Diversity Spotlight Thursday: Royalty | 3 Days, 3 Quotes [Day 3]

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Diversity Spotlight Thursday is a weekly meme hosted by Aimal from Bookshelves & Paperbacks. Each week you come up with three book for three different categories: a diverse book you’ve read and enjoyed; a diverse book that’s already been released and is in your TBR; and a diverse book that hasn’t been released yet.

Today we’re donning all the crowns, the jewels, the unwieldy layers of fabric, and exploring some diverse books that feature royalty! This was a hard one, but it was either royalty or diverse pilots (you’ll see why in the second half of the post).

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The Tiger’s Daughter by K. Arsenault Rivera

Captive Prince was the first “royal” book that popped to mind, but that one has issues regarding sexual violence, so instead I’m picking the next diverse yet controversial book that immediately popped to mind (because I hate making things easy for myself, apparently), which is The Tiger’s Daughter. There are those who absolutely hated the representation of Asian culture in this book (Japan and Mongolia in particular), others who loved it, and others who didn’t much care. It’s a matter of inspiration vs. appropriation, and while I do think the worldbuilding is lazy in some respects, I don’t believe it portrays East Asian countries in a disrespectful or malicious manner.

So with that immediate digression…

The Tiger’s Daughter is an epistolary novel that follows the lives of Shefali, a child of the nomadic Qorin tribe, and Shizuka, the future empress of Hokkaro–two young girls whose fates were entwined from birth. The prose is breathtaking and the romance between the two characters is beautifully drawn out. The second book is coming out this October and I’m quite eager to get my hands on it.

A-book-on-my-tbrThe Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang

The Prince and the Dressmaker is a standalone graphic novel that stars a prince who loves wearing dresses and his best friend who loves making those dresses. It seems like a sweet story reminiscent of the Princess Jellyfish manga series, and it’s been getting heaps of praises, so I very much look forward to checking it out.

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Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan

 
In this richly developed fantasy, Lei is a member of the Paper caste, the lowest and most persecuted class of people in Ikhara. She lives in a remote village with her father, where the decade-old trauma of watching her mother snatched by royal guards for an unknown fate still haunts her. Now, the guards are back and this time it’s Lei they’re after — the girl with the golden eyes whose rumored beauty has piqued the king’s interest.
Over weeks of training in the opulent but oppressive palace, Lei and eight other girls learns the skills and charm that befit a king’s consort. There, she does the unthinkable — she falls in love. Her forbidden romance becomes enmeshed with an explosive plot that threatens her world’s entire way of life. Lei, still the wide-eyed country girl at heart, must decide how far she’s willing to go for justice and revenge.

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This book doesn’t have a royal protagonist, but it’s set in a royal environment and has a king as a major character, so I figure it’s close enough. The premise reminds me a little of Shannon Hale’s Princess Academy (except more queer and Asian), and I find the “forbidden romance” aspect rather intriguing.

Releases November 6th, 2018

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This is Day 3 of the 3 Days, 3 Quotes, for which I was tagged by Alyssa from Serendipitous Reads!

The Rules

1. Thank the person who nominated you
2. Post a quote for 3 consecutive days (1 quote for each day)
3. Nominate three new bloggers each day

For this last day, I’d like to feature a quote from my favourite littlest prince of all time:

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The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry is my favourite children’s book and one of my favourite books of all time. It’s one of those stories that sinks its claws into you and refuses to let go, becoming more and more meaningful as you grow older.

It also comes with a rather romantic and tragic backstory (or afterstory, rather). The Little Prince opens up with an aviator crashed on a desert, and Saint-Exupéry himself just also happened to be a pilot (he’d inserted his experience with his own near-fatal crash into the story). He’d flew with the Allies during World War 2, until one day, during one mission, he vanished without a trace.

A partial wreckage of his plane has since been found, but I like to believe that he flew himself all the way to Asteroid B-612 to be with the Little Prince. I hope that wherever he is, he managed to find some measure of peace and comfort as I found in his story.

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Today I tag: You! Everyone! If you wish to be tagged, consider yourself tagged!

Review: The Poppy War – Beautiful and Terrible in Equal Measure

the poppy war

Title: The Poppy War
Author: R.F. Kuang
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Release Date: May 1st, 2018
Genre(s): Historical, Fantasy
Page Count: 544 (hardback)
Goodreads

Rating: 8.5/10

 

 

 

Was she now a goddess or a monster?
Perhaps neither. Perhaps both.

Before we get into the review, I would like to put out a Massive Trigger Warning: Much of this story is directly pulled from Chinese culture and history–specifically, the brutality and the mindset of the Sino-Japanese war. Chapter 21 (Part 3) features stark accounts of mass mutilation (of men, women, children, and infants), rape (one of the hardest I’ve ever had to read through), forced prostitution, and animal violence. If you’re sensitive to such subjects, for the sake of your mental health, please, please skip or skim this chapter. Beyond that, there’s genocide, human experimentation, drug use and addiction, and other senseless violence associated with war.

Also, a note to the misguided reviewers calling this book anti-Japanese propaganda: I’ve seen and experienced anti-Japanese propaganda when I was living in Korea, and this is far from it. So kindly go sell that elsewhere.
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The Poppy War is obviously a very different story for Chinese readers (my reading buddy can attest to that). Though I’m acquainted with some of the culture through osmosis from my friends, and due to my own culture’s closeness with China, most of the references slipped by me. That isn’t to say you can’t understand or enjoy the book if you’re not of Chinese heritage; it just means that there are a few deeper layers to the story that you probably won’t be able to access.

The comparisons made to Name of the Wind are fully justified in the first half of the book. Throughout her years at Sinegard Academy Rin meets new friends, makes an enemy with powerful social connections, butts heads with a teacher who hates her, and steals books from the restricted section of the library (which always seems to a staple for fantasy school fiction). Plus, she’s taken under the wing of a teacher who reminds me a lot of Elodin from The Kingkiller Chronicle–mercurial, eccentric, and prone to assign unorthodox tasks as lessons (at least he never tells her to jump off a roof). It’s fun, lighthearted stuff, but there’s always an undercurrent of violence and unease running through it, which eventually erupts in the second half.

Rin is a fantastic protagonist–even at her worst, you can’t not fall in love with her. She’s the ultimate underdog and she scrabbles hard–so fucking hard–to get what she wants. Her determination to succeed at the academy leads to hilarious, intense, and disturbing sequences of events. Moreover, she actually sounds and acts like a teenager, which you don’t often find in adult fantasy–she sasses, she’s brash, and she makes a ton of mistakes. Her struggles will strike a chord with anyone who’s ever had to work twice as hard, twice as much, to obtain the same things that some people are just granted from birth.

The side characters are also interesting and varied in personality–Altan especially. The development of his relationship with Rin is probably my favourite part of the book. It starts off as an adoration, at least on Rin’s part, and companionship. Then it becomes this toxic echo chamber of anger and hatred and vengeance. It’s fascinating, terrible, and heartbreaking stuff, and I couldn’t tear my eyes away.

What I also love about this book is that it presents two enemies. One is obvious from the start: Mugen Federation, the small island nation to the east of Nikara. They’ve been imbibed with the drug that is nationalism and the belief that it’s their destiny to expand their borders and subsume Nikara.

I know many people didn’t like the second half part of the book, and for obvious reasons–it’s gruesome stuff. And I didn’t think I’d particularly like it either, but while I got little enjoyment out of it, I did find it to be the best part of the book. Because this is where our characters face hard truths and harder choices. This is the where Rebecca Kuang stares you in the eye and tells you that this story isn’t military fantasy–it’s real-life culture and history and the brutality of warfare infused with magic. It’s also where the second enemy rears its head: hatred and vengeance. I don’t want to go into detail because it’s something you need to experience for yourself, but the way Kuang slowly reveals how Mugen isn’t the enemy you should most be afraid of is rather quite masterful.

There are a few issues with the book that nagged at me. Uneven pacing is evident at the latter end of Part 1 and start of Part 2. As with many school-based stories, the lesson scenes tend to drag on, and there’s a lull in the transition from Rin-the-schoolgirl to Rin-the-soldier. My biggest pet peeve is Kuang’s tendency to hold the readers’ hand. She would describe a particular scene or a situation and then have Rin explain what it means. You can clearly tell from the dead bodies littering the ground that war is hell, so it’s unnecessary for Rin to literally spell it out in the next paragraph.

Despite its flaws, however, this is a fantastic debut. The Poppy War not only paints a stark portrait of imperialism, war, and destiny versus choice, it asks the question of what you do in the face of senseless evil. Do you meet atrocities with atrocities? And at what cost? What happens when one day you look in the mirror and see that you’ve become the very thing you’re fighting against?

Kuang leaves you with no easy answers and I don’t expect any in the near future.

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Thank you to Edelweiss and Harper Voyager for providing a review copy.

And thank you to Alice for the buddy read! Go check out her review here.

[Review] Jade City – Rich, Bloody, and Gloriously Asian

Jade City
Title: Jade City (The Green Bone Saga 1)
Author: Fonda Lee
Publisher: Orbit Books
Release Date: November 7th, 2017
Genre(s): Fantasy, Crime
Page Count: 512
Goodreads

Rating: 9.0/10

 

 

 

Jade City is Fonda Lee’s adult fantasy debut and it is an absolute firecracker–a brutal tale of two warring families set in a rich, vivid world that teeters between modernity and tradition. Its first chapter is the perfect sampler of what you can expect from the rest of the book: intriguing worldbuilding, a dynamic magic system, vivid descriptions of settings, snappy action scenes, and interesting, cutthroat characters. And the best part? It’s all so gloriously, unabashedly, Asian

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Tell me this isn’t the most adorable map you’ve ever seen.

Kekon is a small island country reminiscent of Southeast Asia. Shaped vaguely like a reptilian embryo, it should win awards for the being the cutest-shaped landmass in the history of fantasy cartography. But, in the story, Kekon is far more notable for being the world’s only source of bioluminscent jade. Only those of Kekonese lineage can harness the jade’s powers to augment existing abilities–speed, strength, and senses–to superhuman levels. Such individuals are known as “Green Bones.” Two powerhouse Green Bone families effectively rule Kekon: the Kauls of No Peak and Ayts of the Mountain clan. The former controls the eastern half of Janloon, Kekon’s capital city, and the latter controls the western half. But pre-existing tensions between the clans have boiled over into hostility, and now it’s an all-out war. To the victor goes the honour, the jade, and control of the country.

There are two things that make Jade City exceptional: worldbuilding and family dynamics.

I’m going to wax poetic about the way Fonda Lee constructed Kekon for the rest of the year, because it’s just so damn good and had me clenching my fist and hissing “yes!” in public like a crazy person. My problem with a lot of fantasy stories is that their worldbuilding feels separate from their magic system. Like you could swap out one magic system from one book with another and there would be very little difference to the world. Such systems tend to feel video gamey–contrived and artificial, regardless of how cool or complex they are.

In Jade City, the world is molded around the magic system–which makes the former feel much more natural and real. Jade isn’t just a magical object, it’s a national symbol that influences every aspect of Kekonese society–commerce, trade, governance, education, religion. Consequently, the powers of the Green Bones don’t feel like magic, but a discipline that’s just common to Kekon.

Moreover, I loved how textured Janloon is. It’s not just a cardboard stage for the characters to play around in, but a character that’s well alive and breathing. And it’s all thanks to small details. Like relayball, a high-intensity sport that is particular to Kekon. Like the various festivals that are held throughout the year, and descriptions of cuisines served at a local favourite restaurant (I had a serious hankering for crispy squid when I finished). Like ordinary middle-aged locals drinking and playing cards in the comfort of their homes. And Kekonese slangs (“You cut?”) and expressions that revolve around jade.

A person hoping for too much good fortune might be warned, “Don’t ask for gold and jade.” A child who demanded a custard tart after already having had a sweet bun was, Lan knew from personal experience, likely to be scolded, “You want gold and jade together!”

Even when the plot’s not moving forward, the world of Janloon is so constantly dynamic and interesting that you hardly notice. It’s a city that you want to get lost in and Fonda Lee has you begging to see more of it.

The story is mostly told from the Kaul family’s point of view. We have Lan, the eldest of the Kaul progeny and the newly-appointed leader of No Peak clan. A leader who is sick of his own advisor questioning his decisions and weary of his younger brother courting trouble with the Mountain clan. We explore through Lan’s eyes the burden of leadership and duty. In a city where public image is everything, he struggles to maintain a confident exterior while battling inner demons. It’s compelling and stressful stuff and I loved every bit of it.

Then there’s Hilo, the middle child and the military arm of the clan. Easygoing and quick to laugh but also quick to anger, he’s the polar opposite of Lan. In the beginning, I felt that Hilo was a fun character but one without much depth. But as the story went on, I saw that there was more to him than meets the eye and he soon catapulted over Lan as my favourite. It’s his passion that got me. The way he wears his heart on his sleeve without shame or fear. How he feels everything with so much intensity. And the fact that he so loves his family and yet is looked down on by most of them. Labelled a volatile thug, overlooked by his mother, and despised by his grandfather, he’s the ultimate underdog. And I do so love those.

“You give a man something to live up to, you tell him he can be more than he is now, more than other people think he’ll ever be, and he’ll try his godsdamned best to make it true.”

Then we have Shae, who’s returned from studying abroad in Espenia (the U.S. equivalent in this world) and is determined to make a living for herself without the help of the Kaul name. And Anden, who, at the age of eighteen, is the youngest (adopted) member of the family. Anden is a quiet, talented young man, who also happens to be gay. I found the way the Kekonese view queerness interesting and different from the attitude found in most fantasy worlds, in that it’s viewed not as a malignancy, but as a kind of an acceptable misfortune.

They are, each and every one, complex people trying to balance family and self-interest in a city that’s gone to hell.

Even discounting the fantastic worldbuilding, the palpable love and bond within the Kaul family makes this an incredibly engaging story. Because at its core, this book isn’t about gangs or magical jade. It’s about family. Asian families, in particular. About the bond that ties each and every member together with a strength that never wanes whether we’re five or five thousand miles apart. There’s something almost frenetic about it–a sense that we are but individual parts of the same whole or, indeed, a clan. That’s why I used to be so confused when I heard North Americans equating family gatherings during holidays to getting their teeth pulled out. Because, for me, such gatherings had held a feeling of rightness to them. A feeling of harmony and completion. And no matter the disagreements, we’ll always come together in the end. Because family is everything.

Until Jade City, I’d never read a fantasy book that captures this dynamic, so a massive thank you to Fonda Lee for that.

This book does its damned best to fill the Gentleman Bastards-shaped hole left in my heart and it feels like just the tip of a very large, very bloody iceberg. The war’s only just begun and I can’t wait to see where things go from here.