Review: THE WEIGHT OF OUR SKY by Hannah Alkaf

Review: THE WEIGHT OF OUR SKY by Hannah Alkaf

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Review by Farah Naz Rishi

There’s a cliché in writing that I know I’m supposed to avoid like the plague. Surely, you know it too, as it so often appears whenever a character experiences even the slightest amount of stress. I released a breath I didn’t know I was holding.

But the problem with clichés is, oftentimes, they’re simply true. And when I read THE WEIGHT OF OUR SKY, Malaysian writer Hanna Alkaf’s YA debut, I did just that: bent over her pages, frantically reading as fast as I could, holding in breath I kept forgetting to release.

I felt this story—one so beautifully, unabashedly Muslim and Malaysian—in my bones.

THE WEIGHT OF OUR SKY takes place just before the Race Riots of Kuala Lumpur in 1969, violent unrest that was the result of racial tension between Malays and Chinese in newly British-liberated Malaysia; and in the midst of it all, sixteen-year old Melati Ahmad is just trying to be…normal. Though between the political discord, and the loss of her father, she’s barely keeping it together.

Worse, hiding her obsessive-compulsive disorder from her mom and best friend Saf is becoming increasingly difficult for Melati, and the blood-thirsty djinn inside her is hungrier than ever. If Melati doesn’t appease him with certain rituals, such as counting in threes, or performing small tapping patterns with her fingers, she suffers visions of the people she loves dying in disturbingly horrible ways, like a never-ending slideshow from hell, in her head.

On May 13th, while Melati and Saf are at a movie theater, racial tensions reach a fever pitch, and Saf is taken by a firing squad to be executed. However, Melati is saved by the kindly Auntie Bee, a Chinese-Malaysian woman who, along with her husband and two sons, gives her shelter in her own home—so begins the central theme of the book, the confrontation of tragedy with kindness—kindness that kindles strength to stand up to injustice. Now, wrought with guilt and separated from her mom in an ocean of bloodshed and brutality, Melati will do anything to keep her family, and Auntie Bee’s, safe. But first, she’s going to need a little help to keep her own demons at bay.

The book begins with one of the most haunting, memorable first lines I’ve ever read, but this is one of those rare cases where the rest of the story does not disappoint. Melati has such a dynamic, evocative voice that makes you want to, sometimes audibly, root for her (the line “I’m really, really not okay. I’m so far from okay I don’t even remember what okay feels like anymore” gave me chills), and each character, no matter how small a role they play, is remarkably memorable.

You can be assured that THE WEIGHT OF OUR SKY is also teeming with big picture descriptions so vivid they genuinely had me wondering if Hanna had time-traveling abilities. It’s clear that each word has been considered with care, every detail chosen with the tender hand of not only a writer, but an investigative journalist who wanted readers to see and experience as best as possible her beloved country’s history. In short, Hanna’s debut simply doesn’t read like a debut. This is writing at its best, achingly raw and real and heart-clenching.

I appreciated Hanna’s trigger warning, because Hanna’s uncanny ability with words put this reader, one who knows embarrassingly little about Malaysian history, right in the middle of it. As such, there are depictions of graphic violence and racism that genuinely hurts to read. But that is a testament, I think, to Hanna’s sharp, intense writing.

This is a debut you won’t want to miss.

The Weight of Our Sky, published by Salaam Reads, releases February 5th, 2019.

Review: Roshani Chokshi’s THE GILDED WOLVES

Review: Roshani Chokshi’s THE GILDED WOLVES

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Review by Farah Naz Rishi

If I could capture THE GILDED WOLVES, Roshani Chokshi’s latest YA Fantasy novel, distill it, and place it in a rose quartz perfume bottle, out would pour velveteen and burnt sugar, a drop of absinthe on painted lips. This is a novel that pulls you deep into its world and dances with you until the sun rises, leaving you dazed when you’ve reached the final page. And I speak from experience: you will not be able to put this book down once you’ve begun. It politely demands your attention.

Welcome to Paris, 1889.  The world is on the verge of revolution, and beneath the shadows of the Eiffel Tower, you will find those who practice a divine kind of magic known as Forging, one that draws power from fragments of the ancient Tower of Babel. The secretive Order of Babel has been charged with protecting—or some might say, hording—these fragments, at any cost. After all, in the wrong hands, the fragments could hold the power to destroy the world.

But recent events have left the remaining two of France’s Houses of the Order scattered, lost in the very shadows they hide behind, rendering them, and the world, entirely vulnerable.

And what a shame it would be if someone discovered this secret.

It would be the perfect opportunity for a shakeup.

For, perhaps, a heist.

The story begins with Séverin, a wealthy hotelier and artifact collector (see: gentleman thief), who desperately craves his rightful inheritance: heirship to the fallen House of Vance. When Hypnos, patriarch of House Nyx and Séverin’s childhood rival, approaches him with the opportunity of a lifetime—to obtain an artifact of the Order of Babel in exchange for his birthright—Séverin cannot refuse. But to do so, Séverin will need the aid of his misfit band of friends, a refreshingly diverse cast of characters who are so lovingly fleshed out, their very real voices will quickly resonate in your mind.

THE GILDED WOLVES is at its heart a heist story, but it’s one filled to the brim with mystery and intrigue and real history that Chokshi has masterly manipulated with a touch of magic, making this history nerd absolutely giddy—all traits that very much point to a winning formula for most YA readers. Not to mention of course the difficulty that comes with writing a good heist story; by necessity, there has to be several moving pieces, but Chokshi proves she can effortlessly move them across the chess board with ease.

More than that, though, it’s Chokshi’s descriptive ability, one to rival a god of illusion, that truly shines in this book. With her ability to conjure images in your mind with the full clarity of reality, with such vivid detail, Chokshi proves she can make you hear the teacups hitting bone china saucers and the whisper of secrets beneath the din of a masquerade all from the words on a page. There are countless snippets of gorgeously rendered descriptions—“the slender petals looked like snippets of evening sky, a rich velveteen purple hungry for the light of stars”—that make the reading experience truly enjoyable.

And somehow, in a backdrop of an already grippingly tight-paced narrative, the book manages to throw heartrending character relationships into the mix. I know we’ve said in almost every review her on Journey to the Best! how refreshing it is to see a diverse cast of characters, but seeing one in a “Fantasy France” that somehow hasn’t been stripped away of its color is particularly delightful. Nearly every central character faces a struggle based on their marginalized identity that affects the narrative with subtle nuance—much like, well, reality. Hypnos and Séverin, for example, although set-up to be rivals, are bonded over the shared weight of their biraciality that, according to the Order and community around them, has rendered them tainted, or undeserving of their positions. This struggle is not central to the story itself, not really, but is important simply because it exists—and in doing so, makes this world feel that much more (heartbreakingly) real.

To talk more of the other characters and their relationships would require, at the very, least, a twenty-page essay, but I have to emphasize that this is a cast you’ll undoubtedly fall for: Zofia, the stone cold embodiment of a Calculus differential trapped in a young Jewish woman’s body; Laila, “more myth than girl,” and her everlasting tease of romance with Séverin, who she could just as easily kill as she could kiss; Enrique is a character who lights up the page with witty banter every time he strides into a scene; and sweet Tristan, a golden flower boy whose smile would probably make you weep. The banter and quips between them all deserve its own book, quite frankly, and I wouldn’t be opposed to sitting back and hearing them talk for hours on end.

In fact, I’d follow these characters into the shadowy, dangerous depths of every heist they invited me along to—gladly. I think you will, too.

The Gilded Wolves is out TODAY from Wednesday Books!

Review: The Sword of Kaigen by M. L. Wang

Review: The Sword of Kaigen by M. L. Wang


Guest Review by Petrik Leo*

5 stars from start to finish for this exceptional Japanese-inspired military fantasy standalone. As of this moment, The Sword of Kaigen has become not only one of the four best self-published books I’ve ever read, but also my personal number one favorite self-published book.

This is one of those books where I just want to write “Please buy it and read it. It’s fucking amazing!” as my entire review. This book came out of nowhere and it totally stole my heart. If you’ve been following my reviewing progress, then you probably know that I like to keep and show my personal stats and facts on books I’ve read and reviewed. So here it goes. After The Mirror’s Truth by Michael R. Fletcher, We Ride the Storm by Devin Madson, and Never Die by Rob J. Hayes, The Sword of Kaigen by M.L. Wang is currently the fourth self-published book that I’ve rated with a full 5 stars. I honestly didn’t expect to love this book that much but I was madly engrossed by every page. Trust me, you’ll want to pre-order this book right now. I already did, it’s only $0.99 at the moment on Amazon for god sake! (More info on the amazing bonuses that come with the pre-order at the bottom of this review.)

The Sword of Kaigen is M.L. Wang’s first high fantasy book, a standalone companion prequel to her Theonite series, and this was absolutely incredible. It’s an Eastern Asian (mostly Japanese) inspired military fantasy and I loved this book deeply from cover to cover. The official blurb on Goodreads and Amazon did a great job explaining the premise of the book without spoiling anything, so please feel free to check there if you want to know more. Let’s begin with what I loved about this book. I’ll start by saying that I seriously flipped (or swiped) through this book insanely fast. The Sword of Kaigen is brimming with seductive pacing and it was truly unputdownable. Every moment I wasn’t reading it, I couldn’t stop thinking about what would happen next. From deadly propaganda, to non-stop escalating tensions, to superb character developments, Wang did a fantastic job in making sure that every chapter has something important happening. No pages were wasted; the book was utterly tension-packed and contained a very endearing cast.

“A life of dangerous adventures might seem worth it now, when you are young and seemingly invincible, but one day, you will have children, and you will not want that life for them.”

I’m serious here. I’ve said countless times before that I prioritize characterizations over everything, and a crystal clear talent for characterizations was displayed from the first chapter. The two main characters, Mamoru and Misaki, were extremely well-written; but what amazed me further was how in-depth the characterizations were for EVERY character in this book. The characters were flawed, and none of them stayed the same as they were at the beginning of the story.

Picture: Mamoru by Tara Spruit (@taratjah)

Mamoru’s development in the face of the harsh revelation regarding everything he believed was astounding. Reading about his growth, struggle, and determination in living up to his name (Mamoru is Japanese for ‘protect’) was something I immensely enjoyed. But as much as I loved Mamoru, I have to give my biggest praises to Wang on her stunning achievement in writing Misaki.

Picture: Misaki by Tara Spruit (taratjah)

The natural and gradual development in her characterization and relationship with her family compelled me to be heavily invested in her storyline. She has become one of my favorite heroines in fantasy and I was also thoroughly impressed by the awesome and wholesome female friendship nurtured in this book. The characters in this novel taught me the meaning of facing hardships together, and how crucial family, friendship, love, adulthood, and parenthood are in the face of disaster. These and the terror of war were the main themes of the book and they were expertly delivered to the reader with finesse.

“I’ve never needed a sword to protect you—to raise you the way your father wanted. Caring for my family meant putting away the fighter, so I did.”

The world-building was intricately crafted; the clothing, honorifics, attitudes, older Japanese customs, and the languages used were all spot-on. I found the world-building and setting to be quite unique. It’s more like an alternate Earth that’s imbued with high fantasy elements than a totally new world. Planes and technologies were in the book, the languages that the characters used were literally Japanese and Mandarin in our world. I may be wrong here, but the name of the Planet, Duna, may have come from the Indonesian word for ‘planet’: Dunia. This book also serves really well as a rival to The Poppy War with a bit of the foundation of the world-building done from the opposite side. In The Poppy War, the Nikara Empire (Chinese) was invaded by the Federation of Mugen (Japanese) and the main character there employed fire magic. In The Sword of Kaigen, the Kaigenese Empire (Japanese) was invaded by the Ranganese (Chinese) and the main character here used water/ice magic. As a Chinese person who devours Japanese culture and media on a daily basis, I’m totally satisfied by the evident amount of research Wang has done for her world-building, and I thank her for it.

To say that this book was thrilling is an understatement. I’m not joking. The Sword of Kaigen is one of the most intense books I’ve ever read. I gritted my teeth, I clenched my fist, and I was constantly breathless. Wang knows how to write catastrophic elemental magic and implement extraordinary heart-hammering scenes very effectively. If you love The Poppy War, shonen anime/manga, or elemental magic battles—Avatar: The Last Airbender for example—you seriously have to read this book. Ice magic, wind magic, blood manipulation, and terrific duels; without writing skills of a certain caliber, the battles in this book could’ve been really frantic and too hard to follow. However, that wasn’t the case with this novel because Wang’s prose was easy and delightful to read. Her prose may not be poetic but it is vivid, simple, and flows without any obstruction.

Honestly, sometimes it even felt like I was reading Brandon Sanderson’s magical battles and that’s pretty much one of the biggest praises I can ever give to any high fantasy author. Wang provided not only one but two climax sequences in The Sword of Kaigen; the first one began at approximately 35% and the second one at 75% mark of the book. I can say with temerity that both of them were stupendous in quality. Showing the raw and violent power of the magic systems, the calamity that appeared when the bloodline of the gods clashed was bloody destructive. I need to also mention that the book features one of the most memorable duels I’ve ever read in a fantasy novel. Not only was the duel itself magnificent in execution, but it was also so emotionally impactful that it formed unforgettably vivid images in my head. The Sword of Kaigen is a war story, a brutally pulse-pounding one. The great characterizations enhanced the sense of danger and impending loss the characters felt during and after the war. Bad things happened to good people and you WILL feel their palpable pain and tragedy. The piercing blade of ice will stab at your empathy, white snow will turn crimson, the summoning of the Whispering Blade will break your heart, and you will beg for more because you won’t able to stop reading the book until you’ve reached the satisfying conclusion.

“But if I learned one thing from Firebird, it’s that a person’s tragedy doesn’t define them or cancel all the good in their life.”

The Sword of Kaigen is an excellent Japanese-inspired military fantasy in all its glory. Written with words sharpened to fatal edges that cuts straight to the heart with merciless precision; full of colossal frigid blasts that freeze its suspenseful familial drama and outstanding action scenes into the reader’s memory; emotionally demonstrating the terrifying truth of the atrocity of a devastating war that left incurable scars to the fictional characters who have become real to me. All of these components combined to make this book my first 5 stars read of the year. I’m only five days into January at the time of writing this review and I already know that this superlative book will not only be in my ‘best books of the year’ list by the end of the year, but will also be listed as one of the best books I’ve ever read. In my list of brilliant and favorite self-published books, The Sword of Kaigen stands tall at the top of the mountain and I honestly have no idea when or if another self-published novel will steal its rightful spot. Without any shred of doubt, this was a phenomenal read and I will recommend this glistening jewel of a novel to every adult fantasy reader from now on. If you’re a fan of The Poppy War, read it. If you’re a fan of military fantasy, read it. If you’re a fan of high fantasy, read it!

The Sword of Kaigen comes out on February 19, 2019. Preordering available on Amazon: Amazon US | Amazon UK

*Petrik Leo review mostly SFF and historical fiction books on his own blog that he created with some of his best friends around the world: This review was originally posted on Novel Notions and shared by him to Journey2thebest in order to bring more buzz around this book.

Review + Q&A: Mimi Yu’s THE GIRL KING

Review + Q&A: Mimi Yu’s THE GIRL KING

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Review by Gina Chen

Add Princess Lu to my list of favorite heroines.

Mimi Yu’s debut THE GIRL KING is a prime example of how a great story isn’t about the tropes but the execution of them. It’s a familiar, fast read: upon betrayal in the court, Princess Lu loses the throne she’s meant to inherit and she’s forced to go on the run. She crosses paths with illegal shapeshifter Nok, and together, they plan to reclaim her throne and prevent her cousin Set from reigning. Meanwhile, Lu’s biddable sister Min is betrothed to Set, but Min’s own forbidden magic is coming to light. Her taste of its power sets her on her own dangerous, ambitious path.

It’s exciting and fresh and briskly-paced. I rarely like action-adventure journey stories, but this one feels like it’s written just for me, namely for its primary heroine Lu, the one kind of character I’ve always wanted: an arrogant disaster of a warrior princess.

Nothing against ingenues, hesitant wielders of power, or girls just coming into their own. But the heroines who are unshakably confident from the very beginning are the ones who own my heart, the ones I consider relatable, and they’re almost never written about. As pretty as Asian costume dramas are, it’s dispiriting when the girls never get the role I want them to have. Similar narratives almost always feature some cocky-yet-honorable prince good with swords, horses, flirting (and not much else), who meets a poor, gentle-yet-feisty girl with a tragic backstory and secret powers. Change that to princess and peasant boy and you’ve got Lu and Nok respectively. Lu gets to be charismatic and aloof, and Nok gets to be soft and protected and the emotional heart. On paper, it doesn’t sound like it should be so momentously unique, but in reality—as someone who feels like they’ve been wandering the desert in search for these archetypes—THE GIRL KING is a magnificent oasis.

I don’t just want a heroine who takes no prisoners. I love girl power, but I love messy girl power more. Lu makes inescapably difficult decisions that flesh out that impulsiveness and stoicism to give us a glimpse of what kind of leader she might be. She’s cold and somewhat insensitive and knows it, but she’s learning to grow beyond that on the journey. That would have meant so much to me growing up. The story also tackles matters of imperialism and what gives Lu—or anyone—the right to rule, especially through Nok’s questioning, as his kin have been prosecuted until they’ve all but vanished. Then there’s Min, whose rise to power is more of a slow burn back in the capital. Her impossible decisions are about reclaiming who she is, but also raises the question: at what cost? The sisterly relationship is deliciously tangled and their hostility feel earned as they pursue their goals with a ferocity that leaps off the page. I’m excited to see them interact more in the next book as their paths diverge and clash.

While there are patriarchal elements, this is very much a story about female power, with an abundance of female leaders, rivals, villains, witches, mothers, and goddesses to prove it, and the sisters at the center of it all. They get to be as supportive as they are scheming, and foolish as they are wise, and brutal when pushed to the brink. This kind of story may have been told before, but rarely in such a way, with characters that so resonated with me. At the end of book one, I have no idea what’s to come, and I can’t wait to find out. All hail THE GIRL KING, indeed.

The Girl King is out today from Bloomsbury!

Special thanks to author Mimi Yu for sitting down with Journey to the Best for a Q&A. Read her fascinating responses below!

1) THE GIRL KING is full of action, intrigue, and hidden lore. Did you draw from any specific inspirations when writing it and building out the world?

A lot of the media that I loved best as a young person, from the Star Wars franchise (I’m including the extended universe books, which I consumed like water during middle school), to A Song of Ice and Fire, and even classics like Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, attracted me in large part because of the scope of their universes. Big worlds with lots of voices. That interplay between warring points of view creates such a full, complex vision of what people are capable of, why they do what they do. I wanted to build a world with that in mind.

At the same time, none of these universes I mentioned featured people who looked like me. So, when I sat down to write THE GIRL KING I really wanted to do my part to contribute to the growing diversity and breadth of YA fantasy. To that end, the world of the book is loosely based on various East and North Asian histories. Some are maybe more obvious, like the Empire of the First Flame’s parallels with the late Qing Dynasty, and some are more general, like Yulan City, which is sort of an amalgamation of folklore and C-drama aesthetics! It was kind of a tricky balance for me, honestly, as a diasporic US-born Asian American. Despite the book taking place in an imagined world—and so much of fantasy being built on loose analogs!—I wanted to make sure I was being respectful of the histories and references I was borrowing from.

2) I love the chemistry and messiness between all the characters. What’s your favorite relationship(s) to explore in this series?

I don’t know that I can pick, to be honest! They each hold an important place in my heart. I think I was surprised by how…not fun, exactly, but real and almost easy it was to write Min and Lu’s dynamic. I don’t have a sister, so I think I wasn’t quite expecting the depth and resonance that would have. Lu and Nok have a slow burn of a relationship, which is one of my favorite things to write, although it’s also tinged with a certain sadness.

3) Sibling relationships can get especially complicated and Lu and Min have such a fraught one; do you think the sisters are stronger together or apart?

Wow, that’s a great question! You know how in intimate relationships, whether it’s between friends or family, we tend to develop roles? Someone’s the peacemaker, someone’s the shoulder to cry on, someone’s the one who always picks what we have for dinner, and so on. And even if those roles aren’t super healthy, or we’re simply tired of playing them—of living like sleepwalking—it’s so easy to fall into them out of rote familiarity. I catch myself doing it whenever I visiting my parents for more than a few days! That’s very much where Lu and Min are at when we first encounter them. Their relationship is built entirely on circumstance and reflex, rather than mutual understanding or anything resembling intention. They’ve just always done what they feel they need to do to survive within their deeply troubled family, whether it hurts themselves or each other. And I think deep down both of them know this in their own ways, but they don’t know how to break out of it, or even imagine an alternative. So, in this moment, at the start of the book, I think some time apart might help them to better understand what they want from themselves, and maybe what they want from and for one another, versus what they’ve been asking or taking.

4) If you could trade places with any of the characters, who would you choose?

Oof, that’s a tough choice. None of them are terribly happy, are they? That said, I absolutely could not turn down the ability to shift shape into an animal, so I’m going to go with Nok.

5) What should readers look forward to in the next book?

A theme that comes up a lot in the first book is the repetition and lingering trauma of past mistakes—whether on a grand, historical scale, or between generations in a family—and whether or not the characters are able or willing to stop those cycles, that rote recurrence of violence and pain. Without getting too specific, I can tell you this will come to the forefront in the second book as readers get a look into the more distant past, to better understand how everyone ended up where they are, and where they may choose to go.

And circling back to your earlier question, readers can definitely expect a deepening of the relationship between Lu and Min. Some very heavy family secrets, rifts and resentments are exposed by the end of the first book, and I think both of them now see more clearly the ways in which they’ve misunderstood—and underestimated—one another. And they’re going to have to each grapple with that as a matter of life or death.

EMPIRE OF SAND: Q&A with Tasha Suri

EMPIRE OF SAND: Q&A with Tasha Suri

Both of us have been raving about Tasha Suri’s debut Empire of Sand since it came out in November (you can read Farah’s review here!) so we were delighted we could snag Tasha for a quick Q&A about her writing process, Bollywood inspirations, and narrative choices.

1) EMPIRE OF SAND is inspired by the gamut of Mughal culture and history, down to the food your characters eat, the significance of dance, the subtle political influence wielded by harems. But perhaps more than anything, the story focuses on the consequences of an empire which has built itself on colonial rule. Why? And what are the parallels from actual history you hope your readers will draw from? 

It’s hard to avoid thinking about the significance of colonialism when thinking about empire. To make a broad, sweeping statement: many powerful nations, empires and states of the past and the present have built their prosperity on the exploitation of the resources and labour of people who are considered to be not true people of that nation, for whatever reason. That’s a reality I think about a lot, as a descendant of people who lived under colonial rule, and I wanted to explore it in my own small way. I’m not sure if I hope readers will draw parallels from real history, but as EMPIRE OF SAND is inspired by India, if they do think of the British Raj, I honestly won’t be surprised or displeased.

2) I could talk about Mehr and your ability to create a very real, compelling, tough-as-nails protagonist. But I’m interested in hearing you talk about your villain, the Maha. What is the secret to making a character so utterly despicable (besides him being the reason for tearing Mehr and Amun apart)? Does it have something to do with his “gentle malevolence”? 

I intended the Maha’s brand of evil – for all that he’s an immortal and intensely, unnaturally creepy guy – to be very human and familiar. He tangles together love with worship and with fear; he gaslights and he manipulates. At his heart he’s a man who weaponizes the kind of abusive behavior that we all experience in large or small ways at some point in our lives. That’s what lies at the core of his ‘gentle malevolence’, and what makes him so thoroughly unpleasant.

3) And yet, the ones who seem to hold the most power, who are best able to defy the Maha, are women. Besides Amun, the relationships Mehr has with other women propel her. What drew you to portraying female friendships in a romance story?

I’m a big reader of romance, and the best ones I’ve read are the ones that contain lots of strong and interesting women, be they enemies or friends or family (or the heroine’s love interest, of course). But I also just generally don’t think I could write a story without women’s relationships at its heart. All women in the real world have female friends, have mother figures and mentors and rivals. It feels real. Although romance is important, other kinds of love are really essential too.

4) If someone has never watched Bollywood films, what would you recommend? Have Bollywood films influenced the way you write or think about scenes? 

Oh, if only I could make my scenes half as beautiful as a Bhansali film! If anyone wants an introduction to Bollywood, I’d be tempted to start by recommending some of my favourites from the 90s and early 00s: Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Kabhi Kushi Kabhi Gham, Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge… but honestly, if someone is looking for beautiful, historical films, then I’d recommend starting with Jodhaa Akbar, which still takes me breath away. Bajirao Mastani is a Bhansali film I love, as well. Oh, and if we’re talking real classics: Mughal-e-Azam and Pakeezah. Gorgeous, elegant, ambitious. I love them.

I’d tell anyone who hasn’t watched Bollywood films before that they’re like any other genre: they have their own rules and tropes, their own internal logic, they draw on their own narrative history and cultural references. Approach them with an inquisitive mind and you’ll get a lot of joy out of them.

5) How does one find the strength to write a love story built on hope when everything feels so…dire? 

Love is the only thing that makes dire circumstances bearable. It gives us hope. I’ve joked before that the real moral of EMPIRE OF SAND is that ‘the power of love will save us’ but it’s also not really a joke, because it’s totally the moral of the book.

6) And lastly: how could you hurt sweet boy Amun like this? What do you have to say for yourself? 

Hahaha, I’m sorry!

Okay, I’m not really sorry. I just love causing my characters pain. All writers do. We’re monsters, really.

A Love Song to Bollywood: Tasha Suri’s EMPIRE OF SAND

A Love Song to Bollywood: Tasha Suri’s EMPIRE OF SAND

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Tasha Suri’s adult fantasy debut EMPIRE OF SAND is a love song to classic Bollywood romance. Like warm laddoo, the story demands that you devour it slowly to savor the delectable prose. Even the subtle glances and movement between her characters are brimming with rich, hidden meaning. Every word has purpose. Every character, no matter how small, propels the story.

But beyond being a well-written fantasy, EMPIRE OF SAND is lush with Mughal inspiration that manages to feel both fresh and authentic. Suri is no foreigner to the Mughal world; she pulls you in, and you get the sense that she herself has felt the sand beneath her toes, has touched the winds of dreamfire. If magic is in Mehr’s blood, then this story is in Suri’s. It’s a post-colonial narrative, yes, and the central characters are brutally persecuted and exploited. But Suri has managed to build a world where there remains beauty in a desert, and love to be found in even the deadest of places. I want to hate this world that is so cruel to her characters. And yet, I never want to leave.

Mehr, Suri’s protagonist, is the illegitimate daughter of a governor of the Ambham Empire.  Although she has her father’s protection—and the privileged life of a noblewoman—her ability to tame Daiva, the ancient ethereal spirits that plague the land, through dance marks her as someone who can never truly belong. To her stepmother and servants, and even her own father, the problem of Mehr’s Otherness lies in her blood, sullied by her absent mother, a member of the nomadic and mysterious tribe of outcasts called the Amrithi.

But after years of remaining hidden from those who might abuse her ability, Mehr’s magic catches the attention of the Maha, the cruel and immortal emperor, who forces her into his following of mystics so that she may perform the Rite of Dreaming, a dance that twists the dreams of sleeping Gods—and compels them to extend the emperor’s life. However, the Rite requires two dancers, and Mehr finds herself the unwitting bride in an arranged marriage to none other than one of the Maha’s mystics, another taciturn, steely Amrithi named Amun. A man who, in theory, she should hate. But a storm lingers on the horizon, and with her soul no longer her own, Mehr must ignore her growing feelings for Amun and dance beneath the Maha’s ever-watchful eye—lest sleeping gods awaken.

Suri has devised such a hateable villain, the perfect antagonist, and every scene with the Maha put goosebumps on my flesh. But there’s depth to him, beyond his immortal years, and I almost hope we get to learn more about him in the next book. But the real scene-stealer is Amun, Mehr’s life partner. If you’ve consumed as many Bollywood movies as I have, you are then familiar with the arranged-marriage trope (movies like Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, and of course, Jodhaa Akbar come to mind). It’s a trope that’s impossible to grow sick of, especially when done right. Here, though, it is done magnificently; besides adding to the lamentable dearth of portrayals of arranged marriages in SF/F, especially happy, successful ones, EMPIRE OF SAND presents Mehr and Amun’s budding love with a natural ease that feels far from forced, and with such conviction that even readers who don’t care for romance will feel swept by their warmth. Mehr and Amun’s love does seems inevitable, and yet, Suri has mastered the art of the slow burn that keeps you awake at night, frantically turning the pages.

That dance is a form of magic in EMPIRE OF SAND absolutely delighted me. Dancing is almost crucial in Bollywood films, and stands as its own form of storytelling, one that hones on emotion that just can’t be described in words. It’s an expressive form of movement that allows the dancer to say what they normally could not out loud, which is especially useful for Mehr and Amun whose every conversation is being listened in on. Indeed, dancing is not just unnecessary fluff in the novel: here, dance places the persecuted, hidden Amrithi on a stage and out of the shadows, putting them in a position of both spectacle and agent. Even though we can’t see Mehr and Amun dance, we can feel how their dancing reflects the state of their relationship without Suri having to tell us. That’s its own kind of magic.

Empire of Sand is out today from Orbit.

Review by Farah Naz Rishi

Never Over Sexy Murder Boys: SL Huang’s ZERO SUM GAME

Never Over Sexy Murder Boys: SL Huang’s ZERO SUM GAME

Zero Sum Game (Cas Russell) by [Huang, S. L.]

S.L. Huang’s ZERO SUM GAME might have the most alluring pitch I’ve ever read: Cas Russell, mathematical genius, fights crime and kicks ass with lightning-quick calculations that supplement her prodigious martial arts abilities. But she might have finally met her match in someone “who can reach directly into people’s minds and twist their brains into Moebius strips.” Cas’s power is being utterly logical; this opponent can warp the only axioms Cas takes to be true. Therefore, explosions.

I know Huang is a martial artist who’s worked as a Hollywood stuntwoman, and it shows. ZERO SUM GAME reads like a blockbuster film best devoured in a single sitting. The action scenes are fast-paced, cinematic, and awesome. The dialogue is quick and snappy, and the criminal tactics and cyber-warfare are just complicated and cool enough for me to suspend all disbelief. It’s Jack Reacher, Mission Impossible, and James Bond all mixed into one, but this time through a narrative voice that doesn’t spend time ogling over boobs or reducing women to sexy plot objects.

I immediately fell for for the three central characters. I LOVE murder boys so my obvious favorite was the bloody and mysterious Rio, a self-admitted utter psychopath who feeds off pain, but somehow abides entirely by the Bible through the fluke of his religious upbringing. He’s a hitman who “seeks out the people he judges deserve God’s vengeance,” in order to “introduce them to God.” He is utterly terrifying and help I’m in love. Arthur Tresting is his polar opposite–he’s the fundamentally good-hearted cop turned private investigator who’s willing to break the law in the service of his morals, but adamantly opposed to killing innocents. And Cas–wonderful, gritty, vulnerable, brilliant, stupid Cas–is a blend of the two. She’d like to believe she’s as cold and ruthlessly efficient as Rio, but her emotions get the best of her more often then she’d like to admit.

There’s nothing new about this combination. It’s a textbook trio, really, but Huang spins the trope to its greatest possible effect. I love how they banter; how they play off each other and push each other to the extremes. And I will never, ever not be down for a Murder Boy with Cool Backstory. Never.

If you always wished you could get a James Bond book with a female protagonist, or if you just really, really like math, this book is for you. I ate it up in two sittings and I’d do it again for the sequel. Huang does a great job outlining stakes and unanswered questions for future books–I’m desperately curious about Cas’s backstory, and I can’t wait for the next installment.

Zero Sum Game is out now from Tor.

Q&A with S.L. Huang

You have a degree in mathematics from MIT. How has that been an asset in your work as a stuntwoman? How did you spin that into writing Cas’s abilities?

Believe it or not, I got my first stunt job (on Battlestar Galactica, no less! Nerd nirvana!) partly because of my MIT alumni email address. The stunt coordinator said it showed him “some brains behind the brawn.” Over the years, I met one other MIT alum and a Dartmouth graduate doing stunts, and we all agreed people were so fascinated by it they wanted to hire us.

Incidentally, some of the best engineers I’ve ever met are stunt riggers. It takes an incredible amount of science and innovation to be an expert in all the support equipment we use for action scenes!

As for how I used my math degree for writing Cas—I use some of it, sure, but most of the math I studied was pretty theoretical, whereas Cas’s immediate challenges usually require something more practical or physics-related. Still math, but not what I specialized in as an undergrad. Instead, I’d say where my math degree really comes out is in the texture of how she thinks, the way she breathes numbers through her interaction with the world. I don’t think I could have written that without having lived that immersion in hardcore math studies, surrounded by people who regularly used words like “orthogonal” and “monotonic” in conversation.

I can’t get over Rio. What inspired his character? I’ve never met a sociopath with a strict Biblical moral code before.

 I love that everyone is so into Rio! (And am also a little scared by this.)

In fiction, I’ve always been delighted by characters that have some sort of emotionlessness built into them (see: Spock, Data). In most of the unfinished and/or terrible novels I’ve written since I was a teenager, there has been some iteration of this character—often damaged, always emotionally stunted, usually a killer.

So Rio is the latest in a long line of fascinatingly emotionally lacking characters I’ve been drawn to create. I think, however, that he is probably the most successful of them. And unlike many of the other characters I’ve played with who have these emotional deficiencies, he has no aspirations to gain empathy. At all.

I’m always interested in how thrillers handle the balance between realistic stunts and entirely made-up ruses. How many of the technical/mechanical/cyber hijinks in ZERO SUM GAME are real, and how many are babble for the sake of fiction? How did you research to write them so plausibly?

To be honest, I always do gallons and gallons of research when I’m planning a scene, so if something in Zero Sum Game is implausible, I don’t know it! (Don’t tell me if it is.)

For example, everything about the EMP scene is as accurate as I could make it. I even read a military study that said they found 90 percent of cars would still work, but with some dash flickering… I put all that in the book.

Or when I have Cas shoot a grenade out of the air, I actually did all the math to make sure a bullet from the gun she was carrying could knock a grenade off course.

On the other hand, my hacker’s predictive programs are slightly futuristic and don’t exist in that form yet, but the methodology for them, believe it or not, is real—I stole it from the startup of one of my best friends!

To my knowledge, the only thing I fudged in Zero Sum Game is that when Cas is arrested, my research said the process of booking her would move more slowly than it does in the book. I could have done it entirely accurately, but I realized that would disrupt the pacing, so I compressed it just a little to make the read more entertaining. No regrets.

So, although I’d class most of the hijinks I used as unlikely, to my knowledge everything except the SF superpower elements is either possible in today’s real world or very reasonable extrapolation! 

Hate glocks, got it. What’s your favorite type of gun, either in fiction or real life?   

That’s easy! My favorite gun is a Belgian-made Browning Hi-Power in nine-millimeter. (Cas would scoff at the nine-millimeter part, but she’s a caliber snob.)

I have to say, instead of futuristic fictional guns, I am honestly much more delighted by historical firearms. For example, I love working with Old West rifles and six-shooters. There’s so much history and character that goes into understanding older weapons, and that’s a complexity fictional weapons usually don’t have, alas.

If we loved ZERO SUM GAME, what should we read next?

Ooo, this is a very timely question, because I just finished Rebecca Roanhorse’s Trail of Lightning, which stars another badass, mercenary, slightly emotionally stunted heroine named Maggie Hoskie. If you liked Cas in Zero Sum Game, I feel certain you’ll love Maggie!

And on top of an awesome protagonist, Trail of Lighting features a stunningly rich, creative dystopia as well as prose that would have made me jealous if I weren’t enjoying it so much. I definitely recommend it.

Review by Rebecca F. Kuang