Historical Fantasy

Review: Silver Phoenix

Cover of "Silver Phoenix," featuring an East Asian girl in a pink kimono
Image from Cindy Pon

Title: Silver Phoenix

Series: Phoenix #1

Author: Cindy Pon

Genre: Historical Fantasy

Back Cover:

No one wants Ai Ling. Deep down, she is relieved – despite the dishonor she has brought on her family – to be unbetrothed and free, not some stranger’s bride banished to the inner quarters. But now, something is after her. Something horrible. And as pieces of the puzzle start to fit together, Ai Ling begins to realize that her journey to the Palace of Fragrant Dreams isn’t only a quest to find her father, but a venture with stakes higher than she could imagine. Just as she will need the mysterious power growing within her, she will also need help. On a quest of his own, Chen Yong offers that help…and perhaps more.

Review:

I think it must have been the Chinese class I just started that convinced me to pick up this book, because I can’t think of another reason. The title caught my interest a while ago (Silver Phoenix was my screen name at one point), but it just didn’t sound all that interesting to me until I found myself checking it out from the library.

Ai Ling was interesting. From what I know of ancient Chinese culture (and admittedly, I don’t know much), she seemed a little more brave and independent than I would have expected. I liked her, but it seemed like she didn’t exactly fit the story.

Chen Yong I also liked. He was sweet and supportive and a dang good fighter, and I enjoyed him and the tentative maybe-romance between him and Ai Ling. I didn’t love him, though, kind of because he was really private. It seemed like everything Ai Ling learned about him she learned secondhand.

Li Rong, Chen Yong’s younger brother, was actually my favorite character. He was a flirt and a goofball with a fabulous sense of humor – one of those guys who will make you laugh no matter the situation. It made me sad that he was in so little of the book.

The plot seemed a little disjointed at times for me. Ai Ling’s betrothal goes south, and her father doesn’t return from a trip. So she leaves to go find her father, but keeps getting attacked by evil things. It isn’t until over halfway through the book when Ai Ling discovers what’s really going on and why she actually came on the journey. Some of it felt a little predestined-ish to me, which seemed like a cop-out at times. It was good, but not fantastic.

I loved seeing lots of Chinese magic and mythology. The plot hinged on reincarnation, which I couldn’t completely suspend my disbelief over, but I loved discovering the Chinese take on gods and mythical creatures and heaven and other mythological stuff.

Apparently, there is a sequel, Fury of the Phoenix, which I did not know about until I explored Cindy Pon’s website. I do not think I will read it. Silver Phoenix was good, not great. I did enjoy the story, but I have no desire to continue.

The Phoenix series:

  1. Silver Phoenix
  2. Fury of the Phoenix
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Historical Fantasy

Review: Dark Triumph

Cover of "Dark Triumph," featuring a girl in a dark cloak holding a sword with the title in white text
Image from Robin LaFevers

Title: Dark Triumph

Series: His Fair Assassin #2

Author: Robin LaFevers

Genre: Historical Fantasy

Warning: This book is second in a series, so this review will probably contain spoilers of book one, Grave Mercy.

Back Cover:

Sybella arrived at the convent’s doorstep half mad with grief and despair. Those that served Death were too happy to offer her refuge – but at a price. Naturally skilled in the arts of both death and seduction, Sybella is the convent’s most dangerous weapon. But those assassin’s skills are little help when the convent returns her to a life that nearly drove her mad. Her father’s rage and brutality are terrifying, and her brother’s love equally monstrous. And while Sybella is a weapon of justice wrought by the god of Death Himself, He must give her a reason to live. When she discovers an unexpected ally imprisoned in the dungeons, will a daughter of Death find something other than vengeance to live for?

Review:

After the awesome fun of Grave Mercy, I couldn’t wait for Dark Triumph to come out. But when I finally got my hands on it, I became a little less excited – this book follows Sybella, a different assassin-nun mentioned in Grave Mercy, and I wanted more of Ismae.

In Grave Mercy, I remembered Sybella as being the deadliest and slightly insane. So I was surprised at how much I liked her. She’d suffered so much at the hands of her father and brothers…she was so scarred and angry and all she wanted was vengeance. She also had an interesting faith journey – even though her religion was a little crazy, I could relate to the feelings.

I don’t usually mention the “bad guy,” but I just have to say something about D’Albret because he was so completely and utterly evil. He’d kill people on suspicion. He’d kill people for failure. He’d kill people because he didn’t like them or because they weren’t essential to his plans. He’d kill a newborn baby for no reason whatsoever. Rape and incest were just fun for him. I cannot think of another character I’ve read who was as evil as Sybella’s father.

While a few of the characters carry over from the previous book (the duchess, the Beast of Waroch, Ismae, and Duval), most of them only had minor parts. The general cast of Dark Triumph was a whole new set of people.

The plot of Dark Triumph was somewhat similar to Grave Mercy‘s – Mortain’s daughter sent undercover to a noble house to kill people – but was still very different. There was very little courtly intrigue (D’Albret was more into murder than intrigue) and lots of senseless death. There was even quite a bit of incest, which I would normally have hated, but it was in the past and it was handled as a traumatizing event, so I didn’t mind.

The put-the-duchess-on-the-throne plot was continued in Dark Triumph, but it wasn’t as strong. It moved along, but the story focused more on Sybella and her emotional journey. Which, to be honest, I enjoyed. After all, with Sybella, there’s a pretty high chance of action.

Just like in Grave Mercy, my biggest problem with Dark Triumph was with the romance. And it wasn’t the characters, or the romance itself – I just couldn’t get over how I thought the guy was way too old for Sybella. (I’m not saying who he is – that would be a spoiler.) From my estimates (I don’t think their ages were ever actually mentioned) I put Sybella in the 18-20 range and the guy in the 35-40 area. I’m not sure how true that was, but every time something romantic happened, I kept thinking how this guy was probably old enough to be her dad.

I loved Dark Triumph just as much as Grave Mercy. I grew to love Sybella, but I still wanted to see more of Ismae. I think it would be really awesome if the third book, Mortal Heart, alternated perspectives of the two, but according to the blurb in the back of my copy, it’s going to follow a different daughter of Mortain altogether. But I still want to read it.

His Fair Assassin series:

  1. Grave Mercy
  2. Dark Triumph
  3. Mortal Heart
Historical Fantasy

Review: Grave Mercy

Grave Mercy book cover
Image from smallreview.blogspot.com

Title:  Grave Mercy

Series: His Fair Assassin #1

Author:  Robin LaFevers

Genre:  Historical Fantasy

Back Cover:

Escaping from an abusive arranged marriage, Ismae finds sancuary at the convent of St. Mortain.  There she learns that Mortain himself has blessed her with deadly gifts – and a violent destiny.  As a handmaiden to Death, Ismae’s assignment is to infiltrate the high court of Brittany and protect the duchess, posing as mistress to Gavriel Duval, who has fallen under the convent’s suspicion.  Once there, she finds herself woefully unprepared – not only for the deadly games of love and courtly intrigue, but for the impossible choices she must make.

Review:

This book intrigued me for two reasons.  One was the cover, which, although it was a standard girl-in-a-pretty-dress cover, also included a crossbow.  The other was the premise of assassin nuns.

Ismae, the main character, was one of those assassin nuns.  And as far as characters go, she was a fun one.  I loved watching the deadly girl try and navigate courtly life – especially when her first instinct when she gets upset is to stick a knife in whoever upset her.  She was exactly the kind of stubborn, kick-butt heroine I love to read about.

Strangely enough, I feel like I didn’t get to know Duval at all.  Sure, he loved his sister, was a good strategist, could be stubborn and could also be sweet, but I didn’t feel like I really knew him.  I don’t know if this will be developed in subsequent books or if I’m just crazy, but I got the feeling he was hiding something.

This book was the perfect blend of courtly intrigue and assassin-related stuff.  I found the court especially fascinating – it was like they were acting out roles, and everybody not only knew other people were acting but knew other people knew they were acting, yet they still acted!  I found it astounding, and yet riveting.

One thing I definitely have to give this book kudos for is plot.  There were a bunch of different plots and subplots (multiple threats to the duchess, Ismae’s service to Mortain, romance between Ismae and Duval), but they were all tied together so tightly that I don’t think you could remove one of them without tearing the whole story apart.

About the only thing I had a problem with in the book was one of the plotlines.  Something didn’t sit quite right with me about the romance.  It could be because of my impressions of Duval, or because I don’t thing a killer like Ismae could fall in love so quickly, but it just felt a little…off to me.

Other than that one minor detail, though, I really enjoyed the story.  It doesn’t make my top favorite books list, but I’ll definitely be reading the second book in the series, Dark Triumph, when it comes out sometime in the spring.

The His Fair Assassin series:

  1. Grave Mercy
  2. Dark Triumph
  3. Mortal Heart