Tag: R. F. Kuang

Top 10 Reads 2022

Happy New Year, everyone! Normally I like to get my top reads posted before the end of December but this year–for the first time since the pandemic began–I had a busy holiday travel schedule and just didn’t get to it amidst all the festivities. I’m also mixing it up a bit from past years, and posting a combined fiction and non-fiction list since my reading leaned heavily towards fiction this year. Without further ado, these are my favourite books read or reviewed (not necessarily published) in 2022.

Babel

Cover image for Babel by R.F. Kuang

by R.F. Kuang

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

When his family dies of cholera in 1820s Canton, a boy whose birth name we never learn finds himself healed by magic, and spirited away to England by his mysterious benefactor, Professor Lovell of Oxford’s Institute of Translation. The boy becomes known as Robin Swift, and learns that there has been a purpose behind the English books and British nanny that have been a feature of his home for as long as he can remember. Translation and silver power magic, and Robin is fated for Babel, the Oxford college that trains the translators that fuel the silver industrial revolution. But ultimately the university serves the empire, and as Robin completes his degree, the First Opium War is looming, placing him in an impossible position between the country of his birth, and the Empire he has been groomed to serve. Babel is a meditation on loving something—a place, a language, a literature—that cannot love you back. In fact, it may hate you and people like you, but you love it nonetheless. Robin and his cohort must grapple with that love, and with their place at the university because violence lies only slightly beneath the polished surface of Oxford’s seeming gentility.

Note: Babel is published by HarperVoyager, an imprint of HarperCollins. Please note that the HarperCollins Union has been on strike since 11/10/22 to get a fair contract for their workers. Visit the HarperCollins Union linktree to learn how you can support their fight for a fair contract. The union has NOT asked for a boycott on purchasing HarperCollins titles at this time.

Categories: Fiction, Fantasy

Black Water Sister

Cover image for Black Water Sister by Zen Cho

by Zen Cho

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 and she has chosen Jess to be her medium to help her resolve it. Failure means facing the wrath of the god, but success may be no less costly. Black Water Sister is a 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 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.

Categories: Fiction, Fantasy, LGBTQIA+

Himawari House

Cover image for Himwari House by Harmony Becker

by Harmony Becker

Nao’s family left Japan for California when she was young, but in many ways her heart remained behind. Recently graduated from high school, she decides to spend a gap year in Japan, trying to regain the mother tongue that has largely slipped away from her in America. She moves into Himawari House, where she meets Tina and Hyejung, who have come to study in Japan, and Masaki and Shinichi, two Japanese brothers who also live there. For Nao, Japan was once home, but now she feels cast adrift, an adult with the language skills of a young child. Together the girls navigate life in a foreign country, taking their first steps into adulthood cast free of the expectations they left behind at home. The story takes place over the course of a year, and is a series of slice-of-life chapters capturing different seasons and experiences. The sensibility mixes Japanese manga style with the Western graphic novel tradition. Although the through-line of the graphic novel is in English, Himawari House is a story as multilingual the characters who inhabit it, incorporating Japanese and Korean into this tale of found family.

Categories: Graphic Novel

The Empress of Salt and Fortune

by Nghi Vo

This is the first in a series of novellas that will follow the non-binary 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 opted 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: FictionNovellaFantasyLGBTQIA+

Last Night at the Telegraph Club

Cover image for Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo

by Malinda Lo

Growing up in 1950s San Francisco, in the heart of Chinatown, Lily Hu has always known her place as a good Chinese daughter. But when she spots an ad for a male impersonator in the San Francisco Chronicle, she feels a strong pull, and discovers a question about herself that she hardly knows how to ask. But it isn’t until she meets Kath Miller that Lily finds the nerve to visit the Telegraph Club to see Tommy Andrews perform. There they discover a whole community of women living lives they could barely have imagined. In Kath, Lily finds not only someone she might love, but someone who helps her see herself more clearly, not just her sexual identity, but also her dreams for a future career at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. But even liberal San Francisco is not a friendly place for two girls to be in love in the 1950s. It is a story about growing pains—growing up and apart from childhood friends, and coming to question the values your family and community taught you to hold dear. But at the core it is a story of first love in the face of adversity.

Categories: Fiction, Historical Fiction, LGBTQIA+

The Magic Fish

Cover image for The Magic Fish by Trung Le Nguyen

by Trung Le Nguyen

Thirteen-year-old Tien doesn’t know how to come out to his mom and dad. It’s more than just the fear of rejection; he literally does not know the Vietnamese words to explain what he’s feeling to his immigrant parents. But if there’s one way Tien has always been able to connect with him mom, it’s through the many books they borrow from the library, particularly fairy tales. Through the power of stories, Tien and his mother find a way to bridge the language gap, and communicate the things that have been allowed to go unspoken for too long. Blended with Tien’s coming-of-age story are three fairy tales. Trung Le Nguyen uses three types of colour panels to emphasize the different aspects of this interwoven tale. Blue for the fairy tales Tien and his mother read together, red for their real life, and yellow for his mother’s past in Vietnam. Nguyen does amazing work within the confines of these limited colour palettes, employing shading and texture to great effect, alongside his beautiful line work. The Magic Fish combines striking art with a moving family story for an unforgettable read.

Categories: Graphic NovelLGBTQIA+

Red Carpet

Cover image for Red Carpet by Erich Schwartzel

by Erich Schwartzel

Money has always shaped what gets made in Hollywood, but with the American box office stagnating, profits from global markets have become increasingly important. The most powerful overseas market is China, with its large population and growing middle class. Author Erich Schwartzel reports on Hollywood for the Wall Street Journal, and in Red Carpet he examines China’s complicated relationship with the American film industry. It begins with two controversial 1997 films about the Dalai Lama: Kundun directed by Martin Scorcese and Seven Years in Tibet directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud. These films marked a turning point, with China flexing its increasing economic power to influence releases that were never intended for the Chinese market. Schwartzel chronicles the growing difficulty of getting American films into China amidst opaque censorship rules, and the difficulty of predicting which American movies will be popular with Chinese audiences. Meanwhile, the Chinese film industry has been growing, with a better bead on what domestic audiences want, and what authorities will allow. Schwartzel’s in-depth reporting highlights the unexpected effects of globalization on one of America’s most notable exports.

Categories: Non-Fiction

She Who Became the Sun

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

by Shelley Parker-Chan

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, she lays claims to her brother’s name, and his fortune, becoming Zhu Chongba, destined for greatness. When the Mongol overlords burn the monastery where 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. 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. 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.

At the time I wrote my initial review back in May, the sequel had no confirmed title or release date, but He Who Drowned the World is now due for a August 2023 debut!

Categories: Fiction, Fantasy, LGBTQIA+

A Taste of Gold and Iron

Cover image for A Taste of Gold and Iron by Alexandra Rowland

by Alexandra Rowland

Prince Kadou has no interest in the throne; his older sister, Zeliha, makes a much better ruler for their kingdom. All Kadou wants is to support his family, help his sister take care of their people, and see his niece grow up to succeed his sister as a wise and just leader. After a deadly incident during a hunting party, Kadou is assigned a new bodyguard. Evemer is freshly promoted to the core guard, the highly trained soldiers that serve and protect the Mahisti royals before rising to become government ministers of Arasht. Evemer has pledged his life to the crown, so he is disappointed to find himself in the service of a prince who seems flighty and unreliable. Nevertheless, he will do his duty to try to help Kadou solve a mysterious break-in that may be connected to a counterfeiting ring. Arashti currency is trusted by traders throughout the world precisely because a large percentage of its citizens can touch-taste precious metals, thus making counterfeit coins all but unusable within the country’s borders. Kadou and Evemer must work together to solve the counterfeiting mystery before it undermines the country’s reputation. Despite the court politics set dressing, and the counterfeiting scheme, A Taste of Gold and Iron is largely joyful and tropey and soft. In fact, if you don’t enjoy tropes this is probably the wrong book for you, given that we start out with a prince/bodyguard, enemies-to-lovers romance, and then add in a fake-out make-out, and some hair washing and bedsharing, and really it’s just tropes all the way down.

Categories: Fiction, Fantasy, LGBTQIA+

This is Not a Book About Benedict Cumberbatch

Cover image for This Is Not a Book About Benedict Cumberbatch by Tabitha Carvan

by Tabitha Carvan

Australian author Tabitha Carvan’s memoir, which I read twice in 2022, is subtitled The Joy of Loving Something–Anything–Like Your Life Depends on it. And that in a nutshell is what the book is actually about; the theft of joy, and how we can counteract it by refusing to be ashamed of the things that make us happy. Yes, even if that thing is a celebrity crush on British actor Benedict Cumberbatch. Carvan is the stay-at-home mom of two young kids in Canberra, Australia, when she finds herself unexpectedly seized by Cumbermania. This new obsession was special not in and of itself, but because it roused Carvan from the “stultification of early motherhood” and forced her to examine the ways society encourages adults–but particularly women and mothers–to give up joy and hobbies and fun. Author Gretchen Rubin has described enthusiasm “a form of social courage. It’s often safer to criticize than to praise; it can seem cooler and smarter to be ironic, detached, or critical. Enthusiasm is more fun, however. It’s brave, generous, unself-conscious, warm-hearted, and a bit goofy.” Carvan’s memoir examines this social courage, and the social and emotional benefits we can reap from unabashed enthusiasm

Categories: Non-Fiction, Memoir

That’s it for me! What were some of your favourite reads in 2022?

10 Years of Required Reading: Best Fiction

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

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

Cover image for A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

by Anthony Marra

ISBN 9780770436407

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

Station Eleven

Cover image for Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

by Emily St. John Mandel

ISBN 9780385353304

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

Categories: Speculative Fiction, Canadian

This is How You Lose the Time War

by Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone

ISBN 9781534431010

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

Categories: Science Fiction, LGBTQIA+

The Poppy War

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

by R. F. Kuang

ISBN 9780062662569

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

Categories: Fantasy

Washington Black

Cover image for Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

by Esi Edugyan

ISBN 9780525521426

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

Categories: Historical Fiction, Canadian

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

Babel

Cover image for Babel by R.F. Kuang

by R.F. Kuang

ISBN 9780063021426

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

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

When his family dies in a cholera outbreak in 1820s Canton, a boy whose name we never learn finds himself healed by magic, and spirited away to England by his mysterious benefactor, Professor Lovell of Oxford’s Institute of Translation. Here the boy becomes known as Robin Swift, and learns that there has been a purpose behind the English books and British nanny that have been a feature of his home for as long as he can remember. Translation and silver power magic, and Robin is fated for Babel, the Oxford college that trains the translators that pursue knowledge and fuel the silver industrial revolution. But ultimately the university serves the empire, and as Robin completes his degree, the First Opium War is looming, placing him in an impossible position between the country of his birth, and the Empire he has been groomed to serve.

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

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

Babel is a meditation on loving something—a place, a language, a literature—that cannot love you back. In fact, it may hate you and people like you, but you love it nonetheless. Robin and his cohort must grapple with that love, and with their place at the university because violence lies only slightly beneath the polished surface of Oxford’s seeming gentility. Scratch it, and the overt racism and sexism come bubbling up, and quickly spill over into physical altercations. The first of these occasions happens even before Robin arrives at the university, when his benefactor Professor Lovell beats him brutally for accidentally missing his lessons because he was absorbed in a novel. And then, in his first week at Oxford, Robin meets Griffin, a Babel dropout and member of the elusive Hermes Society. Having concluded that change could not be effected by peaceful means from within the academy, Griffin has vowed to bring down Babel by whatever means necessary, and he wants Robin to help him do it.

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

You might also like:

The Library of Legends by Janie Chang

She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan

Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao

The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

Top 5 Fiction 2020

What a strange year it has been! I hope reading helped get you through the ups and downs. I know I definitely turned to books for both comfort and information, rereading old favourites, and learning about newly relevant subjects. These are my favourite fiction books read or reviewed (not necessarily published) in 2020. You can click the titles for links to the full reviews. Check back on Thursday for my top non-fiction picks!

The Burning God

Cover image for The Burning God by R. F. KuangDisillusioned 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 shamans in the Empire, able to call down the Phoenix, god of fire and vengeance, onto the battle field. 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.  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 these cataclysmic power struggles. 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.

Categories: Fantasy

Felix Ever After

Cover image for Felix Ever After by Kacen CallenderKacen Callender tells the story of Felix Love, a high school student who has already transitioned to male, but is still exploring their gender identity and coming to terms with some of the non-binary options. Felix has never been in love, but has a deep romantic streak, and this novel sees him caught between an enemies-to-lovers epistolary romance via Instagram messages, and the possibility that one of his oldest friendships is actually romantic. Next to the romances, my favourite element of this book was the way it explored the complicated forms of internalized homophobia and transphobia that can exist within the queer community where Felix is supposed to feel safe, such as his ex-girlfriend Marisol, and the anonymous bullies causing trouble at school and online.

Categories: Young Adult, LGBTQ+

Red, White & Royal Blue

Cover image for Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuistonAs the son of the President, Alex Claremont-Diaz, his sister June, and their best friend Nora Holleran are America’s golden children, beloved by the press, and the perfect political surrogates for President Claremont and Vice President Holleran as they pass through the 2018 midterms and aim for re-election in 2020. But Alex commits a very public faux-pas when he gets into an altercation with his long-time rival, Prince Henry of England, at the wedding of Henry’s older brother, Prince Philip. As the White House and Buckingham Palace fly into damage-control mode, Henry and Alex are forced to fake a public friendship for the press, even while the sparks that are flying behind closed doors are of an entirely different sort. But if they ever want to really be together, they’ll have to come to terms with themselves, their families, and their place in history. Casey McQuiston has written what is at heart a light, fluffy romance, but one that also cheekily sends up the problematic aspects of the trope at its center. I suspect that some people won’t like politics intruding into their fluffy romance in this manner, but I personally found it helped to acknowledge the cognitive dissonance rather than simply ignoring the problems inherent in the trope. Your mileage may vary, but for me this was a perfect bit of fluffy, swoony fun.

Categories: Romance, LGBTQ+

Son of a Trickster

Cover image for Son of a Trickster by Eden RobinsonOld beyond his years, teenage Jared feels responsible for all the adults around him, from his mercurial mom Maggie, to her deadbeat boyfriend Richie, to his lying father and his pregnant step-sister, and the elderly neighbours who helped him out in a time of need, as well as their wayward granddaughter, Sarah. His mom is estranged from her own family, and his father’s mother has always harboured the belief that he isn’t actually her grandson, but rather the illegitimate son of a Trickster. His only support, his beloved dog Baby, has recently died, and Jared is having a hard time keeping it together for everyone who needs him. He drinks too much, and smokes too much, and sometimes he blacks out. And sometimes he think he sees and hears things, even when he isn’t half-cut. Things that make him wonder if his grandmother might not be crazy after all. At first, Jared’s life seems normal, or at least, only abnormal in sadly normal human ways. Slowly but surely, however, Eden Robinson layers in little bits of weirdness that creep in around the edges, and Jared’s chapters are mixed with bizarre, expansive interludes that hint at a world beyond his day-to-day reality. The magic seeps in until it is almost pervasive, slowly invading every corner of his life until he has no choice but to face the destiny he has been running from.

Categories: Canadian, Speculative Fiction

The Starless Sea

Cover image for The Starless Sea by Erin MorgensternZachary Ezra Rawlins is a graduate student who studies video games, but has a passion for story and narrative in all its forms. Visiting the nearly-deserted library between terms, Zachary stumbles across an old book of short stories, an improperly catalogued and mysterious donation to the university’s collection. But what is truly remarkable about this book is that Zachary is in it; the third story perfectly describes a real incident from his childhood, one that he never dared to speak of, let alone commit to paper. Coming eight years on the heels of Erin Morgenstern’s debut novel The Night Circus, The Starless Sea is divided into six books within books. At first, alternating chapters from Zachary’s perspective are interleaved with fragments from his mysterious library find. Morgenstern also layers in excerpts from the diary of Zachary’s friend Kat, one of the few people who seems to notice or care when he goes missing from the university in pursuit of answers, desperate to discover the provenance of the book, and ascertain once and for all whether the world it describes might be real and reachable. The Starless Sea is the story of a magical library, but also something much more impossible than that. It is a story of doorways, and possibilities, of choices and their consequences.

Categories: Fantasy

An honourable mention also goes out to S.A. Chakraborty, who completed her truly excellent Daevabad trilogy with The Empire of Gold this year.

What were your top fiction reads of 2020? I especially want to hear about your comfort reads and fluff! What got you through?

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 

Top 5 Fiction 2019

Another year of reading draws to a close. These are my favourite fiction books read or reviewed (not necessarily published) in 2019. You can click the titles for links to the full reviews. Check back on Thursday for my top non-fiction picks!

The Confessions of Frannie Langton

Cover image for The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara CollinsFrances Langton was born on a sugar estate in Jamaica, the property of a depraved scientist who gave her his name, and educated her for his own ends. But Sara Collins’ novel is the story of Frances’ free life in London, and how she came to be accused of murdering her employers. The Mulatta Murderess is a broadsheet sensation, the talk of London, the boogieman in the Old Bailey, but Frannie is a woman determined to tell her own story, and to be seen as a real person, one who loved and was loved, and paid a terrible price for daring to reach above her station. By far the strongest feature of the novel is Frances’ voice. She is an avid reader, and that love of language seeps into her own writing, colouring her descriptions and insights. She consciously writes back against the slave narrative, the formulaic accounts peddled by abolitionists and anti-slavers to further their cause. Although framed by a murder mystery, The Confessions of Frannie Langton is, at heart, a tragic gothic romance.

Categories: Historical Fiction, LGBTQ+

The Dragon Republic

Cover image for The Dragon Republic by R. F. KuangGrappling with the consequences of her genocidal actions in Mugen, her involvement in Altan’s death, and her new responsibility for the Cike, Runin “Rin” Fang 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. 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. In her second novel, R.F. Kuang 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.

Categories: Fantasy

The Kingdom of Copper

Cover image for The Kingdom of Copper by S. A. ChakrabortyIt has been five years since Nahri and Muntadhir were forced into a marriage alliance, and Ali was exiled to Am Gezira. Ghassan’s iron-fisted rule has only tightened on the hidden djinn city of Daevabad. In the second volume of S.A. Chakraborty’s Daevabad Trilogy, rival factions collide, and war is brewing. Tensions between the clans within the magical city are escalating, with the half-blood shafit always paying the largest price for the conflict between the Daevas and the Geziri. Chakraborty has developed a fraught dynamic by granting the reader access to multiple narrative perspectives. The warring groups are not speaking to, or sometimes even aware of, one another, but the reader can see the collision course that is being charted as the generation festival of Navasatem approaches. Their prejudices threaten to poison everything, and even Nahri is not immune to this thinking as she struggles to find her way out from under Ghassan’s thumb.

Categories: Fantasy 

Ninth House

Cover image for Ninth House by Leigh BardugoAlex Stern never expected to end up at Yale. She spent most of her teen years going from fix to fix, looking to numb out, to forget. But when an overdose lands her in the hospital, she wakes up to an unexpected visitor. Dean Sandow of Yale University knows much more about her than any stranger should, and he has an offer to make Alex; come to Yale on a full scholarship, in exchange for serving as the watchdog to Yale’s secret societies. When she arrives on campus, Alex descends into a world of privilege and magic, monitoring the arcane rights of the societies, and ensuring that they follow the proper occult forms for their rituals. Told in alternating chapters, Ninth House toggles between Alex’s arrival at Yale in the autumn, and the investigation into the murder of Tara Hutchins during the winter. Leigh Bardugo carefully peels back the layers, doling out information in dribs and drabs. This novel might be best described as a dark fantasy with horror vibes. It is set in our own world, but to the privilege of wealth is added the privilege of magic, the one contributing to the other. The fact that it feels just one step to the left of what is real only serves to make it that much more eerie.

(Trigger warnings for this title include, but are not limited to: rape and sexual assault, ritual gore, drug use, and self-harm. Bardugo is examining these events from the point of view of the victims and survivors, but nevertheless, some of these occurrences make for difficult reading.)

Categories: Fantasy, Horror

Sorcery of Thorns

Cover image for Sorcery of Thorns by Margaret RogersonAs 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?

Categories: Young Adult, Fantasy 

Looking for more great reads? You can check out my Top Picks from past years. Or check back later this week, when I’ll feature my top non-fiction reads of the year.

What were your top fiction reads of 2019?

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

Top 5 Fiction 2018

These are my favourite fiction books read or reviewed (not necessarily published) in 2018. You can click the titles for links to the full reviews. Check back on Thursday for my top non-fiction picks!

The Cruel Prince

Cover image for The Cruel Prince by Holly BlackThis was one of the first books that I read in 2018, but it has nevertheless held up as one of the best, and the sequel is just around the corner in January 2019! Seventeen-year-old Jude and her twin sister, Taryn, are mortals who have lived in Faerie since they were children, raised by the Faerie general who murdered their parents in order to retrieve his daughter, their half-sister Vivi. Despite this violent beginning, Jude longs to find her place in the High Court of King Eldred, and dreams of knighthood and acceptance. However, many of the high fey will never see a mortal as anything more than a servant, to be used and discarded at will. Worst among these is Prince Cardan, youngest of the High King’s sons, who seems to have a special hatred for Jude, and the way she was raised as if she were part of the Gentry. When the High King announces that he will abdicate his throne, and pass the Blood Crown to one of his six children, Jude is caught up in political intrigues and violent betrayals, and is quickly reminded why the Faerie Court is no place for humans. Holly Black is an acknowledged master of the faerie tale, and The Cruel Prince represents a particularly twisty example of her talent in this arena.

Categories: Young Adult, Fantasy, Fairy Tales

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet

Cover image for The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky ChambersI am a sucker for a found family narrative, and The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is great exemplar of a sci-fi take on this trope. When Rosemary Harper abandons her privileged life on Mars for a new identity, and takes a job as a clerk aboard the Wayfarer, her only expectation is to get away from the past. Aboard the ship is a motley inter-species crew that makes their living by building wormholes for interstellar travel, and Rosemary has been brought aboard to keep their permits and paperwork in order, so they don’t lose their license. Their latest job begins when a new species is welcomed into the Galactic Commons, which will necessitate building new tunnels to facilitate travel and trade. But the Toremi Ka are only one clan of a warring, nomadic species, Hedra Ka is their newly claimed territory, and the Wayfarer and her crew may be flying into a war zone. There is plenty of science working beneath the premises Becky Chambers puts forth, but her story is character-driven, and technology is decidedly not the focus. Rather it is the development of the relationships among the crew on this journey that take center stage.

Categories: Science Fiction

The Poppy War

Cover image for The Poppy War by R. F. KuangDebut novelist R.F. Kuang hit it big this year with the gritty first installment of a planned trilogy about the Nikara Empire. A war orphan, Rin dreams of passing the Keju exam, and traveling north to study at one of the empire’s elite schools. But when her hard work pays off and she tests into Sinegard, the top military academy in the country, Rin discovers that her trials are only beginning. Sinegard’s military and political elite have little time or sympathy for a dark-skinned peasant girl from the south. Desperate to prove herself, Rin unlocks a supposedly mythical power that enables her to summon the strength of the gods. Even as she is further alienated from her teachers and classmates, she becomes the protégé of an eccentric master who has taken no other apprentices from her class. But Master Jiang wants Rin to learn to control and suppress her abilities, while Rin dreams of wielding them in battle for the glory of the Empire. And with the Empire constantly on the brink of the next war with the Mugen Federation, it becomes increasingly difficult to heed her Master’s advice and resist the call of the Phoenix, god of fire and vengeance. The Poppy War is a decidedly adult fantasy featuring a terrifyingly badass female protagonist on a worrisome trajectory towards darkness.

Categories: Fantasy

Strange the Dreamer

Cover image for Strange the Dreamer by Laini TaylorStrange the Dreamer is the kind of book where the author writes herself into difficult situations, but then makes bold choices with the consequences. From his childhood as an orphan in a monastery, to his young adulthood as a junior library apprentice, Lazlo Strange has been obsessed with the lost city of Weep. For thousands of years, magical goods crossed the Elmuthaleth desert to be traded, but no faranji was ever allowed to see the city from whence they came, on pain of death. But two hundred years ago, all trade suddenly ceased without explanation. Once, Weep had another name, but fifteen years ago it was snatched from the minds of the few who remembered the city at all, including Lazlo, whose obsession was only deepened by the loss. Now a hero from Weep, known as the Godslayer, has emerged from the Elmuthaleth, seeking the best scientists to join a delegation that will help the city solve the last remnant of the problem that halted trade for two hundred years. But what use could such a delegation have for a mere junior librarian who has studied Weep all his life, and yet undoubtedly knows less about it than anyone who was raised there? In beautiful prose that will be familiar to fans of her Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy, Laini Taylor brings to life a vivid new fantasy world that didn’t so much capture my imagination as take it hostage, until I stayed up far too late to reach the last page, and find out what would become of Lazlo, Sarai, and the people of Weep.

Categories: Young Adult, Fantasy

Washington Black

Cover image for Washington Black by Esi EdugyanCanadian sensation Esi Edugyan received international attention this year, with her Giller prize winning novel also being named to the Man Book short-list. Born into slavery on Faith Plantation in Bardbados, George Washington Black has never known any other life. When his master dies, the slaves expect the estate to be broken up and sold off, but instead two brothers arrive, nephews of the old owner. Erasmus Wilde proves to be a cruel man who drives his slaves harder than the old owner ever did. But his brother, Christopher “Titch” Wilde, is a man of science, and while the other slaves on Faith are doomed to a harder lot, Wash is selected to help Titch with his experiments, and his seemingly impossible dream to launch an airship called the Cloud Cutter. However, being selected as Titch’s assistant will come at a price Wash could never have expected, and their strange, uneven relationship will change the course of Wash’s life forever, for better and for worse. In her trademark exquisite prose, Edugyan tells the story of a slave who gains his freedom with nuance and complexity. Indeed it is the depth of the characters, and the nuance with which their situations are portrayed that really makes Washington Black unforgettable.

Categories: Canadian, Historical Fiction

Honourable mentions also go out to the rest of Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers series, which I devoured, and found to be utterly delightful, though the first one was my favourite, and is thus listed here. That’s it for fiction, but check back later this week for my non-fiction selections!

What were your top fiction reads of 2018?