Book Review: The Blood Trials
Note how the cover shows the fantasy element with the spears coming from her right knuckles but has the science fiction in the background and her clothes. Pretty great design!
The Blood Trials by N.E. Davenport was a 2022 debut science fantasy novel. It's what people want to call New Adult, as it follows a woman post-high school/early-college. It's the first in The Blood Gift Duology; the second book (The Blood Gift) just hit shelves this spring.
Kenna is the granddaughter of the recently murdered leader of a council-lead government. The technology is very futuristic, but Kenna also has a secret blood magic gift, which is banned. In order to solve her grandfather's murder, she signs up for a post-grad military program to become an elite warrior called a Praetorian. To become a full member, applicants must pass the blood trials, named for the extreme and deadly selection process. Think Hunger Games x Navy Seal Training x Magic. As the trials continue, Kenna is targeted and often only survives assassination attempts due to her magical blood gift. As she uncovers who may be behind it all, she questions everyone around her.
This book was fine. The POV stayed with Kenna, and was deep POV, which I like. The worldbuilding was interesting and unique, though left me with many questions. I liked the romance element and the magic system. I also enjoyed the characters, especially Kenna. She was often angry, and I like seeing books which allow a female character to be angry.
I had problems with this book. Number one, why kill off hundreds of your best warriors while picking your elite fighters? Aren't you killing perfectly capable soldiers, even if they aren't going to be in the top squad? Seems like a waste. This was never questioned. My other major issue was that the plot resolved at the 70% mark, and then a new plot began and didn't wrap up at the end. It felt like the duology was originally a short trilogy that got repackaged as two books to save paper or something. I really disliked that. My last big complaint was that the plot itself felt very familiar. I read a slew of "Hunger Games x Other Element" novels in college, one being Hunger Games x SATs, which was the most similar to this. It made this book predictable on a plot level.
This book is for you if you like science fantasy, if you like Hunger Games x Navy Seal Training as a concept, and if you like murder mystery as a central element. It's not for you if you'll be bothered by the story ending and then starting anew at the 70% mark, if you don't like fight-to-the-death plots, or if you're not in the mental space to read about men physically attacking women.
Have you read The Blood Trials? What did you think? Should I give the sequel a chance? Let's discuss in the comments!
The Nebula Awards are tonight, May 14th! In honor of that, I'm posting my review of Babel by R.F. Kuang, a Nebula nominee for best novel this year. It's Kuang's fourth novel (others by her are the Poppy War Trilogy and her fifth book, Yellowface). Since part of my reading goals incudes more award winners and nominees, I couldn't pass this one up.
Babel focuses on 1830s Oxford, England, where a magic program exists at the university in a tower called Babel. The magic of this world is based on translation and linguistics and requires silver to work. The main character, Robin, is an orphan from Canton, China, brought to England as a child by his guardian/Babel professor. Robin's journey at Oxford (ten years after moving to England) is the main bulk of this beefy tome (557 pages).
I enjoyed Babel a ton. I'm big into etymology, so the fact that magic was based on it and characters had conversations about word origins really worked for me. I also loved the magic system in general, including that it took a ton of studying but was accessible to anyone who tried hard enough (and had the money) to learn it. For that reason, it will be a comp for the WIP I'm finishing. The anti-colonial themes were deftly handled.
A lot of time passes in the novel, and some of it is glossed over that I wanted to read about. This would have made a very long novel even longer, and I wondered if it could have been then split into multiple books. Then again, I have to wonder why some of those glossed over moments were mentioned at all, since the book was already so long and anything not set in a scene wasn't as impactful in the overall story anyway.
This book is for you if you're looking for a magic system that's fresh and different, if you're a fan of linguistics/etymology (especially Latin and Chinese), and if you're on the hunt for anti-colonial themes. It's not for you if you need a thick book to move at a breakneck pace, if you're looking for secondary world fantasy, or if you're not in the right headspace to read about child abuse.
Have you read Babel? What about The Poppy War? What other great award nominees/winners should I read this year? Let's discuss in the comments.
UPDATE: Babel won the 2023 Nebula Award for Best Novel! Congrats R.F. Kuang!
Wilbur was to cozy to post somewhere aesthetically pleasing, and who can blame him? (Photo by Kate Ota 2023)
Bird by Bird is one of those writing books that’s been recommended to me time and time again. Lauded as a must-read for authors, I had high expectations going in that this book had the power to alter my writing process or philosophy in some way.
The book focuses on Lamott's writing process. She's a pantser, and does that thing where characters talk to her. The book discusses the novel process in stages, which is supposed to make the whole thing more digestible. The title refers to the author's brother needing to write a report on birds the night before it's due, and their father saying they'd take it "bird by bird" or one step at a time.
Normally, I highlight a bunch of advice in writing books and leave little flags on pages I expect to reference again, but none of that was necessary for Bird by Bird. It operates under the assumption that the reader shares Lamott’s creative process. Unfortunately, I’m a plotter and I do not wait for characters to speak to me and tell me their secrets. I’m one who has to actively create. Basically, the entire book fell flat for me.
Is It Worth It?
It’s about $14.99 for a paperback copy, though an ebook ($13.99) would have been just as good.
If you’re a pantser looking for a book that will guide you through that process, this is a good book for you. If you prefer to plot and actively create, then this book will not be worth it for you.
Have you read Bird by Bird? Are you one of the people who loved it, or is there anyone who felt disappointed, like me? Let’s discuss in the comments.
The cover is pretty, but doesn't quite make sense for the story except for the setting being the greater San Fran area.
Please Report Your Bug Here is a scifi debut from Josh Riedel. The author has short stories published elsewhere, but this is his first novel. Notably, Riedel was also one of the earliest Instagram employees, which lends credibility to the character Ethan, one of the first employees at a dating app startup in Silicon Valley. The book debuted in early 2023.
Please Report Your Bug here focuses on Ethan, as mentioned above, takes place in 2010, and is framed as Ethan looking back on all this drama from an unspecified point in the future. Using his company's app, Ethan views his most compatible match and is suddenly thrown into an alternate world. While Ethan tries to solve what happened to him and why, he learns he's not the only one who experienced this, and that the buggy code causing it isn't an accident.
I liked some aspects of this book. It reminded me at first of the opening of The Kaiju Preservation Society by John Scalzi, although with less humor and more focus on the startup life. The two diverged by the time of the inciting incident. The book highlighted important problems, like the cost of living in San Fran and the weird way social media companies tried (still try?) to get their employees to basically live at work. The idea of a social media company stumbling onto this tech and using it like this was also very realistic.
On the downside, Ethan didn't develop much as a character, and often felt more like background than a protagonist. I also didn't understand his motivations to keep digging into learning about the anomaly after a certain point. He was also weird with women in a way that left a bad taste in my mouth, and with little else about the character leaving an impression, that's what I remember most.
I think this book would appeal to anyone who was involved in start ups in the 2010s, because you're sure to pick up on inside jokes more than I did. You may also enjoy it if you're big into multiverse stories. It may not be for you if you want something character driven or more escapist.
Have you read Please Report Your Bug Here? What did you think? Let's discuss in the comments!
I Keep My Exoskeletons to Myself is a debut novel by Marisa Crane from an indie publishing company. Though this is a debut novel, Crane has plenty of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry pub credits. It's a literary speculative novel.
In an alternate world, a department exists that assigns an extra shadow to a person who has committed a crime (however, the definition of crime is quite malleable). Kris and her wife have a baby, but her wife dies in childbirth, and the baby is assigned an extra shadow. Kris already has an extra shadow, the story behind which is kept secret for maybe 2/3 of the novel. Kris works her way through grief while their child ages and surrounds herself with other outcasts or misfits of society. It's written in first person with extremely short scenes and often has a stream-of-consciousness feel. The title comes from Kris's habit of naming things with exoskeletons to manage anxiety attacks.
I liked some aspects of this book. It was obviously allegorical, pretty clearly about discrimination (especially against members of the LGBTQIA+ community) and I liked the message. I liked the list of exoskeleton-having creatures when Kris would fight anxiety because the technique of listing items in a category is a real and effective way (one of many) to combat an anxiety attack.
I'm not a literary fiction person, though, so the very short scenes, the tight focus on grief and character instead of plot, and the lack of explanation about the speculative elements were not for me. I couldn't get over wondering how an extra shadow was special because if light hits you from more than one angle, you have an extra shadow anyway. It didn't make sense to me as a literal plot element.
This book is for you if you enjoyed the literary feel of This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone, if you're big into allegories, or if you're in the mental space to read about working through grief. It is not for you if you're still working through grief/loss of a partner or if you want more scifi than literary elements.
Have you read I Keep My Exoskeletons to Myself? Let's discuss in the comments!
Book Review: Anastasia
Paper book means Clue gets to pose with the gorgeous cover! Photo by Kate Ota 2023
This post was a bit delayed, but I'm finally reviewing Anastasia by Sophie Lark. It pubbed (Indie!) in December 2022 and is far from this author's debut. The reason my review is delayed is because I originally read in as an ebook and loved it so much I bought the paperback. I would have bought the hardcover if that was an option. I wanted to wait for that to arrive before posting.
Anastasia is about the famed Grand Duchess Anastasia, but in a dark fantasy setting. There are familiar faces from history/the animated movie: the Romanov sisters, Tsarevich Alexi, Tsar Nicholas and the Tsarina, and Rasputin. In this world, people can have powers, and the royal family is known for time walking, which is actually kind of like super speed rather than time travel. Anastasia is the only child who inherits that power, and being a patriarchy, that's frowned upon. There's also Damian, the son of the Cossack ruler, who was taken as a prisoner/foster as an early teen. He and Anastasia develop a friendship as the country spirals toward revolution. And let's not forget Rasputin, who is even more sinister in the book than reality. When the famed night of the revolution hits, it's nothing like our history books.
I loved this book. I loved the occasional illustrations (a huge reason why I bought the paperback), I loved the plot, I loved the romance, and I went rabid for the twist. I hit the twist at the end of my commute to work and wouldn't shut up about wanting to get back to reading the book for the entire work day. The enemies-to-friends-to-lovers felt organic and the sense of doom knowing it would end in revolution added so much great tension. I think this might be my new favorite book.
I'm struggling to think of negatives. I guess I wish the illustrations were in color, because the amazon page had some color ones which I loved. It's also incredibly long, so buckle up. Otherwise, I see myself reading this over and over and over again.
This book is for fans of the animated Anastasia who loved the magical and romantic aspects, fans of the Broadway play Anastasia who liked the incorporation of more of the history, people who enjoy historical documentaries about the Romanovs, fans of enemies-to-friends-to-lovers/slow burn romances, and fans of unique magic. It's not for you if you are looking for a direct retelling of the animated movie or the Broadway play--those focus mostly on post-revolution events and this book is largely pre-revolution events. (Also, certain characters were likely covered by copyright due to being fictional, like Bartok the bat or Dmitri.) This book may also be hard to read for anyone who recently lost family members, especially to violence.
Have you read Anastasia? What did you think? Which is your favorite: animate movie, Broadway show, or book? Did you know that the author made a Spotify playlist that matches certain scenes? (The ebook has links in the prose when you should listen to the songs!)
Lessons in Chemistry is the debut novel by Bonnie Garmus, which has earned a ton of recognition and acclaim (including the Barnes and Noble Book of the Year) since it hit shelves in 2022. It's my work-based Diversity and Inclusion Book Club pick for this quarter, since this quarter includes Women's History Month.
Lessons in Chemistry focuses on Elizabeth Zott, a young woman in the 1950s/60s California who works as a chemist at a research center. She meets fellow chemist Calvin Evans, they fall in love, and--scandalously for the time--live together unmarried. After Calvin suddenly dies, Elizabeth learns she's pregnant and loses her job. The book follows her journey through grief, child rearing, and her massive success as a TV show host where she teaches chemistry and cooking. Warning: the book contains on page sexual assault, mention of another sexual assault, and an attempted sexual assault.
The book offered interesting, though not surprising, insight into being a woman in the late 1950s/early 60s. Sometimes being a woman in science can still feel the way Elizabeth felt. I thought the cooking/chemistry show was interesting, a bit Bill Nye meets Alton Brown. Elizabeth was, for the most part, a character with agency, which I really liked. I also think it was written quite well in general, and the non-linear timeline was handled well, so it was very clear what was going on when.
I had so many problems with the book. I want to say upfront that despite the long list of complaints below, I totally recognize that I'm not the only person who matters when reading a book and it's totally fine to disagree with me. Not every book is for every person and that's okay. I'm probably in the minority with my complaints (based on how many Best of 2022 lists it made) but I still want to air my grievances because maybe there's a reader out there like me who will realize this is not the book for them.
The POV didn't work for me. I suspect it was meant to be omniscient, however there were scene breaks (example: the cafeteria proposal) that seemed intended to transition from close third POV to another close third POV, except the book still ducked between those perspectives within a single scene anyway. It didn't follow its own rules for POV which was infuriating.
I also don't think Elizabeth was a chemist, because she was either a biochemist or a biologist based on what she was studying. (I consulted with a chemist, who agrees with me.) It would have been so easy to change her topic of study to something else, since abiogenesis didn't impact the plot line itself (swap in any other word for abiogenesis and nothing changes.)
Another complaint is how Elizabeth spoke. I hate the trope of scientists always using the most scientific language possible (example: her first show when people had to call in to ask what the chemical formula she said was and it was vinegar). As someone who was surrounded by scientists (mostly chemists thanks to my dad) my entire life, I can confirm that even the most eccentric ones would have just said vinegar--acetic acid MAYBE, but only in the lab. When similar writing was used on The Big Bang Theory for the male characters, it was always making fun of them (the joke being "they're so smart but so socially awkward and unable to communicate, isn't that funny? So lame! Haha!") When used in this book, I felt like it was similarly mocking Elizabeth, like "Elizabeth is so smart she only uses a way of speaking that others can't understand, isn't she odd? A smart women? Haha!" It really rubbed me wrong.
My last complaint is the ending, which didn't work for me at all. I won't post spoilers, but I'll just say it didn't fit the theme of the book or Elizabeth's character arc.
Overall, not my favorite reading experience. I liked the concept of the story, but not the execution. It's for readers who enjoy omniscient POV (mostly), historical fiction about women (especially in science), and tragic romance. It's not for readers who will be distracted by the POV being weird, readers looking for a story about a real-life historical celebrity chef or scientist, or readers who are not in the emotional headspace to read about car accidents, partner loss, unplanned pregnancy, or sexual assault.
Have you read Lessons in Chemistry? How did you feel about it? Let's discuss in the comments!
Book Review: All Systems Red
All Systems Red by Martha Wells is a scifi novella that starts the Murderbot Diaries series. Series is made of nine novels, novellas, and short stories. All Systems Red won the 2018 best novella Nebula and Hugo awards, the American Library Association's Alex award, and was nominated for the Philip K. Dick Award. It's also frequently cited on agent wish lists for its voice.
The main character of the series is a security unit (SecUnit) who calls herself Murderbot. She was able to disengage her governing programming which would essentially keep her obedient so that she can watch space soap operas in her free time. She's still excellent at her job though; she's in charge pf protecting a team of scientists and surveyors who are exploring part of a planet. However, when they realize their maps are missing data and they were lied to about the planet's dangers, things quickly take a turn.
I see why this novella won so many awards and is big for agents. The unique perspective of Murderbot was funny and snarky without coming off as mean. The world was well built and the action was super clear. It's exactly the kind of scifi that I hope I'm writing!
Downside was my complaint for every novella: I wanted more! It felt like it wrapped up so quickly and easily to fit into the size of a novella.
You'll like All Systems Red if you enjoy funny/quirky scifi like Scalzi, or if you enjoyed the voice in Gideon the Ninth. It's not for you if you are looking for a novel length read (although with so many other entries in the series, you could just read more).
Have you read any (or all!) of the Murderbot Diaries stories? Let's discuss in the chat!
Book Review: Arsenic and Adobo
A very cute cover. Can't forget the little dog, a staple in cozies!
Arsenic and Adobo by Mia P. Manansala is a cozy mystery centered around Lila and her family who own and operate a small Filipino restaurant. It's a fun read and includes recipes for most of the dishes in the back. It's the first book of the Tita Rosie's Kitchen Mystery series, which also include Homicide and Halo-Halo (2022), and Blackmail and Bibingka (2022). Arsenic and Adobo won the 2022 Anthony Award and 2022 Agatha Award, both in the category Best First Novel. The author was a 2017 PitchWars mentee, which shows just how powerful that program was in launching authors' careers.
When Lila's toxic ex dies at her family's restaurant, Lila is a suspect. Knowing her innocence, she tries to solve the murder before her family restaurant has to close forever. In the process, she learns there's more than just murder happening in their small town, and every restaurant has been a victim.
I liked this story a lot. It flowed smoothly and was a fast read. While I didn't know any of the foods at the family restaurant, there was enough description to keep me oriented. There were also a couple love interests that made things exciting beyond the mystery. I could tell this was the start of a series, but it still had closure at the end.
My list of dislikes is pretty short. Mainly, as with many cozy mysteries, I didn't understand why Lila went rogue to solve this alone. Yes, she's a suspect who wants to clear her name, but she wasn't taking any advice from her lawyer, and all the evidence she would would have been inadmissible in court. However, this is my main complaint with almost every cozy, so perhaps it's just a trope I need to let slide when reading this genre.
You'll like Arsenic and Adobo if you like cozy mysteries, books with recipes for the food it describes, and a dash of (PG) romance. It may not be for you if you prefer detective mysteries or expect a higher spice level with your romantic subplots.
Have you read Arsenic and Adobo or the other books in the series? Have you read other novels by PitchWars alums? Let's discuss in the comments!
Book Review: Woman of Light
You know I'm a sucker for a pretty cover!
Woman of Light by Kali Fajardo-Anstine was longlisted for the 2023 Joyce Carol Oats Prize. The book is her debut novel, though she also published an acclaimed collection of short stories and articles for major publications. Woman of Light is about a young Hispanic woman, Luz, in 1930s Denver. It's this quarter's pick for my work's Diversity and Inclusion Book Club, and yes, the author does share a Hispanic background with the main character and majority of side characters.
Luz comes from a line of women with a very vague gift for seeing the future, and Luz uses tea leaves to do so. Luz deals with racism, sexism, and poverty as she navigates a time period after her brother is kicked out of their home. She experiences first love, first lust, and a change in career. There are some time jumps, some of which are visions and some of which aren't, to show the last few generations of women.
This book covered a time period in which I didn't know much about Denver. Growing up in Colorado, our 4th grade Colorado History unit skipped from the frontier to current times, as if nothing interesting happened in between. (After reading Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, I suppose I understand why that era isn't taught to 9- and 10-year-olds.) I found it interesting to see Denver from that era, though sad to see the pervasive racism and sexism.
I had two problems with the book that made it harder to read. First, the time jumps didn't fit into the story for me, and introduced so many characters that I had trouble remembering who was when. It also felt like a lot of things happed to Luz rather than because of Luz. Even in the climactic moment of the book, she doesn't initiate or resist it, she just goes with the flow. Since I prefer active characters (especially ones who are women) this was a major drawback for me. Aside from those issues, a smaller complaint was that Luz's gift, which felt so important in the blurb I read, had little impact on the story and in my opinion, might as well have not been included.
This book is for you if you're into historical fiction, especially the 1930s or the not-so-wild West, or if you're into literary fiction. It's not for you if you like your speculative elements to have a more central role, if you're looking for active characters, or if you're not in a good mindset for reading about racism, racially-motivated violence, or sexual assault.
Have you read Woman of Light? What do you think? Let's discuss in the comments!