Book review: Unconquerable Sun by Kate Elliot

Title: Unconquerable Sun by Kate Elliot

Publisher: Tor Books/Head of Zeus

Publication date: 1 October 2020

Genre: Adult | Science fiction | Space opera

Page extent: 528 pages

Rating:

Synopsis:

It has been eight centuries since the beacon system failed, sundering the heavens. Rising from the ashes of the collapse, cultures have fought, system-by-system, for control of the few remaining beacons. The Republic of Chaonia is one such polity. Surrounded by the Yele League and the vast Phene Empire, they have had to fight for their existence. After decades of conflict, Queen-Marshal Eirene has brought the Yele to heel.

Now it is time to deal with the Empire. Princess Sun, daughter and heir, has come of age.

In her first command, she drove a Phene garrison from the beacons of Na Iri – an impressive feat. But growing up in the shadow of her mother – a ruler both revered and feared – has been no easy task. While Sun may imagine that her victorious command will bring further opportunity to prove herself, it will in fact place her on the wrong side of court politics. There are those who would like to see Sun removed as heir, or better yet, dead. To survive, the princess must rely on her wits and companions: her biggest rival, her secret lover, and a dangerous prisoner of war.

Thank you to Head of Zeus and NetGalley for providing me an eARC in exchange for an honest review.

WE ARE BLESSED WITH AMAZING QUEER SCI FI THIS YEAR AND I CANT STOP SCREAMING ABOUT IT. I honestly cannot express in words how amazing a year scifi is having, I am in AWE at the stories coming in this genre. Unconquerable Sun is a retelling of Alexander the Great set in space with a female Alexander (and yes, there is a female Hephaestion too). It’s an epic story of war across the galaxy and as someone who hasn’t been hugely interested in massive war/military fantasy and scifi before, I am in awe at the ease with which Elliot’s writing completely engaged me because I had so much fun and was on the edge of my seat the whole way through.

Unconquerable Sun follows Sun, the daughter and heir to the Chaonian empire, who is locked in a bitter battle with her warrior mother for power, and must deftly use her brain and loyal companions to defeat the Phene empire they are at war with.

Unconquerable Sun does take a little time to fully get into. Sun isn’t the most endearing of characters: in fact, for the first few chapters, I thought she was a whiny brat and was swaying towards Team Eireine (her mother). A lot of the book is from Sun’s POV, which did make it a little difficult to get into the first portion of this book. However, from the wedding feast onwards, I was enthralled. There is constant action and tension throughout, this story never ever lets up. It’s absolutely amazing. It might sound like near constant battles and races against team is too much, but I really didn’t think it was at all. I think that’s particularly down to the way Elliot has embedded so much plot behind every single battle? We see so much history of the world come out in the story when we battle the Phene; we see so much political shenanigans when we get the fights and tension with Perse; we see so much insight into the different cultures in the galaxy when we battle with the Gatoi; and we see so much depth and exploration of family when we see the fraught nature of Sun’s relationship with her mother. There is so much worldbuilding poured into each of these battles that every one seems so different but so important because you gain more insights into the world each time.

This is another book which has had a blurb that doesn’t prepare you for more than one POV going in, which I do think publishing needs to get better at because it is always rather jarring to go into a book you think is going to be about Sun, and then get four or five other POVs (The Bone Shard Daughter I’m looking at you as well). But much like with The Bone Shard Daughter, I also think Unconquerable Sun benefited from having these additional viewpoints. It’s very interesting to see into the POV of an enemy Phene soldier, though their importance isn’t really touched upon within this book so by the end I was questioning a little why they were there. I’m assuming we’ll see more of them in the sequel! Alongside Sun, the other major POV character is Perse, the daughter of the leader of one of the 7 houses holding up the Chaonian Empire, who ran away from home to be a soldier. Her path becomes entwined with Sun’s in a way neither of them want, but I found the development of their relationship fascinating. It was really interesting to see Sun’s opinions on Perse go back and forth depending on who she was talking to. It really highlighted Sun’s ability to manipulate and use people, but also emphasised how she gains loyalty from those around her. Zizou is another POV character who I absoluty loved. He’s a Gatoi soldier who has been captured, and his personal storyline was one of my favourites. The Gatoi are a very interesting race and I loved reading about their culture and how the Phene have manipulated them in their war, it was all absolutely fascinating.

Sun has other companions, although we don’t get their POVs, but each are so unique and they are all so brilliant! If anything, I wish we got more of them! Of course, I must hightlight Hetty, the Hephaestion to Sun’s Alexander, the secret lover always by her side. I found the protective nature of Sun’s personality hilarious around Hetty but was equally enamoured with the way Hetty refused to be put in the corner and hidden away.

This was a really fantastic read. Push past the first few chapters of bratty Sun to get to a thrilling military scifi that never gets boring despite the constant battles thanks to the mammoth world building and character development that is embedded into each of these battles. Loved this one, and I can’t wait for the sequel!

Book review: These Witches Don’t Burn by Isobel Sterling

Title: These Witches Don’t Burn by Isobel Sterling

Publisher: Razorbill

Publication date: 28 May 2019

Genre: Young adult | Fantasy |Witches

Page extent: 336 pages

Rating:

Goodreads blurb: Hannah’s a witch, but not the kind you’re thinking of. She’s the real deal, an Elemental with the power to control fire, earth, water, and air. But even though she lives in Salem, Massachusetts, her magic is a secret she has to keep to herself. If she’s ever caught using it in front of a Reg (read: non-witch), she could lose it. For good. So, Hannah spends most of her time avoiding her ex-girlfriend (and fellow Elemental Witch) Veronica, hanging out with her best friend, and working at the Fly by Night Cauldron selling candles and crystals to tourists, goths, and local Wiccans.

But dealing with her ex is the least of Hannah’s concerns when a terrifying blood ritual interrupts the end-of-school-year bonfire. Evidence of dark magic begins to appear all over Salem, and Hannah’s sure it’s the work of a deadly Blood Witch. The issue is, her coven is less than convinced, forcing Hannah to team up with the last person she wants to see: Veronica.

While the pair attempt to smoke out the Blood Witch at a house party, Hannah meets Morgan, a cute new ballerina in town. But trying to date amid a supernatural crisis is easier said than done, and Hannah will have to test the limits of her power if she’s going to save her coven and get the girl, especially when the attacks on Salem’s witches become deadlier by the day.

This book has been on my TBR for so long, and I don’t know why I hadn’t picked it up yet but just add that to the list of reasons why I hate myself because this so good?! It’s so cute and funny, full of very fun (and very queer) relationships, all mixed up in a delicious barrel of blood magic and elemental magic which are the TWO BEST KINDS OF MAGIC. Anyway I’m mad at myself for not reading this sooner because I enjoyed this so much!

These Witches Don’t Burn follows elemental witch Hannah in the aftermath of a very bad breakup. But when Hannah starts seeing signs that a blood witch has come to town, she must team up with her ex to hunt them down because no one else believes her. Enter new hot cutie Morgan, just who Hannah needs to complicate her life more!

I’m going to start by getting my one major peeve about this book out of the way quickly: why oh why oh why oh why do so many YA books insist on plot that hinges off parents and other responsible adults making an environment so toxic and terrifying for a child that they would rather BE KILLED BY A BLOOD WITCH than talk to you about the situation?

Okay short mini rant over, onto the good stuff! I didn’t expect this to be as funny as it was (I have no idea why, maybe because I don’t really associate fantasy with humour?) But Hannah has such a great voice, she’s funny and sarcastic (my favourite form of humour) and thus I loved her. She gets so angry at her ex, I thought their relationship was perfect, it really exemplified the kind of messy awkward breakups that happen in high school. Victoria, as set up as the brooding evil ex, is obviously therefore my favourite. I mean Morgan is fine, she was a nice enough character if a little bland and lacking something defining I could talk about right now. But Victoria was just so fucking confident and powerful and kind of a little mean, but also very obviously still had feelings for Hannah which makes her vulnerable (and thus more dangerous). Which just made her such a perfect character for me!

The whole environment of this book was just very cute and very fun. The pacing was excellent, there’s lots of action, there’s lots of fires and magic and witchy coven meetings. I particularly liked the odd little bits of magic we got to see that really helped build this world up: for example, the binding rings or tattoos used to keep children from accidentally revealing their magic, to the very cool air bubble things that can be used to send messages, to more traditional witchy things like pentagrams and blood magic animal sacrifices. (Gotta love that blood magic).

This was such a fun read, I had such a great time reading it. Whilst I’m still mad that I didn’t read this earlier, it does mean I don’t have to wait for the sequel because it’s already out!

Book review: The Dark Tide by Alicia Jasinska

Title: The Dark Tide by Alicia Jasinska

Publisher: Penguin Random House Australia

Publication date: 2 June 2020

Genre: Young Adult | Fantasy | Witches

Page extent: 304 pages

Rating:

Goodreads blurb: Every year on St. Walpurga’s Eve, Caldella’s Witch Queen lures a boy back to her palace. An innocent life to be sacrificed on the full moon to keep the island city from sinking.

Convinced her handsome brother is going to be taken this year, Lina Kirk enlists the help of the mysterious Thomas Lin, her secret crush, and the only boy to ever escape from the palace after winning the love of a queen. Working together they protect her brother but draw the queen’s attention.

Queen Eva cast away her heart when her sister died to save the boy she loved. Now as queen, she won’t make the same mistake. With the tide rising higher than ever before and the islander’s whispering that Eva’s magic is failing, she’s willing to sacrifice anyone if it means saving herself and her city.

When Thomas is chosen as sacrifice, Lina takes his place and the two girls are forced to spend time together as they wait for the full moon. But Lina is not at all what Eva expected, and the queen is nothing like Lina envisioned. Against their will, the two girls find themselves falling for each other. As water floods Caldella’s streets and the dark tide demands its sacrifice, they must choose who to save: themselves, each other, or the island city relying on them both.

The Dark Tide was a fun, sapphic, enemies to lovers romp of a book. I absolutely flew through it, and whilst I think every single man in this book was complete trash, the two main women were so great and their romance was lovely.

The Dark Tide is set on a small island town, Caldella, ruled by witches. Each year, the Witch Queen must sacrifice a man she loves to the Dark Tide, in order to prevent the ocean from flooding the entire island. This year, Lina thinks her brother, Finlay, will be chosen and she will do anything to stop that. She enlists the help of Thomas, the only person who has ever survived the Dark Tide, because he made the previous queen fall in love with him and she sacrificed herself instead. But when Lina and Thomas attempt to save Finlay, Thomas is chosen instead. Filled with quilt and the naivety of first love, Lina bargains herself to save Thomas and she becomes this year’s sacrifice.

The Dark Tide was such a fun read. The pacing was great and I really flew through the book because I couldn’t stop reading. There’s lots of fast paced action which really keeps the plot moving quickly. I thought the exploration of sacrifice, and the darkness brought to the story from the emphasis on love (because a sacrifice isn’t a sacrifice unless a person is losing something – or in this case, someone) was terrific. It was exactly the kind of dark fantasy I love to read, there’s a constant pull between Eva’s feelings for Lina and her duty to drown Lina to save all her family and the citizens of the island under her protection. Sheer perfection thank you very much.

One of the best things about The Dark Tide were the two main characters: Lina, this year’s sacrifice and Eva, the Witch Queen. We get POV sections from both of them and whilst I loved Eva the most (hello fellow introvert who gets exhausted around people), Lina’s POV is just as good. Lina does feel very naive at times and very young, she is so obsessed with being a hero and having an epic love story that could rival the ones told in books and tales and she lives in this completely fairytale world. I really loved that slice of desire and danger she had, it took what could have been a fairly standard, bland, naive girl into someone who was much more interesting. The way she was almost happy and gleeful at times was so great and gave a touch of darkness to her POV, as she almost seemed to enjoy throwing her life away as a sacrifice because it meant she was living in one of her fairytales.

But Eva, our Witch Queen who detests people, how I love you. I love how cold and distant she is (she cut out her heart!). This contrasted with the way she is slowly fascinated and irritated by Lina in turn, it’s so fun to watch Lina get a rise out of this seemingly heartless witch. And their romance! Wow. It was so fierce and I can’t even really put into words how much I loved their relationship. The only downside was that because it is a little more of a slowburn, I didn’t get enough of the two of them together!

From my favourite characters to my least favourites: litrally every single man. God they were all complete trash and unfortunately, I did think this hindered the success of this book. For so much of this book, Lina is head over heels for Thomas….but there’s literally not a single reason why?! He’s so so bland and his only trait is he’s willing to give up women so he can live. Seems like a catch, right?

Finlay, Lina’s brother, is unfortunately just as one note. But even worse in my mind, his one note is aggression: he’s an aggressive angry person who Lina is actually scared of because he rages at the slightest thing and actually seriously injured her once in his rage….and yet Lina’s family is trying to force her to forgive him? Sorry but you do not have to forgive and love folks just because they’re family. If they’re abusive, gtfo. I detested Finlay the whole way through. But somehow Lina is willing to do everything for this person she’s scared of?

Lina’s feelings towards these two main male characters just didn’t make sense and I think the book would have been strengthened if more work had gone these two so they weren’t so one note. I think this bothered me more with Finlay than Thomas. With Thomas, I get that Lina is portrayed as this young and naive girl who wants a fairytale romance, so it makes sense that she’s drawn to the quiet, brooding boy with so much history and story behind him. I could forgive that. But I really needed to see more of her brother, see why on earth he was worth saving? He needed to be more than this awful, angry person. The way his actions were always framed as trying to make it up to Lina for breaking her ankle, when he continued to lose his temper and scare her, felt very manipulative and reminiscent of domestic abuse relationships and it’s not ever really addressed.

All in all I really enjoyed this dark YA fantasy! The sapphic romance is wonderful, I adored Eva, and found the book very easy and fun to read. Whilst the boys are very one note and I struggled with understanding why Lina was willing to give up everything for them, it just made me appreciate Eva and Lina’s relationship more because it really highlighted how full of emotion and fierce they were together.

30 Days of Pride: The Henna Wars by Adiba Jaigirdar

Title: The Henna Wars by Adiba Jaigirdar

Publisher: Page Street Kids

Publication date: 12 May 2020

Genre: Young Adult | Contemporary | Romance

Page extent: 400 pages

Rating:

Goodreads blurb: When Dimple Met Rishi meets Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda in this rom com about two teen girls with rival henna businesses.

When Nishat comes out to her parents, they say she can be anyone she wants—as long as she isn’t herself. Because Muslim girls aren’t lesbians. Nishat doesn’t want to hide who she is, but she also doesn’t want to lose her relationship with her family. And her life only gets harder once a childhood friend walks back into her life.

Flávia is beautiful and charismatic and Nishat falls for her instantly. But when a school competition invites students to create their own businesses, both Flávia and Nishat choose to do henna, even though Flávia is appropriating Nishat’s culture. Amidst sabotage and school stress, their lives get more tangled—but Nishat can’t quite get rid of her crush on Flávia, and realizes there might be more to her than she realized.

To understand the vibe of The Henna Wars, just look at the cover. The feeling I feel looking at that cover is exactly the same as I felt reading this book. The Henna Wars is soft and beautiful, confusing and uncertain, it fills you with such a warm feeling. This is a book that very much was not written for me (a white queer), but one that I found so much sweetness and love in. And I really hope this book can reach those it was written for and provide them with hope.

The Henna Wars is told from Nishat’s perspective, a young Muslim lesbian who has just come out to her parents (who don’t take it well). At school, she starts a henna business for a competition, but her crush, Flávia, also starts a henna business for the competition. But there’s one big problem: Flávia is appropriating Nishat’s culture, and Nishat will therefore do anything to beat her.

One of the things I loved most about this book was the complicated portrayal of high school friendships and hierarchy. Nishat doesn’t have many friends, and those she does have are at times unsupportive and do not understand her. Along with the relationship between Nishat’s sister, Priti, has with her best friend, Ali, these friendship circles really showcase the speed at which school hierarchies and friends can change, which felt very realistic. Nishat’s relationship with her sister is definitely my favourite of the book. It was so nice to see such a strong sister bond, their love for each other so apparent amongst both the snark and the support.

The relationship between Flávia and Nishat is definitely very cute and sweet, particularly at the start prior to the souring of the relationship thanks to Flávia’s appropriation. I’ll admit, I did want to see Flávia and her henna business partner, Chyna, the school bully and gossipmonger, get taken down a peg or two more. I don’t really feel like either of them really got the issue with what they were doing. With Chyna, I can see that’s probably because she’s just a bit of a racist ass. But Flavia’s sudden ‘oh I do understand why this sucks’ didn’t feel like a particularly strong statement of understanding. I wanted her to actually feel ashamed and guilty for what she did, but she never really seems to get it. But I guess in life, the bad folks never really get what they deserve either.

The relationship Nishat has with her parents is definitely a difficult one to read. But it’s also very hopeful, and the fact that they were watching Ellen DeGeneres by the end of the book was just hilarious.

The other thing I just absolutely adored with this book is how resolutely NOT WHITE it is. The Henna Wars is so embedded in Bengali culture, from Nishat’s relationship with her parents and sister, to the way Nishat feels about her henna, to the food, to the wedding, to the party to celebrate Nishat’s Junior Cert results, it’s a fantastic world and creation and I loved finding out about Nishat’s culture.

All in all, I thought this was a really great debut. It’s a book which very much places importance on characters and their relationships. It’s so full of pride and joy at Bengali culture, and is a soft and sweet sapphic contemporary.

30 Days of Pride: The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon

Title: The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon

Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing

Publication date: 26 February 2019

Genre: Adult | Fantasy

Page extent: 848 pages

Rating:

Goodreads blurb: A world divided. A queendom without an heir. An ancient enemy awakens.

The House of Berethnet has ruled Inys for a thousand years. Still unwed, Queen Sabran the Ninth must conceive a daughter to protect her realm from destruction—but assassins are getting closer to her door.

Ead Duryan is an outsider at court. Though she has risen to the position of lady-in-waiting, she is loyal to a hidden society of mages. Ead keeps a watchful eye on Sabran, secretly protecting her with forbidden magic.

Across the dark sea, Tané has trained all her life to be a dragonrider, but is forced to make a choice that could see her life unravel.

Meanwhile, the divided East and West refuse to parley, and forces of chaos are rising from their sleep.

I still can’t quite believe I managed to finish Priory! This book has been sitting on my shelf for over a year, with me promising every month that this will be the month. Well I finally did it! And this book was just as huge and epic as everyone promised it was. It’s a fantasy that feels pretty much entirely the opposite of male gaze fantasies like Lord of the Rings and A Song of Ice and Fire. Priory is a sprawling, majestic fantasy of such scale and imagination I don’t think my review is ever going to live up to it!

Priory is told through four main voices, and I’m going to attempt to describe the hugely complex and massive scope of this book through these four characters. We have:

Ead

In the West of the Kingdom is the land of Inys. Ead is a Lady of the Privy Chamber to Queen Sabran of Inys. She’s a secret mage and secret protector of Sabran. Sabran has had several cutthroats sent to kill her, and Ead is trying to hunt down the mastermind behind the cutthroats. She also wants to further her standing in Queen Sabran’s court, having been sent from a secret society to keep her alive.

Ead and Sabran were probably my favourite characters, although Sabran doesn’t have a POV. I just really loved the way their relationship developed and how Ead’s journey changed so dramatically thanks to Sabran. Also Ead is just so badass with both her magic and her swords and her bow and just everything, I love her!!

Tané

Far to the East is Tané. Tané is a young woman training to be a Dragon rider in the Eastern kingdom of Seikii, long enemies of Inys who despise their dragon worshipping. She has just helped an outsider into her town, against laws barring outsiders from the nation thanks to the red sickness, because she feared it would halt the trials of her class to become the first dragonriders in 50 years.

I really enjoyed Tané’s POV. She has such a fun and action heavy journey, full of dragon battles. She spends the book beating herself up over the mistake she made in the first few chapters, and wants nothing more than to be punished for her error. Instead, she becomes central to the fight against the Nameless One. As usual, I adored her dragon Nayimathun, I always love sentient creatures in fantasy, and these dragons were no different! I loved exploring the differences between the Western dragons and the Eastern dragons and how these influenced the religion of each nation.

Niclays

Niclays is a man who was banished from the West after insulting Queen Sabran. He has spent 7 years in Orisma, a small island in Seikii. Orisma is the only place where outsiders are allowed in Seikii, and they can never leave. Niclays is an alchemist, and is trying to create the elixir of life. His journey to create this, leads him to Tané and her dragon, past pirates and into the centre of the war against the Nameless One.

Niclays was such a terrible person. He kind of represented to me all other traditional male fantasy: the least interesting character, kind of awful and yet still somehow manages to win at everything despite how much you hate him and don’t want him to. And I have full faith that Shannon intended him to represent that because it’s honestly ridiculous how much he survives despite his complete ineptitude. He’s so full of anger and vindictiveness at his circumstances, taking no responsibility for his own actions which led to his exile.

Loth

And finally we have Lord Arteloth Beck, best friend to Queen Sabran. He has just been exiled to Yscalin, a nation who gave up the Virtudom religion of Inys to pray to the Nameless One, a dangerous dragon thought to be kept away by continuation of Sabran’s line. He was exiled by one of Sabran’s advisors due to his closeness to Sabran and the fear it was keeping her from marrying.

Loth is sweet and lighthearted and full of goodness (perhaps too full as it makes him unable to recognise who’s an enemy and who isn’t, always thinking the good of people). His journey is really the one that ties everyone’s stories together, though it doesn’t seem like it at the start.

These four very different paths and stories weave their way across a huge world. When I started, it was difficult to see how everything would come together – this world is so large I couldn’t imagine these four stories passing even vaguely close to each other. And yet, they do! These four provide the structure to this huge book, and despite my initial disbelief, Shannon manages to weave an intricate and detailed tale which takes these four all across the world, their paths crossing and crisscrossing over each other, as the book introduces the Nameless One and the fight of all worlds to destroy him.

The scope and scale of Priory reminds me of what George RR Martin did in 7 books. Except Samantha Shannon managed it in just one, without any rape, and with a so throughly female gaze that you are constantly confronted about your own biases. I had thought I was pretty good at not assuming things in fantasy, given that I pretty much only read diverse fantasy. But yet, I found myself constantly shocked and surprised when characters turned out to be women!! I was horrified at myself. I love how Shannon takes hold of all your unconscious biases and just throws them out the window. The world Shannon imagines is one without the gender, sexual and racial prejudices and trauma so familiar in so many other of the “big” fantasies. It is full of different nations and religions, creatures, magic, history and politics that Shannon has clearly invested so much time and research in, to create an entirely new world free of these biases, that feels so incredibly real.

A particular highlight in the worldbuilding was the religions. I always love books that heavily explore fantasy religion, because they’re always so unique in every single book, and this was no exception. I particularly loved the way Ead’s history and faith connected with Sabran’s faith. I’m not going to say much to avoid spoilers, but suffice to say, the way these two religions connect and contrast each other is so great! I also really loved the way Sabran’s religion, and the religion her entire nation is founded on, is so embedded in who she is as it’s related to her bloodline. Journeys questioning faith are always very interesting, and Sabran’s journey in this is particularly interesting given her faith is so embedded in who she is as a person, given she is the descendant of the individual who started her religion.

I really loved this book! It is just as huge and expansive a world as you would imagine from a book of this size, but it takes traditional fantasy and completely twists it on its head to create a world where the female gaze is central and with such remarkable worldbuilding, I’m just in awe of its creation. Highly recommend!