Slay by Brittney Morris: Blog Tour

“Separate is not equal… That doesn’t even come close to leveling the field…”

By day, seventeen-year-old Kiera Johnson is an honors student, a math tutor, and one of the only Black kids at Jefferson Academy. But at home, she joins hundreds of thousands of Black gamers who duel worldwide as Nubian personas in the secret multiplayer online role-playing card game, SLAY. No one knows Kiera is the game developer, not her friends, her family, not even her boyfriend, Malcolm, who believes video games are partially responsible for the “downfall of the Black man.”

But when a teen in Kansas City is murdered over a dispute in the SLAY world, news of the game reaches mainstream media, and SLAY is labeled a racist, exclusionist, violent hub for thugs and criminals. Even worse, an anonymous troll infiltrates the game, threatening to sue Kiera for “anti-white discrimination.”

Driven to save the only world in which she can be herself, Kiera must preserve her secret identity and harness what it means to be unapologetically Black in a world intimidated by Blackness. But can she protect her game without losing herself in the process?

“What kind of noob gets lucky enough to draw the Michael Jordan card and the Michael Jackson card in a single duel?”

I was very excited about this book when I first heard about it at the Sydney Writer’s Festival, YA Con. Having it being pitched as “Black Panther” meets “Ready Player One” I was sold. I like to call this the “Urban Ready Player One” It was an interesting and fast paced read and I really enjoyed following Kiera’s story. I liked her as a character and how she developed the virtual world of “Slay” a place where people of colour could have their own space in an online world. Kiera’s virtual avatar is Emerald and for me it felt like Kiera was more comfortable being Emerald in Slay than Kiera in the real world so her challenge with identity was interesting to me. It always made me question how such talented people can develop an amazing virtual world or explode on stage yet off stage or in front of the screen, they are very reserved.

Keeping Slay under wraps was the thrilling part for me – the case of high stakes secrecy and the thrill of keeping your talent a secret was exhilarating through out the story especially when the secret is out after something sinister happened in real life which was connected to the game. The elements of mystery throughout the book: a case of ‘who done it’ and ‘who is the troll’ was good and the development of the online world was interesting.

The dialogue was very “teen” but what I liked about Kiera was how she would speak like a real teen, be vulnerable in decisions but also have a mature outlook on life. Her sister Steph is quite funny, I liked her too. It was interesting to see how Kiera dealt with her identity, sense of duty/responsibility to others as well as her relationships with family and her boyfriend Malcolm, her friends and change that stem from her own creation ‘Slay’.

A good story that draws parallels to real life: what it’s like to stand out in your own school or community, you just want to be yourself rather than the authority of your own race simply because your skin colour is different to others. I can really see this book hitting the mark within the YA readership.

Special thanks to Date a Book YA for sending me a copy of this book for review and to Aus YA Bloggers for having me on board once again as part of this “Slay” Blog Tour!!!
-Annie

Lizard’s Tale by Weng Wai Chan

It’s Singapore in 1940, war is just around the corner—but twelve-year-old Lizard doesn’t know that. He lives in Chinatown above a tailor’s shop, surviving on his wits and hustling for odd jobs.

When he steals a small teak box containing a Japanese code book from a Raffles Hotel suite, he finds himself in a dangerous world of wartime espionage. Lizard doesn’t know who to trust. How is the mysterious book inside the box connected to his friend Lili, a girl full of secrets and fighting skills? Can he trust her, or will she betray him in the end?

This was an enjoyable and interesting MG that can be embraced by older readers. Set in Singapore, about a year prior to the bombing of Singapore by the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Force and occupation of Singapore by Japan in WWII, this historical fiction MG follows Lizard, a poor boy who survives on ‘odd jobs’ and unintentionally gets caught up in military intelligence by finding a box he was sent on an errand for. He’s best friends with Lili who is harbouring a secret that can lead to danger for both Lizard and Lili but this mysterious box brings them together for an adventure both of them were not prepared for. With accurate historical referencing intertwined with a thrilling military – spy story, I thoroughly enjoyed it and found it very quick and easy to read. Readers can learn a lot about pre-war Singapore in this book. I really liked the friendship between Lili and Lizard and even admired Lili’s jealousy of Lizard’s new friend Georgina – whilst Lili is tough, smart and fiercely loyal to Lizard despite the prejudice her family gave against Lizard due to caste, her flaws made her human.

An enjoyable book, recommended for both MG + YA readers.

Special thanks to Text Publishing for sending me a review copy of this book.
-Annie

Descendant of the Crane by Joan He

“Knowledge is truth, Little Bird. Those who refuse to learn live in a world of falsity…”

Princess Hesina of Yan has always been eager to shirk the responsibilities of the crown, but when her beloved father is murdered, she’s thrust into power, suddenly the queen of an unstable kingdom. Determined to find her father’s killer, Hesina does something desperate: she engages the aid of a soothsayer—a treasonous act, punishable by death… because in Yan, magic was outlawed centuries ago.

Using the information illicitly provided by the sooth, and uncertain if she can trust even her family, Hesina turns to Akira—a brilliant investigator who’s also a convicted criminal with secrets of his own. With the future of her kingdom at stake, can Hesina find justice for her father? Or will the cost be too high?

In this shimmering Chinese-inspired fantasy, debut author Joan He introduces a determined and vulnerable young heroine struggling to do right in a world brimming with deception

Tyrants cut out hearts. Rulers sacrifice their own

This was a solid, fantastic debut. A complex and immersive story that captivated me from beginning to end. The world building was intricate steadily paced but very interesting. The secrets and twists are what I love most about the book. It was written very well and cleverly executed. I was invested in Princess Hesina of Yan, I enjoyed her as a character and I love her loyalty and courage. I found all of the characters had something to offer in this story, whether they were the hero or villain, I was engrossed in the story and really wanted to know what became of them. The element of mystery, the supernatural and the magic weaved a brilliant story on the backdrop of the ancient setting.

I thoroughly enjoyed it, it really was worth waiting for this book to hit Sydney shores – I really look my time with it, it was enchanting.
-Annie

Spin the Dawn by Elizabeth Lim

Maia Tamarin dreams of becoming the greatest tailor in the land, but as a girl, the best she can hope for is to marry well. When a royal messenger summons her ailing father, once a tailor of renown, to court, Maia poses as a boy and takes his place. She knows her life is forfeit if her secret is discovered, but she’ll take that risk to achieve her dream and save her family from ruin. There’s just one catch: Maia is one of twelve tailors vying for the job.

Backstabbing and lies run rampant as the tailors compete in challenges to prove their artistry and skill. Maia’s task is further complicated when she draws the attention of the court magician, Edan, whose piercing eyes seem to see straight through her disguise.

And nothing could have prepared her for the final challenge: to sew three magic gowns for the emperor’s reluctant bride-to-be, from the laughter of the sun, the tears of the moon, and the blood of stars. With this impossible task before her, she embarks on a journey to the far reaches of the kingdom, seeking the sun, the moon, and the stars, and finding more than she ever could have imagined.

“A tailor’s worth is not measured by his fame, but by the happiness he brings..”

This was one of the most anticipated reads of 2019 (for me). This unique story is told by Maia Tamarin, a young girl who strives to her restore her family’s honour through her skill as a tailor.

“Don’t work so hard you become the kite that never flies..”

In a world where only males can be imperial tailors, Maia takes her brother’s place by disguising herself as a boy to embark on a challenge to become A’landi’s master tailor.
With a touch of Mulan and a hint of Aladdin, complimented with action, betrayals, forbidden romance, intensity, demons and adventure, this was one exciting book that kept me turning the page from beginning to end.

“Magic is a wild, untamed energy that exists all around us”

I was engrossed in this book, I loved Maia’s determination to succeed not for glory but for her family, to restore their honour and be their provider. I enjoyed the competitive jealousy among the participants during the initial challenges for the imperial tailor selection process as it really brought out true nature of those who resort to vile acts when they’re so insecure about themselves. As the story progressed, I grew to love the connection Maia had with the Lord Enchanter and the ending has left me invested and yearning for the sequel.

Well written, fun to read and enchanting.

Special thanks to Penguin Random House Australia Publishers for sending me a review copy of this book.
-Annie

The Eyes of Tamburah by Maria V. Snyder

Scheduled release date: June 2019

Shyla is a researcher who resides in Zirdai, an underground desert city ruled by the wealthy Water Prince and brutal Heliacal Priestess. Everyone lives below ground as the sun is too fierce above. Although Shyla is sun-kissed (an outcast and considered cursed by the Sun Goddess) she is still renowned for uncovering innumerable archaic facts, lost artifacts, ancient maps, and obscure historical documents. Her quiet life is about to change when Banqui, an archaeologist, enlists her services to find The Eyes of Tamburah: legendary gemstones that bestows great magic to its wielder. These ancient objects can tip the balance of power and give whoever possesses them complete control of the city. Chaos erupts when The Eyes are stolen soon after they’re found and Shyla is blamed for the theft. Forced to flee, with the Prince’s soldiers and the Priestess’ deacons on her trail, Shyla must recover the jewels and clear her name. A quest that will unearth secrets even more valuable than The Eyes of Tamburah themselves.

I have been a fan of Maria’s work for some time. All of her books are great but I have to admit, The Eyes of Tamburah is now a personal favourite. I guess this is due to personal taste in the books I love to read. The setting of this book reminded me of an amazing TV documentary called “Cities of the Underworld”, a show that takes us on a journey back in time to the ancient cities in the Middle East and the Cradle of Civilisation that have since been built up over time. I loved how the characters lived below ground as the sun was too incredibly hot and they have to travel up and down levels to simply move around. What made it interesting is different levels proved to be treacherous for various reasons. I enjoyed Shyla as a character, her job was mesmerising being able to read maps and ancient scrolls as a job but I loved her undying loyalty to her friend that was her motivation to set out on a dangerous journey to retrieve the stolen eyes of Tamburah. Her endurance and her strength made her a likeable character in my view. Her connections between Rendor and Banqui were also very interesting.

The flow of the story was fantastic as the world building and new terminology was easy to learn through the constant dialogue between the characters. Personally I like books that have a lot of dialogue more than descriptions. Makes the story and characters really come to life in my mind. Some of the scenes in this book reminded me of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom which made it even more exciting to read. This book really stands out from the other series I have read. As I adore books that have an easy flow to read with an have an Arabian desert feel to it, this book has earned a special place with my book loves of 2019.

With special thanks to Harlequin Teen Publishers for sending me an Advanced Review Copy of this book.
-Annie

We Hunt the Flame by Hafsah Faizal – with exclusive Q&A with Hafsah Faizal

The epic debut in the Sands of Arawiya Series!!

People lived because she killed.
People died because he lived.

Zafira is the Hunter, disguising herself as a man when she braves the cursed forest of the Arz to feed her people. Nasir is the Prince of Death, assassinating those foolish enough to defy his autocratic father, the king. If Zafira was exposed as a girl, all of her achievements would be rejected; if Nasir displayed his compassion, his father would punish him in the most brutal of ways.

Both are legends in the kingdom of Arawiya—but neither wants to be.

War is brewing, and the Arz sweeps closer with each passing day, engulfing the land in shadow. When Zafira embarks on a quest to uncover a lost artifact that can restore magic to her suffering world and stop the Arz, Nasir is sent by the king on a similar mission: retrieve the artifact and kill the Hunter. But an ancient evil stirs as their journey unfolds—and the prize they seek may pose a threat greater than either can imagine.

Set in a richly detailed world inspired by ancient Arabia, We Hunt the Flame is a gripping debut of discovery, conquering fear, and taking identity into your own hands

“An idle mind is the devil’s playground…”

As I heard about this book a year ago, I purposely took my time to read this slowly so I really could really immerse myself in the intricate world of Arawiya. What first drew me in was how the world was inspired by ancient Arabia and the story included a strong female character, djinn and ifrit – elements of an epic Arabian inspired tale. The world building in the first quarter of the book did take a bit of time as the world of Arawiya is complex and made up of 6 main lands or kingdoms or sectors that we learn about as we learn about our characters however it was still very engaging.
The way the author really described the landscape really brought back memories of my visit to Arabia as images of the Arabian desert and ancient Arabian villages came to life in my mind. It really triggered my imagination. The characters really came to life too and I kept picturing characters dressed as the cast from an Islamic history movie called “The Message” which is set in 6th Century Arabia. From the clothes to the housing to the Arabian food – the author did an amazing job in bringing everything to life – I actually wanted to go to Arawiya!!
The book is very clever and lyrical. There are multiple story lines that blend together so eloquently and I came to care for the characters we met – particularly Zafira and Nasir. Zafira is the Hunter, disguising herself as a man when she braves the cursed forest of the Arz to feed her people. Nasir is the Prince of Death, assassinating those foolish enough to defy his autocratic father, The Sultan. Both have a lot at stake and both are legends of Arawiya.

“The first step in getting anywhere is believing you can…”

This is my book love for 2019 and it is only just released. For me, this book had everything from deep fantasy world building inspired by one of the most exotic places I have come to know to a journey of self-discovery, empowerment and courage. Epic plot twists that lured me deeper and deeper into the story and the way it ended was quite exciting – yes there is a cliffhanger I am really looking forward to but will definitely re-read the finished copy. I am so happy this book is written.
-Annie

First and foremost, a book by a Muslim author set in Arabia with kick-ass characters is already very special, and I completely get the hype around the book. For me, however, the beginning was a bit hard to get through. There was a lot of story building, and the only reason I was able to understand a lot of it was because of my prior knowledge of the Arabic language.
 
Once you get past the first few chapters it becomes much easier to read and immerse yourself in the world the story is set in. What I liked about it was obviously the fierce female protagonist and the very interesting world it was set in, and how the secrets were slowly revealed as you keep reading.
The ending seemed a little rushed, and cliche, but it ended on an interesting cliff hanger that definitely makes you want to get the next book in your hands ASAP!  And I also appreciate Hafsa for making it clear that there is no Muslim representation in the book, and that Arab is not equal to Muslim. I can’t wait to see what she comes up with next!!!
-Aida

Exclusive Blog Q&A with author of We Hunt the Flame, Hafsah Faizal

The names of your characters are very unique and beautiful. Is there a reason you chose certain names for them?
Yes! Each character name ties into that character’s personality and role in the story—most of the time, anyway. I put a lot of thought into each name, and I love that anyone who analyzes them will be rewarded with an extra treat! The names Zafira and Nasir are both variations on the word “victorious.” There’s something deeply satisfying about two people who seem wholly different being entwined in ways that aren’t obvious at first.

Who is your favourite character and why?
I can never answer this question, because I love Zafira and Nasir equally. I love Altair, too, the general who somehow became a main character without even having a point-of-view of his own! If I had to choose which character’s point-of-view I like best, however, I’d say Nasir, because we get to learn his feelings about Zafira, Altair, and the rest of the cast, and how drastically those views change as the story progresses.

What is your writing process?
I just write! I try not to pause for research and the like when I’m in the thick of it, saving those for before or after a writing session so as not to disrupt the flow. The process itself varies depending on my mood or the scene I’m writing. Sometimes, I have a clear image in my head that’s a breeze to get down. Other times, I’ll have to write a few different versions to see which fits the scene best. One thing I’ve learned: trust the characters. They know what they want, and if it’s not clear at first, I can usually uncover their motives and desires after a few edits!

Where do you go for inspiration and motivation?
Pinterest! Admittedly, finding anything Middle Eastern is hard because it’s so often mixed with South Asia, but there’s always something! For motivation… it depends. Sometimes, when I’m in a rut, I just need to watch an Assassin’s Creed game trailer. Other times, I just need to work on something else, usually design projects.

Why did you choose ancient Arabia or an Arabian nights theme for your debut novel?
This is a long story, but I never set out to write a story inspired by the world of ancient Arabia. We Hunt the Flame started off as a fantasy set in a eurocentric world, but while drafting, I had a nagging sense of something being off, but I couldn’t figure out what. After about thirty-thousand words, I stopped to craft the world’s map when it hit me: the structure of my world matched that of the Mediterranean. Why not go further south—to the world of Arabia—and set the story in a place more familiar to me? It’s a place so often demonized and sometimes exoticized, and I had the chance to make a difference. The rest, as they say, is history!

From initial idea to draft to manuscript to publication, how long did “We Hunt the Flame” take you to write?
I’m not sure when the initial idea for the story occurred, but between the time I started writing We Hunt the Flame until its publication on May 14th, 2019, it took roughly six years. It was going to be my last attempt at publication, so I took it less seriously than I did my other manuscripts. Once I finished the first draft, I became more dedicated to it—between polishing the draft, querying, and auction, it took around six months! Which is the perfect analogy to publishing: things can move excruciatingly slow one moment, and lightning quick the next.

I love the map of Arawiya, I actually printed it and it’s hanging on my desk at work (yes I know, I’m a nerd) I am curious to know how you come up with the landscape/map of Arawiya, did you design it and mark everything yourself or did you have a ‘bookish cartographer’ on hand?
Oh gosh, I adore the map! Virginia Allyn is the mastermind behind the stunning work of art. As I said, I put together a sketch of the world early on. It was very bare bones, with defined borders and locations. When the time came, I sent that sketch, symbolism, and as many details as I could to Virginia, who turned it around with the amazing map we have now. Funny thing, back when being published was a dream I didn’t fully believe in, I used to hoard bookish maps and humor myself that I would have a map half as beautiful one day. Dreams do come true!

What is the best piece of advice you received during your writing journey and what would you pass onto other aspiring writers?
You can’t edit what isn’t there.
I know, it’s such an obvious thing, but when you’re drafting, it’s so easy to feel like the words you’re writing aren’t good enough. It’s easy to get caught up on editing the same passages over and over again, which is hindering, and tends to slow me down drastically, when instead, I could be finishing a draft and getting a better idea of what needs editing. I’m still learning to “just write,” so if you’ve mastered this, you’re a pro already!

Visit her website for more on ‘We Hunt the Flame’ and updates from: Hafsah Faizal

Special thanks to Pan Macmillan Publishers for sending us an advanced review copy of this book and for organising our exclusive blog Q&A with the amazing Hafsah Faizal.

ARC read along + Blog Review + Q&A
compiled by Annie and Aida

The Weight of Our Sky by Hanna Alkaf

**Content warnings: Racism, graphic violence, on-page death, OCD and anxiety triggers.**

“…Your people, my people, our people, they’re everyone. They’re Malaysians. It’s not Malays killing Chinese or Chinese killing Malays. It’s stupid people killing stupid people.”

Melati Ahmad looks like your typical movie-going, Beatles-obsessed sixteen-year-old. Unlike most other sixteen-year-olds though, Mel also believes that she harbors a djinn inside her, one who threatens her with horrific images of her mother’s death unless she adheres to an elaborate ritual of counting and tapping to keep him satisfied.

But there are things that Melati can’t protect her mother from. On the evening of May 13th, 1969, racial tensions in her home city of Kuala Lumpur boil over. The Chinese and Malays are at war, and Mel and her mother become separated by a city in flames.

With a 24-hour curfew in place and all lines of communication down, it will take the help of a Chinese boy named Vincent and all of the courage and grit in Melati’s arsenal to overcome the violence on the streets, her own prejudices, and her djinn’s surging power to make it back to the one person she can’t risk losing.

“How do you expect unity to grow from seeds of self-interest? Look at the riots in Penang last year….”

This book was an incredibly powerful historical fiction that really brings the bloody history of Malaysia in 1969 to life. I was able to relate to it from a cultural and religious perspective as I am part Indonesian and Muslim so the cultural values, language, religious referencing places, food, even the civil unrest is something I was very familiar with. I was engrossed from the first page as the writing was very easy to follow but I agree the story may be difficult for some readers to stomach and as I recommend this book, please note my recommendation comes with a warning. The content in this book is definitely not for a younger audience – it’s definitely an older YA novel.

Our protagonist is Melati Ahmad’s torment and journey really came to life in my mind and it was heart wrenching to read about innocent people trapped in a war zone but aren’t just fighting for survival – they are battling their own demons as well, in this case, the djinn that keeps controlling Melati’s mind in horrific ways. Yes this book is quite confronting and very detailed in bringing out the violence and Melati’s torment. Personally, I was able to handle it as I felt the author really nailed it with her writing and explored these themes very well. I really kept turning the page yearning to know what happens next. I shed tears as I read the epilogue – it was so touching and final. I was convinced to pick this book up sooner than I planned and I wondered why I took so long to read this.

I highly recommend this book to readers who love historical fiction with an element of ‘urban fantasy’ (which I believe is a metaphor in this story) and strong cultural representation. Please note, again, my recommendation comes with a trigger warning. This book contains graphic details and violence, death, racism, war and mental illness and I believe this to be more suited to older readers. Please do not read this book if you feel it may be harmful to you in any way.

Happy to say this is another book love for 2019. Just amazingly written, very insightful, a book I won’t forget anytime soon.

Publisher: Salaam Reads – subsidiary of Simon and Schuster
-Annie