Mini-Reviews: Raybearer + You Should See Me in a Crown

I got a chance to catch up on some 2020 releases by Black authors this Black History Month. Today I am bringing you reviews from two debut authors from 2020. Jordan Ifueko’s Raybearer immediately caught my attention when I saw the cover below. Fantasy is my favorite genre and so I am always on the lookout for diverse fantasy books. Leah Johnson’s You Should See Me in a Crown is also a book that caught my attention because of the cover. I know illustrated covers are the current trend, but I would still like to see more Black models and other people of color on covers.

Title: Raybearer
Author: Jordan Ifueko
Series: Raybearer, #1
Pages: 496
Publisher: Hot Key Books
Release Date: August 18th 2020

TW: domestic homicide, abuse, suicide

      “Nothing is more important than loyalty.
But what if you’ve sworn to protect the one you were born to destroy?
      Tarisai has always longed for the warmth of a family. She was raised in isolation by a mysterious, often absent mother known only as The Lady. The Lady sends her to the capital of the global empire of Aritsar to compete with other children to be chosen as one of the Crown Prince’s Council of 11. If she’s picked, she’ll be joined with the other Council members through the Ray, a bond deeper than blood. That closeness is irresistible to Tarisai, who has always wanted to belong somewhere. But The Lady has other ideas, including a magical wish that Tarisai is compelled to obey: Kill the Crown Prince once she gains his trust. Tarisai won’t stand by and become someone’s pawn—but is she strong enough to choose a different path for herself? With extraordinary world-building and breathtaking prose, Raybearer is the story of loyalty, fate, and the lengths we’re willing to go for the ones we love.”

swirl (2)Jordan Ifueko’s Raybearer is unlike any other fantasy I’ve ever read. From its magical system to its politics, the Arit empire is a fully formed world. Tarisai is a compelling lead character as Ifueko takes readers on a journey from her unconventional childhood to the tribulations she faces coming into her own power. Tarisai was raised for one purpose only, to be her mother’s weapon against those who had wronged her. But even as a child, Tarisai shows a strong sense of right and wrong. She finds herself as a potential future council member of Prince Ekundayo. But caring about the prince could spell his doom as well as her own if her mother has her way. Raybearer explores many different kinds of relationships, but none are more important than the bonds Tarisai forms with her fellow council members. She finds a kindred spirit in the kind Sanjeet, whose own childhood haunts him. Found family plays a significant role in shaping who Tarisai becomes. Council members are bonded by their love for their Raybearer and for each other. Tarisai is not a warrior in the traditional sense, her strength lies in her ability to lead, her desire to see the world become better, and the strong sense of justice that leads her to go against even the most powerful players in the empire. But this doesn’t mean she doesn’t falter. She continuously struggles with her own inner demons, trying to discern between whether she can determine her own future or if her fate has already been decided for her. Raybearer is perfect for those looking to be swept up in a unique fantasy world’s mythology as well as those interested in a character-driven narrative.

★ ★ ★ ★
(4/5)


Title: You Should See Me in a Crown
Author: Roseanne A. Brown
Series: N/A
Pages: 336
Publisher: Scholastic Press
Release Date: June 2nd 2020

TW: death of a parent, racism, homophobia, public outing, panic attacks

      “Liz Lighty has always believed she’s too black, too poor, too awkward to shine in her small, rich, prom-obsessed midwestern town. But it’s okay — Liz has a plan that will get her out of Campbell, Indiana, forever: attend the uber-elite Pennington College, play in their world-famous orchestra, and become a doctor.
      But when the financial aid she was counting on unexpectedly falls through, Liz’s plans come crashing down . . . until she’s reminded of her school’s scholarship for prom king and queen. There’s nothing Liz wants to do less than endure a gauntlet of social media trolls, catty competitors, and humiliating public events, but despite her devastating fear of the spotlight she’s willing to do whatever it takes to get to Pennington.
      The only thing that makes it halfway bearable is the new girl in school, Mack. She’s smart, funny, and just as much of an outsider as Liz. But Mack is also in the running for queen. Will falling for the competition keep Liz from her dreams . . . or make them come true?”

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Liz Lighty’s future is perfectly planned out. She’s going to attend her mother’s alma mater, Pennington, on her way to becoming a hematologist. But everything falls apart when she doesn’t receive the scholarship she needs. Now, in order to salvage her dreams, Liz is doing the unthinkable. She’s running for prom queen. Prom is not just a high school dance in Campbell County, it’s the event of the year. Thrust into the spotlight, Liz must find a way to carve space for herself in a world where her Blackness and queerness set her apart and sometimes makes her feel unwelcome. Liz is an easy character to like. Her dreams for the future are intertwined with the death of her mother and her younger brother’s same sickle-cell diagnosis. She tends to spread herself thin if it means keeping the burden off her loved ones. She isn’t used to having good things come her way easily and so accepting these good things can sometimes be hard. When she meets Mack, a fellow prom queen candidate, her attraction to her throws her off. I loved the easy rapport between these characters. Liz is only out to her family and close friends and knows that starting a relationship with Mack might jeopardize her campaign, but she keeps getting drawn to the gregarious and alluring Mack. Johnson explores a trope that we really don’t see often and that’s the second-chance friendship. Liz ends up reconnecting with her former best friend, Jordan, and even though there is still a lot of past hurt, they fall into step with one another effortlessly. These two get each other in a way that is rare and feels truly special. You Should See Me in a Crown is all about embracing who you, not allowing others to change you, and demanding that people make room for you. Leah Johnson’s debut is infused with charm and is guaranteed to leave you with a big grin on your face.

★ ★ ★ ★
(4/5)

Mini-Reviews: The Burning God + A Song of Wraiths and Ruin

Today I’m bringing you two mini-reviews of books I finished at the end of 2020. I’m going to admit right now that I haven’t written a review in 2021, but I better get on this as this is the last series of reviews I have in my drafts. **laughs nervously**

Title: The Burning God
Author: R.F. Kuang
Series: The Burning God, #3
Pages: 654
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Release Date: November 17th 2020

**Includes spoilers for The Poppy War and The Dragon Republic**

TW: rape (including child rape), graphic violence, castration, suicide, genocide, drug use, self-harm, cannibalism, human experimentation

      “After saving her nation of Nikan from foreign invaders and battling the evil Empress Su Daji in a brutal civil war, Fang Runin was betrayed by allies and left for dead.
      Despite her losses, Rin hasn’t given up on those for whom she has sacrificed so much—the people of the southern provinces and especially Tikany, the village that is her home. Returning to her roots, Rin meets difficult challenges—and unexpected opportunities. While her new allies in the Southern Coalition leadership are sly and untrustworthy, Rin quickly realizes that the real power in Nikan lies with the millions of common people who thirst for vengeance and revere her as a goddess of salvation.
      Backed by the masses and her Southern Army, Rin will use every weapon to defeat the Dragon Republic, the colonizing Hesperians, and all who threaten the shamanic arts and their practitioners. As her power and influence grows, though, will she be strong enough to resist the Phoenix’s intoxicating voice urging her to burn the world and everything in it?
      The exciting end to The Poppy War trilogy, R. F. Kuang’s acclaimed, award-winning epic fantasy that combines the history of twentieth-century China with a gripping world of gods and monsters, to devastating, enthralling effect.

swirl (2)R.F. Kuang’s The Burning God provides a staggering ending to her epic fantasy series, The Poppy War. After being betrayed by someone close to her, Rin has gathered with allies in the south to fight against Federation soldiers who remain in the region even after their country’s defeat. But another battle is on the horizon as Vaisra has declared himself the President of the Nikara Republic and aligned himself with the Hesperians. Rin is determined to rid the Empire of the Hesperians for good, but in order to do so, she will have to align herself with nefarious characters and start a civil war that may spell Nikan’s doom in the end. Kuang has explored many different themes in her series from the trauma of war to Western imperialism. One thing that’s stood out is the uncompromising and sobering tone these books take on. These heavy topics are never romanticized. Her characters continually grapple with decisions they’ve made and no choice is ever simple. This has never been a good vs evil kind of story. It is grim and horrendous at times. Its characters exist in a grey area and they can be both the hero and the villain at the same time. The highlight of this final book is Rin’s relationship with Kitay. She’s relied on him to help her bridge the gap between her and her god, but more importantly he has become her tether to the physical world. Unfortunately Rin’s sole purpose has been to be a weapon, her rise could not have happen outside of war, and it begs the question what becomes of her and those like her who have only ever known how to survive and not necessarily how to live? The Burning God is merciless but a fitting conclusion to one of the most brutal and heart-stopping series I’ve ever read.

★ ★ ★ ★
(4/5)


Title: A Song of Wraiths and Ruin
Author: Roseanne A. Brown
Series: A Song of Wraiths and Ruin, #1
Pages: 480
Publisher: Balzer + Bray
Release Date: June 2nd 2020

TW: death of a parent, self-harm

      “For Malik, the Solstasia festival is a chance to escape his war-stricken home and start a new life with his sisters in the prosperous desert city of Ziran. But when a vengeful spirit abducts Malik’s younger sister, Nadia, as payment into the city, Malik strikes a fatal deal—kill Karina, Crown Princess of Ziran, for Nadia’s freedom.
      But Karina has deadly aspirations of her own. Her mother, the Sultana, has been assassinated; her court threatens mutiny; and Solstasia looms like a knife over her neck. Grief-stricken, Karina decides to resurrect her mother through ancient magic . . . requiring the beating heart of a king. And she knows just how to obtain one: by offering her hand in marriage to the victor of the Solstasia competition.
      When Malik rigs his way into the contest, they are set on a course to destroy each other. But as attraction flares between them and ancient evils stir, will they be able to see their tasks to the death?
      The first in an fantasy duology inspired by West African folklore in which a grieving crown princess and a desperate refugee find themselves on a collision course to murder each other despite their growing attraction.

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Roseanne A. Brown debuts with a luscious fantasy novel, A Song of Wraiths and Ruin, which chronicles two desperate characters on a collision course with one another. Malik, along with his sisters, are traveling to Ziran in hopes of finding a better life, but their plans are thwarted by an evil spirit who orders Malik to take the life of Princess Karina or watch his younger sister perish. Karina never got over her father and older sister’s passing. She knows she should never have been heir to her mother’s throne, but fate is nothing if not cruel. When the sultana is murdered before her eyes, Karina is desperate to bring her back, even if it means meddling in dangerous magic that demands she take another’s life. Brown’s world is vibrant and intricate, the magical system is intriguing but the physical world also holds its share of wonders. Karina is an incredibly strong-willed character, bred for the spotlight. She’s brazen and confident, but these characteristics sometimes hide the loneliness she’s experienced in her grief. Malik, on the other hand, shrinks from the spotlight. He’s shy, vulnerable, and struggles with panic attacks. No one looks at him and thinks hero, not even himself, but his strength lies in his love for his sisters and his ability to empathize with those around him. A Song of Wraiths and Ruin‘s unpredictable ending with its many duplicitous characters and shifting dynamics promises a whirlwind of a sequel.

★ ★ ★ ★
(4/5)

Mini-Reviews: The Sound of Stars & 10 Things I Hate About Pinky

Not me finding five-month-old mini-reviews in my drafts! **insert cringe emoji** Honestly, I was tempted to just delete these instead of editing (they were very messy) and posting it since it’s been so long, but I figured you all need to hear how much I enjoyed these to books even if the reviews are long overdue.

Title: The Sound of Stars
Author:
Alechia Dow
Series: N/A
Pages: 400
Publisher: Inkyard Press
Release Date: February 25th 2020

      “Can a girl who risks her life for books and an alien who loves forbidden pop music work together to save humanity?
      Two years ago, a misunderstanding between the leaders of Earth and the invading Ilori resulted in the deaths of one-third of the world’s population.
      Seventeen-year-old Janelle “Ellie” Baker survives in an Ilori-controlled center in New York City. Deemed dangerously volatile because of their initial reaction to the invasion, humanity’s emotional transgressions are now grounds for execution. All art, books and creative expression are illegal, but Ellie breaks the rules by keeping a secret library. When a book goes missing, Ellie is terrified that the Ilori will track it back to her and kill her.
      Born in a lab, M0Rr1S (Morris) was raised to be emotionless. When he finds Ellie’s illegal library, he’s duty-bound to deliver her for execution. The trouble is, he finds himself drawn to human music and in desperate need of more. They’re both breaking the rules for love of art—and Ellie inspires the same feelings in him that music does.
      Ellie’s—and humanity’s—fate rests in the hands of an alien she should fear. M0Rr1S has a lot of secrets, but also a potential solution—thousands of miles away. The two embark on a wild and dangerous road trip with a bag of books and their favorite albums, all the while making a story and a song of their own that just might save them both.”

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Alechia Dow’s The Sound of Stars is a fun sci-fi adventure with two likable leads on an against-all-odds mission to save the world. Ellie has spent the last two years imprisoned by the Ilori, the alien race who invaded earth. One of the few things that bring her joy is the underground library she runs. Books have always been a refuge for Ellie and she knows people more than ever need a momentary respite from the world. When one of her books goes missing, Ellie meets M0Rr1s, a labmade Ilori, who is a little too human for her liking. Despite being from opposite sides of an intergalactic war, Ellie and Morris find a rare connection with one another. Ellie is a Black teen with an anxiety disorder that she has had to find ways to deal with without medication ever since the invasion. While the story does not focus on race, racism has still played a part in Ellie’s life. She understands that humanity isn’t necessarily worth saving because of its prejudices and in many ways humankind hasn’t necessarily earned its salvation. I loved the deep love shown to art in The Sound of Stars. For Ellie, it’s books that have helped her find who she is. For Morris, it’s his love of music that has moved him. I loved the affection these two characters have for one other. At its core The Sound of Stars is a celebration of the human spirit and the power of stories. I was pleasantly surprised to find how much these characters wormed their way into my heart by the end.

★ ★ ★ ★
(4/5)


Title: 10 Things I Hate About Pinky
Author: Sandhya Menon
Series: Dimple and Rishi, #3
Pages: 368
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Release Date: July 21st 2020

      “The follow-up to When Dimple Met Rishi and There’s Something about Sweetie follows Pinky and Samir as they pretend to date—with disastrous and hilarious results.
    Pinky Kumar wears the social justice warrior badge with pride. From raccoon hospitals to persecuted rock stars, no cause is too esoteric for her to champion. But a teeny-tiny part of her also really enjoys making her conservative, buttoned-up corporate lawyer parents cringe.
      Samir Jha might have a few . . . quirks remaining from the time he had to take care of his sick mother, like the endless lists he makes in his planner and the way he schedules every minute of every day, but those are good things. They make life predictable and steady…
      Pinky loves lazy summers at her parents’ Cape Cod lake house, but after listening to them harangue her about the poor decisions (aka boyfriends) she’s made, she hatches a plan. Get her sorta-friend-sorta-enemy, Samir—who is a total Harvard-bound Mama’s boy—to pose as her perfect boyfriend for the summer. As they bicker their way through lighthouses and butterfly habitats, sparks fly, and they both realize this will be a summer they’ll never forget.”

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Sandhya Menon delivers her most enjoyable novel since When Dimple Met Rishi with this companion novel 10 Things I Hate About Pinky. Readers were first introduced to characters Pinky and Samir in There’s Something About Sweetie. Pinky Kumar has embraced the fact that she will never be the kind of goody-two-shoes daughter her parents hoped for. But she knows who she is and knows that standing up for what she believes is more important than having your entire future planned out. Samir Jha likes predictability, in fact, he thrives off of knowing what to expect at all times. When a summer internship falls through, leaving Samir desperate for another opportunity, Pinky proposes an arrangement. Be her fake boyfriend for the summer and prove to her parents she isn’t as irresponsible as they think and she’ll help him land a new internship. But the more Pinky and Samir spend time together, the animosity they once felt begins turning into something more like attraction. Though much of the novel focuses on the potential romance between these very different characters, it’s Pinky’s tumultuous relationship with her mother that drives the story. Pinky isn’t always great at communication but it’s easy to see how desperate she is for her mother’s approval. Samir makes an fantastic foil to Pinky, especially as an ally. He challenges her and isn’t afraid to call her out. He is secure in who he is and finds it far easier than Pinky to admit how he feels. Also worth noting is Pinky’s relationship with her cousin Dolly, who her mother always seems to praise compared to herself. I loved that neither of these characters fell into a rivalry with one another. They were always supportive and saw the best in each other. Fans of the fake dating and hate-to-love tropes, rejoice! Sandhya Menon’s latest, 10 Things I Hate About Pinky was written for you.

★ ★ ★ ★
(4/5)

Mini-Reviews: Blazewrath Games [ARC review] + Paola Santiago and the River of Tears

I have been reading so much over the last couple of months that I have only had time to write snapshot and mini-reviews. I miss writing full reviews, so I am hoping this month I can get back to doing so. Today, I have two reviews of books by Latinx authors, one of which comes out tomorrow!

Title: Blazewrath Games
Author: Amparo Ortiz
Series: N/A
Pages: 368
Publisher: Page Street Books
Release Date: October 6th 2020

**Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book through NetGalley, which does not influence my review**

TW: violence, mention of domestic violence

      “How to Train Your Dragon meets Quidditch through the Ages in this debut fantasy, set in an alternate contemporary world, in which dragons and their riders compete in an international sports tournament.
      Lana Torres has always preferred dragons to people. In a few weeks, sixteen countries will compete in the Blazewrath World Cup, a tournament where dragons and their riders fight for glory in a dangerous relay. Lana longs to represent her native Puerto Rico in their first ever World Cup appearance, and when Puerto Rico’s Runner—the only player without a dragon steed—is kicked off the team, she’s given the chance.
      But when she discovers that a former Blazewrath superstar has teamed up with the Sire—a legendary dragon who’s cursed into human form—the safety of the Cup is jeopardized. The pair are burning down dragon sanctuaries around the world and refuse to stop unless the Cup gets cancelled. All Lana wanted was to represent her country. Now, to do that, she’ll have to navigate an international conspiracy that’s deadlier than her beloved sport.”

swirl (2)Amparo Ortiz’s YA debut, Blazewrath Games, is an utter delight, a captivating fantasy from start to finish. Lana Torres has one dream, to become the Runner for the Puerto Rican team in the Blazewrath World Cup, a game played with dragons and their riders. After a dangerous brush with death in which Lana confronts a follower of the notorious Sire, a man who was once a dragon, Lana misses her chance at tryouts. But when the president of the International Blazewrath Federation takes notice, Lana is given another chance to join the Puerto Rican team. As Lana and her new team train together, news of the Sire conducting raids on dragon sanctuaries begins to circulate. Soon Lana finds herself caught in another game as the Sire threatens violence if the Cup is not canceled; meanwhile, the people Lana is supposed to trust the most are calling for the Cup to go on as planned. Ortiz’s has built such a complex world with Blazewrath Games. I enjoyed every time we as readers got to see another layer and loved how each new fact built on the last. Dragons aren’t the only magical beings, there are also witches and wizards. One of my favorite side characters was Lana’s best friend, Samira, who is a copper-wand witch and what she lacks in magical skill she makes up for in drive. It was really interesting to explore different polarizing views in this world and how they  influenced both the heroes and villains of the story. Blazewrath Games is a celebration of camaraderie and belonging, with enough twists and turns to keep readers on their toes.

★ ★ ★ ★

(4/5)

 

Title: Paola Santiago and the River of Tears
Author: Tehlor Kay Mejia
Series: Paola Santiago, #1
Pages: 368
Publisher: Rick Riordan Presents
Release Date: August 4th 2020

TW: mentions of deportation

      “Space-obsessed 12-year-old Paola Santiago and her two best friends, Emma and Dante, know the rule: Stay away from the river. It’s all they’ve heard since a schoolmate of theirs drowned a year ago. Pao is embarrassed to admit that she has been told to stay away for even longer than that, because her mother is constantly warning her about La Llorona, the wailing ghost woman who wanders the banks of the Gila at night, looking for young people to drag into its murky depths.
    Hating her mother’s humiliating superstitions and knowing that she and her friends would never venture into the water, Pao organizes a meet-up to test out her new telescope near the Gila, since it’s the best stargazing spot. But when Emma never arrives and Pao sees a shadowy figure in the reeds, it seems like maybe her mom was right. . . .
      Pao has always relied on hard science to make sense of the world, but to find her friend she will have to enter the world of her nightmares, which includes unnatural mist, mind-bending monsters, and relentless spirits controlled by a terrifying force that defies both logic and legend.”

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Tehlor Kay Mejia’s Middle Grade debut, Paola Santiago and the Rivers of Tears, takes inspiration from Mexican-American folklore as the young Paola Santiago discovers that all the fantastic stories her mom has been telling her about since she was small are in fact real. Pao knows the world is best explained through science, which is why her mother’s stories about supernatural beings like La Llorona seem so unbelievable. That is until Emma, one of her best friends goes missing. Pao begins to have strange dreams and when she discovers the world is not what she thought it was, she sets out on a quest with her friend Dante to save Emma. Pao is an easy character to like, she is ruled by her head but has to reevaluate everything she believes when the supernatural becomes impossible to deny. She is also trying to figure out all the new and messy feelings of her first crush. The most compelling relationship in the novel is Pao’s relationship with her mother. There is a divide between the two, not just because of their differing beliefs, but because Pao feels that she has to be the adult, the one who worries about things like rent while her mom is stuck in a make-believe world. I really wish we explored the latter part of this relationship more. Pao has some very strong feelings that I don’t think were addressed enough. While I enjoyed this debut overall, I do think it had issues with pacing and considering that it dragged in places, could have been shorter. Still, I will be checking out the sequel to find out what other adventures Paola finds herself in.

★ ★ ★
(3/5)