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.