Books: The Poppy War

35068705The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang
Published May 1, 2018
Fantasy is my favourite genre of fiction, so I was thrilled when I saw this much anticipated debut reviewed so positively within the book blogging community! The Poppy War met my sky-high expectations, delivering a ruthless anti-heroine, a grim, well-paced plot, and compelling world building that fuses Chinese history with fantastical elements.

The plot follows war orphan Fang Runin “Rin”, who escapes an arranged marriage by acing the Keju, an empire-wide entrance exam, and testing into Sinegard, Nikan’s most prestigious military academy. Upon arriving at Sinegard, though, she finds that her hard work has just begun, as she’s targeted by her classmates for her dark skin and poverty. More pressingly, Nikan’s old enemy, the Federation of Mugen, lurks across the narrow sea about to bring an end to the peace that Rin and her classmates have enjoyed. When the Third Poppy War begins, Rin finds that her unpredictable gift for shamanism, the ability to call the gods, may be the only thing that can save her people from meeting a brutal fate at the hands of the Federation.

Tonally the book is composed of two somewhat dissonant parts. The first comprises Rin’s studies for the Keju and her enrollment at Sinegard, while the second focuses on the war with Mugen. I’ve heard the Sinegard chapters compared to Harry Potter, which – I get, but I thought this part had more in common with Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind. Both Rin and Kvothe learn from a Master that other students and faculty consider more than a little loopy, they’re both driven rebels who make desperate choices in order to remain at school, and both have a wealthy student rival. The main difference lies in the characters themselves.

Kvothe is a full on “Gary Stu”, while Rin’s success, both in acing the Keju and in her studies, is largely due to her work ethic and ruthlessness. I would have found this combination of qualities interesting in any character, but I especially loved seeing a female protagonist who is so cunning and ambitious! Dark heroines who are irrevocably changed by what they’ve seen and endured are definitely up my alley (see Seth Dickinson’s vengeful Baru Cormorant or Kiersten White’s savage Lada Dracul for more complicated badass heroines) and Rin is a terrific example. Self-assured and driven, she uses pain as a motivator to achieve her goals and finds her own creative solutions to seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Although sometimes her decisions are not ones that I would have made, I always understood why she chose what she did.

The second part of the book is darker. A Lot Darker. Inspired by the Second Sino-Japanese War, the author draws from history, and in particular the Nanking Massacre, to construct an unflinchingly brutal account of atrocities. I knew The Poppy War would be intense, but even after warnings about its brutality, I didn’t expect the book to plunge to quite those depths! It’s definitely hard to stomach at times, but the violence is not gratuitous, it serves the narrative.

I’m not always a fan of military strategy and so-called ‘war books’, but The Poppy War expertly balances its military aspects with compelling character development, politicking (which I enjoy in fantasy fiction), and a warning about the cost of power. I also loved the development of Rin’s relationship with her schoolyard rival and the maturity of their mutual decision to drop all grudges when there are more important things at stake.

My few criticisms of the book come down to the characters. As much as I adore Rin, I wish there were more female characters in this world! Rin is one of only a few women at Sinegard, and remains the only major female character throughout the series. Besides a throwaway remark early on about how few girls make it through their first year (the context suggesting that this is due to systemic discrimination against women based on the belief that they cannot compete due to their bodies) there’s limited information on why there are so few women in the ranks.

My biggest issue though is the under-development of secondary characters in parts II and III. Altan Trengsin gets a wonderful character arc, but besides their leader, the Cike (Rin’s band of fellow oddballs and shamans) are pretty dull and difficult to tell apart. The twins have the potential to be interesting characters, and I hope Kuang expands on them in the next volume of this planned trilogy, but the rest of the Cike left me cold.

Despite these (minor) criticisms, I adored The Poppy War. It’s a stunning debut and I can’t wait to see where the story goes next!

Books: Our Homesick Songs

36373586Our Homesick Songs by Emma Hooper
Published August 14, 2018
“All songs are homesick songs.”
“Even the happy ones?”
“Especially the happy ones.”

Set during the 1992 collapse of the Newfoundland cod industry, Our Homesick Songs is a lyrical lament to a disappearing way of life.

As their nets begin to come up empty, residents of Big Running leave the island and head west, obtaining work in the Alberta oilpatch. Martha and Aidan Connor are among the few who remain, but when they are given six months to relocate before the government cuts off services, the Connors too look west. Martha and Aidan spend alternate months in Newfoundland and in Alberta – one at home with the children, while the other puts food on the table. Ten-year-old Finn and his sister Cora gradually find themselves living in a ghost town, but while Cora wants nothing more than to leave and attend a proper school, Finn dreams of finding fish and reuniting his family.

Magic realism is very hit-or-miss for me, but I largely found that the fantastical elements were subtle enough that they enhanced the story without overtaking it. In fact, one of the most unrealistic parts of the story for me was trying to wrap my head around a Murphy family growing up in 1960s Newfoundland who would name their daughters Minnie and Meredith and not Margaret and Maureen!

There’s an underlying melancholy to Our Homesick Songs. Throughout the novel Cora raids the abandoned library boat collection of 1960s travel guides and turns each deserted house into a different country for Finn. While there’s a sense of wonder at what she’s able to construct, the transformations are bittersweet. Cora is only able to accomplish her feats of creativity because more and more houses are being abandoned, and she has no one her own age to play with.

Truthfully I would have liked a more in-depth look at Newfoundland culture and traditions than Our Homesick Songs offers, but the way in which Hooper seamlessly works folklore and music into her story is enchanting. I also loved the interwoven tale that Finn never grows tired of, his parents’ love story, which is rendered with a good deal of magic and charm.

I felt for the Connor family throughout: For resourceful Cora, who just wants to be normal and have friends and attend school; for Martha and Aidan who navigate a long-distance marriage for months in order to both spend time with their children and earn a wage; and for Finn, who works so hard against the impending loss of his home. I suspect it’s the town and the way of life we’re meant to connect with as much as the characters though. Mission accomplished! I grew to love Big Running, which comes across as a land that time forgot. When Finn rowed his small boat through chunks of ice on the water to reach his accordion teacher’s house I was helplessly charmed.

The heart of this delightful novel though is music and its power to draw people together and to remind us of home. People sometimes leave, but this doesn’t mean that they forget their roots or their family and it certainly doesn’t mean that they’re gone forever. Alive with musicality and innovation, Our Homesick Songs is sweetly sad and utterly charming.

Books: The Lightkeepers

25786411The Lightkeepers by Abby Geni
Published January 12, 2016
Abby Geni’s debut is both a haunting examination of the human psyche and a lyrical ode to the natural world. Although it features many mystery conventions – there’s the isolated environment, a limited set of suspects, many of whom are keeping secrets, and a death that may or may not be accidental – Geni’s eloquent prose and atmospheric setting elevate this novel, creating a vividly rendered, engrossing read.

Nature photographer Miranda obtains a one-year residency capturing the landscape and wildlife of a remote archipelago thirty miles off the coast of California. Her only companions are the six, somewhat eccentric, biologists who reside on the island studying the local whale, shark, bird, and seal populations. Shortly after her arrival, Miranda is assaulted by one of the island’s inhabitants. A few days later, her assailant is found dead. As Miranda grapples with what has happened, her connection to the beautiful, but dangerous, Farallon Islands deepens.

Told through letters Miranda writes to her long-dead mother, the story is split into four parts that follow the distinct seasons of the island, each named for the indigenous animal that dominates that season (Shark, Whale, Seal, and Bird). Arguably the number one reason to read The Lightkeepers is the prose. Geni’s writing is so beautifully mutable that it shifts from being to-the-point in Miranda’s descriptions of daily routines, and often her interactions with the biologists, to expressive and poignant as she describes the natural beauty of the islands.

I love books where the setting is rendered in such a way that it becomes another character in the novel. The Lightkeepers accomplishes this beautifully. Geni’s depiction of the Farallon Islands captures their isolation, beauty, and ruggedness, while never forgetting the danger they pose to both their human and animal residents. Admittedly I haven’t read widely on the natural world, but I think it would be difficult to find a more thorough and realistic portrayal in fiction that balances the beauty and violence of nature.

Although I can’t say that the characters left a lasting impression on me, they’re given enough depth here to move the story along and it’s difficult to dive deeper into their motivations, pasts, and personalities without derailing the mystery entirely. Miranda herself is intriguing because even though The Lightkeepers is told through her letters, she’s an unreliable narrator. She admits to adopting new character traits with each assignment she undertakes, so how much of the Miranda we see on the islands is the real Miranda?

It may be because And Then There Were None is still firmly fixed in my memory as one of the best mysteries I’ve ever read, but I felt Agatha Christie’s influence on The Lightkeepers keenly. From the red herrings designed to throw us off the scent to the ominous menace of the setting there’s a lot to like about this intelligent and patient mystery. Themes of memory and storytelling resonate. How we choose how to tell a story or to frame a photograph determines how an event is viewed. Similarly, we can twist a narrative, making it fit our motives through what we include and leave out.

I had my issues with some of the events that unfold in the text and I found the literary aspects of the book more compelling than the mystery ones, but The Lightkeepers is beautifully-written, atmospheric, and explores some of my favourite themes (notably storytelling and memory). It’s well worth picking up.

Books: Bright We Burn

22817368Bright We Burn by Kiersten White
Published July 10, 2018
Continuing the saga of siblings Lada and Radu Dracul, the final volume in Kiersten White’s Conquerors trilogy brings their stories to a deeply satisfying conclusion. Lada has won her rightful throne and serves as Prince of Wallachia, but although her reign has created a country free of crime, she won’t rest until Wallachia’s borders are safe and her country free. Her acts of aggression leave Radu and Mehmed with little choice but to go to war against the girl they both love.

Although Bright We Burn didn’t hit me quite as hard, or leave as lasting an impact on me, as the previous book in the series, Now I Rise, it has the arguably more difficult task of intersecting and closing out these parallel stories in a believable and satisfying way. There’s always some trepidation involved in reading the last book of a beloved trilogy or series, but Bright We Burn delivered everything I hoped it would. Without getting into specifics or spoilers, I found the book thrilling, moving, and ultimately a realistic portrayal of two headstrong, similar personalities intent on power, tempered by a third who seeks something entirely different out of life.

A minor complaint I had about the other sweeping historically-based saga I read recently, R. F. Kuang’s The Poppy War, was that while I loved the protagonist and some of the minor characters, I felt that some of the minor characters were underdeveloped and I failed to connect with them in any meaningful way. I can honestly say that I’ve never had that problem with White’s Conquerors saga. Every character is just SO WELL DEVELOPED! Not just Radu and Lada, who continue to be complicated, flawed protagonists, who sometimes do awful things for a cause they believe in, but also the minor characters.

Radu’s wife Nazira remains a ray of sunshine in sometimes bleak times and a voice of reason for her family, and her relationship with Radu and the rest of what becomes a family unit made me so damn happy! The faithfulness of characters like Fatima and Bogdan is set in opposition to the shifting alliances and betrayals that characterize the rest of the series, and Mehmed’s struggle between his public persona as the sultan and his private isolation is sympathetic. Characters in this series are not always likable, but they’re always compelling.

Of course my heart remains with Lada and Radu. Radu doesn’t see quite as much action in this volume, but this gives him a chance to try to reconcile his actions in Constantinople and to move past the guilt he continues to feel. I loved his inner struggle to obtain, at long last, a balance between the devotion he has to Mehmed as Sultan of an empire he believes in, and his desire for romantic love. It is such a joy to see Radu finally make peace with himself! Lada, on the other hand, is more brutal in his book, crossing beyond anti-heroine territory to arguably become a villainess at times. Yet I always understood the motivations behind each of her choices and she has touching moments of vulnerability. As someone who loves morally ambiguous characters, history, ruthless heroines, and politicking, this series hits all of my buttons!

Although saying goodbye to Lada and Radu and all of the assorted other characters who meant so much to me over the course of the series, was bittersweet, I am so glad that the series ended the way it did! The ending felt earned and appropriate for each character involved, but most importantly, Bright We Burn brings us back to the relationship between Lada and Radu that is at the center of the series. The scenes between the siblings were so charged that I wouldn’t have put the book down even if you paid me! This is a very solid end to a series that I know I’ll be re-reading in years to come.



Books: Confessions of the Fox

36470806Confessions of the Fox by Jordy Rosenberg
Published June 26, 2018
I’ve been more selective this year with my book choices. Although I’ve recently relied not just on a high goodreads rating, but also on recommendations from trusted friends and fellow book bloggers, I broke this pattern and picked up Confessions of the Fox because it offered something I’d never read before; A historical fiction novel featuring a transgender protagonist written by a trans author! Historical fiction is one of my favourite genres but, like science-fiction and fantasy, it can often be very white, straight, and cis. I wasn’t ultimately the right audience for Confessions of the Fox, I found it too academic, slow-paced, and explicit in its discussion of both bodily functions and sex for my personal tastes, but I’m glad I picked it up anyway and I’m thrilled that this diverse and unique novel exists.

The frame narrative features academic professor Dr. Voth’s discovery and annotations on a long-lost eighteenth century manuscript that chronicles the adventures of English folk hero and jail-breaker Jack Sheppard (fictionalized most memorably in Brecht’s Threepenny Opera) and his lover Edgeworth Bess. Through an extended series of footnotes, some annotations on 1700’s rogue slang, but mostly Dr. Voth’s tangential thoughts about his ex, the Dean of the University where he works, and finally the manuscript itself, Dr. Voth attempts to authenticate the document. He’s elated to find that not only does the manuscript appear genuine, but it sheds new light on the story of the English folk hero, asserting for the first time that Jack Sheppard was transgender and that his lover Bess was of South Asian descent.

I wanted so much to love this speculative and distinctly queer retelling and unfortunately I didn’t, but some elements of the book work very well. Early chapters captured my interest quickly as the character of Jack, who was assigned female at birth, grows up in servitude as a carpenter’s apprentice, but breaks free of his confines and comes into his own. Moments like Jack’s pride when he hears a sex worker refer to him as “handsome boy” in the street, and his confidence when Bess accepts him for who he is, were touching and I rooted for Jack throughout. I also enjoyed Jack and Bess as characters. There is an earnestness and youth to Jack, and to the way that he loves, which I found appealing. Bess, often the wiser of the two and coming from her own tragic path, also grabbed me.

Where the novel mostly falls down is in the frame narrative. Early on the book’s annotations are focused generally on the text, offering context and clarification about the language used. As the annotations increased in number and length though, I lost interest. I just didn’t care about the frame narrative. At all. Dr. Voth, as a trans academic discovering what he believes to be the earliest memoirs of a transgender person should have been a sympathetic and engaging character, but he added little to the story. Admittedly I’m not an academic, perhaps those who work in a university and deal with the bureaucracy on a daily basis would get more out of the author’s condemnation of the system, but I found all-caps annotations by a representative of the publisher were just hokey and took away from the more engaging story of Jack and Bess.

I understand that a queer retelling that focuses so much on the trans experience must, out of necessity, be somewhat explicit. In some instances I found this frankness both educational and engaging. I also suspect it’s an authentic portrayal of the way in which people in eighteenth century London would have acted and spoken, but as an ace reader, I did find the constant barrage of explicit descriptions of sexual acts, bodily functions, and genitalia uncomfortable.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, since the text deals with the discovery and authentication of a manuscript by a university professor and author Jordy Rosenberg is, yes, you guessed it, an associate professor, there’s also a very academic feel to Confessions of the Fox that just wasn’t for me. Those who are more inclined to read non-fiction, or who have a strong interest in queer/trans theory will undoubtedly get more out of the book than I did.

This reads as a very negative review, but I think it’s important to note that besides the pacing issues I mentioned, which mostly stem from failings within the frame narrative, the issues I had with Confessions of the Fox are largely personal ones. Other readers will get more out of this book than I did and I think it’s hugely important as an #ownvoices story about a trans character. I’m glad it exists, just don’t ask me to read it again.

Top Ten Tuesday: Books You’d Mash Together

I’ve been falling behind on blogging recently, but I couldn’t resist this week’s intriguing topic, which asks book lovers to pick two books that they think would make an epic story if combined. I’ve broadened the topic slightly to, in some cases, speculate on what the combined powers of two awesome authors might create, so here are 10 (+1!) collaborations I would love to see!

Want to join in the fun? Head on over to Top Ten Tuesday, hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl!

1. Shades of Magic series by V.E. Schwab
Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo


This is probably the most obvious combination on my list. I suspect there’s a lot of crossover between the fanbases for Schwab’s Shades of Magic world and Bardugo’s lovable criminal element, the Dregs, and why not? Both authors are masters of plotting who keep us hooked with plot twist after plot twist, high stakes action, and lovable flawed characters. How I would love to see these two worlds collide! Inej and Lila deep in conversation about their knives, Kell’s eternal frown becoming even more eternal at Kaz’ behaviour, Nina and Rhy hanging out. Please someone make this happen!

2. Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner
Doctrine of Labyrinths by Sarah Monette


Look, sometimes you just want to watch the world burn – well, in fiction anyway. I’m quite happy to surround myself with less chaotic friends and colleagues in real life, but in fictional worlds it is fun to watch the drama and chaos that sometimes ensues. That would be literally any interaction between Kushner’s Alec, a sharp-tongued, university educated, nobleman brat who likes to bait people and then sic his expert swordsman boyfriend on them, and Monette’s Felix Harrowgate, a flamboyant, vicious educated wizard. Do I want to see them snark at eachother, with glints in their eyes and sharp-tongues taking lashes off of eachother while Richard (the swordsman boyfriend) and Mildmay (Felix’s assassin half-brother) glower at eachother? Yes, yes I do.

3. The Kingkiller Chronicles by Patrick Rothfuss
The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang


When I read The Poppy War recently, during Rin’s education at Sinegard I often found myself thinking about The Name of the Wind. There are a lot of similarities between Kvothe’s studies at the University and Rin’s schooling. Against the odds both of them attend a school where they make somewhat poor life choices and enroll under the tutelage of a possibly insightful and magical professor who is viewed by his colleagues and students as crazy. Rothfuss lacks great female characters though and I’d love to see Rin, the ruthless, driven heroine of my heart, teach Kvothe a thing or two!

4. Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho
Shades of Magic series by V.E. Schwab


Both Sorcerer to the Crown and the Shades of Magic trilogy are historical fantasy novels with a basis in the same period of English history, the early nineteenth century. It took me awhile to come up with this combination and I’m shocked it took so long, because the books seem like such a natural fit. Although Prunella has a decidedly sunnier and less, um, murder-y disposition than Lila Bard, they’re both the “Prunella/Lila, no!” “Prunella/Lila YES!” types to the more serious male partner. Zacharias and Kell could probably have a frown off while these two ladies who go against everything that was expected of a woman in the early 1800s would undoubtedly get along well… and get up to quite a bit of mischief and magic!

5. The Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett
The Kingkiller Chronicles by Patrick Rothfuss


Although she wrote historical fiction (and a series of unrelated mysteries), Dorothy Dunnett had left a lasting impression on fantasy authors. For anyone who has read her Lymond Chronicles, this is not a huge surprise. The six-book series often feels more akin to the epic scale and dramatics found in a fantasy novel, although its actual fantasy aspects are limited to the inclusion of prophecy and astrology. Naturally I’ve considered combining Lymond with actual fantasy worlds. The Name of the Wind would be an interesting choice for a few reasons. Both protagonists have strong ties to and a talent for music – watching a competition or even a duet between Kvothe and Lymond would be something to see indeed! I’ve mentioned before that I have issues with the way in which Rothfuss writes female characters in his series though, especially the love interest Denna who has about as much depth and personality as a cardboard cut-out. In contrast, Dunnett (although it takes awhile to get there) shapes a heroine who is Lymond’s equal in every way. Rothfuss could learn a thing or two from Dorothy Dunnett!

6. Neil Gaiman
Jeff VanderMeer


Honestly, I’ve never encountered anything quite as flat out weird as works by these two authors! Neil Gaiman, particularly in his Sandman graphic novels, which feature the anthropomorphic personification of Dreams through adventures that range from a genuinely moving day spent with his perky goth sister Death as she takes souls to encounters with Shakespeare, showcases a truly out there imagination. Jeff VanderMeer does much the same thing in Borne, a novel that’s wildly unique, touching, and written in a distinctly visual style. I’d love to see the amazing, wacky, visual things their combined brain power could produce!

7. Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly
The Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett


Protagonists Francis Crawford of Lymond and Cyril DePaul are interesting cases because on the surface they’re very similar. Both are blue-eyed, blonde younger children of wealthy families, both are physically and emotionally scarred by events that have happened in their pasts, and both are spies and, at times, are or appear to be double agents. However, while Lymond cares deeply about his family and loved ones, he also cares about his country. Cyril immediately rolls over and plays double agent, acting against his government. I’d love to read a novella that was just a conversation or series of conversations between the two. Also, Lymond is a man ahead of his (1500s) time in many ways. How I would love to see him in another world like Amberlough, which is inspired by the early twentieth century. Can’t you just see Francis Crawford of Lymond acting in early films?

8. The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang
The Conqueror’s Saga by Kiersten White
The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson


Yes, I’ve cheated and picked three books for this one (it’s my birthday – I’m allowed a little wiggle room!) – I just couldn’t resist this combination of ruthless, morally ambiguous heroines! Brutal patriotic Prince Lada, Coldly efficient accountant Baru, and hardened passionate Shaman Rin; What boundaries couldn’t these three conquer?! I don’t imagine it would be easy – all three are stubborn, used to working alone, and single-mindedly focused on their goals (often revenge), but how I would love to see them join forces!

9. The Camulod Chronicles by Jack Whyte
The Divine Cities Trilogy by Robert Jackson Bennett


When I was in university, my favourite author was Jack Whyte. He had a way of making any tale come alive with his exquisite storytelling ability. Unfortunately, I knew even then that his stories were largely populated by men. Mostly (exclusively?) white men. I don’t remember the female characters having much in the way of roles and I’ve been hesitant to re-read because I suspect his books won’t hold up well these days. I would love to see Whyte join forces with or, in an ideal world, even revise the Camulod Chronicles with the help of Robert Jackson Bennett, whose detailed grasp of (invented) mythology would gell well with Whyte’s largely mythic style of writing. I hugely admired Bennett’s Divine Cities trilogy because the female characters (and especially the women of colour protagonists) were so well-written that I honestly couldn’t tell they had been written by a man. Imagine the stories they could tell together, in a book where the female characters are as interesting as the men, the characters diverse, and the mythology and gift for storytelling heightened in the hands of these two capable men.

10. The Imperial Radch Trilogy by Ann Leckie
The Broken Earth Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin


For my money, these are two of the most exciting authors actively writing in the science-fiction and fantasy genre. A few years back I started to tire of the sci-fi and fantasy genre because so many of the books were trope-filled epic high fantasy sagas by white dudes. Some of these books are very good, don’t get me wrong, but I wanted something fresh and interesting. I started actively seeking out diverse genre fiction and I found these two women. I’ve never read a book by Jemisin or Leckie that I didn’t like. They’ve been a big reason why my love for the genre has been revitalized and I would love to see what these tremendously talented world-builders, who both write books that deal with issues of social justice, could come up with together.

11. The His Dark Materials Trilogy by Phillip Pullman
(literally anything, but especially) Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly


A confession: I love daemon-verse stories. Some people are fascinated by considering Harry Potter AUs and what animal a character’s patronus would be. I love ‘daemon-verse’ AUs where every character has a daemon, an external (usually opposite sex) talking animal that is an exterior manifestation of the soul. I’ll read most fanfic or speculation that deals with daemons, so I would love to see Pullman’s alternate universe set stories combined with any of my favourites, but I’d especially like to read a crossover with Lara Elena Donnelly’s Amberlough Dossier series. Amberlough features double-lives, and some of the subtlest depictions of love and relationships I’ve ever seen. This could be so effectively conveyed in Pullman’s universe, where there are taboos, such as touching another person’s daemon, that could easily convey the depth of emotion between two individuals who never say they love one another, but obviously, in the end, do.

Would you like to read any of these imagined books? Which authors would you love to see collaborate? Let me know in the comments.