Kate Elliott, Unconquerable Sun (2020)

Author: Kate Elliott

Title: Unconquerable Sun

Format: E-book

Pages: 528

Series: The Sun Chronicles #1

First of all, whoever came up with that snappy if misleading one-liner “Gender-swapped Alexander the Great in space,” was rather off the mark.

Yes, Unconquerable Sun does take place in a political environment reminiscent of the dynamic between ancient Macedonia, Greece and Persia. Yes, there are some details pointing to Elliot’s Alexandrian inspirations, such as snakes on Sun’s extravagant father’s clothing, a clear bow toward Alexander’s mother Olympias, or the explosive relationship between Sun and her mother Eirene, resembling that between Alexander and his father Phillip II. There are some hidden clues, such as a deficient sibling of the heir hidden away, or a host of concubines and wives, each with their own claim to the throne and a healthy dose of mistrust and rivalry toward each other. Will Elliott take the resemblances as far as the real story’s sad end? Considering the first installment, fizzling with YA vibes and a sense of youthful invincibility, I somehow rather doubt it. And anyway, Unconquerable Sun mostly tells the tale of Elliott’s fascination with Asian cultures: from very strong Chinese and Japanese influences to slightly more hidden Hinduist and even Mesopotamian elements.

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Michel Faber, D: A Tale of Two Worlds (2020)

Author: Michel Faber

Title: D: A Tale of Two Worlds

Format: E-book

Pages: 304

Series: –

Let me start by saying that I discovered, with some surprise, that I’m not the intended audience for this book: it’s definitely a children’s book, one of the few occasions where these distinctions do matter. D: A Tale of Two Worlds is full to bursting with good intentions and important issues, from the casualty of racism in modern England to the plight of immigrants from Africa, to xenophobia and post-truth and the power of words. And yet all of them are very much simplified, made slightly anecdotal and not really significant (with the exception of the disappearance of the letter D which becomes the catalyst for our protagonist’s journey) – more like inconveniences than some truly troubling issues. At the same time, it’s a bit of a self-indulgent book, delighting in taking barely concealed potshots at Trump, which for a young reader might be a tad confusing.

While Faber in the afterword indicates his inspirations – mainly Dickens, who even makes an appearance as a very old and eccentric history professor, but also Lewis’s Narnia, Thurber’s The Wonderful O and the Wonderland novels – I mostly felt that D: A Tale of Two Worlds was a modern twisted retelling of Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. It is not a bad thing in itself, but I expected a bit more originality from Faber.

But ad rem: Faber’s D: A Tale of Two Worlds is a story of a young girl, Dhikilo, who discovers one day that the letter D is disappearing from the world. Inexplicably, magically, the letter D is being stolen from the language, from books and speech – and with its disappearance, ideas and things whose name start with this letter, begin to change their meaning or to disappear as well. Dhikilo’s only hope is her retired history teacher, professor Dodderfeld, who’s dead. Or rather ea, in the new parlance.

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Sarah Beth Durst, Race the Sands (2020)

Race the Sands

Author: Sarah Beth Durst

Title: Race the Sands

Format: Ebook

Pages: 544

Series: –

Sarah Beth Durst’s new book is a curious one. It is a highly entertaining, well-written and engaging book, filled with compelling characters and solid worldbuilding, without question – and yet it also prompted me to consider how exactly I view and rate my reads. So, this time I will share with you a more personal review. If you don’t want to get a glimpse of how my mind works (and I won’t blame you if you don’t, my mind IS a weird place :P), stop reading now and just check the rating 😉.

Race the Sands is an YA fantasy with a slightly Middle Eastern flavor; maybe even a bit more ancient Egyptian or Babylonian than generalized Middle Eastern, as there are emperors and priests, palaces and assassins, life-giving rivers and oddly liberating, yet deadly, swaths of deserts stretching to the horizon – and let us not forget the quite unfriendly neighborhood kingdoms. The emperors for all their power are slaves to tradition, able to rule the citizens of Becar only as much as they are ruled themselves – by the augurs, controlling the population’s religious beliefs and public opinion. There are also kehoks – lethal, horrible beasts which, in a world where reincarnation is a fact of life, are the equivalent of Christian Hell: being reborn as a kehok is a terrible penance for the sins of past lives. It is an ever-lasting punishment, doomed to repeat itself again and again, as kehoks can only be reborn in the same form, but ultimately it is not completely bereft of hope. A tiny light at the end of the tunnel shines in front of those beasts that can be tamed or broken enough to enter the traditional yearly races of Becar: the one that wins, with its rider still alive, will receive a special charm freeing it from the punishment of a kehok’s life and giving it a chance to begin the karmic cycle anew, hopefully with better outcomes.

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Melissa Albert, The Hazel Wood (2018)

The Hazel Wood

Author: Melissa Albert

Title: The Hazel Wood

Format: E-book

Pages: 359

Series: The Hazel Wood #1

So many people recommended this book that I couldn’t not read it at some point. As it was available at my library as an e-book during lockdown, I jumped at the opportunity – and now here we are 😊.

The Hazel Wood tells the story of a seventeen-year-old Alice Crew and her mother, Ella. Finally settling down in New York after years spent on the road, they hope for a change for better – until the ill luck that kept hunting them throughout their whole lives catches up with them. With her mother kidnapped by strange, dangerous creatures, it’s down to Alice and her school friend Ellery Finch to find Ella before it’s too late. And while Ella stubbornly kept Alice away from her grandmother and the sprawling, infamous Hazel Wood estate, now Alice has no choice but to find and visit that tantalizing, mysterious place – for all the answers to the questions that haunted her all her life might await her there.

The Hazel Wood is a curious book, part-fairy-tale, part-YA fantasy, part-modern UF.  And I guess that this hybrid construction is ultimately the reason for the novel’s unevenness; namely, some elements of Albert’s story work better than others. The book can be roughly divided into two parts: the first, taking place in the normal, contemporary world, bereft of magic, and the second, playing out in the Hinterlands – The Hazel Wood’s equivalent of Faerie. The everyday world of The Hazel Wood is a reflection on modern America, with its starkly contrasting social divides – both between the rich and the poor, and between urban and rural areas, all subtly painted by Albert. On that canvas, which could well serve as a basis for all types of books, from thrillers to literary fiction, Albert sketches a plethora of even more disturbing shapes – these of a hidden, dangerous world, filled with ruthless, amoral creatures somehow able to find their way to our world and wreak havoc in the unsuspecting sleepy suburbs. I really admired the little touches of wild fairy-tales, seemingly without beginning or end, without a discernible moral, but with an overabundance of wilful, gory violence. Those snippets brought to my mind the original Grimm tales – similarly violent and bloody, based on a primeval notion of justice: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. And the way Albert wrote about the tales, as of cool, distanced reportages from war, also recalled the curiously impersonal way brothers Grimm applied to their own collation of folklore tales.

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Jean Lee, Fallen Princeborn: Stolen (2018)

Fallen Princeborn

Author: Jean Lee

Title: Fallen Princeborn: Stolen

Format: mobi

Pages: 673

I received this book from the author in exchange for an honest review. I’d like to thank her for the opportunity.

 

Set in rural Wisconsin, Fallen Princeborn: Stolen follows eighteen-year-old Charlotte and her younger sister Anna, escaping from abusive and unhealthy family situation in North Dakota to live with their aunt. While Charlotte is ready for the new challenge, gladly leaving the violent past behind and looking forward to her future, filled with her passion – music, Anna is clearly unhappy, dragging her feet and feeling forcefully uprooted. Before the sisters can achieve any kind of mutual understanding or compromise, however, they enter into a fairy-tale of their own. The woods and rivers of Wisconsin are the domain of velidevour – dangerous and powerful faeries, who perceive humans as fair game, kidnapping them, feeding on them and erasing any sign of their existence from human memory. As the velidevour subsist on veli: the dreams, emotions and sheer cognitive potential of humans, there was a time humans and velidevour lived in a form of symbiosis: the dreamers, the artists, the vagabonds all found their way to the land of faeries, living in the land of impossible and feeding the impossible with their rapture and imagination. Yet since a wall had been erected between the worlds, humans are no longer guests in the lands of velidevour – they are prey.

When Charlotte’s and Anna’s bus crashes down in the middle of nowhere, and a pair of shady characters with a weird-smelling vehicle suddenly show up as backup, Charlotte knows something is off. But caught in the current of events, each subsequent one more bizarre than others, she can do nothing – until it’s too late for retreat. Going head-on on a rescue mission into the land of magic, she finds her life and her family ties redefined.

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