Friday, June 15, 2018

Young Adult Fiction: My So-Called Bollywood Life by Nisha Sharma

YA Fest continues with My So-Called Bollywood Life by Nisha Sharma. I have been doing YA Fest for only two years now, and even though I had five Fridays to work with, choosing which books made it in was difficult. I chose today's novel because of the intriguing storyline and my love for characters who have a singular obsession that they are committed to, even though those around them may not understand it, or even be all that supportive.

The Situation: Vaneeta "Winnie" Mehta loves Bollywood movies. She keeps a blog where she reviews them; is co-president of the film club at The Princeton Academy for the Arts and Sciences where she attends high school; is determined to chair the annual film festival; and up until a few weeks ago, was convinced she found her Bollywood move-style happily ever after romance in Raj. Winnie had always been told that she would meet her soul mate before the age of 18 - a boy whose name started with the letter 'R,' and who would give her a silver bracelet - and Raj fit all of the necessary criteria. But something changed, namely the fact that Winnie returned from a summer at film camp to find out that Raj had hooked up with another girl. Now Winnie is determined to find her own destiny since the one that she always believed in has seemingly turned against her.

The Problem: Winnie's senior year is already off to a rocky start with Raj's betrayal, but then she finds out that the film club has a new faculty advisor, and one that is intent on enforcing a rule that would remove Winnie as chair of the film festival, a position she needs for her application to NYU's film program. And then there is Dev, a guy that was there before Winnie and Raj began dating, and has now made a welcome reappearance. While Winnie may be ready to move on from Raj, her mother and grandmother are still holding onto the prophecy. With near-constant warnings that fighting destiny only ends in disaster, Winnie wonders if giving up on Raj means giving up on her happily ever after. Or will it be enough to simply follow her heart and hope that everything works out?

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult fiction novel set in and around Princeton, New Jersey during Winnie's senior year of high school. Written from the third-person omniscient point of view, the story follows Winnie as she deals with an ugly break-up, does her best to fulfill her film club duties, bites her tongue around her family, and also works through these new feelings she has for Dev. Every chapter begins with a short review of a Bollywood film from Winnie's blog, and she is able to relate almost every situation in her life to a moment or scenario from one of her favorite movies. She even begins to dream about one of Bollywood's biggest stars, Shah Rukh Khan, in strange settings as he gives her cryptic and cosmic advice. The only subject that rivals the mention of Bollywood movies is that of destiny and fate, as Winnie constantly struggles between going with what she has always believed, or trying to forge her own path, even if that means potentially making a massive mistake. It is the ever-present destiny vs free will debate, and Winnie draws on her propensity for high drama as she navigates it.

My Verdict: This book is pure fun. And drama. But the good kind of drama that is mostly fun. At the beginning I thought there was a good chance that Winnie was going to grate on my nerves, but then Dev saved the day by quickly and astutely pointing out to her that she has absolutely no common sense. After this assurance that I was not the only one who thought this about our heroine, things immediately got better. Winnie is smart, ambitious, and determined, but also silly and dramatic. And while I know next to nothing about Bollywood, I was not lost in the constant references. If anything, I was left with an admiration for Winnie's obsession and her ability to defend it against anyone who dared to say a bad thing about it. And while Winnie is her own brand of delightful, the supporting cast of characters are not bad either, even the villains. Are there some ridiculous moments? Oh sure. But even the massive Bollywood dance scene (yes, there is one) will have most cynics smiling.

Favorite Moment: Naturally, the massive Bollywood dance scene.

Favorite Character: Winnie's best friend Bridget is incredibly patient and supportive. For me, Winnie would be hard to keep up with, but Bridget manages without being a complete enabler.

Recommended Reading: Both From Twinkle, with Love and When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon seem obvious, but I'm going to go with it anyway.         

Friday, June 8, 2018

Young Adult Fiction: The Strange Fascinations of Noah Hypnotik by David Arnold

We are already at the second Friday of YA Fest and today will be all about The Strange Fascinations of Noah Hypnotik by David Arnold. I first decided to follow Arnold's work after reading Mosquitoland, and felt completely validated in that decision after reading his follow-up, Kids of Appetite. Arnold has a knack for portraying introspective young people attempting to deal with complicated relationships that most adults would have trouble with, but with the addition of a strange road trip, or a charismatic and troubled group of runaways, or a bizarre altered reality set to a soundtrack of David Bowie songs.

The Situation: It is the beginning of senior year for Noah Oakman, who admits to having obsessions, or what he prefers to call his "strange fascinations." There is the YouTube video of the girl who took a picture of herself every day for forty years; the photograph that was dropped in Noah's classroom by a guest speaker; the old man with a goiter that Noah sees walking every morning before school; and Noah's favorite book by is favorite author Mila Henry, Year of Me. Not listed among the strange fascinations is the life and music of David Bowie. Noah refers to himself as a David Bowie believer, and wears the same Bowie t-shirt everyday (he owns several of the same shirt, rotating between them). When not obsessing or at school, Noah spends his time with his two best friends, twins Val and Alan, and faking a back injury that keeps him off of the swim team. Future plans include everyone graduating but still staying fairly close to home, until Noah finds himself at a stranger's home, getting hypnotized.

The Problem: Ever since that night, ever since Noah followed Circuit (his real name) home, there have been some significant changes to his daily reality. Now Noah's mother has a scar on her face that was not there before; the family dog is no longer pathetic and useless; Alan is now an avid Marvel fan, when Noah has always known him to be into DC; and both twins are now talking about going to college in California instead of sticking close to home. The only things in Noah's life that appear to have not changed at all are his strange fascinations, as well as his sister Penny. Noah has no idea what is going on. Has he lost it? Or was he lost before and now things have finally righted themselves? He decides to find out, and ends up learning about himself in the process.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult fiction novel set in and around the fictional suburb of Iverton, Illinois (though there is a real place called Riverton, Illinois). For the most part, Noah is a typical teenager in his final year of high school. He is somewhat particular about how he likes things organized, and perhaps is a bit more into cleanliness that teenage boys are generally believed to be. But he has a healthy amount of anxiety about the future, loves his friends and family, and even has a sport that he excels at, though he does not wish to pursue it. Also like most teenagers, or really most people in general, Noah has a tendency to get too caught up in his own head and look at everything only as it relates to him and his experience, which allows him to ignore the needs of those around him. According to his own description, the work of fictional author Mila Henry can be compared to that of Kurt Vonnegut, and other author's Noah appreciates include J.D. Salinger, Henry David Thoreau, and Haruki Murakami. While my experience with the work of Vonnegut is sadly quite lacking, I can definitely say there are elements of Noah's story that reminded me Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye, especially when it comes to his interactions with his sister Penny. I also found myself thinking of Murakami's work, in particular the slightly altered reality in 1Q84, as well as the feeling of isolation that is present in many of the Japanese author's work, specifically Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. Elements like these often made Noah's story a little like an Easter egg hunt. I found myself going to Google more than I normally would while reading, but it was more of a fun side quest than an annoying diversion. And if course, there are the many delightful mentions of the life and work of David Bowie.

My Verdict: When it comes to an Arnold book, there is always much more to the story than what is seen by the teen character that is telling it. Noah can only see as far as his own reality as he knows it, so the reader must go along for the ride as he tries to figure out the situation. And it certainly is a ride. As the reader, we get to go with Noah as he befriends a lonely old man and learns about his life. We also get to go backstage at a seedy local club and observe local musicians struggle to make it, while pretending that the struggle is not wearing them down. Unraveling the mystery of Noah's strange altered reality is certainly fun and entertaining, but I did have the nagging sense the entire time that I may be in for one of those 'he was dead the whole time' endings. Even so, I enjoyed gathering clues, taking notes of the small or sometimes big differences, interacting with Penny, and taking chances with Noah that he certainly would not have taken had his reality stayed what it was. 

Favorite Moment: There are two. The first is when new acquaintance Sara calls out Noah for the small number of women on his favorite authors list, as well as his need to compare his one favorite female author to a male. The second is when Noah admits that of course his dream girlfriend was something he made up only his mind.

Favorite Character: I like Sara a lot, mostly for the reason mentioned above. But I also like Noah's sister Penny and her insistence on being her. 

Recommended Reading: Outside of YA, I do recommend Murakami's 1Q84, and, to a lesser degree, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. And within YA, both Mosquitoland and Kids of Appetite are no brainers.             

Friday, June 1, 2018

Young Adult Fiction: From Twinkle, with Love by Sandhya Menon

Welcome to Door Stop Novel's second annual YA Fest! Once again, the entire month of June will be dominated by young adult fiction, and I could not be more pleased that we will have five Fridays instead of four to work with. Kicking things off will be From Twinkle, with Love by Sandhya Menon. Last year I was able to read Menon's When Dimple Met Rishi, and was absolutely surprised and delighted by lovable characters and a fun storyline.

The Situation: Twinkle Mehra has stories she wants to tell, and she hopes to someday use films as a medium to do so. She has a YouTube channel, and has put some stuff out there, but none of it has really ever gotten any attention outside of her former best friend and her grandmother. She would love it if her lifelong crush, Neil Roy, would suddenly find her worthy of his attention. Convinced that being Neil's girlfriend would elevate her status at school, and maybe even allow her to win back her best friend, Maddie, Twinkle has become fixated on the fantasy on one day ending up on his arm. But currently, she feels invisible and more than a little miserable. With a diary in hand that was a birthday present from her grandmother, Twinkle begins writing letters to famous female directors, whose steps she hopes to one day follow.

The Problem: With a little prodding from Maddie, Twinkle decides to take a huge step and work with Sahil Roy, Neil's twin brother, in making a film for an upcoming school festival. Though she is absolutely terrified that the whole thing could fail, Twinkle takes Sahil up on his offer to produce it and begins making plans. To her surprise, Sahil is actually a blast to hang out with and gets her in a way not many people do. He would be ideal boyfriend material if she was not still hung up on his twin brother. It also does not help that Twinkle has started receiving emails from a secret admirer who she is convinced is Neil. Oh, and Sahil has made it perfectly clear he would prefer it if they were more than friends and colleagues. Add in the drama with Maddie and her new not-so-friendly clique, and the last few weeks of Twinkle's junior year become more than her wallflower tendencies are used to dealing with. If she is not careful, Twinkle could end up causing the kind of pain she is used to getting from everyone else, and possibly losing out on relationships that could last well beyond high school. 

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult fiction novel set during the last few weeks of school before summer break. Most of the action is leading up to the school's Midsummer Night Arts Festival, where Twinkle will be showcasing the film she directed with Sahil as her producer. Written almost entirely from Twinkle's point of view, and through diary entries she has addressed to various female directors (Nora Ephron, Sofia Coppola, Ava DuVernay, etc.), Twinkle's story unfolds as she attempts to navigate the minefield that is high school, especially for someone who is used to not being seen, not speaking up, and not being included. Occasionally there are entries from Sahil's point of view that come in the form of his personal blog posts, or a text exchange between himself and his two best friends. Also included are the emails from Twinkle's mysterious secret admirer. Ultimately, the novel explores the insecurity rich environment that is high school, and how not everything or everyone is as they seem. While Twinkle is dealing with the very real pain of losing her best friend, she must also come to terms with her own capacity to cause pain and also not give someone a fair chance to be their best self.     

My Verdict: Once again, Menon has crafted an utterly delightful and enjoyable experience through the adventures of Twinkle Mehra. At the beginning, I did find Twinkle's musings to be a bit all over the place and hard to follow, but that could easily be explained away as nervous teenage wallflower energy and being generally clueless about what to do with her daily high school reality. The longer the story went on, the better it got, the easier I could relate, and the more I liked most of the characters, though the diversity of them felt forced. It was incredibly satisfying watching Twinkle get more and more used to believing in herself as well as her own voice. And it was also nice watching her find out that people are not always what they seem when watching them from a distance. People can surprise you, for better or for worse, and no one can be judged on sight. This book is for anyone who enjoys a good romantic comedy, or even just a lesson in surviving high school. 

Favorite Moment: When Twinkle was hoping to have a modest number of people audition for her movie, only to end up getting a bigger crowd than she would have ever expected.

Favorite Character: Victoria Lyons is the friend we all need. She is also that person we have always known about, but did not officially meet until a good amount of time later, and immediately regret all of the days we haven't hung out together. 

Recommended Reading: Obviously, When Dimple Met Rishi is a must, but Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell would also be a great follow-up. 

Friday, May 25, 2018

Nonfiction: So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo

The annual San Antonio Book Festival always helps me discover at least one or two new authors, and this year, Ijeoma Oluo is one of them. Her book, So You Want to Talk About Race, is an honest, upfront, no nonsense look at the issue of race in this country and what it truly means to confront it head on, not only with open dialogue, but also decisive action.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a nonfiction book that focuses on the racial landscape in the United States, and how it has shaped the society we live in ways that are both incredibly obvious, and dangerously subtle. Each chapter title is a question, and with titles like "What is racism?", "Is police brutality really about race?", "Why can't I say the 'N' word?", "What is cultural appropriation?", and even "I just got called a racist, what do I do now?", Oluo breaks down plainly and simply what certain terms mean, offers tips and strategies for having conversations about race, clarifies the confusion over privilege, and also gives a thorough explanation as to why it is not okay to simply reach out and touch a black woman's hair. Addressing people of all races, Oluo does not shy away from difficult subjects, while also acknowledging that difficulty, but still insisting that these issues need to be addressed, and these conversations need to be had, no matter how uncomfortable or painful they may be. The issue of racism is only made worse when ignored and pushed aside, when people choose comfort and silence over a desire to see change. And Oluo addresses this discomfort, but at the end of chapters 9 ("Why can't I say the 'N' word?") and 10 (What is cultural appropriation?"), she also takes time to address any feelings of injustice that may be felt by the majority, but ultimately, that injustice is not against them.

My Verdict: Although I missed Oluo's talk at the San Antonio Book Festival, I was able to have her sign my book, where she wrote, "You deserve to be heard." She makes this same point in many different places throughout her book. So You Want to Talk About Race is about the importance of listening to people of color, and engaging in conversations that are hard, often painful, but ultimately need to happen if we are going to see any real change in this country. Even as a person of color, reading this book was difficult in spots, if only because it brought up memories of microaggressions, or it gave helpful tips for potential conversations about race, conversations that I will have a hard time with no matter how prepared I am. Oluo is helpful in the information she provides and the examples she gives. Do I wish she talked a little more about the Black Lives Matter movement? Sure. But it is not necessary for her to address every facet of today's racial climate to make the point that things need to change, and these conversations need to happen, followed by practical application and action.

Favorite Chapter: Chapter 4: Why am I always being told to "check my privilege"? 

Favorite Quotes: "Racial oppression should always be an emotional topic to discuss. It should always be anger-inducing. As long as racism exists to ruin the lives of countless people of color, it should be something that upsets us. But it upsets us because it exists, not because we talk about it. And if you are white, and you don't want to feel any of that pain by having these conversations, then you are asking people of color to continue to bear the entire burden of racism alone." - from Chapter 3 "What if I talk about race wrong?"

"At its core, police brutality is about power and corruption. Police brutality is about the intersection of fear and guns. Police brutality is about accountability. And the power and corruption that enable police brutality put all citizens, of every race, at risk. But it does not put us at risk equally, and the numbers bear that out." - from Chapter 6 "Is police brutality really about race?"

Recommended Reading: I recommend Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward, as well as The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas.     

Friday, May 18, 2018

Contemporary Fiction: An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

Many will recognize today's book as the most recent selection for Oprah's Book Club. An American Marriage by Tayari Jones explores the life of two newlyweds whose young marriage is struck by tragedy. Now they must navigate the consequences of a situation they did not create, and do their best to hold themselves and their marriage together.

The Situation: Roy and Celestial are married only a year and a half when they are suddenly, and brutally, forced to be apart. During a visit to Roy's hometown, he is falsely accused of a crime and ends up being sentenced to 12 years in prison. It is a devastating blow to their young marriage, which was certainly not perfect, but they were making it work. With him in Louisiana, and her back at home in Atlanta where she is a successful up and coming artist, the two write each other letters (not emails) to stay connected in between visits. It is not easy of course, especially when the letters turn to more difficult matters such as Roy's desire to have children; the opinions of both of their parents; the continued efforts of Celestial's uncle for Roy's release; and the closeness of her best friend Andre, something Roy has never been completely at ease with. Twelve years is a long time, and at about three years in, Celestial says she cannot do it anymore and stops visiting and writing, leaving Roy feeling more lost and alone than ever.

The Problem: What is supposed to make Roy's life better ends up being the thing that makes everything more complicated for everyone. When Celestial's uncle manages to get Roy's conviction overturned, he is set free seven years early, but the only person that seems ready for him to come home is his father. And though Celestial may have formally ended things two years before, she never sent Roy divorce papers, something he manages to hold onto as a hope that he can still save his marriage. But he does not know that she has moved on, having found comfort in her best friend, a relationship that no one seems to approve of but them. The confrontation between Roy and Celestial is inevitable, and everyone will have some serious decisions to make. And as the story slowly moves toward this interaction, the big question becomes whether these two will stay together, or if simply too much time has passed. 

Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel set mostly in present day southern U.S. Roy is from a small town in Louisiana called Eloe, while Celestial is from Atlanta. The narrative is split almost evenly between the two states as Roy's parents still live in Eloe, and this is also the state where he will end up being incarcerated, while Celestial stays in their home in Atlanta, the city where she grew up. Of course, the plot line involves a black man being falsely accused of a heinous crime and consequently sentenced to twelve years in prison, something that happens more often in this country than anyone cares to think about. The time in prison causes Roy to lose his freedom, his job as a promising executive, his sense of who he is, and finally, his wife and what could be their growing family. But the book does not dwell too much on that stuff, though it is there. The real issue involves where Roy and Celestial's marriage stands once he is released. She told him she was done with their relationship, but never drew up divorce papers. And when she comes face to face with the early release of the man who is still her husband, Celestial's fierce independence almost evaporates when she must reconcile herself between the man she married, and the man who has been there for her since Roy was sent to jail. It is not a cut and dry situation, no matter how much anyone tries to claim it is. If anything, it is an issue created by terrible circumstances, and now Roy and Celestial have to deal with it.

My Verdict: This is a book that is well-written, but hard to read. The characters are often unlikable, but still interesting and relatable. And the situation seems hopeless at many different points, but I still found myself turning the page, wanting everything to work out. Jones presents a situation with no easy solution, but it is incredibly easy for everyone except Roy and Celestial to say what needs to happen. And while I appreciate the complexity of the issue, I had a hard time with Celestial's willingness to take a back seat when dealing with the ensuing conflict. Before Roy went to prison, she seemed brave, independent, and outspoken. But when faced with a difficult decision, she becomes passive and quiet, and hopeful that someone else will take care of it for her. What Jones does so well is write the situation in a way so that no one is presented as the villain or the hero. These are simply two flawed people who attempted to start a life together before things went horribly wrong. Ultimately, it is a problem that none of these characters created, which is what makes the whole thing that much more cruel.        

Favorite Moment: This may be a bit of a no brainer, but I pick when Celestial's uncle is able to get Roy's conviction overturned and he is subsequently released.

Favorite Character: Big Roy is a man who adopted another man's son as his own, and gave him not only his last name, but his first name as well. He is also a man who took on the task of burying his own wife, despite professional gravediggers standing by.

Favorite Quote: "I respect his ambition; I had mine. But you don't want to spend the rest of your life with a man who has something to prove." - Celestial's father before she married Roy. 

Recommended Reading: Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward tells a different kind of story also about a southern family torn apart when one spouse is incarcerated.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Young Adult Fiction: Scythe by Neal Shusterman

I am once again extremely late to the party for a YA series that many have been excited about since the first book came out in November 2016. Scythe (Arc of a Scythe #1) is the first in what will be a three-book series by Neal Shusterman. The second book, Thunderhead, already came out earlier this year and will be making a DSN appearance in June for YA Fest. My explanation for just now getting to this book is simple: I avoided it. I read the synopsis, and decided that it would be too much for me. But then I saw that Shusterman was scheduled to appear at the 6th Annual San Antonio Book Festival, and after hearing him speak, I felt like he was the kind of writer I could trust. 

The Situation: It is the distant future, though no one knows exactly how distant, as the human race lost the need to number the years once death ceased to be a natural thing. There is no more hunger, or disease, or war, or misery; everyone can live forever. Of course, if everyone did live forever, while more people are still being born, Earth would become desperately overcrowded, so the Scythedom was created. With every need they could possibly have taken care of, and death taken almost completely out of the equation, humans fear very little and are not motivated to do much. The only exception is when a Scythe is spotted in the vicinity, as anyone can be gleaned at any moment, including children.  The Scythes are the only people allowed to "glean" other humans as a means of population control. Those who are picked for the job are chosen carefully, and must undergo a year of training and several tests before they are ordained. This year, Citra Terranova and Rowan Damisch are two of the newest apprentices.

The Problem: To be chosen to study under the Honorable Scythe Farady is no small thing. Though neither Citra nor Rowan had any previous desire to be a Scythe, such an aversion actually makes them a suitable choice, and having Scythe Farady as their mentor certainly works in their favor. Unfortunately, even the Scythedom is not immune to the petty politics of an organization run by humans, and those who wish to cause trouble decide to object to Scythe Faraday having two apprentices instead of one. The discussion ends with Citra and Rowan's apprenticeship being tagged with a critical stipulation, one that will be upheld despite it being unprecedented and unnecessary. Training to essentially become an expert in taking life is hard enough, but now the two pupils must compete against each other for their very lives.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult novel set in a future where years are no longer numbered, but instead are named after animals. People can now live forever, unless a Scythe gleans them, and they are ruled only by Thunderhead, which is essentially what we know of as the Cloud, but much more powerful. Technology has finally achieved the sentience that science fiction writers had warned us about, only Thunderhead is not evil and has no desire to turn against us, or use us for its own aims. It provides everything we could ever need, and this goes beyond simple clothing, shelter, and food. Thunderhead also holds all knowledge, and has made it easily accessible to anyone who wishes to know...well...anything. The only thing Thunderhead stays away from is the Scythedom, who live by their own rules and govern themselves. If a Scythe appears to be showing bias, either in their gleaning or in their granting of immunity, they are punished as the Scythedom sees fit. It is not a perfect system, and removing death as a primary threat has not made for a perfect society. Most things that humans do are useless and unnecessary endeavors, as Thunderhead can provide anything ever needed. What do humans strive for after everything is given to them? And is someone whose job it is to take life, even in the name of aiding society, anything more than a killer?

My Verdict: I was incredibly afraid that I was going to end up in another Strange the Dreamer type situation where after reading the first book, I had to make the ugly decision not to continue with the second and subsequent ones. But it turns out I was right to feel like I could trust Shusterman after hearing him speak at the San Antonio Book Festival. Make no mistake: this book is intense, and troubling, and it describes a world that honestly disturbs me. Given a choice between the world I know and the one Shusterman described where death and disease and war and famine are no longer a thing, I actually find myself choosing my present reality, as messed up as it is. And while the two main characters of Citra and Rowan are thankfully easy on the nerves as well as easy to root for, the trials they go through are nerve-wracking and brutal and painful and sometimes cruel. Even so, this is a great book and another wonderful addition to the dystopian YA collection.

Favorite Moment: The word "favorite" does not really fit how I feel about this scene, but it is certainly the one that sticks out in my mind the most and had the biggest effect on me. There is a moment early on in the book where a man sitting in an airplane, waiting for take-off, sees a group of Scythes walk onto the plane. Only when he notices one of the stewardesses running away from the plane does he begin to understand what is happening. 

Favorite Character: Scythe Faraday is a character in the tradition of Atticus Finch or Jean Val Jean, or even Gandalf. His mere presence makes you feel as if everything is going to be okay. 

Recommended Reading: Speculative fiction is fun. Or at least it can be. I recommend Nnedi Okorafor's Binti series as a follow-up.        

Friday, May 4, 2018

Historical Fiction: An Ill-Fated Sky by Darrell Drake

Today's post will cover An Ill-Fated Sky, the second book in the A Star-Reckoner's Legacy series by Darrell Drake. Last year I was given the pleasure of reading and posting about the first book, A Star-Reckoner's Lot, where readers first met Ashtadukht, her cousin Tirdad, and their half-human/half-div traveling companion, Waray. Now we follow the latter two on another journey across various lands of the Sassanian Empire in a quest for answers and revenge. Naturally, I must issue a serious spoiler alert for anyone who has not read the first book.

The Situation: To say that Tirdad is filled with guilt after what he did to Ashtadukht would be an understatement. He has plenty of reasons at his disposal that he could use for justifying what happened. In the end however, he is only left with guilt and sadness. When Tirdad becomes cursed by the very sword he used to kill his cousin, he also inherits her planet-reckoning powers, and gains insight into what led her to do what she did. Now Tirdad's guilt and sadness are joined by anger and revenge. Fortunately for him, his old half-human/half-div traveling companion, Waray, is up for another adventure. She may be as cryptic and violent as ever, but she is also helpful, and knows how to wield an axe when it is needed most.

The Problem: Learning the truth behind what really happened to Ashtadukht, and what really caused the fall of Tirdad's House will not be easy. For one, he is not a young man anymore. And two, learning the truth and possibly getting revenge means hunting down star-reckoners in a land filled with kingdoms at war with each other, and ill-meaning divs who think nothing of causing trouble and ending lives. Also, traveling with half-human/half-div Shkarag (Waray's true identity) often proves challenging. She can be enough trouble on her own, but it does not help that other humans are wary of her mere presence. If Tirdad is to find out what he wants to know, and take the revenge he feels Ashtadukht is owed, it will be more than a simple matter of finding the people responsible and making them pay. He must first manage to stay alive that long, but he also must not allow himself to be consumed by the same anger and hatred that Ashtadukht fell victim to. 

Genre, Themes, History: This is a historical fiction/fantasy novel that, just like the first book, is once again set during the Sassanian Empire of what is now Iran. The story picks up after the events of the first one, with Ashtadukht's unfortunate death still fresh in Tirdad's mind, especially since he was the one who caused it. Up to this point in Tirdad's life, honor has been incredibly important. But can the thing that caused him to take the life of a family member really be all that great? Especially when his House would end up ruined as a result? Tirdad is ready to be done with honor and the past altogether, but fate has decided to bind him to his dead cousin, her powers, even her memories, and her dangerous thirst for revenge. If there is anything that helps him hold it together it is the presence of Shkarag, though she has issues all her own. Just as in the previous book, trust between humans and divs (even half-divs) is a tricky thing. Though Tirdad and Shkarag become close, he still does not know everything about her. And one thing about Shkarag is that there is always more to her than what she chooses to reveal, and she knows more than she would ever tell, even in her own cryptic way. Much like the first book, this one is filled with adventure, strange creatures, and epic battle scenes, all against the backdrop of the Sassanian Empire.

My Verdict: I was once again treated to a unique story with incredibly vivid and often terrifying creatures and characters, some of which don't even stay dead after they have been killed. And though Ashtadukht is dead, she still makes the occasional appearance in the way of memories, feelings, and the sword that Tirdad must carry. She is the invisible third character in a journey that is clearly going to be tough, but entertaining. What Drake does so well is making it clear that there is more to the journey than what Tirdad sees, but this truth is not revealed in any obvious way. It is the subtle sense of unease that comes from almost every conversation and encounter that tells the reader that things are not as Tirdad wants to believe them to be. It is another successful blend of historical fiction and fantasy, with an adventure that will keep any reader entertained. 

Favorite Moment: Any moment when Tirdad is shown that he knows very little in the grand scheme of things, and there is a lot of them.

Favorite Character: Chobin is the kind of friend that we all need to help us not take ourselves too seriously all of the time.

Recommended Reading:  The Binti series by Nnedi Okorafor is also full of strange creatures and epic adventures.