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ARC Review: Into the Riverlands by Nghi Vo

Publication Date: October 25, 2022

***You can find my reviews of the previous books in the Singing Hills Cycle here: The Empress of Salt and Fortune and When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain.

Synopsis:

The Hugo, Locus, Igynte Award Finalist and Crawford Award-Winning Series

Wandering cleric Chih of the Singing Hills travels to the riverlands to record tales of the notorious near-immortal martial artists who haunt the region. On the road to Betony Docks, they fall in with a pair of young women far from home, and an older couple who are more than they seem. As Chih runs headlong into an ancient feud, they find themselves far more entangled in the history of the riverlands than they ever expected to be.

Accompanied by Almost Brilliant, a talking bird with an indelible memory, Chih confronts old legends and new dangers alike as they learn that every story—beautiful, ugly, kind, or cruel—bears more than one face.

The Singing Hills Cycle

The Empress of Salt and Fortune
When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain
Into the Riverlands

The novellas of The Singing Hills Cycle are linked by the cleric Chih, but may be read in any order, with each story serving as an entrypoint.

My Review:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

I loved this from the first sentences and it’s my favorite by far of the Singing Hills Cycle. It has more adventure and action than the first two volumes, and it also has a bit more contemplation of what makes a story. Or perhaps it’s just a different lens to view story through.

The first focused on the story of a pair of women, slowly revealed in pieces through objects and fragments of memories. The second contemplated how the same story told by two different cultures could end up very different. This took a broader look at how the stories and legends told by many people could weave together just enough truth to give a glimpse at the true story underneath.

The writing was as gorgeous as Nghi Vo’s writing always is, sharp and incisive and true. The story unfolded beautifully, and it was terribly fun to piece it together along with Chih. I highlighted so many passages of beautiful writing, as I always do when I love a book as much as I loved this one.

Over the course of the story I came to love the Riverlands, and to fear them, and to be glad that I do not actually live there. They might be a nice (if terrifying) place to visit, but I do not think my heart could take that kind of excitement every day. I was sad to leave them behind, and sad to have to leave these very intriguing characters that I have only partly glimpsed. Mostly though, I am left anticipating Chih and Almost Brilliant’s next adventure and the stories they will discover along the way.

*Thanks to NetGalley and Macmillan/Tor-Forge & Tordotcom for providing an e-arc for review.

Favorite Quotes:

Chih swallowed hard and nodded. They weren’t brave, and despite the shaved head and the indigo robes, they weren’t particularly virtuous, but more than anything else, they were curious, and sometimes that could stand in for the rest.

Into the Riverlands by Nghi Vo

She was known to be kind, which you should never confuse with being gracious or beautiful or courteous.

Into the Riverlands by Nghi Vo

Chih walked the permimeter of the campground until the sun was up, and as they did so, Almost Brilliant, her breakfast forgotten or simply foregone in favor of her favorite stories, told them about the fighters and fools and freaks of the Riverlands, who may have lived in truth but certainly lived in fiction.

Into the Riverlands by Nghi Vo

I’ll remember that I was terrified, Chih thought. I’ll remember what it was like to see a battle between people who don’t fight like people, who are what legends come from.

Into the Riverlands by Nghi Vo

Book Review: When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain by Nghi Vo

Publication Date: December 8, 2020

***You can find my reviews of the other books in the Singing Hills Cycle here: The Empress of Salt and Fortune and Into the Riverlands.

Synopsis:

The cleric Chih finds themself and their companions at the mercy of a band of fierce tigers who ache with hunger. To stay alive until the mammoths can save them, Chih must unwind the intricate, layered story of the tiger and her scholar lover—a woman of courage, intelligence, and beauty—and discover how truth can survive becoming history.

Nghi Vo returns to the empire of Ahn and The Singing Hills Cycle in this mesmerizing, lush standalone follow-up to The Empress of Salt and Fortune

My Review:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

This book was a rather interesting journey. I first tried to read it via audiobook while still pretty out of it from the flu shot and covid booster. That… didn’t go so well lol. I fell asleep quickly, slept through almost the entirety of the story, and wound up with a hazy mix of memory of the story and dream-memory of the “story.” When I was feeling more myself, I listened to it again. I stayed awake through it, but I came away unsure of how I felt about it. So I listened to it a third time and read along with the audio, and I feel like I absorbed it better that way. Or maybe it just required a second (fully conscious) listen.

Regardless, this is a lovely story that is both larger and smaller than Empress of Salt and Fortune. We again follow Chih as they journey, recording stories and histories. En route to their destination (via mammoth, because as Chih says, why wouldn’t you travel via mammoth when given the opportunity?) they encounter a trio of were-tigers and things begin to go downhill.

At its core, this is a Scheherazade story (only with tigers and mammoths). Chih stalls for time before being eaten by telling a story of the marriage of a human and a were-tiger. Only the tigers disagree with how it is told and correct it by telling their own version. This back-and-forth goes on for a while and we are given what is at its heart the same story but told through two lenses. One shaped by the culture and values of humans, and one shaped by the culture and values of tigers. It is a fascinating study of how two cultures can take the same story bones and tell two radically different stories if you focus on the details.

I am glad I both read and listened because Nghi Vo’s writing is gorgeous as always, and Cindy Kay’s narration is very well done, with believable human and tiger voices and appropriate emotion and emphasis.

Favorite Quotes:


She was a handsome woman, but the animal impassivity of her eyes and the way her teeth looked a little too large for her mouth gave her a menacing look, the tiger in her sitting in wait beneath her human skin.

When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain by Nghi Vo

When you love a thing too much, it is a special kind of pain to show it to others and to see that it is lacking.

When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain by Nghi Vo

They lived well-fed until they were only bones, and even their bones were happy, turning white and sharp as teeth in the moonlight.

When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain by Nghi Vo

Up close, the bull was overwhelming, a wall of solid muscle and fur that could trample an empire flat.

When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain by Nghi Vo

Book Review: The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo (Singing Hills Cycle #1)

Publication Date: March 24, 2020

***You can find my reviews of the other books in the Singing Hills Cycle here: When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain and Into the Riverlands.

Synopsis:

A young royal from the far north is sent south for a political marriage in an empire reminiscent of imperial China. Her brothers are dead, her armies and their war mammoths long defeated and caged behind their borders. Alone and sometimes reviled, she must choose her allies carefully.

Rabbit, a handmaiden, sold by her parents to the palace for the lack of five baskets of dye, befriends the emperor’s lonely new wife and gets more than she bargained for.

At once feminist high fantasy and an indictment of monarchy, this evocative debut follows the rise of the empress In-yo, who has few resources and fewer friends. She’s a northern daughter in a mage-made summer exile, but she will bend history to her will and bring down her enemies, piece by piece.

My Review:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

This is a gorgeous puzzle of a story, with the words spoken only the surface layer, hinting at what’s underneath. I loved it. It’s short enough to read comfortably in a sitting and sharp enough to make you sit and think. I look forward to the sequel.

Update 2022:

I love the structure of the story, with a cleric come to study and record for history an estate that has been locked for decades, and the deceptively simple old woman she meets there. As she moves through the house, discovering objects and recording their details, the old woman slowly reveals the history and significance of each, and along the way tells the empress’ story and her own, entrusting the cleric with the means to ruin not only herself and the previous empress, but the new empress as well – and many reasons not to do so.

Each time she finishes relating a tale or a portion of the history she asks, “Do you understand?” And slowly the cleric comes closer and closer to doing so. Brilliantly written all around.

This time I listened to the audio version and it was narrated beautifully. Even though it is a complicated story, I never felt lost as I listened. The narrator’s low, rather deep speaking voice gave the impression of someone relating secrets and gave the subject material more weight.

Favorite Quote:

“Save that anger,” Mai said with a sigh. “Angry mothers raise daughters fierce enough to fight wolves.”

The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo

Audio ARC Review: Night of the Raven, Dawn of the Dove by Rati Mehrotra

Publication Date: October 18, 2022

Synopsis:

To learn what she can become, she must first discover who she is.

Katyani’s role in the kingdom of Chandela has always been clear: becoming an advisor and protector of the crown prince, Ayan, when he ascends to the throne. Bound to the Queen of Chandela through a forbidden soul bond that saved her when she was a child, Katyani has grown up in the royal family and become the best guardswoman the Garuda has ever seen. But when a series of assassination attempts threatens the royals, Katyani is shipped off to the gurukul of the famous Acharya Mahavir as an escort to Ayan and his cousin, Bhairav, to protect them as they hone the skills needed to be the next leaders of the kingdom. Nothing could annoy Katyani more than being stuck in a monastic school in the middle of a forest, except her run-ins with Daksh, the Acharya’s son, who can’t stop going on about the rules and whose gaze makes her feel like he can see into her soul.

But when Katyani and the princes are hurriedly summoned back to Chandela before their training is complete, tragedy strikes and Katyani is torn from the only life she has ever known. Alone and betrayed in a land infested by monsters, Katyani must find answers from her past to save all she loves and forge her own destiny. Bonds can be broken, but debts must be repaid.

My Review:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

I loved this book so much! It’s so nice to get a good standalone adventure that wraps up in a satisfactory way but doesn’t suffer from feeling too abrupt. I thought it was the perfect length and the pacing was excellent throughout. I connected very quickly with the characters and was consistently surprised by the plot twists.

One of my favorite things is reading fantasy books set in places other than “Medieval Europe” and learning about the customs, mythical creatures, food, clothing, etc and there is plenty of all of that in this book where the setting is an alternate medieval India.

The writing was beautiful and kept me fully engaged while I read and listened. There were many passages I took note of for their beauty.

I loved learning about all of the different monsters. I had limited knowledge of most of them and so I appreciated the descriptions of their physical forms and actions. It never felt info-dump-y though and was always relevant to the plot.

I especially loved how there were many descriptions of monsters and their monstrous ways and it managed to be bloody and occasionally horrific without being horror. I was never really scared by the monsters – only intrigued. Especially since there is an emphasis on the monsters’ humanity even though they are not human. They’re very different, but in many ways they aren’t. In fact I would say that the most monstrous characters were humans.

I loved the slow-burn romance – there was just enough of it to make me root for them while not overpowering the rest of the story – the magic, the monsters, the politics, and Katyani’s journey to knowing and finding herself were the main focus.

Katyani goes through many trials throughout the story as she learns who she is, who she was, and who she can become. Her journey of self-discovery is compelling and pulls the reader breathlessly along for the ride.

The audiobook narrator did an excellent job bringing the story and characters to life. She obviously knew how to pronounce all of the unfamiliar terms that I would have stumbled over, and that made it a richer experience.

Even though this is a standalone and does wrap up satisfactorily, it leaves room for future books exploring Katyani and Daksh’s adventures. I hope the author does write such sequels, and will read them as soon as I can get my hands on them.

*Thanks to NetGalley, Wednesday Books, and Macmillan Audio for providing an e-arc and audio arc for review.

ARC Review: A Scatter of Light by Malinda Lo

Cover of A Scatter of Light by Malinda Lo

Publication Date: October 4, 2022

Synopsis:

Award-winning author Malinda Lo returns to the Bay Area with another masterful coming-of-queer-age story, this time set against the backdrop of the first major Supreme Court decisions legalizing gay marriage. And almost sixty years after the end of Last Night at the Telegraph Club, Lo’s new novel also offers a glimpse into Lily and Kath’s lives since 1955.

Aria Tang West was looking forward to a summer on Martha’s Vineyard with her best friends–one last round of sand and sun before college. But after a graduation party goes wrong, Aria’s parents exile her to California to stay with her grandmother, artist Joan West.Aria expects boredom, but what she finds is Steph Nichols, her grandmother’s gardener. Soon, Aria is second-guessing who she is and what she wants to be, and a summer that once seemed lost becomes unforgettable–for Aria, her family, and the working-class queer community Steph introduces her to. It’s the kind of summer that changes a life forever.

My Review:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

This book was emotionally devastating. That’s the best word I can think of to describe it. I turned the last page and read the author’s note through my tears, and then I ugly cried for a while. It’s poignant and nostalgic and gorgeously written so that you feel everything Aria feels and live breathlessly in the moment with her. Every time I opened the book I was sucked in and forgot about everything else.

Malinda Lo is exceptionally good at capturing a moment in time, especially a moment where the character is right on the cusp of something. I don’t remember Last Night at the Telegraph Club being quite so devastating, but I think part of that is my own emotional resonance with this story.

For most of the book, it’s like she captured one perfect golden late-summer Northern California afternoon. The kind the stretches on and on, where the light showers everything in gold and you could believe that the moment could last forever. It meshes so well with that last endless summer between high school and college, when you’re just beginning to discover yourself.

Aria is on the cusp of adulthood, the cusp of realization that she’s maybe not as straight as she once thought. Her crush on Steph simmers just beneath the surface, warring with the impossibility of it all and the electric novelty of her newfound queerness opens up a previously unseen world to her.

At the same time she’s having her ideas of her grandmother, her parents, her friends, and her past reshaped as she grows out of her childhood assumptions about them.

The ending circles back to the beginning in a wholly satisfying way that makes everything seem more profound and gives every moment, every gesture weight and meaning.

I love the exploration of time and memories and grief and art, and how they interconnect and weave together. The characters leap off the page, so full of life and well-rounded are they, and I felt them tugging at my heart more insistently than many.

This is a book that everyone should read and that I will probably never read again, because I don’t think it would have the same breathless impact the second time through and I’m not sure my heart could take it.

The cover is stunning and complements the story SO well. The cover artist captured the essence of the story perfectly.

*Thanks to Bookishfirst and Penguin Teen for providing an ARC for review.

Blog Tour & ARC Review: The Belle of Belgrave Square by Mimi Matthews

Publishing Date: October 11, 2022

Welcome to the Belle of Belgrave Square book tour with Berkley Publishing Group. (This blog tour post is also posted on my Tumblr book, art, & fandom blog Whimsical Dragonette.)

Synopsis:

A London heiress rides out to the wilds of the English countryside to honor a marriage of convenience with a mysterious and reclusive stranger.

Tall, dark, and dour, the notorious Captain Jasper Blunt was once hailed a military hero, but tales abound of his bastard children and his haunted estate in Yorkshire. What he requires now is a rich wife to ornament his isolated ruin, and he has set his sights on the enchanting Julia Wychwood.
 
For Julia, an incurable romantic cursed with a crippling social anxiety, navigating a London ballroom is absolute torture. The only time Julia feels any degree of confidence is when she’s on her horse. Unfortunately, a young lady can’t spend the whole of her life in the saddle, so Julia makes an impetuous decision to take her future by the reins—she proposes to Captain Blunt.
 
In exchange for her dowry and her hand, Jasper must promise to grant her freedom to do as she pleases. To ride—and to read—as much as she likes without masculine interference. He readily agrees to her conditions, with one provision of his own: Julia is forbidden from going into the tower rooms of his estate and snooping around in his affairs. But the more she learns of the beastly former hero, the more intrigued she becomes….

Author Bio:

USA Today bestselling author Mimi Matthews writes both historical nonfiction and award-winning proper Victorian romances. Her novels have received starred reviews in Library JournalPublishers Weekly, and Kirkus, and her articles have been featured on the Victorian Web, the Journal of Victorian Culture, and in syndication at BUST Magazine. In her other life, Mimi is an attorney. She resides in California with her family, which includes a retired Andalusian dressage horse, a Sheltie, and two Siamese cats. Learn more online at mimimatthews.com.

Author Photo by Vicki Hahn 2021

My Review:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

I loved this so much. I loved the first as well but I had reservations about it – not so here. Everything about this story was historical romance perfection. I had a smile on my face the entire time I was reading.

The romance was swoony, the characters beautifully written, the struggles and misunderstandings relatable, and the closed-door romance a big plus for me. I also really loved the use of the Bluebeard story – and the way the expectations arising from that were flipped. It was also really well-written – I had no problems at all with the writing like I often do with romances.

The plot felt familiar to me but I think this was a combination of having read the preview at the end of the previous book and also that it just hits every historical romance beat to perfection. This makes it somewhat predictable but isn’t that one of the main selling points of romances? I like that they’re cozy and predictable and follow a familiar pattern. I also am a huge fan of almost all of the tropes used in this book so that probably contributed as well.

The children were adorable in their wildness and reluctance to open up, and also in the sweet way they responded to Julia. Captain Blunt was broody and cold for a reason and as he opened up and showed his true self I couldn’t help but love him. I was SO happy to see Julia learn to stand up for herself and believe in herself and her worth. I also really appreciated seeing her anxiety – I really felt for her because I, too, have extreme anxiety and would generally prefer to be reading a book. Every part of this novel just made me so happy, I was reluctant to put it down and wanted the story to go on forever.

I highly recommend this.

*Thanks to NetGalley and Berkley Publishing for providing an e-arc for review.

Favorite Quotes:

In a novel she was safe. Her throat didn’t close up and her palms didn’t grow damp. She could experience things in a way that didn’t overwhelm her.

The Belle of Belgrave Square by Mimi Matthews

“Laws are made by men and, therefore, fallible. Justice is something greater. Most of us—the poorest and the weakest—won’t see it on this side of the grave. But sometimes, on rare occasions, someone manages to balance the scales. It can be difficult to reconcile it with the law. That doesn’t negate the rightness of it.”

The Belle of Belgrave Square by Mimi Matthews

Non-exclusive Excerpt:

Cossack tossed his head at something in the distance.

Julia’s gloved hands tightened reflexively on the reins. She squinted down the length of the Row at the rider coming toward them. “Easy,” she murmured to Cossack. “It’s just another horse.”

An enormous horse. Bigger and blacker than Cossack himself.

But it wasn’t the horse that made Julia tense in her sidesaddle. It was the gentleman astride him: a stern-faced, battle-scarred ex-military man.

Captain Blunt, the Hero of the Crimea.

Her mouth went dry as he approached. She was half-tempted to bolt. But there was no escaping him. She brought Cossack down to a trot and then to a walk.

She’d met the captain once before. It had been at Lady Arundell’s spring ball. Viscount Ridgeway, a mutual acquaintance of theirs, had introduced him to Julia as a worthy partner. In other circumstances, the interaction might have been the veriest commonplace-a few polite words exchanged and a turn about the polished wood dance floor.

Instead, Julia had gawped at Captain Blunt like a stricken nitwit. Her breath had stopped and her pulse had roared in her ears. Afraid she might faint, she’d fled the ballroom before the introduction had been completed, leaving Captain Blunt standing there, his granite-hewn features frozen in a mask of displeasure.

It had been one of the most mortifying experiences of Julia’s life.

And that was saying something.

For a lady prone to panicking in company, mortifications were a daily occurrence. At the advanced age of two-and-twenty, she’d nearly grown accustomed to them. But even for her, the incident at Lady Arundell’s ball had marked a new low.

No doubt Captain Blunt thought her actions had had something to do with his appearance.

He was powerfully made. Tall, strong, and impossibly broad shouldered. Already a physically intimidating gentleman, he was made even more so by the scar on his face. The deep, gruesome slash bisected his right eyebrow and ran all the way down to his mouth, notching into the flesh of his lip. It gave the impression of a permanent sneer.

Rather ironic that he was hailed as a hero. In looks, there seemed nothing heroic about him. Indeed, he appeared in every way a villain.

“Miss Wychwood.” He removed his beaver hat, inclining his head in a bow. His hair was a lustrous raven black. Cut short to his collar, it was complemented by a pair of similarly short sideburns edging the harsh lines of his jaw. “Good morning.”

She scarcely dared look him in the face. “Good morning.”

He didn’t reply. Not immediately. He was studying her. She could feel the weight of his stare. It set off a storm of butterflies in her stomach.

Ride on, she wanted to say. Please, ride on.

He didn’t ride on. He seemed intent on making her squirm.

She suspected she knew why. She’d never apologized to him for her behavior at the ball. There’d been no opportunity.

Perhaps he wanted her to suffer for embarrassing him?

If that was the case, Julia was resigned to take her medicine. Heaven knew she deserved it.

She forced herself to meet his gaze. The butterflies in her stomach threatened to revolt. Goodness. His eyes were the color of hoarfrost-a gray so cold and stark it sent an icy shiver tracing down the curve of her spine. Every feminine instinct within her rose up in warning. Run, it said. Flee.

But this wasn’t Lady Arundell’s ballroom.

This was Hyde Park. Here in the open air, mounted on Cossack, she wasn’t the same person she was at a ball or a dinner dance. For one thing, she wasn’t alone. She had a partner-and an imposing one, at that. Cossack lent her his strength and his stature. Made her feel nearly as formidable as he was. It’s why she was more confident on horseback.

At least, she’d always been so before.

“How do you do?” she asked.

“Very well.” His voice was deep and commanding, with a growl at the edge of it. A soldier’s voice. The kind that, when necessary, could be heard across a battlefield. “And yourself?”

“I’m enjoying our spell of fine weather,” she said. “It’s excellent for riding.”

He flicked a glance over her habit. Made of faded black wool, it did nothing to emphasize the contours of her figure. Rather the opposite. It obscured her shape, much as the net veil on her short-brimmed riding hat obscured her face. His black brows notched into a frown.

She suppressed a flicker of self-consciousness. Her clothing wasn’t meant to attract attention. It was meant to render her invisible. But it hadn’t-not to him.

The way he looked at her . . . Hades might have regarded Persephone thus before dragging her down to hell to be his unwilling bride.

And everyone knew Captain Blunt was looking for a wife.

If one believed the prevailing rumors, it was the sole reason he’d come to town. He was on the hunt for a vulnerable heiress he could spirit back to his isolated Yorkshire estate. An estate that was said to be haunted.

“You ride often at this time of day?” he asked.

“Whenever I can,” she said. “Cossack is glad for the exercise.”

“You handle him well.”

Some of the tightness in her chest eased at the compliment. “It’s not difficult.” She stroked Cossack’s neck. “He may look imposing, but he’s a lamb underneath. The biggest creatures often are in my experience.”

Captain Blunt’s own mount stamped his gigantic hooves as if in objection to her statement.

She gave the great beast an interested look. He was built like a medieval warhorse, with a broad chest, heavy fetlocks, and a thickly waving mane and tail. “What do you call him?”

“Quintus.”

“And is he-“

“A brute through and through,” Captain Blunt said. “Sometimes, Miss Wychwood, what you see is precisely what you get.”

Excerpted from The Belle of Belgrave Square by Mimi Matthews Copyright © 2022 by Mimi Matthews. Excerpted by permission of Berkley. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.