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The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco


The Bone Witch wasn’t at all what I expected. Although the cover is gorgeous, I wonder if it does a disservice to the book, because it implies a very different story from the one it contains. It may be the tone of the series as a whole, but it’s not the tone of this particular volume.

The Bone Witch has a Memoirs of a Geisha-esque set-up. The story is framed by a narrator, with a bard meeting our protagonist, Tea, in the future, but most of the action takes place in a sort of fantasy Kyoto, where asha — powerful female magic users who are also entertainers — live, train and perform. When Tea accidentally resurrects her brother and is discovered to be a Bone Witch, she’s quickly swept away from her village before the mob can kill her, and brought to this new world, where she must work her way up from servant to asha, while learning her magic, fighting people’s fear of her, and discovering the darker costs of her power.

While I picked up the book expecting epic fantasy and drama, it’s the quieter moments that work the best. The lessons, the training, the dresses, the friendships. Tea’s trials and successes. The book is far more world and character-based than I think the packaging implies, as that seems to reflect the ‘bone witch’ met by the bard, and not the one we spend most of the story with, but Tea has a great voice, and the setting means the story is packed with interesting and varied female characters.

Unfortunately, there’s a lot unsaid that needs more explanation, like why these female warriors are also entertainers at all. They use their magic for many things other than dancing, so why do they act like geisha? Or the fact that bone witches are persecuted, yet everyone is fascinated with Tea, to the point that she also seems genuinely popular. The book is full of interesting ideas that are not necessarily followed through or explored, either in the world building or in their impact on the plot. At least, not yet. As this is the first in a series, and the book’s ending implies a lot of drama in the future, perhaps this stuff will all be explored eventually.

But for now, I enjoyed the low-key nature of much of the book. If you’re looking for a book all about action and dark magic, this one might not satisfy, although it does have both. But if you’re looking for female-focussed fantasy that’s more focussed on life and character than on action, then it’s a promising, absorbing read, with a lot of potential for the future of the series.

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Long May She Reign is out now!


My new fantasy novel, Long May She Reign, is out in the world!

Here’s the official summary:

The Girl of Fire and Thorns meets The Queen of the Tearling in this thrilling fantasy standalone about one girl’s unexpected rise to power.

Freya was never meant to be queen. Twenty-third in line to the throne, she never dreamed of a life in the palace, and would much rather research in her laboratory than participate in the intrigues of the court. However, when an extravagant banquet turns deadly and the king and those closest to him are poisoned, Freya suddenly finds herself on the throne.

She may have escaped the massacre, but she is far from safe. The nobles don’t respect her, her councillors want to control her, and with the mystery of who killed the king still unsolved, she knows that a single mistake could cost her the kingdom—and her life.

Freya is determined to survive, and that means uncovering the murderers herself. Until then, she can’t trust anyone. Not her advisers. Not the king’s dashing and enigmatic illegitimate son. Not even her own father, who always wanted the best for her but also wanted more power for himself.

As Freya’s enemies close in and her loyalties are tested, she must decide if she is ready to rule and, if so, how far she is willing to go to keep the crown.

And here’s my less official summary. Long May She Reign is a murder mystery set in a fantasy world with a science nerd for a protagonist. It’s full of court drama and schemes, with Freya using her science skills and experiments to help her figure out how to survive this strange and dangerous new world. It’s also a story of best friends, of discovering the value of all different kinds of strength, of social anxiety and depression, of the flaws of thinking “not like other girls,” and, most importantly, of really cute fluffy cats.

If you’re interested in learning more about the book, I wrote a post on HarperStacks about the science of Long May She Reign, and I have a post going up on my personal blog later today about the weird mishmash of things that inspired the book, from phantasmagoria to The Great British Bakeoff.

If you’d like to check it out, you can find all the links here. And if you do pick it up, I hope you enjoy it. <3

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Under Rose-Tainted Skies by Louise Gornall


I’ve finally found it. A book about mental illness that doesn’t a) romanticise mental illness, b) ignore actual ways of treating mental illness like therapy and medication, or c) have the character overcome her mental illness because of the healing power of love.

Norah suffers from a myriad of mental illnesses, including agoraphobia and OCD, and has barely left her house in years. But when her mom has to go away for the weekend for work, and the Helping Hands guy leaves all Norah’s groceries on the porch, out of reach, she’s helped, embarrassingly enough, by her new neighbor, Josh. And then Josh keeps coming back to chat.

There’s so much to love about this book. First of all, its portrayal of anxiety. Under Rose-Tainted Skies is an “own voices” novel, with author Louise Gornall putting a lot of her own experiences into the novel, and it really shows. The racing, escalating thoughts. The oh-so-convincing irrationality of it. It’s so convincing and realistic and makes Norah incredibly sympathetic. It’s so convincing, in fact, that I would warn readers with anxiety to be cautious while reading, as it pulls you into Norah’s anxiety attacks with her.

Under Rose-Tainted Skies is a romance, but the relationship is also great. Josh is sympathetic and understanding, but he still makes mistakes. And although Norah likes him a lot, but that isn’t enough to inspire her to “get over” her problems.

Ultimately, this is a story of baby steps. It’s a story of getting better, but a reasonable amount for the course of the book, and one that’s grounded in Norah, not Josh.

Spoilers (highlight to read): by the end of the book, Norah is able to start taking SSRIs (something that isn’t inspired by Josh), and hold his hand (as long as she’s sure he’s washed it first). But she still needs to repeat the last step of the stairs to make sure she descends an even number of times, and they finish the book taking a field trip to her therapist, not to the park. She’s at the beginning of recovery, improving, but with a long road ahead.

I really, really recommend this one. If you’re looking for a good representation of mental illness in YA, this is the book to try.

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A Thousand Nights by E.K. Johnston


I have to admit, I was wary of this book. The cover is so stunning that I picked it up almost every time I saw it in a bookstore, but the cover on The Wrath and the Dawn was gorgeous too, and that retelling of Arabian Nights made me more furious than enchanted. Could a retelling of this story exist in YA without romanticising or glossing over the fact that the king murders hundreds of girls? Several people told me yes. You guys recommended it to me again and again, and I finally got my hands on a copy last week. And then read it almost all in one go.

A Thousand Nights is a beautiful book. It more than lives up the beauty of its cover. In this retelling of Arabian Nights, Lo-Melkiin has had three hundred wives, and three hundreds wives have died. Laws now state that he must take one wife from every village before he is allowed to return to any one place to choose a second. So when he comes to the village of our story’s protagonist, she makes sure that she wins his attention, in order to save her sister. She expects to die immediately. But night after night, she continues to survive.

This is an absolutely lush novel about the hidden, often unseen power of women. I’m not sure how much I can say without being too spoilery, but a great deal of the plot draws on this idea that woman have a great deal of overlooked power, and that they have power, in part because they’re overlooked. The plot hinges on information gathered while quietly sewing in the corner, on news women spread to one another, on the power of having your facial expressions concealed by a veil. It’s about the songs and stories that the women tell, the protections they grant one another, and the worship that they perform. It’s a story of quiet power, subtle power, in contrast to the foot-stomping masculine strength of Lo-Melkiin and the demon that possesses him and drives him to kill all his wives.

It’s only as I come to write this, by the way, that I’m realising a key detail about the book. It’s written in first person, so I got completely pulled into the protagonist’s perspective, and never realised that we don’t actually learn her name. We don’t learn her sister’s name, or her mother’s name, or her sister’s mother’s name. We don’t learn the name of the king’s mother, or the protagonist’s henna artist. In fact, the only names we learn are Lo-Melkiin’s and the people that he names himself. Everyone else is described in terms of role. This echoes traditions of storytelling, the idea of mixing a forceful character with generalised anonymity, so well that that I didn’t even notice, but it also reflects this idea of unseen power, of the things that Lo-Melkiin  doesn’t notice being the things that will bring him down. The common people in general, yes, but particularly the women, common and uncommon, who he never focusses on long enough to see the risk they may pose.

Thank god, this book isn’t a romance. The relationships at the heart of this book are all women, and how they support each other. Two sisters who adore each other and are willing to sacrifice themselves and their dreams for one another. The women in the palace who help the protagonist — the henna artist, the servants, the spinners — and are willing to risk themselves to protect her because they can sympathise with her and her position. And the stories that the protagonist herself spins about her sister, and the strange power they seem to hold.

This is a quiet book, although an addictively readable one, at least until the conclusion. When things get a bit more action-packed towards the end, I have to admit my interest wavered a little, as the slightly distant myth-spinning storytelling style that worked so well elsewhere drained some of the immediacy and the tension of the action. But overall, A Thousand Nights is an amazing book, with lush prose, enthralling world-building, and a strong feminist bent. If you’re going to pick up a retelling of Arabian Nights, pick this one.

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Tommy Wallach and Literary Suicide

Young Adult author Tommy Wallach has not been having a great week. There’s a full summary of recent events on YA Interrobang, with screencaps and all that magic, but here’s the quick version. A few days ago, he made a (now-deleted) Facebook post to promote the paperback release of his second novel, which includes a picture of the Golden Gate Bridge on the cover. His comment? “That’s a damn sexy bridge right there. I could really get into jumping off it. :)”

When many people pointed out that’s not an acceptable thing to say, he responded, “Oy. Friends. I was not making a suicide joke. The whole conclusion of the book is about whether or not Zelda jumped from that bridge.”

So it wasn’t a suicide joke. It was a joke about the fact that the book ends with the ~mystery~ of whether or not one of the main characters killed herself, and slyly nodding to how fun and sexy it is that his book contains suicidal bridge jumping at all. This on top of an old blog post of his, which I won’t link, about the “top 10 literary suicides,” including jokes such as wishing that all the characters from Girls would kill themselves, and mocking Sylvia Plath for being oh-so emo.

I haven’t read any of Tommy Wallach’s novels, and I really don’t intend to now. But the blatant disregard for the impact of his words here — the apparent assumption that no one who’s ever been suicidal could be reading and be hurt by the joke, the treatment of a character’s suicide as something to wink-wink nudge-nudge about — hints at a wider problem in the representation of suicide and mental illness in fiction. Instead of telling stories to represent the perspectives of people with mental illness, it’s using mental illness as a tool to tell a different story, often about a different character. It’s used to be deep, to be edgy and literary. Because, to put it bluntly, reviewers eat that shit up.


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Maas and Masculinity: a few thoughts on Empire of Storms


I’ve been a big fan of Sarah J Maas’s novels since her debut, Throne of Glass, came out in 2012. Since then, she’s only gotten stronger and more addictive as a writer, and so the fifth novel in the Throne of Glass series, Empire of Storms, was probably my most anticipated read of the year.

But while Empire of Storms was highly readable and plot-twisty and all the things you might expect from a Sarah J Maas novel, the book’s approach to romance left a somewhat bitter taste in my mouth. Like Maas’s May release, A Court of Mist and Fury, Empire of Storms is obsessed with hyper-masculinity, and while in one novels that’s just a theme, two novels back-to-back present a more concerning pattern. In these stories about badass female characters saving the world, almost all the male love interests end up being possessive, aggressive and controlling.

Both series have a similar conception of “fae,” with extremely territorial males that get aggressive whenever anyone else male is even in the same room as “their” female.

Rowan bit down against the sight of other males near his queen, reminding himself that they were his friends, but–


The savage, wild snarl that ripped out of Rhys was like nothing I’d heard, and I gripped his arm as he whirled on Cassian.

The badass female characters roll their eyes at the guys’ stupidity, but it happens again and again, and no one is ever more than mildly irritated at their displays of possessive aggression. In fact, any effort to step away from violent possessiveness is treated as a sign of how great a guy he really is.


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Rape in YA Fantasy


Young Adult fantasy has a bit of a rape problem.

I mean, all fantasy has a bit of a rape problem. But let’s talk about YA fantasy specifically here — a genre that typically has teenage female protagonists, lots of action, lots of romance, and an intended young female audience. And, almost inevitably, at least one rape threat, if not several of them, over the course of each book.

I’ve been thinking about this issue for a while, but it really came to the front of my thoughts as I was reading Sabaa Tahir’s An Ember in the Ashes, an incredibly compelling, well-written book that I nevertheless want to describe as the Outlander of YA fantasy, because oh my god is rape a big theme here.

I didn’t keep a tally while reading, but there were at least three graphic, imminent threats of rape, one very violent, fully-fledged attack, at least one instance of a female character being tied up and given as a prize for a male character, and more casual mentions of it than I can count. Two of three young female characters are graphically threatened, and the third is only excused because she had her eye gouged out pre-book, and so “no one finds her attractive enough.” It’s never, never treated as acceptable by the protagonists, but it’s an endemic part of this book’s world, and it comes up very often.

Of course, violence in general is an endemic part of An Ember in the Ashes. The protagonist gets off lightly, with only being beaten within an inch of her life and permanently scarred by someone cutting a large letter into her chest. Characters are, off-screen, made to eat hot coals and have their faces shredded, and, on-screen, literally whipped to death. This is a brutal world, and a completely unsanitized exploration of slavery and oppression, and the frequent and casual appearance of rape is part of that.

But I think a book loses the “it’s a realistic exploration of oppression” justification when it directly and repeatedly correlates beauty with risk, with many, many characters noting that the beautiful protagonist is in more danger than most, and that the eye-missing secondary character is entirely safe. Add in the fact that none of these threats or attacks have any impact or the plot or on character development, and it feels like something thrown in entirely for flavor, as a quick world-building marker to show us that things are “bad.”


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The Unexpected Everything by Morgan Matson


I wasn’t sure what to expect from The Unexpected Everything. I adored Morgan Matson’s debut, Amy & Roger’s Epic Roadtrip, but I was less keen on her next two novels, so although I couldn’t resist grabbing her newest release, I was readying myself for disappointment.

And I almost got it. About 150 pages into the book, I was close to abandoning it. The Unexpected Everything is a sprawling summer read — over 500 pages long — and nothing really hooked me in those first pages. I’d reached the halfway point of most contemporary YA, and I still hadn’t really connected with the book.

But I kept going for “just a little bit longer,” and somehow ended up reading the last 300 pages all in one go. The book took its time to get going, but once it did, I absolutely fell in love with the characters and the story.

At its heart, The Unexpected Everything is about friendship, family, and cute cute dogs. Perfectionist overachiever Andie ends up without any summer plans after her prestigious internship is revoked at the last minute, and after scrambling for another resume-filler, she stumbles into a not-so-prestigious job as a dogwalker.  This brings her to Clark, the cute, awkward and nerdy prodigy novelist struggling with writer’s block and dog-sitting for his editor for the summer. Meanwhile, Andie’s congressman father is also forced home for the summer after being caught in a scandal, making his usually non-existent presence suddenly very present indeed.

Perhaps one of the problems at the beginning of the novel is that the book juggles a lot of elements. There’s Andie’s dad, and Clark, and the dog walking, and her overachieving, and her grief for her mom… it’s enough to make a summer read 500 pages long, but it mean it’s not easy to get immersed in the novel’s world. By the time we meet Andie’s foursome of best friends, I was so busy balancing other plotpoints and characters in my brain that I didn’t have the energy left to connect with them immediately.

But once everything clicks into place, the book becomes fantastic. Once we connect with Andie’s lively friends, her own insecurities, her potential relationship with Clark, it’s an absolute page-turner. It’s a true summer book, about friendship and self-discovery, lazy days and unexpected drama. Matson has an incredibly readable writing style, and her character relationships (and character flaws) are spot on. If you want a contemporary novel that you can really snuggle down with and dig into, that will pull you into a world and give you a sizeable chunk of wonderful reading time with real-seeming characters, then this is definitely one to try.

Also, the cover is irresistibly cute.

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Wild Swans by Jessica Spotswood


loved Jessica Spotswood’s historical fantasy series, the Cahill Witch Chronicles, so when I heard that she was releasing her first contemporary, I was desperate to read it, even before I had any idea what it was about.

In Wild Swans, Ivy Milbourne struggles with a family legacy of great talent and great tragedy. Her great great grandmother was a famous portrait painter, but killed herself and two of her daughters when she drove her car in front of a train. Her great grandmother was a Pulitzer prize winning poet, until she was murdered. Her grandmother was a famous artist, until she drowned herself in the bay. Her mother was a talented singer, at least until she ran away when Ivy was a baby. And Ivy… Ivy doesn’t know what she is. She wants to live up to her family legacy, but she’s never discovered any particular talent, and she has no idea what she wants to do with her life.

Wild Swans is a quick read (I devoured it in less than a day), but it’s not a beach read. Two big story threads intersect in the novel. The first is Ivy’s struggle to live up to her grandfather’s expectations, the promise of her family’s legacy, and her struggles with being, as she claims, mediocre. The other involves her mother, who returns to live with Ivy and her grandfather after being out of contact for fifteen years, bringing two younger daughters with her.

Despite that second dramatic set-up, this is mostly a low-key book: family drama in a small town where everyone knows your business, and a rising high-school senior who feels she’ll never live up to expectations. And it’s beautifully written. Sweet and compelling, with emotion that feels real. I noticed sentences because they hit me in the heart, not because I was thinking, “wow, the author really worked hard on that sentence.” After reading a whole bunch of artsy, overwritten YA novels, more concerned with authorial voice than engaging the reader, Wild Swans is like a breath of fresh air. Effortlessly magical.

If I had one complaint about the book, it would be that the mother character felt a little one-dimensional until near the end. She’s incredibly unlikeable, cruel and destructive, and although that’s a valid character choice, there was part of me wanting to see a sympathetic side to her. It shows up eventually, but it’s complicated, and I never felt like I fully understood her perspective.

Another element that might be good or bad, depending on your taste, is that Wild Swans feels like a slice from the character’s lives over a set period of time. They lived their lives before the book began, and they continue afterward. I found the ending satisfying, but it’s not a neat ending, where everything feels tied up or resolved. The characters’ lives continue after the book closes, and many elements of that future remain uncertain. Personally, I liked this about the novel, but I can imagine that others might find it unsatisfying.

But either way, Wild Swans is a fantastic book. Great characters, great writing, and incredibly readable. It’s lowkey, and it’s wonderful. Definitely recommended!

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Forgetting the Plot: Amnesia and Romantic Fiction

Amnesia really sucks as a plot device.

Occasionally, it can create interesting, although not dazzling, dilemmas. IZombie’s current “the zombie cure might give you amnesia” plotline isn’t the best thing it’s ever done, but as it affects one of the villains and not the protagonist, it does create new dilemmas in the story without sending it off the rails.

But when the protagonist of the story gets amnesia, and especially when the amnesia crops up in a romantic plotline… then, things get a little more frustrating.


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