Book Review: Tainaron by Leena Krohn

A traveler ventures to a city of insects, called Tainaron, and writes to someone back home about all they’ve seen. This city has bakeries and department stores, a government and a prince. It’s also rich with alien beauty and eldritch horror (and often both at the same time), from a Queen Bee who feeds on happy memories to a sandy colony of ant lions who threaten to suck the traveler dry. All this and more happens in Tainaron: Mail from Another City, which became Leena Krohn’s breakthrough novel when it was first published in Finland.

Tainaron is weird, it’s wonderful, and I’m writing this review not so much to evaluate its quality as to put it on your radar. An epistolary science fiction novel about a human living among bugs is either going to be your thing or it’s not. (I imagine, reading this, that you’ve already decided where you fall.) I knew the second I found it on my library’s shelf that I was going to love it, and I was right.

This was the first I’d ever heard of Leena Krohn, which is a damn shame, because she’s apparently been a legendary writer in Finland for decades. I’m glad we’re getting more translations of her work into English now; for this review, I read a standalone edition of Tainaron published in 2004, translated by Hildi Hawkins, but it’s now more easily available in print as part of the 2015 omnibus, Leena Krohn: The Collected Fiction.

cover description:  big block letters spelling K R O H N against an electric blue background.

(As an aside, when I brought Tainaron home from the library I joked to my wife that it was going to scratch my Annihilation eco-fiction itch, so I’m not surprised in the slightest that Cheeky Frawg, helmed by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, is The Collected Fiction’s publisher.)

I love novels that manage to be oblique and grounded at the same time, the way a long walk sets your thoughts free because your senses are so busy taking in your surroundings. Right away in the first letter, “The Meadow and the Honey-Pattern,” which describes a visit to a supernatural botanical garden full of giant flowers, I felt lost in the bittersweetness:

“You would enjoy a visit to the meadow, for in Tainaron it is summer and one can look at the flowers face to face. They are as open as the day itself and the hieroglyphs of the honey-patterns are precise and clear. We gaze at them, but they gaze only at the sun, which they resemble. It is so difficult to believe, in the warmth of the day’s heart–just as difficult as before the face of children–that the colour and light of which they are made are matter, and that some time, soon, this very night, their dazzle will be extinguished and will no longer be visible.”

Again, this sort of writing is either going to be your thing or it’s not. I could have pulled out dozens of quotes like this, that don’t move any kind of plot forward, exactly, but still give some impression of change that leaves me fulfilled. Appropriately enough for a book about insects, Tainaron wears its themes of metamorphosis and rebirth on its spider-spun sleeve, full of tantalizing glimpses of the unnamed letter-writer’s relationship with–a friend? a lover?–that seems to have died, or perhaps has only gone into hibernation.

Tainaron is a brisk 124 pages, perfect for reading in a sitting or two. Krohn is in careful control of pacing and tone, so that even the most disturbing scenes, like the ant lions (the ant lions, arghhhh, the ant lions!) and the visit to Tainaron’s mortuary are over before they can get too nightmarish. It never becomes too cute or whimsical, either, even when an entire letter revolves around a mission to buy smoky herbed pastries.

Tainaron makes me fall in love with novels and all that’s possible in the medium all over again. Some stories just aren’t suited for being told any other way than words painstakingly arranged on a page, and a human who processes their grief by living seamlessly in a city of insects is one of them. How could I ever settle on a star rating for something like this?

I’ve said it twice already and I’ll say it one more time: either Tainaron: Mail from Another City is going to be for you, or it’s not. But if you think there’s even the slightest chance you’ll fall into that first category, you owe it to yourself to check it out. More than 30 years after it was first published in Finnish, Tainaron still feels like a new frontier in science fiction.

Tainaron: Mail From Another City by Leena Krohn

Originally published in Finland in 1985; first American edition published in 2004; now available as part of Leena Krohn: The Collected Fiction, published in 2015.

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I checked out my copy of Tainaron from the library and received no compensation of any kind in exchange for this review.

Book Review: Love in Color by Bolu Babalola

If you love fairy tales, but don’t always love the sexist baggage that comes along with them, then Love in Color is for you. In this short story collection, Bolu Babalola retells myths from around the world, sprinkling in some entirely new stories, too. The stories are diverse in every sense, spanning tones, genres, continents, and sexual orientations–and they’re always great. I loved this book.

cover description: a dark-skinned Black couple illustrated in a bold geometric style, dressed in bright colors, leaning toward each other as if they are about to kiss.

Love in Color is a confetti-firework explosion of romance and fantasy, as potent and memorable as an amazing first kiss with someone new. As a long-time follower of Babalola’s Twitter account, I wasn’t surprised that this collection was good, or that it was so unbelievably swoony and sexy. But I’ll admit I didn’t quite anticipate the depth of this collection, or its range. It veers from Princess Diaries-style rom-com stuff (“Psyche,” retold as a romance at a high-pressure job) to rip-your-heart-out-and-stomp-on-it tragic romance (“Scheherazade”) that still never loses hope of a happily-ever-after.

In a lesser collection, these tonal shifts might make it seem unfocused. Here, they only make Love in Color more powerful, especially contextualized by Babalola’s terrific and emotional introduction, of which this quote particularly resonated with me:

“To say that I love “love” would probably be akin to me saying that I am quite fond of inhaling oxygen. Love is the prism through which I view the world. I truly believe it binds and propels us. This isn’t a naive denial of the darkness that we know exists in the world; rather it is a refusal to allow the devastation, the horror, or the heartache to consume us. It is affirming the knowledge that there is light. Love is that light.”

Culturally, we’re so inundated by hollow love-conquers-all messages that it’s easy to forget that love really is that special, that magical, in all its forms.

In my humble opinion, good romance shouldn’t just showcase romantic love–it should also be overflowing with loving friends and family. Here, too, Love in Color shines. Parents, siblings, best friends, enemies won over: Babalola populates these pages with it all. I especially loved her retelling of her parents’ romance, “Alagomeji,” which plays around with the very concept of protagonists vs. supporting characters. At risk of sounding a little cheesy (but who doesn’t like cheese?), “Alagomeji” reminded me that love connects us all, and that it never, ever ends. It flows through good times and bad, from ancestors to descendants, into futures we can never know. It was a reminder I definitely needed to receive.

In addition to the worthy standouts I’ve already mentioned, the two stories I loved the best were “Nefertiti,” which reimagines the legendary Egyptian queen as the widow of a persecuted gangster who finds love with an undercover agent sent to infiltrate her operations, and “Attem,” the story of a hunter and a queen who fall in love and must evade the retribution of the jealous king.

I wasn’t familiar with the source material for “Attem” (a story from the Calabar peoples of Nigeria called “Ituen and the King’s Wife”), but it didn’t matter at all–Babalola always gives just the right amount of context. Some stories stick fairly close to a real-life setting, while others, like “Nefertiti,” go for pure fantasy instead. If Babalola ever decided to write a whole novel about Nefertiti’s world of queer feminist gangsters and vicious sexist cops, I would be first in line to buy it.

People who hate romance love to mock the happily-ever-afters that define the genre, but Love in Color reminded me just how complex and diverse happily-ever-afters can be. Each ending surprised me, even if I knew approximately where we were headed. This isn’t some sugary-sweet comfort food dessert–it’s a whole comfort food meal, with the vegetables too. (Personally, I’m picturing caramelized brussels sprouts with a crust of parmesan.)

Love in Color is delicious–exactly the nourishment I needed after a soul-sucking year. ★★★★★

Love in Color by Bolu Babalola

Originally published April 23, 2021 by William Morrow (HarperCollins)

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I bought my own copy of Love in Color and received no compensation of any kind in exchange for this review.

Book Review: Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri

In the world of Empire of Sand, the gods have slumbered beneath the desert for thousands of years, raining down dreamfire to earth in awe-inspiring storms of light. Long ago, the Amrithi people and powerful supernatural beings known as daiva made a pact to protect one another, a promise still carried in the blood of all Amrithi. Now the Amrithi face a mounting genocide from an empire that views their power and their freedom as a threat.

As the illegitimate daughter of an imperial governor and an Amrithi tribeswoman, Mehr is caught between two destinies–life as a privileged noblewoman and life as a hated Amrithi, subject to a constant threat of violence that not even her father’s authority can keep at bay. Mehr’s mother fled the city years ago, leaving Mehr and her little sister Arwa to be raised by a hostile stepmother who seeks to remove all trace of their Amrithi heritage. With the help of her mentor Lalita, Mehr has done her best to hold onto the memories and dance the sacred rites, and to help Arwa do the same–but when Lalita disappears, and Mehr makes the mistake of harnessing dreamfire to find her, Mehr attracts unwanted attention from the empire’s mystics, who wish to use her power for their own horrifying ends.

And then there’s Amun, a strange and stern mystic whose fate may just be forever bound with Mehr’s…

cover description: an ornate, jewel-encrusted dagger against a red starry background. the tagline reads: "Magic is in her blood."

First things first: I absolutely loved this book. It hardly needs me to recommend it after the rave reviews it’s already received, but I loved it so much I just couldn’t resist writing about it.

It’s rare to read an epic fantasy novel with stakes more compelling and well-crafted than Empire of Sand’s. Corrupt empires are par for the course in the genre, but few have ever felt as real and frightening to me as this one. Genocide is also a common part of fantasy worldbuilding, and this is one of the better iterations of that, too. It’s never cartoonish in its evil, just selfish and mundane in a way that is (unfortunately) very recognizable in genocides that are still happening around the world today.

Tasha Suri is able to translate the fundamental truth about all empires–that despite their ostentatious shows of power, they are deeply opportunistic, fragile, and lazy, built on the stolen gifts of others–into page-turning fiction. I love quippy anti-heroes and morally gray villains; I read for fun, after all, and those things are fun. But Empire of Sand manages to find the fun in more honest and righteous places. I’m in awe of how well it works.

Mehr has a lot in common with Immanuelle Moore of The Year of the Witching, a protagonist I’ve already written about loving. She’s thoughtful and quiet without becoming inert, devoted to family and friends without losing her own identity to them, and above all, brave and good. I loved her from the first page. In a sprawling, complicated world (my two paragraph spiel doesn’t even begin to cover everything going on in this book), Mehr is a perfect compass.

The characters around her are fascinating, too. Mehr’s stepmother’s actions may be unforgivable, but her motivations are understandable, even, sometimes, selfless. Mehr’s father is far from an overprotective and paternalistic caricature, but neither is he purely benevolent and kind. One of my favorite characters is Kalini, a vicious mystic who makes no secret of her disdain for Mehr, but whose truest loyalty turned out to be not at all what I expected.

And then there’s Amun, a character I mistrusted at first but grew to love so deeply that it physically pained me when he suffered. I won’t share too much, since his character arc is far too gut-wrenching to risk spoiling, but suffice to say that he put me in mind of Joscelin Verreuil from Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel novels in the best way. He’s stubborn, loyal, and gentle even in his terrifying power. He counterbalances Mehr in all the right ways. I’m pretty sure Empire of Sand would work without him, but his presence is what tips this novel into an all-time favorite for me.

Empire of Sand’s ending is cathartic and intense beyond anything I expected. I cried all the way through it. I’m looking forward to reading the sequel, Realm of Ash, but I’m planning to take a break first–perhaps for the better, since a quick glance at its description seems to reveal a major time jump. But I know it will be waiting for me when I’m ready, and I can’t wait to dig in.

Empire of Sand is pure magic. Don’t miss it. ★★★★★

Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri

Originally published in November 2018 by Hachette Book Group.

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I bought my own copy of Empire of Sand and received no compensation of any kind in exchange for this review.

Book Review: The Year of the Witching by Alexis Henderson

Blood. Blight. Darkness. Slaughter.

When Immanuelle Moore stumbles into the Darkwood in search of a lost ram, she meets two of the dark pantheon of witches who are the immortal enemies of the followers of the Father. Instead of killing her, they send her on her way with her dead mother’s journal, which warns of terrible plagues to come–punishments for the racist, sexist transgressions of Bethel, her home, where accused witches and sinners burn on holy pyres at the whim of the Prophet.

Immanuelle has spent her life trying to be meek and good, atoning for her parents’ interracial relationship that ultimately sent her dark-skinned father to the pyre. But despite her best efforts, she finds herself irresistibly drawn to the Darkwood and the witches within –and once the plagues descend, she soon realizes that her very existence holds the key to saving Bethel, or to damning it. Does it really deserve her mercy?

Cover description: a biracial Black woman in Puritan-like dress looks out intensely at the viewer as she stands in a gray-black, blood-spattered forest.

The Year of the Witching is deliciously ominous and dread-soaked, full of blood sacrifice, purging flame, and vengeful curses. The world of Bethel is fantasy, not historical fiction, which allows author Alexis Henderson to mix and match elements of religious fundamentalism (especially colonial Puritans and Christian polygamous cults) to create an original and captivating world and religion. When Immanuelle tasted “brine and iron” as she licks an anointment of lamb’s blood off her lips in the first chapter, I knew I was going to love this book. It’s quite literally visceral.

Henderson’s third-person writing style is deceptively simple, effective and crisp. It feels purposeful but not self-conscious. I especially appreciated how Henderson subverted light/dark tropes through tiny language choices as well as big plot machinations. (The way the Prophet preaches it, the Mother Goddess and her followers are evil and dark and the Father God and his followers are good and light. Unsurprisingly, the story turns out to be more complicated than that, but also maybe not in the way you think it’s going to be more complicated. It’s cleverly done.)

Immanuelle is a thoughtful and quiet protagonist–also, perhaps, deceptively simple. She radiates care and empathy in a way that’s immediately compelling. She’s the only biracial person who lives at the center of Bethel (everyone else is white), allowed to belong as long as she behaves and helps her family, who became impoverished and disgraced after her mother’s relationship with her father was exposed. At the beginning of the novel, Immanuelle has a tamped-down self-control that comes from a life of dealing with racism and suspicion of witchcraft. That self-control changes form as the story goes on, but it’s always there, and it’s her most powerful and memorable quality. You understand immediately why some people risk their lives to help her, and why others see her as a terrible threat.

I ran across this Toni Morrison quote again recently (source), and it reminded me a lot of The Year of the Witching:

“I just think goodness is more interesting,” Morrison said. “Evil is constant. You can think of different ways to murder people, but you can do that at age five. But you have to be an adult to consciously, deliberately be good – and that’s complicated.”

For all its gore and violence, this is a horror novel about goodness–real, complicated goodness, not the preachy kind. Immanuelle is the kind of protagonist I would follow to the ends of the earth.

The main reservation that leads me to a four-star rating rather than a perfect five is the ending, which is the only part of the novel that feels like a soft-pedal. After all that blood, blight, and darkness, I wasn’t hoping for more slaughter, exactly, but I was hoping for more spectacle–more imagery of the kind that’s so striking throughout the rest of the novel. I was also hoping for more depth in a certain love interest, who never quite justifies the amount of page time he gets. I love the concept behind his character and the tension it creates for Immanuelle, but in practice it rings a little false. I hope he gets more development in the sequel.

Quibbles aside, The Year of the Witching is stunning. Henderson’s willingness to play around with tropes and reader expectations pays off like gangbusters, even in the parts I found less dazzling than the rest. If you grew up on creepy historical witchy novels like Witch Girl and Wise Child, you should read it. If you love the movie The VVitch, you should read it. If you like gory, creepy feminist fantasy like The Bear and the Nightingale or Gideon the Ninth, you should read it.

None of the above? You should still probably read it. I loved this book. ★★★★☆

The Year of the Witching by Alexis Henderson

Originally published July 2020 by Ace (Penguin Random House)

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I received my copy of The Year as the Witching as a personal gift and received no compensation of any kind from the author or publisher in exchange for this review.

Book Review: A Blade So Black by L.L. McKinney

The day Alice Kingston’s father died, she was attacked by her first Nightmare: a terrifying beast from Wonderland born from curdled human dreams. Alice is rescued by Addison Hatta, a handsome and mysterious exile from the world of Wonderland. It turns out humans don’t just create the Nightmares–they’re the only ones capable of killing them, too. With Hatta’s help, Alice becomes a badass Nightmare-killing warrior in Wonderland on top of her normal life as a Black teen in Atlanta. But just when Alice gets sick of monster fighting and decides to retire her magic Figment blades forever, a terrifying enemy who calls himself the Black Knight resurfaces to poison Hatta and threaten all of Wonderland with his twisted Vorpal blade. If Alice wants to save the lives of her Wonderlandian friends, she’ll have to go deeper into Wonderland than ever before…even if it means risking the lives of the ones she loves back in Atlanta, too.

cover description:  a Black girl with an afro and badass red leather jacket stands in the middle of a spade shape filled with roses. she looks ready to attack.

A Blade So Black is a wildly original paranormal action/adventure/romance, full of memorable characters and seriously smart world-building. There’s a fair bit of confusing info-dumping and time-jumping, and the romance was decidedly *shrug emoji*, but L.L. McKinney’s brilliant vision always shone through the lackluster parts and kept me turning the pages.

Let’s talk about the stuff I loved first: starting with Alice, Alice, Alice, and more Alice. Alice is an incredible heroine, so distinctive and believable I feel like I would recognize her instantly if we bumped into each other on the street. She’s badass and wise-cracking but has a vulnerable streak that goes much deeper than just “she’s clumsy” or “she’s beautiful but doesn’t know it yet.” After her father’s death in the opening pages of the book, Alice feels even more responsibility to be a good kid for her grieving mom–and when another young Black girl, Brionne, is killed in their neighborhood, the stakes for her adventures in Wonderland become even higher. Alice has to come home for her mom, but she also has to show up for her Wonderland friends. That tension was so real and painful and far more compelling to me than the romance (more on that in a minute).

McKinney’s Wonderland is wonderfully worthy of her Alice. I don’t know much about Lewis Carroll’s original work, but even I could pick up on the winking references McKinney incorporated into her names and lore: Addison Hatta (the Mad Hatter), Chess (the Cheshire Cat), Dimitri and Demarcus Tweedlanov (Tweedledee and Tweedledum), and many more. McKinney backs up the clever references with gorgeous imagery all her own that pulled me completely into her world. I want to see Wonderland’s pink skies and magical castles and Rolling Hills that really move in real life! I also want to see all the Wonderlandians in real life, especially the royal family, whose sparkly, colorful magical girl aesthetic sounded like nothing I’ve ever read about before. I don’t want to see the Vorpal blade and its terrifying corruption powers in real life, but I did get a pleasant thrill from reading about it.

While no one can quite compare to Alice, the supporting characters are all gems, too. Alice’s high school friends Courtney and Chess are funny, scrappy, and easy to root for. Alice’s mom is an all-time great mom character, a loving-but-grieving woman who’s already dealing with the loss of her husband and who’s trying her best not to lose her daughter to the very real dangers a Black teen girl faces, too. I also had a soft spot for Maddi, the Mad to Hatta’s Hatter, a healer-bartender who speaks in riddles like “Sleep now, starshine” and “Only fish flip-flop” unless she takes a special painful potion that allows her to be understood by humans.

The villains are just as good as the heroes, if not better. The Black Knight is scary, charismatic, and just the right amount of inscrutable. I was riveted to every page he appeared on. The bigger story of the Black Queen and her faction is fascinating and I suspect that the snippets of it we get here don’t even scratch the surface of what McKinney has planned for the rest of the series.

Unfortunately, my least favorite character was probably Hatta, the sexy trainer/mentor who makes up one leg of a somewhat underbaked love triangle. Hatta has his moments–I especially loved learning about [big consequential secret I won’t spoil]–but mostly he’s just a generically hot, quippy white British-y guy who is possibly hundreds of years old (??? I was never quite clear on whether or not age is even a concept in time-bending Wonderland) and I just couldn’t bring myself to root for him and Alice when I found her platonic relationships to be much more interesting. Chess makes up the other leg of the love triangle, and while I found him more compelling as a love interest than Hatta, his chemistry with Alice still read more friendly than boyfriendly to me.

The big thing I didn’t love? The pacing, which is as precarious as the Mad Hatter’s tall stack of teacups. The book starts on the day Alice’s father dies in the hospital, then jumps into a training montage, then into her first trip to Wonderland, and then to the next year, when Alice has already made the decision to retire. It’s too much, too fast, and doesn’t so much lay the groundwork for what follows as plop a whole house down, then ask you to ignore that house in favor of a whole other neighborhood. Luckily that “neighborhood” (the whole Black Knight plotline) is awesome, but I would have been more invested in the book if we’d started there in the first place and flashed back for the backstory. It’s the rare case where telling the story chronologically actually made it harder to follow.

After that initial info dump, the stakes get raised and the pace picks up, but there are still some weird diversions that don’t go anywhere, at least not within the confines of A Blade So Black. The constant zig-zagging between Wonderland and real-world Atlanta means a lot of listless travel sequences, a lot of trivial problem-solving that doesn’t have a lot of bearing on the overall story, and some abrupt tonal shifts that didn’t work for me. I wished Alice would have stayed in either Atlanta or in Wonderland for long enough at a time that I could catch my breath in each. She may be a tough, wiry, super-fit fighter who can turn on a dime, but I’m definitely not.

A Blade So Black ends on a vicious cliffhanger, one that didn’t quite capture me but definitely upped the ante for a sequel. I probably won’t rush to read the next books in the series (A Dream So Dark and A Crown So Cursed), but I’m invested enough in the characters that I’m sure I’ll return to the Nightmare-Verse eventually. (And whatever happened to the Black Queen’s daughter Odette, anyway? I imagine her disappearance is the key to a whole lot of things going wrong in Wonderland right now…and the parallels to the relationship between Alice and her mom are definitely intriguing.)

A Blade So Black is the kind of book that tests the limits of a star rating for me. My reading experience was a solid three stars, but I think someone who really loves this sub-genre could easily mark it four or five. I give McKinney’s sheer imagination five stars, and the character of Alice another five stars at least. I highly recommend this series to anyone looking for their next paranormal fix, especially if you’re sick of the bloodless, pining, almost uniformly white heroines who have flooded the market for decades. In that landscape, A Blade So Black is a breath of fresh, sugary-scented Wonderland air. ★★★☆☆

A Blade So Black by L.L. McKinney

Originally published in September 2018 by Square Fish (Macmillan)

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I received my copy of A Blade So Black as a personal gift and received no compensation of any kind in exchange for this review.

Book Review: The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang

Frances is an underpaid dressmaker with a terrible boss–until a daring design for a noble client catches the attention of a mysterious royal. That royal turns out to be Prince Sebastian: an ordinary prince by day, secretly the fabulous fashion icon Lady Crystallia by night. Frances and Sebastian become fast friends, but the effort of keeping the secret of Lady Crystallia’s identity begins to take a toll on both of them. Can they find a way to hold onto their dreams and each other, or is this fairy tale doomed to have an unhappy ending?

cover description: a prince and a dressmaker stand next to each other in a sweet romantic pose. the background is an image of the prince dressed in a beautiful white dress and red wig.

Well, of course this story has a happy ending, but the journey to it is such a joy that I won’t give away anything more than that. The Prince and the Dressmaker is a gorgeous graphic novel for all ages that swept me off my feet as surely as any Prince(ss) Charming.

One of my favorite things about The Prince and the Dressmaker is the way its queerness defies labels. Is Sebastian a trans girl? Genderfluid? A drag performer? It’s never stated, and it doesn’t have to be. Is Frances straight, bi, or a lesbian for loving all aspects of Sebastian and Lady Crystallia? It’s never stated, and it doesn’t have to be. Are both or either of them aro, ace, or on a gray spectrum? It’s never stated, and it doesn’t have to be! As someone who’s struggled with my own labels quite a bit (understatement of the year), it was such relief to read a book that was joyfully queer but didn’t get bogged down in the details.

Jen Wang’s art is simply terrific. I tend to find comics and graphic novels distracting and hard to read (which is a me problem–my brain just doesn’t seem to work that way), but these illustrations only enriched my experience of the story. Every panel is so colorful, exuberant, distinctive, and all-caps BEAUTIFUL. I wanted to hang them on my wall or get them tattooed on my body or both.

The Prince and the Dressmaker really is a modern-day fairy tale, an instant classic along the lines of Ella Enchanted. It’s a pitch-perfect balance of harrowing and comforting–no matter how bad or sad things got, I always knew I was hurtling toward a happy ending, and the catharsis when I finally got there was so, so sweet. This would be an amazing book for adults and kids to read together for that reason.

If you’re looking for a happily-ever-after to restore your faith in humanity right now (who isn’t?), it would be hard to do better than The Prince and the Dressmaker. I loved this book and I hope you will too. ★★★★★

The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang

Originally published in February 2018 by First Second (Macmillan).

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I received my copy of The Prince and the Dressmaker as a personal gift and received no compensation of any kind in exchange for this review.* (edited to clarify this disclaimer 1/22/2021.)

Book Review: Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan

Once, all the peoples of Ikhara were Paper. Then the heavenly rulers rained colors down upon the earth, blessing some with powerful gifts while others hid in fear and remained human. Now those un-blessed humans make up the Paper caste, subjugated by the demon Moon caste and the part-demon Steel caste. (In Ikhara, demon means animal-featured, e.g. humanoid leopards, foxes, owls, etc. Demons also have supernatural abilities.)

This creation myth is the first thing the reader learns about the world of Girls of Paper and Fire, and right away we’re left questioning whether or not it’s true–and who benefits from telling it.

cover description: a girl with yellow eyes gazes out at the viewer, her face covered by long dark hair. sparks fly from her hair and from the title text.

Our heroine, Lei, is a Paper caste girl whose mother was stolen and possibly killed by the forces of the demon bull king. But Girls of Paper and Fire is never as simple as human vs. demon: the next character we meet is an employee of Lei’s father’s herb shop, Tien, a Steel caste woman who seems kind, thoughtful, and loving toward Lei and her father despite their caste differences.

What is going on here? Who’s good? Who’s bad? Who can we trust? Who can we believe? These questions inform every part of Girls of Paper and Fire, putting me in mind of Katniss Everdeen: another heroine from an oppressed and downtrodden district who suddenly finds herself at the center of unimaginable wealth, power, treachery, and revolution. Ikhara even has a Reaping of sorts: every year, eight Paper girls are chosen to become courtesans of the king, removed from their families forever and thrust into deadly court intrigue. Lei bypasses this process–because of her strange golden eyes, she’s kidnapped by a Moon caste general and presented as a gift to the king instead–so we only hear about the selection in passing. (Which is probably for the better.)

The beginning of Girls of Paper and Fire is a little overwhelming and clumsy: there’s a lot of table-setting and world-building to get through before Lei enters the palace, officially joins the Paper girls, and sets off the events of the story in earnest. But it doesn’t take too long to find its feet, and once it does, it never slows down again.

Girls of Paper and Fire gets shockingly dark at times: as an unwilling courtesan, Lei is dehumanized, tortured, and subject to the constant threat of sexual and physical violence. (This is definitely a YA novel geared toward older teens.) But Lei is also able to find joy and friendship in the most unexpected places. She learns about her own limits and about her own power. And when I realized that Lei was falling in love with another girl at the palace, I literally shrieked aloud with happiness. This novel packs a massive emotional punch, and it was exactly the escape I needed over the past few weeks.

The reason the parallels to The Hunger Games are striking to me isn’t because I think Girls of Paper and Fire is derivative–in fact, I think it’s one of the more imaginative, daring, and original YA novels I’ve ever read. (Ikhara, inspired by the author’s experiences of growing up in multicultural Malaysia, is a truly spectacular fantasy setting that I’m dying to dig into further.) It’s that I didn’t realize how much I’d missed that kind of fast-paced, politically righteous YA until Girls of Paper and Fire served me its near-flawless version of it. The wave of grim YA dystopias that followed the success of The Hunger Games often missed the mark of what made Katniss and her world so appealing: its perfect balance of desperation and hope, trauma and healing. With Girls of Paper and Fire, Natasha Ngan hit the bullseye, almost exactly ten years after The Hunger Games was first released.

My only real complaint about Girls of Paper and Fire is the way it occasionally bounces between extreme poles of Portentous and Anticlimactic. There’s an intense prologue about Lei’s birth pendant that never quite pays off (although I’m open to it being setup for the sequel), and then a final reveal at the very very end that is…hmm. No spoilers, but it made me feel a little tricked, and not in a good way.

But it wasn’t enough to spoil my enjoyment of the book, and I suspect that Girls of Paper and Fire‘s teenaged target audience will care even less. I used to devour fantasy novels like this by the tote bag-load, anything and everything my local library had on the shelf. The fact that this book has a queer girl at its center makes it even more special and exciting–Ash and Huntress by Malinda Lo were (are!) incredibly precious to me, and I’m happy that teens right now have even more options to choose from.

Girls of Paper and Fire is a thrilling YA fight-the-power story, a fiery repudiation of rape culture and misogyny, and a swoony F/F romance all in one. I ate it up with a spoon. I’ll definitely be checking out the sequel, Girls of Storm and Shadow. ★★★★☆

Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan

Originally published in November 2018 by JIMMY Patterson Books (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers).

Buy it or add it to your shelf:

I bought my own copy of Girls of Paper and Fire and received no compensation of any kind in exchange for this review.


Cover description: a highly stylized illustration of animals including a rabbit, a mammoth, and a bird.

The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo

Published in March 2020 by TorDotCom (an imprint of Macmillan)

“I have taken everything from you. It is the nature of royalty, I am afraid, what we are bred for and what we are taught. I will not take more unless you tell me it’s all right. Do you understand?”

In-yo, princess of the North, arrives at the southern court of Anh in an opulent dress of white sealskin, the like of which has never been seen in the South before. She brings with her a lavish dowry and the promise of a union between North and South, the Mammoth and the Lion. Though In-yo is crowned Empress of Salt and Fortune, divine made flesh, she finds herself isolated and ostracized by a hostile court, belittled and underestimated at every turn by her husband the emperor and his sneering associates. Her handmaiden and most trustworthy ally is a peasant girl called Rabbit, sold into imperial service as a child for five containers of orange dye. The relationship that follows–not a friendship, not really, for even a disgraced empress in exile wields more power than Rabbit ever could–will change the course of the history of the empire.

The Empress of Salt and Fortune is a classic high fantasy court intrigue drama, soapy and sexy and at times shockingly violent. But author Nghi Vo’s exhilarating worldbuilding and clear-eyed politics put it head and shoulders above most entries into the genre. It’s a dual consciousness balancing act: a critique of monarchy and empire that’s also an indulgence in every sumptuous trope I love about stories of monarchy and empire. The Empress of Salt and Fortune is full of gorgeous clothes, delicious food, high-stakes card games, stylish secret codes, and just about every other convention of the genre you can think of. It’s not preachy or didactic and it doesn’t shame the reader for enjoying reading about those things. But by showing it all through the eyes of Rabbit, one of the thousands of people on whose back this lifestyle is built, Vo is constantly complicating our loyalties.

My favorite example comes when Rabbit recounts how much work it was to clean and care for that striking white sealskin dress, in which In-yo made her intensely symbolic entrance to court:

“I was thirteen then, and it was my job to look after it. I packaged it so carefully between layers and layers of crisp paper, and every ten days I brought it out to brush away any possible moth eggs of larvae.”

All that work, and In-yo never wears the dress again. I was left savoring the beautiful descriptions of the dress–I’ll admit it, clothing descriptions are one of my favorite parts of fantasy, and this book is a doozy in that regard–but I was also left thinking: what a waste. What a waste of a beautiful dress, to sit in a cedar chest forever. More importantly, what a waste of Rabbit’s life, to have to spend that much time taking care of a wasted dress. It’s not that beauty isn’t worth creating and maintaining in the world. But The Empress of Salt and Fortune pushes readers to engage with the particular kind of waste of resources and lives that’s involved in turning royals into beautiful symbols rather than people. I wasn’t exactly pro-monarchy before, but this book had me considering the cost of it in fascinating and affecting new ways.

I’ll admit that, despite all the warm fuzzy feelings I have now, it did take me awhile to “get” this book. At only 112 pages, The Empress of Salt and Fortune is a novella, not a novel, and this leads to some pacing abnormalities. I won’t call them problems, because it all came together spectacularly at the end, but they were unusual enough that I had to really work to understand what was going on at first.

The Empress of Salt and Fortune is framed through the eyes of the cleric Chih (who is genderless and uses they/them pronouns) and their magical bird companion Almost Brilliant. The two arrive at Lake Scarlet–the recently declassified location of the empress’s exile–in search of stories to bring back to their religious order. There they encounter the former handmaiden Rabbit, who is eager to tell her tale.

Vo drops the reader straight into this lushly perilous magical universe with no hand-holding whatsoever. The timeline in particular is slippery–Chih keeps referring to a new empress who’s about to be crowned, and it’s not immediately clear what the relationship is between this newcomer and the titular Empress of Salt and Fortune. The book demands your fullest attention from start to finish: I made the mistake of trying to read it one night when I was sleepy and got so confused that I had to start the whole section over again the next day to make sense of it.

But the work it takes to get there is part of what makes the pay-off at the end of those 112 pages so thrilling. Once I turned the last page I sat with it for a long moment, experiencing its emotional wallops one at a time: surprise, heartbreak, longing, peace. I was put more than a little in mind of the ending of The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood, a novel that trusts its reader to understand the shattering implications of the slightest details.

The Empress of Salt and Fortune is as eerie and uncompromising as the empress of its title. It’s searingly political–ferocious, feminist, and queer as hell–while still retaining all the escapism and stunning aesthetics I want out of high fantasy. I hope this is the first of many, many books set in Anh; I’m enormously excited to hear that a stand-alone sequel, When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain, is coming later this year. ★★★★★

Buy it or add it to your shelf:

I purchased my copy of The Empress of Salt and Fortune myself and was in no way compensated for this review.

Book Review: THE BEAR AND THE NIGHTINGALE by Katherine Arden

cover description: a girl stands before a fire-lit cottage in a dark, snowy wood.

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

Originally published in 2017 by Del Rey (an imprint of Penguin Random House)

It has always seemed ironic to me that we use the term “fairy tale” to mean happy and sweet: a “fairy tale” romance, a “fairy tale” wedding. Anyone who’s spent more than a minute or two in the world of fairy tales knows just how hearbreaking and bitter they can be. The Bear and the Nightingale whisks readers off to a place where household spirits require sacrifices of blood, where rusalki might drag you off and drown you in a lake, where the dead rise from their graves and tear horses in two.

The Russian mythology that Katherine Arden draws from was unfamiliar to me, but that sense of delicious fairy tale danger was not. If you’re tired of fantasy novels set in the perilously lovely worlds of Mount Olympus, Asgard, Faerie, or Tír na nÓg, The Bear and the Nightingale might just be the cure for what ails you. It’s original and gorgeous, vivid and haunting. I absolutely loved it.

The protagonist, Vasya, is the youngest daughter of Pyotr Vladimirovich, a boyar in the medieval kingdom of Rus’. Her mother died in childbirth, but not before wishing that Vasya might inherit the powers of her mysterious, witch-like grandmother. In time, Vasya becomes everything her mother dreamed and more: a clever, headstrong girl who has a supernatural ability with horses and talks to spirits no one else can see. But her idyllic life changes forever when Pyotr marries Anna, a frail, devout princess of Moscow who scoffs at the old customs of honoring the spirits of household and forest. When Anna invites a zealous priest to live in the village, fear begins to spread like a contagion, fueling an ancient force that threatens to destroy everything Vasya holds dear.

The Bear and the Nightingale is told in the lilting prose of a fairy tale, using an omniscient third person voice that bounces effortlessly between the perspective of Vasya, Anna, Pyotr, and many other characters. Arden’s writing utterly transported me to the world of medieval Rus’, especially its ominous weather; the real-life forces of nature are written as only slightly less terrifying than the evil spirits, and one of the most memorable (and horrifying) scenes in the book involves a small child freezing to death in his mother’s arms during a particularly harsh winter.

Any modern writer who tries to write a story based on fairy tales runs the risk of creating flat, boring characters. The narrative structure of fairy tales just isn’t designed to allow the growth and development that readers like to see in characters in a full-length novel. But Arden is more than a match for this problem. All the characters are lovable and interesting in their own way, and that’s especially true of Anna, who could have been a mere wicked stepmother but comes across as a much more tragic and nuanced antagonist instead. She and Vasya are perfect foils for one another, and even when Anna is horribly cruel towards Vasya, you can still understand and sympathize with her motivations.

If I might lodge one tiny complaint about The Bear and the Nightingale, it’s that it drags a tad in the middle section, causing the final climactic battle to feel a little rushed. At the same time, there’s some incredible worldbuilding that happens in that section that I’d have been sad to see sacrificed, so I’d say the whole thing’s a net neutral. (And at a tight 336 pages, The Bear and the Nightingale is on the shorter side for a fantasy novel, making that slow middle even easier to take.)

The Bear and the Nightingale is an instant fantasy classic. I can’t wait to pick up the rest of the trilogy, beginning with the second installment, The Girl in the Tower. ★★★★★

Buy it or add it to your shelf:

I purchased my copy of The Bear and the Nightingale myself and was in no way compensated for this review.

State of the Blog, 2020

You may have noticed that this blog has gone dormant. But it’s not dead! I promise.

At the time of my last post (all the way back in December), I’d already been meaning to re-evaluate my approach to book blogging for awhile. I’d noticed that I’d begun to churn through books in search of “content” rather than actually reading for pleasure, and it was doing both the books and me a big disservice.

I especially wanted to take a step back from my previous philosophy of reviewing everything under the sun. Reading and writing are contextual, and trying to write coherently about such a wide variety of genres and topics was driving me nuts. My goal for this blog is to create thoughtful content and community for and with other readers. Instead, it felt like I was constantly spouting off uneducated, seat-of-my-pants opinions. It was a crummy feeling.

In particular, in seeking to highlight work by indigenous authors and authors of color, I noticed that I’d begun to take up more and more unearned space, treating myself as an authority over stories I don’t have any authority over at all. As far as I know, I haven’t made any egregious missteps. But as long as I continued blogging in the same style and format, it felt like a matter of time before I’d fumble and do real, racist harm, regardless of my intent.

Lastly, I wanted to make more space for myself as a writer and not just a reader. It’s not a secret that I’d like to write novels of my own someday, and I felt like that part of me was missing from this blog.

In short, it was time for a long break while I figured some stuff out.

I’m still tooling around with what this blog is going to look like going forward. There will definitely be book reviews, just written more selectively. I plan to continue to center books by marginalized authors, but to do it in a more intentional and appropriate way. I also plan to add more essays, photos, and personal content, though the blog will remain book-focused. Other than that? Who knows!

That’s forward, and this is right now. Right now, this blog is still on hiatus while I finish catching my breath and dealing with the s***-show that is this year. If you’re so inclined, please follow my Twitter, where I’m much more active: @maggietiede.

I hope you’re all as safe and sound as you can be in this topsy-turvy, deeply horrible time. I wish you silver linings and good books.