Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

“The imagination of mortals shaped the gods, carving their faces and their myriad forms, just as the water molds the stones in its path, wearing them down through the centuries…”

The Mayan god of death sends a young woman on a harrowing, life-changing journey in this dark, one-of-a-kind fairy tale inspired by Mexican folklore.

The Jazz Age is in full swing, but Casiopea Tun is too busy cleaning the floors of her wealthy grandfather’s house to listen to any fast tunes. Nevertheless, she dreams of a life far from her dusty small town in southern Mexico. A life she can call her own. Yet this new life seems as distant as the stars, until the day she finds a curious wooden box in her grandfather’s room. She opens it—and accidentally frees the spirit of the Mayan god of death, who requests her help in recovering his throne from his treacherous brother. Failure will mean Casiopea’s demise, but success could make her dreams come true. In the company of the strangely alluring god and armed with her wits, Casiopea begins an adventure that will take her on a cross-country odyssey from the jungles of Yucatán to the bright lights of Mexico City—and deep into the darkness of the Mayan underworld

“There is a bit of the devil in every man, if he may act the part of the saint…”

Having read about this on a blog as an anticipated upcoming release, I wasted no time in getting myself a copy then dropping everything to read it. I am very happy I did this. I found this to be such an intriguing book, a page turner, a story that I was able to immerse myself in about a culture and legend that is often forgotten in the world. Drawing on Mayan mythology and Mexican folk-lore, this was very interesting. Casiopea is our main character and at a time of 1927, she is often noted as outspoken and disobedient when really she is just head strong and knows when to set boundaries. As she unleashes something so unexpected from her Grandfather’s chest, her life changes as she is suddenly affiliated with a god. Her cousin Martin, at first I hated him – but I came to understand his behaviour as the story progressed and found that his character and attitude toward his female cousin was indicative of that time.

Although this was a very intriguing story, I found at times parts of it did drag on, particularly the first 20 pages but if you stick with it, you will find it really is worth your time reading it. I highly recommend this book to those whom, like me, enjoy fantasy fiction with a cultural and mythology infusion. Mayan mythology and Mexican folk-lore is something I have never read before and I was thoroughly impressed.

-Annie

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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

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

Found by Fleur Ferris

Elizabeth (Beth) Miller is a 17 year old who has lived in the small rural town of Deni her entire life. Just an ordinary girl who just wants to enjoy life, hang out with friends and probably would complain about school, her biggest problem is telling her over protective and fiercely private father that she now has a boyfriend – Jonah. But on the very day Beth is about to bite the bullet and tell her father about Jonah, her father disappears before her without explanation. In a heartbeat, Beth’s life is under threat and turned upside down as she discovers she wasn’t who she thought she was and life in Deni isn’t so simple anymore….

I cannot believe I read this in ONE sitting!!! Once again, Fleur Ferris dazzled me with an engrossing and intense YA thriller!!! A great story with an underlying message that yes the past CAN and WILL catch up with you. Set in a small town, this story is told in a dual perspective following Beth and Jonah. Multi perspective reads can suffer when characters cannot be easily differentiated however in this book, it was very easy to tell them apart, their voices and character were well defined and the story was very easy to follow.  Action packed, fast paced, intense, chilling (at times) even heartbreaking. The ongoing mystery kept me in suspense and I really couldn’t put the book down. When I finally got my answers, my response was an ‘ahh! no way!’. (yes.. out loud in my living room). I also enjoyed how the story kept it real: both characters were thrown into situations where they had to be strong to survive and also deal with the reality of the situation but they were also vulnerable at the same time which makes them human. The moments when both Beth and Jonah were trying to collect their thoughts really put me in their minds as such, I came to care about these characters a lot. I really enjoyed this book and I highly recommend it to readers who enjoy suspenseful YA thrillers. Great read!

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

The Poppy War by R.F Kuang with exclusive mini Q&A

I had the pleasure of engaging in a read along with 2 of my dear friends, Tien of Tien’s Blurb and Maisie of SleepyWiredStudios it was one of the most engaging and engrossing reads I had read in some time, so much so, I suffered a book hangover after reading this book!!!

The Poppy War
Our protagonist is Rin – a war orphan who dwells in the lower socio-economic part of the Empire with a family who is the head of a notorious Opium Trade and believed they’d finally be able to marry Rin off to further their criminal enterprise. However, when Rin aces the Keju (the Empire-wide test to find the most talented youth to attend elite academies), it was a shock to everyone as it was unheard of for a war orphan from Rooster Province to blitz the test without cheating and a shock to Rin herself, who realised she was finally free of the life dictated to her.  What an amazing surprise that she got into Sinegard: the most elite military school in Nikan, was even more surprising… but surprises aren’t always good… Given Rin’s stature, her time at Sinegard is not a walk in the park as she is singled out and targeted due to her socio-economic status, colour and gender yet before long, Rin discovers she possesses a lethal, unearthly power: an aptitude for the nearly-mythical art of shamanism. Rin continues exploring the depths of her gift with the help of a well known yet seemingly insane teacher and psychoactive substances. As Rin learns of her new found power and that myths are very much real, the Nikara Empire was at peace until it is learnt that a third Poppy War is close at hand….

My Thoughts
This is definitely another book love for 2018, a book that consumed me so much I experienced a book hangover. I had the privilege of doing a read along with 2 of my girlfriends and we were all so mesmerised with the story line. From start to finish, I was engrossed in the plot and what becomes of the main character we follow, Rin. I loved the character development as we learn about her life as an orphan girl then forced into a family who is involved in an Opium trade and her determination to escape the life dictated to her to a life she wants of her own – the journey she takes, the torment she endured and her self discoveries really kept me turning the page!! In addition to Rin, I also loved all the characters that we follow in this story. Whether good or bad – each character was written extremely well and what I enjoyed was regardless of one’s strengths – there was a vulnerability which made it real..

CONTENT WARNING: Yes I should note, this book does come with a content warning as it covers Warfare and the author does not at all sugarcoat it from battle to Prisoner of War (PoW) treatment to torture. It is quite graphic, however I feel the author did a great job in writing these parts as once again, she kept it real despite the world we are reading. Although parts were not easy to read, I realise they would not have been easy to write, but these parts were written so well nonetheless. I had numerous emotional reactions throughout the book: gasping, laughing, cringing, anger – there’s even a part that was a bit of a tearjerker..

I loved this book so much, I loved the characters.. this is not a book I will forget in a hurry!!!

Special thanks to Harper Voyager for sending me a review copy of this book.

 

Mini Q&A with author R.F Kuang

This question is from Maisie: Rin is the main character we follow in this story however we come to meet some wonderful and very unlikeable characters in “The Poppy War” is there a particular character you enjoyed writing more than the other?
I love writing Jiang the most! He’s hilarious and he gets to do whatever he wants. Ramsa was fun too; I’m excited to expand his role in the sequel. 
This question is from Tien: I’ve been searching everywhere for the name of this series but I cannot see it anywhere – is there a name for this series and how many installments could we expect?
It’s The Poppy Wars Trilogy.  
I was curious to know your inspiration behind Rin’s background (like her back story from being an orphan girl to her transition to Sinegard) and inspiration for the militia academy.
Rin’s character arc is almost entirely based on the biography of Mao Zedong. 
How long did it take for you to write “The Poppy War” how different is the finished product from your original draft/idea?
It took me about three months to write the first draft that I sent out on queries. After I got an agent, we revised for two more months before putting it out on submission. Once I signed with Harper, we put it through three more revision stages–mostly final touch-ups at that point. The finished novel is quite close to what I wrote originally. Most of the revision work was to fix continuity problems and pacing issues. 
Outside of writing now: when you’re not writing/reading, what are your hobbies and interests?
Honestly, between schoolwork and writing, I don’t have time for much else. I read a lot–maybe a book every two or three days. 
R.F Kuang also said: “I am often asked about the historical atrocities and inspirations in Act 3, and it is bit difficult for me to have to discuss family trauma over and over. I’ve written two essays on the subject that I always link to interviewers”
-Annie

Scythe (Arc of a Scythe: Book 1) by Neal Shusterman

Thou shalt kill

A world with no hunger, no disease, no war, no misery. Humanity has conquered all those things, and has even conquered death. Now scythes are the only ones who can end life—and they are commanded to do so, in order to keep the size of the population under control. Citra and Rowan are chosen to apprentice to a scythe—a role that neither wants. These teens must master the “art” of taking life, knowing that the consequence of failure could mean losing their own.

This book is amazingly good! One of my favourite 2018 YA sci-fi read! Imagine a world where we’re so advanced that we cheated death and are immortal but in order to control the population growth, people have to be randomly killed off. The only people with that privilege to kill or grant immunity from death is if you’re a scythe. Therefore being a Scythe is both revered and feared.

This is a jam packed action book following two teenagers Citra and Rowan who became scythe apprentices, they must learning the art of killing but before all that they must learn to understand humanity, morals and humility. There’s politics, friendships and love on the line, and a deadly political competition to determine who will become the new Scythe and who will be gleaned. It’s a morbidly fascinating fast pace read with lots of plot twists. It’s so different to what I had expected!!!

I am now reading the sequel – keep an eye out for it!!

Special thanks to Walker Books Publishers for sending me review copies of these books
-NJ