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.

Saturday, April 06, 2024

The Fascination by Essie Fox: review

2/5 stars on Goodreads

The Fascination by Essie Fox

The Fascination is a stand-alone historical novel set in Victorian England. It’s about the seedier underside of the society, the fascination of Victorians with macabre and everything different. It’s about found families and acceptance too, and written well enough that I was wavering between three and four stars. And then, in the last paragraph, the author slaps the reader with a wet dishrag, yelling “April Fools. Question everything you’ve read.” So here I am, questioning.

The setting is Victorian only because the author says so. The descriptions are sparse and could be from any era. Author especially fails to grasp the material culture and the value of money. It’s difficult to believe that a travelling musician could have a large house with papered walls and rooms for several people, and a boat too, without independent means, which there apparently weren’t. A penniless apprentice of an anatomist definitely can’t afford tailor-made suits (in plural) and colourful silk waistcoats. A troupe of freaks doesn’t get to perform in one of the finest theatres in London, and they do not get costumes made of fresh materials for every production. The book is set in a fantasy, where these things are possible so that the reader can feel happy for the characters and where they end up in life. It almost worked.

There are two point of view characters, Keziah, whose chapters are told in first person past tense, and Theo, whose chapters are in third person present tense, which took a moment to get used to. For all that the reader gets an insight in Keziah, she’s curiously bland. She doesn’t have interests, skills, hopes or dreams until at the very end. She exists solely to tell the story of her twin sister, Tilly.

A violent incident in Tilly’s childhood has stopped her growth when she was five. She’s an adult woman in a child’s body. But she’s beautiful, can sing, and loves to perform, so she has found a place on stage. The plot revolves mostly around her, her addiction to opium and her abduction by evil people who covet everything different.

We only get Keziah’s view of Tilly. She observes her constantly, yet not once does she wonder what Tilly’s life is like, being different and constantly gawped at. We’re not given scenes either, where people would treat Tilly, or the other different characters, badly. It’s presumed. There are no descriptions of everyday life where Tilly’s life might be difficult because of her size. The idea is probably to show Keziah’s acceptance of her sister the way she is, but it comes across as wilful blindness.

That is doubly so when it comes to Theo, and it’s a deliberate choice by the author. He’s a grandson of an aristocrat who gets thrown out of his home without a penny when the grandfather finally manages to produce a male heir. Lord Seabrook has an unhealthy fascination with the macabre and his collections include human specimen preserved in formaldehyde. It doesn’t come as a surprise that he turns out to be the bad guy of the story.

Theo is saved by his governess who arranges him an apprenticeship with an anatomist, a disgraced doctor who runs a museum of macabre. Theo wants to become a doctor, but lack of funds makes it impossible. Or that’s what the reader is given to understand.

The last paragraph of the story reveals that Theo is physically different too. Since the author wants to keep it a secret, I won’t reveal how—though other reviewers have done so. By leaving the revelation at the end, the author probably wants the reader to question their prejudices. Keziah certainly points it out.

But it doesn’t work. The reader needs a chance to realise their prejudices exist and that’s only possible if they know the pertinent facts about the character and can work them along the way. Even if the author doesn’t want to state the difference outright, there were plenty of chances for giving the reader hints, to make them question their understanding of Theo along the way.

Theo is a point of view character who never questions his difference, doesn’t rue it or wonder if it hinders his chances in life. He doesn’t ask if he’ll ever end up as a specimen in his grandfather’s collections. He’s utterly indifferent about it. The author fails to get inside the character to show the reader what it feels like to be different in a society that reviles those that aren’t perfect. He turns out to be gay too, which we only find out from another character, not him.

According to Keziah, people don’t notice Theo’s difference, because he’s such a charismatic person. But he’s not. He’s reticent and apologetic, colourful waistcoats and all. And so, instead of turning the mirror at the reader, the last sentence screams GAWP, and we gawp. And we see that Aleski, the character with hirsutism is only accepted as a bedfellow after he shaves his face, and Martha only gets the life she’s dreamed of after her cleft mouth is operated. The reader is disgusted, but not with Theo who is a lovely person, or the other characters, except maybe Keziah. The reader is disgusted with the book and its author.

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

Thursday, April 04, 2024

Play of Shadows by Sebastien de Castell: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

Play of Shadows by Sebastien de Castell

Play of Shadows starts the Court of Shadows series, a spin-off of de Castell’s Greatcoats series. I hadn’t read it, or the prequel to Play of Shadows, but that wasn’t necessary. The earlier series is set in the kingdom of Tristia, and this book takes place in a small duchy of Jereste there.

Damelas Chademantaigne is a grandson of two Greatcoats, famed magistrates and duellists of the kingdom, but he’s more of a coward. The book starts with him fleeing from a duel with the deadliest duellist of Jereste, the Vixen. He hides in a theatre and claims to be an actor there, which by the laws of the duchy grants him immunity. He’s safe, for now.

A year later, he’s still with the troupe, playing two-line bit parts. Then one night, during a history play about the duchy’s greatest hero and greatest traitor, he suddenly delivers lines he has no recollection of saying. It turns out he’s channelling the spirit of the traitor. And the Duke wants to hear what he has to say.

The duchy is in chaos. A private militia, Iron Orchids, has all but taken Jereste over. The duke wants to find out where they come from and who controls them. And he believes the answer lies in the past. So, night after night, the troupe has to stage the play that evolves and comes to life with whatever Damelas channels. And the more he learns, the more in danger he and those he holds dear are. The truth might very well see all of them dead.

This was a good book with great characters. Damelas especially turned out to be more than he believed himself capable of. It’s about a found family too, with unlikely people coming together. I liked Beretto best, but the women didn’t quite reach the potential of their interesting jobs.

The plot, however, left me wanting. The stakes were low, and the path to the goal was out of the hands of the characters. Learning who controls the Iron Orchids wasn’t that interesting to begin with, and the truth was a let-down. There was no antagonist to fight against, just a nameless mob, so the conflicts were mere street fights that didn’t really lead to anything but a body count. But the wrap-up in the (amazingly long) epilogue was satisfying. It sets the next book too, but I’m not entirely sure I’ll continue with the series.

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

Friday, March 29, 2024

Guardian: Zhen Hun vol. 2 by Priest: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

Guardian vol.2 by priest

Volume 2 of Guardian continues where the previous left off, after the events where Zhao Yunlan has learned the true identity of Shen Wei. It hasn’t lessened his interest in the other man, but Shen Wei keeps his guard up.

It’s the lunar New Year, and the time of year when the ghosts and humans alike have their merits tallied. Guo Changcheng, the intern at the Special Investigations Department, gets another learning experience when the group goes after a resentful spirit. He’s still timid and easily frightened, but we learn that he has abundance of merits, whereas Chu Shuzhi, the zombie investigator at SID doesn’t have enough to end his 300 years of service.

It’s also the time of year to visit the family. Zhao Yunlan brings Shen Wei to meet his parents, shocking them by coming out to them. He doesn’t let their opinions stop him—or Shen Wei’s reluctance either. He’s already bought them a house even, and is contemplating forcefully moving the other man there, only to stop at the last moment after learning the secret about their relationship Shen Wei has kept.

Shen Wei is still searching for the four hallowed artifacts that could release the great seal. This time, the Merit Brush makes an appearance and he and Zhao Yunlan both go after it, though Shen Wei tries to stop the other man. He knows that it will reveal the true identity of Zhao Yunlan to him. It puts a strain between the men, but it also brings their relationship to a turning point.

This wasn’t as action filled as the first volume. There’s only one investigation that is solved fairly easily. The rest is taken up by personal issues of the characters, and Zhao Yunlan investigating his true identity from the Chinese creation mythologies. The volume ends before we learn what he truly thinks of the revelations. The relationship between Zhao Yunlan and Shen Wei remains rather one-sided, and we don’t learn either, where it stands after their first night together (especially since it’s a bit of a shock to Zhao Yunlan.) I’m eager to find out.