Reviews

Unravel the Dusk by Elizabeth Lim (Book 2)

# of Pages: 351

Time it took me to read: 1 Day

# of pages a day to finish in a week: 50

Rating: 4 out of 5

NOTE: This review will have spoilers from here on out. If you haven’t read the Spin the Dawn and plan to, I recommend skipping this review entirely. I’ll be back soon with fresh, spoiler free reviews. You’ve been warned 🙂

Maia Tamarin has already proven herself to be the greatest master tailor in all of A’landi. But in order to save her true love, Edan, from becoming the demon guardian of Lapzur, Maia has made a bargain with a demon and with the moon goddess herself that she will take his place so long as Edan is free.

Now, alone at the palace, Maia waits for the shensen’s daughter, Lady Sarnai, to wed the emperor. This wedding will preserve the delicate peace in the land after the war between the shensen and the emperor. But when things don’t go exactly as planned, Maia is forced to flee, on the run from the emperor as well as the shensen.

Maia must find a way to stop darkness from ripping apart her beloved land, all while fighting against the darkness rising within herself. But how long can she run from an enemy that seeks to destroy her from within?

Review:

Like its predecessor, this book came at just the right time. I just finished slogging my way through an absolute beast of a Sci-Fi for book club (see my review of Red Rising), and I’m really trying hard to get back into my reading habit, and Unravel the Dusk made it easy. I read the whole thing in 24 hours, without even trying that hard.

I’ve read a lot of great books this year, but usually the ones I end up enjoying the most are a little beefier and heavier on the fantasy aspect, which this one is not. But that’s not to say that I didn’t thoroughly enjoy this book.

Maia is a great character. She’s noble, self-sacrificing, exactly the kind of protagonist you want to root for. And she made things really tough on herself. In this book, she literally had enemies attacking her from ALL sides. She promised to be in the emperor’s service, but then she has to leave, so he’s hunting her. The shensen is basically a demon himself, and know’s what she’s becoming, so he’s hunting her. And then there’s Baldur, the demon who forced her into swearing an oath to become the new demon guardian of Lapzur. And he’s all up in her head trying to get her to come back to Lapzur like, right now, so he can be free. And then there’s the fact that she’s actually turning into a demon more and more every day, so she’s got this demon voice inside her head, that is her own voice, telling her to submit and use the demon magic that is fueled by rage and vengeance but will only make her lose herself even faster. So she’s got a lot to deal with, and I think this final book in the series did a good job of making sure all of the enemies were fully vanquished by the end.

And then of course there’s Edan. No longer the all powerful enchanter he once was, he is still fiercely loyal and heart-meltingly loving to Maia. Even though in this book I feel like he is much more of a plot device in some ways, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Because okay, hear me out.

So Maia basically made this decision to become a demon and take Baldur’s place because of her love for Edan. It was a decision made selflessly, but specifically to save one person, this boy she loves. Which is great, I love a good romance. But it would have been real easy for this book to basically have the theme “she sacrificed it all for true love, and in the end true love saved her”. I’ve read that book before, I’ve loved books like that. BUT. Elizabeth Lim made it so that every battle she had to fight, every obstacle she had to overcome, she did it herself. Edan was by her side for a lot of it, but she certainly had to fight her own battles and win in her own way. Particularly the war against herself, against losing everything she is to the demon. She fights that ever page of the book, and while love of Edan is a big factor in why she doesn’t give in, he’s not the only thing. She fights for her brother and her father, for her friend Ammi, for Lady Sarnai and her army, for her country. But mostly she fights for herself. Because she is a good person who is strong and even though any second of any day she could completely give in to the demon and feel no more pain, no more human emotion, and become all powerful, she fights that. So when she wins, and she does fully win in the end, it feels like she really earned it. I wasn’t expecting that and I really liked it.

I’ll quickly cover the things I usually do, pacing, world building, characters, style, etc. But there is very little else to say that I didn’t already say in my initial review of the first book, so head over to that review if you want more detail. Pacing is fast, as I mentioned I blew through this book and it did not feel like a hard push. World building is pretty good, I was really sucked into the land and immersed.

The one thing I’ll mention is that there are pretty much no rules to her magic system here. Elizabeth Lim has magic behave pretty much how she wants it, and you’ll just have to deal with it. It didn’t particularly bother me, since it’s not like this book takes itself particularly seriously anyway, but it did make me raise my eyebrows every now and again because I’m used to reading fantasy where worldbuilding is everything and the magic is very regulated and well explained. Not here. The reader needs to know what’s going on somewhere that Maia isn’t actually at? No problem, Maia has “demon vision” that takes over every now and again and shows her events that are important for her to see. That’s just one example too. Kinda funny.

I talked about characters already, Maia is pretty much the only actual complex character, but as I explained, I loved so much how much this book was about her struggle and her triumph, I didn’t mind pretty much everyone else being a plot device. I like the style, it’s “easy-breezy fantasy” that doesn’t take itself seriously, which is great especially after that heavy Sci-Fi I just read.

Once again I left a star off because I liked it pretty much exactly the same amount as I liked the first book, and once again no special “X Factor” to shoot it up to a perfect score. But a really solid 4 that I’d highly recommend to anyone who likes lighthearted fantasy romances.

The last thing I’ll mention, and it’s not necessarily a critique, but I’d be remiss if I skipped over the deus ex machina. For those of you unfamiliar, a quick lesson: deus ex machina originated as a device in ancient Greek theatre. In that sense, it describes when something, usually a god or a mythical creature appears at the end of the play to resolve the ending. For example, in Euripides’ Medea, Medea kills her children to get revenge on her scheming husband, and when it appears she will be killed for her crimes, a sun dragon appears and Medea rides off on it, escaping the consequences and denying her husband his revenge upon her.

Anyway, nowadays it’s mostly a device used in storytelling when a seemingly hopeless situation is quickly and conveniently solved at the end by a highly unlikely occurrence. In this case, Maia knows that if she destroys all of the dresses that she made in the previous book, which are connected to her body, mind, and heart, she will die. Those dresses are her life force. But the only way to win in the end is to sacrifice herself by destroying the last dress. So she should have died. And she kind of did, but then she goes up to heaven(?) and talks to her mom, who says the moon goddess is granting her the choice to go and live on earth with her dad, brother, and the boy she loves. Or she can become tailor to the gods and be with her dead mom and brothers. Yeah, seems kinda obvious what you’d pick. So she gets brought back to life with absolutely no consequences for her actions. A very convenient happy ending. But you know what? Not mad about it, because as I said, she works very hard to defeat all of her damn enemies, so I think she deserves a happy ending, no matter how suspiciously convenient it is.

And that’s it! Check out the series, it’s only two books, they’re really short and fun to read. See ya’ll next time!

If you liked Unravel the Dusk, try:

Iron King by Julie Kagawa

Poison Study by Maria V. Snyder

Sorcery of Thorns by Margaret Rogerson

Defy by Sara B. Larson

Mini Reviews · Reviews · Uncategorized

Camping Trip Mini Reviews

Hi friends! I’ve recently returned from a big camping trip where I got to read a whole handful of books. So I’m just going to do the tiniest of mini-reviews for each one, and if anybody wants to know more or talk more about any of these books, hit me up in the comments. Without further ado, camping trip mini reviews (all are spoiler-free)!

# of Pages: 439

Time it took me to read: 2 days

# of pages a day to finish in a week: 63

Rating: 5 out of 5

This book was a Secret Santa gift given by a co-worker who doesn’t read, he just picked it out because he thought it looked cool on Amazon. And I have to say, I was excited to read it regardless because I’d heard great things about it, but my friend really made a great pick! I started out thinking this retelling might be a little cheesy, because the character’s names are “Roma” and “Juliette”, so pretty on-the-nose, and in the setup it’s pretty obvious who the other side characters are supposed to be if you’ve read Romeo and Juliet. But this is not the simple love at first sight then die unnecessarily story. Both Roma and Juliette are well-developed characters with a past history, and the ruthless, bloody gangster backdrop makes for a really interesting read. I’m not super familiar with early 20th-century history, so I’m not sure how much of the 1920’s Shanghei is fiction and how much is history, but either way it was monstrously compelling. I’d say the story is a little slow to start, but ramps up quickly and is impossible to put down after a point. I’m so very excited for the sequel later this year, and would definitely recommend this book to anyone who is a fan of YA, classic story retellings, or historical romances.

# of Pages: 511

Time it took me to read: 2 days

# of pages a day to finish in a week: 73

Rating: 5 out of 5

I’ve only ever done a Throwback review way back in the day where I got to talk about Leigh Bardugo, so I’m stoked to finally be getting that chance again. If you haven’t heard of Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse, I’m not sure what rock you’ve been hiding under. A few months ago the wildly popular Shadow and Bone series premiered on Netflix, which covers characters from a few different series of Bardugo’s. The events of King of Scars have not been covered in the show (yet), but I’m hopeful for the future. Anyway, King of Scars is a re-read for me, because I read it years ago when it first came out, and the sequel was recently released, and I wanted to read them back-to-back. I could literally spend pages talking about why Leigh Bardugo is no-doubt one of the top authors in YA currently, but I’ll try to keep it to a few sentences. The “Grishaverse” world she has built is incredibly detailed and vivid, with each country based on the cultures of real-world places (Ravka = Russia, Kerch = The Netherlands/Amsterdam specifically). Having a fantasy world based on the real world in some ways really grounds the reader and makes it immersive. For characters, these books are pretty large cast, and she does a great job flipping perspectives while keeping the reader engaged no matter who’s story you’re reading. These books are incredibly fast paced and impossible to put down. I loved it just as much this time around as I did the first time.

# of Pages: 588

Time it took me to read: 2 days

# of pages a day to finish in a week: 84

Rating: 5 out of 5

Sequel to King of Scars, Rule of Wolves is equally fantastic. I really enjoyed the opportunity I had to read them back to back, I think it added a lot to my understanding of all of the details and plot points of this final installment. Not a whole lot to say here that I didn’t say in the previous review, Leigh Bardugo is a master world-builder and storyteller. Each of her many characters are pretty much equally engaging, and her pacing is always perfect. I think of all of my camping books I finished this one the quickest, because I honestly, truly could not stop reading it. Rule of Wolves did not end as I expected in a lot of ways, but I think all of the storylines that needed to be wrapped up were, but Bardugo always leaves herself room for writing new adventures, and I’m hoping I guessed right and she teased a new story with old favorites coming someday. Anyway, if you haven’t read any Leigh Bardugo, just do yourself a favor and get into the Grishaverse. Here is my official recommendation for the order you should read her three Grishaverse series: Six of Crows duology, Shadow and Bone trilogy, King of Scars duology. This order is not entirely chronological, but as someone who has read all of these books originally in chronological order, I can tell you you’ll have more fun reading it in the order I provided.

# of Pages: 365

Time it took me to read: 3 days

# of pages a day to finish in a week: 52

Rating: 4 out of 5

This book was a big shift from everything else I was reading on this trip, I really wanted to have a little bit of variety after reading only YA fantasy. The World That We Knew is a historical fiction novel set in Europe during the Holocaust, and like most of Alice Hoffman’s work that I’ve read, has just a touch of magic added to move it along. Lea is a young Jewish girl living in Berlin during the second world war. Her mother will do anything to get her out of the country, so she works with the daughter of a rabbi to construct a golum, a being made of clay that will serve the wishes of its master. Lea’s mother names the golum Ava and sends the two off to Paris, where she hopes they will be safe. The World that We Knew tells the story of men, women, and children across Germany and Paris who fight for the survival of themselves and others. It’s very well researched and provides many facts and figures of the devistation wrought by the Nazis during the Holocaust. Alice Hoffman is a wonderful writer, her historical novels are some of my favorites, but one thing kept me from falling completely in love with this story, and it took me a while to put my finger on it. I think that, personally, I was sort of brought out of the story because it focused on too many different characters, it left me hard-pressed to become particularly attached to any of them. And in certain sections she’d be telling the story of a character fleeing arrest by the Germans, and then it would flow into an objective, real fact about the prison those that were arrested that day were sent to, and how many died. While I appreciated the facts as a history buff, it sort of transported me out of the story and back to reality, which was for me not my favorite decision she made. But overall I’d definitely recommend the book to anyone who enjoys WW2 historical fiction.



Thanks for hanging in there everybody, I’ll be back with more regularly scheduled reviews and summaries soon. Hope everyone has a great August ❤

Reviews

Spin the Dawn by Elizabeth Lim (Book 1)

# of Pages: 387

Time it took me to read: 3 days

# of pages a day to finish in a week: 55

Rating: 4 out of 5

Maia Tamarin is the fourth child of one of the greatest tailors in A’landi, and the most talented of her siblings. But as the only daughter, she is forbidden from taking ownership of her father’s shop and fulfilling her dreams of being a master tailor. Until one day when a messanger comes from the palace, wishing to take her father to the emperor to become a royal tailor. Maia’s father is too sick, and her brother has nowhere near her skill. So with the gift of her grandmother’s scissors and the blessing of her father, she disguises herself as one of her brothers and is off to the palace.

When she arrives, she finds that she will be pitted against eleven other master tailors for the honor of being the new imperial tailor. The tasks are set and judged by the future empress, Lady Sarnai, who is known for her harsh judgement. Maia knows that she has what it takes to fill the role, despite being a woman, and is willing to risk everything, including exposure, to bring this honor to her family.

But what she doesn’t expect is to gain the attention of Edan, the Emperor’s Lord Enchanter. Somehow he seems to see right through her, though to anyone else she seems to be the unremarkable son of a tailor. However, when Lady Sarnai sets a seemingly impossible final task, Maia’s only hope is to team up with Edan to complete gowns known only in legend.

Note:

Hi friends, normally in this situation I’d write a review along with a summary of this book, since it’s the first in a series. However, since the second book is out already and I intend on reading it soon, I’m going to skip the summary, because they honestly take me forever to write and I’d rather just write a simple review for this book. But the good news is that this post will be entirely spoiler-free, so I hope you enjoy!

Review:

I’d like to start out by saying that this book was the breath of fresh air that I needed. Because the last few books I’ve read have either been heavy but wonderful (read Chain of Iron) or lighter but not that enjoyable (the last two books I’ve read for book club). But this month’s book club book was a great pick by my friend Dani. In just one sentence, the reason I liked this book so much was because it was easy breezy fantasy with a romance you’re rooting for and a fast paced, engaging plot.

So let’s break this down. We’ll start with what I mean when I say “easy breezy fantasy”. Much of YA fantasy these days I find gets really into intense world building with really intense fantasy themes, such as leading a rebellion or trying to save a kingdom from eternal darkness, etc. But this story is just about a girl who wants to be a master tailor, despite being forbidden because she’s a woman. And then the girl falls in love with a boy she isn’t supposed to have, and the follow up story is all about how they can go about being together. No super intense themes, just a super chill Mulan-meets-Project-Runway vibe.

I’ll talk about the cast just briefly, because they were certainly not particularly remarkable. Maia is the kind of protagonist that you root for right away. She’s lovably naive but fiercely determined, a winning combo for a YA protagonist, if not a particularly original one. There are “villains” working against her at every turn, I do sort of like the idea that there is no single antagonist that she’s going head to head against. And I’ll just briefly mention Edan, Maia’s charming partner in crime. They’ve got that fun back-and-forth banter going on throughout, and great adventure-partner chemistry. The two of them are enjoyable to read about from the beginning of their journey to the end.

Finally, to end my high notes I’ll take a paragraph to talk about plot and pacing. As I talked about a little bit above, the basic plot of this is like a mix of Mulan, Project Runway, with a little dash of Aladdin/Genie for flavor. None of the bits separately are particularly original, but the combination of them certainly is. I will say that I think the blurb on the back of the book was a little bit misleading, because I thought the Project Runway storyline was going to last longer, but the book has a lot more to offer beyond just that competition aspect, I’ll leave it at that to avoid any spoilers. And because there was so many different plot pieces in a book that isn’t even 400 pages, that meant the pacing had to be quick to fit everything in, which I was into because the last few books I’ve read have not been particularly fast paced, which I’m often fine with but I needed something fast paced and light to help me get back into a reading run.

To finish off the review, I’ll talk a little about why I left off a star. For me, a five star read has to be something that really hits on all cylinders, is entirely enjoyable to read, and usually has some sort of X factor. This book didn’t really have anything that I could fault, besides being a little tropey and cheesy at times (which in my opinion is usually not a fault), but it certainly didn’t have anything that screamed X factor. It is a thoroughly enjoyable story that I am excited to read the sequel to, but I’m not rushing out to my local bookstore to buy it right away or agonizing over having to wait, so this one is a solid four for me.

End Review

If you liked Spin the Dawn, try:

Sea of Shadows by Kelley Armstrong

Shadow of the Fox by Julie Kagawa

The Glass Spare by Lauren Destefano

Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngun

Reviews

Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas

# of Pages: 342

Time it took me to read: 2 days

# of pages a day to finish in a week: 49

Rating: 5 out of 5

All Yadriel has ever wanted was to be a proper brujo, like his father and older brother, and like all the other men in his family. Brujo and bruja are able to wield the magic of the dead to see and hear spirits. It is the responsibility of brujo to send spirits that are tethered to earth to their peace, while bruja can use their magic to heal the living. But though Yadriel’s family seems to be trying to accept him for who he is and use his proper pronouns, still his family holds him back from the official ceremony that will mark him as a brujo, all because he is trans. But though his head tells him it won’t do to push his traditional Latinx family even further outside their comfort zone, in his heart he knows he’s ready and that his patron, Lady Death, will accept him for who he is. It helps that he has the unconditional support of his cousin Maritza, another of the family black sheep.

But right when Yadriel and Maritza have snuck off to perform the ritual, something goes wrong. Yadriel’s cousin Miguel has gone missing, and everyone felt his pain as though he died, though no one can find him. Yadriel becomes determined to summon Miguel’s spirit in order to prove himself, but instead summons the spirit of Julian, a boy from Yadriel’s school. Julian doesn’t know how he died either, but agrees to let Yadriel release him in front of his family…after helping him tie off some loose ends.

The threads that tie Julian to earth get even more tangled as Yadriel learns more about his life, and tries to find out what happened to him, as he can’t shake the feeling that if he can find out what happened to Julian, he’ll find out what happened to Miguel as well. But as Dia de Muertos looms, Yadriel finds himself running out of time, both for Miguel and Julian. And when the time does come, Yadriel realizes he might be hesitant to let Julian go after all.

Review:

I know what you’re thinking: how can this possibly be my third 5 star book in a row? What can I say, I’m on a hot streak. But there was no way I was giving this book any less than 5 stars.

I could go on forever and ever about why I loved this book, but I’ll try and keep from rambling on too much. I’ll start with the concept/world-building. This story was a wonderful blend of fantasy (with origins from cultures all over Latin America) and a contemporary YA romance. And before anyone says it, yes, I’m aware that’s called “urban fantasy”, but I’m hesitant to use that phrase here. Specifically because typically though urban fantasy takes place in a version of our world where magic/monsters exist, it still feels very other. You’re usually so deep into the fantasy aspect of it, that it no longer feels like a contemporary fiction novel. Cemetery Boys, however, gives you that ooey-gooey contemporary romance feel, but with a healthy dose of magic and adventure to keep things interesting. I just thought that the two styles were blended together so well, and I don’t see that many fantasies based in Latinx culture in YA these days, so it feels really fresh.

Next, the subplot/culture. I believe this is my first story with a trans protagonist, and honestly? There should be more of them (if you’ve got a suggestion for one, hit me up in the comments). The struggles that Yadriel faces are both probably somewhat universal to all trans youth (being nervous/unable to use the bathroom that matches your pronouns, being worried that you don’t “pass”, etc), while also bringing in the unique cultural aspects of being LGBTQA+ in a traditional Latinx family. From the beginning, it is very clear that Yadriel’s family loves him, but that they struggle to accept all of him, as he is. The whole brujo/bruja magic thing being gendered as well was a simply brilliant way of adding a very natural-feeling layer onto the complexity of being trans. One of my other favorite parts is that Yadriel isn’t the only trans character in this story, or the only gay one, and which I think brings up a great point: LGBTQA+ folks are everywhere, and throwing in one trans boy or one lesbian is tokenism, and it just won’t fly in 2021. Another thing to mention here is that the experiences seem very genuine, and after a quick google search I see that Aiden Thomas is also a trans Latinx person, which makes sense because every single word of this story oozes authenticity and lived experience. This leads me into my next segment:

Character. Every single character in this book was so wonderfully lovable, and even the antagonist is someone who’s perspective isn’t entirely alien (that’s all I’ll say, no spoilers). Yadriel is someone who I rooted for from page one, his personality is just so real, like I’m sure we’ve all known someone like Yadriel – someone who is proud of who they are, but they don’t necessarily fit in, though it’s clear that they very much want to, whether it’s with family or friends or their community at large. And so even though I’m sure there are some folks out there who might skip this book over because they like characters they can relate to, and they don’t think they can relate to a Latinx trans boy, I promise that you’re wrong, and any and all of us can find some way to relate to Yadriel. And this coming from a cis white woman in her mid-twenties. Julian, also, is just such a beautiful contrast on the surface to Yadriel, but at the same time they are both trying to find their voices in unique ways. Also the fact that neither are any sort of stereotype, which is always important.

Despite this being a story that deals with “heavy” topics like trans matters, gay matters, death, and culture/community, this book is fun, and the characters all have a natural humor that allows you to float through the story. Don’t get me wrong, it’ll make you think as well as have all the feels, but this is ultimately a joyful story about being true to yourself no matter what, and that those people who truly love you will be behind you all the way. A quick mention to easily one of my favorite side characters of the year so far, Maritza. She is a curvy, proud Latina and I am here for it. As a vegan, she is held back from accessing her full powers as a bruja as well, as most of her rituals require animal blood, which she refuses to use. But she’s not one of the “stereotypical” vegans who shames others for eating meat (or in this case, using animal blood for rituals). She stands by her beliefs and forges her own path, which I love for her. In a story about boys, I wasn’t expecting a female character to love so much, but I was so pleasantly surprised by Maritza.

And finally, briefly, style/pacing. I thought the pacing of this book was excellent. It didn’t feel rushed, but the pace felt fast enough that had I not kept myself busy all weekend, I could have read it in 24 hours (instead of 48). It didn’t have the problem that some standalone novels do of having taking too much time to build everything up and having the ending fall flat. And, of course, I thought the writing style was beautiful, as I mentioned a bit at the beginning. Thomas’s voice is natural and consistent, and the authenticity rings through from cover to cover. I thought Thomas did an incredible job of telling me so much about Latin American culture, so many different cultures as well, from Haiti to El Salvador to Cuba. The culture was expertly woven throughout, there were very few (if any) noticeable “info dumps” (which is something that I as a writer struggle with), so I’m always impressed when the background and cultural parts of the story (whether it’s real world culture or made-up fantasy culture) are so well threaded throughout a story, like here.

Long story short, if you like YA (regardless of whether you normally read high fantasy or contemporary romance), read Cemetery Boys. You won’t regret it.

If you liked Cemetery Boys, try:

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowel

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

All the Crooked Saints by Maggie Stiefvater

Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld

Reviews · Summaries

A Song of Wraiths and Ruin by Roseanne A. Brown (Book 1)

# of Pages: 466

Time it took me to read: 4 days

# of pages a day to finish in a week: 67

Rating: 5 out of 5

Malik and his two sisters have traveled far from their homeland in hopes of a better life. Leaving their mother and grandmother behind at a refugee camp, the siblings travel to the powerful, wealthy city-state of Ziran with forged papers, hoping to earn enough money during the week long festival of Solstasia to bring their mother and grandmother to join them.

But when their falsified papers are stolen before they can even get inside the city, things seem hopeless until a wish is granted by a mysterious storyteller. The wish has consequences, however, and a powerful spirit entity kidnaps Malik’s younger sister, Nadia. The only way Malik can get her back is by killing the princess of Ziran, Karina, before the end of Solstasia. Malik agrees, thinking that the princess who is rumored to be spoiled and cruel is worth the price of saving his sister.

Karina has long dreamed of fleeing her oppressive role as the only living heir to the throne of Ziran. But when her mother, the respected sultana of Ziran, is assassinated the night Solstasia begins, Karina finds herself in the position of having to run the festival herself. Thinking only of bringing her mother back, Karina comes upon an ancient resurrection ritual that is said to raise the dead during the week of Solstasia. But the main ingredient needed is the heart of a king, which Ziran has not had since her father died. So if Karina can’t find a king, she’ll have to make one. By marrying the champion of the Solstasia competition, she’ll have the heart she needs to bring her mother back and free her from the responsibility of ruling Ziran.

Without knowing it, Karina and Malik are set on a collision path, each determined to kill the other. But there are greater forces at work, and this will be one Solstasia the people of Ziran will never forget.

Review:

I want to start out by saying that I think this is the best new book that I’ve read this year. I’ve done a number of re-reads as well as new books by favorite authors, but even though it’s early in the year, I believe this is a strong contender for my book of the year 2021.

This is the second fantasy book that I’ve read in the past few years that is based in African cultures, and world-building is stunning. The land of Sonande has a variety of storied, unique cultures with detailed histories that had me practically wiping the gritty sand out of my eyes as I felt myself standing with Malik in the vast Odjubai desert. I could spend an eternity talking about the detailed and magical world Brown has created, but I have so many other things I want to say that I’ll leave it at that.

I really want to talk about how much I love Malik as a protagonist. I don’t often read books with male protagonists, but even when I do find them I’ve never come across one anything like Malik. He’s the “man” of the family, but he suffers from panic attacks and cries at multiple times throughout the story. He is very conscious and always doubting himself. He suffers through a mental affliction, while the female protagonist suffers through a physical one, and I feel as though often times those would be reversed in other books I’ve read. But even with all of these “weaknesses”, Malik is determined and never ever wavers from his goal of saving his sister, no matter what the cost. If only all male protagonists could be as unique but also realistic as Malik. He is a breath of fresh air.

Karina, as well, is a well-rounded protagonist. She has a history of being irresponsible, drinking too much, and having a temper. These are attributes that are often given to male characters, but it’s fitting that they are given to Karina, especially since Ziran is a matriarchy. From the very beginning, Karina suffers from devastating migraines that often try very hard (and sometimes succeed) in putting her out of commission. But she is fierce and independent and willing to stand up for what she believes in, never willing to back down from a challenge. I also love that it’s stated very clearly that she’s experienced with boys and is not a virgin in the slightest, while Malik is yet to have his first kiss. Also non-traditional, which I think is well-suited to each of their characters. Karina isn’t a warrior, but she has been trained in staff fighting. Malik, on the other hand, has no fighting training whatsoever, and I found myself being startled at the fact that this is one of the first fantasy novels I’ve read in a while where neither the protagonist or the love interest is a trained fighter.

The only thing I can really say that is even close to a criticism is that there is so much lingo in here (which I love), but I wish there was a glossary in the back. Or at least I wished there was initially, as this book does not ease you gently into the beautiful but intense language of the story. Now because this book is written by a woman from Ghana and I am a white woman, it is very possible that I only struggled due to my ignorance of African culture, so that is certainly on me rather than on the author. But even I was able to get a handle on it by the end, so I wouldn’t want anyone who struggles with books that have a lot of lingo to be frightened away by this.

I, like many people, have had to consciously work on diversifying my bookshelf. Publishing, particularly YA, is almost entirely dominated by white people, and while I do feel like the YA section has gotten a bit more diverse in the last year or two, there is still much work to be done. But I am so glad I found this book at my local bookstore last month, because not only is the setting beautiful and very unlike others popular in YA, but the characters are equally unique and have seated themselves firmly in my heart. Roseanne A. Brown is truly a brilliant force and I cannot recommend this book enough.

!!!SPOILERS AHEAD!!!

Cast:

Malik – young Eshran refugee that travels to the city-state of Ziran with his older sister Leila and his younger sister Nadia in order to make a better life for their family. He has always been able to see spirits in the world around him, though nobody else can, and he was beaten as a young child until he stopped admitting it. He has a major anxiety disorder and often succumbs to panic attacks. Love interest of Karina.

Karina – only living daughter of the sultana of Ziran, heir to the throne. Lost her older sister Hanane and her father to a terrible fire when she was a young child, and grew up not really knowing her mother, both of them dealing with their grief in flawed ways. Suffers from terrible migraines. Finds out at the end of the story that she has the ability to summon storms with her magic that has been repressed most of her life. Love interest of Malik.

Leila – older sister of Malik. Controlling, but kindhearted and fiercely protective. Used to being in charge, she has been the parental figure ever since her and her siblings left their mother and grandmother behind at the refugee camp. Left school to take care of the family farm after their father abandons the family.

Nadia – Younger sister of Malik and Leila, about six or seven years old. Makes the wish that gets the three siblings into Ziran, but is kidnapped by the evil spirit Idir as the price of her wish.

Farid – ward of the sultana of Ziran and the royal steward. Raised like a brother to Karina, he was in love with her older sister Hanane, though supposedly Hanane didn’t love him back that way. Orchestrated the death of the Kestral with the help of Idir and kills Tunde in order to resurrect Hanane on the final day of Solstasia. A powerful sorcerer, one of the few left, he betrays Karina and blames her for the death of Hanane and the king.

Aminata – Karina’s best friend and personal maid. Cautious where Karina is brash, they don’t speak for most of the book after a fight. But it is Aminata who helps save Karina from being killed by Farid and aids her escape from Ziran. Aminata stays behind to be eyes on the inside of the palace under the rule of Farid and Hanane.

The Kestrel – the sultana of Ziran, the Kestrel is called such by many in Ziran due to her fierce and respected nature. Karina believes the Kestrel to be cold and disappointed in her, but the Kestrel simply let her grief at the loss of her eldest daughter and husband turn her away from being close to her daughter. Assassinated close

Idir – found later in the story to also be the Faceless King who is the villain of the founding legend of Ziran, Idir is a powerful spirit who was trapped in another realm by Bahia Alahari, his wife and the first sultana of Ziran. He takes Malik’s sister Nadia prisoner and says he will only release her if Malik kills the princess by the end of Solstasia. When Malik attempts to do so, he finds that he cannot kill Karina, but his attempt releases Idir from his prison realm. Malik is able to trap Idir within Malik’s mind where he resides at the end of the story, and his background is more complicated. He claims Bahia only trapped him in the spirit realm because he objected when she killed their son in order to create the magic barrier that protects Ziran.

Tunde – former lover of Karina, he is the Water champion for Solstasia. He makes friends quickly and easily with Malik, but fights with his lingering feelings for Karina. In the end, Karina choses him as the Solstasia victor and the two are married, despite Karina wishing she could chose Malik. Tunde is killed by Farid for his heart, the heart of a king, to be used in a ritual to resurrect Hanane, Karina’s elder sister who died ten years before.

Afua – eleven year old daughter of the ambassador to Arkwasi, come to Ziran for Solstasia. Tells Karina about magic, being one of the few magic users left herself. Helps Karina escape Ziran at the end of the story to take her back to Arkwasi, the only nation with an army to stand up to that of Ziran, and home to some of the few magic users left in the land.

Nyeni (Hyena) – Appearing throughout the story as Nyeni the griot (storyteller), she reveals herself to Malik and Karina to be Hyena, the mythological figure from Sonande’s legends. She is a renowned trickster, but provides some aid to both Malik and Karina.

Summary:

Act 1

Malik and his older sister Leila and younger sister Nadia arrive at the gates of the city-state Ziran after traveling a long way through a dangerous desert. They have come to try and make enough money to send back to their mother and grandmother back home to bring them to Ziran to join them eventually. They have made the journey using expensive, forged identification papers. The siblings are from Oboure, which is a territory overseen by Ziran. They are not citizens, and are seen as a lower class of people who would not be let into the city without their forged papers. Malik and his sisters have arrived just in time for Solstasia, the week-long festival that only comes along every 50 years to celebrate the comet that can be seen crossing the sky for a whole seven days. The festival is very important because it comes with a competition. The people of Ziran worship seven patron deities, one for each day of the week, and the day you are born signifies what alignment you are. Each alignment temple chooses a champion to compete in Solstasia, with the winner gaining ultimate glory and a position in court, and their alignment will be the alignment that defines the next era until the next comet cycle.

As they are standing in line to enter the city, Malik helps a boy who is about to get crushed by the crowd, but the boy repays him by stealing the bag containing their identification papers and disappearing. It appears hope is lost, when a griot (storyteller) grants Nadia her wish to get into the city. A giant beast stampedes through the wall, allowing the crowd to pour in. During the scuffle, Malik and his sisters find themselves in a strange hut, where a powerful spirit manifests before them. Taking advantage of Nadia’s wish, the spirt who calls himself Idir captures Nadia. Malik says he’ll do anything in exchange for her release, so Idir says he must kill Karina, the crown princess of Ziran, before the end of Solstasia. He agrees, and Idir gives Malik the “mark”, which can move all over his body and manifests into a dagger when he needs it. Leila and Malik are left to figure out how they are going to get close enough to the princess to kill her and save Nadia.

Karina is the only living heir to the throne of Ziran. Her father and older sister Hanane were killed in a fire ten years before, and Karina has been grieving them ever since. Karina suffers from frequent and violent migraines. Her mother, known as the Kestrel, is the sultana of Ziran, and the only family she has left except for Farid, a ward of her parents and raised as her brother, he now works as the royal steward of the palace. On the eve of Solstasia, Karina has escaped the palace with her maid and finds herself in a competition with a man from the tavern for a bag of gold coins, which Karina dreams of using to escape her life in Ziran. Being a talented musician, Karina wins not only the money from her opponent, but also what appears to be an ancient book of magic. Thinking the book nothing more than a relic, she accepts it as payment.

Back at the palace, her mother brings her to a secret cavern under the palace and explains why she can never leave Ziran. Their ancestor, Bahia Alahari, the founding sultana of Ziran, created a Barrier around Ziran to protect it from enemies, but the current sultana and her heir powered the barrier and thus could never leave Ziran. In awe of the magic but frustrated by her lack of freedom, Karina and her mother argue.

Later that evening, just before the comet arrives, assassins sneak into the palace and attack Karina and her mother, and the fight ends with the Kestrel dead, making Karina the new sultana of Ziran. Her mother’s counsel want to bury the Kestrel at once and cancel Solstasia, but Karina won’t have it, insisting news of her mother’s death should be kept secret and Solstasia should continue as planned. Karina hatches a plan to use the book she was given to conduct a resurrection spell that will bring her mother back. She main ingredient she needs, however, is the heart of a king. The only way Karina can think to get that is to marry someone and then kill them. At the opening ceremony of Solstasia, she announces that whoever wins the festival will win her hand in marriage.

Meanwhile, Malik has come to the conclusion that the only way for him to get close to the princess is for him to be the champion of his alignment for Solstasia. Using magic that had long been dormant but was awakened by Idir, he creates an illusion of his patron deity naming him champion in front of everyone in the temple. The priestess choses him, believing him chosen by their patron. He calls himself Adil, because his name will identify him as Eshran. All of the other champions are named and Solstasia begins.

Act 2

The first challenge of Solstasia is a scavenger hunt where the instructions are a riddle. Malik has no idea where to even start looking, even after he figures out he is supposed to be looking for masks. He gets distracted when he sees a carriage that is carrying the princess cross an abandoned bridge, and he thinks to end her life right there, calling forth frightening spirits which cause the carriage to crash, and they are very close to pushing Karina off the edge of the gorge, but his illusion fails at just that moment and he is unable to complete his task that way. And just as he thinks he’s going to fail the first challenge and be eliminated from Solstasia, the griot Nyeni who was part of the reason they got into this mess with Nadia and Idir appears and offers him the final mask of the challenge, and he arrives just in time to complete it.

Karina wants to find out who had her mother killed. Signs point to someone from Arkwasi, but it seems too obvious to her. Karina believes the council is responsible, but has no proof. Regardless of who had her mother killed, none of it will matter if she can manage to bring her back, so she sets about trying to find someone who can help her learn more about magic. Shortly before her mother died, she met a young girl named Afua, who was the daughter of the Arkwasi ambassador, and she mentioned offhand a magical term on their meeting. Karina sneaks out to go and meet with her, but her friend Aminata catches her and advises her not to leave. They get in a fight which ends with Karina putting a firm line between them as mistress and maid. Karina regrets it once her friend leaves, but she is often hotheaded and very stubborn, so can’t call her back to fix it.

She flees the palace and goes down to the district where all the Arkwasi visitors are staying. She finds Afua with her family in a tent that is magically enlarged on the inside. Afua explains that she is one of the very rare magic users left in Sonande who are descendants of sorcerers who were common 1,000 years ago. After admitting that her mother is dead, Karina enlists Afua’s help with the eventual ritual that needs to happen. Afua reluctantly agrees.

Chaos erupts when the elite warriors called Sentinels raid the district where the Arkwasi’s are staying and Karina has to flee before she is found. She happens upon Malik, who fled from the pub where he was having drinks and discussing an alliance with two of the other champions, Tunde and Driss. Malik and Karina, neither knowing who the other is, end up hiding together in an abandoned building and having a bit of a connection. Malik stitches together Karina’s dress when it rips. After the raid when they’re heading back, they overhear some merchants talking badly about the Kestrel and Karina herself, and Karina tries to break up the fight by revealing her identity, but just when Malik is trying to get himself to strike her from behind with this opportunity, someone else throws a rock at her, and she is hurried away by guards before she is further hurt.

Just before the second task of Solstasia there is a wakama competition that anyone can compete in. The Fire Alignment champion, Dedele, is an expert wakama player and in front of everyone challenges Karina to a match. Being herself a pretty good wakama player, Karina accepts. They strike a wager that the loser has to do one thing, anything, the winner asks of them. Dedele agrees, and the two young girls fight. Dedele has Karina on the ropes, but Karina is unwilling to lose and with a burst of vicious power physically beats Dedele down and wins the match, gaining the admiration of her people.

Shortly after that, the second challenge begins. Karina discovers that Malik (as Adil) is the Life Alignment champion and feels as though he deceived her by not saying anything once he knew who she was. The second challenge is essentially a talent show that revolves around doing a performance based off of a random item drawn from a box. They have the afternoon to prepare then they must perform. In the interim, Malik has an encounter with Idir, and Malik attempts to gain the upper hand with his illusions, but Idir is too powerful. However, the illusions do give him an idea of what to do with his talent. Since no one believes magic really exists, Malik performs a story about Hyena, the popular mythical trickster, using his illusions as accents to his story. The crowd goes wild and he wins that task. The other two champions who will move onto the final challenge are Driss (Sun champion) and Tunde (Water champion). Dedele does not even perform, dropping out of the competition, as this was Karina’s win condition for wakama. Karina is enchanted by Malik’s story, but she is now sure that he may win Solstasia and she’ll have to kill him for his heart.

Act 3

At the midpoint of Solstasia there is a large carnival thrown by the royal council. The champions and their families attend. Malik and Leila arrive, and Malik immediately drinks too much and worries about when to take his opportunity to kill her, especially now that after getting to know her a bit he finds that he likes her as a person. When Malik is chatting with Tunde, Karina arrives and whisks him away to dance, where she not so subtly lets him know why he doesn’t want to win Solstasia. Malik thinks it’s because she wants Tunde to win so she’ll marry her former flame, but really it’s because Karina doesn’t want to kill this boy she also likes. At the end of a very sexually charged dance, Karina pushes him into the lake in front of everyone, where he has to be fished out.

Malik then is speaking with one of the council members who is verbally abusing one of the Eshran workers, not knowing of course that Malik is really Eshran. Malik stops the council member from striking the boy. Malik is trying to justify his response, and Karina is about to jump in when Afua arrives out of nowhere, attacking Karina and crying that her family has been taken prisoner because of the raids by the Sentinels. Karina tries to order the council to release all of the Arkwasi prisoners, but they defy her and carry her essentially kicking and screaming back to the palace.

Malik, thinking this may be his opportunity and realizing he can use his illusion powers to essentially make himself invisible, follows shortly after back to the palace.

Desperate to escape the prison of her bedroom and find the other ingredients needed for the resurrection ritual, Karina starts a small fire in her room, which causes panic since it was a big fire that killed Karina’s father and sister. Karina uses this distraction to her advantage, trying to get back to the cavern her mother took her to right before she died because Karina suspects there is a clue there about where she can find the other ingredient she needs. But right as she’s about to get into the chamber she is attacked by a Sentinel, and Malik becomes uninvisible in order to save her, but this rescue attempt sends them both tumbling into the cavern, plunging into the river that runs under the city.

Once they get out of the river, they find themselves in a necropolis built for the last pharaoh of the empire that ruled Sonande before Ziran. Depicted in this necropolis are images of the Faceless King, who is shown here with a face and Malik recognizes him as Idir, though none of this is revealed to Karina at this time. Karina finds the blood flower, the ingredient she needs for the ritual, though this is not revealed to Malik. They also find and have to fight a giant serpant-like creature that was thought to be only myth but has been residing under the city all this time. Malik and Karina really connect during this time and almost kiss. Malik really considers whether he’ll be able to bring himself to kill her.

To escape the cavern, they have to throw themselves at the mercy of the river and hope it brings them outside. It works, and Karina knows how she can blackmail the council into revealing who the traitor is that hired the assassin to kill her mother.

Karina calls the entire council to order, including Farid, who she has not revealed her plan to. She tells the council that she has poisoned their tea, and only she has the antidote. If they do not reveal which one of them hired the assassin, she will let all of them die (including herself as she has also drunk the tea). They reveal that they were all in on trying to pin the assassination on Arkwasi in order to start a war because all of them are in industries that would profit. But only one of them outs himself as the one who hired the assassin, though he swears it was only supposed to be an “attempt” to scare the Kestrel into starting war herself with Arkwasi. Karina gives them all the anti-venom and tells them to call off all of their warmongering efforts or she will reveal their darkest secrets, all of which she knows thanks to Farid. They come to an agreement and bind it with a blood oath. And thus Karina takes care of the power struggle she has with the council.

As the time for the third and final challenge draws near, Malik is in his room with Leila when Driss barges in, claiming he knows Malik is not who he says he is and that he’s going to report him as being Eshran. Leila tries to reason with him but Driss throws her into a wall. Malik sees red and shoves Driss, who falls so hard that he tumbles over the banister and dies just as Tunde and soldiers arrive. Leila claims that it was an accident, but that she did it, begging Tunde to back her up. Tunde does, hesitantly, and the soldiers take Leila away because Malik is the only one who can save Nadia.

The third challenge is a maze, and Tunde and Malik are the only ones left. They enter the maze, and Tunde is suspicious of Malik because he knows that it was he who killed Driss. Malik doesn’t know what to tell him, so the two go their separate ways. The maze challenges them with their greatest fears, and Malik has to deal with his childhood trauma and anxieties head on, but he comes out stronger. He and Tunde race to the finish, Tunde having decided that he does in fact want the opportunity to marry Karina.

Malik finishes the maze first and appears to have won. Karina knows now that she can’t kill Malik, not with the feelings that she has for him, so she declares Malik disqualified because of a technicality and declares Tunde the winner, even though she doesn’t want to kill him either. She had really wanted Driss to win because she really didn’t like him, but he was already dead before marrying her.

So Malik feels entirely betrayed, because he is starting to fall for Karina, but this just hardens his resolve to kill her and save his sister. Karina and Tunde are married quickly and secretly, and they consecrate their marriage (it’s revealed that Karina is not a virgin, she and Tunde had slept together many times during their previous relationship). Tunde genuinely still loves her, and Karina realizes she can’t kill him and that she’ll just have to accept that her mother is gone.

Later that day Malik lures Karina to the roof where they share a kiss, which Malik ends by stabbing her with his magic dagger, apologizing as he does it. But this does not kill Karina, it only frees Idir from his prison realm and breaks the barrier that protects Ziran, and darkness briefly falls over Ziran as Idir disapears, but not before revealing that he (nor anything crafted by him like the blade he gave Malik) can kill her because she’s his descendant. Karina attacks Malik for trying to kill her and has him arrested. Malik is defeated because he cannot complete the deal he made with Idir and it appears Nadia is going to die.

Karina tries to warn Farid about Idir, but he doesn’t seem to believe her. They argue, and Karina realizes that it was Farid all along, Farid was the one who had her mother assassinated and has been pulling the strings the entire time. Why? Because he is a powerful sorcerer who has been working with Idir himself and wants to perform the resurrection ritual on Hanane, his true love. So right in front of Karina he slits Tunde’s throat and carves out his heart.

In prison, Malik thinks it’s all over when Nyeni, the griot, comes to him. She reveals herself as Hyena and says that it is up to him to defeat Idir. Malik and Leila escape from prison and race to find Idir.

At the closing ceremony of Solstasia, Farid accuses Karina, who he has subdued, of killing the queen in front of the whole kingdom. Then Idir joins Farid and they conduct the ritual to bring Hanane back from the dead. But as part of his deal to Idir, Farid has to kill Karina on his behalf, which he doesn’t seem to have any remorse for because he blames the death of Hanane and the king on Karina. It comes to light that though Karina has repressed both the memories and her magic (causing her migraines), she has powerful storm magic and summoned the bolt of lightening that caused the fire that killed her father and sister. Just as Farid is about to strike down Karina, Malik appears and offers to let Idir possess his body so he can kill Karina himself. Idir can’t resist this offer, but once Malik has Idir inside his mind, he is able to trap Idir there and take back over. In order to keep Idir imprisoned forever, Malik puts the dagger through his own chest.

In that moment, the ritual works and it appears as though Hanane rises. But as soon as Karina sees her eyes, she knows that it could never have worked and that this being isn’t truly her sister, though it looks and sounds just like her. Farid is about to finish Karina off when a crowd of those loyal to Karina, including Afua, Aminata, and Commander Hamidou of the Sentinels.

Aminata revels that she has been spying on Farid and wants to maintain her position, so she hustles back to the palace while Afua and Hamidou hustle Karina out of Ziran. Commander Hamidou stays behind, sacrificing herself so that Afua and Karina can escape Ziran with the help of Dedele, who is also loyal to the princess. Her magic unleashed, Karina releases a storm that allows them to get away. They’ll travel to Arkwasi, where Karina will learn to control her powers and hopefully get the help of the Arkwasi army to help Karina take her place on the throne of Ziran and put Hanane back to rest.

Farid, however, has managed to save Malik from dying. It is revealed that they are the same kind of sorcerer, and Farid offers to teach him what he knows. Malik doesn’t really know of Farid’s role in all that happened with Karina, so he agrees. After consulting with Idir, who is still trapped in his mind, Malik finds that he is able to summon Nadia out of her prison, and the three siblings are reunited.

End of Book 1

!!!END OF SPOILERS!!!

Well, that was absolutely the longest review/summary I’ve ever done, but I have no regrets. I love, love, loved this book, it is a masterpiece and I cannot wait until the sequel A Psalm of Storms and Silence, which will be released on November 2nd of 2021.

If you liked A Song of Wraiths and Ruin, try:

Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi

The Reader by Traci Chee

Carival by Stephanie Garber

Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor

P.S. I’m out here trying to diversify my bookshelf, and I realized really the only other fantasy series I had on my shelves that was written by a black author is Children of Blood and Bone. So if you’ve got any other fantasy novels to recommend that are written by black/POC authors, please drop them in the comments, I read a lot of novels by white ladies, which is fine, but certainly not the only YA fantasy perspective out there and I really want to broaden my horizons. Thanks!