Review: One Dark Window

Review: One Dark Window

Rating: 5 out of 5.

*I received a copy from the publisher in return for an honest review. This in no way affected my opinion of the book.*

Elspeth Spindle lives with a monster in her head. She calls him the Nightmare, and in the mist-locked kingdom of Blunder — he is her saviour. When a mysterious figure attacks Elspeth, she finds herself joining a dangerous journey to protect the people of Blunder from losing any more people. Working alongside the people who should want her dead, she must gather the twelve Providence cards, each capable of dangerous magic, to stop the senseless killing of her people. But the Nightmare’s protection doesn’t come for free, and Elspeth might not be able to resist his control. 

One Dark Window was the exact book I needed amidst my reading slump. This review was written up a few months after reading it, and I still think about this book to this day. Rachel Gillig, you will need to start paying rent for how much space this book takes up in my mind. 

Mists have enshrouded the kingdom of Blunder for years as punishment for the Shepherd King, who bartered with the Spirit of the Wood for magic that formed into twelve different cards. Anyone who finds themselves lost in the mist is taken, and children can catch a deadly fever that, if they survive, will leave them with powers unique to them, even its aftereffects. Any child discovered with magic must be turned over to the King and put to death. 

Elspeth barely survived the fever as a child, everyone assumes that nothing happened to her, and she is happy to live a quiet life with her aunt and uncle, evading the watchful eyes of the Destriers, a particular unit formed to deal with those affected by the fever. The truth is that Elspeth hides a secret spirit within her, the one named the Nightmare, who lends his strength in her moments of weakness. When Elspeth turns twenty, she is expected to return to the socialite life of Blunder, which brings her to the attention of the new head of the Destriers, who enlists Elspeth to help him recover the providence cards — find the cards, release the mist, he says. And with the help of the Nightmare, Elspeth can see the providence cards even if they are hidden. But finding the remaining cards proves to be a much more complex task than anyone expects, and can Elspeth and her new friends fix the problem, or the price of magic be too high to pay? 

One Dark Window is an unbelievable story of secrets, magic and intrigue. From the first chapter, I was immediately hooked. Some readers might find the beginning relatively slow, especially until the highwaymen appear, where the story truly begins to flourish. But I loved it. I adored how Gillig took the concept of forbidden magic and made it her own. The use of a magic system inspired by tarot cards was unlike anything I’ve read. Elspeth is determined and strong; her relationship with the Nightmare was my favourite aspect. The yellow-eyed spirit who speaks only in rhyme does well to remind Elspeth that magic has a cost, and she would be wise to think before she accepts any offer from him. The found family aspect was a surprise to me but an excellent addition to the story. Even the romance, while predictable, grew naturally with each page. 

Overall, One Dark Window was an absolute joy of a read. Gillig has a promising series on her hands that is reminiscent of old fairytales with evocative prose and atmospheric settings. I’ll eagerly be counting down the days until its upcoming sequel. 


Below, I also drew some fanart for the book! I don’t usually do this, but after finishing the book, I really wanted to try my hand at making fanart!


GOODREADS | AMAZON | AUTHOR

Review: I’m Glad My Mom Died

Review: I’m Glad My Mom Died

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Having risen to fame in the hit Nickelodeon show iCarly, Jennette McCurdy recounts her childhood and experience growing up with an abusive and narcissistic parent. All her mother wanted was for Jennette to be a star, and from a young age, Jennette knew she wanted to make her mother happy. McCurdy guides us through her life with great wit and insight, her story is much more than the rumours on the internet, and she has given us an empowering journey of self-recovery. I almost have so much to say about this book and also no words for it at all

McCurdy recounts moments like her mother threatening her dad with a knife in front of her, showering her until she was 16, which included invasive exams to check her body for cancer lumps and leading her daughter to develop an eating disorder in order to keep her body looking young. (Looking young had meant more acting roles) McCurdy retells her story in the present tense, keeping to her age when she is recounting, so without interruption, you witness her go from a naive and hopeful child to a bitter young adult. McCurdy’s voice is dry and sharp, and the moments she chooses to show us are disconcerting. McCurdy’s mother had done a lot of harm to Jennette in her lifetime, but the most significant blow is the damage to her daughter’s body image. She is only 11 when she takes on a restrictive diet; alongside her mother, they weigh themselves almost every day, and if anyone spoke up about it, her mother would simply lash out and leave the room. Rewards for good behaviour (weight loss) would often be zero-calorie ice lollies. Readers would do well to research content warnings before choosing to read this, as the details about weight loss and her recovery were painful to read.McCurdy does not sugarcoat her past, nor does she glamorise her recovery. Every word is raw and honest. The title might be an odd choice for anyone unaware, but after you close the final page, you begin to understand her a little more, even if you can never understand that feeling yourself.

As headlines amplify the dark side of Nickelodeon and McCurdy’s complicated relationship with Ariana Grande, this memoir is so much more than that. Jennette said it best herself, “this book can’t be reduced to any sort of headline,” I’m Glad My Mom Died is a visceral and emotional account of Jennette’s life from childhood to her mid-twenties. Having grown up watching Jennette on iCarly, reading her memoir has given me even more respect for her. Finishing this book and knowing she’s on the road to recovery makes me incredibly proud and happy. Her journey was hard and long, but reading her story of survival will have any reader encaptivated by her voice.


GOODREADS | AMAZON | AUTHOR

Review: The Dragon’s Promise

Review: The Dragon’s Promise

Rating: 5 out of 5.

*I received a copy from the publisher via Netgalley in return for an honest review. This in no way affected my opinion of the book.*

Having survived her fatal curse, Princess Shiori must make good on her promise to her stepmother and return her dragon’s pearl to its rightful owner. But when the journey consists of a time-bending dragon’s den and an island that is the birthplace of demons, Shiori finds herself dealing with matters unheard of. While navigating human politics and its disdain for the magic that runs in her blood, Shiori must also tackle the pearl as its disorderly state threatens to harm those around her. Can she mend all she’s done, or will she sever her threads of fate?

The Dragon’s Promise wastes no time in its pacing, picking up right where the first one has ended. Shiori and her brothers are mourning the death of their stepmother after discovering that her curse was really protecting them all this time. Having spent most of the Six Crimson Cranes traversing her homeland, Shiori must enter the dragon realm and deal with the Dragon King, who is determined to get his claws on the peal at all cost. But her story is far from being over, as she must also make her way to the island of demons, luring the monster Bandur, a familiar enemy from Crimson, who is hellbent on bringing Shiori to her knees. 

The theme of family, both found and birth, runs deep in this duology and is one of its most defining aspects. Shiori grows closer with her brothers, finds love with Takkan and even a great friendship with Seryu, her dragon companion. While Takkan is the definitive love interest, I think I might have been part of a smaller crowd who adored Seryu and Shiori’s connection. Nonetheless, Shiroi and Takkan are downright adorable together. We are introduced briefly to new characters within the Dragon Realm, and in moments like then, I mourned that this story was only a duology because the potential runs deep as the dragon realm. Elang, a cousin of Seryu, to Gen, a trapped magic-user, are a few to name. Characters who come and go but make their marks in the scenes they appear in. As with Crimson, the way Lim weaves Asian mythology into this retelling of The Wild Swans is top-notch. Brilliant characters with beautiful writing all wrapped up into a duology that feels well done. 

The Dragon’s Promise was enchanting and fantastical. The Kingdom of Kiata is vast and memorable. From the harsh winters of Iro to the Forgotten Isles of Lapzur, Lim brings to life an entire continent with glorious detail and special moments. Elizabeth Lim has gained a forever fan from this duology alone. 


GOODREADS | AMAZON | AUTHOR

Review: Iron Widow

Review: Iron Widow

Rating: 5 out of 5.

*I received a copy from the publisher via Netgalley in return for an honest review. This in no way affected my opinion of the book.*

In a world devastated by monsters, humanity must persist through the use of giant mecha machines. Male pilots are treated like heroes, and their female pilots must serve as their concubines and often die quicker from the mental strain. Eighteen-year-old Wu Zetian volunteers to become a concubine in hopes of her avenging her sister’s murder, and she gets her wish. She kills him through the psychic link that should’ve killed her and emerged the victor. As the military becomes unnerved by her abilities, she is immediately paired with Li Shimin, a convicted murderer and the most vital male pilot in Huaxia, whose female pilots never survive a battle. Zetian refuses to count her days and uses this new position to leverage her survival and figure out why the system fails the girls before it can take any more of them away.

Any book that is inspired by Pacific Rim will always immediately capture my attention. Throw in a sci-fi world inspired by Chinese history and a love triangle that ends in a satisfying polyamorous relationship? I wasn’t even halfway through the book when I decided that Iron Widow would be epic, and Zhao does not disappoint. 

What I loved the most about Iron Widow was the immense amount of passion you could feel resonating off the page. It was so much fun reading about Zetian as she grows from being a village girl to one of the most influential people in Huaxia. Revenge plots are usually a hit or miss with me, but Zetian takes it out of the ballpark. She is fueled by revenge for her elder sister, who died at the hands of one of Huaxia’s best male pilots, but her anger doesn’t stop there. Once the pilot is dead, she turns her wrath to the military of Huaxia, the ones who declared that girls were weaker than boys, their energy simply not strong enough to survive when in battle. It’s bullshit, and Zetian knows it; she’s been through too much to be told she is worth nothing and risks everything to prove she is everything. 

The mechanism behind the mecha machines can be a little confusing, but Zhao’s writing is straight to the point. No messing about, and their writing abilities just illuminate the world. Personally, I would’ve loved more world-building detail but what we have is impressive and, simply put, a lot of great fun! 

The characters are where Zhao and their writing really shines for me. Zetian is one big ball of anger, and justifiably so. Her anger might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I lived for it.  She is unwavering in her stance, refuses to take no and the status quo as the answer to everything. From her family to the higher-up of Huaxia, she will prove to them all that their misogyny will be their downfall while she plans to re-write history for everyone the world has abandoned. Shimin was a character who grew on me. The best character comparison I could give is Altan from The Poppy War. A boy raised to be a weapon and so entirely misunderstood by everyone around him. Yizhi seems like the typical first love interest, the one who knew the protagonist first, but he’s brilliant. He uses his wealth and influence to help Zetian and Shimin navigate the upper-class societies who lean onto the pilots are a source of entertainment while they risk their lives. Polyamorous relationships are not common in Young Adult, and Zhao did a great job with their relationship. The story is very heavily invested in its remarkable fight scenes, but I would’ve loved to have seen the trio interact a lot more on the page. Knowing that the first draft of this was more Adult orientated, I can’t help but feel it’s also the one who got away. Zhao teased some pages on Twitter, and I’ve never been so jealous of anyone who got to read that early version. 😂

Nonetheless, Iron Widow was action-packed and tremendous to read. The epilogue teases an even more dangerous journey as Zetian discovers the danger isn’t just the people at the top. Pitched as Pacific Rim meets The Handmaid’s Tale, Zetain’s story is about a girl who is driven by revenge and her journey to offset her patriarchal society leads to an even more significant threat that pushes her to the limit.


GOODREADS | AMAZON | AUTHOR

Review: A Master of Djinn

Review: A Master of Djinn

Rating: 5 out of 5.

*I received a copy from the publisher via Netgalley in return for an honest review. This in no way affected my opinion of the book.*

When a wealthy businessman and his secret brotherhood are all slaughtered in the dead of night, it is up to Fatma el-Sha’arawi, an agent for the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities, to discover the truth. What she doesn’t expect is that the murderer is claiming he is Al-Jahiz, the very man who opened up the veil between the seen and the unseen almost 50 years ago. Al-Jahiz is announcing his return to condemn the modern era for its lack of social decency. His dangerous abilities threaten to disrupt the peace between the humans and djinns. With the help of her mysterious girlfriend, Siti, and her Ministry colleagues, they must work together to prevent this imposter from moving to global devastation.

I had read P. Djèlí Clark’s short fiction piece in preparation for A Master of Djinn. You can read it for free here! The events, in short, are mentioned briefly in A Master of Djinn and do not need to be read to understand the plot.  I had found the original short piece fun and exciting, definitely interested in what this steampunk Cairo had to offer. But I had not expected A Master of Djinn to blow me away in the way that it did. Do not be surprised when this book takes its rightful spot in my Best Read of 2021 list later this year. 

We start off with Lord Worthington, who brings together his Brotherhood of Al-Jahiz, a select group of men who are tasked with uncovering the wisdom of Al-Jahiz. Over the years, they have collected everything from clothing to papers that the man might have touched. That is a mysterious man who can seemingly duplicate himself slays them all in the middle of the night, and Agent Fatma might be one of the few people who can figure out why. Fatma’s journey takes her into the depth of Cairo, from the towering Ministry building that houses a librarian Djinn, who never seems to be interested in her, to the streets where humans and djinn live together. It has been a long time since a book has enthralled me in this way. The conflict, climax and resolution all fell into place and were executed with such detail and power. A unique, exciting tale about an agent who is not paid enough to deal with the drama of djinns. 

Agent Fatma is our brilliant lead. She is one of the few female Agents at the Ministry and is a lone wolf who prefers to work silently and, most importantly, alone. While she does enlist the help of her girlfriend, Siti, Fatma knows her best work comes alone.  So imagine her surprise when she’s knee-deep in a murder investigation; here comes Agent Hadia, her new partner. She immediately does her best to push away the new Agent, adamant that Fatma takes her under her wings, even as doing far to reject working alongside the most profiled agents at the Ministry. I loved Hadia; she is by far my favourite character in the series already. Hadia is fresh off the academy and ready to save the world. Her knowledge aids Fatma in places she never knew, and her story about her never-ending list of cousins had me laughing for days. Their relationship is an excellent mentor/mentee bond, and their development is satisfying as hell as they both navigate their male-dominated workplace.

Overall, I adored this one. A Master of Djinn is set in an alternate 1920s Cairo. After Al-Jahiz opened the veil and vanished and with the aid of the Djinns, Egypt forced out the British colonisers and re-established themselves as a world power. Clark’s worldbuilding is vibrant and magnificent. The magical setting with political and social issues while also figuring out a murder mystery was top-notch and a journey to read. And with a satisfying conclusion that paves the way for more exciting stories.


GOODREADS | AMAZON | AUTHOR

Review: She Who Became the Sun

Review: She Who Became the Sun

Rating: 5 out of 5.

*I received a copy from the publisher via Netgalley in return for an honest review. This in no way affected my opinion of the book.*

In 1345, China was under Mongol rule. For the starving Zhu family where only three members remain, their eight-born son, Zhu Chongba, is destined for greatness, a feat only capable by the few. But nothing is said for their daughter. When a bandit attack results in Zhu Chongba’s death, his sister takes on her brother’s identity to enter a monastery. There, in this alternate-history, she takes her opportunity to achieve what her brother failed to do: survive, and take control of a fate that would see her be nothing. 

Judging from other early reviews, my expectations were through the roof. Pitched as Mulan meets The Song of Achilles and while that is a fair comparison, I just feel like there must be some other way to describe this. I’m quite literally speechless. I don’t think one book has ever shot up my all-time favourites list so quickly. Usually, I let a book marinate on my mind before casting a final judgment, but She Who Became the Sun didn’t need to wait. It was that good. 

This book stands out because its character, each crafted and built to perfection, while not being entirely perfect. Zhu’s determination to survive is intense. Her peers at the monastery are confused by her actions, but what they don’t know is that she also has the ability to see ghosts, which loom over her in silent judgement. There is a cost to pay in her decisions, and she takes them head-on regardless of the reaction she knows she’ll inevitably receive because in the end, she knows what she wants and that is to rule. She might have been fated to be nothing, but she determined to let nothing stop her from achieving the goal her brother should have done. She is this perfect balance of driven and powerful while also being rather cheeky and very sweet.  Zhu’s storyline introduces us to Xu Da, a fellow monk, who Zhu comes to see as her own family. Later, you’ll meet Ma, a young woman whose fierce compassion takes a toll within the backdrop of war and power-plays.

The story chronicles Zhu’s journey from monk to the leader of the rebellion against China’s Mongol rulers. But we also see the opposition in the form of eunuch Ouyang, a feared general who tore Zhu’s future apart and set him on a path that makes them intertwined. I was enthralled by his character the most. But the relationship between Ouyang and Esen, the prince of Henan, is so complex, considering the history behind them. Esen is much more optimistic than Ouyang, and can never seem to understand why his friend would keep his distance. The tension between them is just perfect. 

The writing is so atmospheric, you could feel the impact of the landscape resonate with each character. Especially with Zhu as you witness her climb from a nameless child close to death to a well-rounded leader with men of her own. A child with no hope to a monk that can rally the people of this war torn land to her words. Also, I loved the nuanced exploration of gender identity, and how Parker-Chan does not shy away from anything. For anyone wondering, this is from the author: [Zhu] is assigned female at birth (but doesn’t identify as female), and [Ouyang] is assigned male at birth and identifies as male (with a gender nonconforming appearance). [Goodreads] I used she/her pronouns for Zhu as reflected in the novel. 

Overall, She Who Became the Sun is one story you must watch out for. It’s bold, imaginative and highly thrilling. A fantastic reimagining of the founding emperor of the Ming Dynasty.


GOODSREADS | AMAZON | AUTHOR