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.

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