Did Not Finish, Fantasy

Review: The Victory Perspective

Cover of "The Victory Perspective," featuring the title in white text on top of an image of dark ground with red and gray storm clouds aboveTitle: The Victory Perspective

Author: E.J. Kellett

Genre: Fantasy

Trigger Warnings: Blood, death, misogyny, mind control, cannibalism

Back Cover:

Author E.J. Kellett is here to turn your world upside down. Asking questions so daring, not many before her have had the courage: Are we right to assume our “God” and creation were perfect and impeccable? If you are bold enough to follow this path, you can start a journey of discovery with a book that presents the Bible in the mirror. Turning the classic creation story on its head, this thrilling and thought-provoking dystopian novel pushes the boundaries of our preconceived notions.

“The Victory Perspective” is a controversial story that dares to confront the most fundamental beliefs that divide humanity. E.J. Kellett will leave you questioning everything.

Description: Five individuals find themselves in a wondrous paradise with the perfect climate and boundless resources. But when one develops remarkable powers, he hatches a plan to take control of his comrades and create his perfect world by any means necessary.

Read to: 47%

Review:

To start with, why did I pick up a book with such a self-important description? For two reasons: One is that I liked the idea of retelling the creation story from the Bible with a god who is not good. The other is that the ebook was cheap on Amazon.

Since that description doesn’t tell you anything about the book, I’m going to start with a short description before I move forward with the review. Five people wake up on a beach somewhere – Gabriel, Michael, Alpha, Raphael, and Lucifer. There is a fire on the beach, and they live off fruit from the jungle. When Lucifer accidentally catches a fish, Alpha tastes its blood and feels a strange power. He kills and eats more animals, and his power grows until he can create things at will. Lucifer is more concerned with his budding relationship with Raphael, but when Raphael disappears, he realizes cozying up to Alpha is the best way to find his lover – and he witnesses Alpha’s creation of an entire other world of creatures like them.

Based on the fact that I didn’t finish it, you’d probably assume it wasn’t a good book. And you’d be partially right. It was poorly written and you didn’t really get to know any of the characters. I rooted for Lucifer, but not because I particularly liked or related to Lucifer – I just hated Alpha and Lucifer opposed Alpha.

But on the other hand, the concept was great. Alpha was violent and bloodthirsty, and it was really cool to watch him grow in power and slowly become the God of the Old Testament as he strived for “perfection” with his creation. I kept reading because the story moved slowly, and I was excited for when Lucifer finally stood up to Alpha, got banished from the tropical paradise, and started working in the world Alpha created to foil Alpha’s plans. Plus there was an unexpected but cute relationship between Lucifer and the gentle, kind Raphael.

So what made me stop? Cannabilism. It was probably the most horrifying way cannibalism could have happened.

(Skip this paragraph to avoid spoilers/gory details.)

Lucifer lived with Alpha for a little bit and gathered food and water for him while he was using his powers to create humans. After Alpha creates a woman out of a man’s rib, he offers Lucifer some dried meat. Lucifer eats some of it, and then it’s revealed that the meat was actually Raphael. Not only did Alpha kill Lucifer’s lover, but he also fed him to Lucifer. Which is simultaneously heartbreaking and stomach-turning.

(Read from here if you’re skipping spoilers/gory details.)

I honestly don’t have much of a stomach for cannibalism anyway, but that legitimately made me sick to my stomach. I couldn’t read on after that. I’m sure the rest of the story is interesting (if poorly written) like the first 47%, but there’s no way I could finish the book after that horrifying turn of events.

Ignoring that bit, it was a solid 3- or 3.5-star book – not the best, but an interesting enough concept that I liked it nonetheless. But with that cannibalism bit … I just couldn’t. It was horrifying and stomach-turning and just tainted the whole book for me.

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High Fantasy

Review: The Second Mango

Cover of "The Second Mango," featuring art of a brown-skinned girl with dark hair and a light-skinned girl with long blond hair riding on a green dragon
Image from Goodreads

Title: The Second Mango

Series: Mangoverse #1

Author: Shira Glassman

Genre: High Fantasy

Trigger Warnings: Death, kidnapping, f/f sex (barely described), m/f sex (implied)

Back Cover:

Queen Shulamit never expected to inherit the throne of the tropical land of Perach so young. At twenty, grief-stricken and fatherless, she’s also coping with being the only lesbian she knows after her sweetheart ran off for an unknown reason. Not to mention, she’s the victim of severe digestive problems that everybody thinks she’s faking. When she meets Rivka, an athletic and assertive warrior from the north who wears a mask and pretends to be a man, she finds the source of strength she needs so desperately.

Unfortunately for her, Rivka is straight, but that’s okay — Shulamit needs a surrogate big sister just as much as she needs a girlfriend. Especially if the warrior’s willing to take her around the kingdom on the back of her dragon in search of other women who might be open to same-sex romance. The real world outside the palace is full of adventure, however, and the search for a royal girlfriend quickly turns into a rescue mission when they discover a temple full of women turned to stone by an evil sorcerer.

Review:

I’ve had this book on my to-read book for a while after discovering Shira Glassman somewhere on Tumblr and picked it up because the ebook was cheap on Amazon. It’s short and it was a quick read, and I did enjoy the story. But I do have some reservations about it.

So let’s talk about what was good. The characters were great. Shulamit is a solid character, and even though she seemed a little too focused on sex (although that could just be me, since I’m asexual and don’t really think about sex at all), she had a lot of complicated feelings that made her really likable. She also has serious food allergies (celiac disease and a poultry allergy) that cause her a lot of problems, which added an interesting dimension.

The other major character, Rivka the warrior, was also well done – and interestingly, you actually get more of her backstory than Shulamit’s. Her history makes for a great dramatic story and she has some emotional pain she’s dealing with, which makes her especially enjoyable to read. She also has a great dynamic with Shulamit and I loved watching the two girls interact.

Information about the setting was sparse, but what there was was solid. I’m hoping future books in the series have more of it, because I’d love to learn more about Perach and how it works. The plot also wrapped up nicely and it had a great happy ending that I thoroughly loved.

Now let’s talk about the not-so-good stuff. Namely, the tension, or lack thereof. The plot is super straightforward (there’s only one twist, and it has more to do with Rivka’s emotional arc than the actual plot) and the tension never ramps up. They meet a problem, they solve it. They meet a problem, they solve it. They meet a problem, their lives are in danger for a few moments, they solve the problem. The tension is minimal, they never run into other problems while solving a different problem, and in a lot of ways it just feels too easy.

But even given that, did I enjoy it? Yes, thoroughly. It was light and fun, and though it was missing a lot of the complexity I was expecting from a fantasy novel, sometimes simplicity is good and I missed next to nothing reading it in bits and pieces. It was a fun romp and I just bought book two – I’m looking forward to continuing the simple, light adventure in the Mangoverse.

The Mangoverse Series:

  1. The Second Mango
  2. Climbing the Date Palm: A Labor Rights Love Story
  3. A Harvest of Ripe Figs
  4. The Olive Conspiracy
  5. Tales from Perach
Fairy Tale

Review: Girls Made of Snow and Glass

Cover of "Girls Made of Snow and Glass," featuring a black background with spikes of ice or glass sticking up from the bottom and the title in white text
Image from Melissa Bashardoust

Title: Girls Made of Snow and Glass

Author: Melissa Bashardoust

Genre: Fairy Tale

Trigger Warnings: Death, blood, emotional abuse, mild body horror

Back Cover:

At sixteen, Mina’s mother is dead, her magician father is vicious, and her silent heart has never beat with love for anyone – has never beat at all, in fact, but she’d always thought that fact normal. She never guessed that her father cut out her heart and replaced it with one of glass. When she moves to Whitespring Castle and sees its king for the first time, Mina forms a plan: win the king’s heart with her beauty, become queen, and finally know love. The only catch is that she’ll have to become a stepmother.

Fifteen-year-old Lynet looks just like her late mother, and one day she discovers why: a magician created her out of snow in the dead queen’s image, at her father’s order. But despite being the dead queen made flesh, Lynet would rather be like her fierce and regal stepmother, Mina. She gets her wish when her father makes Lynet queen of the southern territories, displacing Mina. Now Mina is starting to look at Lynet with something like hatred, and Lynet must decide what to do and who to be to win back the only mother she’s ever known, or else defeat her once and for all.

Entwining the stories of both Lynet and Mina in the past and present, Girls Made of Snow and Glass traces the relationship of two young women doomed to be rivals from the start. Only one can win all, while the other must lose everything, unless both can find a way to reshape themselves and their story.

Review:

This may be the best fairytale retelling I’ve ever read. Girls Made of Snow and Glass is a retelling of Snow White, told from both “snow white” and the stepmother’s points of view, and it is fantastic.

First, there’s Lynet. The Snow White character in the story, she feels stifled by her overprotective father and would rather climb trees and scale the castle walls than be quiet and demure like her mother, the way her father wants her to be. She loves her father, but she also wants to be her own person, free from the shadow of the dead queen. She has an internal struggle between who she wants to be and who other people want her to be (which I found very relatable), and in the end she’s strong and courageous enough to make her own way in the world. I loved her.

Then there’s Mina, who, despite being the stepmother of the story, is far from evil. She was actually a very sympathetic character who knows she’s broken because she can’t love (and, she thinks, can’t be loved). I honestly didn’t root for Lynet to beat Mina because I cared about Mina, too. I wanted them both to win somehow.

If there’s a villain in this story at all, it’s Mina’s father, the magician Gregory. He’s cruel and cunning and selfish, and he has dark plans for Lynet that don’t get revealed until towards the end. He’s not even in most of the book, but his shadow hovers over Mina and she’s (rightfully) afraid of him.

The story alternates perspectives between Lynet and Mina. You get to see how Mina came to marry Lynet’s father and how having a glass heart incapable of love affected her life. You also get Lynet’s struggle between her love for her father and wanting to be who he wants her to be, and her desire to be her own independent person. Then circumstances cause the two women to clash. And while ostensibly the plot is about this clash between Mina and Lynet, with a little bit of politics and magic, it’s really more about the characters. How they’re feeling, how they think, how they react. Mina and Lynet are excellently written, and reading about their emotional journeys was fantastic.

And probably the best part – it has a happy ending!

Of course, the book isn’t perfect. Mainly when it came to the romance. I can’t even say that Lynet falls in love with someone, because the romance doesn’t get enough time or attention for that to really be shown. She likes this person and they kiss towards the end, so there’s definitely some romance going forward after the end of the book, but it was really sidelined during the main story and the love interest isn’t even in most of the book. I liked the romance, it was cute and I think it was a good way of showing Lynet growing up, but removing it would hardly have affected the story at all.

This book is amazing. It’s one of the best books I’ve read in a while, and probably one of the best fairytale retellings I’ve ever read. I loved how it was character-driven while still being a fantasy story and not neglecting either element. I enthusiastically recommend this book.

Fantasy

Review: Ruin of Stars

Cover of "Ruin of Stars," featuring an ornate golden brooch with two arrows crossed in front of it
Image from Linsey Miller

Title: Ruin of Stars

Series: Mask of Shadows #2

Author: Linsey Miller

Genre: Fantasy

Trigger Warnings: Death, blood/gore, mentions of war, child abuse, fire

Spoiler Warning: This book is second in a series, so this review contains spoilers of the first book, Mask of Shadows.

Back Cover

As one of the Queen’s elite assassins, Sal finally has the power, prestige, and permission to hunt down the lords who killed their family. But Sal still has to figure out who the culprits are. They must enlist the help of some old friends and enemies while ignoring a growing distaste for the queen and that the charming Elise is being held prisoner by her father.

But there’s something terribly wrong in the north. Talk of the return of shadows, missing children, and magic abounds. As Sal takes out the people responsible for their ruined homeland, they learn secrets and truths that can’t be forgotten.

Review

This book was excellent. I absolutely loved the first book in the series, and Ruin of Stars was the perfect follow-up.

Let’s start with Sal. Sal is having an identity crisis – Erlend pushes a strict gender binary that they don’t fit into at all, and also how Nacean are they if they lost their home so young and don’t remember much of it? And they’re wrestling with the guilt of having killed so many people. They’re the same determined, angry, full-of-complicated-emotions Sal from Mask of Shadows, just with a lot more of the complicated emotions part. And even though they’re dealing with so much darkness, you just root for them.

Other people have said Sal’s talking about their gender identity gets boring, and I can see how it could, but as a nonbinary person I loved it because I have a lot of the same feelings.

You also get a lot more of some of the great minor characters in this book. Rath comes back, Maud gets a bigger role and so does Elise. All have distinct personalities and are generally fun to read (especially Maud’s boldness and smart mouth). The downside is you get almost nothing of the other Left Hand.

There is a lot more to the plot than you get from the back cover. North Star and Winter have retreated to Erlend and are working hard to not only reestablish Erlend, but take over Igna too. And they’re using some dark and brutal stuff to do that. Sal’s job is to stop them. And that’s really all I can say without spoilers. There’s a lot that happens. Political stuff takes a back burner as Sal’s solutions usually involve murder. (Which, admittedly, is probably the best way to solve these things because the Erlenians are perfectly fine with killing excessively to get what they want.) And there’s some huge twists at the end …

… which are actually my only real problem with the book. All of Sal’s motivation has been revenge for Nacea being destroyed, and in the last quarter of the book Sal learns some surprising things about Nacea. And then the book takes a sharp left turn. It goes from focusing on stopping a war/the evil magic the Erlenians are using and getting revenge to focusing on new information Sal’s learning about Nacea. On one hand, it makes sense, since grief for their country and a desire to avenge it are their main motivation. On the other hand, it’s done abruptly, and so much information is thrown at you at once that it’s hard to process it all – I found it harder to care about all the new stuff.

Besides that, though, the book was great, and it actually had a reasonably happy ending. It’s dark, definitely – I’d even say darker than the first book – but I tend to enjoy those kinds of books, and if you can handle darkness and murder I highly recommend you give both of these books a read.

The Mask of Shadows duology:

  1. Mask of Shadows
  2. Ruin of Stars
Urban Fantasy

Review: Bruja Born

Cover of "Bruja Born," featuring a line drawing of a golden moth on a dark background
Image from Zoraida Córdova

Title: Bruja Born

Series: Brooklyn Brujas #2

Author: Zoraida Córdova

Genre: Urban Fantasy

Trigger Warnings: Death, blood, traumatic injury, car crash, cannibalism, fire

Spoiler Warning: This book is second in a series, so this review may contain spoilers of the first book, Labyrinth Lost.

Back Cover:

Three sisters. One spell. Countless dead.

Lula Mortiz feels like an outsider. Her sister’s newfound Encantrix powers have wounded her in ways that Lula’s bruja healing powers can’t fix, and she longs for the comfort her family once brought her. Thank the Deos for Maks, her sweet, steady boyfriend who sees the beauty within her and brings light to her life.

Then a bus crash turns Lula’s world upside down. Her classmates are all dead, including Maks. But Lula was born to heal, to fix. She can bring Maks back, even if it means seeking help from her sisters and defying Death herself. But magic that defies the laws of the deos is dangerous. Unpredictable. And when the dust settles, Maks isn’t the only one who’s been brought back…

Review:

This book is intense. The emotions and the drama and the atmosphere and everything grab you from the second paragraph and none of it slows down until the epilogue. I actually had to take a break after the first two chapters because I was not expecting that many feelings (and that intense of feelings) at the very beginning.

This is Lula’s story. I thought before I picked it up that it was going to be a continuation of Alex’s story from Labyrinth Lost, but it actually follows Alex’s older sister Lula. It happens after the events of Labyrinth Lost and continues the story of the Mortiz sisters through a different set of eyes.

I didn’t expect to like it as much because I was already invested in Alex from the last book, but that really wasn’t an issue. I didn’t necessarily love Lula in the usual sense of “loving” characters, but I felt her pain and her emotional conflict and I got really invested in her. She’s a tragic heroine who tried to fix something bad and made things much worse, and I was rooting for her the whole way.

This book is dark and there’s a lot going on. I can’t even touch on the plot because the true state of things slowly gets revealed as Lula and her sisters discover things and they don’t even find out the sheer magnitude of what’s happening until near the end. The story is full of difficult decisions and emotional pain and it was thoroughly absorbing.

There’s also a lot more of the bruja world – there’s more than just brujas dealing with magical things, and this book reveals more of a complex and fascinating world hiding under the world we know. And the end hints that we might get more of it in the future.

Also, despite being such a dark book, it has a mostly happy ending.

I thought going in that the Brooklyn Brujas series was only two books, but I’m glad I was wrong. There’s a third book coming out in 2019. My guess is it’s going to be about Rose, the youngest Mortiz sister, but I’m okay with that. If it’s anything like the previous two books, I’m sure I’ll love it.

The Brooklyn Brujas series:

  1. Labyrinth Lost
  2. Bruja Born
  3. Currently Untitled (2019)
Did Not Finish, Suspense/Thriller

Review: Gated

Cover of "Gated," featuring a person with blue eyes and long messy hair peeking out from behind a tree
Image from Amy Christine Parker

Title: Gated

Series: Gated #1

Author: Amy Christine Parker

Genre: Thriller

Trigger Warnings: Missing child, guns, religious abuse

Back Cover:

In the Community, life seems perfect. Lyla Hamilton believes she is one of the chosen. Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Pioneer invited her family to join the Community and escape the evil in the world. They have thrived under his strict, charismatic leadership. Now seventeen, Lyla knows certain facts are not to be questioned:

Pioneer is her leader.

Will is her Intended.

The end of the world is near.

Pioneer has visions of the imminent destruction of humanity. He says his chosen must prepare to fight off the unchosen, who will surely seek refuge in the Silo, the underground shelter where the Community will wait out the apocalypse.

Lyla loves her family and friends, but a chance encounter with an unchosen boy has her questioning Pioneer, the Community – everything. She needs time to figure out the truth. But with Pioneer’s deadline for the end of days fast approaching, time is the one thing she doesn’t have.

Read to: Page 95

Review:

I am rather annoyed with this book.

I picked it up because of the cult aspect. I’m personally trying to deal with leaving a cult-like religion, so I thought it would be interesting and relatable. That’s really the only reason. And it honestly wasn’t very heavy on the cult stuff. Sure, there’s information about how the Community works and how isolated and close-knit they are, but besides calling Pioneer their prophet, there really wasn’t any religious aspect to it. Which may or may not have been realistic, I don’t know, but it wasn’t really what I was looking for.

Most of the story (at least until where I read to) was about Lyla’s feelings about the Community and doomsday and their preparations for it. Which, unfortunately, were not very interesting because she wasn’t a very interesting character. She grew up in the Community, so it didn’t really occur to her to doubt the apocalypse or Pioneer – she mostly wasn’t happy about target practice and that she would probably have to shoot people to defend the Community when doomsday came. I understand that – I wouldn’t be too excited about shooting people either – but there really wasn’t anything else until Cody came along.

Cody is the outsider boy that comes to the Community by chance, and Lyla has to give him a (limited) tour. She likes him a lot because he’s … well, I guess because he’s handsome. She mentions his extreme handsomeness when she first sees him, before they even meet. They hardly talk (at least on-page), but she’s inexplicably drawn to him. I don’t want to say love at first sight, but it was definitely feelings at first sight. And apparently meeting one really handsome dude is enough to make her question everything she grew up with.

Honestly, though, I kept reading. I wasn’t all that invested and I wasn’t actually sure what I felt about the book, but I knew the apocalypse wasn’t coming and I wanted to see what happened when they found out Pioneer was wrong. What really made me stop was aliens.

Yes, aliens.

A lot of flashbacks are interspersed in this book, covering Lyla’s childhood both before and after the Community. And in one, a flashback to “school” with Pioneer, you learn more about this vision that Pioneer is peddling. The earth is going to start rotating backwards, causing all sorts of natural disasters that will wipe out everyone outside the Community (the Community built an underground bunker to survive it), and then after five months, the aliens will show up to take them to a new life across the galaxy.

I know Scientology exists and aliens in cults are not, like, a completely out of the blue thing, but it still annoyed me. It just seemed so absurd. It also probably doesn’t help that I was looking for a book with a more Christian-like religion and themes of religious abuse, and the aliens just kind of proved to me that this isn’t the book I wanted it to be.

That’s not to say other people won’t like it – it has 3.75 stars on Goodreads, obviously people do – and I can see how some people would really enjoy this. It just didn’t match my expectations, and that kind of ruined it for me.

The Gated series:

  1. Gated
  2. Astray
Fantasy

Review: Mask of Shadows

Cover of "Mask of Shadows," featuring two knives crossed in front of a circular metal crest
Image from Linsey Miller

Title: Mask of Shadows

Series: Mask of Shadows #1

Author: Linsey Miller

Genre: Fantasy

Trigger warnings: Death, blood, mentions of abuse and war – for more details, read this

Back Cover:

Sallot Leon is a thief, and a good one at that. But gender fluid Sal wants nothing more than to escape the drudgery of life as a highway robber and get closer to the upper-class—and the nobles who destroyed their home.

When Sal steals a flyer for an audition to become a member of The Left Hand—the Queen’s personal assassins, named after the rings she wears—Sal jumps at the chance to infiltrate the court and get revenge.

But the audition is a fight to the death filled with clever circus acrobats, lethal apothecaries, and vicious ex-soldiers. A childhood as a common criminal hardly prepared Sal for the trials. And as Sal succeeds in the competition, and wins the heart of Elise, an intriguing scribe at court, they start to dream of a new life and a different future, but one that Sal can have only if they survive.

Review:

This is the book I’ve been looking for.

You may have noticed I haven’t been reading a lot of novels lately. The reason is that I haven’t been able to find a novel that engaged me enough that I actually wanted to read more. (I’m honestly not sure if that’s more a reflection on the books or on me.) But this book – this book was absorbing and I loved it.

Let’s start with Sal. Sal is genderfluid, but it’s not a Big Thing – everyone just accepts it. They’re driven by revenge against the nobles who let their people die, and they have no preparation for being an assassin other than having been a thief and getting in street fights. They were just so determined to succeed, and I love reading about characters that are unprepared but do well through pure determination.

I love books about assassins, but despite Sal being in a competition to become an assassin, there wasn’t a lot of assassin-ing. It was more about competition-ing. Sure, there was some killing of other competitors, but the story was more about the training and learning, the dynamics between characters, and Sal adjusting to their new life and not getting caught while working toward vengeance.

I tried to come up with a “basic plot” for this book, but it’s hard because the two major plots combine so thoroughly. Sal wants to kill the nobles who let her people die, and they are using the audition competition as a means to that end. Some of it is trying to scheme and find which nobles are at fault, a lot of it is trying to survive (and win) the audition. It’s all fantastic and sucks you into the story. There’s a lot of violence, quite a bit of assassin skills (both learning and used), and some great characters in the form of the three members of the Left Hand and in Sal’s maid.

Really though, even the characters the book doesn’t spend a lot of time with are well done. There isn’t much court intrigue but what there is is great, Sal’s love interest is adorable and sweet (although their relationship does develop a little quickly), and the competition is fantastic.

I don’t have enough good things to say about this book. If you can stomach some blood and violence, I highly recommend it, especially if you need something to get yourself out of a reading slump.

The Mask of Shadows duology:

  1. Mask of Shadows
  2. Ruin of Stars
Classic

Review: Tales from the Arabian Nights

Cover of "Tales from the Arabian Nights," featuring the golden silhouette of Arabic-looking buildings against a dark blue starry background
Image from Amazon

Title: Tales from the Arabian Nights

Translator: Sir Richard Francis Burton

Genre: Classic

Trigger Warnings: Death, blood/gore, misogyny, racism, colorism, antisemitism

Back Cover:

These are the tales that saved the life of Scherehazade, whose husband, the king, executed each of his wives after a single night of marriage. Beginning an enchanting story each evening, Scherehazade always withheld the ending: a thousand and one nights later, her life was spared forever. Full of mischief, valor, ribaldry and romance, “The Arabian Nights” has enthralled readers for centuries. This volume contains the most famous and representative stories from Sir Richard F. Burton’s multi volume translation, and, unlike many editions, is complete unexpurgated. These tales, including “Aladdin or the Wonderful Lamp,” “Sinbad the Sailor,” and “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” have entered into the popular imagination.

Review:

When I picked this book up at my local Half Price Books, I thought it was the complete Arabian Nights. I was wrong – the complete version of Burton’s translation is 16 volumes. This version has only a sampling of the stories, but it’s still almost 1,000 pages long.

Some of these I’d heard before, some of them I hadn’t, and even the ones I had heard were missing a lot of details. For example, you’ve probably heard the story of the fisherman and the jinn – but have you heard the second half of it, where the fisherman catches magic fish and saves an entire city from a magic spell? I hadn’t.

This volume kept the original translation text from the 1800s, and sometimes I had to figure out what words meant from the context. I didn’t mind that, but I’m sure there are more modern translations you can get if that would bother you.

All the stories were fascinating. Some I enjoyed more than others – “Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp” was actually kind of a slog to get through, and “The Story of Two Sisters Who Were Jealous of Their Younger Sister” was probably my favorite – but they were all entertaining reads. Sometimes the plots meander a bit, and it tends to layer stories within stories, which can get confusing, but they’re interesting anyway.

You also get an interesting look at Arabic culture, especially the opulence of royalty/rich people and their views of certain groups of people. For example, there’s a lot of racism (black people are universally slaves and described as “ugly” and “repulsive”) and colorism (the most beautiful people are described as having pure white skin). Women are also portrayed as either being extremely beautiful objects to be won or irredeemably evil – the exceptions being a slave girl in “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” and a princess in “The Story of the Two Sisters Who Were Jealous of Their Younger Sister” (both of whom get married off in the end).

Some other random things I didn’t realize about the Arabian Nights:

  • Scherehazade actually asked to be married to the sultan, she wasn’t randomly picked.
  • Scherehazade’s sister was with her and the sultan every night.
  • The sultan didn’t decide to permanently not kill Scherehazade – she had to request it after 1001 nights of storytelling and bearing him three kids.
  • Aladdin was Chinese (and a total jerk).
  • There’s an Arabian version of the “Genghis Khan and his hawk” story (a story I wrote about in English class back in middle school).

Overall, this is a great collection of stories – a little dense, maybe, but highly entertaining (and a great look at Arabic culture if you’re into that). I highly recommend it. As for the complete 16-book collection … maybe I’ll read it someday. But for now, this is plenty.

Dystopian

Review: Fight For You

Cover of "Fight For You," featuring a sunny picture of the Roman Coliseum with a girl holding a sword in one of the archways
Image from Kayla Bain-Vrba

Title: Fight For You

Author: Kayla Bain-Vrba

Genre: Dystopian

Trigger Warnings: Death, blood/violence, sexual assault, whorephobia, sexualization of female characters

Back Cover:

Sold off to pay her father’s debts, Cherry spends her nights dancing and her days longing for freedom. Determined to break free of her life, she transfers from the dance halls to the stadiums, where all the real money is made.

The only problem with her plan is that she’s not a fighter. In order to learn, Cherry approaches Berlin, one of the best fighters in the stadium. Berlin, however, wants nothing to do with her, and Cherry realizes the hardest fights do not take place in the arena …

Review:

I was really excited about this book. It even made my Top 5 Want to Reads for this year. I guess the joke’s on me for getting so excited about the concept and not reading the reviews. This is the most disappointing book I’ve read this year.

So you know how based on the back cover, it seems like a lot of the story is going to be about Cherry convincing Berlin to teach her to fight? Yeah, Berlin agrees to train her on page 2. Right after their first kiss. Berlin gives Cherry an aggressive kiss after tackling her as a “show of dominance.”

Which leads me to my next problem with this book – Cherry and Berlin are both overly sexualized. At once point, Cherry says “I want people to see me as more than tits and ass,” and yet the author describes both girls mostly in terms of tits, ass, and how horny they make each other. There’s a lot of nudity. There’s a lot of random nipple sucking. There’s a lot of sexual situations that don’t fit the fact that these girls hardly know each other. And most of it reads like amateur erotica.

I don’t want to be That FeministTM, but this novella reads like it is by and for the male gaze. Cherry and Berlin are described in terms of sex appeal, their relationship develops through mutual horniness, and the level of physical intimacy they have as strangers is straight out of a random encounters erotica story. If there had been actual on-page sex when the girls had sex, I would call this amateur erotica with a veneer of gladiators slapped on top.

The pacing was also very bad. It moved much too fast and didn’t focus enough on anything to give either of the girls real emotions. The conflicts between Berlin and Cherry feel contrived and both girls get over them within a few paragraphs with no emotional growth shown, and you get no sense of the world (other than this is some sort of dystopian society where people or their family members are sold to work in The Zone if they can’t pay their debts).

A short list of other problems that I want to mention but not spend an entire paragraph on:

  • Both girls act like sex work is awful/shameful/makes you less of a person.
  • Two unnecessary sexual assault scenes.
  • It’s not really clear how one actually makes money off the fights. Maybe betting on them?
  • It’s mentioned offhandedly that the fights are mostly about the sex appeal – which is just, what???
  • The line “You’re going to be turned on when you’re fighting.”

This could have easily been expanded into a novel – and I think with time to flesh out the world and the characters of Cherry and Berlin, this could have been at least good. Berlin has an interesting past, and Cherry at least has some family history that could have been explored. The world could have been interesting. And I still love stories about fighting in arenas for money. I’m mostly upset about this novella because it could have been good, and I wanted it to be – it just wasn’t.

High Fantasy

Review: The Golden Yarn

Cover of "The Golden Yarn," featuring a golden tree branch that forms the silhouette of a face on a blue background
Image from Cornelia Funke

Title: The Golden Yarn

Series: Mirrorworld #3

Author: Cornelia Funke

Genre: High Fantasy

Trigger Warnings: Death, blood, sex mentions, mild body horror

Spoiler Warning: This book is third in a series, so this review may contain spoilers of the previous books.

Back Cover:

Jacob Reckless continues to travel the portal in his father’s abandoned study. His name has continued to be famous on the other side of the mirror, as a finder of enchanted items and buried secrets. His family and friends, from his brother, Will to the shape-shifting vixen, Fox, are on a collision course as the two worlds become connected. Who is driving these two worlds together, and why is he always a step ahead?

This new force isn’t limiting its influence to just Jacob’s efforts – it has broadened the horizon within MirrorWorld. Jacob, Will and Fox travel east and into the Russian folklore, to the land of the Baba Yaga, pursued by a new type of being that knows our world all too well.

Review:

This is a book best read in quick succession with Reckless and Fearless, because it picks up right after Fearless leaves off and it does a disservice to this book to be trying to piece together things you don’t remember while reading it. Although it has been five years since I read Fearless, so it’s probably my own fault for not rereading the first two books before this one.

And since it’s been five years, I can’t really compare the characters to how they were in the previous books. And The Golden Yarn follows a LOT of them. Jacob and Fox, Nerron the Goyl treasure hunter, Will, the antagonist, the Dark Fairy, Kami’en the Goyl king, Jacob’s father …. There’s a lot of storylines woven through this book. (This is a book best read without distractions, otherwise it’s easy to get confused.)

The only characters I’m really going to touch on are Jacob and Fox, since they are the main protagonists and the bulk of the story focuses on them. And most of the other characters’ stories were more about plot than character, anyway.

Jacob’s theme for this book was “love.” His love for Will (and his desire to protect him) drove most of his actions, and his love for Fox drove most of his emotional arc. You still get some of his awesome treasure hunter-ness, but not as much. Fox took a bit of a back seat and ended up caught in a love triangle (which didn’t annoy me like love triangles usually do, but still).

The characters (even the minor ones) are all solid, but you really read a Mirrorworld book for the world – and the plot, which often ties in with the world. The world is enchanting and vivid and woven full of myths and magic. You get a lot in the previous books, but you get even more in this one – the characters cross multiple countries and the diversity of the magic and legends reflects that.

I want to say so much more about this book, but I don’t want to give any spoilers. This entire book is amazing. All of the subplots are fascinating and engrossing, the world is wonderful … it’s everything you want out of a Mirrorworld book. And I haven’t found anything about a sequel, but the ending of The Golden Yarn is too open-ended for this to be the last book. And besides, I want more.

The Mirrorworld series:

  1. Reckless
  2. Fearless
  3. The Golden Yarn