Top Ten Tuesday: Books With Birds on the Cover

Hello and Happy TTT! Now, my blog theme being what it is, I couldn’t not pick birds for this particular freebie, and I hope you find many marvelous tales from among this flock to enjoy. (And if you did birds too, we have to be friends now. No exceptions.)


1. A Thousand Steps Into Night by Traci Chee

Starting us off is this delightful Japanese-influenced fantasy from Traci Chee, complete with wildly inventive worldbuilding, actual footnotes, and absolute shenanigans. The bird in question on this cover is the helpful but slightly mischievous magpie spirit Geiki, who accompanies the main character, Miuko, on a quest to undo her demonic curse. This book is fun all around, but Geiki and his antics often steal the show. (Reviewed here.)


2. The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater

As we’ll soon discover, YA fantasy is very fond of corvids. The Raven Boys is the first of a contemporary fantasy quartet starring the non-psychic daughter of a very psychic family, and a prep school boy’s relentless search for a legendary dead king. The Raven Boys’ title is actually referring to the aforementioned prep school’s uniform crest, but fear not! I’m two books in and I can guarantee at least one actual raven so far. (Her name is Chainsaw and I would die for her.) (Reviewed here.)


3. Muse of Nightmares by Laini Taylor

Following Strange the Dreamer in a stunning fantasy duology about dream magic, an ancient library, and a fabled lost city, Muse of Nightmares is some of the most ambitious fantasy I’ve ever read. Having finished it months ago, the specific relevance of the hawk on the cover escapes me, but, barring my lapse of memory, I cannot recommend these books to fantasy fans enough. If you have a taste for stunning visuals, rich worldbuilding informed by an imaginative past, or gossamer-fine prose, the Strange the Dreamer duology is likely to prove two new favorites.


4. The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X. R. Pan

In Emily X. R. Pan’s dreamlike debut novel, Leigh, a young artist who just lost her mother to suicide, awakens to an impossible truth: her mom has transformed into a bird. In the pages of this fabulist novel, we see contemporary life with a touch of the paranormal, as red crane feathers and ghosts punctuate a steady, heartfelt portrait of grief, with what’s “real” and not ultimately left up to the reader. The marvelous details, along with a gorgeous emphasis on visual art, make this an excellent pick for fantasy and contemporary fans alike.


5. The Merciful Crow by Margaret Owen

This work of YA fantasy takes the bird symbolism up a notch: in the land of Sabor, the social castes bear avian names and their associated magics. The royalty are called phoenixes, the gentry swans and other classically ‘noble’ birds, and crows, a persecuted caste of mercy-killers tasked with containing a perpetual plague, are at the very bottom. As you might expect, The Merciful Crow and its sequel, The Faithless Hawk, have an absolute field day with motifs, but they’re also distinctively thoughtful deconstructions of class hierarchies, and, every now and then, laugh-out-loud funny, too.


6. Spinning Starlight by R. C. Lewis

Speaking of swans, this sci-fi retelling of the fairy tale “The Wild Swans” bears a swan of circuitry on its cover in homage to its source material. It’s set in a futuristic solar system where portal travel puts all the planets at everyone’s fingertips…and conceals a deadly secret. Our lead, the tech heiress (and tech-challenged) Liddi Jantzen, has to rescue her brothers from certain death in the void between these very portals, unravel a conspiracy in her family company, and, in keeping with the original tale, can’t use her voice to do either. The book has some misses, but if you love a sci-fi fairy tale in step with The Lunar Chronicles, this one is worth a sojourn into the backlist. (Reviewed here.)


7. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Without a spot for the Mockingjay, this list would be woefully incomplete. Set in a post-disaster North America by the name of Panem, The Hunger Games follows a working-class girl who finds herself in a tournament held by the government every year, in which kids are forced to fight each other to death until only one victor remains. The Mockingjay, a relic of genetically-engineered warfare, becomes a heavy symbol of resistance later in the series, and, due at least in part to the covers, it absolutely plastered pop culture when this series’ popularity was in its heyday.


8. Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo

A magical heist full of clever schemes, marvelously-executed twists, and a cast of rogues you can’t help but adore, Six of Crows has also made its cover bird very popular. Bardugo uses the crow as a symbol to moving effect––drawing out the contradictions in her lovably ruthless characters as holders of deep grudges and even deeper loyalties. And, not to join the chorus or anything––but you’re going to love this book and you simply have to read it.


9. Hilda and the Bird Parade by Luke Pearson

The Hilda series of graphic novels was recently adapted into a lovely Netflix series, but the books are more than set for a charm of their own. This third volume follows Hilda in an excursion through the city of Trolberg, set against an annual night parade in tribute to a legendary raven. Like the other volumes, it’s full of whimsy and catnip to anyone who loves folktale in their fantasy.


10. The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien

The Hobbit has been published in plenty of editions whose covers have not even a whisper of a bird, but my copy has eagles in the sky of its panorama, so I’m counting it. Eagles play a brief surprise-rescue role in one of the early chapters and are only tangentially related to the chase-out-the-dragon main plot, but I’m always happy to see a bird of prey gracing the pages of a fantasy adventure, and I can’t wait to see where I’ll meet them next.


Thank you so much for reading! As always, I’d love to hear any and all of your thoughts in the comments––any I missed?

The Pigeon’s Guide to Reading and Enjoying Shakespeare

Hello and welcome to the blog! If you’ve been around here awhile, you’ll know that I love the works of William Shakespeare: watching them, reading them, and occasionally even performing in them. But they’re not always the most accessible for new readers. Language has changed a lot since they were written, much of their context no longer exists, and even with some schooling behind you, these plays can be demanding reading.

So, today, whether you’re picking up Henry IV because you miss your English class, using Macbeth to fill the If We Were Villains-sized hole in your heart, or trying your hand at Much Ado About Nothing because you’ve heard Beatrice and Benedick are the original idiots-to-lovers (it’s true; they’re legends), I hope I can help you find some joy in my favorite plays of all time. My amateur advice is as follows:


1. Get Some Background

If you were studying your play of choice in a literature class, your professor would give you the low-down: here’s the basic premise, here’s who the characters are, here are some lines from the play, here are a few important scenes. So do the same for yourself! Read the introduction included in your edition if it’s there, watch videos about the play, or otherwise know your characters and your places apart so that Act I, Scene 1 doesn’t throw you into the deep end. There is also no shame in taking notes, which I am known to do! Whatever helps you get what’s happening and when is worth a little extra time.

If you’re looking for some resources, my favorites include:


2. Watch It First!

When it comes to enjoyment, I find Shakespeare is the reverse of most books: always go straight for the movie. (Or, if you’re lucky and have some actual stage productions nearby: go see them, go see them, go see them, go see them!) There are so often depths to these plays that only directors and actors can really convey. For the darker tragedy and history plays, these are the speeches, the fights, the death scenes. For the comedies (my favorites!), this is the physicality and comedic timing that will have you doubling over in your seat if you see them live. Also, if you watch the plays first, you get some faces and voices to put to the character names, which will help you out if you like to visualize scenes while you’re reading. All the plays have at least one version that’s been taped and put on YouTube, but you can also try:


3. Act It Out!

Curling up with a paperback is a lovely way to spend an evening, but I find Shakespeare to reward a reading experience that’s a little more boisterous: there’s nothing like staging a one-man production of King John in your kitchen. If you can get up on your feet and pretend you’re playing one of the characters on stage, I highly recommend it! If you’re only comfortable with whispering the lines to yourself, that’s equally as good. Plays, whether they’re Shakespeare, Hansberry, Gunderson, or Wilde, are meant to be staged, and because of that leave a great deal of interpretation up to you as you read them. This can be as limiting as it is liberating. The difference between the two often lies in how much like an actor you’re willing to think––solo production in your kitchen or no.


4. One Line At A Time

I got this trick from Thinking Shakespeare by Barry Edelstein, a book about how to confront the Bard as an actor. All you need is a bookmark or index card, and whatever text you’re reading. Whatever line you’re on, cover up everything immediately below it, and only move the paper down once you’ve read and more-or-less understood it. Rinse and repeat many hundred times.

By going one line at a time, you force yourself to concentrate on the piece of the task in front of you, instead of seeing the block of text still ahead. It’s a great way to avoid getting overwhelmed, but it also helps you use the line breaks as natural stopping points in a character’s thought process. Take this bit from a soliloquy in Richard II, where the now-deposed king is reflecting on his rule from prison:

Thus play I in one person many people,

[Line break; he thinks about it for a second, spurring on the next line.]

And none contented […]

Act V, Scene 5

Instead of hitting you all at once, these thoughts build upon each other in manageable pieces, and they’re much easier to enjoy one line at a time.


5. You Know More Than You Think

If you like books––scratch that, if you like stories, period––you know Shakespeare. A litany of his plots have been repurposed in books and movies you know like the back of your hand, and you’ve heard the writing quoted hundreds of times, maybe without even registering some of them. Even if you’ve never read or watched one of the plays, their subject matter (life, power, friendship, responsibility, love, mortality!) can speak to you. As unapproachable as the Bard may seem, his plays, along with everything in the storytelling tradition, no matter how distant, belong to all of us. If you want to read the plays, you are absolutely “smart” enough to read the plays.

Never, ever let anyone tell you they’re beyond you.


Thank you so much for reading! As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below, and––if you want to start reading the plays but don’t know where to go first, I made a quiz that will give you a personal recommendation of one of my favorites 💚 Happy reading!

“A Thousand Steps Into Night” Toes A Very Promising Line

In Traci Chee’s first work of fantasy since her wonderful The Reader trilogy, we meet the “unremarkable” personage of Miuko, an innkeeper’s daughter who tries her best to be everything she is not: meek, quiet, tidy, and acceptable. But when a sudden kiss from a shaoha sets Miuko on the path to becoming a demon herself, she must journey through Awara to restore her humanity before it’s too late. And with a monstrous possessed prince now on her tail, she’ll have to be much louder, more reckless, and more unacceptable than her comfort, and society’s, have ever allowed.

Recounted by a witty narrator who insists upon footnotes and flanked by a whimsical world filled with sprightly gods and vivid spirits, A Thousand Steps Into Night nails a balancing act I haven’t seen pulled off in YA in a long time. While it follows a teenage protagonist, I could easily see this book being adapted into a gorgeous animated film poised to become the future favorite of school-age kids, teenagers, and adults alike. It’s fun and lighthearted without being afraid of substance; ready and willing to challenge Miuko exactly where it hurts; and confident enough in its tone that extremes of all kinds––joyful, violent, ironic, wondrous––never feel out of place.

What Traci Chee nails most in this YA fantasy standalone, though, is a sense of scope. We may hop from place to stunning place a little quickly, but it’s with intention that a litany of striking magical palaces, temples, and forests parade through the pages of A Thousand Steps. Chee chooses scenes for her settings, and not the other way around; each setpiece with its sequence is as well-matched and memorable as any written for a film of fantastic proportions. I find myself recalling “the Kuludrava Palace scene,” or “the gambling parlor scene,” or “the library scene,” each filled with (hilarious!) antics that couldn’t have transpired anywhere else. As a quest fantasy, A Thousand Steps Into Night manages a broad and highlight-studded sweep of the world of Awara, and whatever it lacks in concentration, it more than makes up for in delightful variety.

A couple missteps emerge, though, in the form of characters. A lot of them, in particular, are introduced and then exit very quickly once their role is finished, which is worse for the less-cartoonish human characters than it is for the instantly lovable, over-the-top supernatural ones. Also, there’s a Villain With A Point™ lurking in this book that’s just a little too easy for Miuko to confidently refute: I would’ve loved for him to bring out more conflict in her!

All told, though, A Thousand Steps Into Night is an impressive show of range from the marvelous Traci Chee, and wherever her books go next, I’m following them there 💙

What I Read In March 💕

Happy April, everyone! I’m so happy to be sharing with you what will be my fifth wrap-up in a row! (🥳) March brought me some new favorite books, a great play or two, and myriad wonderful things to shout about in them all. Without further ado, here they are:


20. The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis

Boasting portals to other worlds, a fallen empire, and a few uncharacteristically funny scenes for the character who would eventually become the White Witch, this 1955 prequel to the Narnia series surprised me in a lot of good ways. In it, we follow the schoolkids Polly and Digory, who stumble into an experiment intended to rip passageways into other universes. Among these universes is the place that the rest of the series knows as Narnia, but there’s way more than that for the book to play in, and I’m now almost mad that the other Narnia books don’t return for more. Where The Magician’s Nephew isn’t surprising, though, it’s depressingly familiar. Lewis’ magical mentor figure, Aslan, again kills conflict wherever he goes, a few later chapters are almost fatally actionless and ceremonial, and for all the book’s potential, it has a hard time living up to its ideas.


21. Extasia by Claire Legrand

Extasia is a strange beast, but a very welcome one. Claire Legrand builds a riveting work of paranormal horror from both archaic and post-apocalyptic clay, yielding a rich story that reads sometimes like a theocratic dystopian à la The Handmaid’s Tale, sometimes like a taut, colonial-era suspense à la The Crucible, and often like something new altogether. The book begins when the solemn, pious Amity is about to be anointed one of her village’s four Saints––young girls who act as religious scapegoats for their neighbors’ anger, fear, and sorrow. But all is not well in Haven and its deadly surrounding forest, and in order to save it, Amity will have to defy her church and learn magic. From there, Extasia had me reading on with rapt attention and a white-knuckled grip: it’s excellently-paced, the characters and their terror freshly rendered, and Legrand’s observation of a fearful society searingly true. (Reviewed here.)


22. The Forest of Stolen Girls by June Hur

The Forest of Stolen Girls, set in Joseon-Era Korea, is a murder-mystery helmed by the daughter of a missing detective, as she re-traces his footsteps and investigates the disappearances of thirteen girls from an island fishing town. June Hur, in juggling the tasks of historical consideration and an emotionally honest story of family, seldom lets any pins fall, but when they do, they take a toll on her main character, Hwani, and her journey towards reckoning with her father’s flaws. The prose, for instance, often defaults to explaining rather than describing what she’s feeling, which gives some of her most important emotional moments a distancing effect. But in atmosphere and motives for possible suspects and accomplices, Hur consistently shines. She also makes a point of using the context of time and place to the mystery’s advantage, rather than just setting the story against it––a deep, structural choice that, in the end, sticks Forest’s landing.


23. The Lives of Saints by Leigh Bardugo

Though it doesn’t quite reach the emotional power of the rest of the Grishaverse, The Lives of Saints still has something to offer people (me) who can’t get enough of it. This volume collects the (often disappointingly) short tales of saints from the world of Bardugo’s fantasy books––some of them managing to be haunting despite their length (Anastasia), some of them actually wickedly funny (Lutkin!!), and some sadly forgettable (Petyr). It’s a worthy experiment that I’m glad exists, for the simple fact that series lore is my lifeblood, but almost all the stories lose something in brevity. The Language of Thorns, another anthology from the Grishaverse, does so well with its task precisely because it lets the stories get a little longer, and I can’t help but feel that The Lives of Saints would’ve been better equipped to follow it up had it done the same.


24. The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman (His Dark Materials, #1)

I’m utterly in awe of this book’s vision. Set in a world like our own (but not quite!) it charts the power plays of conniving liturgical institutions and officials, the discovery of a mysterious new elementary particle, and the adventures of a fiercely loyal and dangerously important girl by the name of Lyra. I could talk about the system of science-magic, the construction of alternate history cultures, or the almost cinematic use of perspective intercutting at work in The Golden Compass for hours, but what I was most impressed by was Philip Pullman’s willingness to not expound on his world before giving us a chance to walk in it. He lets the reader put the pieces together with the characters, in a way that made me just as eager to learn more about where we were as I was to find out what would happen next. And I, being the nerd that I am, was totally mesmerized from start to finish.


25. The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare

As much as I love the vibes, The Winter’s Tale might be Shakespeare’s most self-defeating play. On paper, it’s a story about redemption: the wrath of a jealous king, Leontes, kills his wife with grief, and loses him a daughter, but through the intervention of a miracle or two, they’re all reunited with Leontes a changed man. But, really, it’s hard to read or watch, without the nagging thought that Leontes didn’t need to act like he did, and none of this needed to happen––especially if we’re going to end the play mostly in the same place we began. A fog of pointlessness lies over The Winter’s Tale that, try as it might, the play just can’t shake. The fourth act, too, a pastoral starring characters only tangentially related to the earlier action, is dangerously close to insufferable. (But judging by my opinion of As You Like It, I might just hate pastorals altogether 😬)


26. The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

This work of historical fiction is based on a very real hoax. It’s 1885 and a sea serpent is rumored to haunt the marshes of Aldwinter, as a warning from an angry higher power, or a remnant from a Mesozoic ocean long gone, or both. We follow a widow, Cora Seaborne, as she investigates the rumor and strikes up a tumultuous, intimate friendship with Aldwinter’s devoted vicar. If you’re into science of any kind, The Essex Serpent has to its advantage an erudite bent that draws on the history of paleontology and medicine, and puts them to fascinating use. Also mostly to its benefit is the central friendship, which takes on refreshing narrative importance, even if its trajectory can be frustrating. Overall, this title proved a way more compatible read for me than I expected, which has me wondering if I should pick up more historicals. (I also love Liz Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things. Recommend away!)


27. The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman (His Dark Materials, #2)

As the sequel to The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife takes the trilogy in several fascinating new directions at once, only some of which worried me. The expansion of the series into new universes, one of them being ours, gives the book plenty of awesome concepts to work with, from the correlation of book one’s science with our contemporary understanding of physics, to a power struggle that careens the story’s scope into literally unfathomable territory––for better or worse. In this volume, we also meet Will, a boy whose troubled family history ties him to the fate of Lyra’s world. As deuteragonists, their shrewdness functions well against the pretense and status of those in power, and even if connecting with them is a little harder this time around, Pullman’s reliance on the ensemble approach gives us myriad eyes to look through in the meantime. (And a vast, constantly-changing landscape to look at, too, which is always a plus.)


28. I and You by Lauren Gunderson

Lauren Gunderson is one of my favorite playwrights, and what I and You achieves in a little under 70 pages pretty much explains why. It’s set in chronically-ill 17-year-old Caroline’s bedroom, where Anthony, a classmate from the school she can no longer attend, enlists her help for a project on Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Over the course of a few hours, the two connect over the poem, get to know each other in a miraculous, theatrical totality, and, if you’re anything like me, will have you sobbing three times or more before curtain call. Gunderson gets something about humanity and experience and why we need each other so much that’s otherwise inarticulable, and hearing it said––shouted!––in I and You was a catharsis unlike any I’ve ever experienced.


29. A Thousand Steps Into Night by Traci Chee

A witty, hopeful, spirit-studded riot of a fantasy adventure from The Reader author Traci Chee, A Thousand Steps Into Night holds delight after delight. Its heroine, Miuko, must embark on a quest to reverse the curse that’s about to turn her into a demon, and along the way, she’ll fall in with a clever, complaining magpie, contend with a vengeful demon prince for the fate of the kingdom of Awara, and fight to keep her humanity all the while. A Thousand Steps manages a great deal in its comparatively limited page time as a standalone, from directly challenging Miuko’s weaknesses in a satisfying way to offering a broad sweep of Chee’s ultra-vivid world in a number of one-of-a-kind scenes I’d love to see put to animation. Characters appear and exit rather quickly, with a couple scenes of action bypassed or skimped on to the book’s detriment, but it’s largely an unbroken joy.


30. Richard II by William Shakespeare

This history play is tragedy, political theory, and character study all at once. While it flounders with its supporting cast (a point I controversially think its prequel, King John, excels at!), Richard II has such a keen eye on where power comes from, and what it does to those who hold or seek it. Shakespeare’s Richard is as compelling as he is infuriating; a devastating indictment of inherited privilege and a bittersweet elegy for those it eats away. Shakespeare also establishes with precision the weight of his transgressions, and why they set his countrymen against him, something he struggles with in King John. I also definitely cried while watching and reading this, not least because the language in it is so hauntingly beautiful and even––dare I say it?––a cut above the Bard’s rest.


Thank you so much for reading! May the next month bring you small joys and many good stories ☕️ 📚

Top Ten Tuesday: Books On My Spring 2022 TBR

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly series hosted on That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we’re looking ahead to spring: awaiting us is an unlivable amount of pollen, and even more books…


1. The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea by Axie Oh

The first printing of this book––a retelling of the Korean legend The Tale of Shim Cheong––vanished before I could get my hands on a copy from my local indie. Following a girl who goes in search of the mysterious Sea God in order to save her village from his wrath, The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea earned rave reviews from my favorite blogs, and promises a magical, fairy-tale feel of the kind I’m always hungry for. As soon as my (second-run) copy arrives, I’m diving right in.


2. A Thousand Steps Into Night by Traci Chee

Traci Chee, author of the Reader trilogy (which I adore!) is out with a new Japanese-influenced fantasy that I’ve been anticipating since it was announced. When the book’s main character, Miuko, is cursed by a demon, she must leave her sleepy village and embark on a quest that puts her in the path of tricksters, gods, and spirits, with Chee’s trademark meticulousness shining through in footnotes throughout. (I was thrilled to hear about said footnotes in her newsletter, which I’m subscribed to because of course I am.)


3. The Merciless Ones by Namina Forna

Releasing in May, this title is the sequel to 2021’s The Gilded Ones, an epic work of West-African-inspired fantasy that nails everything from worldbuilding to combat, and had me chomping at the bit for more the moment I finished it. I can’t wait to see what Forna does with the revelations from the end of book one, but more than that, I can’t wait to see more of her excellent staging and dynamic set pieces! Forna is a screenwriter by trade, and every part of The Gilded Ones shows it.


4. Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer

Nonfiction and I make only a few rendezvous over the course of a year, but I’m quite looking forward to picking up Braiding Sweetgrass this spring in an effort to explore more titles on science. Written by Potawatomi botanist and professor Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer, the book combines philosophy, science, and an Indigenous perspective on both to dive deep into society’s relationship with the natural world. It’s incredibly beloved and has been recommended to me a number of times, so my hopes are rather high.


5. Queen of the Tiles by Hanna Alkaf

Murder mystery and competitive Scrabble…it’s a match that’s just meant to be. Queen of the Tiles stars teen Scrabble-r (?) Najwa Bakri, who must put together the pieces of her friend’s seemingly-straightforward death after her once-inactive Instagram mysteriously starts posting again. Pacy, clever, and purportedly filled with wordplay, this book and its premise locked me in immediately. I haven’t even met Najwa yet, but I already know that if she beat me at Scrabble, I’d thank her.


6. The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater

A friend of mine has been on me about reading The Raven Boys for going on a year now…and lo and behold, she was right. I had a marvelous time! The Dream Thieves, its 2013 sequel, promises another 400 pages with characters I latched onto like a leech, more strange adventures in the town of Henrietta, and a touch of dream magic, all incentives for me to continue this quartet with all requisite swiftness. The Raven Boys didn’t immediately strike me as a book in need of a sequel…but I’m eager to be proven wrong.


7. The Lives of Saints by Leigh Bardugo

Reader, it’s been sitting on my fantasy shelf for months––a collection of stories from the world of the Grishaverse, ranging in tone from wry to tragic, and gorgeously illustrated…or so I’m told, because I, an avowed fan of Bardugo’s, totally fumbled this release. The Language of Thorns, another collection of Grishaverse lore, is my favorite of the books, and I’m hopeful that this volume will join or unseat it at the top of my personal ranking. (On second thought, though, a rabid Shadow and Bone fan who can tell you not only what her Grisha order would be, but her patron Sankt as well? I’m not certain that’s something I should allow released into the wild. It’ll put me one step closer to owning a goddamn kefta.)


8. Control by Lydia Kang

This 2013 dystopian thriller follows Zelia, a budding scientist who has to rescue her sister from kidnappers convinced her DNA holds a powerful secret. YA sci-fi (especially its Hunger Games-era backlist!) is something I often find myself returning to. I love the way ethics find their way into vivid medical and technological thrills, set against worlds that train their eyes on contemporary teenage life and its restrictions. With vibes echoing Lissa Price’s Starters and Arwen Elys Dayton’s Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful in the very best way, something about Control tells me I’m in for a treat.


9. A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin

The Earthsea Cycle is next up on my yearlong survey of classic fantasy, and I’ve heard wonderful things. It’s a coming-of-age story set in a world I’ve heard was quite unique at the time (being published alongside European medieval fantasy after European medieval fantasy), and featuring dragons and magic school, both of which I’m always down for. Anyway, Le Guin is a legendary writer, and I’m delighted to finally be getting my first taste of her work.


10. Nimona by Noelle Stevenson

Netflix’s She-Ra and the Princesses of Power ate my life a few months back, and I was thrilled to discover some work of showrunner Noelle Stevenson’s floating around in the world of comics. Nimona is a sprightly, irreverent fantasy adventure, drawn in Stevenson’s charming art style and based off of his earlier webcomic. It was published in 2015 to a fair bit of acclaim and even had an adaptation in the works before BlueSky shuttered a few years back (😢), so fingers crossed I’ll find a new favorite in this one…or at least a few quips to quote every now and then.


Thank you so much for reading! What does your Spring 2022 in reading look like? As always, I’d love to hear all about it in the comments below 💕

Every Witch Book Wishes It Was Claire Legrand’s “Extasia”

If you’re a fan of 2018’s Sawkill Girls, rejoice! Claire Legrand returns (at last!) to magic-tinged horror in this bloody, angry wonder of a book.

Generations have passed since the end of the world and (to our knowledge) only one fragile village remains. In Haven, women are blamed for humanity’s downfall, and a fiery gospel ritualizes their suffering in the form of four young anointed Saints. When Amity, Extasia‘s careful, prudent lead, gets her lifelong wish to join them, she hopes to bring an end to the mysterious killings befalling Haven’s men. All hell breaks loose instead.

To call Extasia a vision is only to scrape the surface of what Legrand accomplishes here. From atmosphere to suspense; eerie echo of the past to terrifying prospect for our future, this book and its world are utterly gripping. Legrand gets what makes misogynistic ideology so terrifying: not merely its capacity to breed and vindicate violence, but also the fact that the social order is built on it, and clings to it as refuge in times of terror. This is something that comes across vividly when Extasia reads like a fantasy historical, but it’s tenfold more potent in those instances where the book wields a dystopian edge––in a ritual involving the Saints that reads like an echo of 1984‘s Two Minutes Hate, in brief (but not overwhelming) touches of sci-fi, and in all the moments where witchcraft shows clairvoyance for a calamity already passed.

But this book isn’t just a satisfying experiment for lovers of all the genres it pulls from; it’s also a ruthless page turner that had me loathe to shut the cover and do anything else. Legrand makes keeping narrative pace look effortless: Amity’s shifting goals, worsening circumstances, and two beautifully-crafted forces of opposition are all excellently timed with respect to one another, and these just-under-500 pages go scarily fucking fast.

One more thing…I would go to war for this love story. Romantic subplots are a much-looked-for icing atop my very favorite cakes, and this icing is sweetened with the finest sugar around: contrast. The scenes between Amity and the spoiler-y girl in question are achingly tender, and almost heartbreakingly soft when held against the devastation around them. If a book can make me cry with a kiss, it wins ❤️

This is not the book for those who lack a taste for gore or dislike the use of religion in horror, but if you want to read about girls kissing as their world comes crashing down, wanted more to chew on from the likes of The Crucible, or find yourself in need of a healthy dose of the eldritch, you need to get Extasia read, like, yesterday.


Thank you so much for reading! Talk to me in the comments: I’m trying a shorter format for reviews every now and then, so what do you think? Also, if you’ve read this book or have recs for anything like it, be sure to let me know 💕

What I Read In February

Welcome back to the blog! As we clear another month, I hope you’re doing what brings you joy, whatever form that takes. For my part, I found plenty of joy in the books I picked up this month, and even more in reviewing them 🤓


11. Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare

This charming comedy of manners, mistaken identity, and ethically dubious pranks is an ever-renewing treat. In it, we meet Viola, who’s just lost her brother in a shipwreck on unfamiliar shores. There, she enters the service of the duke Orsino disguised as a pageboy, and marvelously funny hijinks ensue. Twelfth Night contains some of the most iconic antics, clever uses of dramatic irony, and painfully sincere scenes of pining in all of Shakespeare, and in addition to being a favorite of theatre companies, it’s also a dear one of mine. The last of the Bard’s comedies in my dogged quest to read ‘em all, it proves a fitting swan song for the category that will likely remain first in my heart.


12. Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet by Jennifer Homans

Tracing the art form from its courtly inception to its contemporary shifts, Jennifer Homan’s 500-page ballet history is all about one thing: context. This book’s commitment to illuminating ballet against the backdrop of everything else––politics, money, other artistic disciplines––makes it as much a vast chronicle as it is a critic’s look at changes in style and staging. I loved reading Homans’ long chapters of biography interwoven with choreography interwoven with the happenings of the wider world. (Even if it started to wear on me around page 450, where we enter ballet’s 20th-century American heyday, and lose some of the earlier chapters’ perspective and restraint.) All in all, I had a great time, despite ending the book feeling a little like this.


13. Prince Caspian by C. S. Lewis

I’m looking to finish more works of classic fantasy this year, and after clearing The Lord of the Rings (again) with much weepy fanfare, I’m arriving at the sequels to The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, which I read in 2020 and delighted in. My mileage with this next book is mixed, though. We meet the four child heroes of book one, the Pevensie siblings, as they return to the Narnia of their fond and fantastical memories, only to discover centuries passed in their absence and a terrible king on the throne. Their mission, which I found awkwardly paced and anticlimactic, is to help the titular exiled prince to his rightful crown. What Prince Caspian has to its advantage, though, it has in spades: a cast of characters bound by a deep, unwavering love, a tradition steeped in myth and fairy tale, and an adventurous spirit that has its kindred in fantasy books to this day.


14. Half Life by Lillian Clark

YA sci-fi author Lillian Clark conducts a promising experiment in 2020’s Half Life, even if its results aren’t always up to par. Following the 15-year-old perfectionist and Ivy-League aspirant Lucille, the book injects the dilemmas of human cloning into ordinary teenage life, using Lucille and her eventual double to poke holes in both corporate greed and soul-sacrificing personal ambition. As promising as this fusion is, though, doing both has its drawbacks. Neither of these aspects feel like they have enough time, and Lucille’s clone is much fainter of a character than she is. Still, Clark is scarily honest about the aforementioned perfectionism––having been swallowed by it at regular intervals in my past, I often felt a little too Seen.


15. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C. S. Lewis

Helmed by the two younger Pevensies, Caspian, and a new character or two on a perilous journey across the sea, the rocky experience of this book’s soaring achievements and punishing failures is genuinely messing with my head. Hysterically funny! Heavy-handed as hell! Magical! Patronizing! Inspired! Infuriating! Though I admire Lewis’ departure from the quest form for something more episodic and fluid, the book’s structure feels unfocused and totally unmoored. Though Eustace Clarence Scrubb and his bah-humbug vibes were some of the most fun I’ve ever had with an ‘unlikeable’ character, I found myself actively cursing the means and timing of his redemption. And, though I love the mysticality and ambiguity of the ending, I take some serious objections to how Lewis uses his mentor figure, Aslan. On the whole, I come down on the side of disliking this book, but given how much potential I found in it, I’m totally bummed about that.


16. Aerie by Maria Dahvana Headley

Aerie is the sequel to Magonia, which follows a girl who discovers her secret heritage as one of the Magonians, a nation of sky sailors whose magic guides the weather over Earth. Both books are filled with song magic, maritime settings re-imagined for the clouds, and lots of identity-flavored angst, but this second book struggles with the climate allegory, and suffers from too much time spent away from our antagonists. Still, the world is as memorable as ever, and the way Headley illuminates the love interests’ flaws is incredibly considerate; one subplot in particular matches much of the first book for emotional depth. While I don’t necessarily think this sequel outpaces its predecessor, it comes damn close. And as far as duologies are concerned, this one is a shining example in its restraint and skillful completion.


17. The Silver Chair by C. S. Lewis

I think this next entry in the Chronicles of Narnia makes a much better swing at adventure for a lot of reasons, but allow me to begin with the one nearest and dearest to my heart: Eustace Clarence Scrubb is a grouch again, and this is a blessing and a relief. Our other leads, Jill and a Marsh-wiggle named Puddleglum, follow suit, showing more flaws, more conflict, and, as a result of both, more memorability than the earlier books’ Pevensie siblings. Also, the settings, villain, and general trajectory of this book are nicely dialed for mythical resonance, novelty, and, above all, focus. It’s fun to see a litany of fresh places in Dawn Treader, but I’d take The Silver Chair’s near-perfect handful over them all any day.


18. King John by William Shakespeare

Following the sequence of the titular characters’ reigns, King John is the first of Shakespeare’s history plays, a collection of cycles, Henriads, and notoriously long run times dramatizing the lives of kings throughout English history. This play starts the category with a bang: it’s a morally complex, ensemble-bolstered interrogation of shaky authority and what an increasingly paranoid king does to keep it. Several of King John’s supporters also undergo expertly-timed disillusionment arcs, with one in particular, a bastard son of the late Richard I, straddling the archetypes of cynical fool and determined young hero in a really interesting way. Some developments feel a little quick (as do a few scenes of tragedy and remorse that dip into melodrama), but the play triumphs overall as a portrait of a deeply flawed ruler.


19. War Girls by Tochi Onyebuchi

In a post-apocalyptic Nigeria racked by civil war and scoured by exploitation, War Girls welds a moving odyssey of parted sisters Onyii and Ify to a blistering, hard-edged vision of a futuristic world. With real history and a real Republic of Biafra as a basis, Tochi Onyebuchi constructs an intensely considerate work of sci-fi: he writes riveting scenes of tech-powered combat without ever reducing the casualties of war to thrills, and handles his two leads’ indescribable trauma with care that speaks to their analogues in actual child soldiers. It’s not rare that, through Onyii and her crushing responsibility, Onyebuchi will utterly floor you with a glimpse at the senselessness of war’s waste (a senselessness often accompanied by the greed/apathy/active malice of wealthier countries watching from the sidelines for opportunity). Part III of the book can flag, though. It struck me as sutured onto an incompatible first two thirds––never truly deciding whether it wants to be about consequence or recovery.


Thank you so much for reading! How was your February in books (or anything else)? As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below 💕

My Top 5 Very Specific Favorite Tropes

Hello again! I’m still recovering from a terrible hard drive crash (🥴) and had to dip from the blog for a while, but today I come to you with a list of favorite tropes inspired by one from the marvelous Aria @ Snow White Hates Apples! I love her list (and her blog in general), and I just had to join in on the fun.


1. Training In A Sci-Fi/Fantasy Setting

The Hunger Games (2010)

Whether it’s magic, technology, or warfare, I love it when characters have to train in a story. Better yet––I love it when the training is the story. As most of us spend a literal decade or more in school, learning (and how/why to do it) is a big question in our lives and I’m always delighted to see an author really think it through. (With the added adventure of space or political intrigue, of course!)

Books With This Trope:

  • The Gilded Ones by Namina Forna
  • Crewel by Gennifer Albin
  • Skyward by Brandon Sanderson
  • Legendborn by Tracy Deonn

2. Death And The Maiden

“Death and the Maiden” by Egon Shiele (1915)

When it comes to romantic dynamics, I’m hard pressed to find a favorite that tops this one: basically, a death-god or ruler (or another magical character that evokes this, like an Erlking or personification of winter) falls in love with a mortal. I enjoy first and foremost how the mortal has to overcome their frightened first impressions: over time, the ‘death’ love interest gets re-imagined as compelling, and, eventually, appealing, and this usually involves the author also taking a closer look at whatever conventionally evil symbol is associated with them. But, let’s be honest, I’m often here to watch the pairing overcome a power dynamic: there is nothing more satisfying than a regular person gathering the gumption to contend with their deathly love interest, and, in the process, winning their heart.

Books With This Trope:

  • Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik
  • Keturah and Lord Death by Martine Leavitt
  • The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi
  • Wintersong by S. Jae-Jones

3. Untrustworthy Guide

The Two Towers (2002)

You’re in uncharted territory, and you need someone to show you the ropes. Ideally for a character, this is someone they feel like they can trust, but it’s way more interesting if this is far from the case. I really enjoy watching heroes swallow their doubts and follow someone with uncertain intentions, whatever the actual outcome. It paves the way for plenty of conflict to break out, and it often has lots of buildup when it finally does.

Books & Movies With This Trope:

  • Hilda and the Mountain King by Luke Pearson
  • The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien
  • Tangled (2010)
  • Blood Heir by Amélie Wen Zhao

4. Arranged/Practical Marriage

All’s Well That Ends Well (RSC 2013)

This one’s kind of dubious, but I’m obsessed. I love reading about characters who marry for reasons other than love. Whether it’s merely politically convenient, or demanded of them by the powers that be, arranged marriage, especially in a fantasy setting, showcases a delicious tug-of-war between love and obligation. Plus the possibility that there might be real affection underneath the empty wedding bands makes me absolutely feral. EVERY time.

Books & Plays With This Trope:

  • Wither by Lauren DeStefano
  • All’s Well That Ends Well by William Shakespeare
  • Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik
  • The Guinevere Deception by Kiersten White

5. What’s Really In The Food

Doctor Who: “Smile” (2017)

This one’s a bit rarer, but it’s really effective. Usually in a dystopia––or in some other terrible environment that superficially resembles one––we learn that what the characters are eating…is not what they thought they were eating. This can be anything from a particularly gross food source to the remains of other people (!!!), but whatever it is, it gets to the heart of what’s wrong with a society in the quickest way we know: through its collective stomach. Calling this one a favorite is a stretch, considering that it’s generally pretty disturbing, but it always sticks with me, and of all these tropes, I think it’s the most powerful.

Books, Movies, & TV With This Trope:

  • The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls by Claire Legrand
  • Snowpiercer (2013)
  • Doctor Who: “Smile” (2017)
  • Soylent Green (1973) {Which I haven’t seen, but is probably this trope’s most famous example!}

Thank you so much for joining me on this strange journey into my tastes! If you have ANY recs for my favorite tropes, throw them at me, and as always, tell me all about yours 💕

What I Read In January

Happy February! (And happy premature Valentine’s day!) I hope you got to start your year with a wonderful month of books. Mine was lovely, and I have my fingers crossed for many more like it to come.


1. The Fellowship of the Ring by J. R. R. Tolkien

The Lord of the Rings, the classic fantasy series, marked such an important love in my childhood that it has ripples to this day. Peregrin Took, the hobbit and erstwhile prankster, is the source of my chosen name. I probably owe LOTR most of my current love of fantasy. There was even a brief period in fifth grade where all my notes were written in elf-runes. I’ll admit that this first volume isn’t always on the pacing––it’s obvious why the leisurely first half turns so many readers away––but it has so much else to its favor, from the iconic ensemble, to the immersive scenery, to Tolkien’s committed use of the legendary past, that I often even enjoyed the notorious initial slog.


2. All’s Well That Ends Well by William Shakespeare

Not fully a comedy but certainly not a tragedy, All’s Well That Ends Well joins Measure for Measure and Troilus and Cressida as a problem play, with a tenuous, happy-ish ending and a delicious set of dilemmas that invites wildly different interpretations. Of the trio, though, All’s Well That Ends Well is my favorite. It shows our romantic leads contending with a troubled arranged marriage, critiques toxic masculinity, and even reads at times like a fairy tale…if a very complicated one. But what really puts this play atop its (excellent!) companions is its capacity to be both complex and deeply earnest. Helena, our heroine, is nothing but sincerity, and the ending, should you chose to read it happily, is unwaveringly sappy as hell.


3. A Sorrow Fierce and Falling by Jessica Cluess

This YA historical fantasy (mostly) sticks the landing for the Kingdom on Fire trilogy, an intrigue-heavy take on Victorian England in which three magical traditions must unite to face an army of interdimensional demons…or perish. I lead with the worldbuilding here because it’s Jessica Cluess’ greatest strength: the three hierarchies, and the fraught history between them, make for an engrossing look at old institutions floundering in crisis. That drama, far more than the monster stuff, is what really animates A Sorrow Fierce and Falling. The monster stuff, in fact, is the source of most of its weaknesses. Sometimes vivid and harrowing, but mostly oversimplified and under-articulated, the fantastical threat itself doesn’t pull all that much weight, but luckily for this book, its political and personal scaffolding make up a fair part of the difference.


4. The Two Towers by J. R. R. Tolkien

This panoramic sequel to The Fellowship of the Ring makes a world’s worth of worthy additions to its predecessor. Taking the ring to Mordor––and protecting the rest of Middle-Earth in the meantime––loses what remains of its optimistic, early-quest luster for something much more perilous, and, I think, much richer. As we see the effects of Sauron’s mustering more closely, the industrialization-weary subtext comes into starker relief. As things darken on the horizon, the characters’ conviction in protecting what, and who, they love shines with a sincerity that puts The Two Towers firmly into tear-jerker territory. I cried often, and generously, though this reading, and that’s to say nothing of book three. 😭 😭


5. Red Tigress by Amélie Wen Zhao

The sequel to 2019’s YA fantasy Blood Heir, Red Tigress also makes a rewarding go at expanding the world of its series, following the exiled princess Anastacya as she tries to gather allies in her bid for the throne. The villains are iffy, and the climax is clumsy and drawn-out, but on the whole, Red Tigress is a well-structured fantasy of political intrigue, and it makes a keen use of character that speaks well to Zhao’s talent for cutting to the heart of things, something she swings with equal prowess as a worldbuilder and as a chronicler of people. Red Tigress is actually slightly shorter than Blood Heir, but because it does that expansion so well, it feels a lot bigger. (Reviewed here.)


6. The Hawthorne Legacy by Jennifer Lynn Barnes

While it veers often into soapy territory, this sequel to 2020’s The Inheritance Games makes three crucial improvements on its predecessor: higher emotional stakes for the love triangle, a more personal slant to the late-stage twists, and a banter-y group dynamic that lets the puzzles get more dangerous while, paradoxically, the general tone veers very light. It may seem an odd approach for a sequel whose subject matter is a little darker, but in all things, Jennifer Lynn Barnes errs on the side of maximum fun, yielding another volume of pure popcorn that reads splendidly in three sittings or less.


7. Troilus and Cressida by William Shakespeare

Based off of characters from the Iliad, Troilus and Cressida follows the ill-fated love of a Trojan prince and the daughter of a defector to the Greeks, as the war over Helen of Troy drags on with progressively less purpose. It’s bitter for its shaky place among the comedies (and just bitter, period), but that’s part of its appeal: Shakespeare paints a frustratingly modern picture of a conflict that persists only because it’s been persisting, and his pretty open disdain for the entire cast allows him to put them all under harsh scrutiny, a boon that very nearly makes up for the fact that it’s difficult to get attached to them as I would plenty of the Bard’s other ensembles. Lots of the characters typically seen as “noble” in tales of the Trojan War are shallow, stupid, and inconsistent here––but after centuries of deification, maybe they need to be.


8. The Return of the King by William Shakespeare

If I think the Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers are good (an understatement), I think The Return of the King is marvelous (also an understatement). Tolkien’s writing continues to inhabit a well-chosen crossroads in a visibly vast history, and, line-by-line, his prose again allows place and time to marinate in a reading experience that’s downright luxurious by modern standards, but the soul of this final book, in comparison to the first two, is something truly special. It shows us loss and stewardship; responsibility and resilience, with an urgency unlike anything Tolkien accomplished before. The long ending, in contrast to the extended beginning, feels wholly purposeful, standing as one of the deepest catharses I’ve ever read. I’ve been feeling the past Frodo can’t return to since I turned that last page, and I doubt I’ll ever recover.


9. Hedda Gabler by Henrik Ibsen

I’m still chewing on this one. Ibsen, the 19th century Norwegian playwright behind A Doll’s House, tackles a heroine familiarly at odds with the expectations of marriage and motherhood in this later play, but Hedda’s chafing is harsher. Rather than suffocating in her role, she lashes out at it by setting those around her against each other and watching the resulting fires from afar. While I like the unrestrained take on a woman who feels genuinely trapped, Ibsen handles her with too much of a bent towards sensation. The ending feels abrupt and irresponsibly trivializing, and I think the play sets out to shock us, rather than turning our eyes towards the structures of power they need to see underneath the spectacle.


10. Star-Touched Stories by Roshani Chokshi

Set in the vivid, enthralling world of Roshani Chokshi’s Star-Touched Queen duology, this lovely trio of novellas is the best sort of gift: the kind you are not clever enough to ask for. Two feature familiar faces, and one does not, but all three are a testament to how well Chokshi uses conflict to give her characters exactly what they need, whether it’s the courage required to love in the face of loss, or a willingness to offer one’s true self at the risk of rejection. While they don’t quite reach the emotional power of Chokshi’s preceding novels, all the magical delights are there, and this addition to the Star-Touched world is orders of magnitude more than just a few cameos. (My favorite story was Rose and Sword! Chokshi’s use of a framing device to contend with the coming of the inevitable is just genius.)


Thank you so much for reading! How was your January in books? I’d love to hear all about it, in the comments below 💕

“Red Tigress” A Mixed But Ultimately Triumphant Sequel to “Blood Heir”

On the heels of her victory at the end of Amélie Wen Zhao’s YA fantasy Blood Heir, the empress Morganya is terrorizing the nation of Cyrilia. Swearing vengeance on behalf of the persecuted Affinites, bearers of magical elements from flesh to fire, she’s using the full force of the law to crack down on any suspected of illicit Affinite trafficking––with or without proof.

The power struggle between her and Blood Heir’s lead, the blood Affinite and exiled princess Anastacya, remains the series’ long-term thrust, but in Red Tigress, Zhao sets her sights on promising new shores. The center-stage conflicts in this second volume expand the scope of Blood Heir’s world, put the complicity of nations beyond Cyrilia under scrutiny, and make what is, on paper, a detour, feel anything but.

At curtain, Anastacya, or Ana, is in search of allies in the crumbling city of Novo Mynsk. With her is the young criminal mastermind Ramson Quicktongue, whose shady past and unsavory connections make for a massive liability in any bid for the throne––but are, as in book one, excellent reading material. These two playing off of each other as a duo did wonders for Blood Heir, a first installment that very much felt like their book, but Red Tigress aims broad in more ways than one, and, along with an expanded world, Zhao serves us an expanded cast.

Now, additional points of view often clutter a second book, but she incorporates them very shrewdly, their use like cutaways in a screenplay: pacing-sensitive, reserved for necessity, and, occasionally, only visiting a certain character once. It doesn’t snatch the reins from Ana and Ramson by any means, but it does make way for Red Tigress to nail the side character category, especially where it concerns the characters whose heads we visit most often in Zhao’s narration: Ana and Ramson, as before, along with Linn, a wind Affinite and survivor of trafficking, and Kaïs, a defector from the royal guard.

Save for the villains (more on that later), Red Tigress is so effective with its supporting players because, much in the same way that Zhao’s worldbuilding goes straight to the principles and flaws at the heart of a culture, her character work prioritizes the dilemmas that animate people’s lives. Will Ana take her birthright or reconsider the institution of the crown altogether? Will Ramson let himself love, or keep his heart closely guarded? Will Linn protect herself, or return to the fight to free other Affinites and risk meeting old demons? Will Kaïs forfeit principle for the safety of his family, or risk his family for the sake of principle?

These dilemmas would certainly be visible from the outside (and for other players whose perspectives we don’t get, they very much are), but it’s Red Tigress’ willingness to let Ana take a few steps back as a protagonist that really lets them shine, though the ease with which Zhao’s prose takes on new voices certainly doesn’t hurt.

As a tool of worldbuilding, too, the group-piece leanings of Red Tigress work like a dream. Ramson’s spoiler-y connections to the government of Bregon, a military-minded island nation to Cyrilia’s west, flesh out more than just the nice visuals. Through him, Zhao grasps the intricacies of policy with the judgement of an insider: Bregon’s a constitutional monarchy that pretends to be “above” absolute royal rule while stumbling into the trap of military dictatorship, and the intrigue of these two institutions in conflict fuels much of the book’s best suspense.

But through Ana, Linn, and Kaïs, Zhao considers the failures of a nation that claims to embrace Affinites by giving them positions of rank and the appearance of equality…while also looking the other way as their captors traffic them through Bregonian ports. All four perspectives are crucial to the setting at hand, and, in establishing it, none are wasted.

It’s this, coupled with how she explores Kemeira through Linn’s memories, that makes Red Tigress a more complete rendering of what Blood Heir was trying to accomplish. This story really works as a group piece, and its plot really moves when it spans further than Cyrilia’s borders. But some weaknesses carry over, and they’re deeply hostile to the book’s last 100 pages: the villains are frustratingly one-note and unsympathetic, and the climactic confrontations are an almost-total fumble.

While there’s some use for a couple of Red Tigress’ minor antagonists as character foils for the main four, all of the villains crumble when considered on their own. Morganya, as her introduction in this review might suggest, is too wicked-witch to give her cause weight against Ana’s, a strange and wasteful choice for a villain designed with such an ostensibly noble goal. The Admiral of Bregon’s navy, also, is too much monster and not enough man. Yet another villain whose identity it is a spoiler to reveal is a flavor of pathetic-evil taken to an overdone extreme. Ultimately, all these baddies read like the book is afraid of us possibly taking their side––so instead of substance to latch onto, we get slippery, unapproachable archetype.

And, in fact, this unfortunate crowd is to blame for the climax, too, because when the focus is on the political scaffolding, Zhao juggles conflicts just fine, but when Red Tigress defaults to a bombastic clash of wills, what should be the most emotionally-charged scene is instead the one with the least at stake…because only half of its combatants are even remotely interesting to watch.

That said, the book’s earlier investments make hanging on through the climax worth it. It wouldn’t be accurate to say that Red Tigress isn’t at all about the fight between hero and villain, but it has enough going for it outside that aspect that it’s best taken as a work with other goals in mind. For my part, those goals, and Zhao’s success with them, are enough to keep me reading on to book 3.


Thank you so much for reading! Have you read Red Tigress and/or Blood Heir? What did you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts, in the comments below 💕