Review: Once Upon A River – A Non-Magical Magical Delight

river

Title: Once Upon a River
Author: Diane Setterfield
Publisher: Atria Books
Release Date: December 4th, 2018
Genre(s): Mystery, Historical
Subjects and Themes: Stories about stories
Page Count: 421 (hardback)

Rating: 8.5/10

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On a dark, misty night in the small English village of Radcot, locals gather at the Swan Inn to cap their day with drinks and lore. The 600-year-old pub is a famed hub for storytellers, but the patrons cannot know that their evening will be stranger than any tale they could weave. Into the inn bursts a mysterious man, sopping and bloodied and carrying an unconscious four-year-old girl. But before he can explain who he and the child are, and how they came to be injured, he collapses.

Upriver, two families are searching desperately for their missing daughters. Alice Armstrong has been missing for twenty-four hours, ever since her mother’s suicide. And Amelia Vaughan vanished without a trace two years prior. When the families learn of the lost little girl at the Swan Inn, each wonders if their child has at last been found. But identifying the child may not be as easy as it seems.

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So, I’d staunchly avoided Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale when it first came out. The NYT bestseller stamp and the heaps of praise it was getting made me think it was one of those bland mainstream hits.

In other news, I’m a shallow idiot. Because if Once Upon A River is any indication of Setterfield’s talents, I have been missing out on some incredible storytelling.

Once Upon a River is an absolutely delightful, charming, whimsical tale. Take every word in every language that describes the experience of sitting around an open fire swaddled in blankets and listening to a veteran storyteller work their magic, dump them into a pot, stir for a minute or two, and you’ll have Once Upon a River.

And it’s a book I recommend to everyone whether you’re a fan of historical mystery or not, and for several reasons.

1) It’s one of those stories that straddle multiple genres and flirts with the possibility of speculative. So there’s kind of something for everyone.

2) For all you fantasy readers, this is a fantasy that’s not actually a fantasy.

No no no, hear me out. While there are no actual fantastical happenings, the fantasy is in the atmosphere it creates, in its exploration of the unknown and the unexplained. The way that the river seems to be its own character with its own whims. The utter embrace of the magic and the power of stories. It’s got the heart and the soul of what makes a good fantasy a good fantasy.

3) This book is an absolutely unabashed love letter to stories and I don’t know how anyone can say “no” to that.

As we flit through the lives of the colourful characters that inhabit this book, we explore the beauty of the human mind to be able create different stories out of the same event. And how those stories can be controlled but only to a certain extent, after which they take a life of their own and speed off in wild directions.

The book also does a wonderful job exploring the kinds of stories that we tell ourselves for darker purposes. Stories that we create to mask our guilt and pain and sorrow. Lies, if you will. But not really. More like…picking worlds that we can bear living in.

Basically, if you like books, you should read this. And if you don’t like books, then let this be my attempt to convert you to the dark side, because Once Upon a River is a perfect winter read that will make you fall in love with stories–for the first time or for the billionth.

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Review copy provided by the publisher via Netgalley. All opinions are my own.

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.

~
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.

Diversity Spotlight Thursday: Historical Fantasy

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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.

This week’s topic is: Historical Fantasy (aka my two favourite genres mashed together)

Diversity-Spotlight---Historical-Fantasy

A-book-I-have-read2The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley

I came into this book expecting nothing and left it in a state of euphoria. The Bedlam Stacks is not only one of my top 5 books of last year, it’s one of my favourites of all time. I will definitely do a mini review on it sometime in the future, but here’s what I have to say for now.

This is a story of a 19th-century expedition to the heart of Peru starring Merrick, an ex-smuggler from the British East India Company, and Raphael, a Peruvian priest who guides Merrick to the mysterious village of Bedlam. It’s a quiet, magical, beautiful journey that ruminates on the nature of time and human connection. Natasha Pulley captures the heart of loneliness and love in a way that few writers can, and her characters wind through your very being and leave an indelible mark.

Goodreads | Amazon (US) | Book Depository

A-book-on-my-tbrLovecraft Country by Matt Ruff

H.P Lovecraft is one of those talented, now-deceased authors who paved the way for so many subsequent writers (and other artists) and whose work is admired by many, but who were also human trash fires when it came to morality.

Lovecraft and racism and go together like Russia and political interference of foreign countries. So what better way to tackle Lovecraftian horror than through the eyes of a black family in 50’s America? This book probably has dear old Howard writhing in his grave, and just for that it deserves a read.

Goodreads | Amazon (US) | Book Depository

a-book-releasing-soonWitchmark by C.L. Polk

In an original world reminiscent of Edwardian England in the shadow of a World War, cabals of noble families use their unique magical gifts to control the fates of nations, while one young man seeks only to live a life of his own.

Magic marked Miles Singer for suffering the day he was born, doomed either to be enslaved to his family’s interest or to be committed to a witches’ asylum. He went to war to escape his destiny and came home a different man, but he couldn’t leave his past behind. The war between Aeland and Laneer leaves men changed, strangers to their friends and family, but even after faking his own death and reinventing himself as a doctor at a cash-strapped veterans’ hospital, Miles can’t hide what he truly is.

When a fatally poisoned patient exposes Miles’ healing gift and his witchmark, he must put his anonymity and freedom at risk to investigate his patient’s murder. To find the truth he’ll need to rely on the family he despises, and on the kindness of the most gorgeous man he’s ever seen.

~
Does that sound good to you? Because it sounds pretty damn good to me. I love World War stories and while historical fiction is currently oversaturated with it, we don’t see enough of it explored in speculative fiction. This sounds like just the thing to satisfy my cravings and I can’t wait.

Releases June 19th
Goodreads | Amazon (US) | Book Depository

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Let me know if you’ve read any of these books and/or if any of them catches your eye! And recommend me more historical fantasy books to read!

[Review] The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle – Twisty, Original, and Utterly Spellbinding

The Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle

Title: The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle
Author: Stuart Turton
Publisher: Raven Books (Imprint of Bloomsbury UK)
Release Date: February 8th, 2018 (UK); September 18th, 2018 (NA)
Genre(s): Mystery, Science Fiction
Page Count: 528 pages
Goodreads

Rating: 9.5/10

 

 

Stuart Turton is a twisted fucking genius. I doff my hat to the mysterious acid-fueled voice that must have whispered into his brain at 3 AM that an Agatha Christie/Quantum Leap/Groundhog Day mashup would be the perfect debut novel. Because holy hell, it’s been a while since I’ve had this much fun reading. The Seven (7 1/2 in the North American version) Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is the best whodunit story I have ever read and it has just reserved itself a VIP spot on my Best of 2018 list.

It starts with a lost memory. A name torn from the throat (“Anna!”). A mad chase through the woods. A woman’s scream. Our protagonist (Aiden) does not remember who he is or how he came to be at Blackheath House, a crumbling Georgian manor situated in the middle of nowhere. It is where the Hardcastles are throwing a masquerade ball to celebrate the return of their daughter, Evelyn, from France. Except Evelyn will be murdered by the end of the evening. And Aiden will need to solve her murder in order to leave this place.

Here’s the catch, though: every time he wakes up, the day rewinds itself and he’s thrown into the body of a different guest.

Eight same days. Eight different hosts. One woman murdered. Again and again. Fail by the end of day eight and the cycle begins anew.

Simple enough?

…Not quite.

There are many things that set Seven Deaths apart from your standard mystery:

1) The whole, you know, body hopping thing.

2) A protagonist with a…fluid personality:
Our protagonist is a bit of a sponge. He exhibits his own personality, but whenever he wakes up in the body of a new guest, much of their personality ends up seeping into his own. This makes things doubly interesting. It’s also one of the only times I can say, “this character is so inconsistent,” and have it be a good thing.

3) A non-linear timeline:
I don’t want to elaborate much more because it’s best to experience this for yourself, but let’s just say bodies aren’t the only thing Aiden’s hopping through.

I can safely say I have never read anything like Seven Deaths before. It’s a perfect meld of scifi and mystery, with a plot that branches out into a million different directions. And just when you think you’ve seen the last of the author’s tricks, you get one more surprise, and then another…and another. Until they all accumulate and build up to a rousing crescendo of a finale. It’s absolutely brilliant and your brain will be twisted into knots. The prose is also fantastic. Short and to-the-point in tense moments, but beautiful and meandering in others. It’s not just a fun story; it’s also an introspective one that ruminates on the nature of individuality and redemption.

Add to all this a protagonist who is stubborn and empathetic–a combination that makes him so easy to root for–and an eclectic cast of side characters–likeable and shy, clever and witty, arrogant and repulsive, and every one of them hiding sordid secrets–and you have a story that is destined to leave a mark in literary history.

I can’t further articulate how enamoured I am with this book without spoiling stuff, so I’ll just leave you with a mental image of wild flailing arms and incoherent screeching. And two words: Read it.

If you love mysteries, read it.

If you hate mysteries and love scifi, read it.

If you want a story that takes one of the most audaciously brilliant premises ever and pulls it off with aplomb and fireworks, then read it.

If you want your characters complex and interesting and not 2D cardboard cutouts of the Clue cast, read it.

Don your tiaras and plague doctor masks and go get ready for the Hardcastle Masquerade Ball. Oh, and strap on some knives and a pistol or two, because things are going to get very strange and very, very bloody.

~
Note: If you’re in North America, you’re going to have to wait until September 18th for the release. Or, if you’re impatient (and you should be), you can pick it up from Book Depository.

 

Smoke City – A Beautiful Story of Redemption and Hope and How We Choose to Live Our Lives

Smoke City
Title: Smoke City
Author: Keith Rosson
Publisher: Meerkat Press
Release Date: January 23rd, 2018
Genre(s): Contemporary, Fantasy, Paranormal, Historical Fiction
Page Count: 330 pages
Goodreads

Rating: 9.5/10

 

 

I’m speechless. I came into this book expecting something interesting and thought-provoking based on the cover and the blurb, but what I got exceeded my already-high expectations in every single way. I cried and laughed and cried. If you read one book this year, make it Smoke City. It is a dizzy melting pot of genres and subgenreshistory, fantasy, paranormal, and contemporary road trip. It had every potential to go off the rails. Instead, Keith Rosson has nailed every single element and given us an unforgettable story that brims with humour, hope, and the small and large truths of our lives.

We are often told that we only get one life in this world, so make the best of it. Live without regrets. But what if we do get more than one life? And what if our regrets follow from one life to the other? These are questions that haunt Marvin Deitz.

Marvin is on the cusp of his 57th birthday. He’s the owner of a small record store in Portland, and, apart from his eyepatch, looks like nothing more than a nondescript office clerk. He also happens to be the most recent reincarnated form of Geoffroy Thérage, the French executioner of Joan of Arc. Yeah, you read that right. He believes he’s cursed to be reborn again and again, presumably until the end of time, as penance for the sins of his first life.

The Three Parameters of the Curse:

1) I will die sometime between infancy and my fifty-sixth birthday. I have never, ever lived to my fifty-seventh birthday, in any of my lives.
2) I will always suffer some significant disfigurement or physiognomic alteration sometime between infancy and my first two decades of life. Generally pretty early on. The disfigurement will be something that, to some degree, alters and dictates the pathway of my existence. Loss of limb, birth defect, etc. Losing an eye, as I did in this life, is actually somewhat mundane.
3) When I die, I will without fail die a violent death. No going peacefully in my sleep for this guy.

Marvin retains all memories of his previous lives, all of which are fraught with pain and horror. His past actions haunt himthe prisoners he tortured and the innocent lives he ended. And the heaviest burden of them all: the burning of Joan. Life has become a blur of greys and all he wants is to wait for the next violent death to claim him.

Michael Vale was once a young rising rockstar of a painter. The next big thing in the art world. But he burned too bright, too fast, and got too arrogant. One mistake led to another and another, and before he knew it, his career and personal life were taking a nose-dive. He’s neck deep in assault charges, bottles of alcohol, and no longer has the will to paint. Now he works as a cashier at a taco joint, dealing out hatred to himself and  others.

As these two men meet and journey their way to Los Angeles, we alternate between their viewpoints, each chapter short and digestible. We also get flashbacks to Vale’s early life and Marvin’s many lives, including that of Thérage. The latter provides a fascinating and bleak glimpse into the life of an executioner in the Middle Ages. Short, but told with so much pain, they make up some of the best parts of the story.

Vale and Marvin are a brilliant pair of contrasts and similarities. One mild-mannered and empathetic, the other perpetually brimming with energy and anger. Both wrapped up in regrets and bitterness. Both lost and fracturedshackled by the weight of their past and the off-handed cruelty of life.

You would think that in a story featuring the reincarnation of Joan of Arc’s executioner, said reincarnation would be the main draw. And it was, at first. But there was something about Michael Vale and his self-destructive ways that I found equally fascinating. Vale is an unrepentant alcoholic, he’s quick to anger, and would sooner land a punch than talk his way out of a confrontation. Seemingly plucked straight out of a grimdark novel, he’s someone you would give a wide berth at parties. Yet his story is one that invites sympathy and sorrow. Because it’s so very human. It’s mired in self-hatred and a lost love of life that so many of us can relate to. Marvin is the more likeable of the two, and his story is, if anything, even sadder–a string of hopes dared and crushed. He is a complicated mesh of history and fiction that you won’t be able to take your mind off of.

Their quest to find purpose and redemption is one that I was rooting super hard for.

The side characters that orbit these two are all very engaging and I chalk that up to the author’s touch for colloquial dialogues. They flow perfectly and they shift effortlessly from funny to moving. Gems like this, for example:

“So what is it that’s going to keep you afloat in Kodiak chew and ironic shirts when you’re in Los Angeles? Huh, my new friend Casper?”
Casper peered down at his chest. “What do you mean, ironic shirts?”
Vale’s eyebrows arched up. “I mean your shirt, man. The bald eagle holding the beer? Driving the truck? It’s ridiculous.”
“How is it ironic?”
“You mean it’s not ironic?”
Casper shrugged. “I don’t know. I like trucks. I like beer. Eagles are cool. I like it.”

The setting plays as equally an important role as the characters. I think the best road trip books are the ones that take mundane placesa parking lot, a motel, a stretch of farmlandand infuse them with a sense of both the familiar and the strange. Rosson does just that. He has a knack for distilling the heart of a location, a person, a scene, and transcribing them into words. His descriptions of the cityscape and its people are apt and so, so beautiful.

Speaking of strange, the author apparently thought that having the reincarnation of a 14th century executioner for a protagonist wasn’t weird enough, so he decided to add ghosts into the mix. In this version of America, smoke spirits (ghosts that resemble smoke, basically) have begun to appear in California and New Mexico. No one quite knows what they are, though plenty of theories are thrown aroundeverything from Russian scams to signs of the apocalypse. For most of the book, these ghosts exist in the background. It’s not until near the end that they merge with the main plot, and the result is well worth the wait.

Smoke City is a story of how much power we give to our pasts. Of how the choices we make too often dictate how we see ourselves for years down the line, sometimes the rest of our lives. How we punish ourselves for our actions, tell ourselves we don’t get to have happiness, that it’s too late to fix things. How we get trapped in an endless cycle of self- recrimination. And when life beats us down, we tell ourselves we deserve it.

But we are more than the summation of our mistakes. The past can be wielded by its hilt, not the blade.

And it’s never too late.