What I’m Reading, Where I’ve Been, and a Poll for You!

Hey, friends! It’s been about a week since my last post, and I apologize for that. Had a couple personal things come up, including an unexpected medical problem, but I’m getting back on track and will have more reviews and fun stuff headed your way shortly. What to expect full reviews of soon:

I Wish You All the Best by Mason Deaver (5 stars, amazing nonbinary contemporary YA)

Sorcery of Thorns by Margaret Rogerson (4 stars, YA fantasy that will appeal to all book-lovers)

Quichotte by Salman Rushdie (I’m just finishing up reading an ARC of this one, so my rating isn’t final yet, but suffice to say it is an incredibly well-written piece of literature)

Note that Quichotte isn’t YA–I swear, I read a pretty wide mix of titles; I’ve just been on a YA kick lately. Expect a more balanced distribution of genres and age ranges, going forward.

And while we talk about going forward, let’s go back for a second as well. I didn’t get full reviews posted for some of my reads earlier this month (gotta prioritize the ARCs and all that jazz…). Which one of these titles, which I’ve recently finished reading, would you most like to see a review of?

That’s all for now! See you soon with more quality bookish content!

We Hunt the Flame – review

What can I say about We Hunt the Flame? I didn’t hate this book, but I do feel like it majorly let me down. I was so excited for an OwnVoices novel from a background that is rarely represented in mainstream fiction, with tropes I love, like a girl disguised as a boy, or a tortured soul who wants to do better. Unfortunately, Hafsah Faizal’s combination of them was not as riveting as it could have been—honestly, it wasn’t awful, but it was pretty forgettable.

Plot summary for those who haven’t heard about it yet: Zafira lives in a poor town in the caliphate of Demenhue. To get food for her people, she regularly goes hunting in the Arz, an evil forest that nobody else can manage to go into and come out alive. And because misogyny runs rampant in her caliphate, she does this disguised as a boy, known to others only as the Hunter.

Nasir, the son of the sultan, lives a life filled with darkness, acting against his will as his father’s personal assassin, taking out political enemies across the kingdom.

When a mysterious woman known only as the Silver Witch recruits Zafira to go on a quest to the haunted island Sharr, to retrieve a book said to contain the secrets to restoring magic to the kingdom, Nasir is tasked with following her and then killing her once she retrieves the book successfully. Of course, this is easier said than done; Zafira and Nasir have an undeniable connection, and as they travel across Sharr, secrets begin to emerge that challenge the entire purpose of their quest.

Now, there were several things I did genuinely enjoy about this book. Zafira was, in a lot of ways, the type of heroine I like to root for. She struggles to make her way in a man’s world, never questioning her capability, but always questioning whether she can afford to be honest about her identity. She’s tough and majorly emotionally closed-off as a result of childhood trauma, but she genuinely tries to do well by those who have her loyalty. And Nasir…oh boy, do I love Nasir. He’s the sort of emotionally damaged bad boy that I love to read about. Seeing him grapple with emotions, including his feelings for Zafira and his qualms about carrying out his father’s will, was the sort of content I live for. Just look at this moment where he talks about Zafira:

“He remembered…the way she met his eyes as no one but Altair did, dismantling him as no one did. Fearlessly. Effortlessly. As if, perhaps, beneath every death and monstrous act he had committed, he was only flesh and bone—a human, nothing more. He hadn’t been seen as a human in years.”

How can you not love that??

And honestly, my favorite part of the book was Altair. The sultan’s general, and Nasir’s companion on the quest, a sarcastic little shit who is gorgeous and knows it, who can’t shoot straight but can fight like nobody’s business, and who would never admit he cares about someone but nevertheless stands by Nasir. He’s glib and charming and provides some of the only actual humor in the story, and I sincerely hope there’s more of him in the sequel (assuming I actually read the sequel, that is).

Unfortunately…there’s also a lot I didn’t like, most of which has to do with the fact that this book was just BORING. There was no sense of urgency to anything in the plot, so it didn’t feel very exciting, but also wasn’t the sort of lush description that I could actually lose myself in. The action meandered randomly, and they spent SO MUCH TIME just walking around, ostensibly searching for the book, but somehow not getting any closer to it, even though Zafira is supposed to know exactly how to find it. At the end, when some important revelations were made, it felt like everyone figured everything out all at once, in a way that was way too cheesy to feel legit. The monsters that the team had to fight were interesting the first time but became redundant each subsequent time they showed up. Zafira’s anxieties made her a convincing character, sure, but they were brought up frequently in highly redundant terms that made them way less important-feeling. The romance between Zafira and Nasir was a slow burn that just suddenly resulted in them making out at a very important moment when they don’t have time to do so. The setting could have been so richly developed, but it felt like a paper backdrop to the story, without any real depth. So many promising elements that just fell flat in the execution.

And don’t even get me started on the side characters. Beyond Zafira, Nasir, and Altair, all the characters in the book felt incredibly flat and poorly developed. Really, they only existed to fulfill a specific function: this one to be the bad guy, this one to make a sacrifice (which didn’t even feel sad because I wasn’t attached to said character at all), and so on. They felt less like real people and more like awkward props to ensure that the main characters didn’t just exist in a vacuum. I wanted to care about them, but seriously, I just couldn’t.

In short, We Hunt the Flame is a mediocre book that I probably wouldn’t dissuade anyone from reading, but also probably wouldn’t recommend. When a book of this length, which would normally take me a few days (maybe 5ish), instead takes upwards of a week, that’s a pretty good indicator that it’s not the most riveting material. Give it a shot if you want, especially if you’re into books from diverse backgrounds, or if you like characters who are pretty dang dark, but…I’m going to give it a pass. Jury is still out on whether I’ll read the sequel whenever it comes out.

Final rating: 3 stars, but definitely on the low side of that rating.

Spin the Dawn – ARC review

Isn’t this a gorgeous cover??

At once wonderfully familiar and refreshingly new, Spin the Dawn is an #OwnVoices novel that is bold as the sun, elegant as the moon, and artful as the stars. It is definitely one of my favorite reads of the year so far, and after a couple disappointing new releases, it has restored my faith in YA fantasy as a whole.

The book is pitched as “Mulan meets Project Runway,” but that’s not entirely accurate. The tale begins in the kingdom of A’landi with Maia, daughter of a once-talented tailor whose abilities have declined as he has grown older and grieved the death of his wife. Maia’s three brothers fought in the Emperor’s war, and while a truce was reached, two of her brothers died, and the third returned home crippled. When the Emperor’s Imperial Tailor dies, he recruits Master Tailors to compete against each other for the newly vacated position, and because of her father’s reputation, Maia’s family is asked to send someone. Maia, realizing her father can no longer sew and her brother was never a good tailor to begin with, but also knowing a girl cannot be a Master Tailor, does the only sensible thing: she disguises herself as a boy, pretends to be her brother, and heads off to compete in a series of absurd challenges–embroider a shawl in a single day! Make shoes out of pottery! How about a paper jacket? There is backstabbing galore, the political stakes of the contest are higher than Maia initially thought, and for some reason, the emperor’s Enchanter, Edan, has taken a keen interest in Maia.

But that’s only the first ~40% of the book! The remainder is what happens after the contest. Maia is presented with a further challenge: to create three legendary dresses, made from the sun, the moon, and the stars. To do so, she embarks on a perilous journey with only Edan for company, knowing that the price for her failure–if she even makes it back alive–could mean destruction for the entire kingdom.

This book did so much right. First, of course, #OwnVoices novels are hugely important, and this fantasy in an Asian-inspired world, written by an Asian author, is a fantastic example of what magic can happen when a book of a non-Western cultural background is written well: old stories take on new significance, classic tropes get inverted, and our assumptions are frequently put to the test. (Great example: we assume that badass female protagonists need to be warriors, that domestic activities can’t be rebellious? This girl’s entire plot revolves around sewing and still manages to be gripping. That’s pretty neat.) 

Second, just the writing in general was fantastic. The narration was smooth and easy to read; it actually felt like listening to Maia telling her story, without sounding artificially childish or supremely pretentious like many YA narrators do. She is self-aware, prone to second-guessing herself (but not obnoxious about it), and perhaps most importantly, she is determined to earn her own success. Even when she has the opportunity to use magic to enhance her work, she insists on not doing anything that doesn’t actually reflect her skill or the time and effort she has put into her craft over the course of her life. She obviously has feelings, and grief over her family’s struggles plagues her, but her love for them and her determination to succeed really shine through. And the language itself is pretty but not overwrought, so you can actually read it quickly and not get tangled up in overly complex sentences and excessive jargon, a trap which far too many fantasy authors fall into.

In terms of the story itself, the pacing is quick without being rushed; at no point did I find myself getting bored or wondering when things would actually move forward again. And the story itself is an excellent fusion of Mulan, a game show, a “chosen one” quest, and a doomed love story (oh, yes, there’s a nice rivals-to-lovers romance). There are a handful of ghosts and demons, but nothing too overpowering, and the ending manages to strike a balance between wrapping up this story’s conflicts and throwing a wrench into things, paving the way for a sequel (which, incidentally, I am already anxiously awaiting–funny, given that this book technically isn’t even out yet).

Normally, this is the part of the review where I would list some of the cons of the book, but I’m struggling to think of any
Some may say that the plot is somewhat predictable, but I think that would be missing the point. This book, in many ways, is combining several old stories with new elements, so of course some of it will feel familiar. For me, that familiarity was comforting without being annoying or uninspired, but I guess I could see people getting frustrated with that. I will also reiterate that the “Project Runway” element of the book really only lasts for the first third or so, which the blurb doesn’t make clear. Please don’t let the fact that it doesn’t match your expectations detract from how enjoyable it is!

In short, Spin the Dawn is a fairytale quest with a twist that proves there is still new ground to be covered in the realm of YA fantasy. If you like awesome female leads, romances that don’t overpower the plot, gorgeous descriptions of clothing, intrigue and deception, traditional three-step quests, delightfully sarcastic and charming men, magic that comes with a price, Mulan, and/or girls proving men’s expectations wrong, this is definitely the book for you. Strongly recommended–I seriously cannot adequately express my love for it.

Release Date: July 9, 2019

Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for providing me with an eARC of this book in exchange for an honest review! This has not influenced my rating in any way.