YA, 4 star

ARC Review: This Place is Still Beautiful by XiXi Tian

Two sisters. A shocking racist incident. The summer that will change both of their lives forever. 

Despite having had near-identical upbringings, sisters Annalie and Margaret agree on only one thing: that they have nothing in common. Nineteen-year-old Margaret is driven, ambitious, and keenly aware of social justice issues. She couldn’t wait to leave their oppressive small-town home and take flight in New York. Meanwhile sweet, popular, seventeen-year-old Annalie couldn’t think of anything worse – she loves their town, and feels safe coasting along in its confines.

That is, until she arrives home one day to find a gut-punching racial slur painted on their garage door.

Outraged, Margaret flies home, expecting to find her family up in arms. Instead, she’s amazed to hear they want to forget about it. Their mom is worried about what it might stir up, and Annalie just wants to have a ‘normal’ summer – which Margaret is determined to ruin, apparently.

Back under each other’s skins, things between Margaret and Annalie get steadily worse – and not even the distraction of first love (for Annalie), or lost love (for Margaret) can bring them together.

Until finally, a crushing secret threatens to tear them apart forever.

**This Place is Still Beautiful comes out June 7, 2022**

Thank you Edelweiss and the publisher for this copy in exchange for an honest review.

There’s so much I can say about This Place is Still Beautiful but I’m not sure my rambling will do it justice. This is such a gorgeous story about sisterhood and dealing with racism in different ways as an Asian growing up in America.

Older sister Margaret and Annalie are half Chinese living in a town with very few visible minorities. Near the start of the story, we jump right into the heart of the plot: someone wrote a horrible racist slur on their home. That then brings the question that both sisters have to digest and wrestle with for the rest of the story – what would you do in the aftermath of such a brutal and directed attack from people who could be your neighbors, friends or coworkers?

The girls go about it in two different ways, which I very much appreciate the author taking the time to explore. Annalie wants to forget and move on from the whole incident, and I, as an Asian Canadian, feel that would be a big struggle for me too if this were to happen to me. Obviously one would want to seek justice and retribution for such a wrong done to them. But it’s another thing to be the face in the fight against racism.

And that’s exactly what Margaret does. She fights for what’s been done to their family, moving back home even though she had left town for college. While Annalie feels her sister is victimizing them, Margaret is taking control of a situation that wasn’t their choice to spread awareness and teach others this is NOT acceptable.

Reading this, it makes me reflect a lot too. Which sister would I be more like? I definitely liked Margaret’s side a lot more, especially when both Annalie and their mother wanted to pretend nothing happened and to not pursue more because no one would do anything about it. However, I understood why they would feel that way and it’s not such an easy answer if I were in their shoes.

While this aspect on racism I felt was fleshed out very well, there’s more to this story than just this. It’s really all about the sisterhood and family dynamic. Margaret and Annalie’s relationship is so fraught with tension and the inability to understand one another from their opposing viewpoints and personalities. To add to this dynamic is the typical Asian mother, but one who had to raise her daughters alone when her white husband walked out and left them all many years ago. The racism plot line surely takes up most of the story, but what connects it all is this deep exploration of family in an Asian household.

I also really loved the romance brewing in the background for Margaret and Annalie to kind of give some lighter reprieve around the heavier topics. Rajiv’s relationship with Margaret was my favourite. There was history there in this second chance love trope and I loved how it re-grew and matured in some way through the hardships she was facing.

I wasn’t sure going into this book how I’d feel reading about Asian hate and racism. It felt a little too close to home and personal, especially with the rise of anti-Asian views in the aftermath of the pandemic. But like XiXi mentioned in her author’s note, we may not intend to talk about it yet perhaps it’s exactly what we need to do instead of avoiding the very real problem at hand.

So that’s what I’m doing here. Please go read this book. It’s more than I anticipated and it’s worth reading regardless if you’re Asian or not.

Overall Recommendation:

This Place is Still Beautiful demonstrates how good storytelling can create such powerful messages that stays with readers. In the aftermath of an anti-Asian attack, sisters Annalie and Margaret explore what it means to be victims of racism as Asian women. I loved the honest struggle and reflection of what I’m sure Asians do feel and face unfortunately in today’s society at times. The interweaving of their specific family dynamic made the story all the more compelling as they individually and collectively grapple with the harm one action can leave behind. It’s a must read for sure.

3.5 star, YA

ARC Review: Rise of the Vicious Princess by C.J. Redwine

Series: Rise of the Vicious Princess #1

The first in a YA political fantasy duology about a fierce princess determined to bring lasting peace to her kingdom regardless of the cost to her heart.

Princess Charis Willowthorn is the dutiful sword of Calera. Raised to be ruthless and cunning, her only goal is to hold her war-torn kingdom together long enough to find a path toward peace with their ancient foe, Montevallo, even if the cost is her own heart.

When violence erupts in the castle itself and an unseen enemy begins sinking Calera’s ships, Charis realizes a threat much greater than Montevallo is coming for her people. So she forms a plan. By day, she is Calera’s formidable princess intent on forging an alliance with Montevallo. By night, she disguises herself as a smuggler and roams the sea with a trusted group of loyalists, hunting for their new enemies. And through it all, there’s the one boy she can’t have—who guards her life but steals her heart.

But her enemies are much closer than Charis realizes, and her heart isn’t the only thing she has left to lose.

**Rise of the Vicious Princess comes out June 14, 2022**

Thank you Edelweiss and the publisher for this copy in exchange for an honest review

A solid book 1 in the latest from C.J. Redwine, Rise of the Vicious Princess truly lives up to its name.

MC characterization

Princess Charis Willowthorn is someone to reckon with. Groomed by her mother to be as ruthless as she is in leading a war torn country that is divided on their opinions about continued war, Charis has no choice but to rule while never trusting a soul and walking the loneliest road.

I personally took a little while to warm up to Charis. I understand her characterization and it was written well. But she’s not the most empathetic character to like because she does make the hard decisions, although I appreciated seeing the inner struggle she had while remaining impassive and poker-faced on the outside.

I grew to like her in the end for her savvy mind and courage in the face of danger. Someone is out to kill her, and with enemies both known and perhaps unknown, it’s hard to know who and if she could trust anyone.

World building

What made this book REALLY stand out was the world created. The different kingdoms on the map are actually described and we really get to learn a little more about each as Charis tries to make allies with the other kingdoms surrounding hers.

While we don’t get to really explore the other places on the map as we mainly stick to Charis’ country of Calera, the other side of world building is incorporating the culture and people from such places. The representatives in the court from the various lands and the ways of the people shone through in this writing. At first it was a little confusing trying to keep names of people and places straight, but once the familiarity settled, I was intrigued by the politics of it all.

The synopsis is very true to word describing this book as a political fantasy. I wasn’t sure what that meant at first because I don’t think I’ve read many, but it does remind me of Laura Sebastian’s Ash Princess trilogy with the similarity of a protagonist trying to outmaneuver war tactics from the enemy. In fact, by the end of the book, this was my favourite part of it! I think Redwine wrote this amazingly, I was so swept up with the political games and trying to determine the moves and secrets the other kingdoms held.

Romance of course

Obviously a YA fantasy isn’t complete without a cute romance. I love stories where the protagonist falls for their bodyguard. There’s just something so genuine and sweet about it, appreciating the one who literally chooses to die for you. Of course, some do it because it’s their job, but it’s all the more romantic when it’s by choice from love or care.

I really enjoyed seeing the relationship unfold between Tal and Charis. I wasn’t quite feeling it at first, much like how I was feeling about the book, but after the one-third mark, I was really starting to get into the story after familiarizing myself with everything. He’s the sweetest, and won’t let her surliness get in his way of taking care of her needs, whether she wanted his help or not.

I will say I’m looking forward to whatever may unfold between them in book 2, but I’m not 100% sure where everything is going after that explosive ending.

Bottom line

So why isn’t this a 5 star rating? I’ve so far glowed about everything that I typically look for in a book. And it was good! Don’t get me wrong.

The issue definitely was the pacing. Learning all the politics and the details of the court, who to trust and who represented what kingdom, was taxing. It was necessary to get to the heart of the story but it took a while.

Speaking of a while, the whole synopsis bit about Charis being a smuggler at night also didn’t happen until closer to the halfway mark. There was a lot of set up so we could get to know Charis, her kingdom and her predicament before things went further haywire. Did I want it to happen a little faster? Sure. But I can also see the sense of taking a bit more time so things happened organically.

I think this story will amaze anyone who loves fantasy, the bodyguard romance trope, and secrets that aren’t initially predictable. If you don’t know what a political fantasy is, I would recommend checking it out to see if it’s for you. What I learned from reading this? I guess I really do enjoy political fantasies because it’s what made this book stick out.

Overall Recommendation:

Rise of the Vicious Princess defines the YA political fantasy genre, something I’m newer to, as we dive into this world full of conflict and enemies known and unknown. With a protagonist who has to hide her true feelings inside in order to present the ruthless outside she needs to rule a divided kingdom, I’m sure Charis will get your hearts to soften as she did to mine with time. The bodyguard romance trope is also present to sweeten the deal as they try to root out traitors and assassins from among them. The only downfall was the pacing, but once you get past the foundation laying, this story was intriguing to the end. A great introduction to political fantasy for those who are on the fence.

3 star, YA

Review: The Iron Sword by Julie Kagawa

Series: The Iron Fey: Evenfall #2

As Evenfall nears, the stakes grow ever higher for those in Faery…

Banished from the Winter Court for daring to fall in love, Prince Ash achieved the impossible and journeyed to the End of the World to earn a soul and keep his vow to always stand beside Queen Meghan of the Iron Fey. 

Now he faces even more incomprehensible odds. Their son, King Keirran of the Forgotten, is missing. Something more ancient than the courts of Faery and more evil than anything Ash has faced in a millennium is rising as Evenfall approaches. And if Ash and his allies cannot stop it, the chaos that has begun to divide the world will shatter it for eternity.

Book 2 in the Evenfall series and I’m starting to wonder if perhaps this series has started losing its charm on me. The Iron Sword marks the 9th book – NINTH – in this Iron Fey world Julie has created. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely adored it. Fairies were all the rage in the early 2010s, and may be making a mini comeback with the surge of some popular series recently. Yet there’s just something off that made me enjoy this book less than I had anticipated.

First off, let me just say that I absolutely ADORE Ash. He had his own POV book once before, in the fourth book of the overall series, and I gobbled it up like a pie straight out of the oven (not that I do that often). While Meghan was a fine protagonist, I wanted to see the world as he did, this old fey who had lived many human lives and seen the inner workings of the Winter court. He was their cruel prince (ha ha) until he fell in love and sought to become partially human by gaining a soul.

Fast forward some other doomsday prophecy the entire gang defeated – did I mention I missed the middle series and have yet to read them because I didn’t like Meghan’s brother who had grown up to be a very surly teenager? – and now there’s yet another problem coming to bite the entire land of fey known as the Nevernever. Does anyone get a break? Clearly not as Robin Goodfellow aka Puck so cheerfully pointed out. He was the protagonist of book 1 in this Evenfall series which was fun and wild as I imagined he would be, but I was more surprised and eager to know Ash would be the main POV here.

Now, I find myself here with very uncertain thoughts even after some time towards this book.

The nostalgia factor was definitely high with this one and I can’t fault it for leaning into it. Familiar faces from ALL the books make its way into this storyline and it was great to see. Julie is an excellent storyteller and can weave all these appearances as part of the plot. I didn’t mind that at all. I fell back into this world like it hadn’t been a decade since I first found this magical realm just under the human eye.

Likewise, Julie is great with the plot in the sense that it always feels like an adventure. From trekking through the Between to search for Keirran to finding interesting sources in the human world to aid them on their quest, the gang never stays just in one place or with just one task. Things move along and that’s GOOD. However, sometimes it felt like their tasks were very minor and we didn’t really get to see what it was leading towards until near the very end. Maybe this once didn’t bother me if this was a normal pattern before, but it definitely wasn’t my favourite thing to get to the climax and only then feel the adrenaline surging for “the end of the world”.

Also, how many times can the world be ending? I swear, each of these 3 series faces one doomsday prophecy and it’s starting to get old. Does nothing else exciting besides the ENTIRE fate of all the worlds happen to them all?

The only saving grace for this book and its rating is definitely because of Ash. The first prince I ever loved (who wasn’t human). Can exhibit sweetness but only to those he really cares for, and full of disgruntled charm and deadly grace in fighting. I liked that it explored his struggle with his darker, Unseelie side he thought had been vanquished when he earned his soul. Book 1 explored it with Puck which was a highlight for that book, but I liked the internal monologue we got to see up close for Ash who on the outside wouldn’t voice a thing about what was going on inside.

The ending was also just starting to get exciting. At least now I know what the heck Evenfall is, and so does the entire gang in the story, so I’m hoping the next book (please say it’s the last one in the series) will at least move into the penultimate battle against this new Big Bad. I will make one comment and say that no matter how many offshoots and tangents this series goes, Julie’s writing leaves doors open like this where it can be explored if given the opportunity. I don’t think she intended 9 books for this world, but the fact that little Easter eggs were hidden to explore further from even the very first book shows the breadth of her imagination for this world she’s built. And that, at least, is something to look forward to.

Overall Recommendation:

I’m happy to say The Iron Sword held up well with its portrayal of Ash who now gets the hot seat POV again while bringing in all the old faces from all the previous books together for another doomsday adventure. If it weren’t for him and the dive into his internal struggle against his old nature, I’m not sure what I’d do. Written in Julie Kagawa’s style, the nostalgic OG group sets off on another adventure through the Nevernever and the human realm to seek out the meaning of Evenfall and how to prevent it. Some of the earlier quests felt a little unnecessary and slow but the climax proved interesting enough to continue as they race against yet another end of the world scenario (hopefully their last one). While it’s becoming clearer that I’m outgrowing this series a little, I’m glad to see I haven’t outgrown Ash. If I could bottle up Ash into all the books I read, I wouldn’t have a problem with that at all.