High Fantasy

Review: Of Fire and Stars

Cover of "Of Fire and Stars," featuring silhouettes of two princesses on a blue background with gold calligraphy text
Image from Audrey Coulthurst

Title: Of Fire and Stars

Author: Audrey Coulthurst

Genre: High Fantasy

Trigger Warnings: Death, burning alive, torture mention

Back Cover:

Betrothed since childhood to the prince of Mynaria, Princess Dennaleia has always known what her future holds. Her marriage will seal the alliance between Mynaria and her homeland, protecting her people from other hostile nations. But Denna has a secret. She possesses an Affinity for fire–a dangerous gift for the future queen of a kingdom where magic is forbidden.

Now Denna must learn the ways of her new home while trying to hide her growing magic. To make matters worse, she must learn to ride Mynaria’s formidable warhorses–and her teacher is the person who intimidates her the most, the prickly and unconventional Princess Amaranthine–called Mare–the sister of her betrothed.

When a shocking assassination leaves the kingdom reeling, Mare and Denna reluctantly join forces to search for the culprit. As the two become closer, Mare is surprised by Denna’s intelligence and bravery, while Denna is drawn to Mare’s independent streak. And soon their friendship is threatening to blossom into something more.

But with dangerous conflict brewing that makes the alliance more important than ever, acting on their feelings could be deadly. Forced to choose between their duty and their hearts, Mare and Denna must find a way to save their kingdoms–and each other.

Review:

I never used to be into books about court drama, but Of Fire and Stars completely changed my opinion.

Honestly, I wasn’t super excited about this book–yeah, it was queer and it looked good, but it wasn’t at the top of my list. I ended up picking it up because I needed another book and this one was easy to locate at the library. And it totally blew me away.

First, there was Denna. She was brilliant. She’d done a lot of studying in her preparation to become queen of Mynaria, but she was still “I’ve looked at this map twice and now I have it memorized” brilliant. I can’t find the words for what else I want to say about her–besides brilliant, there weren’t a lot of characteristics that stood out–but she was an absolutely fantastic character and the kind of person I’d hope to be if I were a princess.

Mare was, as it says on the back cover, an unconventional princess. She would rather wear riding breeches than ball gowns and valued independence above all else … and she also did quite a bit of sneaking out of the castle to gather information from spies, which was awesome. In retrospect, she was the kind of stereotypical tomboyish don’t-want-to-be-a-princess princess, but she didn’t feel like that while reading.

The cool part is the story is told in alternating perspectives, so you get both sides and the inner thoughts and feelings of both girls. And the romance between them is built slowly but the chemistry is undeniable.

It’s been a long, long time since I read a court drama book–which is a lot of what this is. Yeah, there’s some sneaking out of the castle and some “who’s behind this assassination?” but there’s also a lot of social niceties (and trying to do non-princess-y stuff without betraying all of the social niceties) and arguing with the council and “you have to do your duty because you’re a princess” stuff. And it was honestly fantastic.

Also, you know the trope of “main character is so much more powerful than other magic users”? This book uses that trope. But differently. It kinda turns the trope on its head and I love it.

I don’t have enough good things to say about this book. The characters were great, the plot was awesome, and even the setting, though a pretty standard high fantasy setting, was cool. I thoroughly enjoyed it. And though the ending wrapped things up nicely and a sequel isn’t necessary, I would enjoy one.

Post-Apocalyptic, Science Fiction

Review: The Edge of the Abyss

Cover of "The Edge of the Abyss," featuring a girl dressed in black standing on the seashore with massive read octopus tentacles rising from the surf
Image from Emily Skrutskie

Title: The Edge of the Abyss

Author: Emily Skrutskie

Genre: Post-Apocalyptic/Science Fiction

Trigger Warnings: Blood/gore, violence between sea monsters

WARNING: This book is a sequel and this review contains spoilers of The Abyss Surrounds Us!

Back Cover:

Three weeks have passed since Cassandra Leung pledged her allegiance to ruthless pirate-queen Santa Elena and set free Bao, the sea monster Reckoner she’d been forced to train. The days as a pirate trainee are long and grueling, but it’s not the physical pain that Case dreads most. It’s being forced to work with Swift, the pirate girl who broke her heart.

But Cas has even bigger problems when she discovers Bao is not the only monster swimming free. Other Reckoners illegally sold to pirates have escaped their captors and are taking the NeoPacific by storm, attacking ships at random and threatening the ocean’s ecosystem. As a Reckoner trainer, Cas might be the only one who can stop them. But how can she take up arms against creatures she used to care for and protect?

Will Cas embrace the murky morals that life as a pirate brings or perish in the dark waters of the NeoPacific?

Review:

This is one of the best emotional roller coasters I’ve been on in YEARS.

So I loved loved loved The Abyss Surrounds Us, and as soon as I finished reading it I immediately reserved this book at the library.

It never made it out of the library. I had a break between work and yoga, sat down in a chair, and devoured the entire book in a single 1.5 hour sitting. I couldn’t put it down and really didn’t want to.

You get more of the great characters in this book, including some backstories and more about Swift’s history. Also some of Cas’s family towards the end. But most of what you get is Cas and Swift and their relationship, which is a beautiful, complicated mess and a total emotional roller coaster. Ups, downs, love, hurt … so many emotions. It was so raw and real and vivid and I loved the way it wrenched my heart around.

We also get a lot more about pirates in this book. How they work, who they are … even meeting a lot more of them. And it’s interesting, because they’re all scheming and piratey, but none of them seem quite as ruthless as Santa Elena. (And as a bonus, you get to learn a lot about pirate politics, which there is apparently a lot of.)

There is a plot, and a really good one – other set-free Reckoners like Bao are destroying the ocean’s ecosystem – but it takes a bit of a backseat to Cas’s emotional turmoil and her messy relationship with Swift and the reoccurring ethical conundrum of working for and with pirates. But the emotional plot and the plot plot blend nicely, and even though emotions are the focus, it doesn’t overwhelm the sea monster plot.

The only thing I wasn’t 100% a fan of was the final battle. Yeah, it was epic and there were sea monsters and stuff, but in my opinion it wasn’t quite as epic as the ending of book one. Don’t take me the wrong way, it was still pretty darn epic. The Abyss Surrounds Us just set a really high bar that The Edge of the Abyss didn’t quite meet. The ending after the final battle, though, makes up for it.

Overall, this was a great book and an amazing series. This review really isn’t doing this book justice. I loved it. It pulled my heart out and played with it and it’s one of the best books overall I’ve read in a while. I’m just sad this is the end of the series. Logically, I know it’s a good ending, but still. I wish there was more!

The Abyss Surrounds Us Series:

Post-Apocalyptic, Science Fiction, Uncategorized

Review: The Abyss Surrounds Us

Cover of "The Abyss Surrounds Us," featuring an Asian girl standing on the deck of a ship with the giant eye of a sea monster behind her
Image from Emily Skrutskie

Title: The Abyss Surrounds Us

Author: Emily Skrutskie

Genre: Post-Apocalyptic/Science Fiction

Trigger Warnings: Death, blood/gore

Back Cover:

For Cassandra Leung, bossing around sea monsters is just the family business. Shes been a Reckoner trainer-in-training ever since she could walk, raising the giant, genetically engineered beasts to defend ships as they cross the pirate-infested NeoPacific. But when the pirate queen Santa Elena swoops in on Cas first solo mission and snatches her from the bloodstained decks, Cas dream of being a full-time trainer seems dead in the water. Waiting for her on the pirate ship is an unhatched Reckoner pup. Santa Elena wants to take back the seas with a monster of her own, and she needs a proper trainer to do it. She orders Cas to raise the pup and teach him to fight for the pirates. If Cas fails, her blood will be the next to paint the sea.

Review:

I first heard of this as a lesbian book recommendation on Tumblr and immediately reserved it at the library because heck yes scifi lesbians! I’m always complaining about there not being enough gays in speculative fiction. But anyway.

For some reason I thought this was set in space. Not sure how I got that idea. It was a little disorientating at first, because I’m expecting space and getting ocean, but once I got a couple chapters in I was hooked.

The Abyss Surrounds Us has everything I look for in a book.

The Characters: Fascinating! Cas is the protagonist, an East Asian girl from San Francisco who is just getting ready to take her place in the family business – which happens to be raising and training sea monsters. It’s pretty darn epic. Then there’s Swift, the pirate girl assigned to watch Cas while she’s training the pirate’s monster, who’s part badass and a tiny bit sweet and mostly just making the best of some crappy circumstances. Both girls have great character arcs, the romantic tension is obvious but built slowly, and you get cool minor characters in the pirates … it’s just awesome.

The Setting: So this is after a lot of global warming and stuff and the oceans have risen to ridiculous levels, countries have splintered into smaller countries, (hence why I put “post-apocalyptic” as a genre on this) and pirates run so rampant the only way legitimate ships could protect themselves is by genetically engineering sea monsters. It’s a great concept. The pirate ship that most of the story happens on is a combination of old-fashioned pirate-y stuff and modern technology, and there’s even a brief excursion to a floating pirate city which is also really cool. It’s just fantastic.

The Plot: The plot is really quickly paced, which I loved. It follows Cas, and starts with “what’s wrong with my Reckoner,” then moves into “survive the pirates/train the pirates’ monster enough that he looks trained/don’t actually train the monster because I don’t want to help the pirates because they’re evil.” But then she begins to wonder if they’re really so evil. And she starts getting to know (and kinda like) Swift. And what starts off so simply – survive the pirates, don’t help them, get home – suddenly gets super complicated with ethics and emotions and things.

The End: Holy crap, the end. An epic battle that made me feel Epic Battle Feelings that I haven’t gotten from a book in a long time. A twist I probably should have seen coming but didn’t. Romance that I did see coming but was still really happy about. And it wrapped up nicely while still leaving room for a sequel. There were no cliffhangers, just the confident knowledge that you’ll want to spend another book in this world with these characters. And I do.

One thing I will say about it, though, is it is pretty violent. (Hence the trigger warnings.) Some people do die, one death is described in somewhat graphic detail (even though Cas is disgusted by it), and there’s quite a bit of carnage in the final battle. So just be aware of that if that kind of thing bothers you.

If I have any complaints, it’s that the book was too short. (It’s less than 300 pages, which is short to me, and it feels shorter than it is.) But it’s paced perfectly, so I really shouldn’t complain. It was a fantastic book, and I’m super excited there’s a book two. Now, pardon me while I go reserve that one at the library …

(As a side note: If you’re a fan, you really should check out Emily Skrutskie on Tumblr.)

The Abyss Surrounds Us series:

  1. The Abyss Surrounds Us
  2. The Edge of the Abyss
High Fantasy

Review: Huntress

The cover of Huntress, featuring a black-haired girl wearing a black dress holding a long staff in front of her.
Image from Malinda Lo

Title: Huntress

Author: Malinda Lo

Genre: High Fantasy

Trigger Warnings: Violence/blood/gore

Back Cover:

Nature is out of balance in the human world. The sun hasn’t shone in years, and crops are failing. Worse yet, strange and hostile creatures have begun to appear. The people’s survival hangs in the balance.

To solve the crisis, the oracle stones are cast, and Kaede and Taisin, two seventeen-year-old girls, are picked to go on a dangerous and unheard-of journey to Taninli, the city of the Fairy Queen. Taisin is a sage, thrumming with magic, and Kaede is of the earth, without a speck of the otherworldly. And yet the two girls’ destinies are drawn together during the mission. As members of their party succumb to unearthly attacks and fairy tricks, the two come to rely on each other and even begin to fall in love. But the Kingdom needs only one huntress to save it, and what it takes could tear Kaede and Taisin apart forever.

Review:

I picked this up mainly because fantasy gays. (Seriously, I had been complaining to my boyfriend earlier that afternoon about how there weren’t enough fantasy books with gay people and discovered this on my trip to the library.) I’ve also heard good things about Malinda Lo, so that was also a plus.

Even though there are some chapters from Taisin’s perspective, most of the book focuses on Kaede (but then again, so does most of the action). At the beginning, she’s at a school for sages, but she’s not very good at the magic stuff and prefers to be out in the garden or throw knives with the groundskeeper – kinda the stereotypical tomboy misfit. She has a bit of angst going on, but she’s still a fun character.

Taisin is Kaede’s complete opposite, a quiet, studious, and extremely gifted sage. You don’t get to know her as well as Kaede throughout the book, but I got enough to feel almost protective of her – yeah, she’s crazy powerful, but she’s also just a sweet little innocent girl who’s not really cut out for all the dangerous adventuring. Her and Kaede are a classic case of “opposites attract” and it’s adorable.

As far as plot goes, it was actually a pretty creative one. Most of the story focuses on Kaede and Taisin’s journey to the land of the Fairies, and the adventures and mishaps that happen along the way.  …Put that way it sounds pretty tame, but it definitely was not. (In case you couldn’t tell from the trigger warning.) People die. Sometimes very violently. Our main characters also have to kill some things. It’s a lot darker than I expected, but in a good way.

Some things I’ve seen about this book (online and also on the back cover) talked about its “Asian flair,” but though I was excited about that, it really didn’t come through at all for me. There was nothing in the setting that I recognized as Asian, the fairy part felt very Western … if you stretch a little bit I suppose you could describe some of the settings as Asian, but I didn’t see any of the Asian flair it promised, which was disappointing.

One thing that was refreshing, though, was there didn’t seem to be any homophobia in this society. It’s made clear in the beginning that some students at Kaede and Taisin’s all-girls school had clandestine relationships, and no one seems to bat an eye when they discover Kaede is only into girls (except her father, but that seems to be only because he wants to marry her off to a man for political reasons). It was kinda nice that Kaede and Taisin could be awkwardly and adorably gay without dealing with disapproving people.

Also, if you’re looking for a happy ending, this is not your book. (But it’s still a good read despite that.)

The main plot wraps up really nicely, even if the very end seems a little rushed. But as I thought about it after I finished it, there were a lot of plot threads that were just left dangling and questions that are never answered. And as far as I know, there’s no sequel – you’re just left with the unanswered questions and wondering what happened to those subplots.

Overall, it was a good book. Not great, certainly, but solidly good. I probably wouldn’t read it again, but I don’t regret this read.

Superhero

Review: Dreadnought

Book cover of Dreadnought by April Daniels, featuring a silhouette of a superhero standing on a hill with a blue cape blowing out behind her.
Image from Booktopia

Title: Dreadnought

Series: Nemesis #1

Author: April Daniels

Genre: Superhero

Trigger warnings: Domestic abuse (verbal and emotional), transphobia

Back Cover:

Danny Tozer has a problem: she just inherited the powers of Dreadnought, the world’s greatest superhero.

Until Dreadnought fell out of the sky and died right in front of her, Danny was trying to keep people from finding out she’s transgender. But before he expired, Dreadnought passed his mantle to her, and those secondhand superpowers transformed Danny’s body into what she always thought it should be. Now there’s no hiding that she’s a girl.

It should be the happiest time of her life, but Danny’s first weeks finally living in a body that fits her are more difficult and complicated than she could have imagined. Between her father’s dangerous obsession with “curing” her girlhood, her best friend suddenly acting like he’s entitled to date her, and her fellow superheroes arguing over her place in their ranks, Danny feels like she’s in over her head.

She doesn’t have time to adjust. Dreadnought’s murderer – a cyborg named Utopia – still haunts the streets of New Port City, threatening destruction. If Danny can’t sort through the confusion of coming out, master her powers, and stop Utopia in time, humanity faces extinction.

Review:

I heard about this book on Tumblr somewhere when I was looking for some good novels with queer characters. And then I reserved it at the library because A) it was one of the only non-contemporary LGBT books I could find, and B) heck yeah trans girl superheroes!

I read the entire thing in one sitting. Which honestly surprised me because some parts were really difficult – but I just couldn’t put it down.

Not being transgender, I can’t say anything about the realistic-ness of Danny’s struggles, but holy hell were they heart-wrenching. Between her asshole “best friend,” her abusive father (just how abusive gets slowly revealed as the book goes on), and the rampant transphobia among the superhero league in the city, I just wanted to hug her and fix everything for her. And there were several times I found myself mentally screaming to her that none of it was her fault and she’s a wonderful person and … well, I got really, really attached to her.

(Side note: If you’re an abuse survivor, you may find some scenes difficult. I did, but for me it didn’t take away too much from the book – you might have a different experience, though, so proceed with caution.)

The other major character is Calamity, a “graycape” (vigilante) that Danny ends up doing superhero stuff with for a lot of the book. I really liked her – she was the kind of badass been-doing-this-my-whole-life type you’d expect from a book like this, and I liked how her and Danny’s relationship developed. My only problem was that Danny knows her as her alter ego, too, but we only get one (very, very short) scene with her non-superhero side so it felt like I knew a lot about Calamity but nothing about the girl under the mask.

The plot actually has a lot more going on than gets mentioned on the back cover. There’s a major question of “is the Legion Pacifica (the city’s superhero league) trustworthy or not?” There’s Danny and Calamity trying to find Utopia (because besides killing Dreadnought she doesn’t show up until the end). There’s Danny’s coming out to her family and standing up (or not) to her abusive father. And there’s figuring out her powers (which are pretty dang epic), and of course the obligatory rescues and fight scenes and giant mechas destroying the city …

Okay, maybe that last one isn’t obligatory. But it sure made for some awesome mecha-on-apparently-not-indestructible-girl battles.

Overall, some parts were really hard for me to read as an abuse survivor (and other parts would probably be hard for you if you’ve experienced transphobia). But it has a mostly happy ending, the potential for bit of romance in the next book (fingers crossed!) and I couldn’t put it down. I give it two hearty thumbs up and I’m really looking forward to book two!

The Nemesis series:

  1. Dreadnought
  2. Sovereign (July 25, 2017)

 

Science Fiction

Review: The Hues

Banner image with

Title: The Hues

Author: Alex Heberling

Genre: Science Fiction/Postapocalyptic

Trigger warnings: None

Summary:

The Hues is about a group of teenage magical girls who discover their powers just a little too late– the Big Bad is already here and they have only a rudimentary grasp of their abilities and what they’re supposed to be doing. It all hinges on hints and clues regarding the mysterious Jouchi, who may have the answers they seek about how to reclaim their home from the aliens.

Review:

I realize this is not my normal fare for reviews and also that I’ve never reviewed a webcomic before in my life, but bear with me.

I discovered this on Tumblr in a masterpost of … I think it was feminist webcomics? Some kind of webcomic list. Either way, the art and short description (exactly what you see above) intrigued me. So I started reading it. And then I couldn’t stop reading it.

So you know how the Big Bad is already there and they have to discover their powers? Well, the plot starts with an alien attack. And then it just goes from there. There is science fiction alien stuff and postapocalyptic elements . There’s the “who the heck is Jouchi and why are the evil aliens looking for him” thing. And the “most of us are not very good at using our powers” thing. And the “what are we actually supposed to do to stop the aliens” thing. It’s not as much fighting aliens as you might expect, but there’s enough that it satisfies my action-loving brain while still giving plenty of opportunities to grow the characters and their relationships.

The characters! The characters are fantastic and they’re so diverse. There are six of them that the story follows, although there’s one main main one and two secondary-ish main ones (because they come in later in the story) and only one of them is a thin white girl (and only one of them is straight). It’s fantastic.

(I’m not going to give away who is what orientation because that’s part of the plot, but there’s a lesbian, a bisexual, a panromantic asexual, and two who haven’t yet been given a queer identity but who did not deny being not straight. And I’m pretty sure two of them are going to become a romantic thing. I hope. They’re adorable together.)

  • Sami, the main main character, is Indian-American and kinda nerdy – she enjoys writing and spends a lot of time on the internet – and generally cute and sweet and adorable.
  • Andy is white, chubby, and outdoorsy and very friendly and social and generally a wonderful people person that I would love to be friends with.
  • Hannah is the token thin white girl – she’s quiet and prickly and not super friendly but mostly it just seems like she’s got something important on her mind.
  • Lauren is fat and badass and snarky as hell. She doesn’t like being told what to do and can handle herself through anything and is just plain epic.
  • Salime is possibly Hispanic or mixed race (definitely not white, either way). She’s one of the two late-comer characters, and she’s more cautious and analytical and likes to learn things.
  • Addy, the other late-comer, is a dark-skinned fat black girl who is sweet and artsy and creative.

And all of them have EPIC powers!

And just look at this artwork! It’s so gorgeous.

Image with

It’s also set in Columbus, Ohio, which I think is really cool because I’ve been there and it’s not far from where I live now. But that’s just me.

The main downside to it is it’s not finished yet. (Yes, I know I’m reviewing it before it’s finished! But it’s so good I just had to share it with you guys.) But I think it’s almost done, and I’m really really really looking forward to reading the rest of it. And also I plan to buy the books of it. Because reasons.

Okay, this is getting really long, so I’m just going to end with: read it. Seriously, it’s fantastic.

You can read it online for free here!!!