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)

Buy it or add it to your shelf:

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)

Buy it or add it to your shelf:

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).

Buy it or add it to your shelf:

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.

Book Review: THE EMPRESS OF SALT AND FORTUNE by Nghi Vo

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.

Book Review: THE INCENDIARIES by R. O. Kwon

Will Kendall is in love with Phoebe Lin. The problem is that Phoebe is becoming ever more enmeshed in a cult: a cult that lashes out in an act of terrifying violence that Will can’t reconcile with his glamorous, aloof, perfect vision of Phoebe. The Incendiaries explores what happens when faith takes over someone’s life, leaving those who love them helplessly trapped on the other side. I loved this novel’s story and characters, but I had trouble following its timeline and stakes until the very end, when the whole thing clicks into place. I found it mostly satisfying; other readers might be disappointed. The Incendiaries is moving and thought-provoking, but I do wish it’d been just a little clearer. Its characters are trapped in a fog of confusion and regret–the reader didn’t have to be.

You can read my full review below.


The Incendiaries Cover
cover description: Colorful, bright geometric shapes.

The Incendiaries by R. O. Kwon

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

  • publisher: Riverhead Books (Penguin Random House)
  • publication date: hardcover in 2018, paperback in 2019
  • length: 240 pages

But this is where I start having trouble, Phoebe. Buildings fell. People died. You once told me I hadn’t even tried to understand. So here I am, trying.

–from The Incendiaries by R. O. Kwon

Faith, first love, money (and lack of it), alcohol, terrorism, an elite college, suicide, a cult. The Incendiaries, R. O. Kwon’s first novel, is made of heady stuff. In it, a young scholarship student who recently lost his evangelical Christian faith, Will, falls in love with a mysterious and beautiful young woman with a complicated past: Phoebe.

It took me a beat too long to understand that the whole book is told from Will’s perspective, although The Incendiaries alternates between chapters labeled Will, Phoebe, and John Leal.

John Leal is a cult leader, a Christian zealot who did a terrifying stint in a North Korean prison after trying to help smuggle people out. He’s a cipher for the entirety of the novel–why go from a righteous cause, like freeing people from a dictatorship, to something as sinister as a murderous cult?

The Incendiaries plays out like a love triangle, except instead of three whole people, it’s more like one person–Will–battling his two contradictory ideals of Phoebe. In one, Phoebe is the love of his life, the first woman he has sex with, a brilliant pianist (who threw it all away because she couldn’t be perfect enough), a social butterfly.

But in the other, Phoebe is the instigator of a horrifying and deadly bombing, a nightmare from which Will cannot wake up.

In The Incendiaries, R. O. Kwon writes with a cold, bright intensity, like a strobe light in a dark club. The frozen images we experience are alternately sexy, bloody, predatory, bloodless. It’s an interesting and original way to tell a version of a story I’m endlessly fascinated by: what happens when people get hopelessly caught up in a group that’s bad news. (The Girls by Emma Cline, History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund, and The Parking Lot Attendant by Nafkote Tamirat are just a few examples.)

The problem is that The Incendiaries is so alternately full of sharp edges and smooth surfaces that I found it impossible to ever get a proper grasp on it. I was solidly halfway through the novel before I understood what was happening; I was all the way to the end before the chronology made any kind of sense.

You also have to be willing to accept a certain amount of melodrama, which I think is mostly but not entirely effective. Will is wholly, almost religiously consumed by Phoebe, which is the point–in a nutshell, The Incendiaries is about the ways human love and religious devotion mirror each other, each one causing us to commit previously unimaginable acts–but it’s also occasionally grating.

Luckily, I thought Will, Phoebe, and John Leal are interesting enough to justify the obsessive attention Kwon pays them. But if you’re not a fan of this type of hyper-focused, character-driven literary novel, you’re likely to find it to be an awful lot of navel-gazing.

Despite all that, The Incendiaries gets better and better in my memory the farther I am from its electric final chapter. Thematically, Kwon bites off more than almost any author could conceivably chew, and transforms it into a fascinating, enigmatic, eminently memorable story. It reminded me of Yaa Gyasi’s debut, Homegoingin that way: it wasn’t not always a great experience while I was reading it, but I’m grateful to have read it anyway.

In the end, Phoebe and John Leal’s motives are no clearer to us than they are to Will. Kwon asks us to sit with that discomfort and interrogate it, like tonguing raw gums after a pulled tooth.

If sincere belief can be used to justify such terrible ends, why believe anything at all? Why take the risk of loving anyone at all?

Because, The Incendiaries seems to argue, we can’t help it. Reasons and narrative are merely justifications to be applied afterwards, turned over and over in our minds till we come up with a story we’re satisfied with.

The Incendiaries is an excellent case for writing wildly ambitious, unrealistic novels and trusting that the right readers will love and connect with them anyway. When someone tells me that they didn’t like a novel because it wasn’t realistic, that merely tells me that something more primal has failed, that the wrong fictional buttons were pushed, the wrong hormones engaged. For a truly great story, we will put all objections of realism aside, whether that story is an overt one–a novel, a movie–or the covert one we’re always telling, the one about our own lives and relationships, the one that pushes us to believe, to love, to do something. Anything.

The Incendiaries is a fascinating book. I’m not sure that it’s always successful, but it is always, always great. ★★★★☆

Reviews and books you might also enjoy:


I got my copy of The Incendiaries from the library and was in no way compensated for this review.

I publish new book reviews every Tuesday and Thursday.

Book Review: WHATEVER HAPPENED TO INTERRACIAL LOVE? by Kathleen Collins

Kathleen Collins was a groundbreaking artist: a playwright, filmmaker, educator, and activist as well as a writer. She died young in 1988 and her work was at risk of fading into obscurity until the publication of this collection in 2016. Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?, named for one of the standouts of the collection–a bittersweet, sly story about how the politics of the Civil Rights Movement played out on a personal level–is absolutely wonderful. It’s made up of 16 intimate stories that are so short that they border on flash fiction; each one feels simultaneously like an overheard scrap of someone’s life and like a whole, rich meal. This is easily one of my new favorite short story collections. Collins was an extraordinary talent and I wish she had been with us longer.

You can read my full review below.


Whatever Happened to Interracial Love Cover
cover description: a black and white photo of a Black woman looking directly at the viewer, closely cropped so we only see her from the shoulders up. Abstract smudges of red and purple surround her.

Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? by Kathleen Collins

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

  • publisher: Ecco (HarperCollins)
  • publication date: December 6, 2016
  • length: 192 pages

I had an uncle who cried himself to sleep. Yes, it’s quite a true story and it ended badly. That is to say, one night he cried himself to death.

–from “The Uncle” in Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? by Kathleen Collins

How do you get a reader to care about a short story? There’s so much less time to get a short story off the ground than a novel, so much more pressure to find just the right hook to pull us in.

But in Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?, Kathleen Collins seemed to trust that dialogue was enough, her characters were enough, their problems were enough. This is a short story collection that is bold in its unassumption and I was riveted to every page.

It starts with “Exteriors,” in which a conflict between a couple is set up like a shot for a movie, followed immediately by “Interiors,” made up of two stream-of-consciousness monologues from husband and wife. In “The Uncle,” a woman’s wonderful childhood memories of her aunt and uncle are disrupted by the adult truths of their lives. In “Documentary Style,” a combative Black cameraman resents the woman who will edit his work. And in “Of Poets, Galleries, New York Passages,” two New York artists host a friend from the country, each projecting their fantasies of city and suburban life onto the others.

The title story is as provocative as its name suggests, both mischievously and seriously examining what happens when the personal becomes too political, when the politics of the Civil Rights Movement embedded themselves in romance and sex as well as protests and policy.

Every story in the collection is so good that it’s hard to choose standouts. Collins had one of the best ears for dialogue I’ve ever encountered–right up there with Zora Neale Hurston in Their Eyes Were Watching God–and a knack for imagery that symbolizes without feeling symbolic. Not a thing about Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? is artificial or forced.

Collins wrote as fluidly as most people think, or talk, or breathe. I’m sure it was hard work, but her work is so skillfully hidden from the reader that it’s hard to picture it happening at all, as if it sprung fully formed from her mind onto the pages of the book in my hands.

Sadness lingers around the edges of every story, both because of the heartrending subject matter (most of the stories are about disintegrating relationships, especially romantic ones) and because you know from the lovely foreword by poet and professor Elizabeth Alexander that Collins died at the age of only 46, in 1988, before her work could gain the full acclaim in her lifetime that it deserved.

Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? works as both a terrific book on its own merits and a fierce rebuttal to the way Black women artists are systematically marginalized and deliberately forgotten. It’s a treasure trove of great writing and fascinating politics. It’s an essential manifesto of Black and female art; it’s also purely delightful, unforgettable, compulsively readable fiction. It’s given me a new vision for what a short story can be, and what a short story collection can be.

What an excellent way to spend an hour or two. Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? doesn’t ask much of your time, but in its own quiet way it does command–demand, in fact–your full attention. You will be happy to oblige. ★★★★★

Reviews and books you might also enjoy:


I got my copy of Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? from the library and was in no way compensated for this review.

I publish book reviews every Tuesday and Thursday.

Book Review: CITY OF ASH AND RED by Hye-Young Pyun

It’s hard to know what City of Ash and Red is really about, until the end, when you realize that the vagueness was the point. In it, an unnamed man works as a rat killer in his home country; when he is transferred to a branch office in District 4 of Country C, his life is plunged into chaos. Country C is consumed by a mysterious disease, its bureaucracy is unraveling, and its streets are full of garbage. Clouds of pesticide and antiseptic poison the air. Meanwhile, in his home country, his ex wife is brutally murdered–and the unnamed man becomes the primary suspect.

You’d think a novel about a man desperately trying to survive murder charges and a plague in a hostile foreign country would be tense, even thrilling. Unfortunately, City of Ash and Red is lethargic and confusing instead, not so much emotionally distant as entirely absent. It’s an admirable literary experiment in detachment and ennui, but ultimately a failed one. I didn’t enjoy this book at all.

You can read my full review below.


City of Ash and Red Cover
cover description: A smudgy gray background with dots of red that look like blood.

City of Ash and Red by Hye-Young Pyun (translated by Sora Kim-Russell)

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

  • publisher: Arcade
  • publication date: November 6, 2018
  • length: 256 pages

Danger warnings are more common than actual danger. And yet when danger does finally strike, it does so without warning. That was why the man thought nothing of the quarantine notices and infectious disease prevention regulations posted all around the airport. He knew that the more caution signs there were, the less danger he was in.

–from City of Ash and Red by Hye-Young Pyun

Depersonalization, dehumanization, dissociation. Authoritarian governments, guerrilla warfare, gig economies. In a world where full personhood feels more precarious than ever, it’s not hard to see why authors are leaning into namelessness, facelessness, and purposelessness.

The protagonist of City of Ash and Red, Hye-Young Pyun’s second novel published in the U.S. after her award-winning thriller The Hole, is unnamed, referred to as “the man”; most of the people around him are also unnamed, or given only generic first names. Similarly, Pyun eschews place names in favor of placeholders: the unnamed man’s home country is simply called his home country; the country where he goes to work at the beginning of the novel is Country C, the city where he lives merely one of 16 unnamed major cities, his neighborhood known only as District 4.

The man, a rat killer, is transferred to work at an office in Country C. An unnamed, mysterious plague is spreading rapidly when the man arrives; it’s possibly just the common cold, but possibly much worse. Garbage coats the streets. Billowing, opaque clouds of antiseptic are constantly sprayed from trucks, convenient cover for every time the man needs to run away. The man doesn’t speak Country C’s language. (What language? It’s impossible to know.)

The man has a dog in his home country, whom he forgets to make arrangements for, despite knowing that he’s leaving for a 6 month to 5 year stay in Country C. He calls a former coworker and asks him to take the dog somewhere, anywhere; this coworker also happens to have just divorced the man’s ex-wife, also unnamed, and the two men loathe each other and this shared history. When the coworker goes to let out the dog, he finds the ex-wife in the man’s apartment, stabbed to death. The man is the suspect. The man has vague memories of a fight, of holding a dull knife, but he’s certain he didn’t kill his wife before he left for Company C. Or is he certain? And is she even dead?

All of these unknowns are bold and brave choices on the part of Pyun, who is terrific at evoking a sort of banal, bureaucratic dread. But despite its daring, or perhaps because of it, City of Ash and Red simply doesn’t work. It’s overburdened and muddy, so concerned with its own experimental concept that it forgets to tell a real story.

Pyun’s detached writing style (as translated by Sora Kim-Russell) throws up a pane of thickly frosted glass between the reader and the events of the story, making it impossible to fully care about what happens, because it’s nearly impossible to even know what’s really happening.

Tension builds and is abruptly punctured; the best and most vivid part of the novel, in which the man remembers his marriage to his ex-wife, which ended when he raped her, is followed almost immediately by the worst and most deadening part, in which the man lives in a sewer. Or maybe it’s a park? Maybe both? Who knows. I sure don’t.

There’s still plenty of thought-provoking stuff on offer in City of Ash and Red. Pyun writes particularly well about work, marriage, and the ways complacency in both can irrevocably and negatively affect our lives.

But thematic ambition can’t save City of Ash and Red from being a pretty awful reading experience. Even at a relatively short 256 pages, it feels interminable, and painfully bloated.

I don’t recommend City of Ash and Red, but I’m still looking forward to reading The Hole, and I’ll still be seeking out Pyun’s future work. This novel is a failure, but a very, very intriguing one. ★★☆☆☆

Reviews and books you might also enjoy:


I got my copy of City of Ash and Red from the library and was in no way compensated for this review.

I publish book reviews every Tuesday and Thursday.

*note: This review has been edited to reflect that Pyun is Hye-Young Pyun’s surname, not Hye-Young. I apologize for the error!

What are your favorite books of 2019?

No book review today because my chronic pain continues to be a real bastard, so I thought this might be a good opportunity to grow my TBR list, which is surprisingly short right now. I’m just not sure what to read next–I’d love to find a book that will really grab me.

To that end, what books did you read in 2019 that were worth dropping everything for? What should I order from the bookstore or request from the library post-haste? Go ahead and drop the titles in the comments, all genres welcome!

I’ll be back with a new review on Thursday. Happy reading, friends!