Design a site like this with WordPress.com
Get started

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: Fraternity by Andy Mientus

Publication Date: September 20, 2022

Synopsis:

A queer, dark academia YA about a mysterious boarding school, a brotherhood that must stay in the shadows, and an ancient evil that could tear it all apart.

In the fall of 1991, Zooey Orson transfers to the Blackfriars School for Boys hoping for a fresh start following a scandal at his last school. However, he quickly learns that he isn’t the only student keeping a secret. Before he knows it, he’s fallen in with a group of boys who all share the same secret, one which they can only express openly within the safety of the clandestine gatherings of the Vicious Circle––the covert club for gay students going back decades. But when the boys unwittingly happen upon the headmaster’s copy of an arcane occult text, they unleash an eldritch secret so terrible, it threatens to consume them all.

A queer paranormal story set during the still-raging AIDS crisis, Fraternity examines a time not so long ago when a secret brotherhood lurked in the shadows. What would Zooey and his friends do to protect their found family?

My Review:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

This started slowly but little by little it picked up steam until I was on the edge of my seat. It hits hard, blending magic and all-too-real topics in a way that feels wholly natural and right. This wouldn’t be the same book if you removed the witchcraft and black magic, and it wouldn’t be the same book if you removed the talk of AIDS and conversion therapy and queerness and race. It’s queer and it’s unapologetic and it’s set so specifically in time. I was too young in 1991 to pay attention to the news, but even growing up later in the 90s I felt a sense of kinship with these characters and a sense of recognition.

The characters are distinct and well-rounded. They can be summed up in a few descriptors, or so it seems, though they are revealed over the course of the book to be more than they first appear. I enjoyed the multiple POVs, which helped me feel closer to each boy.

The villains are monstrous (in more ways than one) and the monstrous future they were pushing toward felt all-too-real, especially in light of recent events. We may be a far cry from shadowy political cults and the AIDS epidemic… but in many ways we aren’t.

This is not a happy book, and it’s not an easy one to read. There is bullying and intolerance and bigotry and evil. But there is also friendship and queer joy and community and love.

I took a while to warm up to the characters and story, and I even questioned whether I wanted to continue a few times. But by about 40% in I was thoroughly hooked and for the last several hours of the audiobook I couldn’t tear myself away from the story.

The audiobook narrators were really excellent and delivered a gripping and emotional performance. The voices they used for each character were believable and felt right, and I was more invested in the story than I would have been if I were reading it to myself.

I’m not often a fan of an author narrating their own book because they so rarely deliver a riveting performance — it’s a different skillset, narrating a book rather than writing it. But in this case Andy Mientus did a fabulous job and I highly recommend getting the audiobook version.

*Thanks to NetGalley and Recorded Books for providing an audiobook arc for review.

Favorite Quotes:

She took one of us on each arm and, as we walked to our seats, I felt the kinds of looks I used to get at Blackfriars and had an unexpected pang of nostalgia. In a weird way, I’d missed feeling like a freak. Being a freak alone is tough, but being a freak arm-in-arm with your fellow freaks can feel pretty punk.

Fraternity by Andy Mientus

If we’ve learned anything this past year, it’s that history lets us carry the work of those who came before us forward so that we might finish it.

Fraternity by Andy Mientus

Arc & Audio ARC Review: Aces Wild: A Heist by Amanda DeWitt

Publication Date: September 13, 2022

Synopsis:

What happens in Vegas when an all-asexual online friend group attempts to break into a high-stakes gambling club? Shenanigans ensue.

Some people join chess club, some people play football. Jack Shannon runs a secret blackjack ring in his private school’s basement. What else is the son of a Las Vegas casino mogul supposed to do?

Everything starts falling apart when Jack’s mom is arrested for their family’s ties to organized crime. His sister Beth thinks this is the Shannon family’s chance to finally go straight, but Jack knows that something’s not right. His mom was sold out, and he knows by who. Peter Carlevaro: rival casino owner and jilted lover. Gross.

Jack hatches a plan to find out what Carlevaro’s holding over his mom’s head, but he can’t do it alone. He recruits his closest friends—the asexual support group he met through fandom forums. Now all he has to do is infiltrate a high-stakes gambling club and dodge dark family secrets, while hopelessly navigating what it means to be in love while asexual. Easy, right?

My Review:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

This was so much fun! I was drawn into the story immediately and immediately sympathetic to the main character. He was sarcastic, self-deprecating, funny, and a very believable teenager — some of my favorite things in a protagonist. He made a lot of very realistic, very bad decisions, especially early on when he felt like he was alone and his world was falling apart. Sometimes he even knew they were bad decisions and he still made them. He was a very realistic teenager, in other words.

I LOVE that the entire crew he pulls together for his heist are ace. It’s such a fun detail, and so relatable – not having friends in your immediate surroundings but connecting with people all over the country on fanfiction forums and then forming a chat support group for ace people? Definitely felt familiar, which drew me in even more. I almost felt like I was a member of the group and in on their shenanigans.

The heist itself sometimes took a backseat to the family and friend group drama, but I’m ok with that. There was still plenty of heist action there, but I was there for the character interactions anyway as I generally prefer character driven to plot driven stories. I love love loved the characters. They were all such individuals, with unique characteristics and mannerisms that didn’t feel forced at all. They felt like real people you might find anywhere. Well, they felt like real teenagers that you might meet at the outskirts of the school social scene, which is where I’ve always been the most comfortable. In short – I wanted to be their friend too. They were very obviously my people.

I like how the ‘being ace’ aspect was handled, as well as the tentative love story. It was sweet and realistic and believable… and familiar. Aside from the whole heist thing, it could have been me and my friends in high school and college.

That sense of familiarity, of belonging, made me love this book 1000x more than I would have based solely on the plot. Obviously not everyone is going to feel this sentimental about the book and characters, but I think a lot of people will really see themselves here and feel seen.

Las Vegas was an excellent choice of setting because the glitter and glamour made an excellent contrast to the seriousness of the beginning and then an excellent background and distraction during the plotting and executing of the heist itself. I’ve never been to Las Vegas, but after reading this I feel like I was there. The descriptions didn’t ever try to take over the story like in some books, but I still felt like everything was very grounded in a specific place and could even almost see it playing out in my head. in fact I did see it that way – I have very specific visual memories of events in the book. It was like watching a movie. Ocean’s 11, but with teenagers.

The audiobook was narrated flawlessly and I love the narrator and the choices he made for the different voices and the way he told the story. Just perfect all around. I bumped the speed up to 2x because he spoke a little slowly for my taste – many people do – and it was still perfectly clear and easy to understand and all the emotion came through easily.

*Thanks to NetGalley, Peachtree Teen, and Recorded Books for providing an e-arc and audio arc for review.

ARC Review: The Big Book of Pride Flags by Jessica Kingsley and Jem Milton

Publication Date: June 21, 2022

Synopsis:

Celebrate and learn about the LGBTQIA+ community with this colourful book of Pride flags!

Featuring all the colours of the rainbow, this book teaches children about LGBTQIA+ identities through 17 different Pride flags. With fun facts, simple explanations and a short history of each flag accompanying beautiful illustrations, children will uncover the history of Pride and be introduced to different genders and sexual orientations. There’s also a blank Pride flag design at the back of the book so that children can create their very own Pride flag!
With a Reading Guide that provides a detailed History of the Pride Flag and questions for further discussion, this inspiring book is a must-have for every child’s bookshelf, library or classroom.

My Review:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

This was such an affirming and joyful read!

This book contained a lot of information but it didn’t feel like an info-dump or overwhelming. Each flag had a brief but thorough rundown: a bit of history (who designed it, when it was designed, some background) and a matter-of-fact explanation of what each color stripe stands for. I learned a lot and look forward to reading it with my second-grader.

The colors are bright and cheerful and definitely made me want to read more. The art style was cute while still allowing for lots of detail and individuality of the characters. The illustrations are diverse and welcoming, showcasing diversity of race, disability, gender presentation, age, and body size.

Overall this was a warm, welcoming, joyful and engaging read and I absolutely loved it.

*Thanks to NetGalley and Jessica Kingsley Publishers for providing an e-arc for review.

ARC Review: The Awesome Autistic Guide for Trans Teens by Yenn Purkis and Sam Rose

Publication Date: June 21, 2022

Synopsis:

Calling all awesome autistic trans teens! Yenn Purkis and Sam Rose want you to live your best authentic life – and this handy book will show you how!

With helpful explanations, tips and activities, plus examples of famous trans and gender divergent people on the autism spectrum, this user-friendly guide will help you to navigate the world as an awesome autistic trans teen.

Covering a huge range of topics including coming out, masking, different gender identities, changing your name, common issues trans and gender divergent people face and ways to help overcome them, building a sense of pride and much, much more, it will empower you to value yourself and thrive exactly as you are.

My Review:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

This is a really great starting point for people just learning about autism and gender diversity. It does a good job explaining complex terms in a simple and easy-t0-grasp way. Most people who have done even a little reading about gender diversity will know most of what is covered in this book, but as a starting point I think it works well for adults and teens.

However some of the terms are defined too simply or breezed past which can lead to confusion. I definitely wouldn’t recommend this as the only source of information. As a starting point and supplement to the journey, it works well. I am even thinking of giving it to my mom as a way to help her understand me better (even though I am an adult instead of a teen).

I found the second half of the book less interesting and helpful for me mostly because I am not a teen. If I were a teen just beginning to explore my gender identity then the information about hormones and how to access therapy and how to come out would be very helpful. In fact, if I had had this as a teen it would have been amazing and saved me a lot of stress and confusion during high school and college.

*Thanks to NetGalley and Jessica Kingsley Publishers for providing an e-arc for review.