Loathe at First Sight (2020)

by Suzanne Park
ISBN: 9780062990693
Publication: August 18, 2020

**I was provided a copy of the book through NetGalley. I voluntarily read and reviewed it. All opinions are my own.**

Melody Joo is a newly hired video game producer and finds herself in a toxic work environment, one that is both misogynistic and racist. This is in stark contrast to her prior workplace where her words alone garnered respect. To make matters worse, her new boss is also prone to tantrums when he doesn’t get his way.

Under pressure from the company’s board, her boss ends up pitching a new game meant to cater to female gamers, and it gets easily approved. The problem is the game is an idea Melody only meant as a joke–male strippers saving the world with female warriors guiding them. This catapults Melody into an unexpected position, much to the chagrin of her colleagues who do not believe she’s earned the position. As lead, she is in charge of the game’s development, and she also has to prove to those inside and outside of the company that she is capable of completing the task before her. Of course, she has to juggle this with her growing attraction to a member of her team–the new intern who is also the boss’ nephew–and trying to maintain a social life.

Loathe at First Sight is set in an industry I have not typically seen in romance/women’s fiction novels. It gives us a glimpse of the gaming industry from the perspective of a female lead character who goes against classic stereotypes. Melody is an assertive Asian woman who is more soft than bone, likes food more than dieting, and is truly comfortable in her skin. She’s funny. She’s straight forward. She sticks up for herself when necessary. Being assertive can also have its downsides. Having to stick up for herself and having to push back when her abilities are called into question also means she doesn’t typically ask for help nearly as much as she could or should. (Is there room for character growth? Yes, there is.) Melody is a likable main character and easily kept me entertained.

While the book is entertaining, where it might trip up readers is in the romance department. The title suggests this is an enemies-to-lovers romantic comedy but the romance actually takes a back seat. This might explain why I felt the initial attraction to be a bit abrupt. She hated him one minute–their first interaction was not very good–and then from across the room she suddenly felt jealous. I didn’t expect that to occur but I guess that’s how feelings can be sometimes, and it might make sense for the enemies-to-lovers trope. I did eventually ease into the attraction, but it also never became a full-blown romance. Those expecting romance might be turned off by this aspect of the book.

One aspect of the attraction that I did appreciate was Melody being conscious of the positions they inhabited in the workplace. With Noah being an intern and part of her team, he is a subordinate and any kind of romantic relationship could be misconstrued as an abuse of power. While the book doesn’t dig deep into this, Melody often ponders this when she’s thinking about Noah. It wasn’t written off as unimportant, and caution isn’t necessarily thrown to the wind because Melody believes love conquers all. (I know…I am being a bit dramatic.) Just because she keeps thinking about the power differential doesn’t mean that the message is that you cannot have both a career and love. It’s that the decisions you make have repercussions so you have to be mindful of what you’re doing, especially as it relates to a potential workplace romance where power dynamics can play a role.

Even though the romance is not central to the story, the book and Melody are compelling enough to read it to the end. To be honest, I forgot about the romance until I was more than half-way through the book. I was immersed in Melody’s story, the story of a woman trying to navigate her way in an industry that doesn’t expect her to succeed. There might be a push for diversity and inclusion but the existing culture–at least at the company she works in–doesn’t take it seriously, refusing to embrace the need for change. (See? Still completely interesting even without the romance in play.) It could even be viewed as an underdog story about how Melody is going to do such a great job that she changes the minds of those she works with that women kick ass, even in the gaming industry. She might be able to do that. It certainly is possible. You’ll have to read to find out.

Initially, I didn’t think the title was fitting because the romance was not central to the story, but I think it’s possible to reframe the title differently. Sure, it was likely meant as a play on the romance but with the romance relegated to the background, the title presents itself as a reflection of what Melody is experiencing in the workplace. She is a new hire and the initial disrespect she receives is not because of a lack of experience or talent, but her colleagues appear to loathe her on first sight for simply being female. But, first impressions aren’t always what they’re cracked out to be so things can get better in the six months she has to develop the game. Loathing at first sight might grow into respect in the workplace.

FURTHER REFLECTIONS

Melody’s parents and her interactions with them are the highlights of the novel. Her parents are utilized as comedic relief, and they hit the mark every time. It’s certainly possible to see her parents as unpleasant and rude, but I was able to enjoy this largely because I saw Melody’s mom as nearly a reflection of my mom. I love my mom to death but some of the things she says make me want to slam my head against the wall. WHY???? Comments about double chins, the insistence on eating but not too much, and then Melody’s mom constantly hanging up the phone because she is done talking while Melody is left in the middle of a sentence are all things that have made multiple appearances in my conversations with my mom. Like Melody, it’s the understanding that moms/parents generally mean well so you try not to let it get to you–key word is TRY. I have to admit that it is a bit pleasing to see others share my frustration. Misery does love company…even if it’s the company of a fictional character.

There are memes floating around out there that say Asian parents do not typically say, “I love you.” Instead, they ask, “Did you eat today?” It’s a generalization that might not accurately depict all Asian parents, but for me, this rings true. And, sometimes it can get confusing too! My mom would ask if I’d eaten but also remind me to not eat too much. Does this mean she loves me?? Or, does it mean she doesn’t love me?? Which is it??? Harharhar. Melody’s relationship with her parents very much reflects this. I loved it.

Overall, Loathe at First Sight is an enjoyable read. I was so busy enjoying myself I didn’t do much highlighting and reviewing like I usually do. There was something every few pages that would just set me off, and I would laugh despite myself. Although it is categorized as a romantic comedy, the romance is not central to the story. If readers are looking for a way to satisfy their enemies-to-lovers bias, they will be disappointed that Melody’s interactions with enemy Noah are scattered in bits throughout the book as opposed to being the main attraction. And, it never really develops into a romance. While that may be the initial draw, Melody’s story should be more than enough to push readers to finish the book. She’s assertive; she’s hard-working; she’s funny; she has the most entertaining parents. I enjoyed it so much, I purchased a physical copy.

The Girl and the Ghost (2020)

Hanna Alkaf
ISBN: 9780062940957
Publication: August 4, 2020

**I received a copy of the book from the author and publisher through Edelweiss+. I voluntarily read and reviewed it. All opinions are my own.**I wanted to thank Hanna Alkaf for helping ensure ARCs of the book were able to get into the hands of individuals who identified as Southeast Asian. I greatly appreciated the extra effort.**

Central to the story is the friendship between a girl and her ghost. Suraya inherits a ghost from her grandmother who has passed on. He quietly prCentral to the story is the friendship between a girl and her ghost. Suraya inherits a ghost from her grandmother who has passed on. He quietly protects her from all sorts of harm—she is a rather rambunctious girl—until he finally deems it is appropriate to reveal himself to her.  Despite his protests, she names him Pink. Their friendship blooms but becomes threatened when Pink displays a darker side to protect her from bullies and when he grows jealous of Suraya’s growing friendship with new student Jing.

Have you ever read a book that you liked so much it was difficult to put into words? The Girl and The Ghost was that for me. It was both heartwarming and heart wrenching. I experienced so many emotions reading this book. As I reached the end, my heart became heavy because the story itself spoke to me on so many different levels and it was really going to be over. An ending was truly in sight.

I don’t know if what I write can truly capture everything I feel about this book. I was completely charmed as soon as I began reading it. Alkaf transported me to a place that was both real and imagined, and at times terrifying. The first half of the book left me in this haze, full of childlike wonder, and turned me into a pile of goo. Suraya was so endearing as a little girl and it hurt my heart to see her bullied by other children. It was made more difficult knowing that home was not a sanctuary either because she felt unloved and neglected by her mother. To an extent, Pink was able to fulfill some of these holes in her life. Pink reminded me of a curmudgeon who refused to admit he is anything but what he appears to be. Despite Pink’s insistence that he was a dark spirit and lacked a heart, it was clear he was completely besotted by Suraya, acting more like a guardian and a friend than the terrifying creature he was supposed to be. I completely loved the first half of the book. 

The second half of the book takes a darker turn and is considerably creepier. I am also one to be easily scared so you can take the “considerably creepier” with a grain of salt. Pink takes matters into his own hands, playing tricks on bullies despite Suraya telling him not to. It gets substantially worse when he also dislikes that Suraya has a new friend, Jing. When jealousy rears its ugly head, it becomes difficult to justify why Suraya and Pink can or even should remain friends.  I liked Jing and her references to Star Wars. Suraya and Jing made for a formidable pair.

REFLECTING ON THE WRITING

Alkaf has a way with words—lyrical, emotional, beautiful, and comical. And the imagery is just…well, let me share some of my favorites so you can get a glimpse into how wonderful the writing in this book is.

Suraya compares befriending her to “the case of durian.” If you’ve smelled durian and tasted it, it is clear that it is an acquired taste. Like Suraya, I am not a fan of durian but those who like it, love it. Essentially, those who are able to see beyond the materialistic and become friends with Suraya will find someone who is worth their friendship.

Another one of my favorites is the binding between Pink and Suraya being compared to “digging out ear boogers,” something “you had to get out of the way every so often so that things worked the way they were supposed to.” Hahaha…It was an unexpected comparison but I think one we can all understand. This one made me laugh. Alkaf is able to evoke so many wondrous images and emotions in this book. I loved it!  

FURTHER REFLECTIONS

I read the line about the jars and bottles and it whisked me away to a different time. Scents from my childhood have now become a part of me as an adult. Nothing replaces the smell of my mom’s kapoon, which I really should learn how to make but moms always make it best, and the aroma of steamed rice drifting from the stove rather than an electric rice cooker. What used to be a pungent stench and even embarrassing as a child, I now thrive on: Vicks Vaporub, Icy Hot, and, when in dire need, monkey balm and tiger balm. My medicine cabinet is always stocked with Salonpas, now my cure for every ache and pain, from headaches to even sore throats. In what feels like my old age, whiffs of these transport me to my childhood, of my mom slathering any one of these ointments on my arms and my chest when I was sick. Rather than a lingering odor, they’ve become medicinal perfume, allowing me to recall my past and live my present. Will these same things be present in Suraya’s room when she grows up like they were in her mother’s? Like my own is a reflection of my mom’s, the answer is it most likely will.  

This leads me to ask, are there any scents that send you spiraling down memory lane? Something that you disliked as a child but now often permeates your own home? It’s funny how these things can happen without us realizing it.

This was a resounding 4.5 stars. I was completely charmed by the book. It was endearing and made me miss my childhood. A lot of different themes arise but friendship and what it means to be a friend is an important one. Also, loss and learning to move forward is something the book touches on. 

Being Southeast Asian American (Hmong), I could connect with the culture where ghosts and spirits are abundant. Hmong homes are believed to have hearth ghosts protecting members of the family from harm. And then there are other ghosts that may try to harm you, who try to steal your spirit and make you sick. As I began reading, I almost felt like I was predisposed to like this book because I saw a culture similar to my own reflected back at me. I imagine that if I had read this as a kid, I would have been even more excited because it was rare to see this kind of representation.  

In an interview, Alkaf says she hopes that the book shows how “ our stories don’t have to be about our traumas. They can be about us having adventures, encountering ghosts, dealing with making new friends and figuring out how to get along with our parents” and that “we are far more than the most painful parts of our existence.” I think she clearly accomplishes that with this book.

Despite being a middle grade read, many adults will enjoy the book. I obviously did! I do not read many middle grade novels, but I am starting to think that I should. If this book is any indication of their quality, I know I will enjoy them immensely. I liked the book so much that I am preordering a hard copy for myself.

Again, a huge thanks to the author and publisher for providing an copy of the book.

The Midnight Bargain (2020)

by C.L. Polk
ISBN: 9781645660071
Publication: October 13, 2020


**I was provided a copy of the book through NetGalley. I voluntarily read and reviewed it. All opinions are my own.**

Midnight Bargain is the successful melding of magic and regency era classics reminiscent of Jane Austen novels.  I hate when reviews use other books to describe it, but in this instance, I couldn’t help it.  As a fan of Austen, I could not help but mark the social similarities: women looking for husbands, men looking for wives, annoying sisters, congregating at balls, social calls, and so on.  But the women of Midnight Bargain have much more at stake.  Those with magical abilities are collared when they marry, suppressing their powers so their unborn children may be protected from possession by spirits. For individuals with aspirations to become sorceresses like Beatrice Clayborn and Ysbeta Lavan, marriage is the equivalent of imprisonment; they can be released only if their husband so chooses.  The choice before Beatrice is to choose between her family or her own desires, which is not much of a choice at all.  If she marries well, she can relieve the family of their outstanding debt but the cost is her dream to become a mage.  Despite this impossible decision, she believes a compromise can be had: become a mage then use these abilities to bring her family wealth.  This is made more difficult when the Bargaining Season—a time when eligible women are put on display and forced to entertain potential suitors—brings Ianthe Lavan, who seems different from the men around her and captures her heart. Now it’s not only her family and her dreams but also love that is on the line. 

REFLECTING ON
ON THE CHARACTERS

The Midnight Bargain is an engaging read and was difficult to put down. This has much to do with Beatrice Clayborn as a smart, strong-willed main character. (But there are some decisions she makes that cause you to question just how smart she is because they do not make much sense.  She doesn’t necessarily need to be infallible but these decisions just seem so foolish for someone like her.)  Beatrice’s struggle for autonomy in a patriarchal system designed to oppress women, especially those with magical abilities, is one that can easily be identified with.  The unfairness of a woman’s life is brought to the forefront when Beatrice states that “the device women have to wear for the safety of their children is an instrument of punishment to men in the chapterhouse.” In the same conversation, she questions the stigma surrounding unmarried women when unmarried men hardly face the same penalties.  But, even Beatrice’s comments on the state of women in her world is nothing compared to a poignant conversation she has with her mother surrounding the dreaded collar.  The cost of the collar is not just magic, but a woman’s spirit, the light in her is extinguished along with it. This is by far one of the most heartrending moments in the book. 

The magic versus family dichotomy easily parallels the timeless struggle by women to balance having both a family and a career.  Must we choose one or the other, or is it possible to have both? Maybe my own struggle with the familiar question is why the book affected me so much and why I immediately connected with Beatrice…and later Ysbeta as well.  For some there can be a balance, while for others one choice is clear. This book can be viewed as a commentary on a woman’s role in society and the struggle to balance family and a career, but it doesn’t do more than scratch the surface.  Despite this, the world Polk introduces us to does allow a lot more to be discussed on the matter. (Let me know, I’d love to discuss this some more.)      

I particularly liked Beatrice’s relationship with Ysbeta.  Where Beatrice is indecisive about which choice to make, Ysbeta is absolute in her search for knowledge and desire to remain unmarried.  Initially they are presented as potential enemies, turn into allies, and become friends.  Their interactions with one another contribute to each’s growth.  While there were a few things that bothered me about Ysbeta, this is the one that likely topped it. For someone who does not desire a marriage partner, Ysbeta kept pressuring Beatrice to choose Ianthe when Beatrice had as much of a claim to refuse a potential proposal as Ysbeta did.  It might be because Ianthe is her brother, but still…solidarity anyone?

Ianthe is not as developed a character as Beatrice and Ysbeta.  He seems more like the token romantic interest–almost too perfect (and oh so dreamy).  He is understanding, likes Beatrice for speaking her mind, and even agrees with her on some things about the patriarchy. He is so different from the males around Beatrice, making him seem unrealistic for the times, but this can also be explained by the relationship between his parents.  It is largely due to his mom that the family business has flourished, and she is a much more authoritative figure in his life as opposed to his father.  If he is understanding and much more “progressive,” then it is due to his upbringing–being Llanandari as opposed to being from Chasland (where the book is set).  He at least seems to argue this anyway.

REFLECTING ON THE BOOK

While the attraction between Ianthe and Beatrice is nearly immediate, I have to say that it did not bother me as much. In other books, I’ve questioned how genuine feelings are after such a short courtship but I think this has much to do with understanding the setting (regency era and my partiality for Jane Austen novels) as well as Polk’s ability to evoke certain emotions through her writing. I was quite taken by her writing style within the first few pages. Being new to Polk’s work, the first thing I noticed was the purposeful word choices; the words are not wasted on the page. Rather than a horse-drawn carriage, it is the “fiacre” or “barouche” that characters are riding in, helping to place me in the time period.  Her descriptions are particularly vivid.  For instance, this one of Beatrice’s hair is memorable, “the peculiar, perpetually autumn-red tint of her frowzy, unruly hair.”  Then there is the common “butterflies in the stomach” feeling elevated to “the butterflies burst into delirious flight.”  If having butterflies is a familiar sign of falling in love, then what Polk evokes is better; it’s akin to a heart bursting, overcome with love’s euphoria.

The magic system Polk builds is an interesting one.  Explanations of how magic operates are weaved throughout the book as opposed to being blocked off into a section and fed to the reader in the beginning.  It contributes to the smooth flow of the book, but there were moments I was left wondering about some of the rules and how things worked.  I would have liked to know more about the conjuring of spirits and categorization of those lesser versus greater spirits.  And, this may be more customs as opposed to the magic system, but I’m not entirely sure who the Skyborn are.  Who does everyone keep calling to and why??  I’m used to greater detail about magic so would have appreciated more explanation.  I had to set aside some questions about the system and was able to enjoy the book much better after doing so. 

Aside from Beatrice and Ysbeta’s interactions, I quite liked the relationship between Beatrice and Nadi, the chance spirit Beatrice conjures.  Spirits crave the pleasures of the flesh: the taste of fruits, the feel of sand on toes, and even a first kiss.  They must be restrained or else their desires can take over their host but they’re not necessarily all bad as they’re made out to be.  I found Nadi’s childlike behavior and its curiosity amusing.  I liked the evolution of their relationship that began from a bargain to one where they enjoyed each other’s company as friends.  At one point, it is only Nadi that understands everything Beatrice is feeling, and it becomes protective of Beatrice.  It is through their relationship that I learned most about the magic system. And, for some reason I want to refer to it as she/her. Reminding myself it has no sex/gender assigned to it has been difficult.

Things are tied up nicely–maybe a little too nicely–and I was unsure how I felt about that. There is so much more to this story and I would not hesitate to read more but the inclusion of an epilogue seems to dissuade this potential.  But, one can still hope.  (And, I’m serious. I will keep hoping.)

Midnight Bargain is a solid 4 stars for me.  I’ve already started rereading it again to try to see if there is anything I may have missed.  I am a serial rereader and this is one of the best compliments I can give a book. If you’re thinking about picking this up, be forewarned excitement is not present on every page.  If that is what you’re looking for, then this book is likely not for you. On the other hand, if regency classics interest you and you are prepared to read it with a dose of magic, this might be something you will enjoy.  I thoroughly did.  

Sound of Stars (2020)

by Alechia Dow
ISBN: 97813335911551
Publication: February 25, 2020

The Sound of Stars is set in the U.S., mainly New York, where aliens—Ilori—have taken over to…wait for it…use it as a vacation spot.  (I know.  Doesn’t that make you mad too?) They will use humans as sleeves, inserting their consciousness into human bodies to experience earth as “natives.”  Before this can happen, a vaccine must be created and administered to make human bodies vacant, devoid of freedom and thought but still functioning.  M0Rr1S—since humans cannot produce the sound of his name pronounce it as Morris instead—is a labmade, created in a lab in the image of humans and from the genetic material of a true Ilori mother (true meaning fully Ilori and not mixed with any other type of genetic material).  As a labmade, he holds the title of commander largely due to his father’s status but is no more than a servant doing the bidding of true Ilori.  One of his tasks is to create the vaccine, which he successfully makes. But, being labmade makes M0Rr1S unique: he feels; he enjoys music; and he enjoys reading—all things outlawed by Ilori.

The other half of our pairing is seventeen-year-old Janelle, or Ellie as her friends call her, who silently defies Ilori restrictions by loaning out books—yup, she’s a rebel librarian (best title ever). She is not the most sociable person, proclaiming books to be her friends, except for one individual, Alice.  Ellie may live with her parents but she may as well be living on her own. Her father is no longer her father but a walking, breathing “half-shell” of the man he used to be after being given monthly injections of a vaccine. Her mother has fallen to a different kind of drug, alcohol, and even asks Ellie to help hide alcohol. 

Ellie’s current life is often interspersed with memories of life before the invasion when things were (relatively) better.  Her father was a librarian, her mother was a professor, and she played the cello. Her parents were in love not sleeping in different bedrooms and barely speaking to one another. Before the invasion, racism often reared its ugly head (not that it isn’t still present after the invasion; it’s just there are now other things to possibly be more concerned about). They weren’t welcome in their new home and people looked at her, wondering how she got into a prestigious school (hence not better, just only relatively).

Their lives intersect when M0Rr1S stumbles upon her hidden library.  Rather than turn her in, he requests her assistance in acquiring more music, and in return, he promises that she and her family will be spared from the vaccine.  Despite the danger, Ellie agrees to the bargain to save the people she loves.  All seems to go according to plan until someone notifies the guards of what she is doing, and she is to be immediately executed. Rather than allow this to happen, M0Rr1S rescues her and sets into motion a road trip to California, bonding over music and books, and trying to board a fallen Ilori ship to save the world.

REFLECTING ON
JANELLE “ELLIE” BAKER

Ellie is a character I related to immediately. She loved books and music, finding solace in them. She treasures her books like I treasure mine, but she’s a lot nicer than I am because she lends them out. Lucky for me (or maybe not so lucky), my friends don’t really like to read. She has a quiet strength others may overlook because she is not very social and doesn’t vocalize her concerns. She appears to be the last person who would willingly break the rules. I could relate to that, I was that person for my friends–of course, I’ve never broken the law. (Innocent until proven guilty. You have no evidence on me. And even if you did, it’s all circumstantial. It might also depend on which law you’re referring to…)

Ellie, as one half of our heroic duo, is not a flawless individual and I liked that about her character–it made her seem like a real person. She has hyperthyroidism. She has anxiety. And, she didn’t just wake up one day and randomly decide she would be a rebel librarian; she didn’t wake up with superpowers. Events in her life compelled her to resist Ilori rule in her way. She lives in fear of the consequences of actions but also refuses to go down without fighting. She didn’t originally choose to be a hero. She starts off only wanting to save her family but eventually it becomes more than just her family but saving humanity. Janelle is the hero I hope I have inside of me.

MORE REFLECTING ON THE BOOK

While I could immediately connect with Janelle and could also sympathize with M0Rr1S, for some reason it took me a bit to warm up to them as the OTP. I rather liked them individually and as friends–despite M0Rr1S essentially blackmailing her to become his friend. Their love of art–music and books–is what connects them, allowing them to bond over the span of about a week and a half. They just meet all of two seconds (okay, I’m exaggerating a bit) and he already likes her, bordering on being in love with her. She is still cautious of him and being demisexual means that she doesn’t feel the same immediate attraction that he does. So, I understood their connection to one another, but the romance felt forced to me because it seemed more like friendship. It didn’t feel like what M0Rr1S was making it out to be, until maybe the last quarter of the book when the potential was finally there.

I like how Janelle calls out the trope as well—falling in love in just a few days and how impossible it seems—because I kept thinking it too.  But even as she calls it out loud and M0Rr1s tries to make her believe otherwise, and even if I’m a nonbeliever now, being a lot more cynical than I used to be, I recalled a time when I was in love and in those seven days I felt like I made a connection that most people only ever dream about. It was even less time than Ellie and M0Rr1s had together…so maybe it isn’t so impossible.  It was a long time ago but this book made me wistfully remember when love felt like it conquered everything, and it was worth the risk.  And for Janelle, who is cautious, and M0Rr1S, who never fails to express himself, love empowers them to risk their lives for a better future. Just to be clear, it’s not a romantic love that initially pushes them forward. For Janelle, it is first her family and humanity. For M0Rr1S, it is his mother and his people. Although at the beginning of the book, Janelle insists that “it’s about time everyone understands that there is no hope,” by the end she is doing what only the hopeful would do, shoot for the stars.

The Sound of Stars is a unique read and feels very much like Alechia Dow’s love letter about books and music. It is about the power that resides in the arts, its ability to connect us; the power it has to evoke feelings so strong that it can, and maybe even should, lead us to rebel against oppression of those we may only think are different from us.

There is a lot to like, including pop culture references and the regular person/alien becoming a hero. One of my favorite parts in the book is the incorporation of lyrics into the writing, in particular “Dreams” from The Cranberries. Neither of them was singing, it was just M0Rr1S feeling like his life was changing, you know, “in every possible way.” I found myself smiling and reading those words to the tune (and I’m also a fan of The Cranberries so obviously there is bias on my part). When an author is writing about music and books, I think it should be expected that lyrics are incorporated in the writing and not just as lyrics being sung/spoken. It’s like sharing this knowing glance with the reader, a look that says, “Yes, I just did that. And, I know you know what song this is from.” Also, I very much need music of the Starry Eyed in my life. I need to hear Allister Daniels put those lyrics to a tune.

While the middle of the book was just so-so (I mean, things happen and it’s not bad or anything), I enjoyed the beginning and the ending most of all. Overall, I found that I could connect to both characters because of their connection to music and books and how it brought them together. Music spoke to M0Rr1S and Ellie like it speaks to me, songs triggering memories and emotions but also moments triggering the perfect song. We all have a soundtrack to our lives and Dow captures that well through the characters and the epigraphs.

Most of all, I liked that the book left me feeling empowered.  

**This is a very surface-level review and doesn’t really do the book justice. There are so many themes that are rampant in this book that I could dissect but maybe I can do that another time. For now, it’s just about my connection to Ellie and the theme of music and books.

Forest of Souls (2020)

<p class="has-text-align-left" value="<amp-fit-text layout="fixed-height" min-font-size="6" max-font-size="72" height="80">by Lori M. Lee<br>ISBN: 9781624149245by Lori M. Lee
ISBN: 9781624149245

Publication: June 23, 2020
Series: Shamanborn #1
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Brief Summary:
We meet Sirscha Ashwyn as she arrives at the home of her mentor Kendara.  Sirscha is currently apprentice to the Queen’s shadow but she is just one of a few, maybe even many.  To become the Queen’s spy, she must be able to prove that she is the best, that she is more than enough.  She works hard but continues to feel deficient, especially as individuals like the officit leading the students to visit the prison for shamanborn and Jonyah Thao, her best friend Saengo’s cousin, continue to debase her because of her upbringing; Sirscha is an orphan, and orphans are of no value. Ultimately, it is the discovery of a rival for the coveted position that will lead to Saengo’s death, her subsequent resurrection, and the revelation that Sirscha is a lightwender, specifically a soulguide with the ability to guide souls to the afterlife or to bring them back to life.  This will likely have reverberations for the kingdoms and ultimately results in Ronin, the Spider King, summoning both Sirscha and Saengo to Spinner’s End.   

It makes sense that Lori M. Lee’s Forest of Souls should be the first book I blog about. It’s really fate I think. When I preordered it, all I thought about was how I wanted to read this and June was going to take forever to get here. I had no thoughts about blogging about it. Now, here I am, avoiding my real job so I can instead write about this book. I also promise that reviews won’t normally be this long. I started writing and I just couldn’t stop.

Do you know how long I’ve waited for a Hmong science fiction/fantasy author? I didn’t even know this was what I was looking for until it appeared on one of my feeds and “clack, clack” went my laptop as I preordered and “swipe, swipe” went my fingers as I read Lee’s first two novels to overcome the long wait.

REFLECTING ON SIRSCHA ASHWYN

Sirscha Ashwyn is driven.  We know that in how she desperately she wants to become the Queen’s shadow. Sirscha Ashwyn is impulsive.  It is her rash actions that lead to Saengo’s death. And, Sirscha Ashwyn is arrogant.  More than once she refers to how formidable her skills are, how it has been a long time since anyone has been able to beat her. But even with all her bravado, all these things stem from a single motivation, fear.  She is afraid of not being remembered, of the world—maybe even history—casting her aside such as her parents did when they left her at a temple.  She seeks notoriety but what she is really looking for is acceptance, a place in the world where she can belong. The relationship she has with Saengo propels her forward because Saengo is the sole individual who truly accepts her as she is. To Saengo, she is more than enough.  Saengo is more than just her best friend; Saengo is her family.  Who are we if the people we love cease to exist?  Maybe this is what triggers Sirscha’s shaman craft to materialize. A love—or maybe a fear—so strong it enables to her to bring Saengo back to life.  With Saengo, there is no uncertainty as to Sirscha’s role, whereas the only other person Sirscha has any kind of relationship with, Kendara, is just a mentor and not necessarily the maternal figure she desperately wants. 

If Sirscha Ashwyn feels incomplete, it’s because she still doesn’t really know who she is—she lacks a sense of self beyond others’ views of her.  Who is she?  What does she want? There is a hollowness to her actions and her words. It’s probably why when she decides that she will help the shamanborn, I desperately wanted her to do it due to a sense of duty to protect her people but ultimately felt empty because it was more about her pursuit to be “more than.”  It’s also probably why it was unconvincing to hear her tell Prince Meilek that he needed to care about his people, both human and shamanborn, when she did not seem to really care either.  She’s still finding herself and Forest of Souls is our foray into her journey.  Lee has since announced that this will be a trilogy rather than a duology so I’m excited to join Sirscha on her path to self-discovery. I expect that in the later books, she will find her footing and, I hope, will recognize that notoriety is a byproduct of doing the right thing for the right reasons. And sometimes, being the world to one person is more important than being the chosen one to the rest of the world.  And, more importantly, that she is enough…but if she ends up saving the world along the way, that’s pretty epic too.  (Yeah, I know.  I have a bit of a do-good for the sake of good hero complex when I read about badass females in SFF. I can’t help it.)

REFLECTING ON THE BOOK

A lot of the book is walking to and running from with events scattered in-between.  I’m probably exaggerating but it really felt like there was just so much of it, going into the Dead Wood and then out of the Dead Wood. So, the Dead Wood is probably pretty important. What is the Dead Wood? The Dead Wood is the titular forest of souls, where the trees are alive and devour those who dwell in it, capturing their souls. But it also serves as home to the mysterious Spider King who controls it as well as a border of sorts that keeps the tentative peace between the kingdoms.

Despite this, Forest of Souls remains a captivating read because Lee excels in world-building.  Lee provides us glimpses into the world through Sirscha’s eyes, so throughout the book, readers are treated to lush descriptions of the world we are immersing ourselves into.  If you’ve read her other two novels, Gates of Thread and Stone and its sequel The Infinite, you’ll know that, in a similar fashion, the world-building and the introduction of characters largely occurred in the first book whereas the second book was more riveting and plot-driven.

Following the path of Gates of Thread and Stone, Forest of Souls only introduces characters, the exceptions being Sirscha and Saengo. It is Sirscha and Saengo’s friendship driving the book so it makes sense that we first build our relationship to this world through them. Then there are other characters that contribute to the world we now find ourselves engaged in.  We meet Kendara but only learn she is the Queen’s Shadow.  We hear about Queen Mielyr but never meet her.  We meet Prince Meilek in what feel like fleeting moments and are treated to impressions of him but we never get to know him. Then there is Theyen Yee, and it is difficult to discern whether he will be friend or foe because their interactions seem superficial. Of course, the infamous Spider King, Ronin is introduced to us but again, moments with him are rare as well.  The other person Sirscha spends time with is Phaut.  Aside from Sirscha and Saengo, she is probably the only other character we spend more time with. She is in service to Ronin and guards Sirscha, but we never really get to know her either.  Being this is a trilogy, I expect many of these individuals will be fleshed out later so it does not necessarily take away from the book but can at times make one feel disconnected.  Should I care about these other people? Then again, it is told from a first-person perspective so it makes some sense that we don’t know them because Sirscha doesn’t really know them either.  

FURTHER REFLECTING

Did it live up to my internalized hype?  More or less.  I was enthralled with the idea that the story was inspired by Hmong culture and the traditional practice of animism.  Do you remember that feeling as a kid when you would see or hear your name somewhere and you would get excited?  A character in a book had your same name, or there was a song with your name in it?  I had that feeling when the Hmong last name “Thao” showed up as a character’s last name or when words like “tshauv taws” and “zaj” appeared.  See how the kid in us never really fully ceases to exist? Also, see how representation matters?  SFF has such a diverse audience and needs to start reflecting this diversity. 

As a word of caution, I am Hmong but not necessarily an expert on Hmong culture.  I agree with Lee that there is much in the Hmong culture that can serve as inspiration for writing, especially for SFF.  Inspiration is scattered throughout but here are the things that called to me.

Variations of animism exist beyond the one many Hmong adhere to but generally it is believed that all creatures have a soul and spirits can do harm to people.  The Dead Wood is one instance of this. The trees are dead but they’re alive, consuming the living and entrapping their souls, preventing them from going to the world beyond.  Other books have woods or forests similar to the Dead Wood.  It is not exactly novel, but no author has directly attributed inspiration for her novel coming from Hmong culture, so yes, the Dead Wood is now special to me. I proclaim that all other woods such as this are now dead to me. There is only the Dead Wood.  

There’s a part in the story when Sirscha is worried about whether there will be someone to guide the spirit of a man who has died, and it got me choked up. There was just so much sorrow behind those words. If you understand the role of death in the Hmong culture, you understand the significance of Hmong funerals, the intricacies of the songs and the rituals performed; you understand the importance of finding the right people to guide the soul to his final home. To have Sirscha be concerned about this individual shows that in the short timespan she has learned she is shamanborn, she has already slightly shifted in her thinking about other people, even if she is still mostly concerned about being remembered. Then again, I could just be reading more into it than went into writing it. I don’t know…but I’ll stick with my interpretation though. 

Then there’s the most important nod to Hmong culture, shamans.  The book is all about the shamanborn. It’s main character is one. The trilogy is called Shamanborn. This was pretty exciting. Shamans are generally respected individuals in Hmong culture who are spiritual healers. While some may learn it like a skill, it is more a calling that lays dormant until there is an awakening of the shaman spirits. People who still adhere to the traditional religion seek out shamans to protect against malevolent spirits and often to call back the lost spirit of someone who is ill. From a personal perspective, adherence to animism or shamanism does not set spiritual healing against “western medicine.”  They are complementary, two halves of a whole that lead to holistic wellbeing.  In Forest of Souls, shamans have control over different elements: fire, water, earth, wind, and light.  From each of these elements, there are different crafts that may be a shaman’s calling.  Lightwenders are likely the closest to Hmong shamans with their dealings with spirits and souls.

The book is 3 stars for me, and if I’m being honest borders a bit on the lower end; I liked it but there could be more. And I’m betting that there is.  I can’t help but be a little bit biased that the book is inspired by a rich culture that is then transformed by the fantastical mind of a self-proclaimed unicorn aficionado into something entirely her own. She does such a great job of it too!  Forest of Souls is most definitely not a stand-alone novel–it ends on a bit of a cliffhanger.  It is, though, a beginning.  And in the beginning…yes there was light…but in the beginning there is birth. Things are happening; things are being set in motion.  Forest of Souls is building up to something big and my experience with Lee is that the buildup often leads to an explosive ending.

I couldn’t end this review without sharing what is one of the most vivid descriptions in the book, a reminder of why I like reading books by Lori M. Lee.

**07/09/2020
After taking more time to think about the book–really letting it ruminate–I realize that what I like about the book is based on what I know it can be as opposed to what it is. I think this further solidifies why it was 3-star but fell close to being 2.5 stars. This gives me more reason to read the rest of the trilogy because I know that it can be better.