After reading Allison Saft’s A Far Wilder Magic, I’ve developed a newfound hunger for stories steeped in magic and romance. From the world-building to the prose, I was swept away into an all-consuming atmospheric world of alchemy, mythical hunts, and high stakes. Here are five reasons why you should pick up this fantasy romance!
1. The atmospheric setting. A village by the sea, an isolated manor on the edge of town, and a hunt through moonlit forests. When I think of atmospheric fantasy books, The Bear and the Nightingale and The Night Circus are the first ones that come to mind. A Far Wilder Magic now joins those ranks. Atmosphere makes a story compelling, and this 1920s-inspired fantasy world brimming with alchemy and magic swept me away within the first few chapters. There’s a sense of foreboding, of mystery steeped into the story. There’s just something about how the setting feels–and how easy it is to get lost in.
2. The romance. Fantasy romance is a sub-genre I haven’t delved into much, but if there are more books like this then I need them! The slow-burn, the pining, the mutual YEARNING. It was just so good. I didn’t even expect the romance to be so prominent so I was pleasantly surprised. The love story between Maggie and Wes was achingly tender and heartwarming. One of my favorite quotes from the book:
Love is not the sharp-edged thing she’s always believed it to be. It’s not like the sea, liable to slip through her fingers if she holds on too tight. It’s not a currency, something to be earned or denied or bartered for. Love can be steadfast. It can be certain and safe, or as wild as an open flame. It’s a slice of buttered bread at a dinner table. It’s a grudge born of worry. It’s broken skin pulled over swelling knuckles.
3. Grumpy x sunshine. The tried and true, evergreen trope/relationship dynamic. But instead of the heroine being the one with the sunny personality, it’s the hero in this book! Maggie is serious one while Wes is the incorrigible flirt with slight himbo energy (I love the dark, morally ambiguous anti-heroes but we seriously need more himbos in books). She’s a sharpshooter and he’s an aspiring alchemist–the unlikely pairing team up to compete in a hunt for the last mythical beast.
4. The character-driven story. If you’re looking for a fast-paced, action-packed fantasy, I have others recs for you, but what you’ll find in this book are introspective character studies, internal conflicts, individual struggles, and emotional journeys. The legendary foxhunt is just the bonus! The plot is used to develop Maggie and Wes into fully-fleshed out characters.
5. Full Metal Alchemist and Wuthering Heights vibes. A strange pairing perhaps, but it worked wonderfully. FMA was one of the first anime I watched and still one of my favorites. I loved seeing the alchemy parallels between A Far Wilder Magic and the classic anime. Alchemy in general is something I’d love to see explored more in fantasy books! And let’s not forget the haunting, gothic vibes of the story–a bit Brontë-esque.
When Margaret Welty spots the legendary hala, the last living mythical creature, she knows the Halfmoon Hunt will soon follow. Whoever is able to kill the hala will earn fame and riches, and unlock an ancient magical secret. If Margaret wins the hunt, it may finally bring her mother home. While Margaret is the best sharpshooter in town, only teams of two can register, and she needs an alchemist.
Weston Winters isn’t an alchemist–yet. Fired from every apprenticeship he’s landed, his last chance hinges on Master Welty taking him in. But when Wes arrives at Welty Manor, he finds only Margaret and her bloodhound Trouble. Margaret begrudgingly allows him to stay, but on one condition: he must join the hunt with her.
Although they make an unlikely team, Wes is in awe of the girl who has endured alone on the outskirts of a town that doesn’t want her, in this creaking house of ghosts and sorrow. And even though Wes disrupts every aspect of her life, Margaret is drawn to him. He, too, knows what it’s like to be an outsider. As the hunt looms closer and tensions rise, Margaret and Wes uncover dark magic that could be the key to winning the hunt – if they survive that long.
When I read the synopsis of A Thousand Steps into Night, the first thing I thought of was Nezuko from Demon Slayer. A girl embarking on a journey to reverse the curse turning her into a demon? Japanese-inspired fantasy with feral gods, curious monsters, and vengeful demons? I knew this book would be a pure delight even before I read the first page–and that feeling was right. Anime and manga lovers, you don’t want to miss this fairytale-esque fantasy brimming with magic, mischief, and whimsical adventures.
Miuko is an ordinary girl resigned to living an uneventful life, until one day, she’s kissed by a demon. Not just any demon, but Death woman; a malevolence demon that cursed her to slowly transform into a demon herself. Shunned from her village, she embarks on an epic quest across the Japanese-inspired realm of Awara where gods, monsters, and humans existed side by side, in hopes of finding a way to reverse the curse. Along the way, she befriends a thieving magpie-spirit companion who accompanies her thrilling adventures.
I couldn’t help but vividly imagine the story as anime while I read–a combination of Demon Slayer and Inuyasha. The endearing cast of characters and whimsical adventure also made it reminiscent of a Studio Ghibli film! I particularly enjoyed the feminist themes and discussion of power in a patriarchal society. Sure, becoming a demon had plenty of downsides, but it also came with power. Freedom from restrictions of gender and class. Miuko’s internal dilemma was thoughtfully explored, and even I pondered the choices myself.
It was a bit slow to start, but once Miuko set off on her quest, I was hooked. The coolest part? Footnotes! Explanations, translations, and pronunciations for terms, making the world feel even more immersive. If you’re looking for a fun, adventurous read, look no further.
“Over the wild blue countryside they flew, like a pair of heroes from some ancient tale or a constellation limned in stars, and not once did she look back, for she did not need to—she had the support of her loved ones behind her, and the big, beautiful world ahead.”
What are some books you’ve read with anime/manga vibes?
Taylor Jenkins Reid is one of the biggest authors in the book community. From bookstagram to booktok, her stories are often praised for the masterful storytelling and unforgettable characters. The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo (2017) and Daisy Jones & The Six (2019) were the ones I’ve been recommended the most, and the ones I’ve seen ceaseless love for.
So why did it take me so long to read them? I’ve always been a bit wary of books with overwhelming hype, especially from authors I’ve never read. Despite my friends assuring me I’d love Reid’s stories, I held off year after year until I made it a goal of reading my first TJR book in 2021. I started Evelyn Hugo in the last week of 2021 and finished on the fourth day of the new year. To say it lived up to the hype would be an understatement. I finally understood why so many people loved it with such fervor.
Soon after, I picked up the audiobook of Daisy Jones & The Six rather than the physical book as a recommendation from a friend. Verdict? It’s a one-of-a-kind experience.
This was the first audiobook I listened to that had a full cast of narrators and the performance was phenomenal. Daisy Jones & The Six was made for audiobook with its interview-style format. Every narrator performed so remarkably well that it truly felt as though I was listening to interviews from a real legendary 70s rock band. I can’t imagine a more perfect voice for Daisy, Billy, Camila, and the rest of the cast. They breathed such vivd life and emotion into these characters that I can close my eyes and hear their distinctive voices in my head, recounting their tumultuous years under the limelight. It felt so real. No one can convince that Daisy Jones & The Six wasn’t a real band from a bygone era.
Sex, drugs, rock ‘n roll–you’ve heard of it, they lived it. The story chronicles the rise of the iconic band, Daisy Jones & The Six, from their humble beginnings to the peak of their existence. It’s startlingly authentic in its exploration of the darker side of the rock scene, which is still quite relevant in the music industry today. The crippling addiction to drugs and alcohol, the infidelity, the mind and body dissociation. It’s a heavy story. But it also explores the passion and heart of music, of songwriting, of the story behind the lyrics.
“All I will say is that you show up for your friends on their hardest days. And you hold their hand through the roughest parts. Life is about who is holding your hand and, I think, whose hand you commit to holding.”
The documentary/transcript format made it a very unique listen. The band members and close friends/family/associates recounted their past whirlwind of adventures; their brightest and darkest moments. I don’t normally read historical fiction (though it’s a genre I do want to read more of), let alone interview-style books, so I was unsure how I felt at the somewhat sluggish beginning. But the more I listened, the more I felt compelled to continue, and before I knew it I was entirely engrossed.
I absolutely hated Billy Dunne right out of the gate. Admittedly, I almost DNF’d because I really didn’t want to listen to an entire story about a man’s infidelity (but that wasn’t the case). I was so certain there was no way TJR could redeem him after his awful actions, but somehow, by the end of the book, I didn’t hate him. I wouldn’t go as far as saying I liked him, but TJR definitely worked hard to make him a more sympathetic character. I think it’s important to realize that these are very flawed and complex characters with real fears and motivations.
Daisy on the other hand, I loved right off the bat. There’s an empowering quality to her despite her devastating addiction to drugs. She was determined to chase her passion for music in a man’s world. Bold and impulsive, Daisy Jones did not give a fuck (excuse my language) about pleasing others. She was a hedonist with a love for music through and through. For all her little fractured pieces, she sure made the band feel whole.
“I had absolutely no interest in being somebody else’s muse. I am not a muse. I am the somebody. End of fucking story.”
Despite the shaky, uncertain start, I fell in love with Daisy Jones & The Six thanks to the exceptional performances from the narrators, as well as the emotional gravity of the story that pulled me in and refused to let go. I can’t recommend the audiobook enough–the only downside is that every other audiobook may pale in comparison after finishing this.
“I think you have to have faith in people before they earn it. Otherwise it’s not faith, right?”
Daughter of the Moon Goddess is finally here! I was lucky enough to read it last year and I absolutely adored it. Whether it was flying on clouds, strolling through a mystical night market, or riding the claws of a venerable dragon, everything was so vividly painted. Sweeping adventures that took us through the Celestial Realm where gods and immortals resided, the Eastern Seas battling legendary creatures, and a shadowy realm of forbidden magic.
The story follows Xingyin, the daughter of the exiled moon goddess. She hides her identity and travels to the Celestial Kingdom where she learns magic and hones her archery skills alongside the crown prince; years of training and studying to find a way to free her mother. The only way is to win the Crimson Lion Talisman, the highest honor of the Celestial Army which grants the winner a favor from the emperor himself. The emperor who imprisoned her mother. That also means her romantic entanglement with the crown prince is forbidden.
So what does she do? Become a soldier of course! Not just any soldier, but the greatest archer in the kingdom, battling a monstrous serpent and a giant octopus, quelling a merfolk rebellion, and even saving the princess betrothed to the crown prince (it gets a little angsty).
The world building and fairytale-esque atmosphere made the tale feel even more immersive. It was reminiscent of the wuxia/c-dramas I used to watch when I was younger. I believe this book was pitched as Adult and older YA fantasy crossover but it solidly felt like YA to me in terms of tone and character voice. There’s even a love triangle of sorts and I normally abhor love triangles but I didn’t mind this one! Perhaps I rooted for the wrong person but…I’m excited to see how the story will continue to unfold in the sequel!
“In the darkness, the thousand lanterns flickered to life. The sky was clear. The stars infinite. The light of the moon was full and bright. On a night as this, my heart was content, awaiting the promise of tomorrow.”
This lush debut fantasy will sweep you away into a beautifully-crafted realm of immortals and magic, ancient myths and legendary creatures, and romance and adventure. Happy release day to Daughter of the Moon Goddess!
There are books you enjoy in the moment before moving on to the next, and then there are books that linger long after you’ve turned the last page. Books that you find your subconscious drifting to in that brief period between sleep and awake. Books that haunt like a fever dream. In the days that follow, you mull over the book in every idle moment; while steeping tea as the first rays of dawn spill through your window, or waiting at a stoplight with only the quiet hum of the car engine to accompany your thoughts. That book was Jade Legacy for me. It’s the kind of story that takes up residence in the very marrow of your bones.
I’m not sure how I could possibly express all the emotions that this book, this series, bled from me, but I will certainly try. Fonda Lee delivered an absolutely brilliant conclusion that solidified The Green Bones Saga as my all-time favorite fantasy series. The first part of this review is my general, overarching thoughts on Jade Legacy and series as a whole, and the second part, which I prelude with ‘SPOILERS BELOW’, is a deeper delve into specific events and characters arcs (aka rambling streams of consciousness about my favorite characters and what tore my heart out).
New to the series? Find my spoiler-free review of the first book, Jade City, here.
Synopsis: Jade, the mysterious and magical substance once exclusive to the Green Bone warriors of Kekon, is now known and coveted throughout the world. Everyone wants access to the supernatural abilities it provides, from traditional forces such as governments, mercenaries, and criminal kingpins, to modern players, including doctors, athletes, and movie studios. As the struggle over the control of jade grows ever larger and more deadly, the Kaul family, and the ancient ways of the Kekonese Green Bones, will never be the same.
The Kauls have been battered by war and tragedy. They are plagued by resentments and old wounds as their adversaries are on the ascent and their country is riven by dangerous factions and foreign interference that could destroy the Green Bone way of life altogether. As a new generation arises, the clan’s growing empire is in danger of coming apart.
The clan must discern allies from enemies, set aside aside bloody rivalries, and make terrible sacrifices… but even the unbreakable bonds of blood and loyalty may not be enough to ensure the survival of the Green Bone clans and the nation they are sworn to protect.
It’s been two weeks since the release of JadeLegacy, and I still haven’t recovered from the existential despair that comes with finishing a series you love so dearly. I’ve read the ARC (biggest thank you to Orbit Books for sending me a copy after all my pleading), listened to the audiobook (Andrew Kishino is such a phenomenal narrator–I can’t recommend the audiobooks enough), and started my third reread. I finally feel somewhat composed enough to sit down and write a review.
The first word that comes to mind when I think of Jade Legacy is pain. The second word is masterpiece.
I teared up several times reading this book—but like I’ve always said, my favorite books tend to hurt. It’s impressive when an author is capable of moving me to tears. Of the 600+ books I’ve read in my life, less than a handful have made me cry. Fonda Lee dragged me through the five stages of grief, but the fifth stage wasn’t acceptance for me. It was a domestic fluff AU where everyone was together and happy. Coping mechanisms aside, 713 pages flew by in a blink of an eye and after turning the final page, I can say without a doubt that The Green Bone Saga is one of the greatest works of modern fantasy.
The sheer scope of this book was incredible, spanning over two decades of our beloved characters’ tragedies and triumphs, the legacy left behind, and the next generation carrying the jade forward. Time skips can be a hit or miss, but Lee made it flow so seamlessly that it felt natural. The years bled into each other, the passage of time flowing so intrinsically: snapshots of everyone’s lives; critical moments, quiet moments, gut-wrenching moments. We got to see the development of the clan, the evolution of the characters, and how the world changed around them.
I was blown away by how ambitious the plot and world-building was. As this book focused on expansion and progression, the intricate economics and international-scale politics was so well written that it felt like I lived through a piece of monumental history myself and looked back upon No Peak’s growing pains as an old war veteran. Lee struck the perfect balance of a plot-driven and character-driven story. I was entirely invested in how the Kauls developed through the series, the nuanced family dynamics, the high emotional stakes, the intergenerational blood feud, the proxy war, the political intrigue, and everything in between.
Jade Legacy deserves the highest praises for the exceptional storytelling, for the visceral emotions evoked from the adept writing craftsmanship–I savored every single page, every single moment. Despite the pain and sheer grief this book put me through, there was a sense of closure in the ending, and it just felt right.
It’s too bittersweet to say a final goodbye to this vibrant world and its unforgettable cast of characters, so I’ll just say see you later. Whenever I miss the Kaul family, I’ll start over again on the first book and relive all the emotions, and just maybe write that AU to give them a softer, in-another-life ending.
Now we’re moving into spoiler territory so if you haven’t read the book yet, come back after you’ve finished and share your thoughts with me!
Let’s start with my favorite bastard, Kaul Hiloshudon, Pillar of the No Peak Clan. I’ve been in love with Hilo since the very first book, Jade City, when he was a charming, ever-grinning, arrogant, hot-headed Horn fiercely loyal to his family and clan. His “heaven help me, Shae, I’m going to kill them all” line was so iconic. Those were…simpler times, you could say. Through the years he’s had both negative and positive development, which made him feel like a fully-realized, multifaceted character with genuine depth.
In Jade Legacy we see him even more as a deeply flawed, morally grey character who sometimes made questionable decisions. A leader too stubborn and set in his antiquated views of jade and the world progressing around him. But that gradually changed. He had a remarkable character arc, even just in the span of Jade Legacy–from his cold cruelty in the beginning to his final breaths with his family at the end. He was “a man as dramatic in death as he had been in life.”
While Hilo juggled many hats throughout the series, I’m most fond of his relationship with Wen (aside from the first quarter of this book, which I wanted truly wanted to waterboard him), and his fatherhood–essentially, the softer side of him. There’s just something so tender about Hilo when he’s with Wen and the kids, knowing the ruthless violence he’s capable of. The fact that he insisted on going home to see Wen when he was dying? I was in shambles.
“She was the softest and most vulnerable creature; she was the strongest and most unyielding of his warriors.”
Wen follows very closely behind Hilo as my second favorite character. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from her in the first book, but she has come such a long way. I loved what she represented as a woman; how you could be powerful without physical or magical capabilities. She was empathetic and smart, and influence was her realm of power. Her duels were with words and strategy and smiles. Wen and Hilo fit together like the last two puzzle pieces. One of my favorite fictional power couples.
Yes, I will admit that when their relationship took a nosedive and basically crashed and exploded, I was all aboard the Hilo-hate train and rooted for a divorce. But they made it through it all, together, through thick and thin. They persevered.
“The clan is my blood,” she whispered, her voice thick with emotion, but perfectly steady. She bowed her head and pressed her mouth to the hollow of his throat. “And the Pillar is its master.”
And let’s be honest, all of the Kaul siblings had messy relationships. Staring at Lan and Shae. I felt bad that Woon left his wife (who had multiple miscarriages) for Shae, but like the man said himself:
“It’s no use,” he murmured, his voice muffled beside her. “I can’t help that I’m in love with you.”
This was the line that sealed the deal for me. How could I not love him after this?
“It hasn’t ever been easy, and there were times I was afraid I’d fail you—but if I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t hesitate. The clan is my blood, but for me, the Weather Man is its master.”
Now let’s get to the heavy hitters. I went into Jade Legacy fully expecting Hilo to die. After everything that had happened, I just couldn’t see any other outcome for him. It still hurt a lot, but his death was the one I got the most closure from. There were two other deaths that made me cry in varying degrees.
The first death I didn’t even expect to hit so hard: Maik Tar. His arc in this book felt like a pure tragedy. Losing control and killing his fiancé, getting exiled for years but holding on to the faintest hope that he’d be able to return to his clan one day, completing one final task to help Anden and Hilo, and then taking his own life. Am I allowed to pity him despite the severity of his actions that lead to the consequences?
“Earlier that day, he’d walked around the prison yard in apparently good spirits, having nearly fully recovered from his injuries. He’d eaten dinner and joked with the guards and not been considered a suicide risk.”
He did deserve to die, but it was the happy mask that he donned after doing all he could for his clan, despite being his best friend’s honed weapon for years, despite his broken spirit, despite knowing that he’d never be able to return to everything he loved. I’ve heard of far too many stories of people with depression going out like that; with a seemingly happy mask, so it hit a little close to home. Some silent tears were shed.
The next death was Ru, Hilo and Wen’s son. This was what absolutely destroyed me. A few days after I finished my first read of the book, I was driving home when I thought about Ru’s death, and the tears were uncontrollable. Words cannot describe how much Ru’s death hurt me.
Bold of me to assume I’d get through this review without crying! I just know I’ll tear up every time I see those words. All he had been was Hilo’s son. I loved all of the kids, but Ru was special. We got to know Ru the best; his hopes and dreams, his love for his family. He was a brash and passionate kid; determined, much like his own father. What hurt the most was Hilo’s relief in the beginning that Ru was a stone-eye because that meant at least one of his children would have a simpler, safer life. And in the end, Ru was the only one that died. Lee is so cruel.
But I get it. Ru’s death was a major driving force in Hilo’s character arc (Niko too now that I think about it). Hilo took up social concerns and philanthropic causes, became more progressive and open-minded, and he did all of those things for Ru. So he could prove that he still loved his son. So Ru could be proud of him and the clan, even in the afterlife.
As for the other two kids, Niko and Jada, I thought Niko’s development was very interesting and I wish we got more screen time for Jaya. I feel like Niko could’ve had his own coming of age story–Lan’s son who was the heir of No Peak, but uninterested in power and the clan’s dealings. The prodigal son who left the clan to find himself and who he would’ve been if Hilo hadn’t taken him in, who became a mercenary to see the world outside of Kekon and jade, only to find that there was a darker wilderness, an equal brutality beyond the island he grew up on. And then his return.
If Lee ever decided to go back to write a novella or a full-length novel of Niko’s life I’d devour it in a heartbeat. Or maybe spin-off saga for the new generation? I’m just desperately clinging onto this world because it’s so phenomenal.
I think the MVP of this series was Anden. I must admit, I initially didn’t care much for him in the first book, and almost skimmed over his slice of life scenes in the second book, but I’m glad I didn’t because he had one of the best character developments. Pioneering the medical use of jade overseas, forging critical alliances in Espenia, all while sticking to his principles. Our cinnamon roll has grown so much.
Well, that’s enough rambling from me. I’ll end this review on a happier note, with a quote that made the empty cavern in my heart warm up ever so slightly.
If you’ve finished Jade Legacy, I’d love to hear your thoughts!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.”
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.
Highlightingsexism + 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!
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.
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.❞
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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. The kind of stories that consume my every waking thought. 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 current 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, and 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 an 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.
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.