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!
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!)
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!
2022's Resolutions: Updates
A year ago, I posted my 2022 reading and writing resolutions. Now it's time to check in and see how I did.
Goal: Read 45 books
Achieved! I read 45 books exactly and reviewed 23 of them (see links below)
Goal: 8 of those books would be indies
Achieved! I read 8 indies exactly and reviewed 3 of them (see links below)
Goal: Greater than 50% of the books would be written by female authors
Achieved! 66.66% were written either exclusively by women or at least one woman, where multiple authors contributed
Goal: At least 50% of the books would be written by authors who have a marginalized identity.
Achieved! 55.55% were written either exclusively by or including at least one author with at least one marginalized identity
I read a ton of great books this year. It was a good mix of new, old, big hits, and quieter releases. SciFi and Fantasy tied as my most common genres, which is no surprise as those are always my favorites.
Here's my reading list from 2022:
Goal: Have my WIP query ready by February
Achieved! I sent my first round of queries for this project in February 2022.
Goal: Send at least 5 queries per month
11/12 on this one, can't win them all, though some months I sent more than 5.
Goal: Complete the first draft of my next WIP by August 2022
Nope! This one is still under construction.
Goal: Continue attending writing groups whenever possible
Goal: Keep up with this website
Achieved! A couple months were slimmer on content than others, but that's the way it goes sometimes.
I'm still deciding on my 2023 resolutions/goals. Did you achieve your 2022 goals? Did we read any of the same books? Let's discuss in the comments!
Book Review: The Matzah Ball
The cover of The Matzah Ball. Why yes, I am looking forward to the movie (rights were optioned in Feb 2022!)
The Matzah Ball by Jean Meltzer is a Hanukkah romance. Basically, take the tropes of any Hallmark Christmas movie and make it Hanukkah. If you've seen any of those movies, you'll love the little nods to those plot beats. The main character, Rachel, is the daughter of a famous rabbi, but she has a secret--she writes Christmas romance novels. Living with her Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, she must constantly measure how much energy she's willing to spend and how much recovery time each action will cost. Her bubble of normalcy is burst when her pre-teen summer camp rival, Jacob, comes to town to throw a ritzy Matzah Ball on the eighth night of Hanukkah. Not only that, but her publisher wants her to pivot from Christmas romance to Hanukkah romance, and she needs a ticket to the sold-out Matzah Ball to get in the spirit. Jacob, still healing from his mother's death, needs Rachel's famous father to make his Matzah Ball feel like an authentic, and celebrity-scale party. However, seeing Rachel sparks old feelings and he goes about courting her all wrong. In the end, he needs his party to be a success to keep his business afloat.
This story was adorable. We read it for Diversity and Inclusion Book Club at work, and it was a perfect choice. Easy reading, festive for December, Jewish author and characters, disabled author and main character, and no sex--perfect for a work-based book club. I loved the nods to tropes; for example, instead of running into a "Santa" type figure who propels the plot in a secret way, like Christmas movies always have, she runs into an Orthodox Jewish man, who also helps move the plot forward by letting Rachel know about the Matzah Ball by leaving his newspaper behind. There's also a very sweet Grandmother with a Holocaust story unlike I'd ever heard. (And yet someone in book club had heard a very similar survival story. What are the odds?)
On the downside, it was quite long--400 pages. We almost didn't choose this book because of it's length. Some of Jacob's choices were also so cringey. What adult thinks his ideas would be good ideas to woo a woman? The two of them just needed to talk.
You'll enjoy this book if you're looking for a no-sex romance, a Hanukkah setting, or a rivals-to-lovers story. You may not enjoy this book if you want sex in the book or if you are going to be frustrated by the many holiday romance tropes.
Side note: my library didn't have an ebook copy of The Matzah Ball, but when I requested it, they bought it! Shout out to the library!
Have you read The Matzah Ball or any other non-Christmas holiday romances? Let's discuss in the comments!
Book Review: Iron Widow
The cover of Iron Widow, which is a pretty badass cover
Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao is a secondary world fantasy and start of a series, though the rest of the series isn't out yet. The book has won a lot of best of fiction awards and hit best sellers lists. Iron Widow follows Zetian, a scifi version of Wu Zetian, the only female Chinese Empress in her own right. In this world, giant magical mecha-suits piloted by a male-female pair fight off attacking alien-esque mecha-suit-material bug things. The male pilots often drain the female pilots of their energy until they die. One pilot did that to Zetian's sister and now Zetian is out for revenge.
This book required quite a bit of world set up for me to get it, but once things clicked, I was in. I wanted Zetian to enact her revenge and boy oh boy, I was not disappointed. Even knowing that, I didn't predict most of this book, which is great because with all the research I've done about plotting I don't get surprised often anymore.
My list of downsides is really short for this one. Neither of the love interests made me root for them a ton until the end. One was a little too self-hating (ala Edward Cullen) and one was a little too entitled/clingy (ala Edward Cullen). You see the issue. But they both became better toward the end of the novel, which I suppose is the point of character growth.
This book is for you if you liked the vibe of the Cinder series by Marissa Meyer, the magic is present but there's so much more happening situation in the Green Bone saga by Fonda Lee, and the sister out for revenge plot of The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh. It's not for you if reading about the loss of a sister or romantic partner isn't for you, or if the mention of rape (not of an on-page character) isn't for you either.
Have you read Iron Widow? Are you excited for the sequel Heavenly Tyrant in 2023? Let's discuss in the comments!
When a Book Gets Your Job Wrong
Pipetting hand cramps are real. Photo by Louis Reed on Unsplash
Have you ever read a book that depicts someone with your job, or at least in your field, and the author gets it totally and completely wrong? That happened to me recently. I work in biotech, specifically we make proteins (for example antibodies) to treat disease. I picked up a book about a scientist who was studying a protein to treat a disease and I was excited. With a pub date this year, the book led me to expect the science would be up to date.
It wasn't even close.
The science in this scifi was more than a decade out of date. I was so thrown off because the other tech was clearly modern (with kids having iPads, hashtags and social media, etc.). The plot was entirely based on the scientist having to do their work the very very old fashioned way. Needless to say, I struggled to enjoy the book.
When I got to the end, I thought perhaps the author had never spoken to anyone about the science. However, the acknowledgement section was full of names--mostly doctors. I don't expect MDs to know HOW antibodies are produced industrially, but I do expect them to know that antibodies CAN be produced industrially. In the end, I suspect the author never spoke to anyone who actually works in biotech today. Or if she did, maybe she didn't want to change her entire plot.
But wait, you say, why didn't an editor intervene? This book was self-published and likely didn't employ the kind of editor who would take it upon themselves to fact check the science. Especially given the author talked to doctors, any line or copy editor wouldn't even think about changing that sort of thing.
So, what did I learn from this reading experience that I can apply to writing? If you're writing outside your familiarity zone, be it a job or another aspect of a person, be sure to speak with people who have the most direct experience with that thing. At the very least, Google recent headlines in that space. Technology, especially biotech, computer/software, and AI, have all exploded forward in the last decade. Even if you're familiar with something, reach out to an expert. Especially before pinning your entire plot on that thing!
Have you ever seen your job or a similar career in a book? Did the author nail it, or totally miss the mark? Let's discuss in the comments!