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!

Book Review: THE TESTAMENTS by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid’s Tale is such an iconic sci-fi novel that I’m surprised it took this long to get a sequel. Despite the decades Margaret Atwood has had to think over what Gilead might look like after the end of Offred’s story, I found The Testaments to be underbaked, full of interesting ideas (and interesting imagery, especially) that don’t blend all that well. Unlike The Handmaid’s Tale, which was narrowly, almost claustrophobically focused on Offred’s story, The Testaments sprawls across the lives of three new characters: an Aunt, a privileged Commander’s daughter, and a Canadian teenager who’s only dimly aware of the horrors of the totalitarian state of Gilead.

I think I would have liked The Testaments more if I had liked The Handmaid’s Tale less. Is it worth reading? Yes. But it’s significantly blunter and messier than I had hoped. Where The Handmaid’s Tale was a scalpel, The Testaments is a machine gun, crude and loud.

You can read my full review below.


The Testaments Cover
cover description: A minimalist illustration of a woman in a bright green cloak and white bonnet against a navy blue background. The opening of the cloak is stylized to look like a woman wearing a ponytail, her arms extended toward the sky.

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

  • publisher: Nan A. Talese (Knopf Doubleday)
  • publication date: September 10, 2019
  • length: 432 pages

You have asked me to tell you what it was like for me when I was growing up within Gilead. You say it will be helpful, and I do wish to be helpful. I imagine you expect nothing but horrors, but the reality is that many children were loved and cherished, in Gilead as elsewhere, and many adults were kind though fallible, in Gilead as elsewhere.

–from The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

Novels are not a visual medium in the way that TV and film are, so it’s notable that The Handmaid’s Tale spawned so much iconic imagery, even before the TV adaptation came to Hulu. The red and white Handmaids’ costume, the shops with pictures on their signs instead of words because women are no longer allowed to read, Offred rubbing margarine into her hands instead of lotion, because she is no longer permitted the luxury of lotion: I can picture all of that (and more) so clearly, despite how long it’s been since I’ve read the novel.

The Testaments is just as visually iconic as The Handmaid’s Tale, full of new visions of oppression and totalitarianism that will haunt my nightmares. But its underlying substance is significantly less memorable.

Though The Testaments is set in the universe of The Handmaid’s Tale, it feels surprisingly much like a rehash of The Blind Assassinthe novel that just barely beats out The Handmaid’s Tale for the title of my favorite book by Atwood.

There are three central characters in The Testaments: a powerful Aunt and architect of Gilead, a young daughter of a privileged Gilead family, and a Canadian girl with only a distant awareness of Gilead’s atrocities.

All of them have ties to the original novel (some of them wincingly obvious despite being framed as a “twist”), and all of them reminded me in some way of the protagonist of The Blind Assassin, Iris. There are even maids, called Marthas, who are reminiscent of Iris’s nanny Reenie, right down to making dough people for a privileged but heartbroken young girl to play with after a tragedy.

It’s not just that it shares themes with The Blind Assassin. That would be fine! Authors with an output as vast as Atwood’s tend to come back to the same wells from time to time. It’s that the parallels to The Blind Assassin are so obvious and so oddly self-plagiarizing that they repeatedly pulled me out of the story.

In fairness, the story of The Testaments is so sprawling and dense that it’s not hard to be distracted from it.

What I admired most about The Handmaid’s Tale wasn’t the worldbuilding of Gilead, despite that worldbuilding being extraordinarily good. What I admired most was Atwood’s laser focus on Gilead’s impact on Offred. The way that Offred’s life becomes so critically important to the reader even though she is just one tiny, literally anonymous part of this terrifying totalitarian regime rings true to the way real life totalitarian regimes swallow people whole and disappear them.

The Testaments shifts that focus from individuals in Gilead to the systems fighting to uphold it or undo it. It’s a bird’s eye view when I wanted a close-up, and it leaches all the urgency and terror out of Gilead. Maybe that’s the point! Maybe it’s supposed to feel hopeful, especially now that the real America feels closer to Gilead than ever. But it left me a little cold.

This loss of momentum and stakes is most obvious at the end, which uses the same device as the ending of The Handmaid’s Tale: a far-future academic conference on Gilead Studies. But where the ending of The Handmaid’s Tale felt chillingly open-ended and detached, The Testaments’ ending feels winkingly obvious and overwrought.

If you love The Handmaid’s Tale, you likely won’t be able to resist reading The Testaments, nor should you. There’s plenty of interesting stuff here that makes the novel worth reading. I especially loved the character of Agnes (a Commander’s privileged daughter), whose slow disentangling of her sincere religious beliefs from the poisonous spiritual abuse she experiences in Gilead is genuinely heartbreaking.

But in its attempt to satisfy readers’ curiosity about Gilead, The Testaments stifles it with too much detail instead, replacing an open door for our imaginations with one that firmly shuts. It’s a shame. ★★☆

Reviews and books you might also enjoy:


I borrowed my copy of The Testaments from a friend. I was in no way compensated for this review.

I publish book reviews every Tuesday and Thursday.

Friday Bookbag, 7.19.19

FridayBookbag

Friday Bookbag is a weekly feature where I share a list of books I’ve borrowed, bought, or received during the week. It’s my chance to buzz about my excitement for books I might not get the chance to review.

I’m still cleaning out my backlog, so this is another long post. (I seriously need to stop buying/borrowing books. Good gravy.) This week I’ve got a gritty novel about a school shooting, a suburban short story collection, a novel about being sick, a surprising retelling of Robin Hood, and three novels that use fantasy and fiction to interrogate very real-world injustices. Let’s dive in!


Bloomland by John Englehardt

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Bloomland Cover
cover description: An abstract design of cutouts in a black background that reveal a bright floral pattern.

source: received an ARC from the publisher

the premise: From Goodreads:

Bloomland opens during finals week at a fictional southern university, when a student walks into the library with his roommate’s semi-automatic rifle and opens fire. When he stops shooting, twelve people are dead.

In this richly textured debut, John Englehardt explores how the origin and aftermath of the shooting impacts the lives of three characters: a disillusioned student, a grieving professor, and a young man whose valuation of fear and disconnection funnels him into the role of the aggressor. As the community wrestles with the fallout, Bloomland interrogates social and cultural dysfunction in a nation where mass violence has become all too familiar.”

why I’m excited: Dzanc Books compared this novel to Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room when they sent an ARC to me, which sold me on Bloomland instantly. (You might remember that I loved The Mars Room.) It’s going to be tough to stomach reading about a school shooting, but it sounds like the emotional payoff will be more than worth it.

Bloomland will be released on September 10th, 2019 and is currently available for pre-order.

Sherwood by Meagan Spooner

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Sherwood Cover
cover description: A girl in a green cloak looks out over a medieval town while holding a bow and arrows.

source: purchased

the premise: From Goodreads:

“Robin of Locksley is dead.

Maid Marian doesn’t know how she’ll go on, but the people of Locksley town, persecuted by the Sheriff of Nottingham, need a protector. And the dreadful Guy of Gisborne, the Sheriff’s right hand, wishes to step into Robin’s shoes as Lord of Locksley and Marian’s fiancé.

Who is there to stop them?

Marian never meant to tread in Robin’s footsteps—never intended to stand as a beacon of hope to those awaiting his triumphant return. But with a sweep of his green cloak and the flash of her sword, Marian makes the choice to become her own hero: Robin Hood.”

why I’m excited: Everything about this delights me. Robin Hood isn’t exactly my most cherished myth or legend, but this update to it has me completely hooked. A grieving Maid Marian who’s also a badass? Sign me up. I’ve also heard that this book has a fairly realistic medieval setting, which intrigues me. I like the idea of a non-fantasy-inflected Robin Hood story.

The Book of Night Women by Marlon James

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

The Book of Night Women Cover
cover description: An 18th-century style illustration of a Black woman wearing a white turban.

source: purchased

the premise: From Goodreads:

The Book of Night Women is a sweeping, startling novel, a true tour de force of both voice and storytelling. It is the story of Lilith, born into slavery on a Jamaican sugar plantation at the end of the eighteenth century. Even at her birth, the slave women around her recognize a dark power that they and she will come to both revere and fear. 

The Night Women, as they call themselves, have long been plotting a slave revolt, and as Lilith comes of age and reveals the extent of her power, they see her as the key to their plans. But when she begins to understand her own feelings and desires and identity, Lilith starts to push at the edges of what is imaginable for the life of a slave woman in Jamaica, and risks becoming the conspiracy’s weak link. 

Lilith’s story overflows with high drama and heartbreak, and life on the plantation is rife with dangerous secrets, unspoken jealousies, inhuman violence, and very human emotion between slave and master, between slave and overseer, and among the slaves themselves. Lilith finds herself at the heart of it all. And all of it told in one of the boldest literary voices to grace the page recently–and the secret of that voice is one of the book’s most intriguing mysteries.”

why I’m excited: I’ve been interested in Marlon James’s work for a long time, but I’m also someone who doesn’t do well with long novels, and both A Brief History of Seven Killings and Black Leopard, Red Wolf are extremely weighty tomes. The Book of Night Women is a little shorter (448 pages), and its premise is a little more intriguing and approachable to me. I love stories about magical women, especially about the dark side of that magic. This looks intense and gripping.

An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

An Unkindess of Ghosts Cover
cover description: an illustration of a Black woman’s face covered in glittering stars.

source: purchased

the premise: From Goodreads:

Odd-mannered, obsessive, withdrawn, Aster has little to offer folks in the way of rebuttal when they call her ogre and freak. She’s used to the names; she only wishes there was more truth to them. If she were truly a monster, as they accuse, she’d be powerful enough to tear down the walls around her until nothing remained of her world, save for stories told around the cookfire.

Aster lives in the low-deck slums of the HSS Matilda, a space vessel organized much like the antebellum South. For generations, the Matilda has ferried the last of humanity to a mythical Promised Land. On its way, the ship’s leaders have imposed harsh moral restrictions and deep indignities on dark-skinned sharecroppers like Aster, who they consider to be less than human.

When the autopsy of Matilda’s sovereign reveals a surprising link between his death and her mother’s suicide some quarter-century before, Aster retraces her mother’s footsteps. Embroiled in a grudge with a brutal overseer and sowing the seeds of civil war, Aster learns there may be a way off the ship if she’s willing to fight for it.

why I’m excited: This is the kind of high concept science fiction novel I’m here for. This sounds like something Octavia Butler might have written. A prickly protagonist, a mystery, social commentary, deep space…I couldn’t ask for more out of a sci-fi novel.

The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

The Golem and the Jinni Cover
cover description: A dark figure stands in a misty archway.

source: purchased

the premise: From Goodreads:

“In The Golem and the Jinni, a chance meeting between mythical beings takes readers on a dazzling journey through cultures in turn-of-the-century New York. 

Chava is a golem, a creature made of clay, brought to life by a disgraced rabbi who dabbles in dark Kabbalistic magic and dies at sea on the voyage from Poland. Chava is unmoored and adrift as the ship arrives in New York harbor in 1899. 

Ahmad is a jinni, a being of fire born in the ancient Syrian desert, trapped in an old copper flask, and released in New York City, though still not entirely free. 

Ahmad and Chava become unlikely friends and soul mates with a mystical connection. Marvelous and compulsively readable, Helene Wecker’s debut novel The Golem and the Jinni weaves strands of Yiddish and Middle Eastern literature, historical fiction and magical fable, into a wondrously inventive and unforgettable tale.”

why I’m excited: Sorry (not sorry) to mention Octavia Butler twice in one post, but this premise reminds me so much of the immortal love story in Wild Seedthe first of her Patternist series, except with a different cultural twist. This came out in 2013, but it seems like an essential fantasy story for this moment, when Islamophobia and antisemitism are being set up in opposition to each other rather than being seen as interlinked oppressions. Most of all, this book looks fun. I can’t wait to read it.

The Body Myth by Rheea Mukherjee

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

The Body Myth Cover
cover description: An illustration of some kind of tree or vines growing out of two broken halves of a body. The background is orange.

source: the library

the premise: From the back of the book:

“Mira is a teacher living in the heart of Suryam–a bustling metropolis and the only place in the world where the fickle Rasagura fruit grows. She lives a quiet life, binge-reading the French existentialists and visiting with her aging father, until the day she witnesses a beautiful woman having a seizure in the park. Mira runs to help even as doubts begin to creep in. Was the seizure real? Or had she glimpsed the woman waiting, until just the right moment, to begin convulsing?

Soon, Mira is drawn into the lives of this mysterious woman, Sara–who suffers a constellation of undiagnosed maladies–and Sara’s kind, intensely supportive husband Rahil. Striking up intimate and volatile friendships with each of them, Mira discovers just how undefinable both illness and love can be.”

why I’m excited: I’m a chronically ill person who’s always interested in reading stories about other people being sick. It’s my life, so it fascinates me. I’m not sure whether chronic illness in this case is taken seriously or if it’s more of a metaphor, but this looks like an interesting novel regardless.

That Time I Loved You: Stories by Carianne Leung

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

That Time I Loved You Cover
cover description: An illustration of rows and rows of similar houses with different colored roofs separated by solid dark blue bars.

source: the library

the premise: From the inside flap:

“Writing with incisive nuance and dark humor, Leung enlivens a singular group of characters sharing a new subdivision in the cosmopolitan melting pot of Scarborough, Ontario. The uniformity of the neighborhood is uncanny, with its smooth sidewalks and shiny cars, the streets differing only in their fruit trees–Winifred Street bears crabapples, Maud Street cherries, and Clara Street sour plums.

With teeth clenched behind fake smiles, the residents bear the truth beneath a fast clip of shocking deaths…[]

When a series of inexplicable suicides begins to haunt the community, no one is more fascinated by the terrible phenomenon than young June. The daughter of Chinese immigrants, she sits hawkeyed at the center, witness to the truth of it all: the hushed affairs, the overt racism, the hidden abuses.”

why I’m excited: I love this kind of suburban fiction, especially when it’s not written by men, especially when it’s written by women of color. This looks sharp and funny and interesting, like a cross between Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng and The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides. It’s a short story collection, but apparently the stories are linked, which is another thing I love. I’m excited!


What’s in your bookbag this week? Do you have any exciting weekend reading plans? Let me know in the comments, and feel free to link to your own book reviews and blog posts!

Book Review: ALIF THE UNSEEN by G. Willow Wilson

In an unnamed Middle Eastern country where inequality and unrest are simmering and a mysterious censor known as the Hand of God threatens dissidents with prison or worse, Alif is a genius hacker–and a target. He offers web services to a dangerous roster of clients; worse, he’s pursuing a forbidden relationship with the daughter of a man far above Alif’s station. Suddenly Alif’s security is breached and he finds himself on the run, pursued by demons and aided by a jinn, a sheikh, a convert and his childhood best friend, Dina.

I adored this novel. It’s an intricate fantasy set in the modern day–no small feat to write believably–but G. Willow Wilson seamlessly integrates the magic and mysteries of this world with more familiar real-world elements, like computer hacking and ethnic tensions between Arabs and other groups. It’s funny and profound by turns, and also chock-full of mind-blowing ideas about how Muslim theology and computer programming intersect. This story will linger with me for a long time.

You can read my full review below.


Alif the Unseen Cover

Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

  • publisher: Grove Press (an imprint of Grove Atlantic)
  • publication date: April 2, 2013
  • length: 456 pages

Alif understood her desire for secrecy. He had spent so much time cloaked behind his screen name, a mere letter of the alphabet, that he no longer thought of himself as anything but an alif—a straight line, a wall. His given name fell flat in his ears now. The act of concealment had become more powerful than what it concealed.

–from Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson

It disappoints me that more fantasy fiction doesn’t draw on religion. I’m not talking vague incense burning or references to moon time rituals; I mean well-thought-out, believably drawn fantasy religions, or meaningful grappling with the real-life religions of our own world.

Some of my favorite fantasy novels do this to great effect. Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey is one. Carey’s latest novel, Starless, also handles its religious themes exceptionally wellThe Golden Compass by Philip Pullman is infamous for its potent atheist themes, which have caused it to be banned over and over again; I’m a Christian and very much not an atheist, but I still find The Golden Compass‘s vision of religion compelling.

Like it or not, religion is one of the most compelling and important parts of humanity’s past and present. So I say again: it disappoints me that more fantasy fiction doesn’t draw on religion.

Luckily, Alif the Unseen doesn’t have that problem. It’s a heady fantasy that sucked me in more than any other book I’ve read lately, drawing on Middle Eastern history, present-day conflicts, and Muslim theology in order to create a rich, textured, and thoroughly believable world.

I don’t think I’m going to be able to summarize this book more concisely than I did in my mini-review, above, so I’m just going to go ahead and copy-paste that summary again here:

In an unnamed Middle Eastern country where inequality and unrest are simmering and a mysterious censor known as the Hand of God threatens dissidents with prison or worse, Alif is a genius hacker–and a target. He offers web services to a dangerous roster of clients; worse, he’s pursuing a forbidden relationship with the daughter of a man far above Alif’s station. Suddenly Alif’s security is breached and he finds himself on the run, pursued by demons and aided by a jinn, a sheikh, a convert and his childhood best friend, Dina.

Alif–a pseudonym, and we don’t find out his real name until the very end–is a terrific protagonist. He’s kind of an asshole: bitter and angry and unable to see the forest for the trees, hurting the people who love him at every turn. But he’s vulnerable, too. We see how his computer hacking prowess makes him arrogant in some ways and leaves him lonely in others; he’s convinced he has all the answers, but fears deep down that his biggest questions might not have answers.

He’s madly in love with Intisar, a college girl from his city’s upper crust. The novel opens with her rejecting him because her parents have matched her with someone else, sending Alif’s world spinning on its axis. At that point, his encounter with a mischievous, magical jinn (a.k.a. genie) named Vikram the Vampire hardly seems that weird.

When the Hand of God finds finds evidence of Alif’s subversive hacking activity, he’s forced to go on the run with his neighbor and childhood friend, Dina (whose decision to wear the niqab, a full-face veil, bewilders and annoys him).

From there the novel unspools into an incredibly profound exploration of the nature of divinity and evil, and how the power of modern technology can unleash both. G. Willow Wilson (who is a convert to Islam, and who includes a sort of American convert self-insert character here) paints a highly textured portrait of Islam, showing the ways it can be misinterpreted and perverted but also the ways it helps people, brings them love and joy, and guides them to be their best selves.

I’m racking my brain trying to think of any other novel that’s as bold and ambitious and empathetic towards any real-world religion as Alif the Unseen is–much less one that extends that empathy towards Islam, which has been so deeply demonized in Western culture.

All that adds immeasurably to this book’s worldbuilding, stakes, and character development. I particularly loved the way Dina’s faith shapes her moral backbone and her decision to help Alif, even when Alif is being a total jerk towards her.

Most of all, it’s hard to believe Alif the Unseen was written before the Arab Spring. (It was, though it wasn’t released till after.) Its vision of how technology can uproot whole societies, for better or worse, is prescient and urgent and kept me racing till the final page.

I feel like I’m talking a lot about this book’s big themes, and not a lot about the plot–but that’s because Wilson integrates the book’s themes into its plot so seamlessly that it’s difficult to separate them.

This book races along at a breakneck pace, never once feeling heavy or dry despite its weighty source material and implications. It’s an adventure novel, one that’s perfectly situated between a YA audience and an adult one. (I recommend it heartily for teens and adults alike.) The magical world of the jinn is beautiful and intoxicating; the romance(s) are compelling and impossible not to root for; the final battle had me quivering with anticipation.

Alif the Unseen is an impressive balancing act: a novel that’s as thrilling and entertaining as it is studied and thought-provoking. Don’t miss it. I especially can’t wait to get my hands on its recently released companion novel, The Bird King. ★★★★★

Books and reviews you might also enjoy:


I purchased my own copy of Alif the Unseen and was in no way compensated for this review.

Book Review: AUTHORITY by Jeff VanderMeer

Authority is the second installment in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, after Annihilation and before Acceptance. Rather than clarifying the mysteries of the first novel, Authority only adds more: we get a new main character, more exposure to the mysterious (and dysfunctional) Southern Reach organization, and a bunch of freaky new imagery. I didn’t love everything about this book–in particular, I thought it was a little too inscrutable and dense–but I’m coming to believe that the Southern Reach trilogy is an experience more than it’s a story. In the same way a trip to an interesting place can be life-changing without being pleasant every minute, diving into Authority is vivid and unforgettable even when it’s also confusing and occasionally a slog. And if you can tolerate the leadenness (intriguingly leaden, mind you–it feels like a deliberate choice rather than a failure of craft), you’ll be rewarded with an absolutely electric ending that has me on tenterhooks till I can start Acceptance.

Spoiler note: If you haven’t read Annihilation yet and you care about spoilers, you should probably skip the body of this review. It’s difficult to talk about Authority without spoiling some details of Annihilation‘s ending.

You can read my full review below.


Authority Cover

Authority by Jeff VanderMeer

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

  • publisher: FSG Originals (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, an imprint of Macmillan)
  • publication date: May 6, 2014
  • length: 352 pages

In Control’s dreams it is early morning, the sky deep blue with just a twinge of light. He is staring from a cliff down into an abyss, a bay, a cove. It always changes. He can see for miles into the still water. He can see ocean behemoths gliding there, like submarines or bell-shaped orchids or the wide hulls of ships, silent, ever moving, the size of them conveying such a sense of power that he can feel the havoc of their passage even from so far above.

–from Authority by Jeff VanderMeer

After Annihilation, you’ll likely notice immediately that something with Authority isn’t quite right. First, you were probably expecting Authority to be told from the perspective of the biologist, Annihilation‘s unforgettable central character whose alliance seemed to lie with the eerie natural world of Area X more than it did with her human companions: the surveyor, anthropologist, and psychologist.

Next, if you remember key plot details, you might be surprised that Authority re-introduces us to the surveyor and anthropologist at all, seeing as both died memorable, horrible deaths in Annihilation. But here they are in the first chapter of Authority, in a lineup right next to the biologist. Our new narrator, Control, is taking stock of them.

Most of all, you will be perturbed for the same reason Control is perturbed: despite the miraculous resurrection of the surveyor and anthropologist (a resurrection Control doesn’t even realize has occurred) and return of the biologist, the psychologist is still missing. Control is supposed to figure out why–and to get to the bottom of the deeper mysteries of Area X.

Despite his moniker, Control is never in control. Right away he’s established as a troubled man with an ocean of fear, anger, and resentment right under his surface. He’s following in the footsteps of his mother, a talented government agent. She’s the one who got him the director’s job at the Southern Reach, the job recently vacated by the psychologist. All is not well at the Southern Reach. In fact, the top-secret government organization is crumbling and demoralized, and Control’s staff is incompetent, hostile, and…not quite right, to put it lightly.

Then there is the biologist, the only returnee from the twelfth expedition who seems to remember it. Control quickly becomes fascinated. Their fates intertwine, as you suspect they will from the start.

In my review of Annihilation last July, I described it as a novel that works on many levels: woman-versus-wild, a deep meditation on selfhood and grief, and an inversion of the traditional sci-fi idea that humanity must be protected at all costs. Area X threatens to catastrophically disrupt humanity, and in the view of the biologist, that outcome doesn’t seem so bad.

Authority has a narrower focus than Annihilation, and it’s a good-bad thing. The diary conceit is dropped for a more traditional first-person narration. Control is less intriguingly cold and alienating than the biologist, though every bit as weird and idiosyncratic. And rather than being set in the wide-open wilderness of Area X, Authority takes place mostly at Control’s workplace, the Southern Reach.

Where Annihilation felt a little like Star Trek, an expedition boldly going somewhere (although not quite where no one had gone before), Authority is more like Alien, a claustrophobic haunted house of a workplace drama.

I both missed Annihilation‘s open ends and was grateful for a firmer place to land.

Jeff VanderMeer is enormously skilled, and one of his most interesting qualities as a writer (at least in this and Annihilation) is the way he plays with density and opacity of narrative. Large sections of Authority felt like banging my head against a wall. I was confused and frustrated and there seemed to be no end in sight.

And yet…it was good? Yeah. It was good. It added to the experience of reading in ways I’m struggling to put my finger on. Of course Area X and the Southern Reach are confusing! That’s the point. For the sake of the new territory VanderMeer is forging here, I’m willing to be confused.

In manipulating the ways the reader can absorb information, VanderMeer keeps us in the same foggy state of mind as the biologist or Control, meaning that as revelations are slowly doled out, they hit us with full force. (The ending in particular feels like a sudden, gorgeous parting of clouds.) We are never one step ahead of the characters; we’re right along with them, or even a little behind. Even though we know (or think we know) what happened to the biologist on the twelfth expedition, we can’t make the wider connections any better than Control can.

Or…maybe I’m overreading all of this. It could just be that I don’t jive with VanderMeer’s style, even though I appreciate the skill and craft behind it. Either way, I always felt that VanderMeer was fully empowered here, making choices about how to tell his story instead of being overwhelmed by it. You’ll either like it or you won’t, but you’ll know you’re in expert hands.

I’m so, so curious about what answers will ultimately lie in Acceptance. Either it’s going to be the mother of all payoffs, or it’s going to disappoint me, given the immense mental energy I’ve already invested in Annihilation and Authority. 

I would be remiss in finishing this review before I talked about Authority‘s character development, which is terrific. Despite the fuzziness of the plot, each character in the novel–from the protagonists to the periphery–was crystal clear and real. VanderMeer effortlessly commits to diverse characters, both in the sense of having characters from many different racial and ethnic backgrounds, genders, disability statuses, and sexual orientations, and in the sense of having characters with a variety of personalities.

In particular, Control was a fascinating character to spend time with. I loved his vulnerability mixed with bravado, his alternating anxiety and numbness, and I particularly loved the tension between the softer, more artistic side of his personality encouraged by his father and the harder, more militaristic side encouraged by his mother. VanderMeer writes about how it feels to grow up as a child of divorce better than maybe anyone else I’ve read. And a character twist we get late in the novel throws Control’s intense guilt over his status as a nepotism hire at the Southern Reach into sharp and fascinating relief.

Authority ultimately feels like anything but authority. It’s chaotic and overwhelming and frightening. That tension between name and reality is what makes Authority a true novel for the 21st century, a kind of Rorschach blot for anxieties about war, government malevolence and ineptitude, and climate change. Love it or hate it, you won’t leave feeling like it has nothing to say. ★★★★☆

Books you might also enjoy:


I purchased my own copy of Authority and was in no way compensated for this review.

Book Review: WARCROSS by Marie Lu

In Warcross, troubled teenage hacker and bounty hunter Emika Chen steals a power-up from a Warcross tournament, Warcross being the virtual reality sensation that’s taken over Marie Lu’s fictional vision of the future. Instead of getting arrested, Emika gets invited to Tokyo to help Hideo Tanaka, Warcross’s mysterious and handsome inventor, catch a dangerous hacker named Zero. What follows is an absolutely dazzling sci-fi adventure novel that’s both rollicking fun and a thoughtful exploration of the ever-increasing role tech plays in our lives. I recommend it wholeheartedly.

You can read my full review below.


Warcross Cover

Warcross by Marie Lu

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

  • publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers (an imprint of Penguin)
  • publication date: September 12, 2017
  • length: 368 pages
  • cover price: $18.99

Some people still say that Warcross is just a stupid game. Others say it’s a revolution. But for me and millions of others, it’s the only foolproof way to forget our troubles. I lost my bounty, my landlord is going to come screaming for his money again tomorrow morning, I’m going to drag myself to my waitressing job, and I’m going to be homeless in a couple of days, with nowhere to go…but tonight I can join in with everyone else, put on my glasses, and watch magic happen.

Warcross, page 27

The line between “young adult” and “adult” seems to blur more and more every year in publishing, and if you need hard evidence that that’s a good thing, you need look no further than Warcross.

Warcross‘s premise manages to be straightforward and thought-provoking all at once: an impoverished New York City bounty hunter, Emika Chen, commits a crime by hacking a Warcross tournament and is then plunged into a world of immense wealth and intrigue when she goes undercover in the tournament herself to uncover the identity of a dangerous hacker. It’s not hard to follow the action, which frees you up to think even more deeply about a world where our economy and our free time are completely controlled by a video game. (That world certainly doesn’t feel very far away.)

Author Marie Lu worked as a video game designer before her turn as a successful YA sci-fi author. That means that she intimately grasps the incredible rewards of gaming. This is definitely a “fist pump” novel: one where the action, both in game and out, leaves you as breathless as a superhero movie might.

That also means her critiques of tech can go way deeper than knee-jerk, dime-a-dozen “the future = bad” takes on virtual reality. In Lu’s future, Warcross is empowering as well as dangerous: underdogs from around the world become overnight superstars who can provide for themselves and their families. Lu’s characters feel effortlessly diverse to the reader, but you can still sense how much thought she’s put into it: How might international stars react similarly or differently to online superstardom? (I loved how many countries were represented, from Kenya to Germany and far beyond.) How might a gamer who uses a wheelchair in the real world adapt to an able-bodied avatar in-game? How would translation work across languages?

I could list dozens of other questions the novel raises, and it makes the whole experience far richer and more immersive than a skin-deep, U.S.-centric novel with a similar premise would be.

Warcross‘s protagonists, Emika and Hideo, are on the older side for YA: Emika is 18 and Hideo is 21. This is where the blurring between young adult and adult comes in: this novel is perfectly appropriate for even young teens (there’s no intense violence or sexuality) but was still completely engrossing for me, a 23-year-old adult. This would be a perfect book for parent or mentors to share with tech-savvy teens: it will lead to great conversations about safety online and be super-fun, to boot. There’s such a dearth of books starring 18-to-25-year-olds out there (it’s like fictional characters just…stop living their lives between 17-30) that I would have been happy to find Warcross regardless, so it’s a nice bonus that it’s so clever and well-crafted, as well.

In Warcross, Lu writes with a light touch, equally comfortable with vivid action, painful emotion, butterflies-in-the-stomach flirtation, and thoughtful observation. Her rich imagination fairly leaps off the page, and her characters are distinctly and lovingly drawn. (There’s a huge ensemble supporting cast in this novel, but I had no problem telling them apart.) She’s preternaturally gifted, and Warcross is a treat.

Perhaps this novel’s only downside is its cliffhanger ending. Thankfully, it manages to feel genuinely open rather than exploitative, but the wait for the second book, Wildcard–coming September 18th, 2018–is killing me. In the meantime, I’m tempted to flip back to page 1 and lose myself in Warcross all over again. ★★★★★


My copy of Warcross came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

Friday Bookbag, 7.27.18

FridayBookbag

Friday Bookbag is a weekly feature where I share a list of books I’ve borrowed, bought, or received during the week. It’s my chance to buzz about my excitement for books I might not get the chance to review.

This week in my bookbag, I’ve got a sober meditation on climate change, a literary take on Korea’s Gwangju Uprising from the author of The Vegetarian, a futuristic video game-themed YA adventure, and more. Let’s dive in!


Rising: Dispatches From the New American Shore by Elizabeth A. Rush

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

New American Shore Coverthe premise: Author Elizabeth Rush reports on areas on the East Coast, Gulf Coast, and beyond that are threatened by rising seas and climate change. From worsening natural disasters like hurricanes to islands literally drowning beneath incessant waves, Rising is a polyphonic portrait of a world on the brink of change.

why I’m excited: Excited is perhaps the wrong word for this one, as climate change is an issue I’m deeply worried about, and I think this book will cause me no small amount of anxiety. But I’m looking forward to immersing myself in Rush’s reporting and educating myself on what’s happening on the coasts. I currently live in Minnesota, which is about as far from an ocean as you can get in North America. (We have Lake Superior, but that doesn’t count in this case.) I’m not affected by climate change with as much urgency as the communities Rush documents are, and I consider it a duty to inform myself. Every review I’ve read of this book does praise Rush’s skillful, lyrical writing and interviewing, so I hope it won’t be an entirely self-flagellatory exercise.

Human Acts by Han Kang

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Human Acts Coverthe premise: Set against the backdrop of the bloody 1979 Gwangju uprising in South Korea, Human Acts is a series of interconnected stories about people desperately trying to make a difference–and survive. It spans three decades of lead-up and follow-up to Chun Doo-hwan’s declaration of martial law that led to the deaths of anywhere from 160 people to around 2000. (For more information on the premise of the novel, the history of the Gwangju uprising, and Han Kang’s personal connection to both, I recommend reading Min Jin Lee’s excellent article, “Korean Souls,” in the New York Review of Books.)

why I’m excited: I remain obsessed with Han Kang’s novel The Vegetarian, which I reviewed a few months ago as “extraordinary and…nauseating, like a spinning theme park ride with its speed cranked up one level past safety.” Where The Vegetarian was almost claustrophobically personal, Human Acts appears to break wide open, encompassing more stories and larger events. Also, I know embarrassingly little about the history of Korea (especially South Korea), and I’ve recently found fiction to be a good way in. From Mary Lynn Bracht’s White Chrysanthemum (about Japanese occupation and comfort women) to The Hole by Hye-young Pyun, which I wrote about in a previous Friday Bookbag, I’ve been striving to read more works by Korean and Korean diasporic authors, and I look forward to adding Human Acts to that list.

Driven: A White-Knuckled Ride to Heartbreak and Back by Melissa Stephenson

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Driven Coverthe premise: For Melissa Stephenson, cars are (and were) an escape, from her blue collar childhood in Indiana, to her brother’s suicide, to camping trips with her kids in a VW bus. Driven is a memoir of her relationship with her brother and her healing after his death, structured around the cars she’s loved over the years.

why I’m excited: I can’t say that the “cars” part of the premise sets me on fire. My partner’s a mega-gearhead, but I’m not. This memoir seems to be about more than cars, though. It seems like it’s also about family, and healing, and independence, and how sometimes running away from something can also mean running towards our better selves. It’s being billed as similar to Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, a book I adored. I certainly hope it scratches the memoir itch I’ve had recently.

Warcross by Marie Lu

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Warcross Coverthe premise: Warcross is an immersive international video game sensation: think Fortnite meets Overwatch meets World of WarcraftEmika Chen is a hacker and bounty hunter who scrapes out a living hunting down people who bet on Warcross illegally, but she risks it all when she decides to make quick cash by hacking into the Warcross championships. She’s caught–but instead of getting arrested, she gets an appointment with the elusive founder of Warcross, who offers her a job in Tokyo as a spy…where she uncovers fortunes and dangers greater than she’d ever imagined.

why I’m excited: It’s hard to beat a good YA sci-fi thriller–they’re like a surprise trip to an amusement park in the middle of a dreary reading schedule–er, work week. I’m especially excited about this one because I loved Marie Lu’s Legend series (Goodreads) when I was a teen, and also because Lu worked in video game design before she was an author, so I think Warcross will be full of cool (and maybe even accurate!) details.

The Occasional Virgin by Hanan al-Shaykh

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

The Occasional Virgin Coverthe premise: Two women–Yvonne and Huda–were raised in restrictive households in Lebanon: one Christian, one Muslim. When they meet on vacation in Italy, their complicated pasts threaten to interfere with the powerful and successful professional lives they take pride in now.

why I’m excited: I enjoy fiction that delves into religion and its effects on our lives, and I especially enjoy that one protagonist is Christian and one Muslim. Christianity and Islam are so often set up as an either/or that a novel that deals with their similarities is hugely exciting to me. I also love novels that explore how the values we’re raised with can interfere with the values we wish to have now. This novel could turn out to be sloppy or melodramatic in execution a la The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso (which has a semi-similar premise), but I like the idea enough to give it a shot.


What’s in your bookbag this week? Do you have any exciting weekend reading plans? Let me know in the comments, and feel free to link to your own book reviews and blog posts!