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.


Review: Descendant of the Crane

Review: Descendant of the Crane

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.*

Determined to find her father’s killer, Princess Hesina of Yan does the unthinkable. She seeks out the help of a soothsayer, treason under her own country’s law. Using the information provided by the sooth, Hesina frees a convicted criminal and names him her defender. The future of Yan now lies in Hesina’s action to make her stake and defend it well. As Hesina’s journey for justice grows darker, finding the truth maybe be complicated when everything she knows may well be all lies. 

My first thoughts when I finished this book was indescribable. I cannot get over how blown away I was with this book. This is a new forever favourite. We are barely a month into 2021, and I feel like I should already be making my Favourite Reads of 2021, with this book at the very top of the list: the story, the characters, the world, like damn. The way the author writes had me on my toes for quite a decent amount of the journey. The sheer twists and drama in this book had me incoherent and for once actually shocked. Joan He really said, I’m going to write a book that will put any book you will ever read to shame.

Hesina is soon to be named Queen of Yan, but the nagging feeling that her father’s death was not natural haunts her. Knowing her actions could get her killed, her attempts to bring her father to justice will also shine a light on her country’s own past. Centuries before, the relic emperors were overthrown by a group of outlaws called the Eleven. The emperors of the past used soothsayers for their biddings, but when the Eleven defeated them, their people were immediately expunged, now in hiding across the country. The Eleven gathered their philosophies into the Tenets which have continued to be followed centuries later. And for Hesina, any hope for a better world means bringing down everything before her. 

The story was just one big sucker-punch after the other. Only when you think you know what was going on, another twist, another secret comes crashing in, throwing Hesina off her trajectory. The court dramas, both law and royal, was fantastical. Everything was just unique and brilliant. I loved how determined Hesina is from the very start, and that headstrong attitude does not give up, even when the story takes a much dark turn. She is Yan’s queen, and she will defend it so. Even when she’s given the easy way out, she pushes through in pursuit of knowledge and truth. 

A Queen is not without her court, and I am in awe of her brilliant the rest of the characters were. Especially the dynamics between Hesina and her other siblings. She has her brother, Sanjing, their relationship tense due to her close companionship with her adopted siblings, Caiyan and Lillian. There is also her half-brother, Rou, who she has kept distant from because it reminds her of her parents’ distance. Akira is our convict turned ally who has more secrets than Hesina could count. No one knows what to expect, but I expected more from him. I loved his character and presence, but it felt a little out of place within the general story, mostly because he’s hidden from us for so long. The way they all interact and come together in the story was so captivating. 

If you take anything from this review, let it be putting this one on your TBR because it genuinely is worth the time. As of writing, there are no plans for the author to continue the story but what we have here is more than enough. Hesina’s journey for justice is hauntingly beautiful. The book pushes through its rocky start, and He’s creativity knows no limit as the story continues. Descendant of the Crane does not give up, and you’ll enjoy every moment of it.


GOODREADS | AMAZON | AUTHOR

Review: Cemetery Boys

Review: Cemetery Boys

Rating: 5 out of 5.

When Yadriel accidentally summons the ghost of school bad boy, Julian Diaz, instead of his missing cousin, he’s stuck with a ghost who refuses to leave. So now he’s left with Julian as he navigates the days leading up to the day of the dead and proving to his traditional Latinx family that he is a real brujo. Yadriel is a gay trans boy who struggles to get his family to accept him as a brujo, even as far as partaking in the ceremony alone. Everything is going smoothly until his cousin mysteriously passes away, and no one in his family can find his body. So Yadriel takes it upon himself to find his cousin’s spirit and help him cross over, securing his position as a brujo. But his plans prove difficult when Julian is determined to find out what happened to him as well. The countdown begins as the two boys must work together before Dia de Los Muertos to find the truth. 

Continue reading “Review: Cemetery Boys”

Review: The Burning God (The Poppy War #3)

Review: The Burning God (The Poppy War #3)

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.*

This review will be spoiler-free for The Burning God, but will mention content that will be spoiler-ish to the two previous books in the series, The Poppy War and The Dragon Republic.

Betrayed once again, Rin returns home to the southern provinces of Nikara and begins to take her own stand for her future. The people of the South are fighting two battles: one with the stranded Mugen soldiers and another with the Dragon Warlord. Rin can help, but she faces even more difficulty as the Southern Coalition aren’t too happy with her arrival. But the common people rise behind her, and she quickly realises that power is within the people who are done with being treated as fodder. But will Rin be strong enough to resist the Phoenix who calls for her to burn the world, along with everyone she loves with it? As she begins to grow her army, Rin must make her final stand against the Hesperians, or lose her country to colonisers once again.

I remember reading TPW for the first time back in 2018. It was exhilarating and one of the best books I had ever read. (Still is one of the best books I’ve ever read.) Kuang makes her mark with this series, and in this finale, the stakes are higher than ever before. And I can now confirm that The Poppy War trilogy is one of the best series I have ever had the privilege to read. This trilogy is just pain in three acts. Not one of the books falter, and Rin’s story remains incredible and deeply saddening at the same time.

Continue reading “Review: The Burning God (The Poppy War #3)”