Review of “The Empire of Gold” by S. A. Chakraborty

This review contains spoilers for The City of Brass and The Kingdom of Copper

It has been such a delight to revisit S. A. Chakraborty’s Daevabad trilogy and review it for the blog! I am sad to be sharing the third and final review, because it means saying goodbye to the series again, at least for the moment. However, I am happy that in the process of writing these reviews and discussing them on my social media accounts, I’ve been able to share what I love about these books with other readers.  

At the start of my review for The Kingdom of Copper, I lamented that it must be very hard to write the second book in a trilogy. Well, scratch that. Writing the third book in a trilogy has to be the hardest job of all. Giving a satisfying ending to the action that’s been built up over two books is a challenge. There’s readers’ expectations and two books worth of character development on the line here.

In The Empire of Gold, Nahri and Ali align to save Daevabad from the forces of Manizheh . . . as well as Manizheh’s commander, Dara. Meanwhile, Dara processes the horrible crimes he’s committed throughout his life, and contends with his long held reverence for the Nahids.     

As I held the book in my hands for the first time, I was scared to read it. I had counted down the days for its release, but in that moment I didn’t want to read the last few chapters I had with these characters and say such a final goodbye. What if I didn’t like the ending? Consequently, it was with a deep feeling of dread that I opened the book and began to read. I read and read and read (and then put the book down, got a meager amount of sleep, went to work the next day, got home, and then began to read again) and read and read until suddenly it was 3 a.m. in the morning and I was finished. I was tired, but relieved to know that despite all of the build up and expectation, I loved the book, and thought it was a very worthy conclusion to the series.

Chakraborty’s characterization is stronger than ever.

Throughout the series, characterization has been one of Chakraborty’s great strengths, along with worldbuilding. She has such a talent for conveying the essence of a character. I have written at length about the characterization of Ali in previous reviews, but I have to say that Nahri is really in her element in this book. In previous books, Nahri didn’t always have a strong sense of herself. This was understandable and realistic as she adjusted to the ways of Daevabad and court life. However, at the start of The Empire of Gold, and even more so as the book progresses, Nahri becomes more sure of herself, even as her situation grows dire. Nahri’s talent of knowing exactly who she is and what her strengths are really makes her shine throughout the book.  

The romance is poignant and slow-burn.

I am a fan of the way Chakraborty writes romance. I prefer it when characters take the time to get to know each other and fall in love gradually. It’s not that these two characters don’t love each other deeply. They just take their time reaching that conclusion, and they become great friends first. Their relationship is refreshing to me, and it stands out from other fantasy books where characters have soulmates who they fall deeply in love with the second they meet. Their relationship is one that I can realistically see growing between two people, born out of admiration and respect. 

The commentary on parental love is complex, and at times, moving. 

The idea of parental love is meaningfully explored in the book. There are horrible parents throughout the course of the book, as well as great parents. I appreciate that in the Daevabad trilogy, being a parent does not naturally mean that someone is nurturing or loving towards their child. Too often, books assume that all parents have their children’s well-being at heart. There are parents in the book who are cruel towards their children. There are parents who are rather mediocre. Some parents are absent entirely.

Chakraborty also delves into what it means when a parent’s love is unconditional. This exploration is one of the reasons I got so emotional at the end of the book. Love for a child can be ferocious and powerful. It can cause a person to make untold sacrifices and travel incredibly far. Sometimes the love of a mother or a father knows no bounds. Reading about the depth of that love in the book was so moving that it brought me to tears.

The story is very wide reaching, and the worldbuilding continues to improve.

Even while writing a book that has to tie up many loose ends, Chakraborty still expands the world and introduces more characters and mythology without overwhelming the reader. This is especially true in Ali’s marid storyline. The world of the marid is explored in The Empire of Gold where it has not been explored much at all before, but because of the foreshadowing in the past two books, the introduction to the world felt more inevitable than overwhelming.

Not all of the side characters got their due. 

This is always my biggest criticism of Chakraborty’s work. I don’t really blame her for giving some of the side characters the short stick when the novel totalled up to almost 800 pages as it is. However, I do think Chakraborty should have paid more attention to Ali’s siblings. Muntadhir and Zaynab have been side characters since the beginning of the series, and their presence in The Empire of Gold is more diminished than in other books. Due to the circumstances of the novel, they couldn’t be around the main characters a lot, and in that sense it’s understandable that they didn’t get much page time, but I missed their absence, and I’m sure other readers will, as well. After the amount of time that we spent with these characters in previous books, readers deserved a more developed conclusion for them both.

I highly recommend this book.

Review of “The Kingdom of Copper” by S. A. Chakraborty

*This review contains spoilers for The City of Brass*

As I started writing this review, I was struck with the same thought I had the first time I read The Kingdom of Copper by S. A. Chakraborty, which is that it must be hard to write the second book in a trilogy. The second book has the difficult task of building on the action of the first book in a way that’s interesting, while not resolving any of the biggest plot lines, either. If it’s a fantasy, the author has to stick to the world they created in their previous book and adhere to its rules, while still making it seem magical and wonderful and new. I think that the second book in a series truly reveals an author’s talent. The fact that The Kingdom of Copper is such a great book cements S. A. Chakraborty’s status as an amazing writer, in my mind.

The premise of the book is that five years have passed since The City of Brass, and Nahri struggles to find her purpose after her marriage to Muntadhir. She fights to open a hospital, and this process reveals all sorts of deadly secrets and plans. Ali winds up thrust back into Daevabad court politics after being stranded in the desert, and Dara finds himself working for a savior who might turn out to be everyone’s worst nightmare. Everything is fine.

The time jump actually worked.

Most time jumps in books leave me with a sense of loss, as if I missed out on a lot of a character’s arc. The time jump in The Kingdom of Copper didn’t make me feel this way. If anything, it allows readers to witness even more character development. In The City of Brass, Nahri and Ali, at 20ish and 18 respectively, were technically adults, but they read a little bit like children. Now we get to see Ali and Nahri as people who have been tried and true adults for a few years. They both have to forge their way deeper into Daevabad’s messy political conflicts, and attempt to find ways to defeat their adversary, King Ghassan, who is also Ali’s father. It feels more realistic that characters who are farther into adulthood than 18 and 20 are handling these conflicts. 

The ending was rather unexpected. 

“Unexpected” is putting it mildly. This novel has a violent crescendo of an ending. It’s a cliff-hanger ending, as is common in most second books in trilogies, but I think that the cliffhanger is actually surprising and suspenseful. None of the characters end up where I guessed they were going to, and this sets up the third novel really well. 

Incredibly major plot points are revealed.

Chakraborty manages to reveal the major villain of the trilogy in this book, without making it seem like a belated process. As this character’s arc plays out over time, they are revealed to have had a hand in the action of the series since the beginning of The City of Brass. With the placement of this character within the trilogy, it feels like the action truly starts. We thought the action was started in the first book, but it’s nothing compared to what happens here. 

Ali comes into his own.

Ali has a better sense of himself in this book, he’s a little more self aware. Perhaps because he’s close to my own age in the book, he seems a lot more relatable. Don’t get me wrong, he continues to be gullible and awkward. He wouldn’t be Ali without these characteristics. He will always be more than a little idealistic, but I think he is learning how to better emotionally handle tough situations with his family. He also has a character arc that I couldn’t predict. What happens with his magic is unexpected, to say the least. His magic has changed since the ending of the first book, but we won’t be given real answers as to why until Empire of Gold, the final book in the trilogy. 

Some characters fall off the map.

I think my biggest criticism of the book and the series in general is that there are many characters who are introduced and who demand satisfying character arcs. This is a tall order. Chakraborty has made her side characters beloved, and I think it proves hard to keep up with them all. One example of this is the revolutionary shafit faction Ali was helping in The City of Brass. Their story got a lot of attention in the first book, and not as much in this book. If Chakraborty lets them fade into the background it would be disappointing, given the earlier care and attention that they received in the books.

I highly recommend this book.

Review of “The City of Brass” by S. A. Chakraborty

The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty is the first book in the Daevabad trilogy, which is one of my favorite series of all time. After my initial read through of the book, I told everyone I know about it. I wish I was joking. Seriously, even my bosses, who are 70 something year old men, know that I love this series, because I never shut up about it. Now that I’ve revealed that embarrassing fact, let’s move on!  

The premise of the book is that in an alternate eighteenth century Egypt, con woman Nahri is trying to make a living by swindling the wealthy denizens of Cairo through her services as a “healer.” Nahri actually *does* have some innate intuition for healing, though, and a host of other strange abilities that she’s never quite understood. When a djinn warrior comes to her aid one day, he notices her strange abilities and reveals that she is a part of his world. He then takes Nahri on a journey to the djinn’s capital city Daevabad, where she becomes bound up in its political affairs.

This book has some of the best worldbuilding I’ve ever read.

This series is not as long as other epic fantasy series such as A Song of Ice and Fire or The Lord of the Rings or whatever, but I think the worldbuilding is even better. Chakraborty has the perfect mixture of establishing the wide overarching conventions of Daevabad, as well as giving small details such as descriptions of food and style of clothing. Her writing makes readers feel like they inhabit the world and know its history. I think it’s helpful that readers discover Daevabad along with Nahri, because Daevabad natives explain their ways to her and consequently to the readers, as well. 

Other strengths of the worldbuilding are the settings themselves. The places that the book takes place in are so lushly described and seem so beautiful. I have been having this preference lately for only reading books that are set in hot sandy deserts, or cold wintery forests, and this book definitely satisfies all of my hot sandy desert needs. I want a glass of water just thinking about it.  

The characters are complex and detailed. *Slight tirade may follow.*

S.A. Chakraborty does a good job of portraying characters who aren’t innately likeable, but are so fascinating that readers don’t care. This is especially true for her side characters. For her main characters, I like that she gives them lots of room to grow.

Nahri is a great main character. She will win you over even if you don’t always agree with her decision making. I appreciate Nahri because she gives you the feeling that she always has something else up her sleeve. Even though she comes from a humble background and suddenly has to find a way to survive the power plays of Daevabad royalty, I never get the sense that she’s being outmatched by another character.

My favorite character is definitely Ali, which is amusing because he can be quite exasperating. He’s only 18 in The City of Brass, and at the beginning of the book, he has strong convictions that have yet to be tested by the world. “Doing the right thing” is Ali’s goal, but that goal can get complicated in a city as socially fractured as Daevabad. I think a lot of Ali’s character arc is him learning how he can keep his principles and put them into action in a morally corrupt world. Ali is motivated by goodness and religious devotion, and I can tell that Chakraborty respects him for this. I love when authors write characters like him in order to be appreciate them and not strike them down. Ali’s Muslim faith is important to him, and it’s not going anywhere. His faith helps to guide him as he tries to nativage the world. Adult fantasy could definitely stand to see more positive Muslim representation, and I’m so glad Ali is around to join the fold! 

Okay, this section should probably have been titled “I love Alizayd al-Qahtani.” Who am I kidding? Maybe it should have been the title of the whole review. 

The love interests are immensely pleasing.

The love interests in The City of Brass are so good. First, we have *redacted*, who shall be referred to as Green Eyes, who has the whole yearning angst thing going for him. Green eyes is romantic and dashing and sad and broody. I mean, come on. Shakraborty placed all of the compelling love interest traits in a blender and mixed them just right and bam! Green eyes was born.

He isn’t the one who you would want beside you for your entire life, though. His character isn’t very fit for a long term relationship due to all of the angst and broodiness. No, instead you (and by you I mean me) would want *redacted.* We shall call him Zali. Zali is not the love interest one would have a passionate dream about, but he’s the one who will make dinner for you and listen to you talk about your ideas for book reviews for hours. He’s the one you can grow with. He will stick by your side no matter what and he makes me smile. Nahri’s so enchanted by Green Eyes in The City of Brass that she doesn’t even really notice Zali. It’s just that readers can tell that he’s going to be a major romantic player later because of his smartness, sweetness, kindness, and commitment to good.

Yes, a love triangle is starting to form. Yes, I am here for it. If you don’t like love triangles, that’s cool, but sometimes they work!

The plot was occasionally slow. 

I think that Chakraborty prioritized character development over plot development in the beginning of the book. She wanted to establish where the characters are in life, and what their relationships to each other are. I think that Dara and Nahri took a bit too long on their initial voyage to Daevabad, because the action of the book doesn’t really start until that’s over. However, some scenes crucial to the series as a whole happen on this journey, and looking back on the series now, I’m not sure what she could have done differently. I’m giving y’all a warning that the plot of the story doesn’t really get going until about 100 pages into the book, but I didn’t especially mind because I was too busy getting to know the characters. 

I highly recommend this book.

Review of “Mexican Gothic” by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Mexican Gothic is not my usual cup of tea in the sense that I don’t usually read books that are overt horror novels. I was so caught up in the fact that Silvia Moreno-Garcia was releasing another book, that it took me a while to process that it was actually going to be scary. I impatiently waited to hear that my copy of the book had arrived, but when I actually had it in my hands I felt some apprehension, because I knew that I was going to be in for a spooky time! 

That being said, this book was not hard to get through in the slightest. The premise of the novel is that Noemí, a woman born and raised in Mexican high society, must attempt to help her cousin Catalina after her sudden decline in health. The decline in health includes a raving letter that alleges some supernatural occurrences. Noemí travels to the house of Catalina’s new husband, and she realizes that her cousin’s outlandish claims are not as off-centre as they seem.

The writing is exquisite and the build-up is everything. 

I’ve read some reviews that call it slow to start, but in my opinion these reviewers fail to acknowledge how brilliantly Moreno-Garcia builds tension throughout the rising action of the book. It is, after all, a horror novel, and a sign of a good horror novel is a story that doesn’t reveal all of its secrets right away. The tension should be drawn out. Seriously, the build-up of tension in this story is intense. It feels insidious. As a small example, the book features a creepy house called High Place, and the scariness of the house is so expounded that it will make you uncomfortable to reside within your own place of residence.

The details that Moreno-Garcia includes are fantastic (and of course, terrifying). From the description of the wallpaper and the furniture alone, I could see why someone would lose their mind in High Place.

This book is so smart. 

It is constantly exploring its themes and motifs and circling back to them in creepy ways. Some of the images that are present in my mind after reading the book are golden mushrooms, the ouroboros, and old wedding dresses. DM me after you read the book and let’s chat about how all of these symbols relate to eugenics. 

Noemí, the heroine, is utterly captivating. 

She’s definitely the product of the fifties, and isn’t the type to fight with her fists. She’s been trained in the ways of Mexican high society, and as such, she is slow to show outward signs of aggression, but she knows how to charm her enemies, which is a powerful skill to have. She also has the interesting quality of knowing what she wants out of life, and doesn’t hesitate to use the men around her to get what she wants. As an example, she’s working to get her father to fund her graduate school degree. Noemí is also brave. After some initial thought, she doesn’t hesitate to attempt to rescue her cousin Catalina from the clutches of the man she married, and we’re here for it. 

The scariest parts of the novel are scary because they are realities of life. 

The real villain of this novel is patriarchal white men. Ghosts have nothing on them. The story shows that they can be a literal and metaphoric poison to the environment around them. They supported (and continue to support to this day) terrifying ideas about eugenics. In their mind, no one is equal to them, and there are no consequences to their actions. They attempt to take a bright soul like Noemí and remake her in their image and it’s terrifying. The book explores the fact that being a woman alone can be a scary prospect sometimes, and that men have a lot of power in their lives.

The only thing that I didn’t love in the book was the romance.

Not that I would even call the relationship a romance. It’s very easy to ignore and I think it’s up for debate. I always thought that the supposed love interest was a means to an end, not a romantic prospect. He was useful to Noemí, but not necessarily more than that.  I didn’t hate him as a character. I just didn’t have the chance to contemplate how he and Noemí would actually fit together as a couple until it was too late.

This book changed the game. It’s amazing. I can’t say enough about it. I will not be reading it again anytime soon, because I need to get it out of my nightmares, but it was still great!

I highly recommend this book.

Review of “The Poppy War” by R.F. Kuang

CW for the book: Descriptions of intense violence, rape, and war crimes 

The Poppy War is, in a word, brilliant. It absolutely blows my mind that R.F. Kuang wrote it when she was so young, and that it is her debut novel. The depth of the book is amazing. The writing is fantastic. For all of its violence (and there is a lot of violence), it is one of the funniest books that I have read in a long time. I could tell from reading it that R. F. Kuang has a sharp sense of humor. 

The basic premise of the book is that Rin, a poor girl from the countryside of Nikara, gets the chance to train at the most elite military academy in the empire. There, she discovers that she has the potential to unlock the power of the gods, and this skill is put to the test when the empire enters a potential war. 

The writing is deeply snarky.

For one, it offers a scathing satire of standardized testing which I am still laughing (and crying?) over. Additionally, the way that Rin handles her body is at once painfully relatable and funny. These are just two examples of how sharp the writing in the book is. In every chapter, it will cause both pain and laughter.

I thought the lack of romance was very appropriate.

As The Poppy War is the first book in a series, I think it makes sense that an overt romantic storyline was somewhat lacking. Rin has a single minded focus to succeed throughout the book, and this dominates a lot of her actions. I think that giving her a romantic arc too early on would have taken away from this character development.

The main character isn’t someone you’ll always root for.

I am fascinated by Rin. She is incredibly obstinate but also deeply loving and loyal. She does wonderful things, but she also does unspeakably horrible things, and it is engrossing to sit with that dynamic throughout the book. Perhaps my favorite quality of Rin’s is her bluntness. There are a lot of ridiculous people in her world (looking at you, Jiang), and she almost never takes them in stride. She has to call them out, and I appreciate it. 

You will grow to love characters.

I will not mention another one of my favorite characters by name, but they are initially set up to be villainous. Kuang made me think that I didn’t like them, but then she showed me how wrong I was in the span of a single page. I love them now. I am devoted to them now. 

This is just one example of Kuang playing me like a fiddle. You think you know what’s going on in one page, you think you’ve formed your own opinions, and then suddenly you’re emotionally involved and she’s got you right where she wants you.

A warning: the book is almost never what you think it will be.

I, a stupid mortal, definitely started this book thinking it would be a cute coming of age novel at a magic school. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Make no mistake, this is a book about war. This is among the most violent books I have ever read, and the violence has stayed with me for a long time. Don’t read this novel if you want to avoid descriptions of rape, or vivid depictions of the violence of war. As I touched on earlier, I would also avoid the book if you want a main character that you can root for all the time. Rin has her highs and her lows, and the lows are stunningly lethal. This will turn some readers off, but for the majority, it will just be fascinating. 

I don’t think that there’s much to critique about this book

The one negative that I will mention is that 3/4s of the book is plotted very well, and the last fourth is kind of chaotic. It’s a very tumultuous time in the book, so this isn’t as big of a critique as it sounds, I just thought that there could have been a slightly more clear purpose to the book at the end, especially compared to earlier parts.

I highly recommend this book.

Review of “We Hunt the Flame” by Hafsah Faizal

Welcome to my rant on why We Hunt the Flame is so very good and why everyone should read it! This blog will now be a part time Hafsah Faizal fan page (not really, but also really). 

The premise of this book is that seventeen-year-old Zafira is the only person who’s willing to enter the deadly enchanted forest known as the Arz. Because of her bravery, she can help to feed her starving people. She becomes known as The Hunter throughout the kingdom of Arawiya and acquires quite a reputation, and she has to work hard to keep people from discovering that she’s a girl. Meanwhile, the Arz grows more out of control every day. Because of the suffering this causes, Zafira agrees to go on a magical quest to find an object that would help stop the Arz. Concurrently, emo Prince Nasir is forced by his corrupt father to follow The Hunter and kill her, taking the object back to the king for potentially nefarious purposes. This is not out of character for the king, as he has made Nasir kill others for much less. Zafira and Nasir meet, sparks fly, and I’ll let you do the math. 

Perhaps the book’s biggest strength is its lyrical prose. 

I appreciate that every chapter ends on a dramatic note. There are mini cliff-hangers everywhere. Dramatic does not mean overdone! Reading the book feels like Faizal is intricately weaving the entire story with her words, and at the end, the readers have a beautifully arranged tapestry to look upon and admire. The writing feels like poetry to me sometimes. The descriptions of the world and of the people were just made so much more magical by the flow of the writing. 

Zafira has such steadfast strength, and Nasir does not. It’s a good dynamic, and they have lots of chemistry.

Zafira’s strength is one of the high points of the novel. She is strong and courageous. She’s also only seventeen, and she still has lots of room to learn, and she recognizes that in some ways. She never thinks of herself as an utterly indomitable weapon, but just a person who is trying her best. 

However, Zafira is sure of herself in ways that Nasir is not. He might be a better fighter than her in some areas (maybe), but she has a lot more innate confidence in herself, which gives her an advantage over him, a better outlook of the world. Nasir, in contrast to Zafira, is a sad boy. He’s so sad and mopey and full of himself all the time. I can’t get over it, I love sad boys. Differences like this between them make their relationship so interesting to watch unfold. They have a push and pull, give and take dynamic throughout the story, which creates a lot of romantic chemistry. I definitely like the slow burn aspect of their relationship. I think that they want to be with each other, but they both have a lot of growing up to do, not to mention a kingdom to save, before that can really happen. I hope I don’t take away from the rest of the story by saying that the romantic elements were some of my favorite parts! 

Another particular strength of the novel are its supporting characters. 

Yasmine and Altair deserve novels of their own after the detail and care that Faizal gives to them. She is so good with small details that create stories of their own. I feel as though I can imagine Arawiya so well that I could visit it with ease. Not that it would be easy to live in it once I get there…

Overall, Faizal’s worldbuilding is forceful.

The worldbuilding is excellent throughout. There are minute details about the kingdom given everywhere, and I felt like I knew a bit about how the kingdom functioned after the book was over. I could imagine other people living in the world, unconnected to the plot.

I like the evil forest trope, done so much better here than in other books. Having such an inhuman villain is a huge strength of the book, and it’s frightening to contemplate who or what might be behind it.  

Part of the inspiration for the setting of the book is Ancient Arabia. It’s so refreshing not to have to read another novel that is based on England. 

The plotting could have been tighter.

I feel like the plot didn’t come together until the very end. The book was mostly about the quest that Zafira and Nasir embark on, but there’s no stellar explaation about why this happens later. 

Now, I don’t place much importance on plot, so it didn’t bother me that much, but it has to be said..

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed nearly everything about this book and I simply cannot wait for the release of the next book in the series, We Free the Stars.

I highly recommend this book.

Review of “The Tethered Mage” by Melissa Caruso

The Tethered Mage by Melissa Caruso is a great test of how I judge books. It proved to me that a book can have good writing, interesting worldbuilding, and a well-paced plot, but if the characters are flat, then the whole story falls flat for me. 

The premise of the book is that The Raverran Empire strictly controls people with magic and magical abilities. Amalia Cornero, the wealthy heiress to a powerful Raverran family, finds herself tethered to a magic wielding girl named Zaira, a.k.a a “Falcon.” Amalia has to navigate her new role as a “Falconer” as well as deal with the political ramifications the situation causes her family. 

The main character is okay. I would rather have been reading about someone else.

Amalia is different from other characters in the novel in that she’s not one dimensional, and she does have some character development. She starts out the book as a naive young girl, and she grows into someone who has a better handle on complicated political affairs. I just didn’t feel a ton of sympathy for Amalia, in the sense that her entitlement was very apparent to me. I don’t think that Amalia has an easy life at all, but I would much rather have read about a character who wasn’t born with every privilege in the world, namely Zaira. Knowing that a character like Zaira was out there made it hard for me to focus on Amalia. I think that Zaira is a more compelling character. She’s tethered to a rich girl after successfully evading the government and its magic hunters for years. She can’t control her power, which is terrifying. There is a lot of material to work through with Zaira, and the book just doesn’t focus on her as much as I would have liked. 

Most of the characters fell flat to me. 

To be clear, I didn’t like Ziara. I just liked the idea of her. She, along with many of the other characters, doesn’t exhibit a ton of growth throughout the course of the novel. Sure, her feelings for Amalia change a little, but it is painstaking progress, and some of the only progress that she’s allowed to have. Most of the characters were flat in the same way, being defined by one emotion or allowed to grow in one small way. 

La Contessa, Amalia’s mother, was the exception to this. Instead, she is defined with two traits — her cunning and her motherly love. I never had any doubt that she loves Amalia, but she also is always on the lookout for her career and the potential enemies that she faces. She is sometimes harsh in her teachings, but there is a sense that she does it to protect her daughter. I would have liked to see their relationship develop more throughout the book, and see her fully acknowledge her daughter’s progress and change.

In a similar vein, I thought the love interest was kind of boring. There was no explanation about why he and Amalia liked each other, and it is another instance of instant chemistry without proper explanation. The actual relationship between the two is more of a slow burn, and I do appreciate that it’s going to be given some time to develop throughout the series, but I feel that his character needs to be fleshed out a little more besides his relationship to the main character and his thoughts on some of the army proceedings.  

One of the main villains of the book, named *redacted*, is truly scary, but also lacking depth. I didn’t know much about him other than that he was evil, and I didn’t really need to know more for him to function properly in the story. Some more information on why he thinks the way that he does would have been helpful.  

As I mentioned earlier, I do think that the book had interesting worldbuilding. 

The cities that Amalia reside in and travels to are based off of Italian cities, and it’s always nice to read books that aren’t set in poor covers for England. Caruso is descriptive in her settings, and it was easy to paint pictures of certain scenes in my mind. I felt like I knew the magic system fairly well by the end of the book, and I was interested in learning more about it. 

The details of the political intrigue within the book are also interesting. Every character has a different (if somewhat predictable) motivation, and it’s engaging to watch how the political chess games unfold, and to see what the repercussions are for the empire. 

It is good to see a book with majority female characters.

One definitive strength of the characters is that they are mostly female! Seriously, normalize having books with less cisgendered white men in them! Your stories will benefit. It saved my interest in this book! 

Ultimately, while there were some aspects to enjoy about the book, Caruso struggled to bring her characters to life here.

I give the book a neutral rating.

Review of “An Ember in the Ashes” by Sabaa Tahir

Before I read An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir, I constantly heard it being compared to The Hunger Games. I find these comparisons to be unnecessary. An Ember in the Ashes does not need to ride on the coattails of The Hunger Games. It is a New York Times bestseller. It is fully its own work, and can stand on its own! Every new release is not the second coming of The Hunger Games. Some of these marketers need to chill out. Okay, my rant is over!  

Anyway, the premise of the novel is that in a place called the Martial Empire (inspired by Ancient Rome, ohhh!), a teenage girl named Laia has to undergo slavery at the Blackcliff Military Academy in order to help free her brother from imprisonment. Meanwhile, the other main character, Elias, is trying to escape from his life at Blackcliff and his future as an elite soldier for the empire. Elias is later selected to enter a series of trials to become the next emperor. The events therein affect both Laia and Elias and bring them together. 

Interesting premise, right? There’s a lot to love about An Ember in the Ashes! I characterize it as one of the books that helped me get back into Y.A. I can sort the strengths of the novel into three categories. 

One, I love the world that the story is set in. 

I mentioned that it is inspired by Ancient Rome, but it is actually a mix of a few different cultures. Some of the names used in the book are inspired by Urdu words or are Urdu words. There are also elements from Islamic mythology such as jinn and “efrits” in the story, as well! 

The government of the Martial Empire definitely connotes Ancient Rome. The way colonization is conceptualized in the book also feels like it comes from ancient Roman ideologies (as well as ideologies from more recent empires *cough* *cough*). I hadn’t read a book before that was so overtly based on Ancient Rome, and it was fascinating to see how Tahir interwove historical aspects of different cultures with fantasy elements, making one epic world.

Another detail that I loved was the writing. 

Tahir has a way of writing sparsely but still beautifully. She can impart a lot of meaning without complicating the prose. I can be a big fan of verbose prose, but I think her style of simple, elegant writing really helps convey the bleakness of the situation at Blackcliff and helps to center the action of the characters. 

I also loved the complexity of the social and familial dynamics in the story. 

The stark setting is a great background to explore questions of class. Laia comes from the Scholar class, which was overtaken by the Martial Empire. She has to navigate the novel as a person whose family was overtaken by a colonizing force. At the same time, as a soldier, Elias sees the evil that the empire has committed, has been complicit in that evil, and is trying to escape. 

The empire is an obvious force of evil, but there are no clear “good guys” to turn to. Readers learn quickly that there is a resistance, but there are factions and problematic people within the resistance who also need to be fought. I like the message that this sends. Even within a group of people who purport to be fighting evil, trust your instincts. Not everyone is who they say they are.

Perhaps even more complex than this is Tahir’s exploration of family dynamics. She explores the ways that families can fail each other. She explores the possibility of family members not loving each other. I thought these were some of the most moving parts of the book. I won’t get into specifics for fear of spoilers, but the point that Tahir is establishing is that sometimes familial love is created, and is not just limited to blood relatives. Sometimes people who aren’t related by blood can become your family, and it can be lovely.

One of the aspects of the book that I didn’t like were the love triangles. 

Or should I call it a love rectangle? Okay, don’t get your pitchforks just yet. I enjoy a good love triangle. I just like romantic relationships that are slow-burn and built up over time. It’s hard for me to like instant chemistry between characters, which the main love interests definitely have. There just wasn’t enough build up for me to automatically like the romantic dynamics between the two characters. It didn’t feel natural. The fact that each of the main characters have two love interests also felt a little unnatural to me. Mirroring them in that way felt contrived. I do have every confidence that the relationships will develop in more interesting ways over the course of the series.

While I really like the world that the story takes place in, I think that the worldbuilding could have been a little more detailed. 

I personally like a lot of worldbuilding. Not to the point that the story gets bogged down in it, but I like to feel that I know enough about a book that I could act somewhat like a denizen of the world. I found myself wanting to know more about the day to day living patterns of the characters. I like learning little details about currency and regional differences. Tahir did such a good job with the big details of the world, that I would like to see how she expands upon them in the upcoming novels in the series.

Overall, I thought this was a great book, and I recommend it for all teenaged and older readers who can handle some descriptions of violence. 

I recommend this book.      

Review of “The Wedding Date” by Jasmine Guillory

Something I have come to realize about myself is that I am a sucker for a good fake dating story. I thought I was over it. I had watched one too many bad movies where the plot revolved around fake dating, and I was like “NO MORE, YOU TIRED, OVERUSED TROPE! I HAVE OUTGROWN YOU.” Then I read The Wedding Date, and I am *back.* 

The premise of the novel is that Drew needs a date to his ex’s wedding. When he gets stuck in an elevator with Alexa, the two hit it off and she agrees to accompany him to the wedding as his fake girlfriend. From there, the two start to develop deeper feelings for each other, and have to learn to navigate the ups and downs of an interracial, quasi long-distance relationship.  

Jasmine Guillory knows the difference between using a trope to get the plot rolling, and having a trope make up the entire plot

Using exactly one (1) trope to define every aspect of a plot can drown out other, more interesting elements of story development. The fake date is part of the plot, but it does not encompass the majority of the story, which I appreciated. Guillory knows how to keep the action moving along. This allows the book to focus less on the fake date, and focus more on Alexa and Drew. Trust me, the more that the book focuses on Alexa, the better it gets. 

My favorite thing about this book is the heroine. 

Alexa is a total stunner. She’s a passionate bad*ss who balances her career as a mayor’s chief of staff with her personal life. She wakes up every day and tries to better the world around her. She is such a complete character! I feel like we could be friends, if she would deign to have me as her friend.

I love the way that Jasmine Guillory handles the serious and the sweet elements of Alexa and her life. She deserves a pile of writing awards for how well she executed these scenes. Guillory never shies away from mentioning the racism that Alexa has to endure. At the same time, Alexa isn’t down in the dumps for the entire novel. It’s not a story about suffering. She is a radiant and accomplished Black woman who is out to get her happily ever after (Have I mentioned that I just want to be her friend?)! 

Sometimes I think non-romance readers think that romance is all about fluff. “Nothing important ever happens in romance novels,” they say. Well, those people are wrong. Romance novels often address trauma. There is a plethora of heavy material contained between the pages of many mass market romance novels. I think that The Wedding Date and Alexa are perfect examples of this. Alexa deals with racism and body issues. Because of Guillory’s writing, and partly because of the romance genre, Alexa’s issues are held up and given space, and she still gets to be happy.  

I don’t think the love interest is worthy of the heroine.

I can’t rave as much about the male love interest, Drew, unfortunately. I think that Drew is okay. He’s sweet and he’s a surgeon (oh my!). Despite these qualities, there are two major reasons why Drew is not my favorite hero ever. One reason is that a big obstacle he has to overcome is his commitment issue. I am not a fan of privileged white men who have to deal with commitment issues that have no real depth. When the commitment issue is left at surface level, and there are no compelling reasons for it, I lose my patience a little bit. When their commitment issue is surface level AND their perfect partner is right there waiting for them, my patience thins to the point of non-existence. 

The other reason I didn’t feel that close to Drew as a character is that he undergoes no true hardship throughout the book. I think this makes him less sympathetic, and also not compelling.  I can’t relate to a character who hasn’t experienced their share of hardship. Not that I wanted him to suffer, I just mean that I can’t sympathize with him. 

Obviously, he has trouble relating to Alexa, which is a truth I’m glad Guillory included in the book. There are a few points where Alexa makes him reckon with his white privilege, and he does admit that he has it, but I don’t think that there is ever a point when he truly understands what it means.

Overall, the main characters did have chemistry. 

All in all though, Jasmine Guillory did make me believe Alexa and Drew had a lot of chemistry, and made me believe that they could be happy together,  which is very important to me.  Besides a few moments where I think that Drew is not quite worthy of Alexa, I want them to be together. They are smart and mostly act like adults (with one or two notable exceptions, *cough* Drew I’m looking at you *cough*), which is refreshing. 

I recommend this book.