News & Review: The Hanged Man (Tarot Sequence 2) – I Got Blurbed On a Book Cover

So um. A thing happened several months ago.

Well, okay, a bunch of things happened. And they’re all interconnected and relevant to THE thing I want to talk about, so let’s just go through them in chronological order. Imagine the countdown from Hamilton‘s “Ten Duel Commandments.”

 

☀️ Number one! ☀️

I got to read one of my top two most anticipated books of the year–AKA K.D. Edwards’ The Hanged Man (yes, The Hanged Man that I’ve been blathering about on Twitter and doing promo for)–and I wrote a review for it on Goodreads.

 

☀️ Number two! ☀️

My brain tried to coerce me. “Listen. I know have your hands full with a day job and volunteer work and art studies and a blog and, like, social obligations–whatever those are–but don’t you think doing a release promo for this book would be fun? And sexy?”

And friends, I’m a sucker. I fell for it.

 

☀️ Number three! ☀️

I was asked if I wanted to be featured on the book as a blurb, and once I gathered my jaw off the floor, I immediately said yes. Elation was closely followed by “Oh shit, I only spent 20 minutes writing that review.” But my thought was that it was going to be inside the book, within the first few pages, and squashed between a handful of blurbs from other bloggers. So no biggie if it’s not super polished, right?

 

☀️ Number four! ☀️

I got an email with the final proof of the cover.

…….Eh? Cover??

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Scott Reintgen! T. Frohock! And… *squints* this other person?

Ahem. Yes! Hi! Hello!

Imposter Syndrome, meet the pointy end of my sword. (Named “This is so beyond what I was expecting that my brain didn’t even have a chance to freak out”)

The Tarot Sequence series has been a source of incredible opportunities and friendships, and the fact that my first blurb opportunity was for this book says something loud and precious. And I’ll be holding onto it for a while.

Also, did you know publishers allowed swearing on their full-release covers?? Because I didn’t, and this was a VERY cool way of finding out.

 


 

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Author: K.D. Edwards
Genre(s): Urban Fantasy, LitRPG (lite)
Subject(s)/Theme(s): LGBTQ+ (everyone), Found Family
Publisher: Pyr
Release Date: December 17th, 2019
Page Count: 386 (paperback)

Rating: 10/10*

(*There’s a lot of bias with this rating. Like, a LOT. It’s a beautifully muddied water of personal relationships and life events…and I wouldn’t have it any other way.)

CW: talk and implications of sexual abuse, rape, and pedophilia

 

Hey, K.D? Sequel Syndrome just called. It wants you to send some pillows and blankets to the titanium coffin you just buried it in.

Clearly The Hanged Man is the product of a mortal man making deals with a high demon, because it has no business–none whatsoever–being this damn good. Disgusting, paradoxical levels of good.

I mean, we’ve seen New Atlantis before, we know these characters, so the honeymoon glow should have worn off at least a little, because that’s how sequels tend to go. The world shouldn’t feel just as heartpounding and unexpected as the first time I read The Last Sun–like the jolt of a first kiss experienced over and over again. There is ZERO logic to that.

And yet. And yet.

This book takes everything you loved about The Last Sun and takes it up a level. And another. And another. And then just when you think, “Well, that has to be the peak,” it smiles and takes you up into another building stacked on top of this one. Because the last 1/3 of the book? Fucking brace yourselves. It is an unending, head-spinning series of revelations and backs against the wall and consequent choices–choices that left me yelling and shaking with adrenaline–and Atlantean magic pushed beyond limits to mesmerizing results. It’s characters navigating their vulnerabilities and fears with one another, and I lost track of the number of times I cried.

Brand said, fiercely, in a breaking voice. “You’re my boy. You can do anything. Anything.”


Things get darker (more so than I’d expected). Stakes are much higher. The banter and the jokes are even better. And the worldbuilding is off the charts. We also get to see Rune and Brand interacting with small children, to hilarious and surprisingly good results, and that’s something I can’t get enough of.

Oh, and for those who felt that TLS was a bit of a white sausage fest (and I say that with affection)–rest assured! Several new major characters make their appearance in this book, many of them female and/or POC, and they’re all written with exquisite care.

This beautiful messy family just got a lot bigger and I cannot wait for everyone to experience it.

 

☀️ My Review of The Last Sun (Tarot Sequence 1)


Find me (and my art) @aildreda on:

Twitter | Instagram | Tumblr

 

Review: Wicked Fox – Let’s Talk About What Cultural Representation Means

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Release Date: June 29th, 2019
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers
Genre(s): YA Fantasy
Subjects and Themes: Korean mythology, Family

Rating: 7.0/10

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It’s super fitting that this post is going live during Chuseok weekend (which is totally not planned, by the way, just a happy coincidence).

I’m gonna do something a little different with this review. First, I’m going to review this book as a story, with characters and plot and all that. And then, with that out of the way, I’m going to talk about what the book means to me in terms of representation (and that’s when things might get a wee bit weird).

 

1. A Normal Review

 

I worried–like, full-on existential dread worried–that I wouldn’t like this book, and I was questioning what that would mean for me as a Korean reviewer. Well, thankfully that’s a worry for another reality because I did enjoy the book, despite its rather rocky ending.

The first 2/3 of Wicked Fox was like the honeymoon glow of a new relationship. I was looking at everything with rose-tinted glasses, and sure, the story might have some flaws, but they’re nothing egregious, and in a way, they’re kind of charming. The last 1/3 was where the big issues reared their heads.

So let’s take a look at all the pros and cons! (pink heading=pros; blue=cons)

 

Casual Insertion of Korean Words

Cho uses a LOT of romanization (nouns mostly). I personally loved it because they made the narration and dialogue sound more authentic in my head–like a bilingual story, almost. (For example, she uses “Miyoung’s umma” in favour of of “Miyoung’s mom” or just “Mrs. Gu”)

If you’re unfamiliar with the language, however, you’ll have to consult the glossary. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Glossaries are awesome! The annoying part is that, like most other books that come with glossaries, it’s found at the end of the story–something that will never, ever make sense to me.

 

Tropey Goodness

You’re going to see a lot of tropey K-drama sequences in this book, and that’s kind of what makes it charming (or annoying, depending on your tolerance level for tropey K-dramas). A gorgeous new student that all the girls are jealous of and all the guys want to date; said gorgeous student getting bullied by the mean girls and her love interest swooping in to save her; oh, and you can’t forget the slew of rainy-bus-stop-and-heart-to-heart-under-an-umbrella scenes.

It’s pure uncomplicated fun.

The main characters also kind of fall into tropeyness–and, again, that’s not a bad thing. Miyoung and Jihoon balance each other out really well, the latter being stiff and closed off and the former exuding earnest, positive energy, and their relationship is a believable one, each offering something that the other doesn’t have.

 

Family at the Heart of Everything

This is my favourite part. Pretty much every major event in the story places family at its center. Even after Miyoung and Jihoon get together and discover how potent romance can be, motivations still live and die by family. That’s

 

Pacing Crashes and Burns

The pacing takes a swan dive off a cliff in the last 1/3 of the book and the result is spectacularly bad. A lack of communication between the characters froze all action, and it felt like they were just waiting around to see what would happen next. I usually see this in lengthy romance novels, where the first 300 pages is used to build up tension and character relationships, but the last 100 pages ends up fizzling out into silent-and-angsty filler territory, and if don’t have patience for it in romance, I definitely don’t have patience for it in fantasy.

 

The Fate of Certain Characters

There are things that happen in the last stretch of the story that I didn’t react well to. And some of that has to do with events that happened in my own family in the last several months, so there’s definite bias here, but just…the whole situation felt emotionally manipulative (spoiler: because it felt like the author was trying to get the readers to believe that Jihoon’s grandmother will pull through, that Miyoung would be able to save her. But then she pulled the rug out at the last minute)

But that wasn’t the part that really bothered me.

SPOILER (highlight to read)

It was the part where Miyoung gets to meet her long-lost father, only to find out that he’s working against her, and then to have her mother sacrifice her life.

I guess I’m just sick of parents dying in stories. I’m sick of the idea that they have more to offer in their deaths than they would by living and working things out with their kids. Sick of “I’m proud of you” and “I love you” whispered like a final fucking gift so that the mc can understand that, yes, their mother/father did truly love them. It hones in on media’s obsession with orphaned children and absentee parents, and it’s a cheap way to do character development.

From a story so focused on family relationships, this was a disappointment for me. 

 

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2. Let’s Talk About Representation

 

Wicked Fox is the first fantasy book I’ve read that’s set in South Korea. And as a first gen Korean-Canadian, that. means. everything. I mean, I can’t even wrap my head around how much that means.

And what’s funny is that it’s a different feeling to seeing my sexuality or mental health represented. With something like depression, it’s an immediate, almost violent recognition of “Oh. That’s me.” Like being slammed with a sledgehammer that has my name scrawled around the handle. Not always pleasant, no, but satisfying in its intensity.

Cultural representation, I’ve realized, is a bit more insidious in how it presents itself. More like…a second skin settling beneath my own.

It’s a weird feeling and the best way I can process weird feelings is through weird fictional scenarios. I used this metaphor on Twitter, but let’s see if I can clean it up a bit:

 

A Questionable Metaphor

Let’s say you’re hunting for a new apartment.

One day, you attend a open house–your fifth in total (here you go again)–and you smile and nod along with the realtor trailing beside you, indulging his oral documentary on the building’s history. The lobby is indistinguishable from the other half dozen lobbies you’ve seen in the past month. The walls are a drab beige broken up in places by mystery stains. Everything is perfectly, reassuringly unremarkable.

Then you walk into the unit and freeze in your tracks.

This place you’ve never visited before, haven’t even seen photos of, has the exact same furnishings as your current place. Completely different layout, and there are few details that are different and specific to the owner, but everything else is identical. So it becomes this double-vision, twilight-zone moment–because this feels like home but it’s not home–and you’re just standing there feeling winded and invaded and, inexplicably, so right.

All the while, your brain is telling you to snap out it. This isn’t actually your home. It’s not even a good home, for fuck’s sake. The bedrooms are awkwardly shaped and the kitchen is bigger than the living room.

But you don’t care, do you? Because what matters is that there’s this large presence moving through you, a barely contained tremor of “mine, mine, mine,” and it says that this place is yours, always has been, always will be. The force of that is sharp enough to rend mountains, yet all it seems to do is hold you tighter.

 

What this Means

There’s much of Wicked Fox that feels not-home to me. It’s written in English, first of all–that’s a biggie–and I’m really not used to experiencing Korean settings through a Western-ish lens. Also, I didn’t have nine tails the last time I checked.

But overriding all that are details that scream home (imagine me underlining this ten more times). The relationship that Jihoon has with his grandmother, the creature legends that I grew up reading about, the emphasis on filial piety, the prevalence of eastern religion–take your pick.

And it’s not just those big stuff that matters. There are dozens of small moments in this book that seem trivial and irrelevant out of context, but add up to something monumental. Jihoon making kimchi with his grandmother. The smell of jjigae wafting through the house. Drinking banana milk at lunch. Playing StarCraft at a PC bang.

They’re scattered leavings of my upbringing, my blood, my history, and there is no high enough rating I can give that.

And I thank Kat from the bottom of my heart.

 

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At the end of the day, Wicked Fox is imperfect. But it’s also a first, and now there’s a divot in my heart with a shape that only first experiences can create.

And do you know? Those never go away.

Review: Magic for Liars – Ivy Gamble is Not Magic and She Wants Everyone to Know

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Title: Magic for Liars
Author: Sarah Gailey
Publisher: Tor Books
Release Date: June 4th, 2019
Genre(s): Fantasy, Mystery
Subjects and Themes: Siblings, Mental Health, LGBTQIAP+ (Secondary)
Page Count: 336 (hardback)

Rating: 5.0/10

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Ivy Gamble was born without magic and never wanted it.

Ivy Gamble is perfectly happy with her life – or at least, she’s perfectly fine.

She doesn’t in any way wish she was like Tabitha, her estranged, gifted twin sister.

Ivy Gamble is a liar.

When a gruesome murder is discovered at The Osthorne Academy of Young Mages, where her estranged twin sister teaches Theoretical Magic, reluctant detective Ivy Gamble is pulled into the world of untold power and dangerous secrets. She will have to find a murderer and reclaim her sister―without losing herself.

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I think this book would save people a lot of disappointment if it came with a disclaimer. Something like “NOTE: The magical boarding school featured in this story is actually pretty ordinary and the characters spend more time talking about the theories of magic than actually doing magic.” Though personally, I wasn’t too bummed out by the lack of magic. In the first half I was still interested in the mystery and the MC, so I didn’t mind that there weren’t moving staircases and people lighting things on fire. And in the second half I was too caught up in other–bigger–issues to really care.

Yeah. Safe to say this was a disappointment for me.

It starts out very strong (I mean, a book that opens up with a scene straight out of Hannibal has my full attention) and it ends on a…strange and depressing note that I still don’t know how I feel about (though I have a feeling I’ll eventually land at “I didn’t like it”). But it’s mostly the middle bits that I had a problem with. And a lot of those problems link back to the protagonist.

Ivy Gamble was a trying narrator for me. Think Jessica Jones with all her psychological baggage minus the snark. And I was sympathetic in the beginning. I can imagine how bitterly disappointing it would be to watch your sibling discover their magical abilities and get accepted to an elite magic academy while you’re sitting on the sidelines reconciling with the fact that you’re not magical and this incredible new world is off-limits to you. I understand how that can shape the rest of your life.

But I don’t need to be reminded of it every other page.

Ivy goes out of her way to let the readers know that, hey, she’s not magic. Did you know she’s not magic? Bet you forgot she’s not magic since the last time she told you she wasn’t magic.

*taps on mic* An important announcement: IVY GAMBLE IS NOT MAGIC.

If you haven’t noticed, I love–for the lack of a better adjective–tortured characters in stories. Characters carrying scars that they can’t bear to look at but can’t help but prod. But when all that mental turmoil overpowers the rest of the narrative–plot, side characters, setting–the result feels less like a story and more like a one-sided therapy session. And that was more or less my experience with Magic for Liars. The mystery would start to get interesting but then Ivy would start comparing Nonmagic Ivy (her current self) to magic Ivy (a theoretical version of herself) and musing about how the latter would do so much better in this and such situation, and that would pull me right out of the story.

And this is more of a general complaint that I’m throwing out into the fictional ether, but I’m a little tired of private eye stories where the protagonist is an emotional mess and drinking constantly. I understand that that’s part of the noir aesthetic–cigarettes and gin and staring out the window in contemplation of the fatality of life– and, yes, there’s often a romantic allure to it, but for once I would like to see a well-adjusted PI who chooses to abstain from heavy drinking because it interferes with their work. A happy (or happier) noir, you know?

This book is not a happy noir, though, so if you’re looking for a twisty mystery with magical school shenanigans, you’re better off looking elsewhere. If you want a simple narrator-driven mystery with a lot of diversity and a LOT of heavy introspection, then well, it doesn’t hurt to try!

 

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Review copy provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review

Review + Giveaway (INTL): Gather the Fortunes – The Most Neil Gaiman Thing I Read Since I Last Read Neil Gaiman

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Title:
Gather the Fortunes (A Crescent City Novel Book 2)
Author: Bryan Camp
Publisher: John Joseph Adams/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Release Date: May 21st, 2019
Genre(s): Urban Fantasy
Subjects and Themes: Gods, Mythology
Page Count: 384 (hardback)

Rating: 8.0/10

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Renaissance Raines has found her place among the psychopomps—the guides who lead the souls of the recently departed through the Seven Gates of the Underworld—and done her best to avoid the notice of gods and mortals alike. But when a young boy named Ramses St. Cyr manages to escape his foretold death, Renai finds herself at the center of a deity-thick plot unfolding in New Orleans. Someone helped Ramses slip free of his destined end—someone willing to risk everything to steal a little slice of power for themselves.

Is it one of the storm gods that’s descended on the city? The death god who’s locked the Gates of the Underworld? Or the manipulative sorcerer who also cheated Death? When she finds the schemer, there’s gonna be all kinds of hell to pay, because there are scarier things than death in the Crescent City. Renaissance Raines is one of them.

 

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(Note: I got to Gather the Fortunes after reading about 1/4 of the first book–I ran out of time!–and while having some prior knowledge of some of the characters might be beneficial, it can absolutely be read as a standalone.)

That title isn’t hyperbole. Not in the slightest. Because holy shit, I am in love with Bryan Camp’s imagination.

Gather the Fortunes is set in an alternate world of gods and demigods and spirits and other supernatural beings, and the result is a beautiful, rich conglomerate of various mythologies–Greek, Norse, Native American, Haitian, you name it, he has it–each carefully constructed and all woven seamlessly into the narrative.

It’s not just the premise and the complexity of the story that reminds me of Gaiman’s work; it’s the utter confidence with which he crafts it. As if this isn’t some fictional world he pulled from his imagination but a reality that actually exists in some alternate dimension. Bryan Camp understands his world inside-out and he has the talent to manipulate it in ways that are not only exciting but also thought-provoking. I love the way he interprets death and afterlife and posits the idea that there are always, always two sides to every coin.

And what astounds me is how polished and detailed everything is. Nothing is done half-assed–from the process of soul-taking (which involves unbraiding and distilling a part of the soul and then turning it into a piece of fruit, eating it, and escorting the remaining spirit through the Underworld. Camp lends grim reapering a sense of craftsmanship, turns it into an art form. It’s fantastic) to the various gates of the Underworld (in the last gate, your life in the form of a coin gets weighed on a scale and that decides whether you’re sent off to a good afterlife or tossed into oblivion).

The prose is just as rich and hard-hitting. There are passages that have this internal rhythm, so that when you read them out loud, they play out like spoken poetry. It’s stylish as hell. Of course not all of it is written that poetically–that’d be exhausting–but Camp knows exactly when to turn it on and off, and that in itself is praiseworthy. And the opening paragraphs that you find in some of the chapters are tiny art pieces in and of themselves–brief narrations about topics like death and luck and premonitions as they apply to different mythologies.

And the last two paragraphs? Chills down my spine. Gave me hard, hard vibes of the Dream vs. Choronzon scene from Sandman. I had to read them aloud multiple times, once to a friend.

Here’s a snippet:

Everywhere Death walks, Life follows. Everything Death takes, Life gives to another. She is Asase Yaa. Onuava. Demeter. Coatlicue. Phra Mae Thorani. He is Kokopelli. Makemake. Geb. Lono. They plant the seeds in the earth and children in the womb. They gave birth to the gods and to the first mortals and to the cosmos and to the sea. They gave their lives to water the earth, to bring plentiful game to hunt, to keep the sun in the sky. They are the sky. They are the sun. They are the buds of new growth in spring, and after a fire, and after a flood, and in the shadow of a failed nuclear reactor. They are everywhere we swore they couldn’t be, in the exothermic vents of the deep ocean, in the ones and zeroes of information, in the fossil records of Mars. Death can end a life, or lives, or this life, or very life.

But not Life.

Our heroine is Renai, a young black woman who, five years previous, had been dead and subsequently resurrected with very few memories of when she was alive. Now she works as a psychopomp, someone who guides the dead to the Underworld. I really quite liked her. She’s a great mix of fierceness and vulnerability, with sass running through it all.

I did have issues with the plot and characters. The story goes through a lot of moving from point A to point B, doing one thing, and then moving to point C, and then doing something else and moving on again. And while parts of it were interesting, others…weren’t. They often felt disconnected from each other and I wasn’t sure what the point of some of them were.

I was also disappointed that Ramses didn’t play a bigger role in the story (at least, not directly) because the synopsis had me anticipating a sibling relationship forming between Renai and Ramses. But sadly, no.

Overall, though, this was a very impressive read and Camp’s New Orleans is one you absolutely need to experience for yourself.

 

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GIVEAWAY

10 people can win finished copies of Gather the Fortune. Open internationally!

ENTER HERE

 

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Bryan Camp is a graduate of the Clarion West Writer’s Workshop and the University of New Orleans’ Low-Residency MFA program. He started his first novel, The City of Lost Fortunes, in the backseat of his parents’ car as they evacuated for Hurricane Katrina. He has been, at various points in his life: a security guard at a stockcar race track, a printer in a flag factory, an office worker in an oil refinery, and a high school English teacher. He can be found on twitter @bryancamp and at bryancamp.com. He lives in New Orleans with his wife and their three cats, one of whom is named after a superhero.

      

TOUR SCHEDULE

WEEK ONE
MAY 20th MONDAY JeanBookNerd INTERVIEW
MAY 21st TUESDAY BookHounds INTERVIEW
MAY 22nd WEDNESDAY TTC Books and More TENS LIST
MAY 23rd THURSDAY Movies, Shows, & Books EXCERPT
MAY 24th FRIDAY Insane About Books REVIEW
MAY 24th FRIDAY Pages Below the Vaulted Sky REVIEW

WEEK TWO
MAY 27th MONDAY A Dream Within A Dream REVIEW
MAY 28th TUESDAY Nay’s Pink Bookshelf REVIEW
MAY 29th TUESDAY Sabrina’s Paranormal Palace REVIEW
MAY 29th WEDNESDAY Port Jericho REVIEW
MAY 29th WEDNESDAY Book Briefs REVIEW
MAY 30th THURSDAY Two Points of Interest REVIEW
MAY 30th THURSDAY Gwendalyn Books REVIEW
MAY 31st FRIDAY Crossroad Reviews REVIEW

Review: The Mortal Sleep – Stripped Me Open and Healed Me Anew (Why I’m BEGGING You to Read this Series)

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Title: The Mortal Sleep (Hollow Folk 4)
Author: Gregory Ashe
Publisher: Independent
Release Date: April 5th, 2019
Genre(s): Paranormal, Mystery, Romance
Subjects and Themes: Mental Health, Abuse, LGBTQIAP+
Page Count: 491

Rating: ∞/10

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Brief overview of Books 1-3: A gay psychic teenager named Vie Elliot moves into a small rural town in Wyoming and gets himself involved in a series of murders, kidnappings, and paranormal activities. This is a story of found families, love, complicated relationships, and facing demons within and without.

(You can read my reviews of Book 1-3 HERE)

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 “Maybe it’s all of us, I thought in a flash. Maybe we all believe, deep down, that we don’t deserve love. Or— maybe not all of us, maybe not some lucky assholes— but most of us. Maybe most of us are just as uncertain, just as frightened, just as desperately hoping that we’re worth loving and that the person we love loves us back.”

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I’ve been writing reviews for over a year now. And within that period I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing a whole range of emotions–from hair-pulling anguish frustration to joy and nervousness and anxiety.

This is my first time being scared of writing a review.

Like, really fucking scared. Like, shaking in my chair scared. Because I could string together every language that has ever existed in this world, scrawl them into a 1000-page epic, recite it from dawn to dusk until my throat is torn, and still come up with nothing that could describe what this book means to me. And that kills me.

My brain tells me I need to spend several weeks on this review at the very least. But my heart tells me no, I need to do this right now. Because all those immediate emotions that I’m feeling? They’re the ones I need to seize. And because fears need to faced when they’re at their freshest.

So, okay.

This is a book that feels entirely too big to fit in this universe let alone my heart. One that I want to clutch so hard to myself that I become it, or it becomes me. And I would happily give up half of my consciousness, half of my soul, for it to live and grow inside me. But then I realize there’s no need because it’s already claimed it from Book 1.

And when I walk, it walks with me, anchoring my steps. When I look out into the morning light, it looks out with me, radiating hope. When I’m crumpled on the ground it’s there, pulling me up.

Which all sounds a little crazy. It sounds like the ramblings of a soon-to-be maybe-killer (“Well, that Kathy. I mean, she was pleasant. Polite. Never caused any trouble. Although…she did say all those things about that book that one time. Guess that should have been a warning bell, huh?”) But “crazy” just about defines this book. Because perfection doesn’t exist. Shouldn’t exist. And yet it’s sitting right here in my hand.

So what can I tell you about The Mortal Sleep?

I can tell you how heartstoppingly beautiful Ashe’s writing is. I can tell you how his characters aren’t characters; they’re people existing in some other reality, other dimension, projecting their lives into his brain, and now they live in these books like it’s where they always belonged–across ink and paper, instead of flesh and blood–and their relationships are so exquisitely developed that they become your relationships.

I can talk about how the buildup of tension, with regards to both plot and character development, is off-the-walls phenomenal. I can talk about how he’s raised the bar for storytelling from book to book and how he has surpassed it yet again. I can talk about how series finales are so, so incredibly hard to nail, and yet he does it (because of course).

But what makes this book a veritable masterpiece (and I don’t use that term lightly), what makes it stand shoulders every other book I’ve read in the past two years, is that it peers into every dark crevice of the characters’ pain and suffering–into the heart of what makes us us–and it Does. Not. Flinch.

The line between honesty and gratuitousness is a thin one when it comes to stories that try to tackle depression and suicidal behaviour. Gregory Ashe walks it while balancing four different genres and reciting poetry that would make the angels weep. Without condoning it, the book doesn’t shy away from the ugliness and the violence that comes with mental illness.

And it’s not pretty. It’s not sugar-coated.

But it’s true. It’s so, so fucking true.

Like, there’s a scene where Vie goes out his way to deliberately hurt his boyfriend (using words), and at first he tells himself that he’s doing it as a favour–he’s doing it to push him away, to save his life. But then it morphs into something uglier. Because sometimes you turn other’s words and actions (even the innocuous ones) into ammunition against yourself–reasons for why you’re unlovable and discardable. Because sometimes you’re hurting so much and you don’t know how to deal with it, so it overflows onto the people you love. Because sometimes you’re hurting so much that you want them to feel just an ounce of it, and you derive a kind of awful, aching almost-pleasure from that. And on the heels of that comes blackness and self-loathing.

All of that. And all the reasons why we might hurt ourselves (and, in turn, the ones we love). And hate ourselves. And try to end ourselves.

Just…How.

How do you put that mess of emotions into words that I can recognize?

This book gets so many things so right, so real, that it felt like I was experiencing them again for the first time. And I was shaking and crying so hard that I had to go take multiple walks to calm myself down (and this was past 12 AM).

And I honestly don’t know how he does it. Maybe it’s magic. Or pure talent. Or power sourced from earth’s core. I don’t know how he does it but he does it, and I’m thankful to the point of tears because I can look at Vie’s scars and look to my own and nod and say “Okay.” And that’s enough.

This book (and series) is a bulwark against the voices urging me in the middle of the night, whispering that surely this time I can get the dosage right. And I know it can be so much for so many of you too. For all of you who have been broken and ground down. Because in spite of how dark it gets, this is a series about hope. And love–so, so much love. Finding it. Losing it. And slowly, oh so slowly learning that maybe, just maybe, you’re worthy of it and every other goddamn thing that life has to offer.

The Mortal Sleep has taken the top of my Best of 2019 list (and my heart and my sleep and my every waking thought) and it won’t be moving for the rest of the year.

flourish

Complimentary copy provided by the author. All opinions are my own.

Review: The Last Sun – Fantasy Written to Perfection

the last sun

Title: The Last Sun (The Tarot Sequence 1)
Author: K.D. Edwards
Publisher: Pyr
Release Date: June 12th, 2018
Genre(s): Urban Fantasy
Page Count: 367 (paperback)
Goodreads

Rating: 10/10

 

 

 

I’ve been sitting on this review for over a month, all the while rewriting and tweaking and coming to the realization that a written review can’t properly encompass the  adoration I have for this story and its characters. A hundred gifs of muppet flails would be a better representation of my feelings, but I figure I still have some shred of respectability and professionalism to maintain.

But that was more or less my experience reading this book–every cell of my body flailing their tiny cytoplasmic limbs in abject worship. Because The Last Sun shines with the light of a supernova. It brims with life and love and wonder and serves as a testament to some of the best this genre has to offer. It’s everything I want in quality fantasy and more: a lovingly-crafted, rich setting that’s a blend of contemporary and high fantasy; prose that moves from laugh-out-loud humour to quiet poignancy; caffeine-fueled pacing and breakneck action sequences; complex, unabashedly queer characters, and heartfelt exploration of the many kinds of male relationships.

The story takes place in New Atlantis, an island formerly known in the human world as Nantucket. This Earth is very much like our own–same countries, same pop culture, same technology–except for the presence of various magical beings. These magical beings used to exist unbeknownst to humans, but then came the Atlantean World War and the boundaries between Atlanteans and humans became frayed. Among these beings are those called the “Arcana.” Named after tarot cards–like The Tower, The Fool, Justice, and The Sun–they’re the closest things to gods of this world. Their access to immense power and their considerable influence within and outside of New Atlantis make them the de facto Atlantean rulers.

New Atlantis is like if Shadowrun had a baby with Neverwhere. Worldbuilding in urban fantasy don’t normally excite me because many of them feel the same. There’s either the fae–the Seelie and the Unseelie–or the paranormal–wereanimals, vampires, spirits, and such. You get the gist after reading half a dozen UF series. The Last Sun, though? It makes me giddy in a way that the Shadowrun world does. For those who are unfamiliar, Shadowrun is a cyberpunk RPG that’s unfortunately shadowed (no pun intended) by the popularity of D&D. And what I adore about Shadowrun is its diversity. Its major cities are a hub for not only human diversity–various ethnicity, sexuality, and gender–but magical diversity. When you walk down a street, you would see orcs intermingling with trolls, elves, dwarves, shamans, druids, and more.

The same goes for New Atlantis. The island is crammed with all manner of magical beings. Wereanimals, spirits, fae, ghouls, elementals–pick the name of any random fantasy creature floating around in your brain and it can probably be found in New Atlantis. Every corner of the story unveils something new and exciting and I couldn’t help but grin like an idiot tourist at the absolute wonder of it all.

The magic system is very reminiscent of RPGs–dynamic and fiendishly delightful. The plot moves from your standard mystery to something with larger implications, and its pacing grabs you by the neck and hurls you forward at a hundred miles per hour. And what’s incredible is that even though the pacing hardly ever lets up, Edwards still makes time for meaningful character interactions without disrupting the momentum.

The book could have stopped there and I still would have given it a very high score. But Edwards takes it a step further. Let’s talk about the reason this gets a 10 out of 10: the characters. Because the characters of The Last Sun have wormed their way into my heart, built themselves a little cabin, and are now refusing to leave.

In a genre that so often celebrates a testosterone-laden brand of masculinity, Edwards whittles down stereotypes. Take Brand, our protagonist’s foul-mouthed, sarcastic bodyguard. We’re all familiar with the type. But the thing with Brand is that he never shies away from showing how much he cares about Rune. He dons the tough bodyguard look and the emotionally vulnerable look with equal confidence.

Take Addam, who is a perfect example of the Knight In Shining Armour archetype done right. He’s one of those people that you want to hate because they’re so perfect, but can’t because they’re so perfectly nice. In fiction, nice characters–especially nice male characters and especially nice male love interests–are often disparaged as boring. Dull. Weak. Addam shatters this notion to pieces. He’s a pillar of strength born of unconditional kindness and love and trust–qualities that we as a society often misconstrue as naiveté.

And then there’s Rune, our protagonist. The heir to the fallen Sun Throne. Victim of an unspeakable tragedy. He lives in a tiny house on the edge of poverty with the fear over his head that someday his luck will run out and his enemies will catch up to him. But most of all, Rune is a survivor. And his display of strength–through his jokes, his empathy, his determination to keep moving forward–amidst the demons of his past is nothing short of inspiring.

But what I love and appreciate the most, and what makes the book special to me is in the way that Edwards tackles relationships. Specifically, the notion that deep, emotional intimacy can’t exist between two people who are not romantically involved.

I’m always drawn to stories about friends who share hugs and kisses and tell each other, without shame or hesitation, “I will walk to the deepest of hell for you.” Because my own relationship with my best friend is a very intimate one where we tell each other things like “You’re my raison d’etre” with complete seriousness. But I hardly ever see this explored in modern western literature–mostly in manga and anime.

Then this book comes along.

Rune’s relationship with Brand is different to his relationship with Addam–in that it’s not a romantic or sexual one. Yet it’s no less intimate. It’s still love. It’s palpable love that makes you want to burst into tears at the sheer beauty of it. To see this portrayed with pitch-perfection in a book–a fantasy one at that–makes me ridiculously happy. Reading through Rune and Brand’s snarky exchanges are always great, but the moments of quiet, during which they reiterate their bond to one another, are what makes this relationship so compelling. They make my heart soar in the same way that the genre’s best duos do.

What else can I say? The book is only just over 350 pages, but Edwards utilizes every single one of them and takes you through a whirlwind of an adventure. The Last Sun gives so much and leaves room for yet so much more. And I feel incredibly privileged to witness the start of what’s no doubt going to be a magnificent one-of-lifetime journey alongside these characters.

~

Review copy provided by Pyr and Edelweiss.

 

[Review] Imposter Syndrome – A Brilliant Combination of Action, Complex Characters, and Heartfelt Examination of Mental Health

Imposter Syndrome

Title: Imposter Syndrome (The Arcadia Project 3)
Author: Mishell Baker
Publisher: Saga Press
Release Date: March 13th, 2018
Genre(s): Urban Fantasy
Page Count: 481 pages
Goodreads

Rating: 9.0/10 (Champions of the Genre)

 

 

 

So this review started out as a normal review and then it morphed into a weird self-reflection/series appreciation/review monstrosity. Because my god, Imposter Syndrome made me feel a lot of things. It’s a pitch-perfect conclusion (maybe?) to a series that has wormed itself into a special place in my heart, and it left me crying for most of its latter part.

So buckle up. This might be a long one.

Following the shattering revelations at the end of book 2, Imposter Syndrome starts out three months later, smack in the middle of a Cold War between LA-New Orleans Arcadia, led by Alvin, and UK Arcadia, led by Dame Belinda Barker. To make matters worse, there’s tension building among the fey. King Claybriar and Queen Dawnrowan are on opposite sides of the Seelie, the latter supporting Belinda, and Queen Shiverlash and King Winterglass of the UnSeelie would gladly see each other’s throats torn out. So when Tjuan (senior agent of LA4 Arcadia) gets framed by Belinda for a crime he did not commit, our protagonist Millie Roper decides that the best defense is an offense and plans a heist that would strip Belinda of crucial resources that grant her complete control of this conflict.

I found Imposter Syndrome much better in terms of plot and pacing than Phantom Pains. My problem with book 2 was that the plot felt very scattered–one minute Millie would be investigating the possibility of a ghost, the next she’s dealing with a murder investigation, and so forth. Everything is more focused this time around, on the heist and thwarting Belinda Barker. The characters know what they need to do, they know what’s at stake, and they just go for it. It’s simple yet perfectly executed.

The heist itself is brilliant. This is no Ocean’s Eleven with the best of the best doing their thing with confidence and cool. This is Millie and her wayward companions fumbling their way through one of the most ridiculously-plotted heists in the history of heists. It is a ton of fun with plenty of laugh-out-loud moments. And there’s this one sequence in the middle of it that’s so cleverly-structured, it made me punch the air in excitement.

But as it has been for the past two books, the characters are the focal point of the story. The series remains one of the most diverse in fantasy: there are major POC characters, a bisexual protagonist, a lesbian love interest, a trans male character, and bi(pan?)sexual fey. And Millie continues to prove why she’s one of my favourite protagonists ever, with Mishell Baker finding the perfect balance between self-deprecation and snappy humour.

“Everytime I try to put it down I freak out. Last night I slept with it tucked into my pillowcase.”
“That is called anxiety, Millie.”
“Gotcha. Sometimes I can’t tell the difference between sorcery and insanity.”

Millie has a lot on her plate–she has to deal with her BPD on top of all the Belinda and the fey stuff. And she fucks up. A lot. She gets paranoid and jumps to conclusions and sets back her own plan by miles. But what she doesn’t get are excuses from the people around her. They don’t coddle her; they don’t blame her BPD. They say: “This is your mistake. So take responsibility and fix it.” And she does try to fix them. I can’t properly express how much I appreciate this. To see a mental disorder depicted not as a throwaway quirk or stepping stones to a hurt/comfort plotline, but as something that’s a part of the character and which she needs to learn to manage. And the latter is an ongoing process with a lot of stumbles and failures, but also successes. I have yet to find such candid portrayal of mental health in any other fantasy.

Meanwhile, Caryl is dealing with the fact that all her emotions are now hers to feel and hers alone (most of the time, at least), with her familiar Elliot no longer permanently acting as her “trauma container.” So things are hard for her as well, especially when it comes to Millie. While they have cute and sweet moments together, their relationship overall is a kind of a trainwreck. There’s no doubt that, professionally, they’re both talented and competent people; it’s just when the personal issues rear their heads that things start to go sideways.

And I love that. I love how messy it all is.

Because while I don’t have BPD like Millie or a history of childhood abuse like Caryl, I see a lot of myself in both–Millie’s impulsiveness and selfishness, Caryl’s hyper-emotional, sponge-like state, and both of their low self-esteem. And some of their struggles hit a little too close to home, like Millie’s unwillingness to acknowledge her relationship with Zach, her maybe-boyfriend. And her struggles with relationships in general:

Claybriar: “You’re always the first thing in my mind. I’d fuck you if I could, believe me. But with her, it’s that–you know, that breathless thing where you don’t even feel quite safe. Like you’re falling.”

Millie: “It’s always like that for me at first…And then it mellows. Or goes away altogether.”

(Get out of my head, Mishell!)

And all the times Millie and Caryl burst into tears, seemingly out of nowhere, struck me to the core. Because in the words of Moonlight, “sometimes I cry so much I feel like I’m gonna just turn into drops.” Because a lot of the times I find myself wishing for an Elliot of my own. Something to stop me from reacting to everything around me with so much anxiety and sadness and heartbreak.

And that’s really what this book, and this entire series, is. Not about Seelie and Unseelie and Hollywood, but about people, both human and fey, who have extraordinary abilities and walk through extraordinary worlds, and yet still grapple with the same pains that I do.

Now, is it realistic that people carrying around so much emotional trauma and mental health struggles can come together in such a short time to pull off a high-stakes heist? I don’t know–maybe not.

Is it inspiring and validating?

Fuck yeah.

None of these characters are, in the traditional sense, heroes–Millie even says at one point, “I’m more of a shit-stirrer than a hero.” They mess up; they act selfishly; they hurt one another on purpose and by accident; and they’re constantly at war with their own minds.

But nor are they broken people. These guys spend most of the story running around scared out of their minds and full of doubt and they still somehow manage to pull things off. They’re always, always trying to move forward, with however many falls and stumbles they experience along the way. And sometimes that’s all that matters.

And that, to me, is realism. That is what being a human is all about.

I applaud and thank Mishell Baker for writing characters whose honesty doesn’t leave me feeling trapped or vulnerable, but included. Known. And if this is truly the end of the series, then it’s a fitting one. Not a happily ever after, but one that feels right and brims with hope.

Read this book. Read this series. You’ll not find another like it.