Title: The Dragon Republic
Author: R.F. Kuang
Series: The Poppy War, #2
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Release Date: August 6th 2019
TW: mentions of self-harm, suicide, drug use, rape, graphic violence
“In the aftermath of the Third Poppy War, shaman and warrior Rin is on the run: haunted by the atrocity she committed to end the war, addicted to opium, and hiding from the murderous commands of her vengeful god, the fiery Phoenix. Her only reason for living is to get revenge on the traitorous Empress who sold out Nikan to their enemies.
With no other options, Rin joins forces with the powerful Dragon Warlord, who has a plan to conquer Nikan, unseat the Empress, and create a new Republic. Rin throws herself into his war. After all, making war is all she knows how to do.
But the Empress is a more powerful foe than she appears, and the Dragon Warlord’s motivations are not as democratic as they seem. The more Rin learns, the more she fears her love for Nikan will drive her away from every ally and lead her to rely more and more on the Phoenix’s deadly power. Because there is nothing she won’t sacrifice for her country and her vengeance.
The sequel to R.F. Kuang’s acclaimed debut THE POPPY WAR, THE DRAGON REPUBLIC combines the history of 20th-century China with a gripping world of gods and monsters, to devastating effect.”
“People will seek to use you or destroy you. If you want to live, you must pick a side So do not shirk from war, child. Do not flinch from suffering. When you hear screaming, run toward it.”
- Rin – Rin is a character who is hard not to root for even when she makes mistakes. She is a child of war whether she chooses to be or not. As the last living Speerly there is a heavy weight on her shoulders. She is constantly torn between grieving for the people she never knew and fighting for the very people who had a hand in their genocide. She is a character continually othered because of colorism, because of prejudice, and because of her power. In the first novel, Rin was just discovering her ability to harness the power of the gods. In this second novel, Rin’s personal journey is more about her understanding who she is apart from this power and reclaiming herself from those who would turn her into a weapon.
- Heavy Issues – From war to PTSD to drug addiction, Kuang’s series does not shy away from tough topics. War isn’t just about victory but about the people who end up suffering because of it. Rin’s addiction to opium, once a way to help her connect to the gods, becomes a way for her to escape her grief and her guilt. She isn’t the only character who experiences PTSD, and it is sobering to see characters like Kitay, who had such a light in them lose this.
- Kitay – If there is a characters who has undergone just as many changes as Rin, it is her once-schoolmate, Kitay. Seeing him deal with the loss of a loved one and how this alters who he is is heartbreaking. He was once the softest character in the series, but is driven by vengeance and pain. Those soft edges have hardened and I’m not sure there is a rewind button for him or anyone in this series.
- Rin and Nezha – I am going to be honest and say I live for their interactions. I love how far they have come from being school rivals to being friends. Their relationship is constantly evolving and I cannot wait to see what happens next between them.
- Morally grey characters – Kuang does not paint her characters black and white. Much of the time as a reader you can only guess at the true motives of the characters in power. I love both the uncertainty and the layers to every character because of this.
- Minor characters – As much as I’ve enjoyed Rin’s journey, I do think a bit more time could be spent on a few key minor characters. After the death of their leader, Rin was put in charge of the Cike. This presents a lot of interesting dynamics; however, I don’t think as readers we spend enough time with any of them to feel a real emotional impact when they are put in danger.
If I could describe R.F. Kuang’s series, The Poppy War, in one word it would be epic. The Dragon Republic is just as gut-wretching as its predecessor and sets up what promises to be an explosive finale.
★ ★ ★ ★
Title: Children of the Land
Author: Marcelo Hernandez Castillo
Release Date: January 28th 2020
“This unforgettable memoir from a prize-winning poet about growing up undocumented in the United States recounts the sorrows and joys of a family torn apart by draconian policies and chronicles one young man’s attempt to build a future in a nation that denies his existence.
“You were not a ghost even though an entire country was scared of you. No one in this story was a ghost. This was not a story.”
When Marcelo Hernandez Castillo was five years old and his family was preparing to cross the border between Mexico and the United States, he suffered temporary, stress-induced blindness. Castillo regained his vision, but quickly understood that he had to move into a threshold of invisibility before settling in California with his parents and siblings. Thus began a new life of hiding in plain sight and of paying extraordinarily careful attention at all times for fear of being truly seen. Before Castillo was one of the most celebrated poets of a generation, he was a boy who perfected his English in the hopes that he might never seem extraordinary.
With beauty, grace, and honesty, Castillo recounts his and his family’s encounters with a system that treats them as criminals for seeking safe, ordinary lives. He writes of the Sunday afternoon when he opened the door to an ICE officer who had one hand on his holster, of the hours he spent making a fake social security card so that he could work to support his family, of his father’s deportation and the decade that he spent waiting to return to his wife and children only to be denied reentry, and of his mother’s heartbreaking decision to leave her children and grandchildren so that she could be reunited with her estranged husband and retire from a life of hard labor.
Children of the Land distills the trauma of displacement, illuminates the human lives behind the headlines and serves as a stunning meditation on what it means to be a man and a citizen.”
“I ventured to believe that the function of the border wasn’t only to keep people out, at least that was not its long-term function. Its other purpose was to be visible, to be seen, to be carried into the imaginations of migrants deep into the interior of the country, in the interior of their minds. It was a spectacle meant to be witnessed by the world, and all of its death and violence was and continues to be a form of social control, the way that kings of the past needed to behead only one petty thief in the public square to quell thousands more. The biggest threat to immigrants who succeeded in crossing was the fear that the apparatus was always watching you. It was the idea that was most menacing, that infiltrated every sector of a person’s life—total and complete surveillance. It was the unrelenting fear that was most abrasive on a person’s soul.”
- The writing – The excerpt above is just a small look at how powerful, imploring, and reflective Marcelo Hernandez Castillo’s memoir is. If I didn’t already know he was a poet, the lyrical language and the emotional depth of his words would have given him away. He is unguarded, laying himself bare to the reader. Sharing both external and internal struggles, Hernandez Castillo recounts crossing the border as a child, his contentious relationship with his father and the consequences of his subsequent deportation, growing up undocumented, forging a place for himself in a country that didn’t always feel like home, reconnecting with his father, and saying goodbye to his mother when options that would have allowed her to stay in the U.S. run out.
- Identity – As someone who lives on the outskirts of society Hernandez Castillo has spent his life grappling with his identity. Born in Mexico but raised in the US, but not a citizen, Hernandez Castillo has struggled to find his place. Conflicting questions arise: how do you give yourself wholly to a country that could kick you out at any moment? How can you belong to a country that you haven’t seen since you were a child, memories of which feel intangible?
- Parent-child relationships – Hernandez Castillo never had a good relationship with his father. He recounts how hard his father was on both his children and his wife. The target of his resentment toward America was often his children. Hernandez Castillo recalls the homophobic comments which would ring in his head years later when he was finally able to come to terms with his bisexuality. In contrast, Hernandez Castillo’s relationship with his mother was always one of affection. She worked hard to keep him and his siblings comfortable in a new country.
- Immigration and trauma – One of the most significant things this memoir does is consistently present immigration from the migrant’s perspective. Whether it is Hernandez Castillo as an undocumented immigrant in the U.S., his father being deported and then finally being eligible for reentry, the desperation felt by both him and his mother as they seek a way for her to stay, there is a degree of trauma that is rarely spoken of. Those who ask for help are forced to perform their trauma for a stranger in order to be granted assistance. It is a process that dehumanizes you and then turns around and demands you prove your humanity.
Marcelo Hernandez Castillo’s Children of the Land is an essential read for those looking for more insight into the lives of the undocumented. It’s honest and often heartbreaking, but also a fierce plea to see and listen to those who in this country who are forced to keep silent.
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Author: Zoraida Córdova
Series: Hollow Crown, #1
Release Date: April 28th 2020
**I received an ARC of this book from the publisher which does not influence my review**
“I am Renata Convida.
I have lived a hundred stolen lives.
Now I live my own.
Renata Convida was only a child when she was kidnapped by the King’s Justice and brought to the luxurious palace of Andalucia. As a Robari, the rarest and most feared of the magical Moria, Renata’s ability to steal memories from royal enemies enabled the King’s Wrath, a siege that resulted in the deaths of thousands of her own people.
Now Renata is one of the Whispers, rebel spies working against the crown and helping the remaining Moria escape the kingdom bent on their destruction. The Whispers may have rescued Renata from the palace years ago, but she cannot escape their mistrust and hatred–or the overpowering memories of the hundreds of souls she turned “hollow” during her time in the palace.
When Dez, the commander of her unit, is taken captive by the notorious Sangrado Prince, Renata will do anything to save the boy whose love makes her place among the Whispers bearable. But a disastrous rescue attempt means Renata must return to the palace under cover and complete Dez’s top secret mission. Can Renata convince her former captors that she remains loyal, even as she burns for vengeance against the brutal, enigmatic prince? Her life and the fate of the Moria depend on it.
But returning to the palace stirs childhood memories long locked away. As Renata grows more deeply embedded in the politics of the royal court, she uncovers a secret in her past that could change the entire fate of the kingdom–and end the war that has cost her everything.”
- Renata – I really enjoyed how unconventional a lead character Renata was. She isn’t the strongest, she isn’t the leader, and she isn’t even the bravest. Renata’s existence is a constant point of contention. The Whispers may have claimed her, but there is a lot of distrust, even amongst those closest to her. They have never forgotten the time she spent in the company of one of their greatest enemies, the Justice Méndez. For most of her life, Renata’s been used by others and never truly accepted. This is one of the reasons she is so drawn to characters like Dez, who believe in her when much of the time she doesn’t believe in herself. Her wounds are often openly displayed, even when she wants to hide, she simply can’t. Renata’s magic has never been neat and she’s never been confident in her abilities. She learned early that her magic was dangerous and hasn’t had very many people tell her otherwise. She’s constantly been told who she is and has never been allowed to choose who she wants to be. I loved the beginning of her journey to discovering the answer.
- World-Building – Córdova’s world is loosely based on the Spanish Inquisition. King Fernando is determined to rid his kingdom of the Moria, a people born with what he deems as unnaturally magic abilities. He and his predecessors have all but driven the Moria out of the land. Not only that, but they are determined to wiped out every trace of their cultural and religion. The Moria have done their best to maintain their ways, but they are slowly dwindling in number.
- Magical System – The Moria are gifted with different magical abilties. Some are able to create illusions, while others are able to manipulate emotions. Renata is one of very few Robári, whose magic is tied to memory. As a child, she was manipulated into working with Justice Mendez, the right hand of the king, draining prisoners of their memories and turning them into Hollows.
- Unpredictability – One of the things I really enjoyed about this novel is how multilayered so many of characters were which made the story incredibly unpredictable at times. Renata struggles to find who she is, especially when so many of her memories are distorted. This makes her point of view somewhat unreliable. She very much wants to believe certain people are just evil, but learns that isn’t always the case. Many of her preconceived ideas about people are proven false or incomplete and I am really looking forward to seeing where the story goes after some shocking revelations.
- Pacing – The novel sometimes felt uneven. The first third of the novel could have been its own separate novel because of how much happened. Things then come to an abrupt halt and I spent so much time wishing the story could capture the excitement of the beginning portion. But then suddenly we are thrust into the latter part of the novel, going full speed and ironically, this is where I wanted things to slow down. Particularly because there is a lot of buildup to meeting a certain character who I wish we could have spent more time with.
With surprises at every turn, Zoraida Córdova’s Incendiary is a great introductory novel to a new fantasy series that will sweep readers away and whose ending will leave you begging for more.
★ ★ ★ ★
Title: Into the Tall, Tall Grass
Author: Loriel Ryon
Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books
Release Date: April 7th 2020
**I received an ARC of this book from the author which does not influence my review**
“A girl journeys across her family’s land to save her grandmother’s life in this captivating and magical debut that’s perfect for fans of The Thing About Jellyfish.
Yolanda Rodríguez-O’Connell has a secret. All the members of her family have a magical gift—all, that is, except for Yolanda. Still, it’s something she can never talk about, or the townsfolk will call her family brujas—witches. When her grandmother, Wela, falls into an unexplained sleep, Yolanda is scared. Her father is off fighting in a faraway war, her mother died long ago, and Yolanda has isolated herself from her best friend and twin sister. If she loses her grandmother, who will she have left?
When a strange grass emerges in the desert behind their house, Wela miraculously wakes, begging Yolanda to take her to the lone pecan tree left on their land. Determined not to lose her, Yolanda sets out on this journey with her sister, her ex-best friend, and a boy who has a crush on her. But what is the mysterious box that her grandmother needs to find? And how will going to the pecan tree make everything all right? Along the way, Yolanda discovers long-buried secrets that have made their family gift a family curse. But she also finds the healing power of the magic all around her, which just might promise a new beginning.”
- Yolanda – I found so many things about Into the Tall, Tall Grass‘s MC relatable. This twelve year old is bright, opinionated, and struggles to express her feelings. Life hasn’t felt right ever since Yolanda’s grandfather past away. Her grandmother has fallen ill, her best friend dumped her for her twin sister, Sonja, and she’s still waiting for her family gift to appear. Yolanda is prone to jealousy, is desperate for someone to truly understand her, and just wants everything to go back to the way it was before.
- Friendships tested – Yolanda and her best friend, Ghita, had a falling out and the former isn’t sure she wants to be mend this friendship. There is so much heartache on both sides of this relationship. I loved that both girls are allowed to feel resentful and angry, but also must learn where the other person is coming from before their friendship can be restored.
- Grandparent-grandchild relationships – These were my favorite relationships in the novel to read about. From Yolanda’s special bond with her grandfather, who has been the only one to truly understand her, to Sonja’s relationship with her grandmother that has taken on a mentor-mentee dynamic, these bonds run so deep and have so many different layers.
- Sister relationship – Yolanda and Sonja are at odds for much of the story, but it was so touching to see them find each other again. Much like Yolanda’s relationship with Ghita, this bond has been severed for all the wrong reasons, but at the end of the day, these two sisters will need each other going forward.
- First crushes – Yolanda has an incredibly sweet first crush on Ghita’s brother Hasik. He’s very sweet and sees Yolanda as remarkable even when she doesn’t always see it herself. I was so happy to see a sapphic first crush explored in this middle grade. Sonja and Ghita have become more than friends, but there are still plenty of issues they have to work though.
- Discussions on grief – This middle grade novel is hard hitting in the grief department. Yolanda is still grieving over her grandfather’s death and now her grandmother’s illness.
- Multi-generational story – I really appreciated that this wasn’t just Yolanda’s story, but hers was just one piece of a very long, wearsome and yet hopeful story of the entire Rodríguez clan. Also appreciated that the adult characters were not perfect and that the author did not shy away from revealing their flaws to the younger characters.
- The writing – The story felt magical from the very beginning. Not only does Ryon capture the tumulteous feelings of adolescence, but her descriptions of the pecan orchard of the past and the mysterious grassland that springs forth and which Yolander and her friends must journey through were so well illustrated that it was easy to fall both into the story.
Weaving together stories of the past and the present, Loriel Ryon’s Into the Tall, Tall Grass is an unforgettable tale of a young girl faced with the reality of loss and grief; bittersweet at its center but written with honesty and compassion.
★ ★ ★ ★