The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

  • My rating: 4.5/5 Stars35068705
  • TW: rape, gore, war, drug addiction/abuse, genocide, racism
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  • Genre: fantasy

When Rin aced the Keju, the Empire-wide test to find the most talented youth to learn at the Academies, it was a shock to everyone: to the test officials, who couldn’t believe a war orphan from Rooster Province could pass without cheating; to Rin’s guardians, who believed they’d finally be able to marry her off and further their criminal enterprise; and to Rin herself, who realized she was finally free of the servitude and despair that had made up her daily existence. That she got into Sinegard, the most elite military school in Nikan, was even more surprising.

But surprises aren’t always good.

Because being a dark-skinned peasant girl from the south is not an easy thing at Sinegard. Targeted from the outset by rival classmates for her color, poverty, and gender, Rin discovers she possesses a lethal, unearthly power—an aptitude for the nearly-mythical art of shamanism. Exploring the depths of her gift with the help of a seemingly insane teacher and psychoactive substances, Rin learns that gods long thought dead are very much alive—and that mastering control over those powers could mean more than just surviving school.

For while the Nikara Empire is at peace, the Federation of Mugen still lurks across a narrow sea. The militarily advanced Federation occupied Nikan for decades after the First Poppy War, and only barely lost the continent in the Second. And while most of the people are complacent to go about their lives, a few are aware that a Third Poppy War is just a spark away . . .

Rin’s shamanic powers may be the only way to save her people. But as she finds out more about the god that has chosen her, the vengeful Phoenix, she fears that winning the war may cost her humanity . . . and that it may already be too late.

So I’m a little late on this one, and this book already has an abundance of great reviews, but here I am giving it a late, great review. The Poppy War was a contender for best fantasy novel on the Goodreads 2018 choice awards, and one of my all-time favorite (and hard to please) reviewers, Kahn the Grinch on Goodreads, gave this one 5 stars, so I figured it was definitely worth the read. I wasn’t disappointed!

The beginning of this book was fantastic because I’m a sucker for school settings. The book starts with Rin, our main character, studying her ass off to be accepted into Sinegard, a top university in the country of Nikan. Sinegard is a military training school for the sons and daughters of powerful and rich men, of which Rin is very much not.  I did get somewhat of a Hogwarts vibe at first, but Kuang quickly shattered this with intensity and brutality far beyond that of Draco Malfoy. And unlike Harry, Rin wasn’t chosen; she wasn’t set apart by her birth–in fact, the very opposite. She actually had to work for what she wanted, which was a lot more satisfying than it being handed to her in the form of a lightning-shaped scar. Her drive and motivation set her up as an admirable and fiercely determined character.

The character development continues long after the school setting has been ripped away, and Rin and her classmates are forced to face the brutalities of war. We see depth of character and relationships being developed and shaped by the world and through shared experiences. We see characters who once seemed shallow and immature grow into real human beings with emotions and drive. I loved almost every single character in this book because there was no good or evil, just shades of gray and conflicting inner turmoil. The interactions between them were organic and enjoyable to read. There was an emphasis on loyalty and trust rather than insta-love. The characters range from quirky to cruel and everything in between.

Another fantastic aspect of this book was the world-building. It was interesting to see how Kuang used Asian influences to set up what could have been an alternate China. There were a complexity of politics, culture, and inner workings that were slowly built up until I was completely immersed in the world. The magic system, more aptly named shamanism, was deeply intertwined with the cultural aspect of the novel and was based on psychological and spiritual depth. I got some heavy Kung Fu Panda vibes with the smallest amount of Doctor Strange mixed in. I really enjoyed how Kuang used the essence of martial arts, meditation and balance, as a source of power. It was incredibly unique and made the book unpredictable because it’s something that fantasy (at least fantasy that I’ve read) hasn’t really explored.

As I mentioned in the trigger warning at the beginning of the post, Kuang does not shy away from the brutality of war. It is gory and awful, and definitely not for the faint of heart. The aftermath is described in especially sanguine detail. While this aspect of the novel wasn’t enjoyable, it certainly added verisimilitude and a sense of purpose to the plot and the character’s motivations.

I knocked the rating down to 4.5 stars because I thought the pacing was a bit slow. From the description, it sounds like most of the book would be about Rin at Sinegard. While this was a significant portion of the story, it wasn’t as much as I would have liked it to be. The rest of the novel gets a bit repetitive when it comes to the war. I can fully appreciate how Kuang laid out strategy and dove into principles of war, but personally I didn’t enjoy this as much as character interactions or the development of shamanism.

Thanks for reading my review! I’d highly recommend this to any fantasy lover looking for something a bit unique. It’s refreshing to see Asian influences rather than European ones, so the book really stood out to me.

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Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett

Immediately upon its publication in Ireland, Claire-Louise Bennett’s debut began to attract attention well beyond the expectations of the tiny Irish press that published it. A deceptively slender volume, it captures with utterly mesmerizing virtuosity the interior reality of its unnamed protagonist, a young woman living a singular and mostly solitary existence on the outskirts of a small coastal village. Sidestepping the usual conventions of narrative, it focuses on the details of her daily experience—from the best way to eat porridge or bananas to an encounter with cows—rendered sometimes in story-length, story-like stretches of narrative, sometimes in fragments no longer than a page, but always suffused with the hypersaturated, almost synesthetic intensity of the physical world that we remember from childhood. The effect is of character refracted and ventriloquized by environment, catching as it bounces her longings, frustrations, and disappointments—the ending of an affair, or the ambivalent beginning with a new lover. As the narrator’s persona emerges in all its eccentricity, sometimes painfully and often hilariously, we cannot help but see mirrored there our own fraught desires and limitations, and our own fugitive desire, despite everything, to be known.

Shimmering and unusual, Pond demands to be devoured in a single sitting that will linger long after the last page.

Read below for my spoiler-free review.

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Elantris by Brandon Sanderson

Elantris was the capital of Arelon: gigantic, beautiful, literally radiant, filled with benevolent beings who used their powerful magical abilities for the benefit of all. Yet each of these demigods was once an ordinary person until touched by the mysterious transforming power of the Shaod. Ten years ago, without warning, the magic failed. Elantrians became wizened, leper-like, powerless creatures, and Elantris itself dark, filthy, and crumbling.

Arelon’s new capital, Kae, crouches in the shadow of Elantris. Princess Sarene of Teod arrives for a marriage of state with Crown Prince Raoden, hoping — based on their correspondence — to also find love. She finds instead that Raoden has died and she is considered his widow. Both Teod and Arelon are under threat as the last remaining holdouts against the imperial ambitions of the ruthless religious fanatics of Fjordell. So Sarene decides to use her new status to counter the machinations of Hrathen, a Fjordell high priest who has come to Kae to convert Arelon and claim it for his emperor and his god.

But neither Sarene nor Hrathen suspect the truth about Prince Raoden. Stricken by the same curse that ruined Elantris, Raoden was secretly exiled by his father to the dark city. His struggle to help the wretches trapped there begins a series of events that will bring hope to Arelon, and perhaps reveal the secret of Elantris itself.

A rare epic fantasy that doesn’t recycle the classics and that is a complete and satisfying story in one volume, Elantris is fleet and fun, full of surprises and characters to care about. It’s also the wonderful debut of a welcome new star in the constellation of fantasy.

Read below for my spoiler-free review.

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The Wicked King by Holly Black


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You must be strong enough to strike and strike and strike again without tiring.

The first lesson is to make yourself strong.

After the jaw-dropping revelation that Oak is the heir to Faerie, Jude must keep her younger brother safe. To do so, she has bound the wicked king, Cardan, to her, and made herself the power behind the throne. Navigating the constantly shifting political alliances of Faerie would be difficult enough if Cardan were easy to control. But he does everything in his power to humiliate and undermine her even as his fascination with her remains undiminished.

When it becomes all too clear that someone close to Jude means to betray her, threatening her own life and the lives of everyone she loves, Jude must uncover the traitor and fight her own complicated feelings for Cardan to maintain control as a mortal in a Faerie world.

Read below for my spoiler-free review.

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My Almost Flawless Tokyo Dream Life by Rachel Cohn

“I’m here to take you to live with your father. In Tokyo, Japan! Happy birthday!”

In the Land of the Rising Sun, where high culture meets high kitsch, and fashion and technology are at the forefront of the First World’s future, the foreign-born teen elite attend ICS-the International Collegiate School of Tokyo. Their accents are fluid. Their homes are ridiculously posh. Their sports games often involve a (private) plane trip to another country. They miss school because of jet lag and visa issues. When they get in trouble, they seek diplomatic immunity.

Enter foster-kid-out-of-water Elle Zoellner, who, on her sixteenth birthday discovers that her long-lost father, Kenji Takahari, is actually a Japanese hotel mogul and wants her to come live with him. Um, yes, please! Elle jets off first class from Washington D.C. to Tokyo, which seems like a dream come true. Until she meets her enigmatic father, her way-too-fab aunt, and her hyper-critical grandmother, who seems to wish Elle didn’t exist. In an effort to please her new family, Elle falls in with the Ex-Brats, a troupe of uber-cool international kids who spend money like it’s air. But when she starts to crush on a boy named Ryuu, who’s frozen out by the Brats and despised by her new family, her already tenuous living situation just might implode.

My Almost Flawless Tokyo Dream Life is about learning what it is to be a family, and finding the inner strength to be yourself, even in the most extreme circumstances.

Read below for my spoiler free review. I received this book to review from Net Galley, but all opinions remain my own.

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Whisper Me This by Kerry Anne King

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  • My rating: 2/5 stars
  • Genre: mystery, contemporary
  • 362 pages
  • TW: domestic abuse/violence, alcoholism
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Single mother Maisey Addington has always fallen short of her own mother’s expectations—never married, a bit adrift, wasting her high IQ on dead-end jobs. The only thing Maisey’s sure she’s gotten right is her relationship with her twelve-year-old daughter, Elle…until a phone call blows apart the precarious balance of their lives. Maisey’s mother is in a coma, and her aging father faces charges of abuse and neglect.

Back at her childhood home, Maisey must make a heartrending life-or-death decision. Her confused father has destroyed family records, including her mother’s final wishes. Searching for answers, Maisey uncovers one unspeakable secret after another when she stumbles upon a shattering truth: a twin sister named Marley.

Maisey’s obsession with solving the mystery of her sister forces her to examine her darkest memories and triggers a custody battle with Elle’s father. Will Maisey’s love for her daughter be strong enough to break a cycle of abuse and create a new beginning for them all?

Read below for my spoiler free review.

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Rule by Ellen Goodlett

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The king is dying, his heir has just been murdered, and rebellion brews in the east. But the kingdom of Kolonya and the outer Reaches has one last option before it descends into leaderless chaos.

Or rather, three unexpected options.

Zofi has spent her entire life trekking through the outer Reaches with her band of Travelers. She would do anything to protect the band, her family. But no one can ever find out how far she’s already gone.

Akeylah was raised in the Eastern Reach, surrounded by whispers of rebellion and abused by her father. Desperate to escape, she makes a decision that threatens the whole kingdom.

Ren grew up in Kolonya, serving as a lady’s maid and scheming her way out of the servants’ chambers. But one such plot could get her hung for treason if anyone ever discovers what she’s done.

When the king summons the girls, they arrive expecting arrest or even execution. Instead they learn the truth: they are his illegitimate daughters, and one must become his new heir. But someone in Kolonya knows their secrets, and that someone will stop at nothing to keep the sisters from their destiny… to rule.

Magic, mystery, and blackmail abound in this sensational and striking fantasy debut.

Read below for my spoiler-free review. (Thanks to Netgalley for sending me this ARC. This is an honest review and all opinions are my own) Continue reading

The Last Wish of Sasha Cade by Cheyanne Young

  • 34802290My rating: 4.5/5 stars
  • Genre: Young adult contemporary
  • Publisher: KCP Loft
  • 320 pages
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The day Raquel has been dreading for months has finally arrived. Sasha, her best friend in the whole world — the best friend in the whole world — has died of cancer. Raquel can’t imagine life without her. She’s overwhelmed and brokenhearted.

And then a letter from Sasha arrives. Has she somehow found a way to communicate from the afterlife?

In fact, Sasha has planned an elaborate scavenger hunt for Raquel, and when she follows the instructions to return to Sasha’s grave, a mysterious stranger with striking eyes is waiting for her. There’s a secret attached to this boy that only Sasha—and now Raquel—knows.

This boy, Elijah, might be just what Raquel needs to move on from her terrible loss. But can Raquel remain true to herself while also honoring her friend’s final wish?

Read below for my spoiler-free review. (I received this book from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. All thoughts and opinions are my own.)

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The Way I Used to Be by Amber Smith

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  • My rating: 3.9/5 stars (petty, but I don’t want to give it 4 full stars lol)
  • Published by Margaret K. McElderry Books
  • 385 pages
  • Goodreads
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  • TW: rape, sexual assault

Eden was always good at being good. Starting high school didn’t change who she was. But the night her brother’s best friend rapes her, Eden’s world capsizes.

What was once simple, is now complex. What Eden once loved—who she once loved—she now hates. What she thought she knew to be true, is now lies. Nothing makes sense anymore, and she knows she’s supposed to tell someone what happened but she can’t. So she buries it instead. And she buries the way she used to be.

Told in four parts—freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior year—this provocative debut reveals the deep cuts of trauma. But it also demonstrates one young woman’s strength as she navigates the disappointment and unbearable pains of adolescence, of first love and first heartbreak, of friendships broken and rebuilt, and while learning to embrace a power of survival she never knew she had hidden within her heart.

Read my spoiler-free review and discussion below.

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