ARC Review: WHEN THE TIGER CAME DOWN THE MOUNTAIN (The Singing Hills Cycle #2) by Nghi Vo (2020)

Genre: Adult Fantasy
Year Release: December 2020
Buy Links: Bookshop | Libro.fm | Unabridged Books

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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Cleric Chih is back at it again with their storytelling. This time, they find themself trapped with Si-Yu and her mammoth by a trio of shape-shifting tigers. To stall for time until the mammoths arrive and to appease the tigers’ desire for the truth, Chih unravels the full story of Ho Thi Thao and her lover, a scholar named Dieu.

Vo has such a knack for weaving otherwise epic storylines into so tight a space. Big emotions thread throughout, and what I found particularly intricate was the compare and contrast of how the tigers knew this epic love story versus how it was passed down among the clerics and throughout folklore. There are so many layers to this world Vo built, and the detail work is simply astounding and completely mesmerizing.

What particularly resonated with me was the violent presentation of Ho Thi Thao’s heartbreak during one segment of the story. It’s great to see a femme act out on page, and the way the narrative jumps back to the frame story to talk through how each character would deal with that specific grief. It worked really well for me, and provides a bit of indulgence that can’t be afforded if the story had strictly been told from either Ho Thi Thao’s or Dieu’s point of view.

Another epic distilled to its finest parts, I really enjoyed this return to the Empire of Ahn and can’t wait to read more of Vo’s work.

Review: EMPRESS OF SALT AND FORTUNE by Nghi Vo (2020)

Genre: Adult Fantasy
Year Release: 2020
Source: Physical copy

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Cleric Chih visits a lonely former handmaiden to the Empress of Salt of Fortune once her estate opens up to visit. The story that unfolds is epic in scope as a marriage of alliance turns into exile turns into conquest. But the presentation is so intimate and quiet, especially as chapters start with descriptions of objects found throughout the estate and Rabbit’s focus is primarily on her relationship with In-yo and the other servants who were at court alongside her.

There was a deep sense of melancholy, not so much regret, threaded throughout the elegant prose. But not so much regret, which I found fascinating. Rabbit’s retelling is filled with making sure she spoke her truth, but also ensuring that the listener, Chih and by extension, the reader, internalizes this fable-like history. The court intrigue is top-notch, but it serves as a background to the intensely relationship-driven narrative. The devotion Rabbit felt towards In-yo dripped off the page and it was compelling in a way that wasn’t entirely tragic. The strength of that relationship kept me wanting to know how the story ends. I really liked how Vo directed the storytelling in a way that assumes the reader knows the story of this empire already as told by history books in that world. The gentle but secure guidance made it obvious, but wow, did that ending land.

Epic, but pensive in a deeply personal way, a must-read for people looking for quieter fantasy novels.

ARC Review: THE BLADE BETWEEN by Sam J. Miller (2020)

Genre: Adult Horror
Year Release: December 2020
Source: NetGalley
Buy links: Bookshop | Unabridged Books | Libro.fm

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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Trigger warnings: Arson, stabbing, suicide, eviction, drug addiction, sexual assault (implied)

The city of Hudson, New York is rich in a history that’s about to be erased by the gears of gentrification and corporate interests. The community fights back, but it isn’t until the whale gods and ghosts of Hudson’s past join the fray, feasting on hate and unleashing violence upon this already-tense community.

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Review: WHO I WAS WITH HER by Nita Tyndall (2020)

Rating: 4/5 stars
Genre: Young Adult Contemporary
Year Release: 2020
Source: Hard Copy purchased at Unabridged Books

Content warnings: Grief, alcoholism

This book starts with Corinne Parker learning of her girlfriend’s death and continues with Corinne processing that loss and the truths about herself that she was hiding from everyone else in her life during her one year relationship. It hurts as much as it uplifts, ending on a well-deserved hopeful note.

The writing in Who I Was With Her is simply elegant. The chapters alternate between moments of Corinne’s year long relationship with Maggie and the present, during which she struggles with an alcoholic mother and not being out as bisexual to those around her. Corinne is a character I desperately wanted to hug, because I definitely related to her fears about coming out and about choosing things for herself, from low stakes decisions to high stakes debates about whether or not to go to college. The tension in this novel stems from a feeling that this too shall pass, focusing on the journey there. There isn’t a dramatic reveal, the plot beats are soft to lend power to the feelings woven throughout.

Another thing that struck me about this book was just how sex positive it was. There are discussions of sex, both queer and heterosexual, but it’s presented as a normal thing teens consider and something that happens between partners. There isn’t any taboo in the discussions, there’s no scandalous connotation, consent is on the page, and most of it is focused as another fragment of Corinne’s interior journey, not a major event in and of itself.

A quiet, heart-wrenching young adult novel about grief and being true to yourself and the fear that comes with that truth.

ARC Review: THE SCAPEGRACERS (#1) by Hannah Abigail Clarke (2020)

Rating: 4/5 stars
Genre: Young Adult Contemporary Fantasy
Year Release: September 2020
Source: Physical ARC
Buy links: Bookshop | Unabridged Books | Barnes and Noble

Read a physical ARC from Erewhon Books
Content warnings: Parental death (in flashbacks), blood magic

Outcast teenage lesbian Sideways Pike performs magic at a killer party and gains a coven. What ensues is an exploration of identity, magic, and female friendship while trying to do normal teen things like go to class, have crushes, and run away from witch hunters.

The voice in this novel is powerful. There’s a bit of stream of consciousness, but Sideways has such a distinct POV and way of phrasing that feels authentic. Clarke makes this look effortless, especially as bits of witch lore and plot have to happen. The way Clarke depicts Sideways griefs and traumas don’t flinch from either the details or the underlying emotional journey. It’s so raw. And I liked the way it showed up within the narrative. What really stuck with me was how Sideways opens up to the reader as her new friends let her further and further into their circle. It’s endearing, it’s powerful, it gave a kind of joy that can only come from finding family-like friendships.

Magic within this novel implied stricter rules and more world-building, but since we’re discovering it as Sideways uses it for party tricks and later, teaching Daisy, Jing, and Yates how to cast spells, it made sense to me that it was mostly shown through the experience. The way Clarke ties it into the experience of queerness and teenhood felt powerful, especially as it relates to the trials and tribulations of leaving oneself vulnerable to let friends in. There was never a doubt that her friends would be her life line, even if Sideways herself didn’t quite know it yet.

On September 15th, join a coven of queer disasters as they discover magic and the power of friendship, told through a ferocious, fun voice all its own.

ARC Review: THE FOUR PROFOUND WEAVES by R.B. Lemberg (2020)

Rating: 4/5 stars
Genre: Adult Fantasy
Year Release: September 2020
Source: Edelweiss eARC
Buy links: Bookshop | Unabridged Books | Barnes and Noble

Read an eARC from Edelweiss

In the Birdverse, weaves carry magic and four are the most profound: change, wanderlust, hope, and death. Having mastered three of them, Uiziya goes on a journey with her close friend the nameless man to learn the fourth from her aunt.

What really makes this story stand out is how often we don’t see older protagonists get to go on an adventure. There is a sense of recovery and a continued exploration of identity even at older ages. The nameless man is searching for a name, and in a world where magic stems from the number of syllables in a name, this ties in the world-building to a character arc. I won’t spoil how it ends, but it left me with light in my heart.

In addition, the villain worked so well because he represents an opposite theory . There is melancholy in that to weave from death means weaving from bones, but the framing Lemberg establishes throughout infuses the book with brilliant, resistant hope (in addition to hope being one of the weaves). The novella takes its time in these explorations, especially as it relates to connections both familial and platonic.

A delightful debut about identity, art, and friendship.

 

ARC Review: DROWNED COUNTRY by Emily Tesh (2020)

Rating: 4/5 stars
Genre: Adult Fantasy
Year Release: August 2020
Source: NetGalley ARC
Buy links: Bookshop | Unabridged Books | Barnes and Noble

Read an eARC from NetGalley

Lush, folkloric storytelling returns in this sequel to Silver in the Wood. This time, Silver and Mr. Finch have broken up within the two years since the end of the previous book, but have reunited to solve a vampire problem. And then it’s off to Fairyland.

I really liked the yearning in this one. Silver clearly wants to prove himself, but he is a baby man who wants not much to do with responsibility. I loved the way the state of the manor reflected his inner turmoil, and the fact that Rothport wasn’t much better.

Maud was a fantastic addition to the cast, her introduction with a cleaver is some peak content. She served as an excellent contrast to Silver’s reluctance and Tobias’s more reserved natures. The bit in fairyland was every bit as deceiving as expected. The flashbacks worked really well to contextualize SIlver’s feelings and didn’t interrupt the narrative whatsoever.

If you want to get lost in some magical storytelling, definitely pick up the conclusion to thing duology on 8/18/2020.

ARC Review: YELLOW JESSAMINE by Caitlin Starling (2020)

Rating: 4/5 stars
Genre: Adult Fantasy Novella
Year Release: September 2020
Source: eARC from Neon Hemlock Press
Buy links: Physical copy | ebook

Content warnings: Poisoning, ideation, vomitingYellow Jessamine starts as a boat belonging to Evelyn Perdanu’s shipping company arrives home several people get sick with a mysterious illness. She’s already developed a bit of a reputation with her garden and tragic past, but it’s a race against transmission as the afflicted have one obsession: Evelyn.

Paranoid is one word to describe Evelyn. The way the fears, both self-inflicted and external, permeate the page creates its own kind of atmosphere. It adds to the gothic qualities of the novel, with the mourning veils, sprawling mansion, haunted histories, and the burden of an empire. There is also a sense of cycles that stretches from beginning to end that’s very well executed, but to say anything more than that, would be spoilers.

I really enjoyed Evelyn’s characterization beyond the paranoia. She has some clear regrets and an agenda that isn’t just her own survival. In addition, her expertise on poisons and medicines (and the balance between the two) fits and flows throughout the narrative and works double-duty as a means to set the mood. Plus, the love between Evelyn and Violetta is the kind of queer pining that fits the mood of these kinds of deadly, melancholic works.

An excellent entry into the gothic literature canon, with some queer pining throughout.

Review: THE MONSTER BARU CORMORANT (The Masquerade #2) by Seth Dickinson (2018)

Rating: 4/5 stars
Genre: Adult Fantasy
Year Release: 2018
Source: Kindle Copy

Content warnings: Torture, plague, explosion, drug abuse, vomiting

My current favorite thing to witness in sequels is actual reckoning with consequences of the previous entry. Monster picks up right where Traitor left off. I’ll avoid spoilers, but it leads Baru on a chase around the known world, helping her masters figure what made the Oriati Mbo so powerful while furthering her schemes of tearing up the Masquerade from within. As you can imagine, this makes her immensely popular.

The scope of the world is absolutely massive in this second entry. There are new colonies to explore, old civilizations, new customs, and a whole additional cast. But the plot itself remains so focused, with economies to collapse and other machinations which lend so well to political fantasy without the added complication of magic. Of the new intros, my heart hurts for both the Apparitor (who is done with everyone’s crap) and Tau-indi, a third gender Prince burned by their station and friends alike. The non-European world-building throughout is such a nice reprieve from other models, and the variety is astounding. The real-world analogues are there, but the presentation of names and societies create something befitting a secondary world.

What really shines in the sequel is the amount of processing. Baru is a mess, to put it gently. The book goes to great lengths in terms of exploring what trying to dismantle major world powers does to people. Neither her interior journey nor the various shifts in POV let us, the readers, catch a break from the overwhelming guilt. My personal favorite was Aminata, who knew a few versions of Baru and truly wants to keep her safe. But Baru seems to be her own worst enemy, losing sanity and digits along the way.

A fabulous sequel which blossoms in scope but maintains its untrustworthy tone and darker elements. I am immediately reading Tyrant next.

 

Review: SILVER IN THE WOOD by Emily Tesh (2019)

Rating: 4/5 stars
Genre: Adult Fantasy
Year Release: 2019
Source: My own hard copy

This romance between a four-hundred-year-old forest being and the twenty-three-year-old proprietor is as lush as a primordial forest. The imagery was lovely, as soft as moss. There isn’t too much more I can say without giving away the whole story, but if you also want revenants and evil ex-boyfriends, Greenhollow is the place for you.

This book also features a formidable mom, a very good cat, and an angry dryad.