Monday, May 20, 2024

How to Become the Dark Lord and Die Trying by Django Wexler: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

How to Become the Dark Lord and Die Trying by Django Wexler

I’ve been waiting for a good western take on Asian isekai genre for so long that I eventually had to write one myself. It’s such a popular genre in Asia that it’s surprising it hasn’t taken in the west. The few western versions that I’ve read have tried to imitate the originals, but they lack the charm and whimsy. But now there’s How to Become the Dark Lord and Die Trying by Django Wexler. It takes the idea of isekai and makes it thoroughly its own.

For those not familiar with the term, in isekai light novels and mangas a person from the modern world is transported to a secondary world, a book, game or fantasy world, either bodily or as a character there, and has to adapt to a new reality. Sometimes there’s a time loop element where the character starts over every time they die. Sometimes their life is improved by the change, sometimes they set out to make the changes themself with the knowledge they have.

Davi is from the modern-day US, she thinks. She doesn’t quite remember anymore, because she’s been in a fantasy world for a better part of a millennium. She was brought there by a wizard as the saviour of the humans from the Dark Lord, and has died hundreds of times in the service of the Kingdom, only to return to the moment she arrived to this word to start again.

Now she’s had enough. Clearly, she isn’t the saviour, because she hasn’t managed to save the Kingdom in all this time. It’s time to switch teams to the winning side. She’ll become the Dark Lord. Easier said than done, because Dark Lords aren’t human. They’re wilder: orcs, werewolves, snake people and other humanoid beasts that don’t look at all like human. But she has an ace in her sleeve. She can pass as a wilder the way humans can’t.

It takes several efforts—and deaths—to get the ball rolling. She recruits a small band of orcs and sets out to build herself a horde to attend a convocation where they choose the next Dark Lord. The way is difficult, geographically and politically, but she prevails, liberating the oppressed and growing her army as she goes—mostly accidentally. And the farther she advances, the more important it becomes that she doesn’t die. Because then everything will reset and she’ll have to start again, and the events have been so fantastical that she couldn’t possibly recreate them again.

But the possibility of starting over is there. Until it isn’t.

This was a great start to a series. Davi is a fairly typical sarcastic UF heroine who runs a constant commentary (in footnotes, which was a tad difficult in an ebook) and references pop culture she really shouldn’t remember, as she doesn’t even remember where she’s from. She’s probably not entirely sane, but who would be after being tortured to death several hundred times, but she’s clever and tenacious. However, part of her grit comes from the knowledge that she can just give up and start again. Until she can’t. The paradigm change is hard on her, but she’s not alone to handle it.

In her quest to become the Dark Lord, Davi accidentally builds herself a family. They’re supposed to be minions, but they’re friends and lovers (she’s permanently horny). The side-characters remain a little distant, as Davi is very self-absorbed in her narrative, but they’re nice and more humane than the humans she’s tried to save all these centuries.

The book is a bit too long though. It’s heavy reading with all the gore and commentary, and the plot advances slowly. Part of the charm of light novels is their shorter length and longer series that don’t really mind pesky things like story arcs. It might’ve worked here too, if it hadn’t been necessary to bring the first book to a turning point to suit western traditions. Now it took me surprisingly long to wade it through to the end.

Ending isn’t a cliffhanger, but it puts Davi on crossroads in her quest. It’ll be interesting to see how she’ll handle the turn her life has taken.

I received a free copy from Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review.

Friday, May 03, 2024

The Brides of High Hill by Nghi Vo: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

The Brides of High Hill by Nghi Vo

The Brides of High Hill is book five of The Singing Hills Cycle of stand-alone fantasy novellas set in an empire that resembles ancient China. I haven’t read the earlier stories, but that wasn’t necessary, although I might have appreciated some elements more if I’d read them.

Cleric Chih finds themself travelling with a family who is escorting their daughter, Pham Nhung, to be married to a wealthy man. The daughter has insisted they accompany her, and they have agreed. Their job is to collect stories, and this is a good opportunity, even though their neixing, a memory spirit that looks like a bird, isn’t with them on this journey to record the stories. The reader is given a notion her absence is meaningful, but nothing more is said about it, other than that Chih misses her.

The bride-to-be is in high spirits, both eager to be married and frightened of the prospect. Chih does their best to support her. But the moment they enter the estate of the groom who is several decades older than Nhung, Chih gets a notion things aren’t as they ought to be. Reader soon suspects this is a retelling of Bluebeard, with scores of missing wives. But when the monsters appear, rather abruptly, they come from a different direction entirely.

This was a delightful, slightly spooky novella, easily read in one sitting. Chih was an interesting character, even though we don’t learn much about them. They are a recurring character though, so earlier books might have more. Their struggle to get out of the web they don’t even know they’re in is fairly abrupt, and the reader is taken slightly by a surprise, but it worked for a story this length. The atmosphere could’ve been spookier though, as the novella is advertised as a gothic mystery. Now it was a fairly pleasant read with a gory end. But I’m intrigued enough to check out the earlier stories in the series.

I received a free copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.


Wednesday, April 24, 2024

The Husky and His White Cat Shizun vol. 5 by Rou Bao Bu Chi Rou: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

The Husky and His Wite Cat Shizun vol. 5 by Rou Bao Bu Chi Rou

The most satisfying volume so far, emotionally. It’s the wedding of Nangong Si, Chu Wanning’s former disciple, and Song Qiutong, Mo Ran’s wife in his previous life whom he hates. The reader was given to understand already in the previous volume that something big was going to happen during the wedding, but it went beyond even that.

The pre-wedding feast is ruined by accusations of a masked intruder, that Song Qiutong has not been chaste and that she’s carried a relationship with Nangong Si’s best friend, Ye Wangxi, who saved her from being sold as a slave. That led to a stunning revelation that I didn’t see coming. But it was only a start.

A rift opens to a demon realm, and when Mo Ran and Chu Wanning go to investigate, they learn it’s done by the enemy they’ve been chasing for years. But the truth behind their identity is nothing either them or the reader expect, and the reason for their actions comes a bit out of the blue. But what is revealed causes a literal inferno that sends everyone to fleeing for their lives.

Mo Ran and Chu Wanning take shelter in a remote fishing village and there we finally come to the best part: feelings. Both are really bad expressing them, and both believe their feelings aren’t returned, so there’s a lot of angst to get past before we get a confession. Nothing happens, but it’s very satisfying nonetheless.

There’s no cliff-hanger ending this time, but nothing is solved yet. And the way things were left, taking back their confessions is entirely possible too. I’ll have to read on to find out.

Saturday, April 13, 2024

The Disabled Tyrant’s Beloved Pet Fish vol. 1 by Xue Shan Fei Hu: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

The Disabled Tyrant's Beloved Pet Fish by Xue Shan Fei Hu

I bought this book solely on the title, The Disabled Tyrant’s Beloved Pet Fish. I had to find out how that could possibly be a romance. I hoped for a bonkers story. What I got was rather sweet.

Li Yu is an 18-year-old man from modern China who has been reading a historical novel about a tyrant who butchers his way on the throne. Next thing he knows, he wakes up in the book’s world as a humble carp who is about to be eaten, first as a soup and then by a cat. Only a chance in the form of the fifth prince Mu Tianchi, also called Prince Jing, saves him from that fate. And that’s not all. Li Yu is part of a computer game where the system gives him tasks. His main task is to stop Prince Jing from becoming a tyrant. If he succeeds, he can become a human again.

Prince Jing is twenty and the only surviving son by the empress and therefore of higher birth than the other princes, but he’s mute and so isn’t considered a successor for the throne. But he is the tyrant who will take the throne by force. Armed with his knowledge of the story from the book and his cute antics as a fish, Li Yu sets out to complete the tasks given to him. As a reward, he gets all sorts of useful things. One of them is the ability to turn into a human for an hour each day.

The story is mostly about palace intrigue. The second and third princes compete for the throne and they’re not above treachery and tricks. But thanks to Li Yu, their plans go wrong one after another. He ends up changing Prince Jing too, who spends more and more time with his fish. The prince is also hunting for a mysterious young man who shows up in his room at oddest times, only to disappear without a trace. The first volume ends when he finally figures out who the mystery man is.

Li Yu was a fun character—and a very odd fish. He can survive out of water amazingly long times, and jump out of his tank whenever he wants. Prince Jing came across rather lonely, which is mostly his own making, as he drives everyone away. His muteness isn’t a gimmick that is overcome in convenient places. He has a eunuch who speaks for him.

The man and the fish form a friendship of sorts, and the prince might even be having romantic feelings for the young man visiting his rooms. They’re vague and innocent though, and nothing more than a drunken kiss takes place. But was it the boy or the fish who did the kissing, Li Yu would very much like to know.

This was a funny, coherent, and well written story, which isn’t always the case with web novels. There are no repetitions or inconsistencies, and the pace was good. It ends with a small cliff-hanger in the middle of a scene, and I absolutely have to read more.

Tuesday, April 09, 2024

Death in the Spires by K. J. Charles: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

Death in the Spires by KJ Charles

Death in the Spires is excellent historical fiction and an enjoyable murder mystery. It takes place in the early 1890s Oxford and London in 1905, and follows Jeremy Kite, a government clerk who loses his job when an anonymous letter accuses him of a murder that took place in Oxford ten years earlier. Incensed, he decides to investigate once and for all.

Jem is a son of a factory worker, who with the help of a scholarship manages to get to Oxford to study mathematics, an achievement that was out of grasp of most working class people at the time. He’s short, clubfooted and doesn’t know the rules and manners of the place that is mostly populated by upper class white men who do not tolerate difference. He doesn’t have great expectations for his time there, but on his first day, he meets Toby Feynsham, a grandson of a marquis who takes him and other unusual people—for the era—under his wing, like a black man studying to become a doctor, two women (one of whom is Toby’s sister) and an (almost) openly gay man.

Against all odds, Jem has magical time in Oxford with his group of friends. He excels in his studies and even participates in activities like the rowing team. And then, three years later, right before the finals, Toby is murdered. It happens after a huge row between the group, and in a manner that the friends know that only one of them could’ve done it. But they keep their mouths shut and the murder goes unsolved. It breaks the group and they never meet again.

Jem’s life is destroyed by it. He has a breakdown and can’t graduate. He works for pittance at jobs he hates, and every now and then gets fired when rumours about the murder surface. So he starts to investigate, even though everyone he contacts tells him to leave be. To his surprise and sorrow, while the rest of the group seem successful, the murder has ruined their lives too, one way or another. And no one wants to talk.

Jem returns to Oxford, reluctantly, and connects with his old love, which somehow makes things worse, as Nick is among the suspects too. Little by little, he forms a picture of what took place. It turns out, Toby wasn’t the wonderful person he believed and may even have brought the death on himself, and all his friends had secrets that could’ve made them the killer. But no matter the reasons, Jem knows only truth will release their group from the limbo their lives have become. Not everyone agrees, and Jem’s life is suddenly in danger.

This was a wonderful, melancholy story of friendship, lost loves and missed chances. Like in Brideshead Revisited, the reader gets a vivid glimpse into a lost world of aristocratic academia, and the contrast with Jem’s dreary later life is great. Jem with his health issues is a lovely, dignified character who carries the story perfectly. His friends, flawed and all, are people who matter to him greatly. The reader doesn’t really want anyone to be the killer, to see them hang, and neither does Jem.

Luckily, this is a story where truth and justice aren’t the same thing. We get both. The ending is absolutely satisfying, and it leaves the reader with a hope that from now on, Jem’s life will improve and everyone will live happily ever after—whatever that may mean for them.

I received a free copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.