive plot point for Alistair, who would blame either himself or Aliza for killing their child by allowing her to accompany him on the contract, but fortunately White does not take the story down that road. Instead, Aliza is surrounded by empathetic and supportive women from Castle Selwyn, some of whom have known loss of their own.

In order to live happily ever after, Aliza knows she needs to figure out how she will walk the line between the traditions of the dragon riders, and staying true to her own heart. As Lady Daired, new expectations threaten to hem her in at every turn, but she is determined to forge her own path, and set her own terms for what it means to be a Rider’s wife. Sequels with newly married characters often find an excuse to separate them in order to add tension to the plot, but Dragonshadow stands out by having Aliza and Alistair face the difficulties together, weathering their first disagreements as newlyweds. I look forward to the Daireds’ further adventures in Flamebringer.

Of Ice and Shadows (Of Fire and Stars #2)

Cover image for Of Ice and Shadows by Audrey Coulthurstby Audrey Coulthurst

ISBN 9780062841223

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

 “It felt like the latest in a series of mistakes, and I wasn’t even sure what the first one had been. Was it letting everyone believe I’d died in the star fall? Was it the morning I’d gotten up before dawn to leave Mare behind? Or, the darkest part of my heart asked, was it the night I’d chosen to flee from the man I was betrothed to in order to save his sister instead?”

With everyone believing that Princess Dennaleia of Havemont was killed in the starfall that also struck down the scheming Lord Kriantz of Sonnenborne, Denna and Mare are finally free to be together. But as Princess Amaranthine, Mare also owes a duty to her brother, the newly crowned King Thandillimon of Mynaria. With the Sonnenborne plot revealed, it is crucial that they recruit the magical kingdom of Zumorda as an ally, despite Mynarian’s instinctive suspicion of magic. Better yet, in Zumorda, Denna will be accepted, and able to receive training for her gifts, the destructive scope of which has frightened Mare beyond words. So with Denna disguised as her maid, Mare sets out as the newly appointed Mynarian ambassador to Zumorda. Unfortunately, the Zumordan queen seems uninterested in Mynaria’s troubles, and unconcerned by the Sonnenborne plot. Denna’s gift, on the other hand, is extremely interesting, and soon Queen Invasya is trying to recruit her into an elite but dangerous magical training program that threatens to separate her from Mare.

If Of Fire and Stars was about forbidden love, Of Ice and Shadows is about what happens when the initial obstacle is removed, and the next stage must be faced. Traveling in disguise, Denna encounters new constraints, having to pretend to be Mare’s maid, and hiding her intelligence and diplomatic skills. And once across the border, no one can understand why a powerful magic user like “Lia” would be a servant to a vakos like Mare, who has no gift at all. While Denna seeks training for her gift, she becomes uncomfortably aware that Mare would rather find a way to eliminate her magic altogether—Mynarian prejudice against magic runs deep. Having already given up her identity to be with Mare, Denna is faced with the question of whether she will sacrifice more of herself in the name of love. Magic also keeps the two apart in more ways than one; after accidentally burning Mare in an amourous moment, Denna refuses to touch her again until her power is under control. I wasn’t a huge fan of this trope being introduced, as it tends to be rooted in sex shame, and I don’t think this use subverted that problem.

Of Ice and Shadows is told in alternating chapters, from Mare and Denna’s perspectives. Their voices aren’t terribly distinct, and it can be easy to mix the two up during the first part of the story, when they are both generally in the same place. As their paths diverge a bit in the latter half of the book, this becomes less of a concern. While both characters grow in the course of the book, it is especially important for Mare. Out from under the critical eye of the Mynarian court, she is finally able to accept some responsibility for what it means to be a member of the royal house, while also taking advantage of the freedom offered by distance to pursue interests and skills that would have been forbidden to her as a woman in Mynaria. Ultimately, I think it is being able to grow this way herself that enables her to accept Denna’s development as well.

As a setting, Zumorda makes for a much more interesting backdrop than Mynaria. Magic is rife, and there are many different types to be discovered. This makes Mare uncomfortable, but the prevalence makes Denna feel normal for once, like she might belong. Three powerful women play a major role, including the ancient dragon queen, Invasya, Guardian Laurenna, and Grand Vizier Zhari, who are powerful magic users in their own right, based in the Southern trade hub of Kartasha, while the Queen holds court in Corovja. None of the women seem especially concerned by the Sonnenborne threat, leading Mare and Denna to wonder if they are really so powerful in their magic that they have nothing to fear, or if one or more of them may be in league with their enemies.

Of Ice and Shadows wraps up this particular storyline, but leaves ample room to continue exploring the world, and what happens to Mare and Denna next. Currently no further installments have been announced, but a reader can hope!

You might also like The Cursed Queen by Sarah Fine

House of Salt and Sorrows

Cover image for House of Salt and Sorrows by Erin A. Craig by Erin A. Craig

ISBN 978-1-9848-3192-7

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

 “I turned the page and saw a drawing of all four of them, watching Verity as she slept, hanging from nooses. In disgust, I dropped the notebook, and sheets of loose papers—dozens of sketches of my sisters—escaped. They exploded across the hall like macabre confetti. In the pictures, they were doing things, ordinary things, things I’d seen them do all my life, but in every drawing they were unmistakably and horribly dead.”

Ever since her mother died giving birth to her youngest sister, Annaleigh and her father and sisters have lived in a state of constant mourning. Four of her older sisters have also died under mysterious circumstances, leading to rumours of a curse that haunts the Thaumas sisters. The latest is her sister Eulalie, who fell to her death from the cliffs of Highmoor at midnight—or perhaps she was pushed? Despite Eulalie’s death, the Thaumas sisters are sick of mourning, and even their father has finally remarried, bringing his new wife Morella back to the islands off the coast of Arcannia that the People of the Salt call home. When they discover a secret door—supposedly used by the sea god Pontus to travel vast distances—the remaining sisters begin to spend their nights visiting all the best balls Arcannia has to offer, dancing the night away to forget their grief. But Annaleigh can’t shake the feeling that she and her sisters are still in danger, and that something dark really is haunting the halls of Highmoor.

House of Salt and Sorrows builds on the fairy tale of the Twelve Dancing Princesses, whose father locks them in their room each night, only to find that they have worn out their shoes come morning. Stumped by the crumbling shoes, their father charges his daughters’ suitors with solving the mystery. When Annaleigh’s father decides that the family will throw off their mourning weeds, he buys each of his surviving daughters a beautiful pair of fairy slippers from the finest cobbler, yet when he returns from a business trip, he find that the shoes are already falling apart. Belief in the Thaumas curse has left most men wary of courting the Duke’s daughters, but in a drunken temper, he promises a handsome reward to anyone who can figure out what the girls are up to.

Erin A. Craig employs a creepy, atmospheric setting in the dark, old family estate of Highmoor, set by the sea as winter approaches. I was reading this book on a sunny summer day at the lake, but it felt more like the kind of read that suits a dark and stormy winter night. The gothic elements contrast with the growing romance between Annaleigh and Cassius, the illegitimate son of a sea captain, who has come to the island to care for his sick father. Cassius doesn’t seem to believe in the curse, but perhaps Annaleigh’s fortune is the real allure? Mistrust permeates everything, even new love.

Although the story has a fairy tale basis, the psychological elements are perhaps more important. Annaleigh begins to suspect that there is something more than coincidence to her sisters’ deaths—and it isn’t a curse. She digs into Eulalie’s secrets, suspecting murder, even as she begins to see and hear things, and discovers that her youngest sister believes she has been talking to the ghosts of her dead siblings, even those she is too young to remember. Annaleigh begins to have terrible nightmares that feel all too real, leaving the borderline between reality and imagination blurry at best. Reality is subjective, and the ground is constantly shifting in this twisty tale.

While this story was extremely promising, some of the supernatural elements could have been better integrated. It wasn’t immediately clear that this was a world with gods operating in the world, though perhaps this is because I was expecting faeries, or something more in keeping with the original source material. The first clear hint of this comes when a dressmaker intimates that she has had the honour of designing a gown for the goddess of love, but other deities show up later who were never previously mentioned. It can be difficult to surprise readers without leaving them feeling tricked. Bringing in more of the pantheon earlier in the story might have helped with this dissonance. The balance between the psychological elements of horror and the actual fantastical elements is also hard to strike, and the integration is somewhat uneven. This mars an otherwise promising tale that ably employs an eerie atmosphere alongside well-drawn sibling relationships.

You might also like The Weight of Feathers by Anna-Marie McLemore

The Dragon Republic (The Poppy War #2)

by R. F. Kuang

ISBN 978-0-060266263-7

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

 “She had too much power now, too much rage, and she needed a cause for which to burn. Vaisra’s Republic was her anchor. Without that, she’d be lost, drifting.”

Having called down the power of the fire god known as the Phoenix to destroy the islands of the Mugen Federation, Runin “Rin” Fang and the remaining Cike take refuge in the southern port city of Ankhiluun. In order to gather the resources they need to take their revenge for the betrayal of Nikaran Empresss Su Daji, the Cike take on a series of assassinations for Moag, the opium pirate queen of Ankhiluun. Grappling with the consequences of her actions, her involvement in Altan’s death, and her new responsibility for the Cike, Rin turns increasingly to opium to dampen the whispers of the god of fire and vengeance. Her mission to assassinate the Empress is the only thing giving her purpose, but to do so she will need to make common cause with Yin Vaisra, the Dragon Warlord, and father of her old school rival, Nezha. Vaisra promises a democratic republic that will usher in a new age of prosperity for Nikara, but when the other warlords refuse to join him, he turns to Hesperia for help.

In trying to cope with the consequences of her actions, Rin is spiraling into deep self-hatred. The atrocity she committed against the Mugen people weighs heavily, and she tries to sooth it with a variety of methods, from self-harm, to opiates, to pledging to commit various acts of atonement. Rin’s past actions are at once monstrous, and understandable, and her reaction is entirely human, if deeply disturbing. Her power means that it is a profoundly dangerous thing for someone like her to be so angry and emotionally vulnerable. Having gone dark at the end of The Poppy War, it is painful to watch her try to flail back towards the surface, even as circumstances around her continue to deteriorate, and Nikara plunges into civil war.

Despite Rin’s shifting allegiances throughout the book, her ultimate enemy remains the Empress, Su Daji. While Rin’s flawed humanity has never been in doubt, the Empress has been something of a distant, all-powerful villain. In The Dragon Republic, we gain a few closer glimpses at the woman who rules Nikara, as well as a peek into her past, when Rin encounters the Ketreyids, a nomadic people who live along the northern borders of the empire, and who can communicate mind to mind. Their leader is able to show Rin the young woman known as the Vipress who would go on to become the sole ruler of Nikara. Though Rin cannot see the similarities between herself and Daji, the Empress sees them all too clearly, recognizing both the threat and the promise of the last Speerly. Each face-to-face encounter with Daji proves critical as Rin questions what the future holds for her, and for Nikara.

Another character who comes further into focus in this second installment is Yin Nezha, Rin’s former rival and Sinegard classmate. The two made peace when the country went to war with the Mugen Federation, and all the students of Sinegard military academy were called up to serve. The two share an uneasy attraction, but their differences and their trauma make it hard for their feelings to come to fruition. In joining his father’s faction, Rin gains further insight into the power and privilege with which he was raised, as well as the secrets the family has been hiding beneath a carefully polished public exterior. His mother, the Lady Saikhara, has deep ties to Hesperia, as well as the missionaries of the Grey Company who believe that shamans are manifestation of Chaos incarnate. While The Poppy War focused on the conflict between Mugen and Nikara, with The Dragon Republic attention begins to turn back towards the old wounds left by Hesperia’s imperialist ambitions.

The Dragon Republic brings all the strengths of The Poppy War, and continues to combine 20th century Chinese history with the best conventions of dark fantasy, taking the series to new highs as Rin continues to fight for her future, and try to figure out how best to wield her power for the good of Nikara, despite terrible trauma and impossible choices.

You might also like City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty