Friday, October 20, 2023

A Bright Heart by Kate Chenli: review

3/5 stars on Goodreads

A Bright Heart by Kate Chenli

A Bright Heart has a familiar reincarnation plot from many Asian web novels, light novels, and mangas. The protagonist dies, but is given a new chance to make things right, or otherwise improve their life, by returning a few years (or decades) with all the knowledge of the first life. They’re usually fun and lighthearted stories where the small changes the protagonist makes on the second round often have large consequences.

Mingshin has helped Prince Ren to become the King, only for him to betray and kill her because he prefers her cousin and has only been using her. As her last dying thought, she wishes another chance, and is returned a couple of years back, right before she met Ren for the first time. She’s not about to waste the opportunity and sets out to destroy not only Ren but her cousin and uncle too.

Changes begin to happen almost immediately. Since Mingshin isn’t fooled by her cousin’s pretty behaviour anymore, she and her father move against Mingshin’s faster than in the original timeline. And Mingshin meets Jieh, another contender for the throne. She tries to keep her distance from him to not repeat the mistake she made with Ren, but decides rather fast that he’s the one who should get the throne. In the end, what took two years in her first life now takes place in a few months, with a lot of action towards the end.

I don’t quite know how to take this book. I went in hoping for a light-hearted, whimsical story in the style of light novels. They tend to be a tad messy, repetitive, and not very logical, not to mention the poor quality of translations, but there’s certain charm to them that keeps me reading them and giving them good reviews even though their literary merits aren’t all that high.

This wasn’t one of those novels. It’s relatively well-written, logical, and doesn’t repeat same things every few pages. But it also lacks the charm and whimsy, and instead turned out to be a bit of a slog to read.

It’s too long, for one. If it had kept to the length of a light novel, it could’ve concentrated on the revenge plot—and maybe the romance, though I didn’t find it necessary either. Now it added the plot with the emissary from the kingdom with magic that derailed the whole story and didn’t add anything worthwhile. Even the attempt to explain the reincarnation was unnecessary.

Mingshin, for all her determination, lacked agency and kept reacting to the changes from the original life. The romance was a typical YA affair where emotions don’t play much of a role, and felt an add-on too. I kind of kept expecting Mingshin’s friendship with the princess to blossom into something more. They had actual conversations, unlike with Jieh.

The setting felt a little off too. It’s Asian (names sound Chinese) but not entirely, or not enough to give a western reader a sense of being set there. It’s as if the author was so fearful to add details that might not be genuine (even though it’s a fantasy world) that the world never comes to life. Everything feels like it happens in a vacuum where nothing tastes, feels or smells like anything.

All in all, a bit of a disappointment. What the book gains in being better written than those it emulates, it loses in charm, heart and emotions. It’s not a bad book as such, and as an YA novel for younger readers it works fairly well. But I was left slightly bored.

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

Sunday, October 15, 2023

Remnants of Filth vol 2 by Rou Bao Bu Chi Rou: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

Remnants of Filth vol 2 by Rou Bao Bu Chi Rou

Volume 2 continues where the cliffhanger ending of the first volume left things, the desperate situation with the sword spirit who has been killing women. A miraculous rescue solves the situation, after which the reader learns the tragic story behind the spirit.

That is as much action as we get in the second volume. The focus is on Mo Xi and Gu Mang. The first has been given the custody of the latter, and it isn’t easy for him. Gu Mang is like a skittish wolf, and Mo Xi doesn’t have patience with him. Luckily his housekeeper, Li Wei, understands the situation better and under his care, Gu Mang starts trusting the people around him.

Mo Xi needs Gu Mang to recover his memory, and he requests the services of the best medicine master, Jiang Fuli, who manages to help Gu Mang. We get scenes from Gu Mang’s point of view, as he tries to make sense of what his past has been like, what kind of relationship he had with Mo Xi, and why everyone hates him. But it isn’t until an old friend finally explains to him what ‘traitor’ means that he starts to understand why Mo Xi considers him filthy.

This was a very slow read. There wasn’t much action or a plot, and the story advances in leaps of description. But there were moving and even heartbreaking moments when the men tried to understand each other, Mo Xi through his hate and Gu Mang with his poor grasp of the world around him. The book ends in the middle of a scene again, but not with a cliffhanger. I’ll have to read on to find out if Gu Mang ever recovers and if the men can mend their relationship.

Thursday, October 05, 2023

The Waking of Angantyr by Marie Brennan: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

The Waking of Angantyr by Marie Brennan

The Waking of Angantyr is based on an old Norsk saga the author had come across during her academic studies and found lacking in excitement, so much so that she decided to give the story a new spin. She does it with a well-researched historical setting (not reflected by the cover) and a lot of goriness.

Hervor is a bondmaid, a person forced to work in the service of a jarl’s household until she earns her freedom. Only, she knows she’ll never be allowed to do so. That’s not even her biggest grief. She can hear dead people and the residents in the village think she’s cursed. Turns out, she’s a berserker. Pain can turn her into a bloodthirsty warrior no one can stop.

After an incident where Hervor kills a man, a blood witch tells her she can silence the voices and sends her on a quest through the land for a person who knows best. It’s not an easy journey; she’s an escaped bondmaid hunted by everyone. But she has occasional help, like from a group of Vikings who teach her how to fight and eventually help her to the source of the voices in her head.

They are Angantyr and his twelve sons, berserkers who have been killed in what was outwardly an honest duel. Foul play behind the duel has kept the spirits from moving on though, and it’s up to Hervor to avenge them. In order to manage it, she’s given Angantyr’s cursed sword with dire warnings that she ignores. She shouldn’t have.

This was an excellent book. From a gloomy and hopeless start, Hervor forges herself a path through a violent society to do what she needs to do in order to live in peace. She leaves behind a trail of bodies, most of them unintentional when her berserker side takes over. There aren’t really any good things in her life, and the brief respites are always followed by more pain.

The story is set in a pre-Christian Norsk society with a set hierarchy, strict laws, and its own pantheon that doesn’t utilize the overused Odin’s. People and settings weren’t described much though, and I relied on my own knowledge of the era to bring it alive. From a relatively realistic beginning, the story gradually evolves towards more fantastical, but so naturally it doesn’t seem like a shift in the genre.

Hervor was a formidable character, but while I rooted for her, I’m not sure I liked her very much. The ending is good and conclusive, but Hervor had to sacrifice so much for it, I’m not sure I’d call it a happy ending as such. But I’m satisfied with it.

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

Sunday, October 01, 2023

Associate Professor Akira Takatsuki's Conjecture, Vol. 2 by Mikage Sawamura: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

Associate Professor Akira Takatsuki’s Conjecture vol. 2  Mikage Sawamura

The second book was as delightful as the first. It continues a month or so after the first, and again Naoya Fukamachi, a student at a Tokyo university, helps Professor Takatsuki, his folklore teacher, solve three cases that seem supernatural. All are interesting, but they all fail in what the professor finds most important: no real ghosts are involved. The last one is most heartbreaking and it brushes the professor’s past.

Naoya is still a very reserved charcter and difficult to get a hang of, even though the narrative is from his point of view. It’s difficult for him to let people close, even when he needs help. But when a bad flu makes him lose his ability to hear lies, he realises he doesn’t know how to be ordinary either. Professor Takatsuki is as delightful as ever, but the tragedy behind his cheerful exterior is starting to unravel. I’ll have to read more to learn everything.