ARC Review: The Last 8 by Laura Pohl

Title: The Last 8
Author: Laura Pohl
Series: The Last 8, #1
Pages: 384
Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire
Release Date: March 5th 2019
**I received an eARC of this book through NetGalley which does not influence my review**

      “Clover Martinez has always been a survivor, which is the only reason she isn’t among the dead when aliens invade and destroy Earth as she knows it.
      When Clover hears an inexplicable radio message, she’s shocked to learn there are other survivors—and that they’re all at the former Area 51. When she arrives, she’s greeted by a band of misfits who call themselves The Last Teenagers on Earth.
      Only they aren’t the ragtag group of heroes Clover was expecting. The group seems more interested in hiding than fighting back, and Clover starts to wonder if she was better off alone. But then she finds a hidden spaceship, and she doesn’t know what to believe…or who to trust.”

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Laura Pohl’s debut, The Last 8, is an edge-of-your-seat, sci-fi adventure that will delight readers with its likable cast. Clover Martinez was dreaming about MIT and working for NASA the day the aliens arrived on earth. It takes less than a week for the aliens to decimate her town, leaving Clover as the only survivor. With no way to contact other survivors, Clover embarks on a cross-country road trip. But with each passing day, Clover begins to believe she might be the only one left on earth and it gets harder and harder to keep going. Then everything changes when she hears a voice on the radio, calling for anyone who might still be alive to come join them. Clover is not alone. When she makes it to Area 51, she find a group of teens hiding out, oblivious to just how dire their circumstances are. Clover isn’t one to just give up and so she makes it her mission to convince them to fight back. When the group discovers what the aliens are really after, they have a chance to stop the destruction of their planet but at a great cost to the tight-knit family they’ve created for themselves. No matter what they decides to do, nothing will ever go back to normal.

Clover is my kind of protagonist. When disaster strikes, she’s calm and calculating. She doesn’t let her emotions get the best of her and I loved that despite the losses she suffers, there’s that part of her that still wants a chance to live and thrive. Clover is also one of the few aromantic lead characters I’ve come across. There is a really important secondary storyline where Clover talks about learning that she isn’t romantically attracted to anyone. I loved that an aro character got to be MC in a science-fiction novel as most aro and/or ace characters appear in contemporary novels. Though Clover is a self-sufficient kind of character, the kind I’m immediately drawn to, I loved seeing her discover that the bonds she makes with the other survivors are also important when it comes to facing the end of the world. She goes from “I don’t need anyone” (which is probably true) to “I don’t need anyone, but these people have become my friends and I’d rather face the apocalypse with them by my side.”

The supporting cast of The Last 8 is one of the highlights of the novel and my only criticism is that we don’t get a chance to spend more time with them. Brooklyn runs the Apocalypse Radio Station and is an absolute ray of sunshine. She brings a level of humor that is vital in any end of the world scenario. I really wanted to see more of her relationship with Avani, the group’s genius scientist. There is a lot of romantic tension between the two and I really wanted to know what happened or didn’t happen between them in the past. Flint is incredibly nerdy and would have loved more scenes with him. Rayen is the epitome of badass and is probably the one character besides Clover that I’d want on my apocalypse team. Adam reminds Clover of her ex-boyfriend and is the first person she opens up to when she arrives. Violet is the official leader of the group. She’s hard and defensive because she believes she has to be in order to keep this group alive. I really liked her interactions with Clover as the two are really mirror images of one another. Andy has been by Violet’s side from the beginning and her hacker skills have come in handy with all the information Area 51 carries.

The Last 8 is at its core a novel about friendship and how strong these bonds can be. It’s about teens making mistakes and just trying to survive in a world that counted them out. If you like fun, end-of-the-world kind of stories, Laura Pohl’s debut needs to be on your radar. TW: suicidal thoughts, suicide.

★★★★
(4/5)

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ARC Review: Dealing in Dreams by Lilliam Rivera

Title: Dealing in Dreams
Author: Lilliam Rivera
Series: N/A
Pages: 336
Publisher: Simon Schuster Books for Young Readers
Release Date: March 5th 2019
**I received a copy of this book through NetGalley which does not influence my review**

      “At night, Las Mal Criadas own these streets.
      Nalah leads the fiercest all-girl crew in Mega City. That roles brings with it violent throw downs and access to the hottest boydega clubs, but the sixteen-year-old grows weary of the life. Her dream is to get off the streets and make a home in the exclusive Mega Towers, in which only a chosen few get to live. To make it to the Mega towers, Nalah must prove her loyalty to the city’s benevolent founder and cross the border in a search for a mysterious gang the Ashé Ryders. Led by a reluctant guide, Nalah battles other crews and her own doubts, but the closer she gets to her goal, the more she loses sight of everything—and everyone— she cares about.
      Nalah must do the unspeakable to get what she wants—a place to call home. But is a home just where you live? Or who you choose to protect?”

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Lilliam Rivera’s Dealing in Dreams exhibits impressive world-building, but left me wanting more in terms of characters. In Mega City, violence rules the streets. Nalah, known as Chief Rocka, and her crew, Las Mal Criadas, patrol the streets, keeping the people in check and enjoy the occasional spoils at the local clubs known as boydegas. For Nalah, the ultimate goal is to find a place next to Mega City’s leader Déesse, to live in the Mega Towers, where the privileged live in luxury. When an outsider threatens everything Mega City stands for, Las Mal Criadas venture to Cemi Territory, to infiltrate a crew that supposedly disbanded years ago. But on the outside, Chief Rocka faces unexpected challenges and discovers her beloved city may not be the perfect utopia she’s been led to believe.

Lilliam Rivera’s world held a surprise at every turn. The ruler of Mega City, Déesse, is from a line of women who helped rebuild the city after a devastating earthquake. But it wasn’t only buildings that were reconstructed, society itself was reimagined. Mega City became a matriarchy; women rule over men and men are expected to defer to women. This was such an interesting concept to explore. Men’s bodies were exploited in a way that we see women’s and women no longer had to worry about their bodies seen as sexual objects. Young girls are recruited and taught how to fight. If they survive training, they have a chance to join a five-member gang and prove their worth to Déesse. Toilers are the lowest class, producing goods, but never able to climb the social ladder. Money no longer has value, instead people trade for goods and sueño tabs, a drug meant to help ease people into sleep every night, but one that is incredibly addictive. This is the one part of the world-building that I wanted to see more of. Nalah has a rule where none of her girls are allowed to take sueño tabs, so we rarely get a peek at what this pills truly does.

I love how dedicated Nalah is to her crew. She’s a natural leader, not because she is the toughest or the smartest, but because she knows her team. She understands who each member is, what their limits are, and how to deal with each of them. I wish we had gotten to know every member of Las Mal Criadas more. Nalah’s right-hand woman, Truck, is the most clearly conceived. She’s a hothead, who will always pull back her fist first when trying to take care of a problem. The young Nena, who is still learning the ropes, falters more than she succeeds. The other girls haven’t quite accepted her as a member as they are still processing the loss of their former crew member who died at the hands of another crew. Shi and Smiley, the other two members of the gang, did not have much page-time and aside from Nalah’s narration describing who they are, we really don’t get to know either.

Dealing in Dreams has one of the most unique dystopian worlds I’ve read and even though I wanted more character exploration, the inverse world is one I wouldn’t mind spending more time in.

★★★
(3/5)

ARC Review: The Moon Within by Aida Salazar

Title: The Moon Within
Author: Aida Salazar
Series: N/A
Pages: 240
Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books
Release Date: February 26th 2019
**I received an ARC copy of this book from the publisher which does not influence my review**

      “Celi Rivera’s life swirls with questions. About her changing body. Her first attraction to a boy. And her best friend’s exploration of what it means to be genderfluid.
      But most of all, her mother’s insistence she have a moon ceremony when her first period arrives. It’s an ancestral Mexica ritual that Mima and her community have reclaimed, but Celi promises she will NOT be participating. Can she find the power within herself to take a stand for who she wants to be?
      A dazzling story told with the sensitivity, humor, and brilliant verse of debut talent Aida Salazar.”

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The Moon Within, Aida Salazar’s middle grade debut, is a novel I wish I could gift my eleven-year-old self. Celi is on the brink of turning twelve and she, along with the world around her, is changing faster than she can keep track of. Her body is already changing and with it, the promise of a period. Not something she is looking forward to, especially with her mom’s recent interest in their Mexica heritage. For Celi, this means a moon ceremony to celebrate her transition from girl to young woman, but Celi isn’t happy about having to share the things happening to her body with other people. Celi also finds herself torn between her best friend Marco, who is taking his first steps discovering what it means to be genderfluid, and her first crush Iván, who’s finally showing interest in her, but who is also less accepting of her best friend. Celi must find a way to navigate all the changing relationships in her life without sacrificing who she is and who she wants to be.

The Moon Within is an honest portrayal of how many young people feel about the changes their bodies go through. Celi’s first instinct when it comes to her first bra and her first period is to hide, to feel shame in the way her body now works. What Celi doesn’t quite understand yet is that her mother’s insistence on a moon ceremony, an Indigenous tradition meant to celebrate and honor the menstrual cycle, is her gift to her daughter. It’s a gift that says you don’t have to be ashamed. It’s one where the relationship between mother and daughter is defined by frankness and an openness that doesn’t leave Celi with all the unanswered questions her mother was left with. I loved the relationship between Celi and her mother because they clashed. They don’t always communicate well and Celi is just starting to see her mother as a person and not just her mom, but someone one who was once a scared girl herself.

Celi’s Mexica side isn’t the only cultural heritage that is celebrate in this one. Her father is Afro-Puerto Rican and Celi has grown up learning how to dance the bomba. I loved the portrayal of Celi’s relationship with this dance. She’s incredibly gifted and her connection to the music feels almost instinctual for her. Salazar also uses this dance to show Celi’s connection to her best friend Marco, whom she calls her best echo. Their friendship is incredibly sweet and even though Celi stumbles, this is the one relationship in this novel that felt like it could survive no matter what was thrown at them. I loved how Salazar’s portrayal of Marco being genderfluid is tied to his Indigenous roots. While our views on the gender binary are changing, we sometimes forget that many Indigenous cultures already had words for those who are nonbinary and in this case, specifically genderfluid. For Marco, being xochihuah and embodying both female and male genders, is what feels right. I loved that there is a beautiful reverence given to both the changes Celie and Marco go through and by embracing who they are, they were also reclaiming cultural traditions.

The Moon Within took me back to the days of first crushes, that uncertain time between childhood and adulthood, recounting that secret shame we sometimes feel when we get our first period, the shame that sometimes follows us into adulthood. This poignant novel-in-verse instead encourages celebration and acceptance, and one I wish every child on the verge of getting their first period could read.

★★★★★
(5/5)

ARC Review: Bloodwitch by Susan Dennard

Title: Bloodwitch
Author: Susan Dennard
Series: The Witchlands, #3
Pages: 464
Publisher: Tor Teen
Release Date: February 12th 2019

      “Fans of Susan Dennard’s New York Times bestselling Witchlands series have fallen in love with the Bloodwitch Aeduan. And now, finally, comes his story.
      High in a snowy mountain range, a monastery that holds more than just faith clings to the side of a cliff. Below, thwarted by a lake, a bloodthirsty horde of raiders await the coming of winter and the frozen path to destroy the sanctuary and its secrets.
      The Bloodwitch Aeduan has teamed up with the Threadwitch Iseult and the magical girl Owl to stop the destruction. But to do so, he must confront his own father, and his past.

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The long-awaited third novel in Susan Dennard’s The Witchlands series is finally here. Bloodwitch picks off where Windwitch left off as Aeduan and Iseult set off toward the Carawen Monastery in hopes of finding a safe place for the young Owl. Iseult’s Threadsister, Safi, finally finds herself in Marstok, helping the Empress Vaness weed out traitors in her court. Merik has set off with Cam and Ryber, hoping to find answers to how and why his Threadbrother Kullen has taken on the form of the Fury. Nubrevna is now in the capable hands of Merik’s older sister Vivia, who struggles to find her footing as Queen-in-Waiting. Meanwhile the Raider King to the North finally makes his move against the Witchlands and with the Twenty-Year Treaty negated, the Empires distrust of one another may lead to their downfall.

Susan Dennard has excelled at giving each of her characters their own arc. Sometimes this is a difficult thing to do with an ensemble of characters, but Dennard is never afraid to separate characters to test them out individually, to push them to their limits and help them discover things about themselves they might not have learned otherwise. Though the focus of this series has always been Safi and Iseult and the strength of their friendship, I’ve really enjoyed getting to know these two on their own. Safi finds herself in a precarious situation, unable to escape Vaness as the Empress wields Safi’s Truthwitchery as a weapon, showing no mercy to those guilty of duplicity. Safi has always had someone to rely on when she makes mistakes, but in Marstok she must learn to rely on herself. Iseult has only ever had Safi to rely one, but through the course of her journey, she discovers an unlikely ally in the Bloodwitch Aeduan. I love how every scene with the two of them feels significant both to their relationship and to them as individuals. Iseult has never felt empowered, she’s always been on the outskirts, but in this novel, she begins to embrace how powerful she is and instead of listening to the voices that tell her she is not enough, she shouts back that she is.

I love how Merik’s perspective continues to be challenged in this third novel. He’s had to take a step back from being his people’s savior. He wants to do what is right, but learns that sometimes that’s not enough if you are blinded by your need to play the hero. We first get to know his sister Vivia in the second novel and in this one it’s hard not to root for her. She’s proven herself to be competent leader, but her father, the King Regent, along with members of the High Council, keep undermining her every chance they get. Still, Vivia manages to stay poised and manages to get things done even when she is doubted by so many. I’d really like to explore how Vivia and Merik’s father has shaped their relationship as siblings. It’s implied that he might be the reason they never found value in the other, why they’ve been resentful of one another. It’s probably the one aspect of these books that I wish Dennard had spent more time on.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the title character Aeduan. When we first met him in Truthwitch, he is the villain of the story, hunting down Safi and Iseult. His arc might be my favorite in the series as he goes from cold-hearted killer to tentative ally. In Bloodwitch we get a little more backstory on why Aeduan has made such an effective killer. His witchery has defined him since he was a young boy. He lost his mother at a young age and only recently was reunited with his father. He grew up seeing himself through other people’s eyes and never had someone see him as anything other than a monster. This changes through his relationship with both Iseult and Owl, but ultimately it is Aeduan who has to learn to see himself differently.

If you’re looking for a fantasy series that keeps you on the edge of your seat with invigorating action scenes, world-building that feels deliberate and intricate, and characters with rewarding character arcs, Susan Dennard’s The Witchlands series is one you should start now. For fans of the series, Bloodwitch feels worth the wait and cements this fantasy series as one of the best out there.

★★★★★
(5/5)

Blog Tour | ARC Review & Giveaway | The Gilded Wolves by Roshani Chokshi

I am delighted to be a part of The Gilded Wolves Blog Tour for Wednesday Books. Roshani Chokshi has always been an author who has wowed me with her writing. When I heard of this latest release, I was beyond ecstatic. It’s my pleasure to bring you an ARC review of The Gilded Wolves and an opportunity to win a copy of the book from the publisher. Details at the end of the post.

Title: The Gilded Wolves
Author: Roshani Chokshi
Series: The Gilded Wolves, #1
Pages: 464
Publisher: Wednesday Books
Release Date: January 4th 2019
**I received a copy of this book from the publisher which does not influence my review**

      “Set in a darkly glamorous world, The Gilded Wolves is full of mystery, decadence, and dangerous but thrilling adventure.
      Paris, 1889: The world is on the cusp of industry and power, and the Exposition Universelle has breathed new life into the streets and dredged up ancient secrets. In this city, no one keeps tabs on secrets better than treasure-hunter and wealthy hotelier, Séverin Montagnet-Alarie. But when the all-powerful society, the Order of Babel, seeks him out for help, Séverin is offered a treasure that he never imagined: his true inheritance.
      To find the ancient artifact the Order seeks, Séverin will need help from a band of experts: An engineer with a debt to pay. A historian who can’t yet go home. A dancer with a sinister past. And a brother in all but blood, who might care too much.
      Together, they’ll have to use their wits and knowledge to hunt the artifact through the dark and glittering heart of Paris. What they find might change the world, but only if they can stay alive.”

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     “A creaking sound lit up the silence. Séverin jerked his hand back. Too late. The bear’s teeth lengthened in a blink, forming narrow little bars. Enrique took one look at Séverin’s trapped hand, turned pale, and bit out a single word: ‘Shit.'”

With The Gilded Wolves, Roshani Chokshi has constructed a unique fantasy heist novel that also functions as a commentary on cultural theft under the guise of historical preservation. Séverin Montagnet-Alarie thought he knew his place in the world, as heir to House Vanth. But when the other heads of the Houses of France turned him away, denying him his rightful place as the next patriarch of House Vanth, Séverin made it his mission to steal back what had been taken from him. With a team of smart and unusually gifted individuals, Séverin has caused a myriad of trouble for the Order of Babel, the organization in charge of the Houses of France, stealing back artifacts belonging to his own House and returning stolen cultural artifacts to their countries and peoples of origin. When Hypnos, patriarch of House Nyx offers Séverin a second chance at claiming his inheritance in exchange for stealing a mysterious artifact from another House, Séverin’s blind ambition lands him and his crew in the middle of a conspiracy that will test each character’s resolve and pit them against a dangerous organization.

The Gilded Wolves has one of the best casts of characters I’ve come across. I love how each character has their own personality, set of skills, and way of perceiving in the world. Chokshi excels at creating characters whose cultural and sexual identities are incredibly important to them. Identity is the driving force behind all of their motivations and heavily influences how they see themselves. Séverin is obsessed with reclaiming his birthright and isn’t afraid to take dangerous risks in order to do so. Though a natural leader, he isn’t always honest with himself and holds the faulty belief that if he can just become patriarch, he’ll have everything he’s always wanted. Tristan is Séverin’s closest companion, having grown up in a number of foster homes alongside him. Tristan is more interested in his pet tarantula than his adopted brother’s schemes, but they are both fiercely protective of one another. Laila is in her element when she is either in the kitchen baking or taking care of others. Masquerading as a courtesan becomes incredibly resourceful as she is able to gain access to places that would otherwise be closed off to Séverin and his crew. Laila’s past is the most mysterious. Save for Séverin, no one knows of her ability to read memories tied to objects. This gift, or perhaps more aptly a curse, is tied to her origins that even she doesn’t quite understand.

One of my favorite things about this group of characters is the witty dialogue and no one exemplifies this more than the young historian Enrique. From the get-go, he had me in stitches. His humor is always a breath of fresh air and I really like that Chokshi’s doesn’t sacrifice the rest of his character for the sake of comedic relief. Enrique not only has a passion for history, but for his country’s freedom. The Philippines has been under Spain’s thumb for the last 300 years and Enrique wants to be part of helping his country gain independence. Zofia is more adequate when it comes to making bombs than making friends. Some of the most rewarding scenes in this one involve Zofia and Laila. The latter shows incredible patience, slowly helping Zofia come out her shell. The final character is the enigmatic Hypnos, the young patriarch of House Nyx, who was once childhood pals with Séverin. Hypnos is both arrogant and charming. Though regarded as more of an enemy at first, Hynpos feels draw to Séverin and his friends, to their camaraderie, for there’s no denying that Hypnos’s easy smiles actually hide a loneliness underneath.

If you like fantasies rooted in history, Chokshi’s latest novel is the one for you. Chokshi pays close attention to detail, bringing not only her characters, but this world to life. It took a little bit of time for me as a reader to be comfortable moving through this intricate world, but once I did, it was one I wasn’t quite ready to let go of with the closing pages. Forging was an aspect that I really wanted to explore more of. There are individuals in this world able to manipulate matter and the mind, the latter of which is highly regulated as it includes the ability to control minds and create illusions. The former takes on many forms, including the ability to manipulate metal and stone into different forms, even lifelike creatures.

If you like tragic heroes, found families and impossible heists, Roshani Chokshi’s The Gilded Wolves is one you don’t want to miss. I’ll be spending the next year eagerly anticipating the sequel and reeling from this one’s gut-punch of an ending.

4/5

★★★★

PRAISE FOR THE GILDED WOLVES

“Chokshi has created an inclusive and authentic cast with obvious chemistry and affection for one another and infuses the tale with witty banter and twists. A delectably intriguing adventure for all teen shelves.” School Library Journal, Starred Review

“Evocative writing, sumptuous set pieces, and vividly sketched, authentically flawed characters distinguish this immersive tale of found family and star-crossed romance. Kaleidoscopic narration complements the intricate, high-stakes plot and allows Chokshi to showcase numerous aspects of her richly imagined universe all the way to the closing cliff-hanger.” Publishers Weekly, Starred Review

“Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows and Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code converge in this dazzling new fantasy… An opulent heist adventure that will leave readers voracious for more.” Kirkus, Starred Review

“Chokshi delivers a thrilling, gritty new fantasy set in an alternate nineteenth century Paris… Chokshi shines as a master storyteller in her newest novel; the setting, world building, plot, and conflict are all staggering. However, the elements that perhaps shine the most are the history, riddles, mysteries, and science, woven together in a world brimming with power and magic.” Booklist, Starred Review

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: ROSHANI CHOKSHI is the New York Times bestselling author of The Star-Touched Queen, A Crown of Wishes, and Aru Shah and the End of Time. Her work has appeared in Strange Horizons, Shimmer, and Book Smugglers. Her short story, “The Star Maiden,” was longlisted for the British Fantasy Science Award.

It’s time for a GIVEAWAY. Enter to win a copy of The Gilded Wolves by Roshani Chokshi. Click on the Rafflecopter link below to enter, details below.

A Rafflecopter Giveaway

Giveaway Details:

  • Giveaway runs from January 16th at 12:00 am through January 22nd at 11:59 pm (PST)
  • Open to US residents only
  • One lucky winner will win one a copy of The Gilded Wolves by Roshani Chokshi
  • Winner will be selected randomly and emailed (you have 48 hours to respond or another winner will be chosen)
  • You must provide your name and shipping info, so I can send it to the publisher
  • Prize will be provided by the publisher

ARC Review: Kingdom of the Blazing Phoenix by Julie C. Dao

Title: Kingdom of the Blazing Phoenix
Author: Julie C. Dao
Series: Rise of the Empress, #2
Pages: 384
Publisher: Philomel Books
Release Date: November 6th 2018
*I received an ARC of this book from the publisher which does not influence my review*

      “This fairy tale retelling lives in a mystical world inspired by the Far East, where the Dragon Lord and the Serpent God battle for control of the earthly realm; it is here that the flawed heroine of Forest of a Thousand Lanterns finally meets her match. An epic fantasy finale to the Rise of the Empress novels.
      Princess Jade has grown up in exile, hidden away in a monastery while her stepmother, the ruthless Xifeng, rules as Empress of Feng Lu. But the empire is in distress and its people are sinking into poverty and despair. Even though Jade doesn’t want the crown, she knows she is the only one who can dethrone the Empress and set the world right. Ready to reclaim her place as rightful heir, Jade embarks on a quest to raise the Dragon Lords and defeat Xifeng and the Serpent God once and for all. But will the same darkness that took Xifeng take Jade, too? Or will she find the strength within to save herself, her friends, and her empire?
      Set in an East Asian-inspired fantasy world filled with breathtaking pain and beauty, Kingdom of the Blazing Phoenix is filled with dazzling magic, powerful prose, and characters readers won’t soon forget.”

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Julie C. Dao concludes her Rise of the Empress duology with Kingdom of the Blazing Phoenix. Filled with enchanting storytelling and a likable cast of characters, this companion novel is sure to please fans of the first book. In Forest of a Thousand Lanterns, readers witnessed the downfall of the protagonist Xifeng as she embraced the darkness within. In this follow-up novel, years have passed since Xifeng has become Empress. The empire has suffered under a cruel regime and many of the people have become restless. When Jade, the heir to the Empire, is summoned back home by her stepmother Xifeng, she discovers that evil can take many forms. Xifeng is not the doting wife and stepmother she pretends to be and when Jade uncovers the truth about how Xifeng has been able to hold on to power, she is forced to flee. In order to save her people and regain her rightful place as heir, Jade will have to journey far and overcome challenges meant to crush even the strongest of people.

Jade is just shy of eighteen years old. Having spent the majority of her life in a monastery, Jade’s understanding of the world has been limited. Though she has grown up far from the luxuries befitting her rank, her ignorance is a privilege in itself. Jade has always wanted to forget who she really is, to make vows and become a monk. When she arrives in the Imperial City and sees how much her people are suffering, she is forced to confront the world she’s spent her whole life hiding from. I loved that Jade’s journey isn’t just an outward one, that she must reflect on who she’s been and who she will choose to be. For people like Xifeng, who only see others as pawns in their own story, having friends and family is an easy way to be manipulated. For Jade, the allies she surrounds herself with become her greatest strength. From her surrogate grandmother Amah, who raised her when she was cast aside, to Amah’s granddaughter Wren, who exhibits a very different form of strength than Jade, these relationships are what keep Jade from being entice by the same kind of temptations that Xifeng has fallen prey to. The strongest influences in Jade’s life have always been women, including the mother she lost at such a young age and are the reason Jade, while not necessarily the strongest or bravest character, is able to challenge someone as powerful as Xifeng.

Xifeng is one of my favorite literary characters because she is allowed to want power for power’s sake. While I would never personally side with Xifeng, at the end of Forest of a Thousand Lanterns, I could not help but root for her just a little. The biggest challenge with this novel was shifting my own perspective. Seeing Xifeng not just as a ambitious young woman who did everything in her power to get what she wanted, but as an antagonist to Jade, a woman who took her mother’s place and who has continued to poison the people in order to hold on to power. One of my favorite elements of the novel was the importance of folktales. Jade grew up hearing Amah tell her stories and though she didn’t fully appreciate what Amah was trying to teach her, these tales become the building blocks of Jade’s journey.

If you’re looking for a unique take on fairytale retellings, Julie C. Dao’s Rise of the Empress duology is a must. She’s written a vibrant world with characters you can both love and love to hate.

4/5

★★★★