TW: gun violence (major), gore (major), transphobia (moderate), racism/xenophobia (minor). I picked this book up because someone told me it was a Romeo and Juliet retelling, but they didn’t tell me it was a Romeo and Juliet retelling set in 1920s crime-run Shanghai about star-crossed ex-lovers putting aside the blood feud between their gangs to prevent a monster from terrorizing their city.
Between the ruthless gangs, the rekindling of first love, and the dramatic ploys of various nationalities trying to gain control of Shanghai, this story delivers on so many fronts.
I can definitely see how this follows Romeo and Juliet, but at the same time, it feels entirely different. It’s the perfect kind of retelling, with the right balance of new and original. Chloe Gong successfully took a beloved classic and retold it with new culture, queer representation, and modern themes surrounding misogyny and racism, while also staying true to the core themes about love, loyalty, and betrayal.
The writing, while slow and long-winded in some areas (I might have lightly skimmed here and there), has beautiful descriptions and quotes you’ll want to write down and remember forever. As someone who has been reading a lot of YA romance lately, coming back into fantasy was a bit of a shock, but the way Chloe Gong navigated the multiple POVs and plot without confusing me was amazing. Of course, this way of ornate telling might not be your cup of tea, but I recommend you give it a try anyway! Oh, and the ending had me running to the library to get the sequel.—Review by Sriya B. ’22
TW for the book: Drug Overdose, Murder, Sexual Assault
As Leigh Bardugo’s debut into Adult Fantasy, Ninth House is a stunning dark thriller that takes place on the modern day Yale campus. Be aware that this book may make you question your college apps however, as there is much murder and magic afoot.
The book follows Galaxy (Alex) Stern, a freshman with an unusual ability, through various timelines as she attempts to piece together the details of an oddly familiar murder and figure out how it relates to her mentor’s disappearance. You see, Alex is by no means qualified to study at Yale, but has rather been enlisted by a governing body that oversees the activities of the university’s ancient secret societies. It is through her ability to see ghosts, called Greys in the book, that Alex is recruited as Lethe House’s new Dante, serving under the previous Dante, now Virgil, Daniel Arlington. From a hospital bed after being found overdosed on the scene of a brutal killing, to controlling the magical powers of several groups of entitled rich kids at one of the most prestigious schools in the country, Alex Stern must fight for her life and the promise of a better future.
For the record, I wanted to like this book so badly, and even having finished it I still want to. The world-building is incredible and Leigh Bardugo once again proves that somehow she can still create new magic systems as well as lovable morally-grey characters. Alex Stern had potential to be among my favorite characters I’ve read in fantasy; she’s dynamic, persistent, and brutal while also remaining very human (ever when she is very much not). This book had all the makings to be a favorite and somehow it all just fell flat.
I am by no means a slow reader, but Ninth House took me months to conquer. It’s not that there isn’t plenty of hard-hitting action, but the back and forth between timelines quickly became dizzying. I found myself frustrated that another segment had gone by without answering my biggest questions, and even once they were answered, it didn’t feel satisfying. One of my biggest red flags for a book is whether it makes me question if I, the reader, am reading it incorrectly somehow. Too often I felt I was slipping off the hook, like the line itself was too taut for me to think about anything else.
Having said that, there are some truly gorgeous scenes in this book that stand extremely well on their own, and I think it is worth reading if you have the patience for a lot of unanswered questions. Just be sure to prepare yourself as Ninth House does explore some intense topics that might be upsetting, and that I was frankly unprepared for. —Review by James B. ’24
T.J. Klune’s The House in the Cerulean Sea is a comforting tale of an orphanage for magical children, although it isn’t an orphanage because no one goes there to adopt. What initially appears to be a light-hearted criticism of the corporate machine becomes a bright story of found family and finding your place in a world who would very much not like you around.
Most remarkable about the book is the ease with which it builds the world around the story. From only the first few pages you already know that this is a world in which magical creatures are not uncommon, but oppressed. Magical children are abandoned in “orphanages” overseen by a corporate giant. Our protagonist is Linus Baker, a caseworker at DICOMY given a top secret case by the Extremely Upper Management. It is on this case that Linus meets Arthur Parnassus, the Headmaster of an orphanage housing the six-year-old anti-christ, Lucy. It is this boy as well as many others that, despite the fact that they aren’t human, teach Linus about humanity.
I very much enjoyed this book, although I was under the incorrect pretense that it was a Queer romance first and adventure second. The romance is there, but it is far overshadowed by the odd but lovable found-family and delve into everyday oppression. Each child earns their own heart-warming spotlight, and as V. E. Schwab’s testimony on the cover says, it is indeed like being wrapped in a big gay blanket.
I don’t have any specific complaints about the book, as I’m aware that I went into it with the wrong idea of what it would be, so keep in mind that while there are elements of romance, I would not call it a romance. Either way, it’s a very fun title to add to your shelf and the characters are extremely well-done. Even though I found it underwhelming, I will be reading more T. J. Klune in the future because I fell in love with his style. —Review by James B. ’24
One of the easiest ways to talk about books is by genre. We say, do you like mysteries? What about fantasy, or sci-fi? It’s a great way to find common ground and to seek out, or give, recommendations.
Did you know that genres follow a formula? It’s true! If you read enough mysteries or romance books, you’ll begin to see patterns. Some people really dig this for their reading, as familiarity can be comforting. Often people return to the same author over and over again because they know just what to expect.
Of course, there are times when you crave something out of the ordinary. And when that happens, books that break the mold are the most satisfying. When you want to expect the unexpected, here are a few books that blur the lines of categorization in interesting ways:
The year is 2065, Adri has been preparing her whole life to be an astronaut who will help colonize Mars, and she is elated when she is chosen for the mission. When she moves from Miami to Kansas for training, she discovers a journal written by someone who lived in her house over one hundred years ago. Adri becomes increasingly absorbed in the fates of the people contained within the journal.
Since the book is told in multiple timelines, and across vast geographies, it is a satisfying blend of science fiction and historical fiction, complete with secrets, betrayals, and heartbreak.
Romance, history, and wartime, but with a mythological kick.
When Hephaestus finds his wife Aphrodite cheating on him with his brother Ares, he convenes a trial in which Aphrodite must defend herself and her actions. To do so, she relays a harrowing story about interracial love, music, and friendship during World War I.
Beautifully written and captivating, while not shying away from historically accurate portrayals of racism and sexism, this soaring book makes a compelling case for the enduring human spirit as told by the goddess of love herself.
If you think you know all about books where teenagers go to magical schools, think again.
When the obnoxious and unloved Eliot winds up in a magical realm called the Borderlands (protected by an invisible wall), he meets elves, mermaids, and other magical people. It seems like his dreams will be realized, but this is a place where expectations, stereotypes, and other prejudices are thrown out in place of the unpredictable. Eliot will fall in love and make an unexpected friend, but can he save the world while doing it?
This funny novel plays with fantasy tropes, but more than that, it turns preconceived notions of gender, colonialism, and sexism upside down and inside out.
A classic work of literature by an author whose work has produced a rabid and devoted fanbase.
In this book the protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, has become “unstuck in time” so the story does not follow a linear timeline. It jumps around all over the place featuring different moments of Billy’s life.
Vonnegut’s unique writing style is at times humorous, sometimes derisive, but always memorable and moving.
When the story begins, Travis is a 16-year-old suffering from cancer. Once he realizes that he will not survive the illness he agrees to participate in an experimental procedure in which, after he dies, his head will be removed from his body and cryogenically frozen, to then be attached to a new body if and when the technology allows…
…It doesn’t take long and Travis is born again 5 years later, albeit with a new body. He would like, and expects, to pick up his life where he left it, but that won’t be so simple. Some of the most important people in his life, namely his girlfriend and his best friend, have been living, loving, and changing in the time that he was gone and Travis must figure out where he fits in.
This strange tale raises both philosophical and existential questions about life, wrapped up in a funny and heartfelt story about love and the nature of being.
Have you read any other books that defy genres? Share them in the comments!
I originally picked up the first installment of this duology, “Spin the Dawn,” because the plot summary sounded very appealing. I was very drawn to the Mulan-like concept and Project Runway theme as well as the promise of magical elements, and I had also seen many reviews promising that this series was a definite must-read. The plot follows the story of Maia, a tailor in a strongly patriarchal East Asian-inspired country who must take part in a competition similar to those on Project Runway.
The book, though not exactly terrible, turned out to be very forgettable. The worldbuilding is lackluster, and I feel that the author could have executed it much better. For example, a war is currently underway, but there is barely any memorable backstory as to why it is happening. The magic system is also fairly underdeveloped in my opinion since random elements appear in the storyline with barely any logic. Lim’s writing style is decently descriptive and helps to make up for some of the missing elements, but there are still many scenes that “tell” rather than “show.” Also, as a YA fantasy novel, this book uses many common cliches and YA tropes. Maia seems to fall right into the mold of the simple young adult female protagonist, and her character feels flat.
Even the romance aspect of this book is underwhelming. While not entirely unpleasant, it once again seems basic and cliche. About halfway through the novel, Maia’s relationship overtakes the plotline and shifts the focus away from Maia and her quest. The obstacles and problems of Maia’s journey become completely sidelined and are dealt with too quickly, producing a lackluster effect on a mission that is supposed to be engrossing and filled with formidable hardships.
One plus, though, is the cover. I usually dislike book covers that depict the character, but this cover is gorgeously made and a large part of the reason why I even picked it up. All in all, this book is an entertaining read, but it fails to live up to my original expectations due to the writing style and underdeveloped story. —Review by Ananya B. ‘23
In an alternate 1800s France, six individuals must team up to pull off the heist of a lifetime. The thieves in question are a historian, an engineer, a performer, a gardener, and an old friend, all led by an angsty leader.
The setting is full of magic and wonder. Roshani Chokshi pulls from myths from all around the world to build a rich environment: There are references to the Bible, Greek mythology, Persian stories, and Indian deities. The words themselves are also full of magic: “History is a myth shaped by the tongues of conquerors.” Atmospheric settings and writing are not necessarily for all readers, but the lush story really worked for me.
While the plot did feel convenient at times, the success of the book came not from the events that occurred, but rather from the characters. Six characters is a lot of one book to flesh out, but this one managed to make all of them have compelling stories and character arcs. Severin, the group’s leader, struggles with wanting revenge for a lost inheritance and also wanting to protect the members of his team. Hypnos (the old friend) and Severin both struggle with being mixed-race in a society that sees whiteness as paramount. Enrique (the historian) sees parallels to his Filipino heritage and the Spanish colonization of his people. Zofia (the engineer) learns to understand how emotions work as she feels more at home with chemical reactions than with life forms. Tristan (the gardener) looks up to Severin, but is reluctant to go on any heists. And Laila (the performer), has a secret: She’s not a “normal” girl, and in the next few months, she will die.
This book has been heavily compared to Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows, and while the idea of having to steal something is the same, the execution is completely different. Six of Crows relies on a magic system that gives certain people (the grisha) special powers. The Gilded Wolves, however, uses logic and problem solving to complete the heist. What stood out to me is how the historian and the engineer work together to solve the puzzles. In an increasingly STEM vs humanities/social sciences world, having these two rely on each other to solve problems was so refreshing.
And if I haven’t convinced you to read this yet, the sequel The Silvered Serpents came out in late 2020, and the third book The Bronzed Beasts comes out in September 2021! —Review by Anika F. ’21
Two years after The Poppy War, the first part of this trilogy series, was placed into my hands, I finally finished this emotional roller coaster. By the time we reach The Burning God, Rin is no longer the petty, lost child she once was, but I became increasingly frustrated with her blunt attitude and actions, now as a war-hardened general and a powerful shaman finally in control of her powers. It takes some willpower to move past the first 8 chapters of Rin’s ruthless carnage before we see more into her reasoning and limitations.
In terms of the storyline, R.F. Kuang seamlessly maps the history of 20th century China, from millenniums of imperial rule to the Republic of China to the ensuing revolts to western imperialism, into a narrative complete with ancient Chinese mythology, folklore, and war tactics. Though we finally see an end to the war, this last book especially taught me the demanding, cutthroat decisions that political and military leaders were forced to make for the sake of their country. This insight is made all the more heartbreaking as Rin grows increasingly vulnerable to war paranoia, factional infighting, and betrayals. The added issue of defending Nikan against the technologically advanced Hesperian nation also allows readers to understand the deep history of racism and subjugation that western powers inflicted upon 20th century China.
Kuang especially highlights a universal message: history moves around in vicious circles, and Rin is no exception to that pattern. Beyond the grim storyline and much, much, much more mature issues, Kuang continues to deliver on the evocative imagery of Rin’s divine firepower, as well as develop her complicated love-hate friendships with Kitay and Nezha. Side note: I think Nezha is a beautiful character (think broken redemption arc deserving Draco Malfoy), and I love how Kuang describes his aristocratic but scarred persona. However, I wanted to see more of Nezha’s reasoning and thoughts, and I had hoped for more insight into the pain he deals with as the opposition. I gave this book three stars because, like the author says, this ending may not be satisfactory for everyone (as it wasn’t for me). However, this is still one of the most unique and exciting books that I’ve read in a while, and I hope everyone gives the series a try. —Review by Alysa S. ’22
I read The Cruel Prince a couple years ago before the second two books came out and recently returned to the trilogy to get out of a reading slump. The Queen of Nothing was much like the first two: a fun and interesting read, but nothing that stood out as impressive. It’s your standard YA fantasy series: seemingly ordinary heroine, powerful and attractive love interest, adventure and twists along the way.
The Queen of Nothing itself wasn’t a particularly intense culmination of the trilogy and its flow was very similar to the first two books. The plot is very up-down, up-down with an obstacle introduced, resolved, introduced, resolved, rather than a spectacular ending that neatly ties up a huge jumbled mess that doesn’t seem resolvable (my preferred conclusion style). The characters other than the protagonist and her father feel pretty flat and under-developed, especially the love interest, and the romance definitely feels forced.
What stood out in particular was the protagonist’s voice. She was incredibly self-aware and honest with herself about her weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Her self-reflection and narration of why she became who she has become was the main reason why I kept reading, and her dynamic with her father was especially interesting. However, I do think there was wasted potential in possible character development–as complicated of a character she is, she hasn’t changed much since the first book.
Nevertheless, I would suggest this read for anyone who wants a regular fantasy series that you can easily move on from without having to ponder major plot twists or suffer intense emotional turmoil. -Review by Angela J. ’22
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern is an eloquent urban fantasy that takes place from 1873 to 1902. It follows Celia Bowen, born with magical ability, and Marco Alisdair, trained in magic from a young age, as they battle head-to-head in a competition with no clear rules or boundaries. The story twists and turns back and forth through time, flashing between the perspectives of different characters and concluding in a satisfying if not perfect ending. Morgenstern’s mastery over description brings Le Cirque de Rêves to life and the discourse between characters proves engaging if not a bit complicated.
I enjoyed the book greatly because all my questions were answered by the end of the book and I fell in love with the characters and little romances. With that having been said, the story has plenty of complexities that might make this read difficult if you aren’t willing to stick it out. I loved those complexities as they added depth to the story and I absolutely loved the idea of being among the Rêveurs or attending one of the Circus Dinners. As much as I enjoyed it and will encourage others to read it, it is certainly not for everyone. –Review by Lizzie B. ’24
At this point in my fantasy journey, it’s hard for stand-alones to impress me. Some are too short and don’t allow for enough world building or character development. Others are large tomes (like The Priory of the Orange Tree) that are pretty much a full series condensed into a brick. Similarly, Young Adult fantasy is not something I reach for, since I prefer the depth and nuance of New Adult or Adult novels.
Yet, somehow, Gods of Jade and Shadow, clearly both a decently lengthy stand-alone and a Young Adult fantasy, surprised me. While the characters and plot are interesting, what really drew me to the book was the descriptions and the storytelling. Silvia Moreno Garcia creates these lush settings with hints of magic, crossing the boundaries between our world and mythology.
Even if you’re not a big YA fantasy reader, I still think there’s a lot to gain from this book. It discusses racism and discrimination, feminism and misogyny, and the importance of charting your own path, even when your family holds you back. —Review by Anika F. ’21