Review and Q&A: Heidi Heilig’s FOR A MUSE OF FIRE

Review and Q&A: Heidi Heilig’s FOR A MUSE OF FIRE

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*Guest review written by Gina Chen

Many stories valorize war as a final battleground, where the fate of the world is decided and the hero defeats the villain, for a better future to come. But FOR A MUSE OF FIRE by Heidi Heilig gives voice to the colonized struggling after their liberation from a tyrant, in a world steeped in complicated history and uneasy loyalties. No choice is easy for its main character Jetta, nor the people and country she loves, and the result is a fantastically rich fantasy with some of the most compelling, emotionally hard-hitting stakes out there.

“Maman hates the old ways.”

“It isn’t the old ways she hates, Jetta.”

“It’s Le Trépas.”

In Aquitan-occupied Chakrana, inspired by French Indochina, the Aquitans might have been heroes when they defeated the necromancy-wielding tyrant Le Trépas, but they have since placed the country under a new yoke of exploitation—turning rice paddies into Aquitan-owned plantations, conscripting boys as expendable soldiers, and violently snuffing out traditions they consider uncivilized. Rebel movements are rising in Chakrana, but their leader the Tiger is known for barbaric tactics and most Chakrans fear the rebels more than they despise their colonizers.

And isn’t it strange how the Aquitans devour our stories but silence our prayers?

Like most of the characters we meet, Jetta and her family have no desire to be a part of the struggle over their country. They can do little to affect the powers that be; they can only hope to stay out of their way, performing shadow plays in their water buffalo-drawn roulotte as they seek passage to Aquitan, where Jetta can find a cure for her illness that brings her to emotional extremes. Jetta’s one-woman talent with the puppets is their ticket there, but the secret to her skill is double-edged: she can see the souls of the dead and bind them to her puppets—a magic forbidden by the Aquitans and feared for its association to the former tyrant. As unrest spreads, they are forced into the crossfire, and Jetta’s abilities become their greatest danger and their only chance of survival.

But all we can do is carry on. Toward the walls of the capital, the fort and Nokhor Khat, the docks at the edge of our country. Toward the certainty that what lies ahead cannot be worse than what we’ve left behind.

The stakes are high from the outset and they only get higher. The story’s greatest triumph is making me care deeply about every character that passes through its pages and painting even minor characters with a vivid brush. From Jetta to Jetta’s family to the mixed-race smuggler Leo to members of the Aquitan army, we learn how they became who they are and how they justify their actions in order to survive. I’m compelled to trust them, I absolutely fell in love with most of them, and I desperately want them to be happy… making it all the more affecting when I’m blindsided by them. War makes people do and hide shocking things, and the story doesn’t shy away from this reality. Their problems can’t be solved by cleverness or just-have-enough-courage; characters are forced to decide between everything that matters to them or no one survives.

One of the soldiers sneers down at me as though he knows I’m mad—but I have never felt more sane. It is the rest of the world that doesn’t make sense.

Jetta’s relationships with other characters is what makes her narration shine, for she loves and protects fiercely, and she feels so keenly. I adore her relationship with her parents, overprotective but always loving. Her chemistry with Leo gave me heart-eyes and he’s a charismatic presence in his own right. Her mental illness is handled well, especially in these relationships, and is informed by Heilig’s own experience with bipolar disorder. Jetta’s growing recognition of Aquitan propaganda is also refreshing; often in fantasy, this narrative is given to a character of the privileged class, but Chakrans also internalize the hostility to their culture, and it’s great to witness Jetta work through it.

LEGARDE: We are civilization, in this place. We will bring them into the modern age, whether they like it or not.

Some chapters are written in the style of a script, telling events happening outside of Jetta’s point of view and giving a glimpse of external events affecting her journey. One of the most evocative scenes happens early in one of these scenes, during an assault upon an Aquitan camp, and for the rest of the book, I became obsessed with the idea of seeing this story adapted as a stage play or miniseries. There’s an incredibly dramatic quality to not just the writing, but the core events of the story. Telegrams, letters, posters, and song lyrics also intersperse the story.

There is plenty more about FOR A MUSE OF FIRE that I can’t expound upon at the risk of spoilers; it’s a story best experienced as it unravels, as it does for Jetta. Once the story takes off, it doesn’t take long to trust in Heilig’s writing, which takes care in weaving all the threads into a thematically satisfying work, and also knows how to make me gasp right when I think I know what’s going on. It’s not just a magical and transportive fantasy, but an addicting, heart-pounding one that earns every one of its moments. With every step of Jetta’s journey, the world grows in equal parts hope and darkness. I sobbed, I swooned, and I’m hungry for more.

FOR A MUSE OF FIRE, the first of a trilogy, is out TODAY! 

Thanks Heidi for doing a Q&A with us!

1) You have a background in theatre. What drew you to performing and writing about performers?
I do! I love theatre and used to dream of being an actor. Honestly, I think it was the combination of my love of story telling and my mania that first drew me to performing. The thrill and the attention were an amazing feeling, especially when I was high on the rollercoaster. But that’s not really what it takes to make it as an actor, and for various reasons I moved rather quickly from being onstage to writing for the stage, and from there to writing novels. Luckily, I also love books, but I did miss working with theatre people. They’re some of the most fascinating and generous folks I’ve ever met. So writing about the glitz and glitter of life on stage was tons of fun, but the part I liked best was the camaraderie and the backstage ribbing.

2) What’s your favorite tidbit about the story’s world? Are there any interesting details that didn’t make it into the finished book?
Oh my gosh, there is so much that didn’t make it into the final book. True (and terrible) story: I had to completely rewrite the book because I turned in the first draft at the end of October, 2016, and then November happened and the issues I thought would be pertinent no longer seemed as pressing. There are about 15 pages total of the original draft in the finished book. From later drafts, I actually cut a long and involved leatherworking/puppetmaking scene that was lovely but didn’t further the plot. But my favorite bit about the world that DID make it in is that I wrote it with the diaspora in mind. My ancestors came over to Hawaii at a time when assimilation was king, so I have a strange relationship to my Chinese side–especially because, likely due to the assimilation we faced, all of us Asians in Hawaii borrow and share cultural elements with each other. So Asia itself feels a bit mystical to me in a way that is likely familiar to many Asian Americans. When I wrote about sapphire mines and jungles and red dragons and incense, I was pulling together a bouquet of the information and influences I was given when I was growing up as a mixed race person growing up on an island far from where my distant ancestors lived and died, and I loved that. I loved making a homeland for myself, even if it’s only a fantasy.
3) What’s your favorite chapter?
Anything at Le Perl! Is that too easy an answer? I loved writing the banter between the show girls. I also loved the very last “chapter,” though it’s really just a note. I won’t say more so as not to spoil it but its been fun watching the reactions from readers to that one.

4) Jetta’s story has two more books to go. What’s something not-too-spoilery about what’s to come? 

“I wish I could tell you!” was my first thought, but not because i don’t want to spoil it. Rather, because having rewritten MUSE completely, going back to my series outline now is like trying on someone else’s worn tennis shoes. It fits all wrong and also UGH. But I did just hand in my first draft of book two, A KINGDOM FOR A STAGE, and I can tell you that we get to meet Le Trepas in all his glory. Also, more dragons this time around.
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Akemi Dawn Bowman’s SUMMER BIRD BLUE

Akemi Dawn Bowman’s SUMMER BIRD BLUE

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When I read Akemi Dawn Bowman’s debut novel Starfish, I was blown away by the vivid imagery, the painfully accurate portrayals of mental illness and broken families, and the intense rollercoaster of emotions that had me riveted from start to finish. Bowman’s Summer Bird Blue is even better.

Summer Bird Blue is first and foremost novel about grief, loss, and healing. Rumi and Lea Seto are sisters with a beautiful relationship; they laugh, they fight, and they bond through their music. (My own sister is three years younger than I am, just like Lea and Rumi, so it’s hard not to identify immediately with their bond.) When Lea is killed in a car accident, Rumi is utterly lost; unsure of who she is without her sister, unable to connect with her mother, and unable to move on.

Bowman’s portrayal of grief and healing is complicated, thoughtful, and avoids tropes and easy solutions at every possible turn. There’s a cute boy, but his love doesn’t “cure” Rumi, nor does their budding romance turn out the way you think it might. There’s a grouchy old neighbor with a pain of his own, but he offers no magical words of advice to heal Rumi. Rumi’s journey is difficult, messy, and happens inconsistently in spurts and fits rather than proceeding smoothly from bad to good. She’s never completely okay and she might never be. And that’s fine.

Summer Bird Blue also centers around uncertain identity. Bowman deals deftly with issues surrounding Japanese culture, diaspora, biraciality, and queerness. Rumi is a biracial, possibly ace/aro girl trying to figure out herself at possibly the worst time in her life. She’s in Hawaii for the first time, reconnecting with her family’s roots. She’s never had a California roll before. (I found it particularly fascinating to read Bowman’s transliteration of Hawaiian pidgin, a dialect which I have never before heard or read on the page.) Rumi is also tentatively exploring her sexual/romantic orientation. She’s not sure if she’s asexual and/or aromantic. She thinks she might be, but she also doesn’t know if she’ll change or mind or if she simply hasn’t found the right label for herself. She doesn’t have all the right answers, and she doesn’t need to.

Though the inciting incident of Summer Bird Blue is the death of Rumi’s sister, the novel at its heart is about Rumi’s relationship with her mother. This, too, is complex and realistically contradictory. Rumi’s mother sends her to live with her aunt in Hawaii because she needs to recover from her daughter’s death on her own. Rumi takes this as a sign of abandonment. Neither are completely right and neither are completely wrong. Summer Bird Blue draws on a conversation about mother-daughter relationships started in Starfish: that we can crave the attention of those who reject us, and that we can love and seek the love of those who hurt us.

Summer Bird Blue is out now from Simon Pulse! You can find it here on Goodreads.

Akemi was nice enough to do a Q&A with us! Read her fascinating answers below.

1) Your characters often use creative mediums like songwriting or painting to understand the world. How do you portray them so accurately? Do you have creative hobbies outside of writing?

I’ve always been drawn to various forms of art, because I genuinely struggle with anything social. I’m not great at picking up on cues, I’m always worried I’m doing something wrong, and social anxiety often makes it difficult to communicate my thoughts out loud. It can be exhausting. But art and music and even writing was, for me, a form of therapy. It was a way to express myself. I’ve been playing the piano and flute since I was six years old, and I’ve been an avid-doodler-sometimes-painter since I learned how to use a pencil. And I honestly don’t know where I’d be today if I hadn’t had that outlet. I think when I write about them, it’s genuinely coming from the very depths of my soul. I’m communicating in the most honest way I can, and I guess (hopefully) that comes across to readers.

2) I was intrigued by the use of transliterated Hawaiian pidgin, which I’ve never seen done in a novel before. How and why did you choose to include it?

My dad was born and raised in Hawaii, as was all of his family for many generations. So for me, Hawaiian pidgin is just what my family speaks. I grew up calling ramen “saimin.” It was always “slippers,” NEVER “flip-flops.” We used to call boogers “hanabata.” (I was eight or nine before I realized this was Not A Thing for the other kids in Las Vegas.) The language feels familiar to me—like I’m sitting around with my dad and grandparents and aunties and uncles. And I chose to include it because I felt like not including it would be erasing such a big part of the local culture. And also, for slightly more selfish reasons, I knew it would make my family happy to see that part of them represented. My dad read so many early drafts of this book because I wanted the language to be just right, and I’m so grateful for his help.

3) If you could cast the movie adaptations of either Starfishor Summer Bird Blue, who would play the leads?

Ooh, I equal parts love this question and find it VERY hard to answer. Because I think my dream cast would probably include unknown actors for the leads, because Asian-American and multiracial actors are still so underrepresented in film right now. But I know without a doubt my DREAM would be to have Nicole Kidman play Kiko’s mom from STARFISH. I think she’d bring nuance to the role that is very much necessary, and she looks almost exactly like the person I pictured in my head when I was writing.

4) If we loved Starfish and Summer Bird Blue, what other books would you recommend? 

Kelly Loy Gilbert’s PICTURE US IN THE LIGHT, Emily X.R. Pan’s THE ASTONISHING COLOR OF AFTER, and anything and everything written by Alice Oseman and Ashley Herring Blake. I also recently read A QUIET KIND OF THUNDER by Sara Barnard, which features a teen with social anxiety similar to Kiko from STARFISH, and it was so very relatable.

Review by Rebecca F. Kuang

Blood Wolf of the Skies: Maura Milan’s IGNITE THE STARS

Blood Wolf of the Skies: Maura Milan’s IGNITE THE STARS

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*Guest review by the amazing Joan He, author of the forthcoming DESCENDANT OF THE CRANE!

I dove into Ignite the Stars expecting a space opera in the vein of Across the Universe. But what I got was so, so much more. Not only does Ignite the Stars have amazing Asian representation on its cover—which helped me visualize our main character Ia the entire time—it embodies everything I love in an anime. Here’s how this edge-of-your seat, wild-joyride of a debut stole my breath away in true, binge-worthy fashion:

  1. The world building. The scope of it is deliciously massive, yet never overwhelming. Maura gives you just enough info to satisfy and drive your hunger for more. To whet your appetite: we have genetically perfect families who’s patented the dimpled chin, of all things, artificial fingertips that can steal another’s prints with a simple touch, and a futuristic version of Google hangouts that literally involves logging your consciousness onto a cloud-like shared drive.
  2. The plot. I’m a sucker for school stories, especially when they explore difficult roommate situations. And my god is Ia one difficult roommate to have. Prepare yourself for a lot of awkward silences, eye contact, and bathroom-sleeping. It makes the resulting friendship so worth it. But roommate woes soon become the least of your worries. This book effortlessly zooms in and out, going from intimate, personal stakes to universe-in-the-balance chapters.
  3. The characters. Ia is the best OP (over-powered) character I’ve read about in a long time. She’s badass, she knows it, and she shows There was never a moment when I doubted Ia’s title—and legacy—as the Blood Wolf of the Skies. Need a fingerprint? Break a finger! Her roommate Brinn is her foil, immediately relatable and just trying to blend in, even if that means concealing her roots and unique identity. And KNIVES. Don’t get me started on our Flight Master, who just needs a hug (I volunteer). The characters are all brilliant on their own, but when they come together, their dynamics are electrifying.
  4. The greater message. Ignite the Stars doesn’t shy away from tackling tough, relevant topics. One of my favorite themes was how you can seize the future and make it yours, how you can honor your past and where you came from while continuing to define your identity. 

I also harassed Maura into divulging some extra info. What can I say? I would be a great asset to the Olympus Commonwealth 😉

1) My love for Knives is no secret. His emotional vulnerability is so convincing. He doesn’t posture as a “bad boy,” necessarily, but he has his demons all the same. How did you come up with this character? Where there any influences? Also, if Knives were in a fanfiction that’s set outside of the Ignite the Stars universe, what universe would that be and what role would he play?

Knives is my precious baby deer. I adore him so much. In the beginning, he was just meant to be like any tsundere type–a grump with a soft, squishy heart. As I started to revise, I was able to build that archetype out a lot more and figure out his family background and what specifically happened in his past to get him to where we see him at the beginning of the book. As for influences, I would definitely say Prince Zuko from Avatar: The Last Airbender. On the anime side, Knives is soooo Kei Tsukishima from Haikyuu and Tsukasa Domyoji from Hana Yori Dango. And also Gilbert Blythe–he’s the OG tsundere.

2) OMG ZUKOOOO. See, guys, I’m telling you Knives is a good one (and MINE). I also want to know Ia’s role in this alternate universe fanfic (I’m totally not gearing up to write one…). How would she continue to make Knives’ life miserable while also making him feel allll things he should not feel?

If Ia was in this same Alternate Universe, she would be the tomboyish lower class girl who furiously chases Knives through winding alleyways because she thinks he stole her wallet (which she needed to pay her older brother’s medical bills). Of course, Knives didn’t steal the money at all; it just unknowingly fell into the hood of his sweater. Naturally Knives doesn’t understand why the few dollars in her wallet is so important to Ia. Maybe there’s even a scene where all the money is tragically blown away by the wind, and he’s like “what’s the big deal?” and she HATES HIM SO MUCH for it. Thus their feud begins.

3) I would watch this k-drama, hands down.

Because this is a duology—thank goodness for that—what can we expect in Ignite the Stars 2? (Please say more Knia scenes. Pleaseeee). But really, what sort of journeys will Brinn, Ia, and Knives take? And how much will I suffer?

Yes, I can promise you Knia scenes!!

Book 2 takes place about a month after book 1 ends, and everyone at Aphelion is in the middle of picking up all the pieces and repairing the damage that has happened. As the political climate shifts to war, our three main characters have to carry more difficult and heavier weights on their shoulders, which cause a lot of cracks in the bonds they have with each other.

Which leads me to the quick pitch for this book– that it’s about kids who are thrown into a war and are too scared to fight it. Each character is faced with the impossible task of holding on to hope in the face of tragedy. They’re constantly asking the questions: How do we keep fighting? How do we keep on living?

And are you going to suffer, Joan? Nahhh….

AVOIDING THE QUESTION, I SEE…

2019 is still a ways away, but Ignite the Stars is available NOW!!!! Snag your copy and make sure to add it on Goodreads!

Love and Extremism: R.O. Kwon’s THE INCENDIARIES

Love and Extremism: R.O. Kwon’s THE INCENDIARIES

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R.O. Kwon’s debut The Incendiaries reads like the trim and violent baby of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History and Chang-Rae Lee’s Native Speaker. Quick, terse, and wrenching, it starts as the alcohol-soaked fever dream of a college romance and turns into a train crash of religious cults and anti-abortion terrorist bombings. Will Kendall is a former born-again Christian who transferred out of a “Bible college” after losing his faith. His on-again off-again girlfriend Phoebe is falling deeper and deeper into Jejah, a Christian extremist cult masquerading as an intense Bible study group. Will wants to rescue Phoebe; Phoebe doesn’t want to be rescued. The turnout is predictably tragic.

“If we could believe all people existed in their minds as much as we did in our own, the rest followed,” says John Leal to Phoebe. “To love is but to imagine well.” Kwon loves her main characters. Both leads are introduced as archetypes. Will is the poor college misfit from a broken home, waiting tables at Michelangelo’s to afford pretending to be what he isn’t. Phoebe is the pretty rich girl who everyone loves, a manic pixie dream type whose attitude towards love fits the tragic aesthetic of a Lana Del Rey song. But Will is not a humble, virtuous hero except in his own mind. His behavior is colored by deep streaks of misogyny that he refuses to acknowledge or take responsibility for. He hurts Phoebe as much as he wants to help her. Phoebe turns to religion not because she’s been swindled by a charismatic cult leader, but because of years-long guilt and a desire for punishment for the part she played in her mother’s death.

The only character I wish we could have learned more about is John Leal, Jejah’s terrifying and mysterious cult leader. It’s never revealed whether he really did witness all those horrible things in a North Korean gulag, or if he made it all up to swindle his cult followers. But knowing less about John Leal serves the story’s message–we can’t understand why Phoebe is so enraptured by him, just as we can’t understand from the outside the frenzied intensity of a cult following, or of overbearing love.

The story doesn’t center around racial identity, but Kwon addresses Phoebe and John’s Korean backgrounds with a casual deftness that only a Korean-born author could. Their race manifests in the little details. Phoebe’s mother only calls her by her Korean name, Haejin. There’s a nice discussion of the prevalence of Christianity in South Korea. And Will, the white character, imagines this exchange about John Leal’s ethnicity:

I could have brought up, but didn’t, the fact that he wasn’t even Korean.

His mother, she’d object. She–

He’s half.

Well, yes. But still.

It’s a quick, economical dialogue that packs in a world of conversation about biraciality and authenticity testing. Kwon’s prose has a way of doing that–it’s quick and efficient, alluding to larger conversations without over-writing anything. The Incendiaries is a fairly short read–only around 200 pages–but it feels much longer just because the story grasps at so many larger philosophical, social, and interpersonal issues, all of which Kwon manages to summarize in a few clever words.

The Incendiaries is a book about extremism, fanaticism, and faith–both in love and religion. Nobody is a hero or a perfect victim. I didn’t feel good when I read it. But still I read the whole thing in a single, feverish spurt because I had to see the disaster to the very end. Highly recommend!

The Incendiaries comes out from Riverhead Books on July 31 in the US, and from Virago Press on September 6 in the UK.

Review by Rebecca F. Kuang

The Journey Begins!

The Journey Begins!

Hi, and welcome to Journey to the BEST!

One day, Farah and I realized that we spend so much time raving about books to each other that we might as well put our reviews online for the whole internet to see. We’re so excited about the amazing fiction coming out right now by Asian writers, and this blog is our way to review, celebrate, appreciate, and promote it all.

Here are some blog names that were suggested and ultimately rejected because they are terrible puns:

  • Dream of the Read Chamber
  • Water Marginalia
  • Romance of the Read Kingdoms

(Thanks, S.)

We thought it was important to have a review blog about Asian books by Asian readers, simply because in-group dialogue is important. Oftentimes Asian stories will carry cultural codes and inside jokes that outsiders just won’t pick up on, and we wanted a space to discuss the nuances of culture, heritage, and history in a way that resonates with Asian readers. Journey to the BEST! is our place to do that outside of the white gaze.

Some disclaimers:

  1. When we say “Asian” we mean everyone. Asian-Asian, Asian-American, Asian diaspora, half-Asian, East Asian, South Asian, Southeast Asian, etc.! We’re trying to be inclusive as possible, because why not?
  2. This is NOT a comprehensive site of all the Asian fiction coming out, or a judgement of the “best” works coming out. Our community is producing so much great stuff that we can’t possibly keep up with, so all this review blog will ever claim to be is a place where we gush about great books that we just happened to have time to read. We’re buddies who like books. Not critics who rank things!
  3. We say “fiction” generally, but our tastes run closer towards SFF in Adult and YA, because that’s what we write! Other than that there are no rules on what we will include so if you are expecting consistency then that is your own fault.

In the next few months we’ll be doing reviews and Q&As with a ton of books and authors we’re excited about–Akemi Dawn Bowman’s SUMMER BIRD BLUE, Tasha Suri’s EMPIRE OF SAND, and Natasha Ngan’s GIRLS OF PAPER AND FIRE, for starters! We loved their books so much and we hope you do too. Hope you stop by and check it out.

PS–if you have recommendations for new books by Asian writers coming out, please let us know on the Contacts page! We try to keep up but things could slip past our radar.

Love,

Rebecca and Farah