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 💕