What I Read in August

Hello, and welcome back to the blog! Before I dive into my August reads, I wanted to mention that, with the start of school approaching, I’ll be cutting back my posting to once a week. Tuesdays will be my day moving forward, though I hope a stray Friday post will find its way here every now and then. Now: onto the books!


64. Starsight by Brandon Sanderson

In this sequel to Sanderson’s YA space romp, Skyward, we join our lead and newly-minted pilot Spensa as she undertakes a mission to the heart of enemy territory in disguise. After a few too many plot-enabling coincidences in the first act, Starsight‘s thrusters kick in and the book roars forward with impressive gumption. Sanderson writes a space-dogfight with energy rivaling that of Star Wars, and gifts us with a lovable new ensemble that well and enough makes up for the fact that we see so little of the old one. Diplomacy also steps up to play a surprising role in this otherwise war-minded take on a galaxy in distress, forcing Spensa to contend with the limits of her––and humanity’s––trigger-happy approach to conflict. Complex, expansive, and with a devastating cliffhanger ending, Starsight does its job very well: I’m chomping at the bit for book three.


65. Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

Naomi Novik’s loose retelling of “Rumpelstiltskin” is a book of many talents. Gorgeous world, generous characterizations, rich character dynamics, and incredible complexity abound in this absorbing wonder of a book. Novik’s careful attention to the everyday lives of her characters does as much or more to form the sinews of her fantasy as the magic itself, reveling in trade, candlelight, and craft. The romances, of course, like the one in Uprooted, are catnip to anyone who has a taste for love stories of the Death-and-the-Maiden variety, but some of the book’s most moving portraits are of family, its every page as welcoming as the warmest fireplace. (Reviewed here.)


66. The Wild Girl by Kate Forsyth

I don’t consider myself a denizen of the historical genre, but for Kate Forsyth, I’ll make an exception. In The Wild Girl, set during the Napoleonic Wars, Forsyth follows a young Dortchen Wild as she falls for one of the neighbor boys, a young scholar by the name of none other than Wilhelm Grimm. The real-life Dortchen Wild is actually documented as the source of many of the fairy tales compiled and edited by the Brothers Grimm, and, with precious few liberties, The Wild Girl fits them into a compelling dramatic framework, bolstered by a moving look at the effects of war on the middle class. Though the book sometimes drifts into sensationalism, it remains softly, stirringly human.


67. The Wicked King by Holly Black

After entertaining a middling opinion of The Cruel Prince, the very last thing I expected was for its sequel to sweep me off my feet. By expanding the scope of her world, amping up the personal stakes and wielding enigma like a dagger, Holly Black crafts a sequel that is dizzyingly fun and full of surprises, both personal and political. On the personal front, The Wicked King boasts the defining moments of one of young adult’s finest enemies-to-lovers couples, which, at long last, I finally have no choice but to root for. On the political, though, Black doesn’t neglect to keep pace: court intrigue, rival kingdoms, and a fair share of spying anchor the deliciously thorny romance for a singular fantasy treat. (Reviewed here.)


68. A Dress for the Wicked by Autumn Krause

This book’s pitch promises couture enlivened with intrigue: when a teenage seamstress gets a once-in-a-lifetime chance to compete in a design competition, she must fend off doubt, elitism…and sabotage. A Dress for the Wicked, however, is plagued by weaknesses endemic to the contest setup, from personal stakes floundering under competitive ones to contestant-character soup. Things pick up after a lumbering first half, but not enough to compensate for the peril feeling wholly arbitrary. With a supporting lineup of mostly flimsy archetypes, a stale and tensionless romance, and blunt, unrefined prose, the book evokes a gown in substantial need of tailoring.


69. Great Goddesses by Nikita Gill

Nikita Gill’s re-imagining of Greek myth holds poems of varying potency. My favorites are all the ones that inject tenderness where we’ve previously imagined cruelty: what Gill does with Hephaestus and Aphrodite, Ares and Calliope, and Hades and Persephone marks, I think, the height of this collection. Gossamer-delicate, liberal with humanity, and refreshingly sincere. Sometimes, though, where Gill is more overt with her themes, they lose the meat of their substance, leaving the reader with little more than bones to chew on. Great Goddesses is well-suited to portraiture and less so to manifesto, but strong with imagery across the board––even in poems I didn’t like, I have phrases tabbed for future reference.


70. Reality Boy by A. S. King

Every time I read another A.S. King, I find myself wishing it was Please Ignore Vera Dietz, her incredible debut. Reality Boy is no exception: stripped of the gritty fabulism that lines her other books, it has only realism to rest on, which, in this volume, makes for a clumsy stance that leaves it apt to lose its footing. King’s interrogation of reality TV and its human damages is powerful, but her plotting and scene structure isn’t; I often had to read chapters over again because the whole thing escaped me. Though suited to the character, the narration is both vulgar and abrupt, yielding a reading experience that left me struggling to keep up and feeling punished for doing so.


71. Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Mohsin Hamid’s tale of war and migration turns a keen eye on policy failure where it concerns aiding refugees, but mostly owing to his choice of style, I struggled to appreciate it. The book contains one element of magic realism, but its use is sparse and purely utilitarian, which comes as a sore disappointment to any fool (me) who picked it up for that reason in particular. Hamid is much more interested in his characters, but his approach to style tends to keep them at arm’s length. Pages and pages will pass with no dialogue whatsoever, for instance, the scenes not so much transpiring as being recounted to the reader. All of this is intentional, of course, but it makes the characters feel like strangers even by the book’s end, their substance closed to us by the author’s pen.


72. When the Sea Is Rising Red by Cat Hellisen

This quiet fantasy from 2012 holds many little treasures: an interesting, Victorian-tinged maritime setting, a unique approach to the love triangle, and an elegant use of sea-based eldritch horror are chief among its charms. But where fictional caste is concerned, Hellisen falters, falling into the extremist member of the minority-as-villain trap in a way that shines unfavorably on the narrative’s ultimate deference to the status quo. Still, the book’s depiction of the crumbling splendor of once-great houses of wealth is ripe for exploration, as is the internalized elitism in Felicita, When The Sea Is Rising Red‘s fugitive heiress heroine. At just under three hundred pages, though, the novel’s lofty aims of a revolution begun and ended feel rushed, and Felicita’s development, likewise, unfinished.


73. The Betrayed by Kiera Cass

Kiera Cass’ latest duology isn’t for everyone, but there is more to love here than just a re-run of The Selection. Both volumes, The Betrayed in particular, are heavy on family dynamics, paying just as much page time to our protagonist’s adopted mother figures as to the romance and the (woefully) shaky plot. Some of my hopes from The Betrothed, which I, seemingly alone in this, loved, were dashed, but this book mostly makes up for it. In subtle ways, through small tokens and intimate scenes of character development, Cass knows, just as well as any of her books’ love interests, how to win a girl’s heart. (Reviewed here.)


74. The Merciful Crow by Margaret Owen

Where When The Sea is Rising Red is coy about its fictional caste system, Margaret Owen’s debut is uniquely concerned with hers––and its troubled bottom rung. Known as the Crows, it is their lot to contain a plague ravaging the land of Sabor, and they face unprovoked violence and apathy from authority figures as they do so. While there’s plenty of on-the-page danger, however, there’s something about Owen’s prose that keeps the suspense from singing. There’s more than enough elsewhere to make up for it, though: a thoughtful look at a corrupt and unequal society, a textured approach to worldbuilding, and strong relationship dynamics (both platonic and romantic) anchor this sturdy, purposeful first installment.


So concludes August! How was your reading month? Feel free to tell me about your favorites, least favorites, and general bookish antics, in the comments. 💕

How “The Wicked King” Attacked Me, Personally

Despite my love of thorny, enemies-to-lovers couples and court intrigue, I was not one of The Cruel Prince‘s immediate devotees. I found Holly Black’s worldbuilding, with its notes taken from classical sources and thoughtful approach to the mortals-in-Faerie problem, rich and intriguing, but ultimately not to the scale that would let me believe in the danger at hand. Faerie felt altogether too intimate, what, with its tiny graduating class and power plays conducted in between lectures.

Blasphemously, I was also “meh” on Jurdan, the pairing of Jude, a prickly mortal who cannot breathe without having a bone to pick, and Cardan, her opposite and equal in a fae fuckboy. (Argue semantics, if you wish, in the comments.)

Every now and then, the time comes for me to eat my words. The Wicked King, an absolute knockout of a sequel, is one such occasion.

First and most urgently addressed is an expansion of the world of the series. In The Cruel Prince, even with the help of distant fae courts and a cleverly-drawn magical history, the population and influence of Elfhame never escaped, to me at least, the sense that it was too small to be worth fighting over.

Putting high school and its archetypal cliques into the mix, however, was the one choice that proved fatal. This forever cemented in my mind the lingering suspicion that, even having exchanged the lecture hall for the throne room over the course of the book, we never left the petty high school squabbles behind. Even the most iconic Jurdan scenes from the first book felt ever so much like one shoving the other into a locker, despite the very real stakes involved.

But in The Wicked King, two things change that allow Holly Black’s plot construction to escape the specter of triviality. One, she puts a truly powerful contender in the way of Elfhame’s rule by way of the Undersea, a vast conglomerate of what were once independent merfolk courts, thus amplifying the outside pressure and expanding the book’s scope.

Two is deceptively simple: her characters are now in positions of power.

This rather straightforward move ups the ante a priori, but Black does undertake some heavy lifting to make sure there are fitting challenges facing our newly empowered leads now that they’ve moved up in the world. This is where I take back everything I said about The Cruel Prince not being dangerous enough: frustrating though it may have been to read at the time, the book’s dialed back scale turns out to be a massive advantage going forward, almost as if to spite me.

Here’s the thing: it allows the oppositions that will develop in The Wicked King time to form solid foundations. Both Locke and Nicasia, for example, who joined Cardan as Jude’s bullies in book one, become players in the game for power in book two. Just on principle, I would’ve wanted the books to skip straight to where the stakes were actively mounting, but it is in fact the history between the two of them, Cardan, and Jude––the history that was being written while I was rolling my eyes at the triviality of it all––that yields precisely what I want out of conflict, both where it pertains to their roles, and elsewhere: complexity.

The high school drama I pinned as unnecessary before is, to my deepest dismay, very necessary, indeed. The petty jealousy feeds later interactions. The silly feuds make the serious ones more personal. The answer most series fans have for people who didn’t love book one is “just wait.” Unfortunately, in this case, I have to verify. Holly Black was playing the long game all this time. I just wasn’t quick enough to see it.

All of this is to say, I ship Jurdan now, the lot of you were ever-so-right, and I hope you’re very pleased with yourselves.

To wit: where I clocked Cardan as sort of vague upon reading The Cruel Prince, he’s instead enigmatic in The Wicked King. Don’t get me wrong, I still don’t feel as though Black brought us into his head, but in this volume, that move comes into relief as a deliberate one. He’s just as unpredictable, if not more so, than before, but here, it’s a device for the controlled reveal of information that keeps ticking with expert precision until the very end. (And what an end! The internet spoiled me for it years ago and I still ooh’d like my classmate was being called to the principal’s office.)

At least––at least––I had the foresight to be fond of Jude from the very beginning. And how could I not? She’s like Skyward‘s Spensa with the piloting skills swapped in favor of an eye for politics: angry with her world and righteously so, a guttural character study in what it is to bear the sins of one’s father, and all the shame, resentment, and reactive violence that entails. But urged on as both leads are by softer desires (acceptance, actualization, and, in Jude’s case, love without any terms attached), the contrast of that against the spiny shell illuminates a fully realized, self-contradicting human being whom I would, without hesitation, die for. (Or kill for. Either way, what bliss…)

Considering the whole of this infuriating second book that manages to justify the choices of its predecessor in reverse, only one complaint truly carries over. The Court of Shadows remains underdeveloped, and, when a plot twist regarding the Ghost hit, for a moment, I was like “who?”

But, honestly. In the face of my girlish squee-ing all through Act III, I’m happy to savor what I’m given. I’ll save my “um-actually”s for another time.