Wednesday, January 31, 2024

He Who Drowned the World by Shelley Parker-Chan: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

He Who Drowned the World by Shelley Parker-Chan

He Who Drowned the World concludes The Radiant Emperor duology that began with She Who Became the Sun. The first book was so brilliant that when it came time to read the sequel, I postponed it for months in fear that it wouldn’t live up to the first. I shouldn’t have worried.

In the second book, Zhu Chongba, the orphan girl turned a boy monk who assumed her brother’s destiny along with his name and gender, has become the Radiant King, Zhu Yuanzhang. But she has a long way to go to defeat the Mongols and becoming the emperor. She has the Heavenly Mandate, but she isn’t the only one and the fight for the throne is fierce.

A battle after a battle follows. Zhu Yuanzhang is outnumbered, but she is resourceful and she has an unexpected—and unwilling—ally, the eunuch general Ouyang who is driven by his need to revenge his father and kill the Great Khan. The two are mirrors of each other, in their destinies and the perceived wrongness of their bodies, but only Zhu is willing to accept it.

The journey to the throne is difficult and unexpected. The death of the Great Khan isn’t what Ouyang imagined, and the Great Khan Zhu has to face isn’t who she thought he would be either. But after all the death and sacrifices, after believing she would do anything for her destiny, Zhu learns in the end that there is a sacrifice she isn’t willing to make.

This was a great book. It’s heavy on war campaigns and court intrigue, which aren’t my favourites, but the attention is always on the characters, which makes everything interesting. The contenders for the throne aren’t nice people and some of their fates are well-deserved, but the reader still feels sympathy for them. And after disliking Ma in the first book, she rose to be my favourite.

Nevertheless, this wasn’t the mind-blowing experience of the first book. Zhu Yuanzhang has assumed her role as a man so thoroughly it doesn’t cause any internal problems for her, not even when she has to pretend to be a woman. She even thinks of herself as her unlike in the first book.

But she isn’t quite as single-minded as in the first book either, driven by fear of being found out. She grows with her experiences, and learns to question the sacrifices and her destiny, which culminates in the perfect final scene. Had it gone any other way, I would’ve been seriously disappointed. Now I can imagine that as the first emperor of the Ming dynasty she would’ve been both fierce and compassionate.

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

Friday, January 26, 2024

Pillar of Ash by H.M. Long: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

Pillar of Ash by H.M. Long

Pillar of Ash is the fourth book in The Four Pillars fantasy series. It used to be Hall of Smoke series, but for this final book they’ve changed the series name for some reason. It’s a Norsk inspired fantasy world according to the author, though not in such an obvious way that readers would easily recognize the inspiration. I took it to be a mix of Native American, Asian and Roman cultures; mostly tribal with direct interaction with gods, and one large empire in constant war with them.

First two books followed Hessa, an Eang warrior who set out to kill false gods. Third book followed Thray, Hessa’s adopted niece as she journeyed to north to find her origins. Fourth book follows Hessa’s twins Yske and Berin.

Yske is a healer who has learned her trade with Aita, a former goddess of healing. She’s partaken in the secrets of the Hall of Smoke and received godlike features herself. When her excitable twin informs her that he’ll form an expedition party to search the edge of the world, she goes with him to keep everyone safe. As a parting gift, Aita gives her the ability to miraculously heal almost every wound. But it comes with a great cost.

It’s not an easy journey and Yske’s skills are often needed. The final task waits at the edge of the world. She needs to revive a near immortal who has been resting in ice for several years, someone who has personal meaning for her. But if she does it, she’ll launch the end of the world.

The book is told in Yske’s point of view and the reader follows as she struggles with the consequences of her healing powers. Her patients aren’t always grateful and the reader is left wondering why she bothers. Berin especially is so annoying that only a sister could love him enough to travel to the edge of the world for him.

In hindsight, nothing really happens in the book until the party reaches their destination. There are creatures to fight and a journey to endure. But something is constantly going on, so it doesn’t matter. The entire plot happens in the last third of the book. There’s a great build-up to the world ending—and then it’s dealt with a literal deus ex machina solution that Yske has no part in. She and the reader are left to watch it from the side.

Thinking of the series as a whole, none of the follow-ups rose to the brilliance of the first book. Thray and Yske didn’t have Hessa’s trauma and rage that propelled her to journey to kill the false gods. Yske’s motivation for following her brother wasn’t compelling, and although she grew to be an interesting character, she relied too much on her godly gift to be a similar underdog facing the gods as her mother was.

Nevertheless, the book was a good conclusion to the series. Things were nicely tied up and this reader is satisfied. Still, there’s a lot to explore in the world yet, so if the author decides to continue, I’ll definitely read more.

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

Saturday, January 20, 2024

Stars of Chaos vol 2 by priest: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

Stars of Chaos by priest

The second volume of the Chinese steampunk series Stars of Chaos: Sha Po Lang starts with a four-year time jump, which is a good decision. Chang Geng, the fourth prince of the empire, is now twenty and has grown into a fine young man. He’s spent the intervening years studying everything possible from martial arts and military tactics to medicine and accounting. All this for his godfather Gu Yun, because nothing has diminished his infatuation with the military genius marquis.

For his part, Gu Yun has spent the four years securing the silk road to bolster the economics and the coffers of the empire. But despite his efforts, the country is getting poorer and more unstable.

The two reunite by chance and from there on, they’re constantly dealing with a disaster after another. First, it’s bandits smuggling violet gold, the coveted substance powering the mechanical devices, which has larger political implications. Then it’s the inner politics of the empire, which leads to the emperor falling out with Gu Yun. And before they know it, there’s an invading army outside the empire’s borders.

During all this, Chang Geng and Gu Yun work side by side. The younger man has a sharp mind and has travelled all over the country, getting a good understanding of how things are. It constantly baffles his godfather, but he soon learns to rely on Chang Geng’s suggestions. The men grow to be more or less equal in standing, although Chang Geng takes a role of a caretaker, looking after Gu Yun who still suffers from the effects of a poisoning.

But there’s tension between them too. Chang Geng makes his feelings known to Gu Yun, who cannot accept them. They keep throwing him off though, forcing him to see the younger man in a new light. The romance didn’t go anywhere yet, but it had a nudge to the right direction.

Mostly, the narrative was dominated by politics and war. It’s a confusing mess and would’ve benefited from a map to clear some things out, but well-written and fast-paced, keeping the reader’s interest. The volume ends at a difficult place for the empire and the pair. I’ll definitely need to read on to find out how they’ll solve everything.

Saturday, January 13, 2024

The Market of 100 Fortunes by Marie Brennan: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

The Market of 100 Fortunes by Marie Brennan

The Market of 100 Fortunes is the third Legend of Five Rings game world book by Brennan. They follow Isao Ryotora and Asako Sekken, two samurais of Rokugan Empire, a priest and a scholar who are drawn into dangerous supernatural situations. I’ve read them back-to-back and have liked them all, but this was perhaps the weakest one.

Ryotora and Sekken are preparing to travel to the Dragon Clan’s lands together to marry there, when an urgent request from Sayashi, the cat spirit who has been their reluctant helper in both cases, calls them to Crane Clan lands. But when they arrive there, she’s disappeared.

She may be in the market of 100 fortunes, a place no one believes exists. The men start to investigate with the help of a Scorpion magistrate who may have an agenda of her own, and a little orphan girl. Turns out, finding the market is easy. Getting out of there less so.

This was slightly less interesting read than before. In the earlier books, the men had full chapters in their point of view, which gave a lot of space for character development. Here, the point of view changes in the middle of the chapter, leaving less room for the characters, as the plot dominates the pace. It would’ve required more drama early on to keep a reader’s interest. Now it took a bit too long before anything happened.

There are also a couple of chapters from Sayashi’s point of view. She wasn’t quite as interesting as I’d hoped, and I felt they didn’t really add anything worthwhile. At the very least, the reason for her actions should’ve been brought up earlier on to make the great revelation at the end work better. Now it came a bit out of blue and didn’t have the impact it could’ve had.

Nevertheless, once the mystery got going, it was intriguing. Again, the solution wasn’t easy, requiring great sacrifices. The men worked on their peculiar connection, coming to terms with it, and their relationship remained the best part of the book. The ending was good, and gave a notion that this is the last book. If that’s the case, I’m happy with where the men ended up. But I’d really like to read more.

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

Thursday, January 11, 2024

The Restorer's Home Omnibus Vol 2 by Kim Sang-Yeop: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

The Restorer's Home Omnibus vol 2. by Kim Sang-Yeop

The second omnibus of this Korean comic series contains volumes 3 and 4, requests 14 to 27 to restore items; a hefty reading of 400 pages. Sungwoo Yoo, the high school student with a supernatural ability to see spirits in items and restore them, can’t catch a break. He’s still permanently broke trying to maintain the huge traditional Korean mansion after his father disappeared, and feed the horde of ghosts of an ancient king who needs Sungwoo to restore special items to gain back his powers.

This is a fun mix of Koran history, restoration details, high school life, and manga antics. Sungwoo makes a couple of new (reluctant) friends, helps people in their troubles, saves an ancient site from destruction, and restores a few items. He even manages to restore enough of the king’s items for him to briefly return to his true form, and he’s not at all what I—or Sungwoo—expected him to be. But more needs to be done.

His father is still a no-show, but he sends Sungwoo the king’s artefacts regularly, so he’s alive. And the mother who hasn’t even been mentioned before, features briefly in Sungwoo’s memories. The cliffhanger ending seems to hint of her return. And it might not be a good thing.

I liked this as much as the first volume. The black and white illustrations are good, stories were interesting, the pace wasn’t quite as hectic as in the first, Sungwoo’s fate didn’t jump up and down as badly, and the king and his horde were even helpful occasionally. I’m definitely interested in reading more.

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

Tuesday, January 09, 2024

The Game of 100 Candles by Marie Brennan: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

The Game of 100 Candles by Marie Brennan

The Legend of 100 Candles is the second Legend of the Five Rings novel by Brennan that I’ve read, and I like it even better than the first. Two years have passed since the events of the first book, and Ryotora and Sekken have spent most of it apart. Both are still suffering from the consequences of Sekken’s sacrifice, but true to their natures, neither has told the other about it.

Now Ryotora has come to Sekken’s home town to negotiate about the fate of the shrine that they’ve saved. Court intrigue isn’t Ryotora’s strong suit, but he has Sekken there to help him. And then things start to go wrong when an evening of story-telling leads to a strange sleeping curse. It’s time for the men to investigate.

This was a great story. Both men struggle with their feelings, their duty as samurais, and their health. And when they figure out the reason for their poor health, things become even more muddled. The romance doesn’t have much room to grow; rather, the men figure out what they need to do to uphold their duty and feelings on their own. The end result is satisfying, if brief.

The mystery, once it presents itself at 30% mark, is intriguing and difficult to solve, made more difficult by politics and family demands. And once again, Ryotora saves the day.

This was fairly different in style and pace from the first book, the focus on characters rather than the mystery. I like where it took both men, individually and together. Side characters were interesting and multi-dimensional. The end for the men was left rather open, and I absolutely must read more.

Monday, January 08, 2024

The Night Parade of 100 Demons by Marie Brennan: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

The Night Parade of 100 Demons by Marie Brennan

The Night Parade of 100 Demons is set in the Legend of the Five Rings game world, but the game or its events don’t feature in any way. This is the second series I’ve read and I’m still so ignorant about the game that I don’t even know what the five rings of the legend are. The books work fine without.

The stories take place in an Asia-inspired, pre-industrial empire that is divided into smaller vassal territories ruled by clans that are fairly independent and culturally diverse. The Asian elements work very well, even though neither author that I’ve read is Asian. There are enough modern elements in the mix, like the equality of genders and acceptance of same sex relationships, that the reader doesn’t really question the authenticity of the details that might be authors’ inventions.

This is a supernatural mystery that takes place in a remote mountain village of Seibo Mura in the Dragon Clan’s lands near the border to the Phoenix Clan. For two full moons, a horde of evil spirits have descended on the village, killing people and destroying everything. The villagers have asked for help and the nearest official has sent a samurai to investigate.

Agasha no Isao Ryotora is an itinerant samurai of the Dragon Clan and of fairly low standing among samurais. He’s not a warrior but a priest capable of communicating with spirits. When he arrives, he discovers that another samurai is already there, an aristocratic Asako Sekken of the Phoenix Clan. He’s not a warrior either but a scholar. Combining their knowledge of the spirit world, they set out to investigate.

It’s not an easy investigation, as all the people who might know about the lore and spirits of the village are dead. It’s a trial and error, and it’s made more difficult because both men are keeping secrets from one another.

Ryotora’s secret is that he’s been adopted to a samurai family from that village. He’s already lost a lover when he confessed his low birth status, and he’s not about to face the same humiliation. Sekken’s secret is that he’s not there by accident. He’s been haunted by a spirit dog and it’s lured him there. Of the two secrets, Sekken’s turn out to be more important for solving the problem.

This was a rather slow-paced mystery told in both men’s point of view. There are no great highs and lows along the way, but the investigation never stalls and something is constantly happening. Along the way, the men become friends and develop deeper feelings too, but neither of them is about to bring it up, mostly for the secrets they keep. It’s very slow burn, but their feelings have a crucial role in saving the village, so it’s well-woven in the story anyway.

The book is rich in Japanese mythology of evil spirits. Brennan is an anthropologist and she’s done a thorough research. None of the creatures—or other special Japanese words—are explained in the narrative, and while I didn’t know any of them, it didn’t mar my enjoyment. However, there’s a glossary of the creatures at the back for those who need to know.

Otherwise, the descriptions are sparse. I don’t know the ages of the main characters—I barely know what they look like—and the village remained vague to the end. But the narrative flows so well I didn’t miss the detailed descriptions all that much. I like the world, and I liked both Ryotora and Sekken. I have the next two books in the series waiting and I’ll definitely read on.

Friday, January 05, 2024

Thousand Autumns vol. 3 by Meng Xi Shi: review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

Thousand Autumns by Meng Xi Shi

Thousand Autumns, the story of Shen Qiao, the pure and good Daoist cultivator, and Yan Wushi, the leader of the demonic cultivation sect, set in imaginary 6th century Chinese empire has reached its third volume. It continues where the previous one left, Shen Qiao rushing to save Yan Wushi from an ambush he couldn’t possibly survive—only to arrive too late.

Yan Wushi’s enemies learn that they and Shen Qiao are on opposing sides politically too, no matter what Shen Qiao thinks of Yan Wushi personally. Reluctantly, they give his body to Shen Qiao who has now made powerful enemies. But Yan Wushi is not dead.

Tides have turned for the two men. It’s now Shen Qiao’s turn to nurture Yan Wushi back to health. It’s not an easy task and comes with a curious twist. A head injury surfaces multiple personalities in Yan Wushi, most of whom are more likable than the man himself. Some tender feelings rise, but those hoping for a proper romance are again disappointed. In the end, the original personality returns and Yan Wushi pulls yet another shitty move, leaving Shen Qiao to deal with the political ramifications of what his alleged death has caused.

This was a great volume. Shen Qiao and Yan Wushi spent most of it together, and even though there weren’t many scenes from the latter’s point of view, there were some insights into him. Mostly though, it’s still the story of Shen Qiao growing to become the most powerful martial artist in the realm. There were even more battle scenes than before where he fights against an overwhelming enemy, surprising them with his skills. The volume ends after one such scene, not quite with a cliffhanger but leaving everything open-ended. It’s impossible to tell where the story is going from here, but I’ll definitely read on to find out.

Wednesday, January 03, 2024

My reading year 2023

I spent the last week of 2023 on vacation and didn’t have time to publish a summary post of my reading year, so here it is now. I had a mixed year, reading-wise. On one hand, I made a personal record of titles read in a year, 230 by official Goodreads count, 52 of which I reviewed on this blog. On the other, I struggled to pick up and finish books.

Part of the problem is my shortening attention span. Even the most engaging books can lose my attention in the middle of a scene, and less-engaging books take eons to finish—if I finish them. Especially the review copies I received from NetGalley and Edelweiss suffered for this, leading to a back-log of books I haven’t even started. But partly it’s because I’ve grown bored with the same books I’ve read for years.

What saved my reading year were new genres for me, like Chinese xianxia boylove novels, Japanese light novels, and online manga and manhwa. The first xianxia I picked up randomly at a local bookstore the year before based on the cover. It turned out to be Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation by Mo Xiang Tong Xiu, and like millions of westerns in the past few years, I was swept away by it and the TV adaptation too.

I read 27 xianxias or Chinese boylove novels last year. There aren’t all that many of them officially translated and available commercially, so it didn’t take long to catch up. Next year will be slower in those, as I have to wait for them to be translated.

My favourites were Husky and His White Cat Shizun by Rou Bao Bu Chi Rou, of which four volumes have been translated; Thousand Autumns by Meng Xi Shi (currently reading volume 3), Golden Terrace by Cang Wu Bin Bai, of which I’ve read the first volume so far, and a modern romance The Missing Piece by Kun Yi Wei Lou. On top of the m/m romances, they’re wonderful insights into (fantasy) Chinese past, and cultures that are refreshingly different from the western ones that I usually read. However, curiously enough, similar books by westernised Asian authors failed to engage me completely.

Japanese manga and Korean manhwa were an accidental addition to my reading. I requested review copies at random, realised they’re more fun to read from a tablet than in print (not that my eyesight is that poor, but still), and went a bit overboard with them. In total, I read 145 comic volumes that I added to my Goodreads count, but there were many more that I didn’t, several ongoing webtoons included.

Most of the review copies that I received were such that I only read the first volume and didn’t continue with the series. But there were interesting and fun pieces among them too, like The Restorer's Home by Kim Sang-yeop, a mix of modern and historical Korean culture, and What's Wrong with Secretary Kim? by MyeongMi Kim and GyeongYun Jeong, which I had to start reading online as translations weren’t published fast enough. Spy x Family by Tatsuya Endo is also one of my new favourites, with ten volumes translated and published so far.

Japanese light novels were a mixed bunch. Some were rather bad books with lousy translations, but there was a gem among them that I continued with after receiving a review copy of the first volume from Edelweiss. Associate Professor Akira Takatsuki's Conjecture by Mikage Sawamura is a fun series of paranormal mysteries set in modern Japan, with two volumes and one manga volume translated so far.

Outside Asian light literature, I read my usual fares. Favourites included Fourth Wing by Rebecca Yarros, which managed to be a fresh take of the dark academy genre; System Collapse by Martha Wells (Murderbot never fails me), and Foxglove King by Hannah F. Whitten, a more traditional romantic fantasy. Dead Country by Max Gladstone started a new series set in his Craft Sequence world, and Translation State by Ann Leckie returned to her Imperial Radch world.

All in all, a good reading year, if a very different from previous years. I’ll continue with my Asian streak this year too, with xianxias, light novels and mangas, but there are new books coming from my favourite authors too. I’ve pledged to read 150 books this year in Goodreads reading challenge. I’ll review as many of them here as I have time, so keep an eye on this space. The rest I’ll review on Goodreads.