#REVIEW: Iron Widow, by Xiran Jay Zhao

Typically when I do a book review I will lead with the cover for the book. In this case, the full wraparound is gorgeous enough that I decided to go with that instead. It’s currently my desktop background. I love it that much.

The short version: this book is fucking amazing and you should go buy it right now. Just stop reading and go to Amazon– here, I made it easy for you– or hop in your car and go to your nearest independent bookstore and buy it and get them to order a few more.

The high-concept, “this meets this” elevator pitch for this book is “Pacific Rim meets Handmaid’s Tale,” and for my money that is a tremendously interesting comparison, because I hated Pacific Rim and the absolute last word I would use to describe The Handmaid’s Tale is “awesome,” but it’s still a pretty accurate description. It’s also a very very very loose retelling of the story of the Chinese empress Wu Zetian, only set on an alien planet in a far-flung future and involving giant mechs and a similar sort of mind-meld twin piloting scheme that you saw in Pacific Rim, only it’s necessary that one man and one woman be there to pilot the ship and I really don’t want to spoil a lot on this one because there is a ton of shit in this book that you’re not going to see coming.

I mean, YA is kinda tropey, right? And this starts off feeling a lot like a Chinese-influenced Hunger Games, with our main character being plucked out of poverty and obscurity because of certain Abilities that she happens to have (a thing called “spirit pressure” that may as well be a high midichlorian level, roll with it) and she is sent to pilot a mech with the latest major hotshot.

Oh, I forgot to mention something: piloting mechs frequently leads to the death of the female pilot in the equation, and Zetian’s older sister was previously chosen the same way, and she died while piloting a mech with the same pilot that Zetian schemes to be paired with. So she can kill his ass.

Wu Zetian hates men, guys. She hates men so fucking much. She makes Arya Stark’s obsession with revenge look like a passing fancy. And on top of hating men an awful lot–which, to be clear, is entirely understandable in this world; I haven’t mentioned her bound and shattered feet yet, have I?– she is also kind of an asshole. I have never encountered a character like her in a book before and she is an amazing breath of fresh air even if I think one of the book’s few weaknesses is that she’s kind of inconsistent from time to time about what she wants.

(She’s also, like, seventeen or eighteen, maybe? And a certain inconstancy is not exactly atypical of people that age, so this is a forgivable sin and perhaps simply a reflection of the character’s youth and not a flaw in how she’s written. But I noticed it, so I’m mentioning it.)

Anyway. She’s paired up with this dude who murdered her sister and who she hates, and if you’ve read YA before, you might think this is going to go a certain way, and then it doesn’t, and then something else happens and you think “oh, this is going to be like this,” and then it’s not, and then there’s a love triangle and then you’re absolutely sure it’s going to go like this and it absolutely goddamn does not, and that thought you had earlier where you thought it would be super cool if this happened but no way that will ever happen and then it does.

Okay, that’s kind of obscure. But know this: the worldbuilding is interesting, the characters are awesome, the enemies are evil and personal, the action scenes are great, and the book is entirely fucking unpredictable, and all that adds up to, amazingly, probably not the first book of the year that I think is gonna end up on my top 10 at the end of the year, but certainly the strongest candidate in a while.

In fact, I’ll go this far: the last time I enjoyed the first book in a new series as much as I enjoyed this one? Was Jade City. And I deliberately waited eight hours after finishing the book to let the high wear off before writing this.

Go read it right now.

#Review: LEGENDBORN, by Tracy Deonn

Y’all. This book. This book.

I don’t even know where to start. I mean, the cover, obviously, because holy shit that cover, but after that?

This is Book 53 and Author 48 of the #52booksbywomenofcolor project I’m doing this year, and I know I’ve said this before, but this book, all by itself, justifies the existence of that project. Even if I hadn’t liked most of the 52 books I read prior to this one, this would have made it all worth it. Because if I hadn’t been prioritizing books by women of color this year, this one might not have made it onto my radar quite as effectively as I did, and I might have passed on it, and that would be a crime. This is the book that convinced me that my top 10 list at the end of the year is probably going to have to be a top 15 again, because this is about the tenth “Okay, this is gonna be top five at the end of the year” book and about the fifth “this is gonna be top three” that I’ve read so far this year.

(Writing the list in December will kill me.)

Another thing that I’ve done this year that’s different is I’m pretty sure I’ve been reading a lot more YA than I have in previous years. And this is very much a YA book, complete with many of the tropes of urban fantasy, right up to and including Hidden Demons and the need to Keep Special Powers Secret From Friends and Family.

And for a little while you’re rolling along with that, and you know where this is going, and yeah, I’ve read this book before, and that lasts, oh, I dunno, maybe 25 pages until Deonn starts subverting every single trope you’ve ever encountered in one of these damn books. This is an #ownvoices book in its bones, y’all, because there is simply no way anybody white could have written this book, from the little details about the way the main character gets ready for her classes in the morning to the conversations between her and her dad to the big twist at the end that knocked me flat on my ass and I really want to know if a Black reader would have been more likely to see coming.

It’s about a magical secret society involving the descendants of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table– there’s a lot of Welsh, be ready for that– right up until the part where it isn’t, and holy hell I just cannot recommend this highly enough. The characters are interesting, the representation is great, the magic system is intriguing and the way different entire systems are butting up against each other throughout the book is just putting a worldbuilding aficionado like myself into spasms because I love how Deonn is doing this so very, very much.

Like, I should talk about the plot, I suppose; here’s part of the synopsis:

After her mother dies in an accident, sixteen-year-old Bree Matthews wants nothing to do with her family memories or childhood home. A residential program for bright high schoolers at UNC–Chapel Hill seems like the perfect escape—until Bree witnesses a magical attack her very first night on campus.

A flying demon feeding on human energies.

A secret society of so called “Legendborn” students that hunt the creatures down.

Goodreads

The problem is that that’s really a very pedestrian description of what sounds like a bog-standard book, and it doesn’t get across at all just how much gleeful fun Tracy Deonn is having stomping on your expectations throughout the book. I mean, yeah, demons, Merlin, smoky-eyed magical boys, blah blah blah blah.

This book isn’t great because of what it’s about. It’s great because of how it’s about what it’s about.

Go read it.

#Review: STAR DAUGHTER, by Shveta Thakrar

Let’s take a moment and appreciate this outstanding cover. I’m told that early editions of the book featured painted page edges; I would perform unnatural acts to acquire one. Just gorgeous.

This is one of those books that was really hard to boil down to just a star rating– because I loved it, but it’s definitely got some flaws. Star Daughter is Shveta Thakrar’s first book, and it’s the story of Sheetal, a sixteen-year-old girl who is half human and half star.

It may be that you blinked at that sentence. Roll with it. Her father is human, her mother is a star, and she is their biological child. Stars in this book are both the actual real flaming balls of gas and thermonuclear physics that they are in the real world and immortal– or functionally so, at least– personified beings. And as Sheetal gets closer to her 17th birthday, her star side begins to overtake her human side, and she accidentally injures her father during an argument. She discovers that star blood (yes, they bleed) is a healing agent, so she and one of her friends pop off to what may as well be Heaven to convince her long-absent mother to give them some blood so that she can heal her father’s wounds.

And then things get complicated.

Star Daughter‘s greatest strength is Shveta Thakrar’s skill as a sentence-by-sentence wordsmith. This book is beautifully written, and engaging enough that I was up way too late last night reading it and basically woke up this morning, grabbed a large mug of coffee, and sat down and finished it. For the first half of the book, I was comparing Thakrar’s writing to Salman Rushdie’s. That good. Unfortunately, it doesn’t end as well as it begins, and ultimately it’s one of those books that I wasn’t able to like as much as I wanted to but if I had a way to buy Thakrar’s second book right now I would be handing money over just out of the pure potential I see here.

Also fascinating is the worldbuilding– Sheetal, and every other human character in the book, is a Desi Hindu, and if you don’t know what I mean when I say that, hold it in the back of your brain for a moment. This book is absolutely steeped in Hindu cosmology– Shiva himself makes a brief appearance– and Thakrar has no interest whatsoever in moderating her language or the way her characters talk to make things easier for a non-Hindu audience. If you don’t know what a “Desi” is, for example, there’s a real good chance that you’re going to have a hard time. I know very little about Hinduism, but I’m reasonably certain my “very little” still counts as above average for an American reader, and there were definitely places where either context failed me or I wanted more detail and I had to look words up.

(There’s an interesting conversation to be had here– not by me, I don’t know enough to have it, but I want to be nearby to listen to it– about whether this genuinely counts as a work of fantasy or is religious fiction. To an American, non-Hindu audience, it’s going to be shelved correctly, but I’d love to know how much of the worldbuilding is made up out of whole cloth and how much of it is based in preexisting Hindu stories.)

Where the book falls down, unfortunately, is the story itself. Sheetal really doesn’t know what’s going on around her for most of the story, and it’s clear from the moment she arrives in the celestial realm that she’s a pawn in the plans of a bunch of other people who don’t necessarily have her goals in mind and who have preexisting and very old gripes with one another– but the pawn isn’t always really the person you want to read about. The big climax and the ending are too abrupt and, truth be told, a bit silly. There is a very YA-inflected romance with a boy that starts off sweet and fun and then somehow he ends up in Heaven too, but not on the same side as her, and come on. Sheetal herself is a bit more of a cipher than she ought to be as well– in a lot of ways I was more interested in her friend Minai, who, no shit, casually hooks up with one of the stars during the trip, than I was about the main character, and that’s a problem.

But: I couldn’t put it down. And that, to me, is the most important thing. If I can’t put your book down, it gets five stars and a review, even if it’s got some mess here and there. Calibrate your expectations accordingly, but definitely give this one a look.

Two book reviewlets

Two days ago I reviewed Rin Chupeco’s The Girl From the Well, a book that I enjoyed an awful goddamned lot, and I mentioned in the post that due to a screw-up where I ordered the sequel without realizing it was a sequel, I had it on hand already and would be going directly into it. Well, I burned through The Suffering almost as fast as I finished Well, and while I’m not quite jumping up and down and shouting read this read this read this the way was with the first one, it’s definitely still a good read. Call it four and a half stars to the first book’s five; the POV character moves from the ghost to the boy she is (newly) possessing, and the two of them have basically evolved into a sort of supernatural, psychic version of The Punisher, seeking out and messily taking apart murderers of the innocent. The majority of the book takes place in Aokigahara Woods, Japan’s “suicide forest,” and it absolutely continues the original book’s excellent level of creepiness, but I really loved the narration style that the ghost had in the first book and the tone shifts a little from supernatural vengeance ghost to something that, possibly not intentionally, scans a trifle more superhero-ey, and mostly because of those two things it’s not quite the triumph the first book was. Definitely read Well, and allow your reaction to that one to determine if you pick this one up. I suspect most folks will want to read both.


Jon Richter’s oddly-named Auxiliary: London 2039 is a book and not a bullet hell video game shooter from the late 1990s, and it’s another book that I was sent for free, on the condition that I review it for the site.

Let me boil this down for you in the quickest way I know how: are you interested in reading a book that features rape robots? If so, please continue. If not, read no further, and go nowhere near this book.

This was a four-star or so read until the last 25 pages or so, and I have never seen a book more effectively shoot itself in the dick before than this one does. I’ve got it at two stars on Goodreads right now, and I genuinely might bump it down to one. Because this book starts off interesting– a sort of Lock Inesque gritty detective story set in a near future that is probably a little bit too close to now to be realistic (hi, Skylights!) that is as much science fiction as it is a murder mystery. The book goes a little bit off the rails in chapter three, where the following events happen:

  • Our hard-boiled detective hero, Dremmler, creeps on a woman on the train. He is wearing smartglasses called Spex, which inform him of the woman’s name, her age, that she is bisexual, currently single, and that she has no criminal convictions. He “discerns”– the actual verb used– her “ample” breasts. He gets an erection. On the train. While sitting across from this woman.
  • He goes home, where he is greeted by his live-in maidbot, who is wearing a French maid’s outfit. She offers him a beer, which he accepts, offers to pour the beer, which he rudely declines, then offers him a blow job. He accepts that as well. So I guess she’s a fuckbot in addition to a maidbot.
  • That is the entire chapter. It is three pages long.

We know entirely too much about Dremmler’s erections throughout this book, and there is at least one place where another character decides to sleep with him for no reason at all that I can discern. But the mystery, which involves a pervasive, all-knowing AI and a prosthetic arm that murders someone independent of the desires of the person owning the arm, was interesting enough that I kept going. Then there’s a chapter where Dremmler has a nightmare that he is actually someone else who is actually basically roleplaying Dremmler in a simulation (shades of Ready Player One,) and that person actually uses the word “misogynist” to describe Dremmler before dying messily and, okay, I guess that was just a nightmare after all, and Dremmler is real? Sure, OK–

And then in the last 25 pages the Bad Guys literally use the impending gang-rape of Dremmler’s ex-wife, a woman responsible for the death of his child, by a bunch of misshapen sex bots (the first robot to do the raping has a “foot-long” penis and a hammerhead shark’s head) as a means of extracting information from Dremmler, and then there’s an enormous, AI drone-driven massacre of “thousands” of people, and then the book ends with either a cliffhanger or Dremmler’s actual death at the hands of the AI.

Spoiler alert, I guess.

I did not like this book; I was liking this book with some reservations (there’s something hinky going on with almost every female character in the book, a few too many of which are described as Asian in a way that feels weirdly fetishistic to me, and then there’s the erections) up until the rape bots, and if I hadn’t agreed to review this in return for the copy that would have been the end of it, the book nearly being finished be damned. I hate to say “this is not a good book and you should not read it” about something somebody sent me for free, but … this is not a good book, and you should not read it.

#REVIEW: The Girl from the Well, by Rin Chupeco

(Rin Chupeco, autocorrect! Rin! Sorry about the typo in the headline.)

Let’s start with this: I apparently have no idea what makes a book YA, and I’m starting to think it really is code for “a fantasy book written by a woman” or, worse, “a book starring a young person,” without regard for content. Sarah Maas is the best example of this, as the later books in the Throne of Glass series include fairly copious amounts of highly detailed sex, and Rin Chupeco’s The Girl from the Well is not only scary as hell but drops a “motherfucker” pretty early on in the text, and while it’s not super sweary in general it’s also not especially shy.

Not, mind you, that any of this is a bad thing, just that if you’re an adult and you generally avoid books with “YA” or “Teen” in their descriptors you probably ought to stop doing that, because it really does seem to be pretty meaningless as a category most of the time. This particular book doesn’t even involve a love triangle, which does seem to be a bit of a trope. No romance at all, actually.

No, what The Girl from the Well gives you is that rarest of things, to the point where I can only come up with a few examples: a genuinely scary book. I’ve read one other book by this author before and I didn’t especially take to it, but The Girl from the Well is squarely in my damn wheelhouse: a supernatural tale of possession, and evil spirits, and revenge, and murder, and to make things even more interesting it’s narrated by one of the ghosts, which was just a phenomenal way to approach the story, especially since the ghost isn’t quite sane. Chupeco uses this trick where she occasionally

uses

her line breaks

for emphasis,

and it wouldn’t work very well with a traditional narrator, but for an angry ghost it’s startlingly effective. You may be getting strong The Ring vibes from the cover, and there’s a good reason for that, as both The Girl in the Well and The Ring are based on the same Japanese myth, so there’s a very similar vibe, and if The Ring creeped you out this book is absolutely going to as well.

I pulled a move for this book that is really only possible when ordering books online, as I actually screwed up and bought the sequel, which is called The Suffering, first, because I didn’t realize it was a sequel. So I had to order this and just sort of hope that I’d want to end up reading both of them, which ended up working out great, since I don’t have to wait for it to get here now. I’m going straight into it, so we might have another review for that book in a day or two.

This is a great read, especially with Halloween coming up. Give it a look, and don’t let the YA tag mess with you. I promise I’m grown, and I loved it.