Category Archives: eBooks

The Poppy War

East-Asian-inspired epic military fantasy

This was a set book for my feminist fantasy book club and one that I was looking forward to. One of my annual reading goals is to read more diversely, and if ever there was a genre in dire need of more diversity, it is fantasy. I bought a copy for my Kobo and managed to read most of it before the book club.

The Poppy War (The Poppy War, #1)

“The Poppy War” by R. F. Kuang is a story about a young girl called Rin who lives with her rather unsavoury foster parents. When the Fangs try to marry her off to an old, rich merchant Rin manages to negotiate being permitted to study for the prestigious and extremely difficult exams known as the Keju. With her sights set on admission to the military academy called Sinegard, Rin’s class and gender look set to be almost insurmountable obstacles. However, when Rin achieves the impossible, she finds herself on a mad path to studying a mad art with an even madder teacher. When war breaks out, Rin finds herself faced with even more difficult choices – choices that may not work and may cost her everything.

I wanted to like this book, I really did, but if there is anything I have learned about myself it is that military fiction is not my cup of tea. Kuang is a spirited writer who imbues Rin with an enormous amount of vitality, courage and determination. The writing is good and the setting is fascinating, and some of my favourite scenes in the book is when Rin first finds herself in the city of Nikan and later when she joins her friend at his luxurious home.

It was the story, however, that I struggled with. It is your classic fantasy bildungsroman where an orphan child discovers talent, joins a school and learns arcane skills to defeat the dark…whatever. As admirable as Rin is, I actually found the peripheral characters like her delightful friend Kitay and the compelling Nezha more interesting than her. While the story started out quite strong, I felt that it soon began to lag. With the introduction, exams, school, training, assignment, war, missions and various discoveries along the way, it’s little wonder that this book bloats at over 500 pages. By the time I got to a major battle, I was feeling pretty worn out by the whole thing and there was so, so much more to go after that.

I also felt that Kuang’s great passion is clearly military history, and despite it also being a fantasy book, the focus is much more on the detail of combat, strategy, battles and power than it is about magic. I completely appreciate Kuang’s expertise in the Second Sino-Japanese War (the inspiration for this book), but I struggled to match her enthusiasm. The magic that is used seems to be unclear, inexplicable and highly dependent on the whims of beings from another plane. I think that the book would have benefited from some of the more rigid principles of writing magic to make the magic more accessible to the reader and therefore more meaningful when used.

This is an epic book that spans years of training, conflict and war and while I was probably looking for more fantasy than military and found it a bit of a slog, I’m sure that there would be plenty of people out there who would find this thrilling.

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A Century of Friendship

Children’s book about the ethics and etiquette of friendship

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author.

A Century of Friendship

“A Century of Friendship” by Littlebeanseeds is a children’s chapter book about Helen and her friends Mark, Shelly and Yasmin who, while exploring on a school camp, discover a secret in a rundown cottage. While the children navigate their own relationships with one-another, they soon discover that the secret has a particular significance for Helen. At the end of each chapter, the author invites the reader to think about notes on friendship, and answer questions for self-reflection about friendship, what makes a good friend, how to be a good friend and how to resolve disputes.

This is a simple yet effective story aimed at pre-teens that explores some of the more subtle issues and nuances around friendship. It is quite a unique book because it balances low fantasy against self-help – two genres that I honestly do not think I have ever seen combined before. I think that inviting children to consciously think about their relationships and what kind of behaviour they expect from themselves and others is a worthwhile thing to do.

I think probably the biggest difficulty for young readers might be the balance between the time spent enjoying the story and the time spent thinking about the questions and having the immersion interrupted. I wonder perhaps if this kind of book might be suited to being read to a class by a teacher, and then inviting the children to participate in a discussion as a group, rather than reading it alone.

Nevertheless, a very original type of book with an overwhelmingly positive message and a cute story as a backdrop.

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Sweet Bitter Cane

Italian-Australian family saga

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author.

Image result for sweet bitter cane

“Sweet Bitter Cane” by G S Johnson is a family saga about a young woman called Amelia who, after a wedding with a stand-in for the groom in Italy, moves to Queensland to meet her new husband Italo and support him in growing sugarcane. Although young, Amelia is smart and resilient and soon overcomes her language barriers and finds her place managing the financial side of the farm. However, haunted by a connection she has with her neighbour’s son Fergus and increasingly isolated by her social and political choices, when the war breaks out and Italians are targeted, the secrets and nationalist pride Amelia harboured to keep herself safe suddenly threaten to destroy everything her family has built.

This is an epic story that traces the life of a young woman on the cusp of adulthood who leaves everything she knows behind to start a new life in a country that largely doesn’t welcome her. Johnson does an admirable job of setting the geographic and political scene of a seemingly hostile new life and has a particular flair for character development. Amelia hardens as the story progresses, and it’s unusual (and refreshing!) to see such an evolution of a character while still retaining the essence of who she is. Johnson isn’t afraid to explore Amelia’s mistakes to their full consequences and her flaws and poor choices juxtaposed against her successes make her all the more relatable. The internment of Italians during WWII is another forgotten pocket of Australian history, and Johnson written a nuanced account of something that truly happened to people living here.

For the most part, I was impressed at how Johnson told Amelia’s story but one thing that I was perplexed about throughout the book was the appeal of Fergus. While Amelia’s character remained interesting and engaging throughout the novel, I wasn’t always on board with her relationships and how she managed them, and most particularly so the connection she had with Fergus. Although for the most part the pacing of the novel was good, I did feel at times that some of the writing was a little too descriptive and could have been condensed a little more.

Regardless, this is an interesting and important story about the experience of women during a period of Australian history rarely discussed.

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The Frankenstein Adventures

Adventure retelling of classic horror story

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author.

“The Frankenstein Adventures” by Bil Richardson is a retelling of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” to celebrate the 200 year anniversary of its publication. Drawing inspiration from more modern interpretations of the story, Victor Frankenstein is happily married to his wife Elizabeth and is busy trying to create life with his assistant Igor. When he hears that his old school nemesis is working on creating life himself, Victor takes a couple of shortcuts to win the race. However, when things don’t work out to plan, his creation flees and unwittingly kicks off a manhunt across the countryside.

This is a fun- and pun-filled story that takes elements of a classic story in a more modern, action style. Richardson has a clear writing style with a strong focus on dialogue and wordplay. I actually much preferred Richardson’s version of Victor Frankenstein, much more than Shelley’s gnashing mess of a man who, to his own detriment, is completely unable to face his own mistakes. I liked that Victor and Frank reconcile at the end and each acknowledge their own part in the events that played out.

I did feel that the setting of this book was a little confusing. It wasn’t exactly clear exactly where Castle Frankenstein was, but it did seem to be somewhere in America rather than in Europe. I also had some questions about the audience for this book. I understand that Richardson is quite keen to get young boys reading, and while I think that elements of this story will appeal to them, most of the characters are adults and there is a lot of quite gruesome violence. I also found Maria’s story, while synonymous with what happens to William in the original story, to also be quite disturbing and never fully addressed.

An interesting take on a classic story, Richardson’s Frankenstein family is far more emotionally intelligent than the original.

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A Perfect Marriage

Domestic noir novel about the aftermath of an abusive relationship

Content warning: domestic violence

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author.

Image result for a perfect marriage alison booth

“A Perfect Marriage” by Alison Booth is a domestic noir novel about a woman called Sally whose secret is preventing her from moving on from her dark past. Busy with her teenage daughter Charlie and her career as a geneticist, Sally decides to attend a conference in Spain. After a chance meeting on the flight over promises something more than just a professional relationship, Sally finds herself forced to confront her previous marriage and come clean with everyone she loves about how it really ended.

This is a subtle novel that delicately and sensitively explores the issue of domestic violence. A lot of stories explore the trauma of living through domestic violence, but I feel that far fewer examine the aftermath and the impact felt many years afterwards. Sally is a relatable character who really brings the truth that anyone can be a victim of domestic violence to the forefront. As a reader, you find yourself cheering for Sally and celebrating each little win.

I think the only thing that some people may have difficulty with in reading this novel is that it is a quiet book. It’s a slow burn that doesn’t have a lot of highs and lows, but rather matches the more ordinary rhythms of real life.

A very honest interpretation of a serious and sadly all too common scenario, this is a thoughtful and easy-to-read book.

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The Colonel and the Bee

Steampunk round-the-world adventure

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author.

Image result for the colonel and the bee

“The Colonel and the Bee” by Patrick Canning is a steampunk adventure novel about a talented young acrobat called Beatrix who is trapped in a circus with an abusive ringmaster. When her skills are called upon to entertain some Swiss aristocrats, she seizes her opportunity to make her escape. She joins the enigmatic and rather promiscuous Colonel James Bacchus and becomes part of the crew of his enormous hot air balloon with four-storey accommodation called The Ox.

This is a rollicking story in the classic English adventure style where wit and ingenuity repeatedly save the day. Beatrix is a great character and I really enjoyed watching her character grow throughout the book. The interplay between her and the Colonel is very engaging and Beatrix slowly gains the confidence and friendships she needs to help solve the riddle and save the day. It is hard to tackle a genre and historical period that relies a lot on British imperialism, but I felt like Canning did a good job preserving the spirit of these types of stories while excluding some of the more racially problematic things typical of the time.

It is important to know that this is an adventure story, so it is action, action, action almost the entire time. I’m not huge on action novels, so my favourite parts were during the downtime when Beatrix and the Colonel were having heart to hearts on The Ox. I did find some of the action a little relentless, as enjoyable as the riddles and the intrigue was.

A new spin on a favourite style of story, this was a fun, enjoyable read.

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The Black Tides of Heaven

Genderqueer non-Western fantasy by a Singaporean author

It was my turn to pick a book for my feminist fantasy book club, and after we’d read quite a few lengthy stories, I decided to go for a novella. I checked out the shortlists from the 2018 Hugo Awards, and this book looked the most interesting.

“The Black Tides of Heaven” by JY Yang is a fantasy novella, is the first in a trilogy of silkpunk novellas called the “Tensorate” series. It begins with twins Mokoya and Akeha, children of the Protector, who grow up in the Grand Monastery in the Protectorate after given away by their mother as newborns to settle a debt. Raised genderfree like all children of the Protectorate, the twins are especially close. However, as their gifts develop, the reach adulthood and politics shift, the twins find that their once unbreakable bond pulled to its limits.

This is a really interesting novella with a setting that I absolutely adored. The magic system, the Slack, was intriguing and the twins were a great way to explore the limits of different kinds of powers. The premise of children being raised genderfree was really interesting as well, as well as the ability for children to affirm their gender as adults.  Yang has a sparse but compelling style of writing and it was so refreshing to read fantasy set somewhere that wasn’t based on medieval Europe. I was so excited to cook some themed food for my book club, and I scoured the novella for references to food and built the menu around that.

Image may contain: food

I think, however, that this is one of the very rare times that I felt like the book was too short. Not too short in that it ended abruptly, but too short in the way a piano accordion is short when compressed and there’s a lot that’s folded away out of sight. The story ranges from the twins’ birth to their adulthood, but it skips along so quickly that it did feel a little hard to get invested in the characters. Yang clearly has a lot in mind for their world the Tensorate, and I think that there was enough to this book that they could go back and beef it up with more characterisation and worldbuilding.

I would also like to say something about pronouns. I’ve reviewed a couple of books that use gender-neutral pronouns like “Ancillary Justice” and “The Left Hand of Darkness“. In the former, Leckie uses she to refer to everyone, and in the latter le Guin uses he. Yang uses they, which I have seen used and used myself online and in my personal life. However, there were a couple of moments where the meaning wasn’t immediately clear from context whether Yang was referring to one twin in a gender-neutral singular, or whether Yang was referring to both twins with a plural. The English language is, unfortunately, very clunky when it comes to pronouns. I’m not sure what the solution is, but I’m almost wondering, especially in a book set in a world inspired by cultures in Asia, whether or not it might have been better to just abandon English pronouns altogether and pick a pronoun from a language that already has gender neutral pronoun. Indonesian, for example, uses the pronoun dia for everyone regardless of gender.

Anyway, this was an interesting and creative story that I felt could have been easily expanded into a full novel. If you’re looking for fantasy that isn’t a rehash of Tolkein, this is a good place to start and I’m keen to read more of Yang’s work.

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Filed under Book Reviews, eBooks, Fantasy, Novella, Uncategorized