Black Girl Magic: The Gilded Ones and Legendborn

I recently picked up two YA fantasies featuring young Black female protagonists, which you can clearly see on these two stunning covers.  Yay for representation!

The Gilded Ones

by Namina Forna

At 16, Deka discovers she is an alaki, a female descendant of demons and an outcast among her people. Her golden blood gives her special longevity, but also condemns her to death under the law. She is saved when she is recruited to join a new special alaki force to fight the monsters that threaten the land. But as she grows stronger, she must grapple with her loyalty to a country that hates and fears her as well as the world-changing significance of her unique powers. Who are the real monsters here? 

This recent release is an above average YA fantasy. I wasn’t too impressed with it at first, given its typical YA first person, present tense narration from a girl with special powers and a special destiny.  But after Deka reaches the alaki training grounds the story really picks up, and turns out pretty fast paced with some good twists. 

It also has an interesting setting and good characters, even a few memorable ones.  There is a bit of romance but it is not really a focus and even seems a bit tacked on.  If I had to sum up this book in a phrase, I’d go with “fighting the patriarchy,” which is a pretty awesome premise for a novel.

This book could read as a standalone, but there seems to be at least one more coming out, which I would definitely be willing to check out.

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Legendborn

by Tracy Deonn

Brianna Matthews is a 16 yr old Early College student at UNC-Chapel Hill, still reeling from the death of her mother, when she gets mixed up with a secret society: they are the heirs of King Arthur and his knights, dedicated to protecting humans from demon incursions.  So demons are real, and so is magic, and what does this society have to do with the death of her mother?  Bree will go to any length to find out, but her own abilities are bringing up more questions than answers while putting her, and the people she cares about, in danger. 

This is the kind of book that makes me despair as a writer because I will never write a book as good as this one. 

So, Legendborn could also be described in the same way as The Gilded Ones above: first person, present tense narration from a girl with special powers and a special destiny.  And it is solidly YA, with many familiar tropes.  However, it manages to have way more depth, intertwining stories about Arthur and Round Table, the history and legacy of slavery in North Carolina, Black spiritualism, modern college life, and loss and grief.  Not to mention the twist at the end is even more spectacular and feels very earned.

The world building is amazing, with multiple magic systems.  The characters are wonderful, plus there is great representation in terms of race, gender, and sexual orientation.  And if you have a thing for emo boys, as I certainly did in my teenage years, there is a character you will absolutely love.

In short, this is one of the best YA fantasy books I’ve read in a while and I neeeeed the next one ASAP. I highly recommend it!

2020 Reading Review

Another year, more great books read! I’ve been pretty remiss with my book reviews in the latter half of the year, so hopefully you’ll see some of those coming up soon as I catch up. But in the meantime, let’s take a look back at what I read in 2020.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

This year I read 171 books, which I think might be a record for me. Most of them (~125) were Regency romances, which I consider the literary equivalent of candy and are very quick reads. That leaves nearly 50 books of other various genres, including fantasy, sci-fi, YA, nonfiction, and contemporary romance. I reviewed about a dozen books on my blog this year; you can check out these reviews under the Book Reviews category. Here are some of the standouts that helped relieve my stress this year.

Classic YA fantasy: Song of the Lioness quartet and The Trouble With Kings

I haven’t been reading all that much current YA fantasy, but I did find some time to delve into some classics. Sherwood Smith is one of my favorite lesser-known YA fantasy authors, and after falling in love with Crown Duel a few years back, I’ve been reading through her oeuvre. The Trouble With Kings comes close to rivaling Crown Duel for my favorite! I read it twice back-to-back haha. And I can’t believe I never got around to reading any Tamora Pierce growing up, so I decided to remedy that by checking out her famous Song of the Lioness series featuring young female knight Alanna of Trebond. I was blown away by Alanna’s growth over the series, plus the adventure and magic were fun, too.

Fantasy Series: Peace Talks & Battle Ground (Dresden Files)

After a six year hiatus, we got not one but two entries in the Dresden Files series from Jim Butcher this year. (This is because they are basically two parts of the same story.) Skin Game was a tough act to follow, but this duology is appropriately epic and also may possibly break your heart. I was less crazy about Peace Talks, which probably won’t be one I will ever re-read. It was too much set up, and Harry was not acting like a detective at all. The pacing then really picks up in Battle Ground, which is great but gives an uneven feeling to the whole thing. My biggest complaint over all was the prominence of Lara Raith, whom I don’t care for as a character (to be fair, I never liked Susan either). I can’t wait to see where the series goes next and how it will all eventually wrap up.

Author discovery: Intisar Khanani

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Who doesn’t love an indie author success story? Intisar Khanani had kinda been on the edges of my radar for years thanks to her Sunbolt series, but this year her Goose Girl retelling Thorn got picked up by a publisher and rereleased. I’ve now read all three of her novel-length works, and I can’t wait for more! I love her prose, characters, and magic/fantasy concepts. If you like YA fantasy, definitely check out her stuff!

Contemporary romance: Chemistry Lessons

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So I’ve been reading historical romances for a few years when I need something light, and this year I branched out into contemporary romance a bit (I am open for suggestions for my next read…). One series I particularly enjoyed was Chemistry Lessons by Susannah Nix, which features a bunch of nerdy girls with STEM jobs. Each book can be read as a standalone, but characters cross over between books, too. These are not the pinnacle of literature or anything, but I had a lot of fun with all the geek pop culture references. My favorite is Advanced Physical Chemistry (#3), featuring a redheaded engineer; it won a 2019 RITA award.

Nonfiction: Cribsheet and In Order to Live

I had a great year for nonfiction reading, including Ta-Nehisi Coates’s amazing Between the World and Me. In terms of memoirs, I was really struck by In Order to Live by Yeonmi Park, the story of her exodus from North Korea. It was pretty harrowing but her tone is extremely inspirational and I learned a lot; I’m looking forward to reading and learning more about North Korea.

With the arrival of my second child, I really recommend Cribsheet by Emily Oster for all new parents. It is an excellent data-driven guide to parenting decisions, very scientific yet very approachable. It is a fun read, not at all dry, and will help you to stress less about parenting in the early years.

Pandemic Reading: World Without End

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Having enjoyed Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett so much last year, I began the follow-up World Without End, which takes place in the same town a few centuries later during the time of the Black Death. Then, a global pandemic hit and I had to take a break from reading it because it just became way too real. I did eventually get through it and enjoyed it; it was fascinating to see the parallels (and differences) between that plague and the current COVID pandemic. Mostly, I wanted to smack all the monks who thought they were so smart but had no concept of germs and sanitation and condescended to the nuns who wanted to wear masks and wash their hands.

As far as reading goals, last year I said:

For 2020, I want to focus on getting back to reading physical books instead of being on my phone and Kindle all the time, as well as reading all the books that are already on my shelves.

Well, I don’t know how successful I was in that, so let’s just say we throw everything out the window for 2020. Maybe we’ll call it an ongoing goal haha.

In that vein, I’m not making any reading goals for 2021. I’m going to read whatever I want to! I mean, in general I want to keep reading a lot of books that are diverse in terms of genre, author, and content, but I trust my taste in reading to take care of that without any formal goals.

What were your favorite books from 2020? Are you making any reading goals for 2021?

Review: Sunbolt by Intisar Khanani

I’ve been taking advantage of all this time home to pick up some new books, and my latest find is a YA fantasy series by an indie author living in Ohio.

Intisar Khanani heads her website with the tagline “Writing mighty girls and diverse worlds,” and that’s exactly what she delivers.  I have not read a lot of YA fantasy recently because I’ve been disappointed by the quality of recent releases, but I can tell that’s going to change with the discovery of her Sunbolt series.

I cannot say enough about the amazing worldbuilding in this series.  The world features many diverse fantasy cultures with roots in real-world cultures, which you may recognize by names, foods, clothing, and phrases. (Even if you don’t recognize them, the cultures are rich.) The main character Hitomi is mixed race; based on context clues her parents would be Arabic and Japanese, though she begins the story living on a warm island populated by darker-skinned people. There are also several races of beings similar to things like fairies and vampires.

The series begins with Sunbolt, a novella that is the kind of book you can read in one gulp.  The pacing is great, the characters are memorable, and the events are exciting.  It does read like it’s only the first part of a story, so you will want to be ready to go straight on to Memories of Ash, the full novel that follows.  This installment is even stronger, continuing to develop an interesting system of magic and new regions of the world.  Old friends reappeared in just the right spots, while introducing great new characters that I can’t wait to see more of.  Some details of the escape plan were a bit meandering, but overall I was on the edge of my seat following Hitomi through one adventure after another.

I really have very few criticisms of these books; they are better than many traditionally published YA fantasies I have read, and I will definitely go back to revisit them again.  (This is basically more what I was hoping We Hunt the Flame would be.)  The only tedious parts are that most of the plot revolves around people that keep getting captured and planning how to escape.  

These books also avoid most YA tropes.  There is no instalove. There are no love triangles.  In fact, here is no romance of any kind! It focuses exclusively on the deep relationships Hitomi has developed with those around her, basically her surrogate family members.

This doesn’t mean I’m not shipping characters.  Because I’m totally shipping some characters. But it’s still great to read quality YA without romance!

I guess I do have one criticism of the series: it’s not complete!  The author has said it was meant to be four books in total, but there seems to be no news on when the last two might be out.  I need book three! Pleeeeease.

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In the meantime, I’m going to check out Khanani’s other novel, Thorn, which is a Goose Girl retelling (have I mentioned I love fairy tale retellings?).  Thorn was originally self-published in 2012, but was picked up by HarperTeen and re-released by them this March.  This kind of thing rarely happens to indie authors, so I think that really speaks to the quality of her writing.  I have the digital version on hold at the library, but the wait list is 16 weeks long! I guess that also speaks to the quality of the writing.

I was able to get both Sunbolt and Memories of Ash on Kindle from my library through Overdrive, but they are of course also available from Amazon for only $2.99 and $4.99 respectively.

I really hope you guys will check her stuff out; if you are a fan of YA fantasy, you will not be disappointed.

Review: Sorcerer to the Crown series by Zen Cho

Don’t you just love it when you find a book that combines your favorite genres?  Fantasy is what I read the most, and Regency romances are my go-to when I want to relax; I get so excited when the two come together!  Historical fantasies set in the Regency period of England are such a treat, and Zen Cho has written an engaging pair of them as her first foray into novel writing.

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Sorcerer to the Crown introduces the troubling state of magic in England during the Napoleonic Wars: the land of Fairy has closed its borders, drying up England’s source of magic, and it is up to the Sorcerer Royal Zacharias Wythe to keep magic from dying.  But that’s not easy for the country’s first black sorcerer, especially one being accused of murder and dealing with mysterious health problems, not to mention the appearance of a troublesome mixed-race orphan named Prunella Gentleman who may just change the course of magic forever.

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The True Queen follows up as a companion novel, following a young amnesiac woman from Malaysia whose sister has been lost in the Fairy realm.  Muna turns to the magicians (well, particularly the magiciennes) of England for help and finds herself entangled in Fairy legends with the fate of both worlds at stake.

Overall, this is a solid duology and I’d be happy to read any further books that Cho writes in this series.

Pros:

  • POC and queer main characters that feel natural to the time period
  • Slow burn romance that is kept as a side plot
  • Themes dealing with the colonialism and sexism of the time
  • Dragons!
  • The prose does not feel modern, but rather more fitting to the period
  • A bit of mystery/suspense, but doesn’t try too hard
  • Sorcerer has Cinderella motifs (with Malaysian witch Mak Genggang as a crazy fairy godmother…)
  • Either novel could stand alone, but they also fit well together

Cons: 

  • Both books can be slow, even in the action-y parts.  It took me a while to get through them.
  • The magic system is interesting but not laid out as clearly as I would like, and so one of Sorcerer’s magic-related plot twists came out of nowhere to me 
  • Sorcerer has a terrible cover that is neither appealing nor informative.  True Queen greatly improved in that regard, but I would love a reprint with better, coordinating covers.

Hope you guys can check these out; happy reading!

 

Two Monarchies Sequence by W.R. Gingell

You may have noticed that I love fairy tales and fairy tale retellings.  So how about a whole series of them?!  W.R. Gingell delivers with the Two Monarchies Sequence, a lovely fantasy series with many fairy tale inspirations.  For the most part, these are not straight retellings, but rather stories that take a recognizable fairy tale concept and twist it all around.   The result is a series that feels comfortably familiar yet at the same time keeps you on your toes.

Also, if you judge books by their covers, these ones are gorgeous.

The series is set in the titular two monarchies, Civet and Glause, two countries whose history is…complicated to say the least.  There is also some time travel involved in several spots, which does not help clear things up! The series begins with Spindle, obviously inspired by Sleeping Beauty, in which Polyhymnia is awakened not by a prince, but by an absentminded-genius enchanter named Luck…and that’s just the beginning of her troubles.  Next follow Blackfoot (with some hints of Puss in Boots) and Staff and Crown, which follow unlikely hero Annabel’s path to the throne of New Civet.  

The last book, Clockwork Magician, will be released this week; it features Annabel’s friend and budding magician Peter, who is in truth a fairly annoying person, yet the author somehow manages to make him lovable.  That’s a kind of magic all on its own!

Also in the sequence is Masque, a murder mystery inspired by Beauty and the Beast; though this one is chronologically last, I actually read it first!  It’s one of my favorite BatB stories of all time. There is also a Little Red Riding Hood story, Wolfskin, in the same setting, though it does not cross over with any of the other stories.

What do all these great stories have in common?  Excellent quirky characters that will come to feel like friends, an intriguing system of magic, some mystery and thrills, and some lovely romance.  Occasionally it feels like the story or characters are moving a bit too fast to catch, but a touch of confusion is part of the charm of these books.

This series was my first introduction to Gingell’s writing, and it quickly made me a fan.  I’m sure it will do the same for my fellow fairy tale-lovers!