Thursday, January 27, 2022

She Who Became the Sun and Phoenix Feather

I read these two novels back-to-back, and it was interesting to compare them, particularly since Iron Widow is still fairly fresh in my mind. All three have the Mulan trope at their heart: peasant girl (in Chinese-inspired world) disguises herself as her brother to go achieve goals in the wider world that involve fighting in battles, and she ends up kicking butt. Great trope! Three great novels with very different takes on it.

She Who Became the Sun, by Shelley Parker-Chan, is a historical fantasy based on the rise to power of the first Ming emperor—who was born a peasant, though was probably not actually a girl in disguise. (Though you never know!)

Fledglings is Book 1 of the Phoenix Feather series by Sherwood Smith, a secondary world fantasy based on the wuxia and xuanhuan traditions of Chinese novels: it follows three extraordinary children as they cultivate their talents and try to avoid the notice of an evil emperor.

Now, I'm going to stop my review right here and state that I am unashamedly biased in favour of the less realistic of these two premises. Because, much as I believe that it is possible to live by principles of justice and kindness, history generally doesn't. So, when I tell you that I enjoyed reading Fledglings more than SWBTS, it's entirely because I want my gentle, unrealistic world-view reinforced, and SWBTS is stuck with history. (Iron Widow is also stuck with history, but it has the advantage of giant fighting robots. Parker-Chan chose not to go that route, and I can't fault her for it, but I'm afraid she loses another few enjoyment points right there.)

Having said all that—She Who Became the Sun is a fabulous novel. We are drawn inexorably into a brutal world through the eyes of an unnamed, unvalued girl fighting for her life; we can't help but root for her as she uses her cleverness and her endurance to avoid starvation. Her decision to take on her brother's identity, Zhu Chongba, and with it his fate, is both terrifying and makes perfect sense. 

I loved the subtlety of the fantasy elements and the way Parker-Chan weaves them into her theme: there really is an external force of fate, and our two main characters take different approaches to their wrestle with its inevitability. Do we choose our destinies? Are the Heavens really watching? 

The writing is vivid with metaphor—I'm not going to say lyrical or poetic, and certainly not purple—Parker-Chan is utterly skilled at choosing the perfect metaphor to convey precisely what she means in every circumstance. (As opposed to those of us who rely too much on adverbs!)

I enjoyed Part I of the novel more, the coming-of-age and figuring out how to stay disguised as a boy part. But Part II starts getting really interesting when it introduces the eunuch general Ouyang, who ends up being Zhu's foil/nemesis character on the opposite side of the war. Parker-Chan kept me interested in all the complicated power dynamics at play by making all the players very real people with believable motivations. I am not a huge fan of revenge plots because I think revenge is dumb, but I was sucked into this one; I really felt for Ouyang.

[Slightly spoilery, except that the title spoils this, as does history!] There were parts of the latter half of the novel that reminded me of Macbeth: in many ways Zhu's rise to power is a tragedy ("I am in blood stepped in so far" is a speech that came to mind). Ambition is another motivation that I don't really get, but Zhu is so convincing; her every choice continued to make perfect sense, even as I wanted to close my eyes and not watch.

I don't know if I'm going to read the second novel. I know how it ends, and it's not with Zhu renouncing the world and achieving inner peace! But what I might do is read more of the history, and rewatch Empress Ki, and then read Parker-Chan's sequel with enough background to be fascinated by how she reimagines this pivotal moment in the history of China. Here's her explanation of the historical figures in the novel: it's quite fascinating!

Fledglings, on the other hand, is all about playing with fun story tropes: it's essentially the origin story of a martial arts hero, and it was just the immersive, familiar-feeling story I needed while I recuperated from whichever virus had me in its grip all week. Everything I love about Sherwood Smith's writing: excellent world-building details, great action scenes, wonderful character interactions. I particularly loved the depiction of the close-knit family, the parents trying to protect the children while the children chafe for the chance to pursue their identities. And of course off they go into the world, not quite the way they thought they would, and they still love and support one another, and it just gives me all the feels. A lighter version of Inda, very similar to A Stranger To Command. I've bought the second book and am going to start reading it now, so that's all I'll say about this one!

Thursday, January 6, 2022

2021 Cybils Finalists and Ones That Got Away

Alibrarymama did a great post on the Middle-Grade Spec Fic Cybils winners, so I'm going to shamelessly copy her and share the results of the YA Spec Fic panel's deliberations:

We had such a great list of nominees to read, but these are the ones we all agreed rose to the top of the list. See our blurbs for them here. Wonderful diversity in authors and content, and just excellent, excellent writing. Honestly, I don't know how the Second Round Judges are going to be able to decide among them! Links to my reviews, (except for Vespertine and The City Beautiful, which I haven't gotten around to reviewing yet!)

The Gilded Ones, by Namina Forna
The Mirror Season, by Anna Marie McLemore
Vespertine, by Margaret Rogerson
Iron Widow, by Xiran Jay Zhao
The City Beautiful, by Aden Polydoros
Bad Witch Burning, by Jessica Lewis

There are so many other worthwhile books that we read, and it's worth mentioning some of my favourites (you can see most of these by just looking at my reviews from the past few months, but I'll put them in a list for you):

Aetherbound, by E.K. Johnston: possibly my favourite of hers yet, and that's saying a lot.
Fragile Remedy, by Maria Ingrande Mora: intimate, sweet dystopia
Mister Impossible, by Maggie Stiefvater: sequel to Call Down the Hawk, and it's so good!
We Can Be Heroes, by Kyrie McCauley: girl power and ghosts.
The Darkness Outside Us, by Eliot Schrefer: super twisty sci fi!
Defy the Night, by Brigid Kemmerer: princes and outlaws and a thoughtful plot.
The Theft of Sunlight, by Intisar Khanani: sequel to Thorn, which I loved. 
These Violent Delights, by Chloe Gong: Romeo and Juliet like you've never seen them!
The Wild Ones, by Nafiza Azad: so, so original! Luscious.
Chaos on CatNet, by Naomi Kritzer: sequel to Catfishing on CatNet and just as fun and dark.

You're welcome for all these new additions to your TBR!

Monday, January 3, 2022

Fragile Remedy, by Maria Ingrande Mora

Oh, my heart! Oh this book! Fragile Remedy is set in a relentlessly gritty, claustrophobically hopeless world (that bears a frightening resemblance to our own world), and yet it is one of the gentlest, tenderest stories I've ever read. It's about how to stay a decent human being when you have to make terrible choices just to survive. It depicts what love looks like to characters who don't know what it is because they've never been afforded it. And yet they still care for and protect and sacrifice for each other, and the worse the circumstances around them, the stronger grow their bonds of love and trust. This is what family is.

The world-building is intense and immersive. It took me a few chapters to decide I might like this book, because the slum neighborhood of the Withers is grim and disgusting. They eat seagulls and sludge rats. What a brilliant detail! And of course drug addiction and gang violence are constant threats.

Nate is a particularly vulnerable member of this outcast society, because he has been genetically engineered to have healing blood. He escaped being exploited by the elite in Gathos City, and now he has to keep his identity as a GEM secret from everyone else who might try to capitalize on his value to escape their desperate poverty. I loved this extreme metaphor for the exploitation that threatens the vulnerable in any society.

Fragile Remedy has some pretty searing social commentary, but the plot and the heart of the book focuses on Nate's relationship with two other young men: drug dealer Alden, and Reed, the leader of a found family of scavengers. Both Alden and Reed are protecting Nate in their own way, and the complexity of trust and loyalty among the three is exquisitely rendered. The problem of Nate's tenuous existence is developed in some really interesting ways, and all the characters were nuanced and thoughtfully developed, including the antagonists.

This book wouldn't let me go, and I'm still thinking about Nate and hoping he's going to be okay!