Review: Nafiza Azad’s THE CANDLE AND THE FLAME

Review: Nafiza Azad’s THE CANDLE AND THE FLAME

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Guest review by Zeba Shahnaz

Nafiza Azad’s THE CANDLE AND THE FLAME stars eighteen-year-old Fatima, one of the few human survivors of a massacre in the fantastical city of Noor. Fatima and the city have both worked hard to rebuild in the years since; Fatima has carved a colorful life for herself and her loved ones in a city whose rule is now split between the human royal family and the Ifrit, the djinn tribe of order and reason. When the city’s most powerful djinn dies in front of her, Fatima’s life changes forever. Before she knows it, she’s drawn into palace intrigues with the maharajah’s family, and forges a cautious alliance with Zulfikar, the handsome Ifrit Emir of the city, to navigate her new world. But a terrible conspiracy is afoot, threatening to destroy Noor for good, and it may be up to Fatima to save her city – even if it costs her everything she holds dear.

Azad, with her talent for lyrical, evocative prose, combines the elements above to form something a little quieter than we typically see in YA fantasy. In some ways, CANDLE feels almost like a fantastical slice-of-life narrative: rather than letting plot take the reins, she relies on deeply internalized character work to drive the story forward. And what gorgeous character work it is!

As the story unspooled before us, I found myself caring deeply about Fatima and her life, her world, her family, her friends. I could have wandered Noor’s maidaans at her side all day. She is a fierce, loving, principled lead character, whose grief and trauma shape her development in a way unlike any I’ve seen before in YA fantasy. Azad surrounds her lead with an array of distinctive supporting characters, including Zulfikar, a warrior leader with a gentle heart, whose evolving relationship with Fatima is absolutely breathtaking; and Bhavya, the rajkumari struggling to live her own life in the face of royal political pressures. CANDLE has a deep bench of fully realized characters, but at the end of the day, the city of Noor is very much the center of this novel.

Though it’s located somewhere on the Silk Road, Noor most closely resembles a South Asian city. And rarely, if ever, have we seen anything like the fantasy world of CANDLE – a beautifully realized Desi fantasy of communal harmony. Azad’s imagining of a South Asia without communal strife or violence, still free from the ills of colonialism, is beautiful, hopeful, and, in all honesty, kind of tragic, given the intensification of political, cultural, and religious tensions in recent years across a long-since Partitioned South Asia. Azad’s third-person, present-tense style evokes nostalgia for the city even as we’re first getting to know it – nostalgia for a fantasy that hasn’t existed before, but that we need to believe was (or still is) possible.

Noor is based first and foremost in a North Indian Hindustani milieu – a world whose aesthetics South Asian fantasy loves to reference, but whose significant roots in Islamicate cultures and traditions have been missing in many such works. There is absolutely no ambiguity about CANDLE’s Desi Muslimness, though, and the specificity with which Azad captures the nuances of Desi Muslim life made me break out in hysterical, incredulous, holy shit is this real? giggles at times. Finding concepts like halal romance and even Urdu words like chulha in a fantasy novel was enough to make me lose my mind. The gentle, piercing timelessness of Azad’s prose immerses us in a cultural and, yes, religious perspective that I have not seen reflected back to me so acutely, in a way that rings so unnervingly but welcomingly true.

As beautiful and hopeful as CANDLE ultimately is, that beauty and hope is grounded in the recognition and remembrance of past horrors, in acknowledging the vulnerabilities you open yourself up to when building connections across cultures and communities – and continuing to do so anyway. It’s a message we’ve seen before, but it becomes poignant and radical here as it rarely has before.

CANDLE is a wondrous pearl of a book, a story about love, loss, destiny, and community that brought me to tears more than once. If you ask me, Azad has pulled off the magic trick that diasporic authors have been trying to do for generations: turn something as ephemeral as cultural memory into something tangible. In THE CANDLE AND THE FLAME, Azad brings us home.

I never want to leave.

The Candle and the Flame is out today from Scholastic!

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Review: Swati Teerdhala’s THE TIGER AT MIDNIGHT

Review: Swati Teerdhala’s THE TIGER AT MIDNIGHT

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Guest review by Kaavya Ramesh

Swati Teerdhala’s THE TIGER AT MIDNIGHT begins with a bang, and keeps the tension going as its main characters chase each other across countries and kingdoms, questioning each other and everything they believe in along the way.

Dharka and Jansa, sister countries and neighbors, share a taut history: their first rulers were twin brother and sister, and their sibling bond established the janma – literally the lifeblood – bond between the two nations. But when the King of Jansa overthrows the Queen of Dharka, the janma bond begins to fray.

It’s fitting, then, that the fracturing of one bond creates another, just as tense and fraught.

Esha, a Dharkan girl, moonlights as the Viper, the most feared assassin in both lands. She’s badass, beautiful, headstrong and mouthy. She makes bad decisions and worse ones. A sister in spirit to characters like Gauri from Roshani Chokshi’s A CROWN OF WISHES and Amrita from Aditi Khorana’s THE LIBRARY OF FATES, Esha is the kind of Indian female protagonist that I’ve always wanted, but almost never been given. South Asian girls are rarely given space in fiction, but when they are, it’s often as victims of a patriarchal culture, and of men themselves. Not here. In Teerdhala’s world, women are spies and assassins, lovers and lost princesses.

That’s not to say the men are neglected.

Here, the Indian men are in turns, stoic and bloodthirsty, justifiably ambitious and mercilessly greedy. They are backstabbing kings and jovial friends. In short, they are Indian men, but they are given the space to shine. And one in particular stands out.

Kunal, a Jansan soldier with the heart of an artist, believes that the Viper is his uncle’s murderer, and sets off on her trail. Kunal is Esha’s counterpart in every way; level-headed where she’s fiery, obedient where she’s rebellious, and an enforcer of the very systems that have disenfranchised Esha’s people.

This meeting of opposing personalities is the very heart of the story’s premise, and its appeal. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that both characters are attractive and attracted to each other. But Teerdhala’s snappy dialogue imbibes the duo with a palpable chemistry, even as they lunge for each others’ throats. But Teerdhala makes clear how the two begin influencing the other. Beliefs that Esha and Kunal held tight to at the beginning of the story are slowly questioned. And with questions come answers, some satisfying, some intriguing.

What was particularly intriguing to me was the world that Teerdhala constructed. Jansa and Dharka are laced with Indian influences, and as a result, felt wonderfully familiar to this Indian reader. The Red Fort where Kunal and Esha first meet is a reference to a real place in Old Delhi. The religion of Dharka and Jansa is a clear nod towards Hinduism, which really does have a Moon Lord (the god Chandra) and a Sun Maiden (the dawn goddess Ushas). The Viper’s famous whip seems reminiscent of the urumi, a real South Indian sword with a whip-like blade that is considered notoriously difficult to master. The tiger mentioned in the novel’s title is more than just a thematic allusion to facing the consequences of your actions; the tiger is also the national animal of India and a mainstay of Indian folklore.

Of course, these elements won’t seem as immediately obvious to every reader, but I don’t think that lessens the book’s appeal. Between the high stakes romance and the fast moving plot, there’s plenty to like for all kinds of readers. Give THE TIGER AT MIDNIGHT a read, whether you’re looking to be transported into a world that feels utterly new or warmly familiar.

THE TIGER AT MIDNIGHT is out now from Katherine Tegen books!

Review: Joan He’s DESCENDANT OF THE CRANE

Review: Joan He’s DESCENDANT OF THE CRANE

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Guest Review by Marina Liu

Joan He’s debut novel is one of those rare books that feels bigger than it is. It’s about many things: a search for the truth, a kingdom on the brink of war, a girl queen coming into her own—but for me, DESCENDENT OF THE CRANE is a story about family. All the highs and lows that come with.  

Princess Hesina is about to be crowned Queen of Yan in the wake of her father’s death. Except, she’s certain her father was murdered, and she’s adamant on finding the murderer. Rather than vengeance, Hesina only wants the truth. But as she digs deeper into the mysteries of her father’s death and everything he left behind, simple truths vanish and only murky complications remain. Make no question: nothing in this book is as it seems. He effortlessly conducts an orchestra of misdirection and lies, and her symphony is relentless—there’s not a moment I wasn’t second guessing every single character and their motivations. DESCENDANT OF THE CRANE is truly an epic. Or, perhaps more accurately, it has the ethos of a Chinese drama, with a dazzling array of scheming antagonists, each more cunning than the last, all infused with a rich courtly aesthetic that will have you imagining the slide of silk off sharp nailed fingers, the smell of fresh ink, the resonant twang of zither strings. 

But what I mean when I say DESCENDANT is a story about family is that despite the kingdom shattering events, He grounds the story in a sprawling but intimate drama. Hesina wants to stop the war with Kendi’a to fix her country’s struggling economy, but most important she wants her brother Sanjing away from the fronts. Hesina opens the book with committing high treason, but suffuses the scene with a light-hearted bickering between adopted twins Caiyan and Lilian that anyone with siblings will recognize. And the real truth at the core of DESCENDANT’s mystery isn’t a simple whodunnit—what Hesina uncovers is nothing short of the truth of her family’s legacy. 

I can’t do those truths justice in a review; you’ll have to read the book to find out. And DESCENDANT is a book best experienced blind, letting everything unfurl around you in a whirlwind of twists and turns that will leave you as breathless as Hesina by the time you close the last page. 

For me, reading DESCENDANT OF THE CRANE felt like coming home. Hesina has become one of my favourite YA heroines, awkward and anxious at her core, but determined to follow her principles through. She’s everything a younger me needed: a girl terrified by the prospect of responsibility, not quite ready to grow up, but who loves her family and duty enough to try anyways. It also felt like home in that He seamlessly sows elements of 20th century Chinese history in the plot, and discovering them felt like finding easter eggs, a hidden layer of meaning just for me. And that’s what it comes down to, in the end: DESCENDANT feels like a book for me, a book that unearthed the precious truths I held close to my chest and gave them story form. 

It’s my sincerest hope that it can be a book for you, too. If not entirely, that you’ll find some nugget of truth in it that rings bright. Like I said, DESCENDANT OF THE CRANE is a book that’s bigger than it is: there’s something there for everyone, if you care to search.

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: novelnotions.net. 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.