Empress of a Thousand Skies || Review

Initial Thoughts: 

For something that’s set up for a duology, there is much to tie up plot-wise. Not surprising for a space opera per se, but I thought a few things could have been resolved already. Also, way too many random coincidences used to move the plot. Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world…anyway, some good parts, some bad, I’m still on the fence mostly on this book.


EMPRESS OF A THOUSAND SKIES

by Rhoda Belleza
Razorbill, February 2017
Young adult, science fiction
Rated: 3 / 5 cookies

The only surviving heir to an ancient Kalusian dynasty, Rhee has spent her life training to destroy the people who killed her family. Now, on the eve of her coronation, the time has finally come for Rhee to claim her throne – and her revenge.

Alyosha is a Wraetan who has risen above his war refugee origins to find fame as the dashing star of a DroneVision show. Despite his popularity, Aly struggles with anti-Wraetan prejudices and the pressure of being perfect in the public eye.

Their paths collide with one brutal act of violence: Rhee is attacked, barely escaping with her life. Aly is blamed for her presumed murder.

The princess and her accused killer are forced to go into hiding – even as a war between planets is waged in Rhee’s name. But soon, Rhee and Aly discover that the assassination attempt is just one part of a sinister plot. Bound together by an evil that only they can stop, the two fugitives must join forces to save the galaxy.

In a galaxy far, far away…

Cue the whole Star Wars opening sequence for when you read the book jacket summary. I swear to you the overall effect makes it even more dramatic. And, believe you me, this entire thing takes a turn for the drama. But such is a space opera, amiright?

But seriously, can we talk about this whole memory cube business first?

So in this world/galaxy, er, thing, most people are wired into a memory cube, which pretty much holds what I’m assuming is a database of their personal experiences. Because of Rhee’s flashbacks, it seems like an equivalent of a perfect recollection, one which she could go back to over and over again. So when that gets unplugged, most memories are essentially wiped out. And this is a universal thing. I wonder how much of this is hackable and easily attained/rewritten because the whole thing is largely online…

I shudder to think.

Having perfect recall and being able to go back to a memory over and over again is both a blessing and a curse, imo.

But I digress. My point is there’s a lot about this technology that was interesting to me, and I would have loved to have seen it unfold. In fact, Alyosha and Kara’s subplot kind of touches on this conspiracy about the memory cubes, which is probably why I found their POV the second most enjoyable scenes to listen to, the first being the fast-paced, high-risk chase taking place with Vin and Aly.

That being said, a lot of the story hinged on kismet and character ignorance. Several times, Aly and Rhee escape their conflicts unscathed because of a set of coincidences that were set in motion before they even entered the scene. Several times, the characters do stupid things and they still manage to survive (Aly crashing in a spaceship after a high-risk chase, Rhee dropping a pill and getting herself and Dahlen nearly killed). In one particular scene, it just so happens that both characters meet eye-to-eye for a hot second and then suddenly, everything escalates. I just…where’s the buildup? Where’s the danger? Why are the characters so. frelling. dumb?!

No, seriously. These characters had way too many issues that could have been solved if they weren’t so stupid and self-obsessed. The main villain was predictable, boring, and honestly, sounded like the equivalent of a Mary Sue if villains could be characterized as Mary Sues. Rhee, as the only survivor of the Kalusian dynasty, is supposed to have been taught to take over the throne of an empire, yet I in no way thought of her as anyone who would be fitting to take over a throne. The beginning of the book pretty much starts a few days before her coronation, and yeah, okay, shit happens, and we have explosions and death, and mo’ money, mo’ problems, but from the get-go, Rhiannon was the most aggravatingly ignorant girl ever. She reminded me of another YA girl-ruler who I completely despised because all that education and preparation amounted to absolutely nadand in the end do we really want to trust someone like that in a seat of power?

You’d think perfect recall would allow Rhee to dwell on memories and analyze the minutiae of human interaction and facial expressions. You’d think she’d pick up on facial cues through that recall. Instead, she spends the entire last few years thinking about shanking the guy she THINKS killed her family. Without proof. Without any other evidence other than the fact that she has a memory of her father’s adviser arguing vehemently against peace. And because the guy was so against her father’s policies, it’s clear that he TOTALLY DID IT.

Spoilers, he didn’t. Oopsie daisy? And does Rhee learn? Not in the slightest.

I could probably list a few other things that bothered me about this so-called empress, but I’m so over it, and I want to move on to better things.

Alyosha’s arc was definitely the most interesting to read. While Rhee’s journey was focused on the overarching galactic politics (peace versus war, an empire in arrears, a princess looking for revenge, and a madman trying to frame the wrong person), Aly’s had the most human-interest. Besides the memory cube technology, what I thought Belleza did well on was her touching upon race and racism in the galaxy. The Wraetan are looked down upon, and it mostly has to do with the coloring of their skin. When Rhee’s ship explodes before reaching her coronation ceremony, all the blame goes to Aly, a Wraetan who is blamed because of course it would be a dark-skinned Wraetan who would want to kill off Kalusian royalty. This aspect continues to be brought up throughout the book, and Aly has to constantly deal with not only escape, but survival. Easier said than done when most of the empire is out there to kill him…

Overall, a lot of what the characters did bugged me. A lot of the events made me roll my eyes because of course it would happen that way. I did greatly appreciate the interesting twist with the technology, and I liked the inclusion of different race dynamics in the story. I also liked that this was a space opera, because then lots of different characters and plots within plots within plots. There were a lot of loose ends that still needed to be tied up, however, and Belleza could have kept her story a little less convoluted. That said, I actually am keen to read the next book, if only to find out more on the whole memory cube plot.

3 out of 5 cookies! And honestly, this whole “the two fugitives must join together” thing on Goodreads is another blurb gone wrong. The two main characters never actually meet each other in the book, so um. Yeah.


Did you read this book? What did you think?

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Mini Reviews: Interstellar Cinderella, She Captains

Because I’m all about women powah! From women mechanics in space to female crossdressing pirate captains, girls totally run the world. And thensome.

Have you read either of these books? What did you think?

Snow White Has Six Guns || Review

Initial Thoughts:

The story of Snow White is probably one of my least favorite fairy tales (and that’s not saying much, considering I love fairy tales in general), but I can definitely appreciate a retelling when it’s well done. And this novella was very well done. Valente is a new author for me this year, but gawds, do I want to read more of her stuff? YES PLEASE.


SIX-GUN SNOW WHITE

by Catherynne M. Valente
Saga Press, November 2015
Western, fairy tale retelling, novella
Rated: 4.5 / 5 cookies

Forget the dark, enchanted forest. Picture instead a masterfully evoked Old West where you are more likely to find coyotes as the seven dwarves. Insert into this scene a plain-spoken, appealing narrator who relates the history of our heroine’s parents—a Nevada silver baron who forced the Crow people to give up one of their most beautiful daughters, Gun That Sings, in marriage to him. Although her mother’s life ended as hers began, so begins a remarkable tale: equal parts heartbreak and strength. This girl has been born into a world with no place for a half-native, half-white child. After being hidden for years, a very wicked stepmother finally gifts her with the name Snow White, referring to the pale skin she will never have. Filled with fascinating glimpses through the fabled looking glass and a close-up look at hard living in the gritty gun-slinging West, this is an utterly enchanting story…at once familiar and entirely new.

Skin as white as snow

This story was actually my second of Valente’s novellas, the first being Speak Easy, which was also a fairy tale retelling. In the case of Speak Easy, the scene was the Roaring Twenties and the subject was a bit more familiar to me because I do love me some Jazz Age stories from time to time. I enjoyed that book, but for some reason, Six-Gun Snow White was my personal favorite of the two.

But let me start by prefacing this review with the fact that of the many fairy tales out there in the world, and the many times I gush about fairy tales and their respective retellings, the story of Snow White is definitely one of my least favorites. I couldn’t really explain to you why, but it probably stems from the fact that I still resent the progression of the tale itself. I mean, honestly, how much better was Snow’s situation after escaping from her super-vain stepmother? Not much unless your dream job is to be the housekeeper for seven grown-ass men. Come on, Snow, let’s not settle there.

Also, the whole perspective on beauty is just…meh. Most fairy tales tend to put a blanket “beautiful” statement about their heroines/damsels, so it’s not hard to imagine many of them being of different color. Snow White, on the other hand, breaks that norm by stating EXACTLY what makes Snow White the most beautiful woman of all. Sigh.

Hem. I mean…there are definitely many flaws, plot holes, and anti-feminist subtexts in a number of fairy tales, so Snow White is definitely not the worst (and most certainly not the most disturbing…though I suppose the queen practically asking the hunter to carve Snow White’s heart out is pretty macabre), it’s not a tale I care for.

Which is why I absolutely adored Valente’s retelling.

Snow White has a gun and she knows how to use it.

Valente pretty much took the tale of Snow White and ran with it. She put the setting in the mid-west. Snow White’s name wasn’t actually Snow White; she was named this way as a mockery, for the skin color that she would never have. She was the child of what is essentially a rape (yeah, this book is for adults, if you don’t already know), where her white father took possession of Gun That Sings, a Crow-woman he has lusted after since the moment he’d set eyes on her. In the end, things don’t end well for Gun That Sings, and Snow is left as a child of two cultures, unwelcome in both.

The beginning of the story kind of reminded me of the tale of “Donkeyskin,” which is one of my favorite tales (yeah, my head is weird). There were a lot of elements Valente used from “Donkeyskin,” including the three dresses and the fact that at some point even the father looked at Snow White and was reminded of the woman he’d tried to woo.

For the most part, the novella was definitely more “Snow White” than “Donkeyskin,” and elements of the original fairy tale pop up every so often. There’s a disturbingly magical mirror, there’s a stepmother whose goal is mostly ambiguous, there’s a hunter that was paid to go after Snow, and there’s the “dwarves” (who I’ll get to in a bit).

That said, this is a Western, and Snow White is pretty much a half-Crow, half-white girl who learned how to shoot a gun by the time she was six. She lived in a mansion, tucked away in her own little saloon, with arcade games and precious stones delivered straight from her surprisingly doting father. Eventually Snow White runs away (similar to the original), and she wanders for a while until she runs into a town that houses seven oddball characters.

And this is where Valente definitely twisted the elements around. Snow White doesn’t find men or miners. Snow White doesn’t become some housekeeper to a bevy of unwashed dudes. Snow White actually finds herself in a town filled with outcast women who kick ass. These are the women of the Wild West, women who had to survive out there without the boys in tow. Valente gave each woman a voice and a backstory, and that made it even more awesome.

Also, can I just say how much I love the illustrations that accompany this book?

Again, this is my second Valente, and I don’t know how her writing style is for her children’s books (I have The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland…), but what I read in Speak Easy and Six-Gun Show White was that she really emulated the style and dialogue of the time period. The 1920s came alive for me in Speak Easy, and I can practically visualize the nitty gritty Wild West in Six-Gun Snow White. I loved how she incorporated many elements that made the West what it was during the Gold Rush and mining eras, and to me, it made absolute sense that Snow White’s story would be retold at this particular time and place.

So all in all, I enjoyed the novella. It was a fun, fast-paced read. It had characters that were super-interesting. It had a pleasantly candid perspective, and its heroine’s major character trait is not her outward beauty, but her spunky, independent attitude towards the life she’d been given.

Also, that twist in the end was something I never saw coming.

4.5 out of 5 cookies! I cannot wait to actually read more of Valente’s stuff.


Have you read this book or anything by the author? What did you think?

Mini Reviews: Speak Easy, Out of My Mind

With mid-winter break this week, I’ve been catching up on my reading, which means getting books read and done to review! These are minis, mostly because I’ve already said as much as I can say about Speak Easy on the Fableulous Retellings Podcast my friend and I co-host, and I really don’t have anything extra to say about Out of My Mind other than it was a recommendation from one of my students. (And when I say “recommendation,” she practically shoved the book at me and told me to “READ IT, MS. ANGWAY.”)

Have you read either of these books? What did you think?

The Girl in the Tower || A Review

Initial Thoughts:

Like its predecessor, this sequel is a slow-burning tale of characters in a fantasy, medieval Russia, where the world is churning out of the old ways and into the new. But there are still winter-kings and firebirds and men who cannot die. And it was so. friggin. GOOD.


THE GIRL IN THE TOWER

by Katherine Arden
Del Rey, December 2017
Historical fantasy
Rated: 4.5 / 5 cookies
provided by Del Rey and NetGalley (thank you!)

Orphaned and cast out as a witch by her village, Vasya’s options are few: resign herself to life in a convent, or allow her older sister to make her a match with a Moscovite prince. Both doom her to life in a tower, cut off from the vast world she longs to explore. So instead she chooses adventure, disguising herself as a boy and riding her horse into the woods. When a battle with some bandits who have been terrorizing the countryside earns her the admiration of the Grand Prince of Moscow, she must carefully guard the secret of her gender to remain in his good graces—even as she realizes his kingdom is under threat from mysterious forces only she will be able to stop.

I do want to thank Jess Bonet and the wonderful people at Random House for the ARC of The Girl in the Tower and  a super lovely copy of The Bear and the Nightingale! I’ve been a little late with review copies lately, but I really did want to read this next book because I enjoyed TBatN so much and did want to get into what happened next with Vasya and her siblings.

I was definitely not disappointed. When I saw that The Girl in the Tower involved Sasha and Olga (two characters who disappeared near the beginning of TBatN and who I really wanted to get to know), I was so in. The fact that Vasya was dressed as a boy was also a plus, because when would I ever say no to a book with crossdressing women?

In any case, this book played out as a direct continuation of the events in The Bear in the Nightingale. Cast out by her village, Vasya pretty much runs away, finds Morozko, and gets trained by the frost-king to fend for herself. This would have been a problematic scene if not for the fact that not all of the “training” was practical, and some of it ended up being hijinks anyway, which I love, because why wouldn’t I love something like a possible romance between a witch’s daughter and an immortal death god? (Not that much happens, mind, this is going to be a slow-ass burn romance, isn’t it? DAMN YOU, ARDEN.)

It doesn’t start with Vasya, though. In fact, it starts with Olga and then Sasha and what they’ve been up to while the events in Bear took place. At this point, because of the way information traveled in medieval Russia, Olga and Sasha don’t find out about their siblings until they encounter Father Konstantin, who’s not quite done with causing trouble with his crazy-talk. Olga is a political game-player in her own right, a princess of Moscow, and Sasha is the right hand man (and monk) of Rus’ Grand Prince. While Olga is satisfied in her tower, Sasha is dissatisfied with staying in a monastery, and finds himself traveling with the Grand Prince in order to find out what’s been burning nearby villages. This is when Sasha meets up with Vasya, only…she’s dressed as a boy and that’s a scandalous thing. A very scandalous thing!

Like Bear, the book has a fairy tale feel to it, the kind of feel you get when you’re sitting near a fireplace–or, in my case, bundled up in a warm blanket and cozying up in bed–and sipping some hot cocoa. It is not meant to be a fast, action-paced read, and for the most part, Arden spends most of her time building up to the climax. When all the pieces are put in play, though, it becomes awesome and I admit I practically squeed a few times when she paid even more homage to Russian fairy tales by adding even more well-known figures in. (I won’t mention which ones, because SPOILERS.)

The characters were fun to read, even Father Konstantin had a storyline that gets tied into the narrative. I would love to see more of Midnight’s role in the story, and I feel like things are soon going to come to a head with what happens at the end of the story. Winter is waning, and with that said, so are Morozko’s powers. This means the Sleeper is waking, and I. Cannot. Wait.

4.5 out of 5 cookies! I actually liked this a bit more than the first book, mostly because HIJINKS ❤

This counts as Book #1 of my NetGalley and Edelweiss Challenge.


Have you read this book? What did you think?