The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water by Zen Cho — New Review, Bookclub Edition

Cover: bookshop.org

In addition to being a book club book, The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water was recommended on a list of queer heist novels. I’m glad I read it for book club, and not as a fan of heists, because it’s really not what I want from that description. There are bandits, yes, and (debatably) stolen treasure and negotiations, but little of this is the result of forethought or organisation.

If the first bandit was a porcelain vase, this one was an everyday clay vessel, suitable for holding water or budu or rice wine, as the occasion demanded.

The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water, Zen Cho

Putting aside heist-y expectations, Zen Cho’s world-building is lovely. The religious Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water has a great name, and the details about the goddess and her followers are spread through the story, building up a background which feels significant and convincing. Without giving anything away, the religion-specific compliments and treasures were a really nice touch.

Zen Cho’s pacing worked well, until the very end, which felt a little abrupt. While there had been hints about the relationships between different characters, these didn’t really have enough time to build before they were suddenly impacting the plot in surprisingly big ways. To a reader used to enjoying novellas, this might not be a problem, but in comparison to a full-length novel it felt somewhat light. While the prose of The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water didn’t stand out, it was pleasant enough, and a longer novel would be enjoyable.

Rating: 2 out of 5.

The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern — New Review, Bookclub Edition

Cover: bookshop.org

The Starless Sea reads like a book for book-lovers. Erin Morgenstern presents a secondary fantasy world, accessed through magical doors, full of stories and the people who protect them. More than one character explicitly references going through the wardrobe to reach Narnia, and the early sections of The Starless Sea filled me with that same longing to escape into a magical idyll. Of course, these other worlds are rarely perfectly peaceful, otherwise there’d be no conflict and no story. Erin Morgenstern does a good job of balancing the appeal with the danger. The Starless Sea has more bite than The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, but doesn’t tip over into brutal cynicism like The Magicians.

Endings are what give stories meaning.
I don’t know if I believe that. I think the whole story has meaning but I also think to have a whole story-shaped story it needs some sort of resolution. Not even a resolution, she appropriate place to leave it. A goodbye.
I think the best stories feel like they’re still going, somewhere, on in story space.

The Starless Sea, Erin Morgenstern

As befits a book about a magical world full of books, The Starless Sea also delves interestingly into metafictional discussions about what makes a story, and what makes a good story. The characters of The Starless Sea would make an interesting book club. Within Erin Morgenstern’s narrative, there are smaller stories-within-stories, none of which were recognisable as retellings, but most of which had an effective archetypal fairytale vibe. Unfortunately, the overarching plot doesn’t hang together quite as well. The story was hazy, never quite coming into focus, which made it difficult to build up (or understand) the stakes. Erin Morgenstern’s prose is so lovely that The Starless Sea was still enjoyable, but it didn’t have as much impact as it might have done if the narrative had set things up on a slightly firmer ground.

The guard sits in a chair by the door and reads crime serials on faded paper, wishing he were an idealised, fictional version of himself. Wondering if the true difference between pirates and thieves is a matter of boats and hats.

The Starless Sea, Erin Morgenstern

A reread of The Starless Sea would be interesting, to see whether the stories-within-stories knit together with the main narrative to make the whole thing feel more grounded and immediate. If you like reading about reading (presumably you do, since you’ve read this…) it’s definitely one to add to your TBR!

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft — New Review, Bookclub Edition

Cover: bookshop.org

When I reviewed Red Seas Under Red Skies, I said that fantasy heist meets pirate adventure was tailor-made to my interests. Senlin Ascends proves that even when a book has one’s favourite elements, there’s no guarantee it will become a favourite. Senlin Ascends has an art heist!, piracy!, a group of misfits struggling against society! and yet I’m not at all sure I’ll ever read the next book in the series.

The Tower of Babel is most famous for the silk fineries and marvellous airships it produces, but visitors will discover other intangible exports. Whimsy, adventure, and romance are the Tower’s real trade.

Senlin Ascends, Josiah Bancroft

Senlin Ascends gets off to a bad start. The first two thirds of the book consist of Senlin’s episodic encounters with a world and a cast of characters that unrelentingly want to screw him over. The Tower of Babel was such a disappointing, chaotic place that I found myself wondering why I was supposed to want to read about it. To give full credit to Josiah Bancroft, that’s not entirely his fault: I made an early assumption about Senlin’s relationship with Marya which coloured his rescue mission as more cynically hopeless than intended.

Even an art heist wasn’t enough to get me on board, because although Senlin had to work with others to pull it off, there was no sense of connection to any of the characters. Tarrou gave the impression of being too superficial to ever be relied upon, and Senlin had left everyone else he’d encountered worse off than when he found them, which didn’t encourage much sympathy.

It is easier to accept who you’ve become than to recollect who you were.

Senlin Ascends, Josiah Bancroft

Fortunately, there was a turning point when almost everything I disliked about the book changed at once: Senlin took responsibility for the consequences of his actions, he started connecting with other characters who had stories of their own and I was finally able to hope that his quest might not be as doomed as I’d first assumed. The leaps of personality taken by Senlin came a little too quickly, but I was so relieved not to be miserable reading about this unpleasant place that I didn’t really mind.

The ending of Senlin Ascends is promising, which is a weird thing to say about the ending of a book. It left me torn about whether or not to continue the series; does the potential of a group of misfits attempting piracy on an airship outweigh the fact that I really didn’t enjoy most of the book? Fortunately, my TBR is long enough that I can put the decision off for several months….

Rating: 2 out of 5.

The Once and Future Witches by Alix E Harrow — New Review, Bookclub Edition

Cover: bookshop.org

I wasn’t expecting much from The Once and Future Witches; I only gave The Factory Witches of Lowell three stars, and this seemed like such a similar idea that I was surprised book club would add it to our list when we’d already experienced exactly this subgenre. I was absolutely wrong, The Once and Future Witches is up there with The Goblin Emperor and An Accident of Stars as one of the best books we’ve read.

Despite being a lover of fantasy novels, magic systems aren’t that important to me. The distinctions between hard and soft, rules-light and rules-heavy rarely influence how I feel about a book. But I absolutely loved what Alix E Harrow did with the magic in The Once and Future Witches, because it’s all based in reality, but given a clever and literary twist. Spells are hidden in nursery rhymes and stories, and so many of them begin with familiar words. Similarly, Alix E Harrow takes familiar concepts and weaves them into her world in a way that delighted and surprised me every time.

(Sometimes she can still see the walls of her room at St Hale’s: perfect ivory, closing like teeth around her. She keeps such things locked safe inside parentheses, like her mother taught her.)

The Once and Future Witches, Alix E Harrow

In a similar way, the prose was full of clever twists and references and beautiful sentences that I loved. While the style seems simple, it’s also very clever, building in references and allusions that will become more important later. I’m sure The Once and Future Witches would be a joy to reread!

While the magic reminded me of Chocolat, the world-building shows a greater divergence from reality, something more akin to Dread Nation. I loved that so many of the significant historical and mythological figures were female versions of those found in our world: Alexandra Pope, Queen Midas, to name just two. It made me wonder if reading this feels a little like being a man in our world, where so many important figures affirm your gender. The Once and Future Witches is an explicitly feminist book, though Alix E Harrow does flesh out positive male characters just as well.

Beatrice rubs her thumb along the spine of her notebook, stuffed full of her most private thoughts and theories, her wildest suppositions and most dangerous inquiries. Her own heart, sewn and bound.

The Once and Future Witches, Alix E Harrow

Which brings me on to the characters, who I adored. Even though the Eastwood Sisters, and many of the others, were built on archetypes, they were incredibly well-drawn and developed. Of course, as a reader and reviewer of books, not to mention a notebook enthusiast, I loved (Beatrice) Bella the librarian and note-keeper, but Agnes’ story was just as compelling, maybe even more so. To round out the three witches, I should also say that I cried harder in Juniper’s chapters than I think I have in any book I’ve read for book club. The ending of The Once and Future Witches is powerful and deeply sad, but not a total tragedy.

Or maybe they won’t tell our story at all, because it isn’t finished yet. Maybe we’re just the very beginning, and all the fuss and mess we made was nothing but the first strike of the flint, the first shower of sparks.
There’s still no such things as witches.
But there will be.

The Once and Future Witches, Alix E Harrow

I have absolutely nothing bad to say, which doesn’t happen often. And for once, I haven’t struggled to articulate all the things I loved about The Once and Future Witches. Fingers crossed I’m just as able to string my thoughts together at book club.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Phoenix Extravagant by Yoon Ha Lee — New Review, Bookclub Edition

Cover: bookshop.org

One of the things I like about Fantasy Book Club is how many different types of fantasy book we read. I don’t think I’ve ever run across one where the main character was an artist before, and I probably wouldn’t have picked up Phoenix Extravagant just from the blurb if I didn’t have the extra incentive of a discussion to look forward to.

You don’t know? Jebi almost asked, then thought better of it, remembering the fact that they were a prisoner and some questions were better left locked behind their teeth.

Phoenix Extravagant, Yoon Ha Lee

Unfortunately, I didn’t feel Yoon Ha Lee completely delivered on the promise of Jebi as an artist. Painting was certainly an activity that they did on multiple occasions, and once or twice it was mentioned that they doodled even when they weren’t ‘on the clock’, but I never really felt that Jebi had any great passion for art, even though they went to some lengths to make it their profession. This was a symptom of a larger problem with Phoenix Extravagant in that there was too much telling and not enough showing. As a reader, I was told that Jebi loved art, or that they were sad or afraid or passionate, but I was never really made to feel it.

What Phoenix Extravagant did do well, however, was world building. Ironically, this isn’t something I’m usually as interested in as other book club members, but I really liked the detail Yoon Ha Lee worked into this novel. His take on dragons was particularly cool, fusing elements that I’ve previously encountered in The Bone Shard Daughter and Witchsign into something new and different. That said, the more celestial side of things didn’t gel with me to the same degree.

Getting drunk was difficult when one didn’t like alcohol. But if they kept at it long enough, inebriation would ensue.

Phoenix Extravagant, Yoon Ha Lee

Although it was only okay, I’m still glad that I read Phoenix Extravagant, especially because Arazi might be my favourite individual fantasy dragon in recent years!

Rating: 3 out of 5.

The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart — New Review, Bookclub Edition

After a run of book club books I was immediately excited about (‘muggle goes to dark Hogwarts’, ‘the navy with dragons‘), we’ve now hit a few books where the premise doesn’t particularly hook me. Which isn’t to say that the books themselves won’t be good! Only that they can’t be summed up in a catchy elevator pitch.

The beginning of The Bone Shard Daughter left me a little dubious. In good news, it came out of the gate at a good, quick pace, with things immediately happening. In somewhat less good news, it seemed to centre around an amnesia plot. When I took a creative writing module at university, it seemed that everyone wanted to be write about either being in a coma or having amnesia, so my history involves having read it handled pretty amateurishly.

Fortunately, Andrea Stewart was anything but amateurish. She managed perspective shifts in a way I haven’t seen before, and yet they immediately felt right. I didn’t even notice until the end that some perspectives are written in the first person while others are in the third, and that’s the kind of thing that jarred me out of The Light Between Oceans pretty badly!

The Bone Shard Daughter is as much a mystery as it is a fantasy novel, in large part thanks to that amnesia plot I mentioned. I was always trying to work out who characters really were, how they were related to one another, why they were acting in the way they did. I’m not a reader who constantly tries to guess where books are going, but The Bone Shard Daughter really caught me up in the way a murder mystery does. It even has what you might call ‘a second body’ partway through. My notes are full of questions: ‘Is X causing the memory loss?’, ‘Is Y related to Z?’. Many of them get answered, but there are enough left over that I really want to read the next book in the series.

Always, always at the end of these fights, Ranami would say that Phalue just didn’t understand, and Phalue would say “Well, then make me understand!” And then Ranami would look at her as though she’d asked a dog to sail a boat. It was like they stood on two different islands when they argued, and neither of them could find a way across.

The Bone Shard Daughter, Andrea Stewart

Because there was so much else going on, the character development didn’t stand out to me immediately. It was only towards the end that I really realised just how integral it was to the novel. I can’t talk about the intensity of Lin’s character arc without spoiling a huge chunk of her plot, so I won’t, but Phalue’s reluctance to come to terms with her privilege is something I haven’t seen before in a fantasy novel. The Bone Shard Daughter compares favourably with Witchsign because I’m supposed to dislike the bad parent, rather than being expected to sympathise with him. I found that much more effective.

He kept a veneer of politeness over his commands, but it was thin, and easily scratched away by disobedience.

The Bone Shard Daughter, Andrea Stewart

The Bone Shard Daughter was a very different kind of fantasy novel, so much so that it feels weird to compare it to other book club books that I’ve enjoyed. That said, this is only the third time I’ve immediately added the next book in a series to my ‘want to read’ list, which has to say something!

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The Queens of Innis Lear by Tessa Gratton — New Review, Bookclub Edition

The Queens of Innis Lear is the second retelling of King Lear that I’ve read, and because I still haven’t read the original play, I enjoyed trying to reverse engineer the plot from the similarities between this and A Thousand Acres. It’s particularly interesting to see which of Lear’s three daughters are treated most sympathetically. While Tessa Gratton really made me feel for Regan, The Queens of Innis Lear was definitely the story of Elia (our Cordelia stand-in).

He suspected most of his memories were sweetened by time and brightened with longing, not accurate to what their relationship had truly been.

The Queens of Innis Lear, Tessa Gratton

Caroline warned us that The Queens of Innis Lear was long, but I was glad it was, because it allowed the political and emotional situation to spin out slowly, details piling up one after the other so that I always felt I understood what was at stake without long passages of exposition. The only place this didn’t entirely work was in the relationship between Elia and Ban, which I felt quite impatient with at first — though I forgot that as soon as they could actually speak to one another rather than being in separate countries.

Given the tensions that mount up throughout the story, Tessa Gratton pulled off an impressive feat by making me feel for almost every character — with the notable exception of Ullo, whose perspective we are never given. I particularly loved Aefa, whose power to manipulate the plot is far more limited and who therefore has to think very differently from everyone else. Character motives were always understandable, without the reader being hit over the head with them. The one exception was Rory’s realisation and return to Innis Lear, which seemed to come out of nowhere.

“That’s what comes of choosing to love something above all others, instead of widening your heart. If he’d loved stars and Dalat and my sisters and everything, maybe he wouldn’t have broken without her.” Elia touched her lips to Ban’s shoulder and whispered against his skin, “I won’t love anyone so much more than everything else that I lose it all if that person is lost. If it makes your world smaller, it isn’t love.”

The Queens of Innis Lear, Tessa Gratton

Elia’s journey and philosophy were definitely the most absorbing, and I wanted to see her succeed. Without spoilers, I can say I was a little disappointed in the ending. From certain things Elia said, as well as Regan and Conley’s relationship with Ban, I thought she was hinting at a way The Queens of Lear could end to (nearly) everyone’s satisfaction. Maybe it was naive of me to think that would happen in a book based on a tragedy, but nonetheless, I felt as if the actual ending was one of relief rather than satisfaction.

Despite the ending, I want to read the rest of the Innis Lear series, and have added Tessa Gratton to my list of authors to follow.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The City We Became by N K Jemisin — New Review, Bookclub Edition

I’ve heard a huge amount about N K Jemisin, so I was interested to finally read some of her writing. ‘What if cities were personified as people’ was intriguing, but didn’t give much of an idea what the plot was going to be, so I really didn’t know what to expect.

There’re cops in body armour over by the subway entrance, showing off their guns to tourists so they’ll feel safe from New York.

The City We Became, N K Jemisin

I hadn’t realised that the city-people would have been normal people first, which was a really unexpected spin on things. I enjoyed reading about Padmini and Bronca and Brooklyn and Aislyn because they all had normal people lives, they didn’t just come into being as personification of New York’s four boroughs. Character is always the most important part of any book for me, and these characters felt alive and vibrant, even the ones who were standing in the way of what the others wanted to achieve.

All of that stuff is true. All the other worlds that human beings believe in, via group myths or spiritual visitations or even imaginations if they’re vivid enough, they exist. Imagining a world creates it, if it isn’t already there. There’s the great secret of existence: it’s supersensitive to thought. Decisions, wishes, lies — that’s all you need to create a new universe.

The City We Became, N K Jemisin

That said, the actual plot wasn’t really my cup of tea. I wasn’t expecting a multi-dimensional war, or Lovecraftian horrors, and neither is something I particularly look for in a book. I did enjoy the characters coming to work together, figuring out how to get to their goal, but the antagonist and the stakes were a little bigger and higher than I could appreciate.

I enjoyed reading The City We Became, and it certainly made me think about things, so I’m looking forward to book club’s discussion. But I don’t know that I’ll seek out more books by N K Jemisin unless I encounter something where the premise seems more up my alley.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Witchsign by Den Patrick — New Review, Bookclub Edition

Cover: bookshop.org

The premise of Witchsign sounded cool: a muggle arrives at evil Hogwarts and leads a rebellion. That’s a hook that ought to have made the opening of the book immediately interesting. Den Patrick can’t be blamed for dragging out the action until he reached the inciting incident; he had no way of knowing I’d have been informed of the key event before I even picked up the book. If that had been my only problem with Witchsign‘s beginning, it might not have been worth mentioning.

Marek was a good father, but his was a functional mind, only affectionate when he remembered to make the effort.

Witchsign, Den Patrick

What really put me off, however, were the characters. The dynamic between Steiner, Marek and Kjellrunn made me extremely uncomfortable. While they’re not intended to be a picture perfect family unit, we’re clearly supposed to find their internal conflicts sympathetic. Instead, I found Marek’s behaviour towards both his children pretty reprehensible, and the backstory which was meant to explain his actions seemed staggeringly convenient.

He passed a blanket to Maxim and before long he’d drawn an audience of fifteen imploring faces, all sensing protection was at hand and drifting towards it.

Witchsign, Den Patrick

Once away from the rest of his family, Steiner was able to flourish a little as Witchsign’s protagonist. He clearly demonstrated compassion, which is always a good start, and Den Patrick introduced lots of other characters, though none of them felt very fleshed-out and the pacing was a little off. Events seemed to all be happening too fast, without any time to breathe and absorb each new change of situation.

This wasn’t helped by the fact that characters kept remarking on how unlikely all Steiner’s successes were. Had they not repeatedly called attention to it, I might have noticed the improbability far less. Even so, the more pages I put between me and the problematic opening, the more I enjoyed Witchsign. By the end, I was actually having quite a good time. While the resolution superficial pacing of the main events meant the ending couldn’t really feel satisfying, there were plenty of loose ends left to be picked up in future stories. I just don’t know if I care enough to follow them…

Rating: 2 out of 5.

The Wolf of Oren-Yaro by K S Villoso — New Review, Bookclub Edition

The Wolf of Oren-Yaro got off to a fairly strong start: Tali’s first person perspective was engaging, I was intrigued to discover what had actually happened between her and her husband Rai, and I liked how she kept trying to get to know her guards and maids on a personal level. For me, things got even more exciting when she bumped into Khine, who introduced himself unrepentantly as a con man. I love a fantasy heist, and involving the queen in even a small con definitely ticked all sorts of boxes.

The world K S Villoso created felt very real, in part because Tali reacted like a human to periods of hunger or adverse weather. In books, these things are often mentioned, but you very rarely see someone actually acting stupid because they haven’t had a meal or day, or becoming more weak and susceptible to pain when they’re outside in the cold. K S Villoso created interesting contrasts between the way Tali was brought up and the world she was exploring for most of the book’s beginning.

You could not be queen and wife and queen and mother at the same time. There were always sacrifices to make, and none of us can be more than one person.

The Wolf of Oren-Yaro, K S Villoso

The threats that Tali faced were certainly realistic, too. Maybe a little too much so. It’s not at all unreasonable that a woman would face sexual violence three or more times in the kind of society depicted by The Wolf of Oren-Yaro, but it did start to feel a little grating. While this played into the theme of how difficult it was for Tali to rule single-handed, it just wasn’t very pleasant to keep reading. It probably didn’t help that Tali’s consensual relationships with men (who weren’t related to her) nearly all revolved around sex, too.

Towards the end, I started to struggle with the plot of The Wolf of Oren-Yaro. Despite internally questioning at least one prior note that seemed to be in her husband’s handwriting, Tali jumps to the conclusion that a second note must absolutely be from him. In real life, that’s probably perfectly realistic, but in a narrative, unfortunately, it makes her certainty feel unconvincing. It’s the same kind of ‘but why did you jump to that conclusion?’ problem that I had with Under the Pendulum Sun. It doesn’t ruin the book entirely, but it did affect my enjoyment of the last third of the story.

The Wolf of Oren-Yaro was interesting enough, and reading K S Villoso’s thoughts on the next book in the series intrigued me enough that I think I’ll get around to it one of these days, but it wasn’t something I think I’ll reread over and over.

Rating: 3 out of 5.