“The Wicked Bargain” Review

A young person is shown taking up most of the cover facing right with their head turned forward. They're wearing a brown shirt and pants and a necklace. They have one hand up with a flame in it. Behind them is the ocean and a pirate ship. The title and author's name are shown over them. Written by Gabe Cole Novoa
Published by Penguin Random House, February 2023
360 pages
Completed September 3, 2023

On Mar León de la Rosa’s sixteenth birthday, el Diablo comes calling. Mar is a transmasculine nonbinary teen pirate hiding a magical ability to manipulate fire and ice. But their magic isn’t enough to reverse a wicked bargain made by their father, and now el Diablo has come to collect his payment: the soul of Mar’s father and the entire crew of their ship.

When Mar is miraculously rescued by the sole remaining pirate crew in the Caribbean, el Diablo returns to give them a choice: give up their soul to save their father by the harvest moon, or never see him again. The task is impossible–Mar refuses to make a bargain, and there’s no way their magic is a match for el Diablo. Then Mar finds the most unlikely allies: Bas, an infuriatingly arrogant and handsome pirate–and the captain’s son; and Dami, a gender-fluid demonio whose motives are never quite clear. For the first time in their life, Mar may have the courage to use their magic. It could be their only redemption–or it could mean certain death.

This was an interesting book. It has some great parts to it but feels a little immature. Granted the main characters are teenagers reacting like teenagers to everything. I feel like it could have done with a bit more editing and figuring out how the story was meant to go. I got tired of how long it took Mar to realize they could actually control their powers – the sudden realization didn’t feel like it made a whole lot of sense. But again, teenagers. I’m glad it worked out in the end though and it was mostly a fun read.

“To Shape a Dragon’s Breath” Review

The cover is dark red with the face of a dragon in the middle with spikes of hair on top and along its nose. There are red flowers on either side of the dragon's head. The title is written out down the cover one word on each line with the author's name at the bottom.Written by Moniquill Blackgoose
Published by Del Rey, May 2023
528 pages
Completed August 1, 2023

The remote island of Masquapaug has not seen a dragon in many generations—until fifteen-year-old Anequs finds a dragon’s egg and bonds with its hatchling. Her people are delighted, for all remember the tales of the days when dragons lived among them and danced away the storms of autumn, enabling the people to thrive. To them, Anequs is revered as Nampeshiweisit—a person in a unique relationship with a dragon.

Unfortunately for Anequs, the Anglish conquerors of her land have different opinions. They have a very specific idea on how a dragon should be raised—and who should be doing the raising—and Anequs does not meet any of their requirements. Only with great reluctance do they allow Anequs to enroll in a proper Anglish dragon school on the mainland. If she cannot succeed there, then her dragon will be killed.

For a girl with no formal schooling, a non-Anglish upbringing, and a very different understanding of the history of her land challenges abound—both socially and academically. But Anequs is smart and determined, and resolved to learn what she needs to help her dragon, even if it means teaching herself. The one thing she refuses to do, however, is become the meek Anglish miss that everyone expects.

Anequs and her dragon may be coming of age, but they’re also coming to power, and that brings an important realization: the world needs changing—and they might just be the ones to do it.

This was a great book and I’m looking forward to the next one as this is meant to be the first book in a series. The ending of the book works so that it could be a stand alone, but there’s definitely more of the story to be told. The setting is an alternate history version of Earth but still with colonizers and indigenous populations that are dealing with the aftermath of being colonized, and dragons! The characters were great to read about – the central conflict between Anegus and the teachers was well done. I also enjoyed seeing the difference between Anequs who knows exactly who she is and where she belongs and another indigenous character who grew up among the colonizers never knowing the truth about his people. There is a third character in the book who is meant to be autistic, though never outright stated given the time and place, who is awesome. He ends up being friends with Anequs and makes for a very interesting character with his own conflicts to deal with. There are some parts that got a little slow to get and perhaps some other things could have been explained better but I enjoyed it regardless.

I would highly recommend reading this interview with Moniquill Blackgoose for more context to the setting for the story and the characters. There are no spoilers for the book in this interview besides setting and information about Anequs and the dragons:

An Indies Introduce Q&A with Moniquill Blackgoose

“Mexican Gothic” Review

A young Mexican woman is standing or sitting on the cover visible from the nose down wearing a red dress that wraps around her chest with no shoulders. She has her hands in her lap holding a bouquet of yellow flowers. The background is green wallpaper with floral designs.Written by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Published by Del Rey, June 2020
320 pages
Completed July 26, 2023

After receiving a frantic letter from her newly-wed cousin begging for someone to save her from a mysterious doom, Noemí Taboada heads to High Place, a distant house in the Mexican countryside. She’s not sure what she will find—her cousin’s husband, a handsome Englishman, is a stranger, and Noemí knows little about the region.

Noemí is also an unlikely rescuer: She’s a glamorous debutante, and her chic gowns and perfect red lipstick are more suited for cocktail parties than amateur sleuthing. But she’s also tough and smart, with an indomitable will, and she is not afraid: Not of her cousin’s new husband, who is both menacing and alluring; not of his father, the ancient patriarch who seems to be fascinated by Noemí; and not even of the house itself, which begins to invade Noemi’s dreams with visions of blood and doom.

Her only ally in this inhospitable abode is the family’s youngest son. Shy and gentle, he seems to want to help Noemí, but might also be hiding dark knowledge of his family’s past. For there are many secrets behind the walls of High Place. The family’s once colossal wealth and faded mining empire kept them from prying eyes, but as Noemí digs deeper she unearths stories of violence and madness.

And Noemí, mesmerized by the terrifying yet seductive world of High Place, may soon find it impossible to ever leave this enigmatic house behind.

I really enjoyed this one. The story does take a while to get going with a slow pace as things unfold but it never really felt like it was too slow. I did think the last few chapters were a bit fast in comparison but it made sense for the story because once the truth came out things had to be dealt with quickly or no one was going to be freed from the house. The description is right that Noemí is an unlikely rescuer or at least she seems that way at first. Given that it’s set in the 50s her personality/behaviors aren’t much of a surprise but the way she handled everything still made sense. I liked the way the central mystery was resolved. There’s a lot that wasn’t explained but like most horror stories some things aren’t ever explained.

“The Queen of Water” Review

A head shot of a woman with light brown skin and black hair takes up most of the cover. She is looking downwards with her eyes mostly closed. She is wearing a gold neckless with four strands of beads and a white dress. The authors names and the title are over her face. The left edge of the cover has a cloth pattern in green and reds.Written by Laura Resau and María Virginia Farinango
Published by Delacorte/Random House, 2011
368 Pages
Completed July 14, 2023

Born in an Andean village in Ecuador, Virginia lives with her family in a small, earthen-walled dwelling. In her Indigenous community, it is not uncommon to work in the fields all day, even as a child, or to be called a longa tonta—stupid Indian—by members of the privileged class of mestizos, or Spanish descendants. When seven-year-old Virginia is taken from her home to be a servant to a mestizo couple, she has no idea what the future holds.

In this poignant novel based on her own story, the inspiring María Virginia Farinango has collaborated with acclaimed author Laura Resau to recount one girl’s unforgettable journey to find her place in the world. It will make you laugh and cry, and ultimately, it will fill you with hope.

This was a book I ended up reading very quickly because I couldn’t put it down until I finished. The story is fascinating with a lot of history. Virginia’s childhood was is sad but the ending of the book is hopeful for the future. I really enjoyed Virginia’s exploration of her background and rediscovery of who she is. At the end of the book there are authors notes that explain how this story came to be. María Virginia Farinango had always wanted to be able to tell her story and to have someone write it with her. The author’s notes should definitely be read after reading the book as it fulls out more information. The book is based on María Virginia Farinango’s life so it’s categorized as fiction – it’s not truly a memoir though a lot of it really happened.

“The Poppy War” Review

The book cover has a white background and there is a person sanding on a rock holding an armed bow ready to fire and carrying additional bows. Her outfit is blowing in the wind to the right. The title of the book is at the top and has smoke coming off the letters going to the right. In the bottom half of the book next to the figure is the text "They trained her for ward. She intends to end it" and then the author's name at the bottom. Written by R.F. Kuang
Published by Harper Voyager, May 2018
544 pages
Completed June 22, 2023

When Rin aced the Keju—the Empire-wide test to find the most talented youth to learn at the Academies—it was a shock to everyone: to the test officials, who couldn’t believe a war orphan from Rooster Province could pass without cheating; to Rin’s guardians, who believed they’d finally be able to marry her off and further their criminal enterprise; and to Rin herself, who realized she was finally free of the servitude and despair that had made up her daily existence. That she got into Sinegard—the most elite military school in Nikan—was even more surprising.

But surprises aren’t always good.

Because being a dark-skinned peasant girl from the south is not an easy thing at Sinegard. Targeted from the outset by rival classmates for her color, poverty, and gender, Rin discovers she possesses a lethal, unearthly power—an aptitude for the nearly-mythical art of shamanism. Exploring the depths of her gift with the help of a seemingly insane teacher and psychoactive substances, Rin learns that gods long thought dead are very much alive—and that mastering control over those powers could mean more than just surviving school.

For while the Nikara Empire is at peace, the Federation of Mugen still lurks across a narrow sea. The militarily advanced Federation occupied Nikan for decades after the First Poppy War, and only barely lost the continent in the Second. And while most of the people are complacent to go about their lives, a few are aware that a Third Poppy War is just a spark away . . .

Rin’s shamanic powers may be the only way to save her people. But as she finds out more about the god that has chosen her, the vengeful Phoenix, she fears that winning the war may cost her humanity . . . and that it may already be too late.

I really enjoyed this book even with the very dark tone. It’s not a light read and while it’s set in a fictional world it’s based heavily on China and China’s various conflicts with other countries. The characters are interesting and I liked all of them even when they weren’t the nicest characters. The main character, Rin, has a complicated background and she’s definitely going to be a complicated character going forward in the next two books. Some might question her choices and mindset (she’s very focused on revenge) but it’s easy to see where all of it comes from based on what she’s been through and what she knows. I’m definitely going to finish the series at some point.

Also – I found this great post and review that provides the historical context for the book: Everything You Need to Know Before You Read The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang by Tiffany at Read by Tiffany and contributing writer & editor Kevin Kaichuang Yang. It provides a lot of information about how everything in the series lines up with history. From the various wars to the character parallels and the landscape. There are spoilers for all three books so consider before reading through it if you like to avoid spoilers.

“How Long ’til Black Future Month?” Review

On the cover a young black woman is facing towards the right in profile with her long hair styled with decorations that are white geometric shapes. The shirt or dress she is wearing has a thick collar that looks like two rows of white balls. The title of the book and authors name are on the top and bottom of the cover. Written by N.K. Jemisin
Published by Orbit, November 2018
416 pages
Completed June 14, 2023

“Three-time Hugo Award winner and NYT bestselling author N. K. Jemisin challenges and delights readers with thought-provoking narratives of destruction, rebirth, and redemption that sharply examine modern society in her first collection of short fiction, which includes never-before-seen stories.”

“Spirits haunt the flooded streets of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In a parallel universe, a utopian society watches our world, trying to learn from our mistakes. A black mother in the Jim Crow South must save her daughter from a fey offering impossible promises. And in the Hugo award-nominated short story “The City Born Great,” a young street kid fights to give birth to an old metropolis’s soul.”

This is a great collection of short stories all written by N. K. Jemisin. Some of them are early ideas that would become her larger works. Others are stories she had written for other publications. All are great. I also highly recommend reading the introduction to the book for more background and to know where the title of the book comes from. I really enjoyed each story and will likely read more by this author at some point.

“One for All” Review

Book cover for One For All depicting a young woman with her back against a building with dark brown hair and wearing a red dress with a fencing sword held up in her hand. There are several other swords of the same type pointed at her in a circle around the title of the book in the center of the cover. Written by Lillie Lainoff
Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR), March 2022
Number of Pages: 336
Completed: April 7, 2023

“One for All is a gender-bent retelling of The Three Musketeers, in which a girl with a chronic illness trains as a Musketeer and uncovers secrets, sisterhood, and self-love.”

This was a fun read. The main character has to deal with a lot of BS because of her illness before she ends up in a much better situation. I did kind of feel like things went a little to easily for her with the new group of people but it works. Maybe sometimes you do end up with an entire group of good people without having to do much work. The plot was a little predictable but it was still fun to read. I especially liked how POTs is worked into the story, which is set in 17th century France, in a way that made sense for the time without seeming unrealistic. There’s a lot to be said about how people who are disabled or chronically ill were treated at the time and now. The author also included brief explanation of POTs and how she worked it into the story at the end of the book.