Historical fiction about Korean women who move to the USA to marry unseen husbands
Content warning: family violence, racism
I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publisher.
“The Picture Bride” by Lee Geum-yi and translated by An Seonjae is a historical fiction novel about a young Korean woman called Willow whose relatively well-to-do family is thrown into poverty after her father is killed by the Japanese. When her best friend Hongju shamefully returns back to her family shortly after getting married, the two young women decide to move to Hawai’i to become picture brides: marrying men that they have only ever seen through a photograph. Willow and Hongju expect their husbands to be young and wealthy, and that they will have opportunities like Willow’s dream to return to school. However, when they arrive in Hawai’i, their prospective husbands are not at all what they expect and they find that they have been significantly misled about their new living situation. They will have to rely on each other and friendships with other women to make their way in this new country.
This is a heartfelt, well-researched novel about hope and disappointment. Lee writes convincingly about her characters who are pushed to become picture brides by the impact of Japanese rule over Korea and entrenched patriarchal ideas. Hawai’i was a really interesting setting for this book, and there were lots of layers of colonialism, racism and political tension, not just between Korean and Japanese people, but experienced by them in Hawai’i, itself colonised by the United States of America. There was plenty of character development, and I found the nuance of the relationships in this book really engaging. Willow’s friendships are impacted by religious beliefs, political allegiances, classism and racism yet it is the strength of her female friendships that carries her through difficult times.
I think that while may aspects of the book were interesting, the pacing wasn’t always even and there were some parts of the book that felt like they dragged a little more than others. I think with historical fiction it is always a challenge to decide what to include and what to exclude; what is essential to setting the scene and furthering the plot, and what is not.
A compelling story about a unique historical phenomenon.
Prequel to Tamora Pierce’s fantasy series “Immortals”
Content warning: slavery
I was an avid reader of this author’s books when I was young, especially the “Song of the Lioness” and “The Immortals“. A few years ago I was interested to see that a new prequel series for “The Immortals”, but I hadn’t gotten around to reading it. My fantasy book club is full of Tamora Pierce fans (in fact, one of our questions to join our group is about Tamora Pierce!) so I decided to nominate this book for our next meeting.
“Tempests and Slaughter” by Tamora Pierce is a young adult fantasy novel and the first in the “The Numair Chronicles”, a prequel series to “The Immortals”. The story is about a young boy called Arram Draper, the son of a merchant, who is accepted as the youngest student at the Imperial University of Carthak. Ambitious and talented, Arram struggles to control his immense power and when he is accelerated through his studies, he struggles even more to navigate the politics of the older students and the mages who teach them. When he makes friends with Ozorne, the “leftover prince”, and the underestimated Varice, the merchant’s son is set on a path to becoming the most powerful mage in the kingdom and enmeshed in political intrigue.
This is gently paced book that explores the magic and worldbuilding of the Tortall world in even greater depth. Pierce has always been an inclusive writer, and this book is even more so. The story follows the typical magic school format, however the school is novel in that classes are individualised and students progress at their own pace. I really enjoyed how Pierce links the skills and self-restraint Arram learns connect with elements of the plot, and I especially enjoyed the chapters where he was working with animals. Pierce revisits locations throughout the city as Arram ages and matures, and together with Arram the reader begins to view the city and the kingdom with a more critical eye.
It has been a long time since I read “The Immortals”, so it did feel like I was re-entering the world with fresh eyes. One thing I struggled with a bit with this book was to identify who the intended audience was: older fans of Pierce’s works, or readers of young adult fiction today. Pierce wove in a lot of elements into this story: magic, murder mystery, political intrigue, and social issues (including class and slavery), and sometimes the complexity meant that the focus felt a little blurred.
An enjoyable story that steadily unfurls and lays the foundations for “The Immortals”.
Contemplative novel about independence, masculinity and growing up
I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the author.
“Limberlost” by Robbie Arnott is a bildungsroman novel about Ned, a fifteen year old boy who lives in regional Tasmania. His two older brothers are away at war and Ned, his sister and his father are alone on their apple orchard Limberlost without news. A quiet young man, Ned spends his summer shooting rabbits and saving money for a secret goal. Despite the stifled wartime atmosphere, Ned builds quiet connections with people in his family and his community and, with only the memory of his brothers to guide him, begins to find his own way to becoming a man.
This is an introspectively lyrical book about a young man who, despite a rich inner life full of dreams and worries, struggles to communicate with those around him. Although Arnott puts it to the reader to decide how much of Ned’s quietness is his personality or a product of his circumstances, one thing I really enjoyed about this book was how much effort his family and community put into listening to him. There were some very poignant moments scattered throughout this book and one of the highlights was the way Arnott engaged with the Tasmanian landscape and wildlife. Ned’s experience with a whale resonates throughout the book, re-examined through different lenses of memory and emotion. At the heart of the book was the tension caused by secretly helping an injured animal and Ned’s longing for a boat, and I loved the way all the characters reacted and interacted with Ned around his decisions. The innate warmth of the characters and their actions contrasts strikingly against their stiffness and outwardly suppressed emotions.
While I was entranced by Ned quietly navigating his way towards adulthood, I found the other chapters of him as an older man less compelling. While there were some interesting insights, I felt that Ned’s summer shooting rabbits was so perfectly self-contained as a story that I would have been satisfied had it been left with that.
A beautiful and gentle story and I look forward to reading more of Arnott’s work.
Epic science fiction novel about faith, war and moral righteousness
Content warning: war, torture, abuse
I received a copy of this book courtesy of the publisher.
“The Genesis of Misery” by Neon Yang is a science fiction novel about Misery, a petty criminal from a backwater planet, who has found themselves in hot water again. Misery has the power to manipulate certain types of stones, but is all too aware that this means they will likely die of voidmadness like their mother did. In fact Misery has already begun hearing voices. However, when the voice starts giving more and more specific suggestions, Misery begins to listen and is catapulted from marauder to messiah. Misery’s abilities find themself immersed in an ideological war. Increasingly extremist, is Misery’s war truly righteous or have they become the villain?
This was a really interesting story with an incredible amount of character development. I think this book is a fascinating study on the progression of extremism and the corruptibility of people with power. At the beginning of the book, Misery is fiery, logical and caught up in the goal of escaping their troubled background. However, as she listens more to the voice and leans into her powers, her moral compass begins to shift towards a completely different direction. This is also a really compelling book on the morality of war, and Yang uses a really unique third person omniscient perspective. As a reader, you feel really immersed in Misery’s thoughts and in the beginning, you feel really aligned with Misery. With great subtlety and effectiveness, Yang makes us question our continued alliance with this protagonist. This book embeds the use of preferred pronouns, building on Yang’s previous work, and makes living your authentic self an unquestioned part of Misery’s society.
However, I think that at times the book struggled in terms of readibility. A lot of the worldbuilding felt like broad brushstrokes and apart from some of the nuance of the religious war, I came away from the book feeling like I didn’t have much of a sense of the setting whether it was planetside, in a spaceship or in a giant mecha.
A thought-provoking example of science fiction that didn’t always bring the reader along with it.
I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publisher.
“The First Binding” by R. R. Virdi is an epic fantasy novel about a storyteller called Ari. After arriving at a tavern and providing a memorable performance, Ari meets a mysterious young woman with whom he forms an instant connection. As they navigate politics and danger in a foreign land, Ari shares the most personal story of all: how he overcame adversity to become a legend and The Storyteller.
This story has all the elements required for epic fantasy: orphan child, early mentor, street urchins, selective magic school and a journey to prove oneself. The book is set against a stunning South Asian backdrop and weaving in captivating mythologies and cultural elements to create rich, unique worldbuilding. I think my favourite part of the book was actually the interlude chapters set in the nation of Etaynia where Ari must navigate dangerous political games, though I did enjoy the competitive kite flying chapters as well.
However, this was not an easy book to read. It is over 800 pages long and it had a very slow start. Virdi has an overly descriptive style and I wish I was exaggerating but the book spent 30 pages describing a bench in a tavern. There were pages and pages of unnecessary descriptions of banal items: candles, cutlery and benchtops. The story really only felt like it began to get moving at page 375, well over a third of the way through. I actually feel like the editors did this book a bit of a disservice by not paring it back much, much more.
Ari is supposed to be an expert storyteller but I didn’t feel like the excellence of his storytelling was self-evident. Instead, there was a lot of reliance on audience reaction rather than having the stories shine in their own right. I also found the magic quite laborious. I understand that mastering the idea of folds took years and was very difficult, but the magic system took a long time to explain for something that did not inherently appear to be particularly complex. I also understand that Ari had gone through some things that perhaps made the magic much more difficult to execute in the earlier chapters however again, it seemed like there was a lot of time spent describing and not really that much magic to show for it which, as a reader, I found very frustrating. I also found the love interest quite cliched with a lot of batting eyelashes and a lot of male gaze. I think I could have forgiven quite a lot of these issues had the premise (rather than the setting) been more original.
There was some lovely worldbuilding in this book but you could have cut it in half without sacrificing the key parts of the story.
Speculative fiction novel about humanity’s skin changing colour
Content warning: racial violence
I received a copy of this book courtesy of the publisher.
“The Last White Man” by Mohsin Hamid is a speculative fiction novel about a young white man called Anders. One morning, Anders wakes to find that his appearance is changed. He is no longer white. Confused and unsure what to do, he reaches out to his friend and lover Oona. As they slowly renegotiate their relationship, other people in society start experiencing changes in their appearance and skin colour until it becomes clear that society will never be the same again.
This was a deceptively simple book that explored race and racism in a novel way: what would happen if people who had lived their lives as white suddenly had to live their lives with a different racial appearance? Hamid uses a small but effective cast of characters to explore some of the subtle and not-so-subtle racist views that people harbour, and how those views must be grappled with in the new society he has created. Some of these issues play out in public displays of violence and conflict, while others play out in the privacy of family homes. Particularly effective were the interactions between Oona and her mother, whose refusal to accept the situation becomes untenable, and Anders and his father, who find a new understanding through this experience. However, I also thought that the otherwise banal setting of the gym where Anders works was where issues of discrimination, exploitation and tolerance were truly borne out.
I think the only thing that I found myself wanting was a bit more of an explanation of why this had happened. With a confidence that I can only admire, Hamid just sets the scene without any attempt to justify – scientifically or otherwise – what is causing people to change. I think I would have liked just the merest whiff of a theory to cling to.
A thought-provoking and original story that encourages the reader to really think about the social impacts of racism.
Fantasy novel about straddling cultures and collecting powers
This was the next set book for my fantasy book club, which I had to dial into because I caught COVID-19 at the end of June, and then almost as soon as I recovered, I caught a cold.
“The Hand of the Sun King” by J.T. Greathouse is the first novel in the fantasy series “Pact and Pattern” about a young man who grows up in two cultures. In his father’s household, he is Wen Alder, studying for the Imperial Examinations to obtain a prestigious position serving the Emperor. However, in the dead of night, under the tutelage of his maternal grandmother, he is Foolish Cur studying the old ways. Trying to balance both identities, and unable to keep his own ambition in check, he finds himself propelled into a life of politics and intrigue, of rebellion and conflicted loyalties.
This was a really interesting novel with a complex and well thought out magic system. Greathouse is consistent and detailed with the use of magic and fans of epic fantasy will not be disappointed reading about Foolish Cur’s efforts to master various powers. The novel is paced in a way that the reader gradually learns more about reaches of the Sienese Empire and the effects of colonialism at the same rate that Foolish Cur does, creating a sense of connection with him and an investment in his story. I have mentioned a couple of times on here that I have been enjoying books where the primary motivation is ambition, and this was no exception.
However, I did find the book takes a while to get started. While I appreciate the earlier chapters lay a lot of essential groundwork for the overall premise of the book, it was initially slow to gain momentum.
An enjoyable book (once it got going) with unique and well-considered magic, few boring fantasy tropes and plenty of complexity.
Historical fiction retelling of the Labyrinth set in Crete in World War II
Content warning: war, sexual assault, family violence, torture, sexual harassment, disability discrimination
I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publisher.
“The Crimson Thread” by Kate Forsyth is a historical fiction novel and retelling of the story of the Labyrinth from Greek mythology. The book is about a young woman called Alenka who lives in Crete with her mother and younger brother. During the Nazi occupation of World War II, she is part of the local resistance. When German paratroopers land on the island in 1941, Alenka saves the lives of two young Australian men: childhood friends Jack and Teddy. However, the war is far from over and as the fighting intensifies on land and off, it becomes harder and harder to know who to trust.
This was an excellently researched book that seamlessly wove together two Cretes: the one of classic mythology and the modern one of the mid-20th century. The pacing in this book was superb. There was a lot of really challenging themes, and Forsyth knew exactly when to allow moments of tension and moments of tenderness. Some of the scenes were so poignant or full of perfect timing that they brought me to tears. The parts of the book that are hardest to read are those that are true either to the Nazi occupation of Crete or the events following Ariadne helping Theseus to navigate the Labyrinth and defeat the Minotaur in Greek mythology. Forsyth’s writing is so vivid in these moments, using motifs and metaphors that span millennia, and appealing to the universal human experience.
Alenka was such a relatable character, trying to do her best in extremely dangerous and ever-changing circumstances, including in her own home. My heart broke for her over and over. Conversely, the friendship and rivalry between Jack and Teddy was a fascinating exploration of class, disability and entitlement in Australian culture. All of the characters felt incredibly well-rounded with histories, motivations and unique personalities propelling them towards the final conflict. Forsyth has written about her experiences growing up with a stutter and writes with power, authenticity and flexibility about Jack’s stutter and how it waxes and wanes depending on the situation and his state of mind. This topic also has a particular significance to my family. During World War II, my grandfather’s twin brother’s aeroplane was shot down over Crete and never recovered. I understand the inspiration for Forsyth’s book came from her own family connection to Crete.
I have reviewed quite a few books by Forsyth on this blog, and I think this is her best yet.
I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publisher.
“The City Inside” by Samit Basu is a science fiction novel set in Delhi, India in a not-too-distant future. The story is primarily about Joey, a young woman who has an extremely successful job as a reality controller: managing and editing the livestream content of her influencer ex-boyfriend Indi. However, her personal life pales in comparison; despite having a luxury apartment, she spends most of her free time sleeping at her parents’ house where her family carefully avoid saying anything controversial. Meanwhile, Rudra, the estranged son of a wealthy man who has been living incognito among struggling migrants, reconnects with his family at his father’s funeral. Avoiding his brother’s attempts to join the family business, when he bumps into Joey who offers him a job, he accepts. However, as Indi’s ambitions grow bigger and Rudra’s family interests begin to reveal their true nature, Joey and Rudra realise that corporate power and sinister conspiracies run much deeper than either of them could have possibly realised.
This was a richly conceived book with exceptional and completely plausible worldbuilding. Basu draws on contemporary sources of power and influence and imagines how they may have evolved a decade from now. Influencers have merged with reality TV: carefully curated content with fictionalised storylines and strategic advertising placements. Airborne-illnesses, increasing temperatures and air pollution have normalised mask wearing, filtered air and avoiding the outside. The setting in Delhi brings further layers of complexity and nuance; drawing on ethnic tensions, historical protests and political influence to create a conflicted present still grappling with caste, wealth and freedom of speech.
Joey was a really interesting character whose personality at work and personality at home seem almost completely incompatible, raising questions about how much her memory is influenced, and by whom. Joey is politically engaged enough and fluent enough in progressive discourse to be aware of her own moral shortcomings, and tries to make what little difference she can through her work. In contrast, Rudra’s attempts to completely distance himself from his family prove to be inadequate in counteracting the harm they are causing to society. However, any kind of political action is dangerous, and Basu pushes the reader to make up their own mind about what is right, what is wrong and what is understandable.
While I really enjoyed the setting and the character development, I did find the plot a little confusing. The book draws on cyberpunk traditions in science fiction and using digital spaces, avatars and social media to create and recreate reality, social connections and even business deals. However, between a meeting in one of these digital spaces, subject to surveillance on multiple levels, and the action really kicking off, I found it hard to keep track of exactly what was happening. Basu is quite a subtle writer, leaving a lot to the reader to interpret themselves, but when crucial plot items were happening I found that I was hoping for a little more clarity and a little less like scenes whipping by me in a speeding train carriage.
An intricate and highly original premise that conveys a lot but becomes a bit muddied towards the end.
Content warning: homophobia, exploitation, sexual assault
After a bit of a slow start, with members moving away and people going overseas and this never-ending pandemic, we did manage to have another meeting of our fantasy book club this year.
“The Binding” by Bridget Collins is a fantasy novel about a young man called Emmett Farmer who is summoned by a Bookbinder to work as an apprentice. Although he has been too unwell to work on the farm recently, Emmett initially resists, insisting he will be able to resume his duties very soon. However, with his family strangely eager to see him go, he reluctantly agrees and travels to the isolated cottage to start his new trade. His master is an elderly, taciturn woman called Seredith who refuses to answer any of his questions about the magical art of binding: taking a person’s traumatic memories and encapsulating them safely in a book. Instead, he is set to work learning the practical skills of bookbinding. However, when Seredith falls ill, Emmett’s future suddenly becomes very unclear and he realises that even less clear is his own past, and the location of his own book.
There were some very strong elements to this book. Collins has a knack for capturing mood, and I admittedly found the first part of this book extremely bleak, though this was balanced out with the beautiful summer scenes in the middle of the book. I liked the idea of bookbinding as an arcane art, and that there was a whole economy and apprenticeship system built around it. The highlight of the book was the interplay between Emmett and Lucian, and the various circumstances in which they meet.
However, I did find the use of seasons to delineate mood a little heavy-handed at times. I also found the magic and society felt a little unfinished. If books are only ever the bound memories of people, how were they invented? Why can’t you bind a memory into a letter? Why, in a fantasy society without a clear religion such as Christianity, is homophobia so rampant? While there were a lot of beautiful scenes and pieces of writing, I wasn’t sure the plot and setting held up very well under close scrutiny.
An interesting concept with some lovely prose but at times a bit grim and unfinished.