Fantasy Young Adult

Down Comes the Night by Allison Saft


This gothic fantasy romance started off pretty interestingly, and is not your usual fantasy romance. The main character, Wren, is not a grrl powa warrior (not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with that, but not everyone’s a badass warrior, obviously), but is, of all things, a combat medic. She is a magic surgeon of sorts, able to heal people with her magic and perform surgeries with her magic. Her country, Danu, has an uneasy cease-fire with neighboring country Vesria, and this is threatened by the fact that some Danuvian soldiers, one of whom is Wren’s friend, have gone missing.

Wren is in love with her superior, Una, who, at age eighteen, is already a war hero and very much respected by the Queen, Isabel, who also happens to be Wren’s aunt. Being related to the queen doesn’t help Wren much, as her mother, the queen’s sister, passed away and her father was a commoner and isn’t in the picture. All Wren wants is for her aunt to love her, but the Queen just, sadly, isn’t interested.

Wren has spent most of her life in an abbey, where the Queen banished her once her mother died, and it was there that she learned to perform healing magic for the benefit of their triune Goddess. This is interesting, as the religion, on its surface, looks a lot like Catholicism, with nuns and abbeys and such, but also pagan elements, like the description of the goddess, who has three heads – maiden, mother and crone. This goddess, like the God I worship, is also pretty vengeful, and demands you pay people threefold.

Wren and Una are on an assignment and, due to Wren’s emotions, it goes awry, and Wren is dismissed from service and sent back to the abbey. There she gets a letter from a noble, one that lives in the neutral country of Cernos, the only country whose inhabitants have no magic.

In the meantime, one of Danu’s most feared enemies, Hal Cavendish, the Reaper of Vesria (due to his magic, of which amounts to a magical death stare that basically kills people instantly – think of like, a male Medusa or something) has gone missing. Wren discovers that Vesrian soldiers have gone missing too.

In the interest of using Cernos as a mediator between the two nations, Wren decides to respond to the letter, of which was written by Lord Alistair Lowry, and travels to his estate, Colwick Hall, despite getting a new assignment from her aunt. It is here that most of the action takes place, because Lord Lowry has asked Wren to heal one of his servants, given that his servants have been dying of a mysterious disease.

This is a bit of a spoiler, but the servant Lowry has her heal happens to be Hal Cavendish, who has arrived at Colwick Hall to investigate the disappearance of the Vesrian soldiers. Wren, naturally, is horrified because of course, this is the guy that killed her fellow Danuvian soldiers, and who has a fearsome reputation. But he’s obviously very, very ill, and Wren has already signed a contract with Lowry to cure this “servant” of the illness.

Anyway, we see Wren get down to the business of diagnosing Hal and treating his illness (which turns out to be poisoning), and they slowly fall in love. She’s attracted to him right from the get go, but spends a good chunk of the story trying to convince herself that he’s a monster. Well, he did kill a lot of people, but the treatment gives them the opportunity to talk to one another, and they get to know each other, and slowly come to realize that a lot of what their respective countries’ governments and media is total bullcrap.

I love Hal. He’s a very interesting character who has a devastating magic ability, one that reminds me of Rogue from the X-Men. He’s clearly not the monster Wren or anyone else thinks he is, although he’s a good soldier, obviously. But he’s also intelligent and is deeply scarred by the war and the things he’s done. By the time Wren arrives at Colwick Hall to treat him, he’s basically used up his magic.

Which brings me to the magic system – I love it. Everyone has a system in their bodies called the fola. The fola is like a separate nervous system where their magic energy is stored. It glows or otherwise colors a person whenever it is used, and one can exhaust this magical energy. Rest usually brings it back, but it is possible to permanently lose one’s magic, and it can also be permanently removed from a person by surgically severing the fola. If a person uses their magic illegally, their magic can be severed from their use, and this is something Wren is afraid of.

Another thing I really liked is how both Hal and Wren essentially have PTSD due to their service in the war. This is realistic, and a lot of YA novels featuring warriors or whatever don’t really have characters that have PTSD or are affected by the things they’ve done. Wren gets flashbacks and so does Hal. Both have nightmares. It’s all very realistic.

Meanwhile, at first it seems that Colwick Hall is haunted, but that turns out to not be the case. In fact, what’s going on at Colwick Hall, and with Lord Lowry, is kind of predictable. Obviously, when Wren arrives, Lord Lowry is very strange and is clearly hiding something. He also tells Wren that his father was obsessed with figuring out why the people of Cernos don’t have magic. Here’s another spoiler, and it’s a big one – Lowry is clearly continuing his father’s work, as he thinks that if he and his fellow Cernosians can have magic in addition to their superior technology (they’ve harnessed electricity, unlike Danu and Vesria), they can be a world superpower.

At some point, Wren realizes that she could bring Hal to her aunt, and have her place in the military restored, and wrestles with this because she does fall deeply in love with him. She was also in love with Una, but eventually sees her as a best friend rather than a girlfriend. Relationships between soldiers was forbidden anyway, so their romantic relationship always came across as one-sided.

Hal helps Wren to see that her emotions and her compassion for others, including those that are technically her enemy, is a good thing. Previously, she felt that her emotions always got her into trouble. And it still does, even to the very end, but that’s still one of her best qualities.

Hal no longer believes in the military’s cause, because too many Vesrians hid their true intentions behind the banner of patriotism, as he says.  This kind of reminds me of lefty criticism of the Iraq War, and of course, Hal being essentially a veteran with PTSD and guilt.

Both Hal and Wren wanted to feel useful, and their magic was the key to being seen as useful to those around them.  But both were used by their respective governments.  Both also want an end to the war, and that was partly her original intent – to bring Hal back as prisoner, who would then find the missing soldiers, and she’d be reinstated to her original position and the Queen would finally accept her.  Still had ulterior motives, but she did want to end the war.  Hal wants to become grand magistrate, and to do that, he has to solve the case of the missing soldiers.  He wants Vesria to be a place where kids grow up happy, not as soldiers.

Excellent quote:  “Both Danu and Vesria created monsters the moment they stooped to recruiting children.”  I agree with this wholeheartedly, even though, of course, in our military, you have to be eighteen to serve.  But I get the point – to recruit twelve year olds, for example, and teach them to kill…that is seriously messed up.  Both Hal and Wren joined their militaries at very young ages (Hal when he was eight, and Wren when she was twelve).

I hope the teenagers that read this book remember that quote.  If your society teaches children to kill…that’s about as low as it can get.

The author really knows human anatomy, because the narration and Wren’s dialogue is peppered with anatomical terms.  I liked that, as it made Wren feel realistic as a combat medic and surgeon.  I also liked the magic system – there’s a source for the magic, it isn’t the cure-all, it has its limits and it can be permanently lost through overuse, or deliberately by the surgical severing of the fola.

I thought the mystery at Colwick Hall and the mystery of the missing soldiers was a little too predictable and convenient – of course the missing soldiers would end up at Colwick Hall, the very place Wren travels to.  The story is pretty much a gothic romance set in a fantasy realm that is inspired by Victorian-era Europe, as far as I can tell.  It is primarily a love story, documenting the romantic relationship between Wren, a Danubian, and Hal, the feared Reaper of Vesria.  They should be enemies, yet eventually fall deeply in love and are prepared to sacrifice what’s important to them to prevent another war breaking out between their respective countries, as both are deeply scarred by the war (and both suffer from PTSD).

The story is neatly wrapped up and does not end on a cliffhanger, but there’s also a possibility of a sequel if it does well.  I wouldn’t mind a sequel, but this one is kind of rare in that it’s not set up to be a series or trilogy or whatever – the story stands on its own.

A copy of this book was provided by Wednesday Books and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Fantasy Young Adult

Red Tigress by Amelie Wen Zhao

I loved Blood Heir and was very, very surprised to be granted access to a copy of its sequel, Red Tigress by NetGalley and the publisher, so a big, huge thanks to them for letting me read it!

Anyway, Morganya has taken over Cyrilia and things have changed up for Affinites – now they are protected by Morganya’s regime, but unfortunately, are still exploited by both Morganya and others.

Rumors start to swirl that Morganya is after an artifact that can bestow Affinities on ordinary people. Ana looks for her friend Yuri, who has started an organization against Morganya called the Red Cloaks, because she needs allies if she’s going to take the throne back from Morganya. Unfortunately, Yuri and his organization is strictly against monarchies of any sort, and his envoy not only turns her down flat, but ends up stabbing her and leaving her for dead.

Meanwhile, Ramson wants to settle an old score, and has also heard that the trafficking of Affinites has not ended. He and Ana do end up reuniting and eventually travel to his home country of Bregon, where the vast majority of the story takes place.

We meet some new characters – Kais, the yaeger responsible for May’s fate, happens to be the son of Samaira, the Affinite who can see the future. He is a very interesting, and conflicted character who Ana is resistant to at first, for obvious and understandable reasons. But she comes around, and he helps her master her affinity. Before, like many Cyrliians, her use of her Affinity was wild and unrefined (unlike the Kemeirans, Linn’s people, who learn to wield their Affinities in childhood).

Then there’s Ramson’s half-sister Sorsha, the “legitimate” sibling, and has been used in experiments by her father, of which has basically driven her mad with vengeance.  You feel a tinge of sympathy for her, given what she’s been put through by her father who never showed her any actual love, but not too much…after all, she could have chosen a different path, and didn’t.

That’s an important part of the second half of the novel – even when it seems that you do not have choices, (Ana even goes so far as to believe that choices are a luxury), you do.  Kais, the yaeger, is faced with a choice.  So does Ramson, so does Linn, so did the head scholar that offered Ana some valuable information after initially hesitating to do so.  But Sorsha chooses wrong, sadly.

I also must make a brief mention of the King of Bregon, a young boy who finds himself surrounded by people, including Ramson’s father the admiral, who will do anything for power. He’s actually a pretty smart kid, though.

There are some twists and turns and betrayals that while won’t be terribly surprising, are interesting anyway. We also see the departure of two antagonists we originally met in the first novel, neatly wrapping up those storylines, but of course, there’s still the threat in the form of crazy Sorsha and her alliance with Morganya.

I have to mention this next bit, and I consider it to be a big spoiler, so here’s a fair warning.

Fantasy Young Adult

Blood Heir by Amelie Wen Zhao

After all the drama surrounding this book, I never actually got around to reviewing it until now. I started reading it in late 2019, and I meant to actually write the review after I read it, but I got sick and then it just fell to the wayside.

Until now.

This is a retelling of the Anastasia Romanova myth – that the Archduchess Anastasia survived the massacre of her family, the Imperial Royal Family of Russia, at the hands of the Bolsheviks. This myth was, and still is, pretty popular, and was even made into an animated film very much akin to Disney’s popular princess films (although the film, titled Anastasia, was a 20th Century Fox production, the studio of which is now owned by Disney). I have always seen retellings as kind of sad because of course, we now know that Anastasia did not survive and that her remains were eventually found.

Blood Heir is a very loose retelling of the myth, the author having created a rich and fascinating world for everything to take place in. The main character, Anastacya Mikhailov (aka Ana), is the heir to not the Russian Empire, but an empire called Cyrilia, which is inspired by Russian history and culture. Ana has a magical ability that is seen as dangerous – she can control the blood of other living beings. Her father, the emperor, is murdered, and she is blamed for it. Ana flees the palace, vowing to find her father’s killer, and eventually meets up with Ramson Quicktongue, a cunning criminal. He’s pretty much the only person who can help her get justice for her father’s murder.

Now, of course, this book was originally due to be released in June 2019, but because of the backlash due the depiction of slavery in the book, the author originally decided to cancel the publication outright. Then she changed her mind. She made some changes, hired some sensitivity writers and eventually published it in November 2019. It is this version that I read (and own).

You can read more about the controversy at this New York Times article (archive link).

So, is the book still “racist”? Is it any good?

The author was inspired to write the novel after a family trip to Russia. From the NYT article:

“She came up with the plot for “Blood Heir” in 2014, during a family trip to Russia. She imagined a fictional empire where a group of people called Affinites, who have special powers, are feared and trafficked for labor by the powerful elite — a system that is challenged by a fugitive princess who wields magic. In describing the plight of Affinites, Zhao aimed to invoke real-world issues, including human trafficking and indentured servitude in Asia.

“What I sought to interrogate and critique was the modern-day epidemic of human trafficking and endured labor,” Zhao said. “It wasn’t something I had seen in Y.A. literature.”

She also drew on her own experience as an immigrant and her feeling of being powerless and not belonging, she said.”

There was a lot of hay made about a scene in which Ana is witness to a slave auction or something. I cannot speak to what was in the original manuscript, but in the final version, there is no “slave auction” – what we do see is Ana and her young companion May at a nightclub where contracts for indentured Affinites are bid upon. The Affinites themselves would stand on a stage and demonstrate their abilities to the bidders.

Affinite trafficking is a big issue in Cyrilia, where Affinites are essentially powerless, discriminated against and exploited. I guess you could still see the nightclub auction scene as a “slave auction” or whatever, but it didn’t bother me. I very much doubt the original scene would have offended me either. Just because an author depicts something in their works does not mean they endorse it, but evidently, a lot of people don’t seem to understand that.

Then there was the issue with May, the young girl Ana travels with. First of all, people were upset that May, who they thought was a black girl, was rescued from the slave trade and then died. Then they accused the author of plagiarizing a line from Lord of the Rings and of plagiarizing a scene from The Hunger Games in which Katniss sings her own childhood song as her fellow contestant, Rue, dies in the arena. In the original manuscript, Ana sings May’s favorite childhood song to her as she dies, and then buries her surrounded by flowers.

So this scene appears to have been removed. May’s death is quite different and Ana does not sing to her. Ana does bury May in one of her friend’s back garden, beneath a tree that does have flowers. I can’t remember if the line in question was removed or not.

May, as described, isn’t black. She has blue eyes and is from a realm known for people with light brown skin. She probably looks more Hispanic than black.

May is like a little sister to Ana. She feels protective towards May and a lot of what she does is motivated by her relationship with May. May’s death is a tribute to the kind of person she was, someone who wanted happiness for everyone, particularly her fellow Affinites.

There’s nothing really offensive about the character May and what happens to her, really. I can only refer to the final version of the book, but if there were any “racist” elements to the story, it’s all been removed.

Ana is definitely not a Mary Sue, thankfully, because that would be boring. She has a temper, and often lets it get the best of her, leading to impulsive decisions that often end in disaster. Fortunately, the guy she meets, Ramson Quicktongue, is a foil to her impulsiveness, as he is cunning, calculating and very careful in everything he does. He is obviously going to be the love interest, but there’s no instalove in this story, and for a while I honestly thought they’d just remain friends.

The story’s point of view alternates between Ana and Ramson – it is mostly Ana’s story, but it is nice to see this fantasy world from Ramson’s perspective, since he is more worldly and experienced than Ana.

One thing the author did not change was the way Ana’s family name is written. In the Russian language, the surnames of women are usually given an ‘a’ at the end, so Mikhailov would actually be Mikhailova whenever referring to Ana by her full name. However, the setting of the story is a realm entirely of the author’s imagination, so I figured it was no big deal.

This story is meant to be a trilogy, so it ends on a cliffhanger somewhat, leaving the primary villains to be dealt with in the next installment, Red Tigress, of which I have also read and will offer a review shortly. I kind of wish it would be longer than a trilogy, because the other realms, such as the Southern Crowns, the Nandjian Empire and Kemeira sound very interesting.

It’s no secret that I liked this one a lot – I gave it a whopping five stars at Goodreads, which I don’t often do. I am glad the author reconsidered, even if she did resort to using sensitivity readers. It’s got a lot of action and some of the violence can be gory at times – it’s pretty dark, so it’s more appropriate for older teens. The book is pretty good and if you like Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse or Sarah J. Mass’s Throne of Glass saga you’ll like this one.

Young Adult

Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo

I got the offer to review this book in an email, thanks to NetGalley and was excited that Malinda Lo had a new book coming out (well, it’s already out now).  I’ve liked all of her previous books, despite the fact that we see things very differently, politically.

A warning for my conservative readers: this is a lesbian coming-of-age story.  While it’s not particularly graphic or anything, there’s the usual stuff you’d expect of a young adult romance novel.

Anyway, this is the story of Lily Hu, a Chinese girl living in ’50s San Francisco.  She lives in Chinatown with her parents and two brothers.  She’s seventeen and in her senior year of high school, and after discovering male impersonator Tommy Andrews in a newspaper, she ends up seeing her schoolmate Kathleen Miller (‘Kath’ for short) in a whole new light.  She realizes she’s gay, and soon discovers that Kath is gay too, but before that, they begin making clandestine nighttime trips to a lesbian club called The Telegraph Club, where Tommy Andrews performs.

When I started this novel, I knew the author had done a lot of research into the time period and the gay culture of San Francisco, and it all came alive for me.  It was fascinating, since I’m from the Bay Area (further up north, in Solano county).  Life for Lily and her community isn’t easy, because of the hysteria surrounding communism and the fact that these were the early years of the Cold War.  The authorities were suspicious of Chinese immigrants due to the fact that in this timeframe, China fell to Mao Zedong’s Communist Party.  Lily’s Shanghai-born father, Joseph, a doctor at the Chinese Hospital, has his papers confiscated once he refused to divulge the communist ties of one of his patients and Lily’s schoolmate Calvin.  This happens even though he’s a veteran of World War 2.

Yes, things were tough for non-white people back then, even though it was San Francisco and not, say, Montgomery, Alabama. The author does not shy away from using the terms people used back then, such as “oriental” and “negro”.  Lily and her friends also encounter casual racism, but it’s not as horrible as what blacks would encounter in the Deep South.  Still, I find myself deeply grateful that the US isn’t like that anymore.  Given how the media keeps whipping up hysteria about racism, I feel that teen readers of this book will not appreciate how much things have truly changed.

Being suspected of communist sympathies is bad enough – even her Chinese relatives and friends are completely disgusted by homosexuality.  Lily ends up feeling like an outcast because of these two things, but navigates them with strength and grace.

I actually liked the scenes at the Telegraph Club, as the club was a safe haven for the women who could not be themselves out in public, could not express their love for each other the way heterosexual couples could.  It also reminded me of another novel – Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters, which also features a male impersonator.

The novel is mostly told in the third-person perspective, from Lily’s perspective, but there’s also several chapters in between the different parts of the novel, all told from the perspectives of her father, mother and aunt Judy when they were younger.  It is through these chapters that we see how Lily’s parents got together, and we also see, through Judy’s eyes, Lily’s budding interest in aeronautics and sci-fi.  I loved that aspect about Lily – I love sci-fi too, and I also love astronomy.

There’s also a lot about Chinese culture, from the dress to the food to the history and language, and there’s some lines of dialogue in Chinese characters, but they’re translated in footnotes.  Some other terms are romanized, but translated in footnotes.

As noted, the novel is separated into several parts, and in between those parts are the chapters told from her parents and aunt’s point of view, and a timeline of important historical events from that time period.  I was afraid the author would be sympathetic to communism and such, but it isn’t that big a part of the novel.  Plenty of Lily’s family and friends are definitely not fond of communism, and some are resentful of being suspected of communist sympathies or ties due to their nationality and/or ethnicity, which is understandable.

The romance between Lily and Kath is a slow one, and the true romance happens much later in the novel.  I kind of wish it had happened sooner, as the novel felt really long, but then we probably wouldn’t have those alternate chapters, which I also found fascinating.

Things go fine at the Telegraph Club until the police raid the place and arrest the owner and Tommy Andrews.  Even though homosexuals were allowed to legally gather at the time, the club owner and patrons were suspected of luring underage teenagers to the club, where they supposedly plied them with alcohol and drugs.  After that happens, Lily eventually comes out to her parents, and at the risk of offering spoilers, let’s just say it does not go well.

The end is kind of sad and bittersweet, although I’ll spoil it a little bit by saying that Lily and Kath do have a happy ending.  It’s kind of anti-climactic, but they do have a happy ending.

Anyway, I wasn’t sure if I was going to like this one, but I ended up enjoying it, especially getting a view into Chinese culture, which, like Japanese and Korean culture, fascinates me.

The very end of the book contains a lengthy author’s note adding context to the story by discussing the history of the era and the research she did.  It’s also pretty fascinating, and the author even disclosed that certain people in her family were inspiration for elements of the story.

It’s pretty good, not only for learning about the Chinese immigrant community of the ’50s but also for the challenges lesbians faced at that time.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for providing me with this ARC for review.

Fantasy Young Adult

A Golden Fury by Samantha Cohoe

This book has a pretty explosive opening, one that hooked me in immediately.

Theosebia “Thea” Hope is a young alchemist living and working with her mother, Margeurite, also an alchemist, in revolutionary Normandy, France. Her mother seems to be on the hunt for a new patron, but seems to want to send Thea away. Her reasons for doing so become a little clearer when she assaults Thea after creating the White Elixir, a substance that turns any base metal into silver, and descending into a mysterious madness.

Thea has a rocky and competitive relationship with her mother, but she also wants to cure her mother’s madness, so she decides to follow her mother’s former apprentice Will to the UK, and first lands in Oxford, where her estranged father lives and works.

Her initial relationship with her father doesn’t fare much better, and after meeting his patron and assistant, all hell breaks loose when said patron, an Italian noble, steals Thea’s notes and attempts to make the White Elixir. The apprentice, Dominic, kills the noble in self defense. Feeling defeated, Thea and Dominic flee Oxford for London, where Will is staying.

Turns out that Will had sold her out to a German noble, who wants the Philosopher’s Stone for himself. But, as Thea and Dominic soon discover, there’s a curse, or something that causes every ambitious alchemist to succumb to madness in their quest for the Stone, and that there may be a *heavy* price to pay for creating it.

So the bulk of the novel from here on out takes place at the German noble’s London residence, and while Will suffers from consumption and Dominic succumbs to the mysterious madness, Thea’s the only one who can actually make the Stone. So she does, under the watchful eye of the German noble’s hired henchmen, who are not all entirely evil themselves. This part is pretty exciting, as Thea ends up in the grip of the mysterious madness while she attempts to create the Stone.

At first, I thought this was going to be another annoying “men are all evil” feminist novel, but it’s not. Yes, the narrative is first-person perspective, told by Thea, and yes she is understandably upset when her father hesitates to claim her as his daughter when they meet, so we do get a lot of “men suck” thoughts from Thea, but she realizes that not all men are bad. The head henchman, Valentin, is rough, stern, mostly loyal to his employer but also quickly learns to respect Thea and repeatedly tries to keep her from losing her mind to the madness. He also has a grudge against Will due to Will’s treatment of one of his employer’s daughters, who he was in love with.

Dominic is consistently a decent character throughout the story, and is pretty much Thea’s only real friend, right up until the end, so she remains very much motivated to use the Stone to cure him of the madness.

You can tell Thea’s father, Professor Vellacott, is a decent guy who has been blindsided by the fact that he actually has a daughter, one nearly grown, and is unsure as to what to do or how to handle it. But Thea is pretty resistant, believing (with some justification) that all he wants is the work she and her mother had done to make the White Elixir, which is the final “step” to getting the famed Stone.

I also kind of had to roll my eyes at Thea’s assertion that the Europeans disdained the writings of an Arab alchemist that had gotten further along in creating the Stone than any other alchemist. It does serve as a handy explanation as to why alchemy didn’t get very far in Europe, but it still bugged me. It’s a minor part of the novel and I got over it as the story went on, but I can’t help myself – I have to mention it.

As I said, this is told via a first-person perspective, and the novel is at its strongest when Thea’s in the grips of the mysterious madness. We do eventually discover the true nature of the madness and of the Stone itself. I don’t want to spoil the novel, so I’ll leave you with this: Thea and the others learn that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Thea makes the right decision in the end.

So I highly recommend this, and I am so grateful to Wednesday Books and NetGalley for letting me review the book!