ARC Review: Iron Widow

Title: Iron Widow
Author: 
Xiran Jay Zhao
Genre: 
Young Adult/Sci-Fi
Version: ebook – ARC
Page Count: 
400
Publisher: 
Penguin Teen
Synopsis: GoodReads | StoryGraph
Notable Notables: 
Based in Chinese culture with a Chinese-coded cast; inspired by China’s only female emperor; polyamorous relationship
Recommended Readers: 
Fans of mecha anime and revenge stories
CAWPILE Rating: 7.86
Rating: ★★★★☆

Thank you, NetGalley and the publisher, for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

My Review

Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao is a stand-out, explosive debut that is sure to capture the imaginations and whet the appetites of readers searching for female revenge stories. With sci-fi being a rarer sight in the YA genre, Iron Widow takes a bold approach with its mecha anime-inspired roots along with being steeped in Chinese history.

In Huxia, boys dream of becoming ace pilots of Chrysalises, which are giant, transforming robots powered by syncing up with female concubine-pilots. It doesn’t matter that the girls die of mental strain, only that the mecha aliens beyond the Great Wall are stopped. Wu Zetian volunteers as a concubine-pilot to assassinate the male pilot who killed her older sister, only to emerge from the cockpit unscathed and with her co-pilot dead after overcoming him through their psychic link. Instead of being his One True Match and Iron Princess, Zetian is an Iron Widow, a much-feared and often silenced female pilot who can sacrifice boys instead. To subdue her, she is paired with Li Shimin, the strongest and most controversial pilot in Huxia, but she is not interested in being cowed. Instead, she plots to use Shimin and their newfound notoriety to survive attempt after attempt against her life until she can discover why the pilot system works as it does and stop more girls from being sacrificed for male dominance.

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Book Review: The Captive Prince Trilogy

This is going to be a somewhat different post from me because it’s a review of not one book but three: the entire Captive Prince trilogy by C.S. Pacat, comprising of Captive Prince, Prince’s Gambit, and Kings Rising. I consumed these books in a month after a Herculean effort of trying to pace myself, to absorb what I was reading instead of blazing through it in a “head empty, no thoughts” mindset. This has been the first trilogy I’ve read all the way through in quite some time, and I had nothing but a good time, a realization that thrilled me to no end.

For a few years, I’d been eyeing these books, staying away for a few reasons that all amounted to my own unfounded assumptions and others’ naysaying. These books were in the romance section, which means they likely weren’t well-written. They contained just sex covered by the thinnest veil of plot. They were hugely problematic in the way they glorify sexual slavery, rape, and other issues. The list goes on, but finally, I’d had enough of believing the fears. I picked up Captive Prince because current fiction and romance have been boring me to death lately, and before long I realized I was utterly—wait for it—captivated.

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Book Review: The Will and the Wilds

Title: The Will and the Wilds
Author: 
Charlie N. Holmberg
Genre: 
Adult Fantasy
Version: 
ebook
Page Count: 
267
Publisher: 
47North
Synopsis: GoodReadsStoryGraph
Notable Notables: 
Original fae lore, strong standalone fantasy, enemies-to-lovers
Recommended Readers: 
Lovers of fairytales and trickster characters
CAWPILE Rating: 
9.14
Rating: ★★★★★

My Review

A modern-day fairytale does exist that can sweep you away into adventure and make you sigh wistfully, and it’s The Will and the Wilds by Charlie N. Holmberg.

I’ve had my eye on this book for awhile, especially since a certain long-winded, so-called fae court series continued to disappointment me and fuel my hatred. Didn’t any author besides Holly Black actually know what fae are? Can’t anyone capture the sense of adventure and danger that comes with bargaining with magical creatures that exist beyond human understanding? Is enemies-to-lovers well and truly dead, with my choices being either “had an argument once”-to-lovers or animalistic alpha male rutting and mating bonds? “Nay!” said Holmberg. “I am here for you, my child.”

Thank you, Ms. Holmberg, I owe you my life.

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ARC Review: Black Water Sister

Title: Black Water Sister
Author: Zen Cho
Genre: 
Contemporary/Fantasy
Version: 
ebook – ARC
Page Count: 
384
Publisher: Ace Books
Synopsis: GoodReads, StoryGraph
Notable Notables: 
Malaysian lesbian main character, Malaysian setting and mythology, Chinese culture
Recommended Readers: 
Fans of Yangsze Choo and anyone looking for a modern, magical Southeast Asian read
CAWPILE Rating: 9.29
Rating: ★★★★★

Thank you, NetGalley and the publisher, for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

My Review

Contemporary fiction is not a genre I usually pick up because most of it simply doesn’t interest me. Contemporary fantasy, however, is an entirely different matter, and Zen Cho’s Black Water Sister struck gold with me from the very first chapter.

If you’ve read and loved either Yangsze Choo’s The Ghost Bride or The Night Tiger, then the setting, tone, and mythology of Black Water Sister may come across as familiar to you, to say nothing of someone who already has a Malaysian background. I only mention Yangsze Choo because 1) I love her works and 2) she started this love for Malaysian contemporary fantasy that I possess now, and I am beyond delighted that Zen Cho has contributed to that love. I cannot wait to check out Cho’s other books now.

Black Water Sister opens with jobless Harvard graduate Jessamyn Teoh moving back with her family to Malaysia after her father loses his job in America. Between hiding her lesbian relationship from her traditional parents, attempting to re-assimilate to a country and culture she hasn’t been a part of in decades, and adjust to the sudden swarm of relatives, Jess is understandably stressed. Hearing voices should come as no surprise—except the voice she hears is the ghost of her estranged, opinionated grandmother, Ah Ma, who was a spirit medium to a god called the Black Water Sister. Now, Ah Ma wants Jess to help her exact vengeance on a gang boss and businessman who has offended the god, or she won’t be able to pass on to the afterlife. However, the more Jess becomes entrenched in the supernatural, the more her own life and destiny are thrown into jeopardy.

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ARC Review: The Descent of the Drowned

Title: The Descent of the Drowned
Author: 
Ana Lal Din
Genre: Fantasy/Young Adult
Version: 
ARC – ebook
Page Count: 373
Publisher: White Tigress Press
Add To-Read on: GoodReadsStoryGraph
Notable Notables: 
Diverse cast, Pre-Islamic Arabian mythology
Recommended Readers: 
Anyone looking for a slow-building yet gripping read with two main characters who stand on their own
CAWPILE Rating: 9.14
Star Rating: ★★★★★

Thank you, to NetGalley and the publisher, for offering this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

My Review

A dark, compelling read, The Descent of the Drowned by Ana Lal Din immensely impressed me with its rich cultural descriptions, complicated characters, and slow-building plot. So much so that I already own a copy for myself.

Inspired by pre-Islamic Arabian mythology and culture, The Descent of the Drowned is the start of a YA fantasy trilogy that definitely leans hard on the older side of the scale due to its many heavy themes, which are addressed headfirst and unflinchingly. I recently read a book that equally horrified and enraged me at how gratuitous its violence and sexual themes were to be directed at a younger audience than truly appropriate. Therefore, my guard was up when I started this book, which tackles topics regarding sacred prostitution, rape, sexual assault, torture, self harm, suicide ideation, and many others.

Turns out I needn’t have bothered to be so wary. Each of these issues—and others—are treated with the gravity, horror, and fury they rightfully deserve. Readers have time to sit with these issues along with the characters and experience how these issues affect and inform the characters and their world, which is lovingly detailed with rich descriptions juxtaposed against the ugliness of human trafficking, transphobia, rape culture, caste systems, ethnic cleansing, and other cruelties. While reading, nothing ever felt glossed over or overdone, yet I also never felt hopelessly mired down by darkness. That’s because Lal Din managed to walk a delicate line between bringing awareness to these issues while also crafting a sincerely enjoyable story with characters I couldn’t help but be drawn to and root for.

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ARC Review: Down Comes the Night

Title: Down Comes the Night
Author: 
Allison Saft
Genre: 
Young Adult/Fantasy
Version: 
ARC – ebook
Page Count: 
400
Publisher: 
Wednesday Books
Add To-Read on: GoodReadsStoryGraph
Notable Notables: 
Bisexual main character, lesbian side character
Recommended Readers: 
Those looking for a standalone, atmospheric fantasy
CAWPILE Rating: 6.57
Star Rating: ★★★☆☆

Thank you, to NetGalley and the publisher, for offering this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

My Review

Down Comes the Night is Allison Saft’s debut novel, an original YA fantasy that pits logic and ruthlessness against emotion and forgiveness—and explores where the line is drawn between the two. What choices render you into your best self? Following the duty you’ve pledged yourself to or following your instincts to do what is right?

These are choices that Wren Southerland wrestles with daily in the country of Danu. A solider with healing magic in the Queen’s Guard, she is torn by the empathy she feels even toward enemy soldiers. Not even her best friend and commanding officer, Una Dryden, can save Wren once she makes a reckless mistake healing a captured enemy. Dismissed from the guard, Wren is determined to get back into the Queen’s good graces and return to the side of the girl she loves, even if Una can never truly reciprocate her affections. Wren sees her chance for redemption when an invitation arrives from a lord in a neutral country promising to lend his support to the Queen in exchange for curing his favorite servant from a mysterious illness plaguing his estate. However, Colwick Hall holds more mysteries than a disease that can kill, including that Wren’s patient isn’t a servant at all but Hal Cavendish, the Reaper of Vesria and Danu’s public enemy number one. As the estate and its eccentric host, Lord Lowry, turn more ominous, Wren and Hal will have to work together to solve the sinister forces at work even at the risk of committing treason, if their feelings for each other don’t render them traitors first.

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Book Review: Asunder

Title: Asunder
Author: David Gaider
Genre: Adult Fantasy
Version: Mass Market Paperback
Page Count: 485
Publisher: Tor Books
Add To-Read on: GoodReadsStoryGraph
Notable Notables: Written by openly-gay man who was a head writer of the Dragon Age games
Recommended Readers: Dragon Age fans wanting to read some sweet, sweet lore
CAWPILE Rating: 9.57
Star Rating: ★★★★★

My Review

Picture this: I’m in my third, back-to-back playthrough of Dragon Age: Inquisition when I learn that my son, Cole, has a book that’s all about his backstory. Naturally, I had to find and read it as soon as possible.

While I’ve vaguely known that Dragon Age books existed, I hadn’t picked up any until now because, historically, books written to supplement a video game franchise are often lackluster comparatively. It can be hard to capture all the things that make a video game wondrous through text alone, without you there as the player character that makes all the decisions and ultimately saves the day. So imagine my delighted surprise when I read Asunder, only to find that I didn’t just like it; I devoured it.

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ARC Review: The Gilded Ones

Title: The Gilded Ones
Author: Namina Forna
Genre: Young Adult/Fantasy
Version: ARC – ebook
Page Count: 432
Publisher: Delacorte
Add To-Read on: GoodReadsStoryGraph
Notable Notables: Female-led, POC cast; original, if underdeveloped, world-building
Recommended Readers: Older teens, but also no one unless you’re really in the mood for some grimdark
CAWPILE Rating: 2.29
Star Rating: ★☆☆☆☆

Thank you, to NetGalley and the publisher, for offering this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

My Review

Well, what happened here? I’m flabbergasted.

The Gilded Ones by Namina Forna was easily one of my most anticipated books since it was supposed to be released in 2020, its publication date pushed back due to the pandemic. Finally reading it, however, has been a bizarre, disturbing, and deeply unenjoyable experience.

Synopsis time. Sixteen-year-old Deka waits anxiously for the Ritual of Purity—for her blood to run red, so she can be accepted as a pure woman by her village at last. In the country of Otera, women must wear masks and defer to the men in their lives at all times, and all Deka wants is to be accepted enough to be considered marriageable. When her blood turns out to run gold, she is deemed impure, a demon, and must face the Death Mandate all her kind go through. Except she doesn’t die. Before the male elders can find her true death, a mysterious woman comes to her with a choice: stay in the village and submit to her fate, or leave to fight for the emperor in an army of girls just like her. These girls—alaki—are near-immortals with strength and speed men don’t possess, and they are the key to stopping the deathshrieks that plague the empire.

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ARC Review: Persephone Station

Title: Persephone Station
Author: Stina Leicht
Genre: Adult Sci-Fi
Version: ARC – ebook
Page Count: 512
Publisher: Gallery/Saga Press
Add To-Read on: GoodReadsStoryGraph
Notable Notables: Characters that are predominately female and non-binary with LGBTQ+ rep
Recommended Readers: Seekers of feminism in space opera
CAWPILE Rating: 3.14
Star Rating: ★★☆☆☆

Thank you, to NetGalley and the publisher, for offering this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

My Review

I was taken in by Stina Leicht’s Persephone Station the moment I saw its beautifully artistic cover and was sold when I read what it was being compared to: a blend of Cowboy Bebop and The Mandalorian but with a leading cast of women, non-binary, and queer characters.

Upon reading it, however, my excitement quickly fizzled. By far the coolest thing about the book is its cover, not the representation it delivers. The author seems to have focused so hard on providing good, squeaky-clean diversity and rep that she forgot a key element: making the characters and its plot interesting. There isn’t a hint of the eclectic friction found in the Cowboy Bebop cast, and it’s also sorely missing the heart of The Mandalorian. If I could sum up Persephone Station and its characters in a few words, they would be “safe and boring.”

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ARC Review: Black Sun

Title: Black Sun
Author: Rebecca Roanhorse
Genre: Fantasy
Version: ebook – ARC
Page Count: 454
Publisher: Saga Press
Add To-Read on: GoodReadsStoryGraph
Notable Notables: POC, LGBTQ+, and blind characters
Recommended Readers: Anyone wanting a fresh, non-European take on epic fantasy
Rating: ★★★★★

Thank you to NetGalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

My Review

Yes! This is it! This book is… wow!

Maybe my 2020 reading life has experienced a drought of easy, five-star reads. Maybe everything about this year has been utter shit and brimming with disappointment. So when I picked up Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse, I was begging, Please be good. You sound so interesting and your cover is gorgeous and if another of my most anticipated reads disappoints me, I will cry.

Well, Black Sun wasn’t just good; it was wonderful. It wasn’t just interesting. It was page-turning and original. I’ve already ran out and bought a copy for myself because I fell for it so hard.

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