Let’s start these mini reviews by a confession: I am approximately 15 reviews behind, and to catch up and get some of my sanity back, I need to divide my time and commitment unevenly, unfortunately. Over the course of the next few days, you can expect to see grouped mini reviews that follow some theme; in these reviews, I will review three books to the best of my ability. There are so many books that I’ve read that I feel need proper time and attention, so those are the ones that will get individual reviews (or groups of two, instead of three). Hopefully this way, I can catch up on my reviews while not completely ignoring them either.
Expectation is the root of all disappointment.
When you expect something from a book because a) you’ve heard people talking about it, b) the author has previously done really great work, and c) (because we’re all a little bit shallow), the cover is just really darn beautiful, so you automatically expect the content is too. And so, you get your hands on this book, and much to your dismay, it doesn’t live up to your expectations. That’s disappointing, and nothing bums me out quite as much as disliking a book that I thought I would like. In this post, I will get to three books that left me with low spirits and a heavy heart (because melodrama is my forté!)
Caraval by Stephanie Garber // also known as, “No, seriously, why are you so popular?”
Synopsis: Caraval follows the story of Scarlett and her sister Tella, who’ve always dreamed of playing the legendary, magical game of Caraval. Ever since they were young girls, their grandmother has told them stories about the Caraval master, the whimsy of the game, how the experience is unparalleled. The problem is that the game is incredibly exclusive – you can’t go unless you receive an invite. When Scarlett receives an invite after years of writing to the master of Caraval, she and Tella escape the clutches of their abusive, terrifying father with a companion in tow and flee to make the game.
🍓 The first couple of chapters immediately grabbed my attention.
What didn’t work?
🍓 Important, serious issues are used as plot devices – Scarlett and Tella’s abusive by their father is only used as a launching point for them to go to Caraval. The abuse is shoved aside except for when you’re being reminded that the two are at Caraval to escape it. Suicide is used as a plot device in the most bizarre, offensive manner. The severe psychological repercussions on characters are pushed aside and overlooked.
🍓 Scarlett was a terrible heroine. Absolutely horrendous. She’s incredibly passive – she does very little by her own volition, but instead lets everyone guide her movements. She’s easily manipulated, and has no backbone. The result is an unreliable protagonist (and not in a good way), because you constantly doubt what she’s hearing and seeing, simply because you never know when the next person will come along and change her mind.
🍓 The writing style was strange and inconsistent; at times, Garber used metaphors in consecutive rotation, and at other times, it seems like the editor either a) went overboard, or b) didn’t look at the script at all. The book goes from purple prose to absolutely juvenile prose without any feeling constantly. The result is rather jarring.
🍓 Garber would have you believe that the sisterhood aspect of the novel is prominent, yet… it’s really not. Tella isn’t present in the majority of the book, and when Scarlett is thinking about her, it’s usually in the context of, “Oh, how can I possibly choose between my sister’s life, this boy I met two days ago, and making my arranged wedding on time?” If that’s the type of sisterhood that’s considered “close,” you can keep it.
🍓 I don’t know whether Garber was trying to achieve a constant twist-and-turns type of plot, but she consistently decided to change the motives of the characters, and the way the game is supposed to be played as she saw fit. The result is incredibly jarring. I got whiplash from the constant back-and-forth. It was naaaht a fun reading experience.
Suicide; physical, emotional abuse; some self-harm.
The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi // also known as, “Damn, you’re pretty but you’re such a mystery.”
Rating: 🌟🌟 1/2
Synopsis: Maya has a horoscope that promises a marriage of death and destruction; she’s known she’s cursed ever since she was a child, and so does everyone else in her life. When her father, the Raja, arranges for a political marriage to eradicate rebellions, Maya finds herself leaving home and the Queen of Akaran – a kingdom she’d never heard of before. Akaran is mysterious, but magical, with locked doors, empty halls, and impossible things. But her husband, Amar, is sweet, and kind, and she can almost find love in him, as long as he stops his constant secrets.
🍓 The Indian lore incorporated into the narrative was done masterfully; from reincarnation to gods and goddesses, to cultural traditions and the pitfalls of the subcontinent’s history, to food and dress – the story is seeping with Indian culture. It’s delicious to read.
🍓 Roshani Chokshi is a skilled writer. I don’t particularly enjoy floral prose, but I can appreciate when it’s done well. She utilizes figurative language beautifully, and she structures her sentences so that they read more like a song than prose.
🍓 The world-building was vivid, albeit confusing, and that speaks more for Chokshi’s ability to write descriptively than it does anything else. From mysterious Night Bazaars to enchanted gardens and vulgar horses… there’s a lot in this book to devour.
What didn’t work?
🍓 First and foremost: the characters were an incredible let-down. There’s so much for us to absorb in the world-building that I felt Chokshi focused more on the characters’ surroundings than the characters themselves. The result was largely flat, one-dimensional people guiding the story. Maya was yet another passive character for the large part of the novel; she does very little of her own volition and allows herself to be manipulated. But I will say that this got better around the 50% mark.
🍓 The romance – there was little to no chemistry between Amar and Maya. It was hard for me to believe that despite Amar keeping so much from Maya, she still falls in love with him. I would have liked a slower burn build-up.
🍓 The world-building itself fell flat for me – it was descriptive, and I could picture most everything on the page, but the universe, its history and how the magic worked wasn’t given enough attention. Perhaps if the book was longer and more attention was given to the mechanics, I wouldn’t have been so confused.
🍓 I wanted to see more of Maya’s life before she is sent to Akaran.
Flame in the Mist by Renée Ahdieh // also known as, “Why couldn’t you be more like your older sibling?”
Rating: 🌟 🌟 1/2
Synopsis: Flame in the Mist follows the story of Mariko, the only daughter of a prominent samurai in feudal Japan who is on her way to the imperial palace to be married off in a political move. On the way, her party is ambushed by the Black Clan, and everyone is slaughtered. Mariko is able to get away, but finds herself in a deadly forest. Determined to discover why the Black Clan ambushed her carriage in a way so unlike them, she disguises herself as a boy and sets off to infiltrate their camp.
Note: this book is often marketed as a Mulan retelling, which it is not. For one, it is set in Japan and not China. Secondly, there are no similarities past the cross-dressing component.
🍓 Mariko. She’s a wonderfully developed character with a strong sense of herself, her values, and what needs to be done to achieve her goals. She’s determined, and utilizes sharpness and wit to maneuver tricky situations. She’s a woman in a patriarchal society, so she starts off with a ton of internalized misogyny, but develops wonderfully by the end of the story. She’s also super sex-positive!
🍓 Kenshin (Mariko’s twin brother) and the love interest, Okami, were both well-developed characters as well. There are some POV chapters from Okami, though most of the book is told from Mariko and Kenshin’s perspectives, but I enjoyed these perspective-shifts and the flavor they brought to the story. I would’ve liked to see more of Mariko and Kenshin’s dynamic though.
🍓 The romance was very swoon-worthy, as Ahdieh’s romances are. Shazi and Khalid in her previous series are one of my ultimate OTPs, and Mariko and Okami made their way into my list too. They both complement and challenge each other well – their dynamic is hot-and-cold, but incredibly entertaining to see unfold.
🍓 Ahdieh is a wonderful writer; she writes with fluid grace, utilizing descriptives, dialogue and emotion very well. You mostly feel what she wants you to feel, and that’s the hallmark of a good writer.
What didn’t work?
🍓 I cannot speak for the Japanese representation since I am a) not Japanese, and b) not very familiar with the culture in the first place. But after having read a few reviews by Japanese readers, I now know that the representation is very appropriative and inaccurate. Ahdieh utilizes entertainment tropes, stereotypes, and poorly researched elements into the narrative. Here is an #OwnVoices review, and here’s another one.
🍓 While utilizing the “I disguised myself as a boy” trope, and as Okami forms a strong bond with her while he believes she is a boy, the book is very cis-normative, and there is absolutely no discussion of bisexuality. The first review linked above discusses both these issues as well, since the reviewer is Japanese, non-binary and bisexual. Do check out that review, please.
🍓 I simpy do not believe that Mariko formed a stronger bond with the Black Clan than she has with her twin brother, because the relationships (beyond the romance) aren’t developed well. You don’t get to see much interaction between Mariko and the rest of the Black Clan that gives you the sense that yes, she feels like she belongs there. This makes the climax a little… cold.
🍓 The launching point of the novel is basically the same as The Wrath & the Dawn. A girl seeks out for vengeance, infiltrates her enemy’s household under disguise and falls in love. It’s literally the same thing. The similarities were a little difficult for me to overlook, which ultimately made the book seem uninspired.
Attempted assault; violence; misogyny.