A Satisfying Conclusion: Vicious Spirits by Kat Cho

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Book Review

Immediately after finishing a book is too soon to write a review, but I really need to stop waiting weeks to write anything down. Reviews are hard enough to write without the faultiness of memory to contend with. Oh well.

Vicious Spirits is the companion novel to Wicked Fox, but it’s more of a continuation with added perspectives. Instead of alternating between Jihoon and Miyoung’s viewpoints, we hear most often from Somin and Junu. As the characters mourn their losses from the first book and try to move on, Somin starts seeing ghosts and Junu is contacted by reapers who warn that Miyoung’s fox bead — which was never recovered — is causing a rift in the veil between worlds. Sanity is questioned, loyalty is tested, and another race against time begins.

I can’t decide if the change in focus from Miyoung and Jihoon to Somin and Junu was a negative or positive change. I did grow to love Somin and Junu, but I wanted more from Miyoung and Jihoon’s perspective. Since Jihoon was not-himself for a large portion of the novel, I was even more deprived. I also missed a lot of Miyoung’s Gumiho-ness that I fell in love with in Wicked Fox. Thankfully, there was a villain that was able to make up for that lack. The story also offered some redemption for Yena, Miyoung’s mother, that both surprised and pleased me.

The stakes were well established. The trouble started in the first novel by the loss of Miyoung’s fox bead causes a problem with farther reaching consequences. Her life is in danger; the reapers are concerned by the passage of ghosts into the mortal world and warn that killing Miyoung may be the only way to heal the rift. They offer Junu very little time in which to heal the rift himself. Junu was a little too willing early on to sacrifice himself for the sake of his guilt, but I grew to appreciate how much he wanted to be friends with the group. His friendship wasn’t limited to Lee Somin, his love interest, but extended to Jihoon and Miyoung. Strong friendships are a huge selling point for me.

One of the strengths of Wicked Fox was how the characters’ layers were pulled back slowly. Cho continued to do that with Junu and Somin, with the focus switching from mothers to fathers. Somin’s father died of cancer when she was young; her story was very sweet and well done. Junu’s side of the coin was more of a mixed bag. His father tried to kill him when he became a dokkaebi and ended up killing himself and the rest of his family. I don’t object to Junu’s strong reaction to abusive fathers, but the way Changwan and Jihoon’s fathers are written lacks subtlety.

Vicious Spirits has a few flaws, but I was swept along on the journey. It was exciting throughout. The finale was much stronger in this book than in the first; it didn’t have the lull that Wicked Fox did. I truly love these two books and am looking forward to revisiting them in the coming years, as well as following whatever else Kat Cho publishes.

Other Things I’m Loving

The Bane Chronicles — There are now six volumes in the Shadowhunter Chronicles that I haven’t read (Chain of Gold and then most of the companion/short story collections), and yet I continue to collect them. Why? Because Cassandra Clare has me under her thumb, okay? It took me forever to read The Bane Chronicles, but I ended up loving them. I’m not in the habit of reviewing short story collections, so I’ll just leave it at saying that this collection has something for every history lover, as long as they are also a lover of Magnus Bane. The stories set in Jace and Clary’s time had me snort-laughing. An absolute delight.

The Holy Rosary — I’ve been praying it a lot and I’m finding a lot of comfort there.

Buttered Toast with Honey — Seriously, I can’t get enough.

Sleep — Not enough, though. Never enough.

Millie — My newest niece was born on Labor Day! She’s beautiful and I’m going to see her on Tuesday when I go up for my first orthodontist appointment (ugh — and I’d like to complain that there’s not a single in-network orthodontist within 50 miles of my town of 190,000 people 😡 )

With that, I shall sign off. Look out for reviews of Yangze Choo’s The Ghost Bride and Lisa Maxwell’s Unhooked, as soon as I get around to them. Cheers!

The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo – A Review

The Ghost Bride is Yangsze Choo’s 2013 debut novel. Set in 1893 Malaya, the story opens when 17- year-old Pan Li Lan is told that the wealthy Lim family wants her to become a ghost bride to their recently departed son. Although such a marriage would settle her father’s debts and set her up for life, Li Lan has no interest in marrying into widowhood, especially since she falls in love with the dead man’s cousin, Lim Tian Bai. She is drawn into the ghostly realms against her will, however, and she must navigate the world and new relationships in order to save her own life.

I didn’t anticipate the main thrust of the novel. In many ways, this book was far from predictable. Certain plot beats I was anticipating (based on my idea of what a story like this should contain) never came to fruition. I kept waiting for the moment when Li Lan would agree to become Lim Tian Ching’s wife, but she never did. By subverting my expectations, it kept me engaged. The various challenges Li Lan faces, from failing to inhabit her own body to infiltrating Lim Tian Ching’s home in the land of the dead, made for an exciting journey that kept me guessing what would happen next.

The love triangle was rather unexpected. Building Er Lang up as a love interest was so natural that it snuck up on me. I didn’t notice that it was happening until Tian Bai’s past was questioned. The serious accusation that he killed Tian Ching, while I didn’t believe it, hung around and cast doubt on his validity as a worthy suitor for Li Lan. I loved both Er Lang and Tian Bai as love interests, but I loved one more than the other. Li Lan didn’t choose my preferred love interest, but I was okay with the decision because it became obvious that she didn’t love him the way he loved her. Who she chooses is a reflection of her growth as a character.

I loved the ghostly elements. As a proxy for the reader, Li Lan works well. She has some idea of how the supernatural world works, but there’s a lot for her to learn. Situations that challenge her assumptions about the ghostly realms are as natural as they are informative.

I was fascinated by how the afterlife worked. The connection between the land of the living and the land of the dead was a strange osmosis. If I could have changed one thing, I would ask for more about the Judges of Hell and more details into Er Lang’s job.

Choo’s prose improved between this book and The Night Tiger. It is less immersive because of the heavy use of filter words. I can’t confirm whether or not The Night Tiger used them, but I don’t recall noticing them. The problems with the writing, however, were very minor.

If I could give another reviewer any advice, it would be to hold off on watching an adaptation until you’ve reviewed the book. There’s a tv series adaptation on Netflix that I watched after reading. While they’re very different (the show is very cliche and follows more what I was expecting from the book, but I did love Er Lang so much more in the show <3), writing this review was so much more difficult as I struggled to remember details. It also doesn’t help that my notes for the review didn’t save. I curse whatever bit of technology failed.

Other Things I’m Doing

Quarantine — I’m back in isolation. This means a lot of time with my brothers and missing out on celebrating my friend’s birthday. Not to mention I missed the orthodontist appointment I was supposed to have this morning. I’ve read a lot, I’ve written quite a bit, and I’ve kept working. There isn’t really much more to say.

Thank you for reading! I hope your leisure reading is as pleasant as mine has been.

Amanda Foody’s Ace of Shades: A Review

Book Review

Do you ever start a book and get really into it, only to lose interest because your mood shifts? Is that the book equivalent to ghosting?

Because that’s what I did to Aces of Shades. I was intrigued by the first few chapters and had plans to continue reading, until I was snagged by Martha Water’s To Have and to Hoax.

But, like a ghoster who realizes they’re lonely, I slunk back to Aces of Shades. And I’m glad I did.

Ace of Shades is the story of Enne, a young nobody who goes in search of her adoptive mother in the City of Sin. Her only lead is Levi Glaisyer, a young street lord she believes can lead her to her mother. Levi is a man in a bind. The investment scheme he’s running is going to crash around him, but he badly needs the money to pay off a very evil, powerful man. Content warnings for discussions of pedophilia and instances of violence.

The world reminded me of Nick Willing’s Alice. If you’re not familiar, it’s a Syfy miniseries with Alice in Wonderland inspiration centering a modern-day Alice trying to find her kidnapped boyfriend. Humans are brought to Wonderland against their will and sold to the casinos, where they are hypnotized and their emotions are siphoned off and distilled into drugs. Ace of Shades has a similar sense of glitz and glam, all at the expense of others. Beyond the comparisons, the world is well-written and feels bigger than we see on the page.

I’m very interested in pyramid schemes and their legal counterparts, so I wish we got to see more of the nitty gritty of that. The fact that Levi was even running one of them added some texture, but I would have loved to see more.

The world is well-written, but not perfectly so. There are elements that are vague. Is there a deeper purpose to the Shadow Game beyond entertainment and punishment? How big is Levi’s gang? It seemed really small — Levi, Jac, Chez, Mazi — but then Levi keeps mentioning other Iron dealers. I was a little confused. But I did love the structure of the criminal elements, the street gangs facing off against each other while having to contend with the Casino Families as well.

The magic system is a little underdone. Each person has two inherited magical abilities, but the genetic aspect is unclear to me. Presumably, people marry outside of their families. I would think there would be a greater diversity of powers within a family after just a generation of intermarriage with someone with a different power. Either this wasn’t explained well or I just missed it. It’s a neat idea, though.

The characters and situations were reminiscent of Spirited Away. Levi is a powerful character who was subjugated to Vianca, the head of a Augustine Casino family. Enne entered an unfamiliar world in order to save her mother and unwillingly ended up working for Vianca as well. Enne has Chihiro’s tenacity without her level of immaturity. Enne and Levi’s relationship develops very quickly. Their romantic arc is fine, but their interactions gave them opportunities to grow as individuals. That really stood out to me.

I was satisfied with this book. It was interesting and fun, but I don’t think I’ll read the sequel. I read the first few chapters, but didn’t feel excited to follow the threads of this story that continued on. I am content to leave it as is.

Other Things I’m Loving

The Boys – My brothers and I just finished the first season and will be continuing on. I love these supervillains. They’re creepy af and I love watching The Deep getting what’s coming to him. Very disturbing show, but hey, what isn’t?

The Princess Weiyoung – I think I’m in love with Tuoba Jun, so I can’t really blame Changle for pining over him when he’s clearly not interested, but she’s an awful person. So she can suck it. I love this cheesy “historical” romance so much.

My own writing – It’s happening.

Thanks for reading, but in the words of Porky Pig, “That’s all, Folks!”

Fun but Infuriating: Martha Water’s To Have and to Hoax

Book Review

To Have and To Hoax is the debut of Regency Romance novelist Martha Waters. It follows Lord and Lady James and Violet Audley, two upper-crust folks who married for love but now can’t stand each other. Lady Violet receives word that her estranged husband has been gravely injured, but is infuriated to discover that he recovered and forgot to send word — and that he had no intention of informing her of his injury at all. Violet wants to punish him and settles on faking consumption.

When I read the premise on Goodreads, I knew instantly that I wanted to read this book. I bought it, and a few weeks later was in the mood for it and started devouring it. I read it within two days, but I’m not entirely pleased or displeased with the book.

The back of the book promises a lot. “An ever-escalating game of manipulation, featuring actors masquerading as doctors, threats of Swiss sanitariums, faux mistresses– ” The novel starts off very well, jumping from Violet and James’ fateful meeting on a balcony to five years later when they barely speak to each other. At the heart of their estrangement is an argument they had one year into their marriage that neither of the main characters will explain to their friends, family, or the reader. All that we are told is that Violet lied about something, and James lacked trust in her. Around the two leads are their amusing cast of friends, each as rich and privileged as they are. Their families are the source of most of the Audley’s confict.

For the first 60% of the novel, the lies and games they played were amusing. I was having fun, but around that point, the leads started grating on me. Their actions went past stubborn to the point of childishness to such an extent that I found myself hoping they’d get divorced at the end. I was siding with the secondary characters begging both of them to just have an honest conversation with the other.

The source of their conflict is finally revealed, and I’m of two minds about it. The subject is semi-serious. It probably wasn’t worth four years of estrangement, but it’s not out of character for the couple, so I won’t criticize the book on that front. I will criticize it for drawing out the conflict even after that.

James has a complicated history with his father and Violet a contentious relationship with her mother. They live under the weight of their expectations. The expectations affect their marriage in surprising ways. The parental relationships offer the leads opportunities to grow as people and as a couple. Thematically, it was the strongest part of the novel. It made me soften toward the couple and made them less infuriating.

I knew this book was a romance, but it was quite a bit more explicit than I was expecting, so do with that what you will. Also know that there is a heavy emphasis on breasts. As someone who reads very little romance, I don’t know if that’s the norm? But both Violet and James think about breasts a lot.

So, it was no Jane Austen, but it was entertaining. Waters has a witty writing style. With the exception of end, where she’s jerking us around with a will-they, won’t-they bit, she has good pacing. The book doesn’t try to take on more than it can handle, focusing on the relationships between the characters. It has commentary about marriage in high society, but it doesn’t try to deconstruct the institution. If you are seeking a lighthearted romance and willing to read about two very flawed people, then this book might be for you.

Other Things I’ve Been Doing Lately

Writing — I’m finally back into rewriting my project, The Warm One Mark III. I think I made an excellent choice before this rework to break Mark II into manageable chunks (mostly by scene). I’ve been following that pattern. When I need to insert/cut scenes, it could get more complicated. I’m not worried. I am loving my world and my characters, though. I’ve been watching some 1950s movies to absorb more of the mood so I can inject it into my worldbuilding. If you guys have any recommendations for noir/1950s/surveillance states books, movies, or tv shows, let me know!

Stressing — My work has me super stressed. I won’t specify what I do, but I work in a healthcare-adjacent field. I started training for a new position in July (a lateral move), and the job stresses me out and breaks my heart. I’m trying to do my best for patients and accepting that there’s only so much I can do.

Spending lot of money — I traveled to see my family a few weekends ago. My parents arrived at my sister’s place and my dad immediately started freaking out about the state of my tires. Every time I think I have a good grasp on being an adult, I’m hit with a reminder that I am still maturing. Maybe I need to stop asking God to humble me, because He keeps doing it. Anyway, I decided that since my car was going in anyway, I might as well get some other stuff fixed (AC, oil leakage). Of course, more problems were found. I guess that’s what I have an emergency fund for.

Unhauling — My shelves are rapidly filling up. One of my friends is starting a book drive for patients at a behavioral health center where she volunteers, so I figure now is the time to determine which of the books I will part with, and which I will actually read. I’ve read the first chapters of The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon and Skyward by Brandon Sanderson and was surprised to find I was enjoying both of them. I may just have to get rid of books I’ve already read.

Painting my nails – It’s not deep, but I love this Sally Hansen varnish — Reflection Pool.

Thanks for reading! I should have a review of Ace of Shades by Amanda Foody coming out soon, so be on the look out for that.

Sugary Sweet Romance: Vanessa Yu’s Magical Paris Tea Shop by Roselle Lim

Book Review

In my head, there exist places that are simply magical. Paris is one of them. The reality is more complicated, of course, and no place is perfect, but merely setting a story in Paris puts me in a head space to believe that life there will be more beautiful.

Roselle Lim’s sophomore novel occupies that same magical world that exists in my head. And not just because the main character, the eponymous Vanessa Yu, is a reluctant fortuneteller. The Paris of this novel is a magical place where people live their artistic and culinary dreams and their romantic endeavors all have a happy ending.

Vanessa wants that happy ending, badly. But — she wants her family to stop trying to rush her into it. Even as cousin after cousin gets married, her uncontrollable predictions seem to ruin any chance of a relationship. After twenty-one years of resisting lessons from her clairvoyant auntie Evelyn, Vanessa accepts an invitation to stay with her aunt in Paris. Vanessa’s fortunetelling is intimately connected to tea, and she works in her aunt’s new tea shop to learn how to control — and hopefully be rid — of her prophesying.

I related to Vanessa in many ways. We’re of different races and social classes, but we’re both in our mid-twenties, single, and have a sweet tooth. Like a Vanilla Caramel Cooler I once bought from Caribou Coffee, the writing had a little too much sugar in places. I low-key have a sugar addiction, but even I was agape at how many sweets Vanessa consumes over the course of her trip in Paris. Not to mention how much money she must spend on take out/dining out in Paris (one of the world’s most expensive cities) every day for three weeks. Clairvoyance runs in her family, and it’s hinted that it has helped her family amass wealth, but the family’s wealth isn’t really acknowledged. It was one of the more escapist elements of the novel.

Vanessa and I also share a fear that we will never find lasting love, although mine is mild and not tied to any sort of fortunetelling ability. I empathized with her toward the beginning, with her aunties and mother desperately trying to match her with a suitable partner because she has reached the old age of *gasp* twenty seven without getting married. I too have felt that pressure and that longing, plus the annoyance of having relatives attempting to interfere with my love life. If Roselle Lim knows one thing, it’s how to evoke vicarious embarrassment.

Family is an important part of Vanessa’s life. The aunties are more than just meddling matchmakers, they also form the foundation of her life. They’re there for all significant events, they have mahjong tournaments, they are business owners, they have life long rivalries with each other. They are involved in each other’s lives in a way that was familiar to me from my own life experience, but uncommon in my reading.

The way the novel was pitched to me, it was a Ghibli-esque romance for adults. There are some elements present I would relate to a Miyazaki film, but on the whole, the atmosphere was different. I appreciated the innocent romance at the heart of the story. It was refreshing, and I loved the message. I’d never heard of it before I read Unravel the Dusk, but in Chinese culture, red threads (invisible to the mundane eye) connect those who are fated to be together. Vanessa’s family consults a matchmaker who tells her that she does not have a red thread, and therefore can’t have what she wants. She falls in love with Marc very quickly, but is told that is just won’t last.

Developments in the plot send that message that love is something you choose. Fate may intervene to allow it, but you still have to choose it. I also love that Vanessa doesn’t choose romantic love over everything else; she chooses it on her own terms, and rejects a relationship she believes will diminish who she is. She speaks up for herself and I couldn’t have been more proud of her.

Auntie Evelyn was a complicated mentor. Multiple comparisons are made between Vanessa and Evelyn. They’re both stubborn, but Evelyn is guarded and private. She exudes grace, but keeps people at an arm’s length. She functions as both mentor and occasional antagonist to her niece. Unlike a traditional mentor, her views are challenged and evolve along with Vanessa’s.

I love the way the story ends: three happy endings and the hint of an adventure to come. I didn’t need the epilogue, but it was nice to see.

Some might criticize this book for its uncritical view of marriage and love. I, however, think that romance is a fun and important part of many people’s lives. So, if you are looking for a sweet romance and a little magic, this book might just be for you.

Other Things I’ve Been Loving Lately

I just started reading Ace of Shades last night. It’s got an interesting world and mystery. The characters are wheeling and dealing and one of them is running a legitimate pyramid scheme. Looking forward to where this will go.

It may be summer, but I love my fall scented candles and fall-flavored teas. My room smells like hazelnut and I’m making spiced apple cider with my herbal teas from The Spice & Tea Exchange.

I’ve become a jewelry person as of late, and I just received my third necklace from my friend Lydia. This gray stone is full of secrets — once you catch it in the light, you’ll see greens, blues, and purples!

Masks are going to be around for a while, so I thought I’d invest in some rewashable ones. They finally came in the mail. One of them has Starry Night by Van Gogh printed on it, but this one is The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Hokusai. It’s a little slippery, but adjustable and comfortable.

I filled out another note card, so I’m adding it to the little collection I have in a box below my bed <3.

Hiking with friends! These are from a few trails at Good Earth State Park in South Dakota. I’m trying to get out more to keep the boredom and laziness at bay.

And that’s all, folks! See you soon.

Anime in Novel Format: Seven Deadly Shadows by Courtney Alameda & Valynne E. Maetani

I love this texture of book cover, but it is soooo hard to keep clean.

Based on the Author’s Note, it’s no secret that this book is heavily inspired by specific anime/manga. The one I’m most familiar with and the one whose influence was obvious to me was Inuyasha: A Feudal Fairy Tale. I started the original series back in May and I’m close to finishing The Final Act. I love all the characters and hate Naraku for being a slippery bastard, and I can’t wait to complain about how it’ll take before I can watch Yashahime: Princess Half-Demon. I’m as eager as anyone to find out who Sesshomaru had bebies with (Sesshomaru is my boi, but I honestly didn’t care about him until Rin entered the scene).

But I’m not here to talk about Inuyasha. And you’re not here to read about an anime. You’re here for a book review, and a book review is what I shall give you.

Seven Deadly Shadows is a co-authored novel about a 16-year-old Shinto priestess name Kira. She was born with the ability to see Yokai. Because of her ability, she has a special relationship with her grandfather, who runs her family shrine. However, the Oni General Shuten-doji is rising and intends to end the rule of the goddess Amaterasu and implement his own reign of darkness over the whole earth. Kira must either find and reassemble the legendary sword, Kusanagi no Tsurugi, or assemble a cabal of 7 shinigami (death gods) to defeat him. She only has a month to do either one of these two seemingly impossible tasks, but she’s got to try.

The premise really drew me in, which made it easy to purchase one day and start reading the next. It was a very quick and easy read. To my knowledge, I haven’t read many co-authored novels because I’m a little wary of how writing styles would mesh. I didn’t even realize it before I bought it and my reading experience was not harmed by the co-authoring. The writing was fluid and I had no inkling of the breakdown between Maetani and Alameda’s contribution.

I admire Kira as a character. She has to juggle a lot: disapproving parents, harassment at school, the weight of being different. That’s all before her family’s shrine is attacked by demons and someone she loves is killed. Her problems with her parents and school don’t go away, they’re just part of a growing pile of worries: her grief, physical training as well as training in onmyodo, a lack of proper sleep, and the burden of responsibility for saving the world. Her parents made everything so much harder than it needed to be. As someone with a western perspective, there were times when I just wanted to say, “never mind your family’s honor, just do what you have to” but I don’t share the same cultural values as Kira and her family. In YA contemporary fantasies set in America (with Caucasian main characters, especially), it’s very common for the character to prioritize saving the world over everything else. Kira didn’t do that. She tried to keep everything going all the time, and I think it was as exhausting for her as a character as it was for me as a reader. Every time her parents came on the scene, I wanted to scream at them, “Can’t this wait?” I admired how Kira tried to keep up with her obligations while sticking up for herself. It’s a tricky line to walk.

I loved the development of Kira’s powers. They grew at the same rate as her resolve and her willingness to stick up for herself. Her journey of self-discovery (including learning more about her heritage) seemed to correlate with her parents’ growing indifference to everything but saving face. My irritation with them helped me to empathize with Kira, but also made some of her subsequent choices harder for me to digest. But that’s my cultural biases talking. It made for a unique reading experience for me.

There was a very promising romance between Kira and the shrine’s kitsune guardian, Shiro. Shiro is adept at magic, but is young and lacks the hallmark tails kitsune are known for. When the adventure starts, there’s a few hints of a romance, but there were many missed opportunities during their travels to really develop the relationship. There were cute interactions later on I felt weren’t properly built up. I was still on board because of the early promise, but I wasn’t fully connected. I love kitsune. Probably my favorite creature in fantasy (see: Shippo in Inuyasha, Yumeko in my perennial favorite Shadow of the Fox series, Kira in Teen Wolf). I also loved Oni-chan, the nekomata. I would very much like a demon cat as a pet/friend.

There was a wide cast of characters, kitsune, shinigami, oni, human. The shinigami were much harder to recruit than I expected them to be, but I wish we could have seen more from the shinigami in terms of motivation. It was a fairly short book, so it would have been great to get a bit more from each of them. The villains, besides the Shinigami in White as she was known for much of the novel, were just kind of there. We didn’t get much from Shuten-doji and his generals. The villainous characters that were interesting, in my opinion, all joined Kira’s side eventually. But, the antagonists who remained villainous served their purpose. Tamamo-no-Mae, one of the Three Great Evils of Japan, was the most intriguing. But of course, I’d find a kitsune to be the most interesting.

The action was exciting and felt realistic. The scene in their school when the Shinigami in White is chasing Kira and Shiro was particularly fun. I appreciate that Kira, a novice at fighting, was not suddenly besting those who’d been fighting for decades or longer just because she was the main character or of the bloodline of a legendary warrior. There’s a sense of dread in the novel over the impossibility of her tasks. Kudos to the authors for their atmospheric writing.

Ultimately, this was a very enjoyable novel. The world was extremely interesting, I connected with the main character, and I cared about what would happen to everyone. It’s not a new favorite, but I certainly would recommend it to anyone who likes any of the titles mentioned here or just anyone looking for something a little different than your standard YA fantasy.

And with that, I’ll be signing off to read some of Vanessa Yu’s Magical Paris Tea Shop by Roselle Lim. I’m halfway through it, so look out for that review if you’re interested in Ghibli-esque romantic comedies that make even the sweetest tooth ache. Catch you later!

Back home, where it belongs.

Amazing Avatar Addition: a Review of The Shadow of Kyoshi by F.C. Yee

I’ve made no secret of my love for Avatar: The Last Airbender, new to me though it may be. That show warms my heart, and I’m a huge Iroh stan. If I could share a meal with one fictional character, it’d be him (with tea of course), and I’m ask him to demonstrate how he gained the nickname The Dragon of the West. Seriously, that scene is so cool.

I’ve watched the first season of Legend of Korra twice (the second time in a single day binge with my niece) and am just waiting for Netflix to put the whole series on later this month so I can finish it.

I read The Rise of Kyoshi back in April, when I wasn’t blogging much. I didn’t really give it its due attention, but I’m here to amend that by reviewing its sequel, The Shadow of Kyoshi by F.C. Yee.

I adore this book. It was just so good. The pacing was spot on, the characters amazing, the tension riveting. I went from struggling to read at all to reading this book in about 48 hours. I was explaining how Kyoshi was discovered to be the Avatar to someone on reddit, and the sequel just called to me. I picked it up, and I was swept away.

The Shadow of Kyoshi starts a while after the end of The Rise of Kyoshi, and Kyoshi has been establishing herself as a non-diplomatic Avatar. She enacts swift justice against perpetrators of iniquity, but she worries that she’s becoming more like her former mentor Jianzhu. She also struggles with the fear that she is an inadequate Avatar, ill-suited and unprepared to keep the world in balance when there is so much corruption to be found. She has gained a new companion, her Air bending secretary Jinpa (I’m pretty sure he’s a member of the Order of the White Lotus), and she’s received an invitation to meet Fire Lord Zoryu. She’s also been unable to find Yun, the young man who was misidentified as the Avatar, was stolen away by a spirit and left for dead by Jianzhu, who he returned to kill before disappearing. Avatar Kuruk also keeps trying to make contact with her but they both kinda suck at it. Lots going on.

As someone familiar with the Four Nations in both Avatar Aang and Avatar Korra’s time, I was intrigued to know more about the foundations of the world. This is set almost 400 years before Sokka and Katara discovered Aang in the ice. Rise is predominantly set in the Earth Kingdom, while Shadow has the characters traveling to the Fire Nation. Both the Earth Kingdom and the Fire Nation are similar in that while they are technically under one ruler, factionalism abounds. In Rise, Jianzhu was more powerful than the Earth King was, and in Shadow, Zoryu may be Fire Lord, but he is far from having control or the respect of the country he rules. However, certain plot points hint at the future to come for the Fire Nation: a unity won by treachery. Also present is the importance of honor. As a foreigner and peasant-born, Kyoshi struggles to navigate the complicated court etiquette.

As far as the bending goes, there’s nothing ground-breaking (unless you count earth bending in general), but Yun showcases a cool way to liquefy earth so that it basically acts as water bending, achieving in one sense what he never was able to do as the fake Avatar. We get to see the techniques used in special ways rather than having characters make massive breakthroughs, such as metal bending or blood bending.

I adore the characters in this book. Kyoshi struggles so much with her feelings of inadequacy, with the morality of what she’s done, with the legacy left to her by Avatar Kuruk, with her grief following the events of Rise. Everywhere she goes, she finds herself in a sticky situation and bereft of the knowledge of how to unstick herself. She trusts the wrong people and judges some others too harshly.

Rangi is her adorable firecracker girlfriend. She really came alive for me in this book from the first scene she’s in. Like Kyoshi, she’s tested by the conflict in the Fire Nation. It’s her birthplace, after all. Her personal honor is on the line, and she clashes with Kyoshi, her mother, and other Fire Nationals. She’s such a sweetheart, deep down, showing care to Kyoshi and her mother even when she’s furious with them. Hei-Ran is a great mentor as well, both politically savvy and honorable. Yun’s scenes are the most heartbreaking. I loved how they were interspersed throughout the novel. Each scene added depth and context to the scenes where he interacts with Kyoshi.

Kuruk’s tenure as Avatar was fleshed out more than I expected, as were Yangchen’s (Air Nomad) and Szeto’s (Fire Nation). The image of Kurk as a hedonistic fool wasn’t negated, but it was contextualized. I appreciate that.

The villains, who I won’t identify for spoilers’ sake, aren’t always who you would expect and the moral ambiguity enhances the sense of realism. Yee really lead me around in setting up the conflicts. At the end of the book, there are no easy solutions to the political machinations happening, which hints toward more books or maybe graphic novels?

If I had to criticize something about this book, it seemed there was a bit of head-hopping. The focus is naturally on Kyoshi in a close third person point of view. While it’s not technically wrong, I didn’t care for when the text would give other characters’ motivations as fact rather than speculation.

The best part of The Shadow of Kyoshi is how our Avatar navigates uneasy situations, both personal and professional. She seeks to do the most good she can, and hates the fact that there’s only so much she can do. Often, the only choices she has are bad ones. When she acts, she often goes too far, targeting the wrong people, letting her quest for justice become vengeful.

I would love to know more about Kyoshi’s life, but alas, this was the last book in the series. I know little about her life between the end of this book and her defeat of Chin the Conqueror (I still stand by my belief that his own stubbornness killed him). I will return now to re-watching Avatar: The Last Airbender, finishing InuYasha: The Final Act, and reading Seven Deadly Shadows by Courtney Alameda and Valynne E. Maetani. Farewell.

Anxiety Abounds; A Review of Unravel the Dusk by Elizabeth Lim

My sample size may be small, but Chinese storytellers seem to love the trope of a woman passing as a man. Other cultures use this trope too, I know, I’ve just been digesting a lot of Chinese media lately. The plot of Eternal Love (or Three Lives Three Worlds, Ten Miles of Peach Blossom) is built around it. The Princess Weiyoung television show starts out that way, and of course any adaptation of “The Ballad of Mulan” will heavily feature the trope. The first book in The Blood of Stars duology, Spin the Dawn, falls under that umbrella. And you know what? I love it, too.

However, this is the sequel. The story has gone beyond the need for Maia Tamarin, our protagonist, to pose as a man. She has returned victorious from the impossible quest to make the three dresses of the goddess Amana. The wedding between Lady Sarnai and Emperor Khanujin can finally take place, except Lady Sarnai’s father is intent on making war anyway. Maia finds herself embroiled in politics. Though merely the Emperor’s tailor, she is trying to prevent a war. Added to that burden is Maia’s loneliness and anxiety; she is transforming into a demon as a consequence of her deal to save her beloved Edan, which is why she chased him away to begin with.

I respect how far Lim took Maia’s transformation into a demon. Multiples scenes demonstrate that she was indeed becoming a threat to other people and losing her grip on reality. Often in books that feature any kind of negative magical transformation, the person isolates themselves for reasons that seem melodramatic and broody. The plot really kept me guessing, thinking, “is this where she’ll find a cure?” There were even moments when I thought Maia might become totally possessed. What a book that might have been, but I’m glad Lim didn’t go that direction.

The duology has a nice variety of antagonists. The shansen is the most villainous of them, being the warlord who made a deal with the demon Gyiu’rak in order to expand his power. He doesn’t fall into the cliche of being pure evil, however. Emperor Khanujin was also a villainous person who was neither a good person nor a particularly effective ruler, but the author never quite deprives him of his humanity. Lady Sarnai is the least villainous of them, but still an unpleasant person who isn’t above murder. She has a capacity for love that comes out in her relationship with Lord Xina and she’s not outright evil, but we don’t have to like her. Both Maia and the book acknowledge that we don’t always get good choices when it comes to your leaders, but you do still have to make choices.

For non-antagonist characters, it’s not all peaches and cream either. Lim handles complicated relationships so well. Side characters are distinct and have their own pain and trauma to work through. I found the character interactions toward the end to be the most realistic part of the book; Maia’s father’s mistrust of Edan was especially convincing and understandable.

The first book’s focus was a quest, but the sequel’s plot has more of an escape angel to its adventure. The romance took a back seat to the practical realities of facing war and change. It was a good choice, and it helped the book avoid any melodrama. However, there’s very little levity in the book. Maia forms a deeper friendship with the maidservant Ammi, who escapes the palace with her, and Maia reunites with Edan, but that happiness is overshadowed by other concerns. It’s not until the end that there’s any real joy.

I’m divided on the resolution. Since it is a very literal deus-ex-machina, I’m inclined to give it a pass because it was so upfront about it. It gives us a happy ending, but it could be considered a cheat.

Overall, I’m very happy with the direction and resolution of Maia’s story. Throughout the course of the novel, I could feel her fear, her anxiety, and her determination to fight against the odds. It’s a nice reminder that even in the impossible situations, there’s still hope to be found in unexpected places. If you haven’t already, I hope you give this duology a chance to sweep you away.

Add these beauties to your shelf, if you dare.

Strong Finish: A River of Royal Blood by Amanda Joy

Have you ever felt like a fake nerd? Where your nerd identity becomes wrapped up in one type of nerdiness and as soon as you deviate from that, you feel like a fake?

Because that’s what’s happening to me, and it’s why it took me so long to read A River of Royal Blood by Amanda Joy. It’s a fairly short book and easy to read, but I’ve been watching anime and Chinese dramas basically non-stop this month and have really put reading on the back-burner. I feel almost guilty, which is stupid. I don’t have to read, and I don’t have to prove my nerdiness to myself either.

A River of Royal Blood is a 2019 release that I’ve had on my shelf for a month or two. Though it started a little slow, it finished strong and I’m looking forward to the follow up coming out in March of next year.

The premise is fairly high-concept: The time is fast approaching when Princess Eva must vie for the throne of her queendom as well as her life by fighting her older, more-talented sister. Only weeks before her sister can challenge her, Eva survives an assassination attempt and is finally able to use her magick. Who wants her dead before the challenge? And why? And will she survive the fight with her sister?

Where to start? Characters. That’s always a good place to start. Eva’s magick is a rare type that many fear and she hates. Because of that fear, there’s little information that remains on how to use it, leaving Eva without guidance. She also associates her magick with a previous queen that others laud and she reviles for her violent ways. Eva’s anxieties about her magick manifest through her attempts to escape her duties (first running away from her mother to be with her father and later escaping by night to join revelries and forget her problems). She has resigned herself to a death by her sister’s hand, not allowing herself to indulge in serious attachments. When she is attacked and unleashes her magick on the assassin, she learns that she is not willing to give up her life. Personally, I think this is a brilliant arc. She journeys from accepting her fate to willing to fight her sister for her life. She doesn’t end there, but I’d rather not spoil her character arc.

Eva’s rival is Princess Isadore. She and Eva were friends growing up, but the impending challenge of the Rival Heirs ruined their relationship. Isa’s power is that of persuasion. She is their mother’s favorite and uses her magick to manipulate the court in her favor. We get so little of Isa in the book as she currently is; flashback scenes show her and Eva as children, and there are a few court scenes before the finale, but I have very little sense of who she is when she’s not being awful to Eva. The impression I have is of a cold, calculating woman with hatred in her heart. I hope her character is expanded in the sequel, because she makes for an underwhelming villain, at least until the very end.

The role of the love interest is played by affable and straightforward Prince Aketo, a young man of another species that Eva initially dislikes for no real reason other than being too handsome and supposed arrogance in their first interaction. Eva is unique in that she starts out the story being very aware of the flaws of her society, but she still falls into a prejudicial dislike of the prince. Of course, him being handsome and a generally good guy, he and Eva’s relationship transitions into a romance. They have a good dynamic and good conflict caused by Eva’s fears of the future.

Lord of the Hunt Baccha takes on the role of Eva’s fey teacher. He’s old, snarky, and hot as hell. He makes for a good time. He brings some intrigue with him, and is probably the most interesting of the side characters. The others are okay, just a little forgettable.

There’s something about calling magic “magick” that gives the powers an extra oomph. It’s a simple change, but it feels differentiated. The magickal powers themselves are not unique to this book, but the customs and practices surrounding them make them special.

The biggest weakness of the book is that it leaves many of the original questions it poses unanswered. Yes, the investigation into the assassination attempt yields some information, but it mostly eliminates suspects rather than identifying promising leads. The leads it gives us are characters that we’ve barely met.

One strength of the book is the final confrontation. It’s exciting and tense, and rounds out Eva’s character arc. Through her self-acceptance, we actually get an awesome confrontation between her and her sister. My last question (will Eva be able to survive her fight with her sister?) gets a fairly definitive answer without turning Eva into a villain and giving us time in the sequel to explore Isa’s character.

To sum up, I enjoyed Eva’s story but hope for more in the sequel. It starts slow but finishes strong. The main characters are strong and carry the story along nicely.

That’s all for today. I hope you are all safe and entertained. Hope you’re spending time with your loved ones, and I hope you’re getting all your necessary vitamins and minerals. Peace 🙂

A Wicked Good Time: Review of Wicked Fox by Kat Cho

There’s a fun reading challenge going around the internet starting today called Koreadathon, the focus being on reading books by Korean authors and featuring Korean characters. Rebel that I am, I will not be contained to timelines for reading challenges.

I kid. I know that I don’t do well for time-specific reading challenges, so I don’t participate in them. I do, however, watch and read tbrs for readathons to get new recommendations, and that’s how I found Wicked Fox by Kat Cho. I had heard of the book before, and seen it in book stores, but had never gravitated toward it until Chloe from Books With Chloe talked about it. Three months after reading Night of the Dragon (the Shadow of the Fox finale), I needed a little more foxiness in my life, so this hit at just the right time.

Wicked Fox is a contemporary Korean fantasy about a young woman who by virtue of her Gumiho (nine-tailed fox) nature must consume the energy of men to survive (essentially, she must kill humans to survive). Miyoung is a loner; she and her mother have moved around consistently in order to hide their natures from humans. Miyoung chooses to feed from wicked men to assuage her guilt (to the chagrin of her mother). All goes wrong when she saves soft-boy Ahn Jihoon from a dokkaebi (a goblin) and Miyoung loses her fox bead, which puts her life in jeopardy, and reveals her supernatural nature to Jihoon.

I freaking loved the characters. Miyoung is wonderful, holding humans at arm’s length while carefully selecting those she must feed from. Jihoon is everything charming and easy, breezing through life with a rakish smile. Firstly, Cho made me love these characters, especially Jihoon. Fun personalities and interesting lifestyles. And then she started drawing us further into their lives and pulling back layers. And wow. Heartbreak by a thousand cuts. I wanted happiness for these two because there was just so much pain in their relationships.

I don’t know enough about K-Dramas to speak to the tropes contained in this novel (the back cover contains several references to them). I can only speak to the tropes with which I am familiar. I’m not saying this is like Twilight, but it certainly has the “stay away from me I’m dangerous” vibe in common, albeit gender swapped. Miyoung and Edward do share the desire to avoid inflicting pain on innocent humans, but otherwise they’re quite different (Miyoung isn’t a creep). Jihoon is quite a bit spunkier than Bella and actually has some agency.

In most books, there’s a decisive inciting incident. After a certain event, the plot is kicked into high gear. Technically, that plot point exists in Wicked Fox but it happens so early in the novel and its effects aren’t revealed until much later. This was an unusual choice that I felt helped ramp up the drama and the tension as the repercussions made themselves known. It also gave space for us to focus on the main characters and their growing relationship rather than immediately worry about their fates.

I loved the complex relationships between the leads and their mothers, different and yet equally painful. Miyoung is both neglected and controlled by her mother while Jihoon was outright abandoned by his mother into the loving arms of his halmeoni (grandmother). Neither mother is completely villified, but neither are they deified. The same goes for the villains. It was so easy for me to understand and empathize with the villains, especially the one revealed as a villain in the final act. You know that they believe what they’re doing is right, and I could almost agree with them.

There was a significant lull during the third act that hurt the pacing. It came on the heels of a very dramatic scene. The subsequent scenes had to happen, logically, but they dragged on for far too long for my taste. The finale was a little underwritten in my opinion, but exciting enough to carry me along to the finish. It ends quite tragically, and I can’t wait to see how each character will deal with their grief in the next book. The sequel, Vicious Spirits, comes out next month. It has good reviews already, so I’m excited to read it and see where else Miyoung and Jihoon’s story will go.

Are you participating in any Readathons lately, or are you incapable of staying focused, like I am? Let me know in the comments what you’re reading. Hope to hit you soon with another review, but of what, I couldn’t say. Thanks for reading!