Review & Blog Tour: Jade Fire Gold by June C.L. Tan

I grew up on wuxia and xianxia dramas. From the little that I remember of my adolescence, I recall watching these Vietnamese-dubbed dramas with my mom, marveling over the grand adventures of martial heroes with magic and found family and martial arts in ancient China–The Legend of the Condor Heroes and Handsome Siblings are two of the most memorable for me.

Reading Jade Fire Gold gave me all those nostalgic feelings from my childhood. There’s ancient Chinese folklore woven into the world-building, forbidden magic in the hands of our heroine, a slow-burn romance that gave Zutara vibes (any Avatar the Last Airbender fans here?), a journey through desert and sea, and some heart-racing action. While there are some issues with pacing, this is a great debut for fans of YA Asian-inspired fantasy.

Huge thank you to HarperTeen and Caffeine Book Tours for providing me an Advanced Reader’s Copy to review for the book tour!

Synopsis

In an empire on the brink of war…

Ahn is no one, with no past and no family.

Altan is a lost heir, his future stolen away as a child.

When they meet, Altan sees in Ahn a path to reclaiming the throne. Ahn sees a way to finally unlock her past and understand her arcane magical abilities.

But they may have to pay a far deadlier price than either could have imagined.

Ferocious action, shadowy intrigue, and a captivating romance collide in June CL Tan’s debut, a stunning homage to the Xianxia novel with a tender, beating heart, perfect for fans of The Bone Witch and We Hunt the Flame.

What it’s about:

Jade Fire Gold follows Ahn, a girl with a powerful and forbidden magic that can change the fate of an empire on the cusp of war, and Altan, a fugitive prince on a path of vengeance, seeking to reclaim the Dragon Throne as the rightful heir. Their destinies are intertwined, but there’s a price for everything.

My thoughts:

The Chinese folklore and mythos, immersive world-building, and wuxia/xianxia themes were my favorite aspects of the book. It really brought the world to life and painted the characters and settings in such vivid colors. Since the romance was pitched as Zuko and Katara-esque (from AtLA), I have to talk about it (I’ve been Zutara shipper since I was in high school). Altan definitely feels like Zuko in this story! From his whole tragic past to exiled prince to reclaiming the throne narrative. His relationship with Ahn is enemies to lovers on paper, but there’s not a great deal of tension and I found it to be a rather sweet romance! They’re more like reluctant allies. I even adored the side characters–Tang Wei was my favorite. The found family dynamic is forever my favorite underrated trope.

I must admit, the pacing was a bit jarring at times, but it didn’t detract from the story too much and I’m excited to see how things may unfold in the sequel (there’s going to be a sequel, right?!). After that epilogue, I’m crossing my fingers!

We all carry burdens and joys of our past. Only those who chose to be blind to themselves forget what once existed and what continues to exist inside.

Jade Fire Gold

Content warnings:

Self-harm (gouging, eye horror; non-graphic), child abuse (physical, verbal, emotional manipulation/gaslighting), parent death (implied, off-page), character deaths, mentions and descriptions of fantasy/magical violence (blood, war, political violence), mentions and descriptions of physical symptoms that might be triggering to those with emetophobia, alcohol consumption.

About the Author

June CL Tan grew up in Singapore where she was raised on a diet of classic books and wuxia movies, caffeine and congee. After obtaining three degrees, she decided she had enough of academia. Thankfully, those degrees were somewhat related to telling stories and now, she resides in New York City, writing under the watchful eye of her crafty cat. Jade Fire Gold is her debut novel.

Review: XOXO by Axie Oh

Have you ever wanted to read a book that felt like a K-drama? Well look no further because I found the perfect book! XOXO encompasses everything I love about romance K-dramas—the feel-good vibes, the humor, the heartwarming romance, and the emphasis on family and friendships. In just a little over 300 pages, Axie Oh made me feel like I binge-watched an entire season of an incredibly sweet and lighthearted K-drama.

What it’s about:

At her uncle’s Karaoke bar, cello prodigy Jenny meets a handsome stranger who takes her on a spontaneous night of adventure—then he disappears without a word. Three months later, Jenny and her mom moves to South Korea to take care of her ailing grandma. There, her paths cross again with the mysterious stranger at the elite performing arts academy she’s enrolled in. He just so happens to be a member of XOXO, one of the biggest k-pop bands in the world…and he’s forbidden from dating.

What I loved:

This book was a pure delight. It’s full of heart and humor—and very reminiscent of the fluffy romantic K-dramas I used to watch (these days I’m obsessed with the thriller/melodrama variety). It reminded me why I love romcom K-dramas so much: they make me feel good.

The forbidden romance between Jenny and Jaewoo; prodigy cellist and k-pop idol, was adorable: the thrill of sneaking around, the Seoul adventures, the soft kisses beneath the twinkling stars. I loved it. I don’t listen to a whole lot of k-pop but this book had me pulling up those aesthetic hour-long k-indie playlists on Youtube to play in the background (I’ll have a playlist below)! The friendships and bromances in this story was SO wholesome. I’m begging for a spin-off. Sori was my favorite and I’d love to see more of her (with Nathaniel)!

“If cellists have fan clubs, Jenny, I want to join yours.”

Read XOXO if you like:

  • Lighthearted k-dramas
  • K-pop and idols
  • Forbidden romance
  • Korean culture
  • Heartwarming YA romances
  • Books that lift your spirits

Biggest thank you to Subtle Asian Book Club and Epic Reads for this copy!!


Do you watch K-drama? Or listen to K-pop? Share some of your favorite shows + songs!

Review: So We Meet Again by Suzanne Park

This is my favorite book by Suzanne Park yet. It’s more women’s fiction than romance (though there is a very sweet romantic subplot), and rightfully marketed this time! I loved the family dynamic and how the relationship between immigrant parents and daughter was written. It was relatable in many ways, and Jess’ character resonated deeply with me. If you’re looking for a heartwarming and uplifting read, look no further. Bonus if you’re a foodie!

Thank you to Avon Books for sending me a copy in exchange for an honest review!

What it’s about:

After investment banker Jessie Kim is laid off for her supposed lack of leadership qualities, she returns to her hometown Tennessee, moving back in with her parents to figure out what her next move will be. To make matters worse, she runs into her childhood nemesis, Daniel Choi, a charming lawyer who seems to have it all. Determined to turn things around, she decides to revive her old Korean cooking Youtube channel. Her spitfire mother makes an uninvited appearance on the very first livestream—and it goes viral.

What I loved:

The mother-daughter relationship. The family dynamic was hands down my favorite aspect of the book, more specifically, the relationship between Jess and her mother. It reminded me a lot of my relationship with my own mother, especially since my mother is also an immigrant with strong views. At the surface it may seem like they have a combative relationship, but it’s a bond full of love. My mom also used to drive me crazy! But I knew it was because she wanted the best for me, as did Jess’ mom. She’s afraid of being a disappointment to her parents, but they really just want her to be happy. Jess is relatable in many ways in her hopes and fears.

Highlighting sexism + workplace inequality. This books highlights how many women and minorities are treated in male-dominated fields. These relevant issues are addressed in a realistic way. Right from the beginning, Jess is not only passed off for a promotion after all her hard work, but she’s laid off. To add insult to injury, three executives she worked directly with make racist and sexist remarks, calling her the “Asian worker-bee type”, and saying she was overpaid for a “female associate”, among other things. Park emphasizes the value we put on ourselves and the importance of knowing our worth.

Korean food. If you’re a foodie this book is going to leave your mouth watering! There’s also an Umma-approved quick kimchi fried rice recipe at the end which I certainly plan on trying myself!


Since Jess’ cooking Youtube is a big part of this book, I thought I’d share some of my favorite cooking channels that I often visit for recipes!

Maangchi: My go-to channel for Korean dishes! I was immediately reminded of Maangchi when I read So We Meet Again. It’s very wholesome and the dishes are delicious—there are also vegetarian friendly ones!
Cooking Tree: The most aesthetically pleasing baking channel ever. I love watching these videos but I’m terrible at recreating these works of art haha.
HidaMari Cooking: Aesthetics + ASMR. Watching these videos is a pure delight!

Do you have a favorite cooking channel on Youtube? Share it below so I can check it out!

Review: She Who Became the Sun by Shelly Parker-Chan

I’m not a masochist by any means, but my favorite books tend to hurt. As much as I love a happy ending (they’re a must in romance), bittersweet endings are far more impactful, far more memorable to me. They linger in my mind, consuming that liminal subconscious space between sleep and awake. Emotionally compelling books with a vaguely tragic undertone just hits different.

You might’ve seen the Mulan meets The Song of Achilles pitch but I’d like to add one more title to that: The Poppy War. Much like The Poppy War, this book destroyed me, and I loved it. Tragedies and triumphs and all. I love the feeling of being so invested in a character that their grief and pain causes in visceral reaction in me. It’s the mark of masterful writing. And that’s exactly what this book is: a masterpiece.

ARC provided by Tor Books in exchange for an honest review!

She Who Became the Sun is a reimagining of the rise of the Ming Dynasty’s founding emperor. It follows a peasant girl who was destined for nothing, but had the innate, unfaltering ambition for greatness and glory—a fate that belonged to her dead brother. Zhu takes his identity and joins a monastery to survive, and there begins her journey from monk, to warlord, to a king who would be remembered for thousands of years to come.

❝I’m going to be great. And not a minor greatness, but the kind of greatness that people remember for a hundred generations. The kind that’s underwritten by Heaven itself.

Zhu might just be my favorite protagonist this year. She’s an anti-heroine whose sheer determination and desire for greatness overrode her own fate. The parallel between her literal hunger from starvation in the beginning to her metaphorical hunger to claim a destiny that wasn’t hers was so fantastically done. Her desperation was palpable, and she was willing to do whatever it took to survive because nothingness was the most terrifying thing she could imagine; worse than all the pain she’d endured. She’s not a heroic character by any means, in fact, she does some terrible things in her rise to power (without remorse might I add), but it’s fitting for the narrative. I really loved her character arc; how cunning and astute she became in a quiet, unassuming way, with an underlying propensity for ruthlessness.

❝Keep looking at the moon, little brother. It will be better that way. And when you’re reborn centuries from now, make sure to listen for my name. The whole world will know it.

Mood board by @fang.

The story is also told from the perspective of the opposite side of the war; Ouyang, the feared general of the Mongol army. Just thinking about his story makes my chest ache. Like Zhu, Ouyang is no stranger to suffering. His father tried to rebel against the Mongols and failed, leading to the execution and punishment of his entire family. He was the only one spared; a boy weeping in the blood of his family. Mercy came in the form of mutilation.

Thus began his singular path of revenge, his own determination to fulfill his filial duty, and the tragedy of his fate written in the stars. One rages against their fate, and the other accept the shackles of destiny. Zhu and Ouyang are irreversibly connected even though they’re enemies, fighting with different motivations. I couldn’t help but root for both of them, even though I knew that only one could truly rise triumphant.

Ouyang’s relationship with Esen is reminiscent of The Song of Achilles. It’s beautiful in the most painful way. The internal conflict and the yearning, the self-hatred and the tenderness. Esen had always tried to protect Ouyang, keeping him by his side as his general, but he was the son of the man who executed Ouyang’s family, and Ouyang was on the path of destruction down to the bitter end. I’ll admit that I teared up towards the end.

❝Her eyes slid over General Ouyang’s shoulder and met the stares of his ghosts. She had wondered, before, what bound them to him. But it was the opposite: he bound himself to them. That was his tragedy. Not being born to a terrible fate, but not being able to let it go.

She Who Became the Sun is epic in every way; the ambitions of our anti-heroine Zhu, the incredible world building, the nuanced exploration of gender identity, the themes of war and vengeance and fate. Emotional devastation aside, I finished this book feeling awed by how intense, how powerful the story was. I went into this book with the feeling that it’d become one of my favorite reads this year and I was not disappointed. Expect to see this historical fantasy debut in my Top Reads of 2021 round up at the end of the year.

Mulan meets The Song of Achilles in Shelley Parker-Chan’s She Who Became the Sun, a bold, queer, and lyrical reimagining of the rise of the founding emperor of the Ming Dynasty from an amazing new voice in literary fantasy.

In 1345, China lies under harsh Mongol rule. For the starving peasants of the Central Plains, greatness is something found only in stories. When the Zhu family’s eighth-born son, Zhu Chongba, is given a fate of greatness, everyone is mystified as to how it will come to pass. The fate of nothingness received by the family’s clever and capable second daughter, on the other hand, is only as expected.

When a bandit attack orphans the two children, though, it is Zhu Chongba who succumbs to despair and dies. Desperate to escape her own fated death, the girl uses her brother’s identity to enter a monastery as a young male novice. There, propelled by her burning desire to survive, Zhu learns she is capable of doing whatever it takes, no matter how callous, to stay hidden from her fate.

Review: The Maidens by Alex Michaelides

I’m a simple reader. When I see a dark academia book, I know I have to read it. I’m rather fond of the aesthetic of pretentious scholars and their often tragic pursuit of knowledge. Classics and philosophy, moral ambiguity and murder—they go together well.

Donna Tartt’s The Secret History can be considered the pioneer of this sub-genre, and surely enough it’s one of the most memorable books I’ve ever read despite its flaws. I’m always searching for new books in the same vein but they’re few and far between, so when I stumbled upon The Maidens, I was elated by the similar themes. However, my expectations may have been a little too high. While I loved the concept of a secret society with ties to Greek mythology and a murder mystery set in an atmospheric, illustrious university, the execution left me wanting more.

Review overview of The Maidens by Alex Michaelides, including title, genre, rating, cover, and a quote.

The Maidens by Alex Michaelides is a psychological thriller that follows a psychotherapist who returns to Cambridge, her alma mater, when her niece’s friend murdered. Mariana is there to comfort her niece, but there’s something troubling about the seemingly idyllic campus, and soon, the murder case becomes an obsession. She’s certain the charismatic Greek Tragedy professor is the killer, and she’s willing to risk everything to prove it.

❝After all, everyone’s entitled to be the hero of their own story. So I must be permitted to be the hero of mine. Even though I’m not. I’m the villain.

The Maidens by Alex Michaelides

What worked:

I loved the concept of the story. There’s a secret society called The Maidens made up of a special group of female students. One member is brutally murdered, and then not long after, another body is found. There’s something sinister hiding beneath the surface of such a prestigious university. Throw in a psychotherapist who becomes fixated on unraveling the secrets of this cult-like group and we have a great set up for a murder mystery—an incredibly atmospheric one. It’s dark and creepy; with so much tension and suspense brimming from every page.

The bountiful Greek tragedies woven into the story was a delight. I love ancient mythos and the tale of Persephone is one of my favorites. It’s referenced throughout the book, and it’s symbolic to Mariana’s journey as well. The goddess Persephone was often referred to as Kore, an epithet that translates to ‘the maiden’. It was her original name before she became the queen of the underworld.

What didn’t work for me:

The main character just wasn’t very interesting to me. She’s supposedly a brilliant therapist but she makes so many questionable decisions throughout the book and seems to only be dictated by emotions. She wasn’t exactly qualified to be involved in a murder case. Not to mention the conflict of interest in the investigation. There was definitely some missing logic and I couldn’t help but feel exasperated. I don’t mind reading about frustrating characters or even unlikable ones, as long as they’re compelling, but Mariana was lacking in that department.

Another thing was the ending, which I won’t spoil, but I was disappointed. I had a vague suspicion so I wasn’t completely caught off guard by the big reveal. I just found it to be unsatisfying.

Final thoughts:

The Maidens is a fast-paced, highly atmospheric psychological thriller with a darkly alluring concept but a weak execution. I didn’t love it nor did I hate it, and I wasn’t very impressed either. I’d recommend it with caution. If you like mystery thrillers with themes of Greek mythology, then give this one a try, but don’t expect the depth of The Secret History.

The Maidens by Alex Michaelides

Edward Fosca is a murderer. Of this Mariana is certain. But Fosca is untouchable. A handsome and charismatic Greek Tragedy professor at Cambridge University, Fosca is adored by staff and students alike—particularly by the members of a secret society of female students known as The Maidens.

Mariana Andros is a brilliant but troubled group therapist who becomes fixated on The Maidens when one member, a friend of Mariana’s niece Zoe, is found murdered in Cambridge.

When another body is found, Mariana’s obsession with proving Fosca’s guilt spirals out of control, threatening to destroy her credibility as well as her closest relationships. But Mariana is determined to stop this killer, even if it costs her everything—including her own life.

K-Drama Review: The Penthouse (season 1)

The Penthouse: War in Life might just be the craziest Korean drama I’ve ever watched. I can’t recall a K-drama ever inducing this much stress and frustration—and I’m no stranger to makjang (highly exaggerated) dramas. It’s the ultimate revenge thriller with elements of suspense, crime, and mystery. The staggering plot twists and shocking revelations will leave you blindsided, continually second guessing what you think you know. While there are some logical pitfalls and questionable sub-conflicts, Penthouse is certainly a K-drama to remember.

Penthouse takes place in Hera Palace, a 100-story luxury apartment where South Korea’s elites reside. The drama opens with a bang when a student falls to her death, landing on the statue of the Greek goddess Hera; cradled in those cold marble arms, crimson splattered on pale open wings. It’s a symbolic scene that set the tone for the rest of the show. Hera is known as the goddess of women, marriage, and family in Greek religion and mythology. It represents the three women that the plot revolves around; three women with different backgrounds who all seek power and revenge in some way.

No one is completely innocent, except, maybe the poor girl who was murdered, but this drama is full of despicable characters you’ll love to hate (emphasis on the hate). The lies, deceit, betrayal, and corruption—there were times when I felt so upset that I had to take a break. It’s a rollercoaster of emotions. Just when I thought things couldn’t get any worse, they did, and boy did my blood boil. Aside from the highly dramatized plot twists, Penthouse also meaningfully explores themes of education, class privilege, and female rage. How far is a mother is willing to go to exact revenge when she has nothing left to lose? How dirty is she willing to play? The power of female rage is a glorious thing. Never underestimate a mother’s wrath!  

Character tier list.

My friend and I made several tier lists while watching. This one was from quite early on, when we were only three or four episodes in. As you can see, there weren’t very many characters we loved but quite a few that we despised. As more information and history were revealed, some characters moved up the list and some moved down, and I couldn’t help but pity them because at the end of the day, (almost) everyone was a victim of circumstance, whether it was how they were raised or the mental/physical abuse they faced. Except for the chairman. No pity for him here. He can rot in the depths of hell.

Check out Penthouse if you like murder mysteries, over-the-top drama, revenge stories, crazy plot twists, and the rags-to-riches trope. Keep in mind that nearly all the characters are terrible, and it’s quite stress-inducing! I’m taking a breather before I dive into season 2 because I’m not sure how much more my heart can take, but there’s something undeniably compelling about this series so I’m definitely going to see how things unfold.

The residents of Hera Palace, a luxury penthouse apartment with 100 floors, have many secrets and hidden ambitions. Sim Su Ryeon, who was born into wealth, is the queen of the penthouse apartment. Cheon Seo Jin, the prima donna of the residence, does all she can to give everything to her daughter. Oh Yoon Hee comes from a poor family background, but she strives to enter high society by becoming the queen of the penthouse, the pinnacle of success in her eyes. A battle for wealth, power, and prestige at Seoul’s most coveted penthouse begins.

(From KOCOWA)

Why You Should Read Solo Leveling

There’s a quote from Donna Tartt’s The Secret History that I was reminded of when I read Solo Leveling:

❝I am nothing in my soul if not obsessive.

I’ve read many books, manga, and webcomics that were phenomenal, but only a select few have really left its mark on me. Those stories linger in my mind long after I turn the last page. I mull over it in idle moments, talk to all my friends about it, convince others to read it, buy art, collect different editions, and so on. When I’m in deep; beyond the shores of Acheron, standing before the gates of the abyss, I even look for fanfiction to read. And when there’s nothing to read, I write it myself.

This doesn’t happen very often. In fact, I can count the number of fandoms I’ve been part of on one hand, but that’s where I am with Solo Leveling right now. I stayed up until 2 am rereading all 110 chapters of the first season over the course of two days. When I caught up on the webcomic, I read the web novel, and when I finished that, I went out to buy the english physical copy to start my collection. Solo Leveling is my latest obsession for a very good reason, and it holds the throne as my favorite webcomic!

What is Solo Leveling?

Solo Leveling is originally a Korean web novel written by Chu-gong that was later adapted into a webcomic illustrated by Jang Sung-rak (aka Dubu). In a world where portals, or “gates”, full of hostile abyssal monsters have spawned, threatening the existence of humanity, some humans have developed extraordinary powers to fight against them. This small population is known as “hunters”. Their job is to enter the gate and clear the dungeon by defeating the creatures that await within. The story follows protagonist Sung Jin-Woo, an E-rank hunter known as the world’s weakest, on his rise to power to become the strongest hunter in the world.

What makes Solo Leveling so good?

The characters. Jin-Woo starts off as the weakest hunter in the world, barely stronger than the average human, but he’s full of heart and determination. He struggled through the lowest level dungeons to provide for his family. With a missing father and a hospitalized mother, he had to raise his younger sister himself. His motivation to get stronger is simply to protect those he cares about. He’s not a terribly complicated character—doesn’t have a grand goal or elaborate ambition like many other protagonists(i.e. Naruto’s dream of becoming Hokage)—but that’s what makes him so endearing. He fights against impossible odds and overcomes challenge after challenge to grow into a powerful Shadow Monarch. Underdog stories are just so satisfying.

The side characters are compelling as well, from the various guild masters to the antagonists. Jin-Woo’s shadow soldiers Igris and Beru are my favorites! Igris is his first shadow, the ever-chivalrous knight, and Beru is his (current) strongest shadow in the webcomic.

Jin-Woo and Beru.

Can you believe that this incredibly powerful shadow general likes watching historical dramas and reenacting it with his liege? The unexpected humor is the icing on the cake!

The blend of RPG games and reality. If you’re a fan of RPG/MMORPG games, you’re going to enjoy this one. There’s a leveling system in the webcomic that’s similar to that of video games. Jin-Woo gets quests to complete—like daily training or defeating a boss—that levels him up. He is essentially a “player” in the real world. He learns and develops abilities, becomes proficient with weapons, and grows via the leveling system, hence the name Solo Leveling. For the most part, he defeats bosses himself with the assistance of the shadow army, which he commands.

The art. It’s stunning. Every page feels like a feast for the eyes. The art is sleek and modern, with purposeful use of color to reflect power. There’s a minimalist style that the artist uses to illustrate Jin-Woo and the art choice represents his character so well; bold, flat black tones that make you feel like he’s the abyss himself. Endless and vast and ancient in power. There’s a clear difference in how he’s illustrated in the beginning; full of color, softer lines, more detailed, to his current form of the Shadow Monarch; seamless blacks with a singular pop color to convey his power. I think that the absence of details in his current form shows how he lost parts of himself as he got stronger. The minimalism suits his now stoic personality. Everything is drawn purposefully.

Solo Leveling is fast-paced with high-octane action sequences that will leave your heart pounding. It starts off with a bang and pulls you into its shadows, immersing you in a world where humans and monsters battle for the fate of the world. Everything is amazing, from the visuals to the story, and you’ll find yourself reading into the late hours of the night because of how binge-worthy this series is.

Interested in more?

Thanks to its wide-spread popularity, Solo Leveling will be adapted into a drama and a game in the United States! I’m incredibly excited for both, but maybe a little more hesitant on the drama side as the quality will be dependent on which studio will handle it. I think the ultimate end game for many Solo Leveling fans is an anime adaptation. I get chills just imagining how the battles will animated. Especially one of the early ones when Jin-Woo acquires Igris. Without a doubt, it would be mentioned alongside the current giants in anime like Jujustu Kaisen and Demon Slayer. Just take a look at this amazing animation:

I hope this has convinced you to pick up Solo Leveling! Who knows, it might just be your next favorite webcomic.

Review: For the Wolf by Hannah Whitten

Do you like fairy tale-esque stories? What about dark fantasy? Slow-burn romance? If any of these pique your interest (or perhaps all of them?), I have a recommendation for you! For the Wolf is a darkly alluring atmospheric fantasy inspired by Red Riding Hood and Beauty and the Beast.

Thank you to Orbit Books for providing an ARC in exchange for an honest review!

“The First Daughter is for the throne. The Second Daughter is for the Wolf. And the Wolves are for the Wilderwood.”

For the Wolf by Hannah Whitten

When I saw the author mention ‘monster boyfriend’ in regards to this book, I was ready to strike a bargain with some ancient eldritch entity to get my hands on an ARC. Fortunately, Orbit Books was kind enough to send me a copy so I didn’t have to sell my soul! But would it have been worth it? Yes. What can I say? My achilles heels is a brooding monstery bf.

I can never get enough of Red Riding Hood inspired stories. It’s one of my favorite fairy tales. For the Wolf vividly brings to life a haunting, sentient forest where Red is sent to be sacrificed to the Wolf. She was a second daughter, bound to the forest, bound to the Wolf, bound to an ancient bargain. A life in exchange for protection from the shadowy creatures that lurk in those dark depths. A life to placate the Wolf to free the Five Kings. But once Red enters the Wilderwood, she learns that things aren’t as they seem.

The writing is so poetic and richly descriptive. I have plenty of passages flagged just from my appreciation for Whitten’s craftsmanship of the written word. A cursed forest, a ruined castle, an evil priestess—I loved the gothic atmosphere. I’ve come to enjoy slower paced books more in the last few years and this one definitely was a slow burn. It gave me a chance to fully savor everything, from the world building to the romance (a very sweet romance, might I add).

My favorite aspect of the story was the complexity of familial bonds. Red and Neve are sisters, but while Red was prepared to accept her fate of being sacrificed to the Wolf, Neve, who was destined for the throne, wasn’t going to lose her sister so easily. The dynamic was really compelling—examining the duality of two siblings bound by fate. This book did have one drawback for me and it was the confusing magic system. We get bits and pieces scattered throughout the story, so it didn’t feel very cohesive and at times I was left puzzled. I hope it will be more substantial in the next book. Needless to say, I’m looking forward to the sequel.

If you like slow paced, darkly atmospheric fantasy with a brooding hero and a strong-willed heroine, then pick up For the Wolf!

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For the Wolf by Hannah Whitten

5 Reasons You Should Read The Wolf and the Woodsman by Ava Reid

I’ve been reading back to back darker, atmospheric fantasy lately—my saving grace amidst a nearly two-month long reading slump. Fantasy is one of my favorite genres, and I tend to gravitate towards the darker variety (of any genre, really). But this summer seems to be the summer of dark fantasy and I’m loving it. My latest read was a haunting debut full myths and magic and monsters, inspired by Hungarian history and Jewish folklore. Without further ado, here are 5 reasons why you should read The Wolf and the Woodsman by Ava Reid.

Thank you to Harper Voyager/Del Rey Books for sending me an ARC in exchange for an honest review!

1. The immersive world building. Reid crafted a rich world with fascinating lore and folktales. A pagan village where magic is revered. Woodsmen who come every few years to claim a girl to be sacrificed to the king. A magic system based on body horror. A journey to capture the turul; a mythological bird. It’s an epic, sweeping world of gods and monsters and the folly of kings.

2. Enemies to lovers. The romance was a subplot, but it was without a doubt my favorite aspect of the book—not just because enemies to lovers is my favorite trope, but because of how well it was done. Évike is a hardened, wild girl who is rightfully angry at the world after all the abuse she suffered. She’s fierce and a little mean; rough around the edges—my favorite kind of heroine. Her counterpart is a disgraced prince on his knees. He’s a tortured soul seeking redemption. He also happens to be the Woodsman captain tasked with taking Évike as a blood sacrifice for the king…his father. Their journey is steeped in angst and tension, and it’s so good.

3. Historical parallels. I learned a lot about Hungary’s violent history reading this book. Genocide, ethnic cleansing, and religious conflict. It was horrific and difficult to read at times, but a critical part of the book. Reid wanted to shine light on the oppression and marginalization experienced by ethno-religious minorities, and she pulled no punches.

4. Evocative writing and vivid imagery. It’s atmospheric and dark and haunting, taking us from eerie woodlands where monsters lurked, through frozen tundras and glacial lakes, to a dangerous city where the real monsters resided. I felt like I was transported right into the world, traveling along earthly and icy plains with our protagonists.

5. Jewish #ownvoices. I rarely ever see Jewish representation in fantasy, so reading the Jewish culture and mythology woven into the story (the Yehuli people) was amazing.

Keep in mind that this is an adult dark fantasy with very grim and graphic content. If you like The Bear and the Nightingale, Spinning Silver, or The Witcher, pick up this book! Content warnings: gore, abuse, self harm, torture, genocide, antisemitism.

The Wolf and the Woodsman by Ava Reid

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In her forest-veiled pagan village, Évike is the only woman without power, making her an outcast clearly abandoned by the gods. The villagers blame her corrupted bloodline—her father was a Yehuli man, one of the much-loathed servants of the fanatical king. When soldiers arrive from the Holy Order of Woodsmen to claim a pagan girl for the king’s blood sacrifice, Évike is betrayed by her fellow villagers and surrendered.

But when monsters attack the Woodsmen and their captive en route, slaughtering everyone but Évike and the cold, one-eyed captain, they have no choice but to rely on each other. Except he’s no ordinary Woodsman—he’s the disgraced prince, Gáspár Bárány, whose father needs pagan magic to consolidate his power. Gáspár fears that his cruelly zealous brother plans to seize the throne and instigate a violent reign that would damn the pagans and the Yehuli alike. As the son of a reviled foreign queen, Gáspár understands what it’s like to be an outcast, and he and Évike make a tenuous pact to stop his brother.

Review: The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo

ARC provided by Tor.com in exchange for an honest review.

There’s a dreamlike quality to this story that’s difficult to fully depict but impossible to forget. A wistfulness for bygone summer days; a bittersweet nostalgia through rose-tinted lens.

Vo reimagines The Great Gatsby from Jordan Baker’s perspective as a queer Vietnamese immigrant in the most elite circles of 1920s American society, where she existed in a liminal space—a borderline between acceptable and not. Contrasting her is Daisy, her dearest friend caught in the middle of two men’s distorted affections.

Then there’s our former narrator Nick, naive and bright-eyed. And of course, Jay Gatsby, who sold his soul to the devil for power and prestige. Beneath the glitter and glamour, the opulence and dazzling lights, the disarming smiles and lavish parties, was an empty and perhaps monstrous man, relentless in his pursuit of Daisy. Therein lies the tragedy of it all. Multifaceted characters in all their bright and flawed glory, tangled together in hallowed golden halls.

Vo captured Fitzgerald’s melancholic tone so well while weaving in nuanced themes of sexuality and race. I would’ve loved to see more of the magical aspect—Jordan’s ability to bring paper cuttings to life and the infernal pacts with demons. Nonetheless, I enjoyed this story immensely and it’s one of my favorite reads so far this year.

The Chosen and the Beautiful is out today!

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“The sky went still, and far above, I could see foreign stars, stars the moved, stars that winked at me, stars that shot across the sky like comets. Under the wrack and wreck of what had come before, the sky was new, and I reached for it with a yearning, eager hand.”

The Chosen and the Beautiful

The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo

Immigrant. Socialite. Magician.

Jordan Baker grows up in the most rarefied circles of 1920s American society—she has money, education, a killer golf handicap, and invitations to some of the most exclusive parties of the Jazz Age. She’s also queer, Asian, adopted, and treated as an exotic attraction by her peers, while the most important doors remain closed to her.

But the world is full of wonders: infernal pacts and dazzling illusions, lost ghosts and elemental mysteries. In all paper is fire, and Jordan can burn the cut paper heart out of a man. She just has to learn how.

K-Drama Review: Vincenzo (spoiler free)

If I had to pick a favorite Korean Drama so far this year, it would undoubtably be Vincenzo. If you’re a fan of K-drama, you might’ve already heard of Vincenzo as it has taken the community by storm. And for a good reason! But if you haven’t, the drama follows a Korean-Italian lawyer and Mafia consigliere, who flees to Seoul in the midst of a Mafia war, and ends up waging war against a corrupt conglomerate where he delivers his own brand of justice. He doesn’t do it alone, and this is where one of my favorite underrated tropes comes in: found family! He forms his own little Mafia with an eccentric, endearing group of misfits.

At times like this, we must find out who their enemies are. Because the enemy of my enemy is a friend.

Vincenzo

Admittedly, the beginning caught me off guard with how quickly the tone shifted from serious to humorous to tragic and back. But once I got a better feeling of the show, it was no longer jarring and instead blended together seamlessly. Vincenzo holds an underlying comedic tone throughout the entire series, interspersed with suspenseful scenes, action-packed sequences, tender moments, and gut-wrenching parts. Don’t be fooled by the seemingly lighthearted tone of this K-drama. It deals with darker, heavy topics and doesn’t shy away from tragedy. It even gets gruesome! What Vincenzo excels at is the element of surprise—you’re never quite sure what to expect. I went from laughing until my sides hurt to gasping in horror, quite a few times. There’s a bit of everything, from tongue in cheek, borderline absurd comedy to a slow-burn heartfelt romance.

I’ve never seen a K-drama use its large cast of side characters so well. I was invested in every single resident and was delighted to see that there was far more to them than meets the eye. My initial impression of Vincenzo was that he was a ruthless, self-serving, pragmatic man who always seemed to be a step ahead of his enemies. While he refers to himself as a villain, I think he falls more into the anti-hero category. Sure, his moral compass is somewhat skewed (he worked for the Mafia after all), but his actions are propelled by a sense of justice. He becomes more of a compassionate character as the drama progresses, and makes plenty of friends along the way. A far cry from the lonesome lawyer who got robbed upon entering South Korea.

One of the most impressive parts of the K-drama was how terrifying yet compelling the antagonists were. They’re so evil, so chilling, so crazy that I just couldn’t look away whenever they were on the screen. The entire cast was incredible, but my highest praises go to Ok Taecyeon and Kim Yeo-jin because their performances blew me away. I watched the whole drama with my friend and he couldn’t stop talking about how scary Kim Yeo-jin’s character was because she played the role so well.

Overall verdict: Vincenzo starts with a bang (or should I say roaring blaze) and ends on an equally exciting and satisfying note. I’ll never look at lighters the same way again!

Rating: 9/10 – Highly recommend.

Bonus rating from my friend who doesn’t watch K-drama but was willing to watch this with me: 8/10

gifs from @jahe

“Villains never break up because they’re tenacious. Even when they’re in love.”

Vincenzo

Blurb: At the age of eight, Park Joo Hyeong went to Italy after being adopted. Now an adult, he is known as Vincenzo Cassano to the Mafia, who employ him as a consigliere. Because mafia factions are at war with each other, he flees to South Korea, where he gets involved with Lawyer Hong Cha Young. She is the type of attorney who will do anything to win a case.

(From mydramalist)

Vincenzo cast:

Song Joong-Ki as Vincenzo Cassano

Jeon Yeo-bin as Hong Cha Young

Ok Taecyeon as Jang Jun Woo

Kwak Dong-Yeon as Jang Han Seo

Kim Yeo-jin as Choi Myung Hee

Review: Jade City by Fonda Lee

Last month I read Jade City by Fonda Lee with the Subtle Asian Book Club, and I was blown away by the thrilling, high-stakes wuxia-inspired gangster saga. Think The Godfather in an urban fantasy metropolis where magic comes in the form of jade and two rival crime syndicates go to war, vying for control and power. There are territory disputes, assassination attempts, knife duels to the death, blood feuds to settle—truly a seamless blend of modernity and casual brutality in the gritty, bustling streets of Kekon.

At the center of it all is the Kaul family: Lan, Hilo, Shae. Three siblings with vastly different personalities and motives. I was a bit confused by the hierarchy terminologies at first, but here’s a simple break down: The Pillar is the leader of the clan, the Horn serves under the Pillar as the military leader, responsible for defending clan territory. The Horn has several Fists, who are senior warriors, and under them are Fingers—entry level warriors. Also directly under the Pillar is the Weather Man, who is the business leader of the clan, managing tributes, money, and investments.

Lan is eldest of the Kaul siblings, and the logical, pragmatic Pillar of the No Peak Clan. His ability to deal with clan politics and his farsighted nature makes him a great leader in times a peace, but with the ever growing tension between the Kauls and their greatest rivals, war was inevitable. On the other hand, polar opposite in personality, is his younger brother and Horn of the clan, Hilo.

“Hilo fixed the chancellor with a penetrating stare. It was not unfriendly, but there was a predatory quality to Hilo’s stare that made many people flinch or lower their eyes when subjected to it, and the chancellor was no exception.”

The Horn of No Peak is a complicated character. He’s a hot-tempered, brutal warrior who loves intensely and is fiercely loyal. He has a bit of a dramatic flair, but I like that about him. His men revere him and the enemy sees him as a greater threat than the Pillar. He’s the kind of guy you want on your side if you ever happened to be in the middle of a vicious clan war. Hilo showed up with 20 gang members at his enemy’s nephew’s apartment after his younger cousin got kidnapped—this man only knows how to negotiate in blood. He loves his clan and family above all else, and when things go south, he goes feral.

“The Horn placed his hands on her shoulders, pulled her close, and laid his cheek against hers. “Heaven help me, Shae,” he whispered into her ear. “I’m going to kill them all.”

Shae is a character I sympathize with, but I was unsure how to feel about her for the first half of the book. She didn’t want to get involved in the clan’s business and struggled with finding her place back in Kekon. Part of me wanted her to forge a new life and identity for herself that didn’t involve blood and jade, but I also wanted to see her embrace her powers and fight alongside her brother. She really grew on me in the second half of the book and I’m excited to see more of her in the sequel.

Anden, the adopted cousin into the Kauls is a sweet cinnamon roll who must be protected at all cost. Power ran in his family’s bloodline, but so did madness. His grandpa was a war legend and his mom was known as the mad witch. He teeters on a precarious edge. The character that surprised me the most was Wen. She’s subtle and easy to overlook at first, but there’s far more to her than meets the eye. There’s so much to look forward to in the sequel, Jade War, but I’m nervous! No one is getting out unscathed, that much I know.

Jade City is intense, heart-pounding epic of family, loyalty, and honor. The world-building is ambitious and immersive, the fight scenes are explosive, and the characters come in all shades of morally grey. The trilogy concludes at the end of the year with Jade Legacy, releasing December 7th, 2021. Mark your calendars!

Pinterest mood board for The Green Bone Saga from @chantelle.

Did you know that there’s a TV show adaption in the works? The pilot seems to be done and I’m brimming with excitement at the thought of seeing these characters on screen! Subtle Asian Book Club hosted an amazing live show discussion with Fonda Lee herself (insider information!) so check it out here.

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