The Leaning Pile of Books is a feature in which I highlight books I got over the last week—old or new, bought or received in the mail for review consideration (most of which are unsolicited books from publishers). Since I hope you will find new books you’re interested in reading in these posts, I try to be as informative as possible. If I can find them, links to excerpts, author’s websites, and places where you can find more information on the book are included, along with series information and the publisher’s book description. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Last week brought a book I’m very excited about (and I recently bought a signed copy of a book I loved, although I’m just linking to my review in the list at the end since I have written about it and am sure I will be writing about it again in my yearly favorites post!), but first, here’s the latest review in case you missed it:

Queen of the Conquered by Kacen Callender - Book Cover

Queen of the Conquered (Islands of Blood and Storm #1) by Kacen Callender

This Caribbean-inspired epic fantasy novel, Lambda Literary Award–winning author Kacen Callender’s first book for adults, was released last week (trade paperback, ebook, audiobook).

Orbit has an excerpt containing the prologue and first three chapters of Queen of the Conquered.


An ambitious young woman with the power to control minds seeks vengeance against the royals who murdered her family, in a Caribbean-inspired fantasy world embattled by colonial oppression.

Sigourney Rose is the only surviving daughter of a noble lineage on the islands of Hans Lollik. When she was a child, her family was murdered by the islands’ colonizers, who have massacred and enslaved generations of her people — and now, Sigourney is ready to exact her revenge.

When the childless king of the islands declares that he will choose his successor from amongst eligible noble families, Sigourney uses her ability to read and control minds to manipulate her way onto the royal island and into the ranks of the ruling colonizers. But when she arrives, prepared to fight for control of all the islands, Sigourney finds herself the target of a dangerous, unknown magic.

Someone is killing off the ruling families to clear a path to the throne. As the bodies pile up and all eyes regard her with suspicion, Sigourney must find allies among her prey and the murderer among her peers… lest she become the next victim.

Queen of the Conquered reckons with the many layers of power and privilege in a lush fantasy world — perfect for readers of S. A. Chakraborty, Ken Liu, and Tasha Suri.

Additional Books:

A House of Rage and Sorrow
by Sangu Mandanna
264pp (Hardcover)
My Rating: 7/10
Amazon Rating: 5/5
LibraryThing Rating: 4.5/5
Goodreads Rating: 4.56/5

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

A House of Rage and Sorrow is the second book in Sangu Mandanna’s Mahabharata-inspired Celestial Trilogy, a young adult series combining mythic fantasy with space opera to tell the story of Esmae Rey, a princess who grew up desperate to connect with her twin and the rest of the family she never knew—a princess whose very existence was kept secret by the mother who sent her away, fearing a curse involving her daughter.

In A Spark of White Fire, Esmae decided to step out of the darkness into the light after seventeen years of living in obscurity, despite having been warned by the war goddess who divulged her true identity to her that it would be best if she remained in the shadows. The heretofore unknown girl made shock waves throughout the galaxy when she not only bested beloved exiled prince Alexi Rey in a contest for the indestructible, god-forged sentient warship Titania but also revealed herself to be the formerly presumed winner’s twin. This one act led to a horrific vision foreseen by the gods, and though it didn’t exactly unfold as expected, Esmae still suffered great losses—including her dream of being her brother’s closest ally and standing by him to defeat the uncle who stole his crown.

When A House of Rage and Sorrow opens three months later, Esame has staunchly sided with the uncle who accepted and cared for her and started the war with her twin that many within their house had been working to avoid. She feels as though she’s let so many down—her grandmother, her cousin, her mentor, and even Titania, who had chosen to join the twin she believed least likely to set off the conflict brewing between the Reys—but she is too consumed by her rage and sorrow to end it. Esmae doesn’t want to simply kill Alexi—that would be too easy on him—but wants to destroy his reputation, incensed that he remains highly regarded even after publicly shedding his honor on the day he betrayed her. Yet with the god of tricks (and bargains! He hates it when we mortals forget that part!) aiding Alexi, the twins’ war threatens to escalate beyond their kingdoms: for he seeks to free an imprisoned great beast that would devour entire stars, all because she could bring battles with Titania to a stalemate.

After reading A Spark of White Fire earlier this year, A House of Rage and Sorrow became one of my most highly anticipated books of 2019. I pre-ordered a copy and began reading it soon after its arrival but was surprised to find it less riveting than the previous book, which had a vivid narrative voice and masterful pacing that perfectly balanced character development and plot. The sequel is actually too quickly paced: a slightly shorter novel that adds another perspective besides Esmae’s (Titania‘s) and seems more focused on shocking revelations and plot than characterization, despite its many characters. I also thought that the writing was not as poignant as the first, and though that may have been due to Esmae’s increasing anger and jadedness, I rarely felt her oft-mentioned rage earlier in the novel.

Like the series opener, many of the clues leading to big revelations are seeded with the subtlety of a flashing neon sign. Although predictability isn’t necessarily bad, I do prefer that hints regarding Big Reveals leave at least some question as to whether or not my suspicions could be wrong. Interspersing the warship’s viewpoint with Esmae’s also added exposition and more obvious tip-offs about certain events, even if it did include some interesting bits and pieces (and gave a better idea of how much Titania cares about Esmae, as well as providing more insight into her thoughts and emotions). Having an additional narrative also supplemented my impression that this book was less intimate and centered than the first with all the characters weaving in and out. I did appreciate that most of these personalities were not clearly “good” or “evil” and I was never bored by it, but I was underwhelmed for a while considering how thoroughly enjoyable I found A Spark of White Fire.

But it improved later and the last 20% is amazing—among the best, most memorable sequence of chapters I’ve read this year. Esmae is forced to confront a devastating truth, and her rage becomes palpable as it boils over into a frothing mess that will leave a permanent mark. Given this and the wonderful foundation set in the first book, I’m still obsessed with this trilogy and where it’s headed, despite believing the middle volume to be a weaker installment.

That’s in part because of the excellently handled themes and the way they tie in with and expand on those from the previous book. This series is largely about family, both biological and found family, and this sequel has parallels with the first as Esmae continues to chase wishes only to realize she already had what she’d been longing for the whole time. It concerns people making mistakes that cascade into problems for the next generation, and the cycle created when those who come after feel as though the odds are stacked against them and make the same mistakes. It shows Esmae grappling with the reality that she’s had to fight for every single scrap of power she’s accumulated while her twin brother has been freely given loyalty, love, and acclaim; it shows the courage of taking an honest look at oneself and facing the worst parts. Esmae’s struggles are heartbreaking and relatable, and her anger is understandable even when she makes horrific choices and descends further into her fury and darkness.

Most of all, I loved that Esmae is not a static character—she will never be the same after the conclusion of A House of Rage and Sorrow. I can hardly wait to learn how that impacts the rest of her story, coming in September 2020.

My Rating: 7/10

Where I got my reading copy: I purchased it.

Reviews of Other Book(s) in The Celestial Trilogy:

  1. A Spark of White Fire

Read “Steel and Flowers” (prequel short story about Kyra)

The Leaning Pile of Books is a feature in which I highlight books I got over the last week—old or new, bought or received in the mail for review consideration (most of which are unsolicited books from publishers). Since I hope you will find new books you’re interested in reading in these posts, I try to be as informative as possible. If I can find them, links to excerpts, author’s websites, and places where you can find more information on the book are included, along with series information and the publisher’s book description. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

There’s a lot of catching up to do after missing the last couple of weekends for various reasons. A lot of books have come in the mail over the last couple of weeks, plus I attended this year’s Neukom Literary Arts Award ceremony since I live in the area—and, of course, purchased some books there (and got this year’s winning novels signed by their authors!). It was a wonderful event, and I very much enjoyed hearing Audrey Schulman and Peng Shepherd discuss their books. (You may recall I reviewed Peng Shepherd’s The Book of M a few months ago and very much enjoyed it!)

The Secret Chapter by Genevieve Cogman - Book Cover

The Secret Chapter (The Invisible Library #6) by Genevieve Cogman

The Secret Chapter, the sixth book in the Invisible Library series, will be released on January 7, 2020, in the US (trade paperback, ebook) and on November 14 in the UK (paperback, ebook, audiobook).

This series, which follows an agent of the Library that exists outside of time and space, is a delight, and I’m rather intrigued by the fact that the next installment features an art heist.

The previous books in the series are as follows:

  1. The Invisible Library (My Review | Excerpt)
  2. The Masked City (My Review | Excerpt)
  3. The Burning Page (My Review | Excerpt)
  4. The Lost Plot (My Review | Excerpt)
  5. The Mortal Word (My Review | Excerpt)

Time-travelling, dimension-jumping, Librarian-spy Irene and dragon-prince Kai will have to team up with an unlikely band of misfits to pull off an amazing art heist—or risk the wrath of a dangerous villain with a secret island lair.

A Librarian’s work is never done, and Irene is summoned to the Library. The world where she grew up is in danger of veering deep into chaos, and she needs to obtain a particular book to stop this from happening. Her only choice is to contact a mysterious Fae information-broker and trader of rare objects: Mr. Nemo.

Irene and Kai make their way to Mr. Nemo’s remote Caribbean island and are invited to dinner, which includes unlikely company. Mr. Nemo has an offer for everyone there: he wants them to steal a specific painting from a specific world. But to get their reward, they will have to form a team, including a dragon techie, a Fae thief, a gambler, a driver, and the muscle. Their goal? The Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, in an early twenty-first-century world, where their toughest challenge might be each other.

Parable of the Sower/Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler - Box Set

Parable of the Sower/Parable of the Talents Boxed Set (Earthseed #1–2) by Octavia E. Butler

This hardcover boxed set of Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents was an early Christmas present from my husband (who was too impatient to wait a couple of months to actually give it to me!). These editions from Seven Stories Press are gorgeous and include introductions by Gloria Steinem (Sower) and Toshi Reagon (Talents).

I’ve read Sower before and thought it was fascinating, but it’s been a while since I read it. I definitely want to reread it before starting Talents.


A beautiful boxed set brings together the great sci-fi writer’s two award-winning Parable books

The perfect gift for fans of Octavia Butler, this boxed set pairs the bestselling Nebula-prize nominee, Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents, which together tell the near-future odyssey of Lauren Olamina, a “hyperempathic” young woman who is twice as feeling in a world that has become doubly dehumanized. In Sower, the place is California, where small walled communities protect from hordes of desperate scavengers and roaming bands of people addicts. Lauren sets off on foot along the dangerous coastal highways, moving north into the unknown. The book has an introduction by feminist, journalist, activist, and author Gloria Steinem.

Parable of the Talents celebrates the classic Butlerian themes of alienation and transcendence, violence and spirituality, slavery and freedom, separation and community, to astonishing effect, in the shockingly familiar, broken world of 2032. It is told in the voice of Lauren Olamina’s daughter—from whom she has been separated for most of the girl’s life—with sections in the form of Lauren’s journal. Against a background of a war-torn continent, and with a far-right religious crusader in the office of the U.S. presidency, this is a book about a society whose very fabric has been torn asunder, and where the basic physical and emotional needs of people seem almost impossible to meet. Talents is introduced by singer, musician, composer, producer, and curator Toshi Reagon, who created an opera based on the Parable books.

Sword of Fire by Katharine Kerr - Book Cover

Sword of Fire (The Justice War #1) by Katharine Kerr

This epic fantasy, the first book in a new trilogy set in the Celtic-inspired world of Deverry, will be released on February 18, 2020 (hardcover, ebook).


This first novel of an epic fantasy trilogy reintroduces readers to the beloved and bestselling world of Deverry, blending magic, politics, and adventure in an unforgettable setting.

The bards are the people’s voice—and their sword.

All over the kingdom of Deverry, the common people are demanding reform of the corrupt law courts. In Aberwyn, the situation catches fire when Gwerbret Ladoic, second in authority only to the High King, allows a bard to starve to death rather than hear their grievances.

Guildwoman Alyssa, a student at the local scholars’ collegium, and Lady Dovina, the gwerbret’s own daughter, know that evidence exists to overthrow the so-called traditional legal system, if they can only get it into the right hands. The powerful lords will kill anyone who threatens their privileges.

To retrieve the proof, Alyssa must make a dangerous journey that will either change her life forever—or end it.

Theory of Bastards by Audrey Schulman - Book Cover

Theory of Bastards by Audrey Schulman

This science fiction novel won the Philip K. Dick Award and Dartmouth’s Neukom Literary Arts Award for Speculative Fiction and is out now (trade paperback, ebook, audiobook).

I’ve had my eye on book for a while, and listening to Audrey Schulman talk about it just made me even more excited to read it!


WINNER 2019 Philip K. Dick Award for BEST Science Fiction

WINNER 2019 Neukom Institute Literary Arts Award for Speculative Fiction

One of The Washington Post‘s 50 Notable Works of fiction in 2018

“Stage four. Surgery. Recovering.” While those are the simple words that once described Dr. Francine Burk’s situation, the reality is much more complex. Her new reality is bacon rinds for breakfast and feeling unduly thrilled by her increasing ability to walk across a room without assistance. And it’s being offered a placement at a prestigious research institute where she can put to good use her recent award money. With the Foundation’s advanced technological resources and a group of fascinating primates, Francine can begin to verify her subversive scientific discovery, which has challenged the foundations of history―her Theory of Bastards.

Frankie finds that the bonobos she’s studying are as complex as the humans she’s working alongside. Their personalities are strong and distinct, and reigning over it all is Mama, the commanding matriarchal leader of the group. Frankie comes to know the bonobos and to further develop her groundbreaking theory with the help of her research partner, a man with a complicated past and perhaps a place in her future. And then something changes everything, and the lines that divide them―between subject and scientist, between colleague and companion―begin to blur.

With deft skill and heartbreaking honesty, Audrey Schulman delves into the very nature of her characters. Her newest novel explores the nuances of communication, the implications of unquestioned technological advancement, and the enduring power of love in a way that is essential and urgent in today’s world. This thrilling literary novel will resonate, long after the final page is turned.

Blackfish City by Sam J. Miller - Book Cover

Blackfish City by Sam J. Miller

Blackfish City won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction and was a finalist for several other awards, including the Nebula Awards for Best Novel, the Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel, and the Neukom Literary Arts Award for Speculative Fiction. (It was another book I purchased after the Neukom Awards ceremony.) It’s available in hardcover, trade paperback, ebook, and audiobook.

The Harper Collins website has an excerpt from Blackfish City.


A Best Book of the Month in

Entertainment Weekly

The Washington Post

B&N Sci-Fi Fantasy Blog


After the climate wars, a floating city is constructed in the Arctic Circle, a remarkable feat of mechanical and social engineering, complete with geothermal heating and sustainable energy. The city’s denizens have become accustomed to a roughshod new way of living, however, the city is starting to fray along the edges—crime and corruption have set in, the contradictions of incredible wealth alongside direst poverty are spawning unrest, and a new disease called “the breaks” is ravaging the population.

When a strange new visitor arrives—a woman riding an orca, with a polar bear at her side—the city is entranced. The “orcamancer,” as she’s known, very subtly brings together four people—each living on the periphery—to stage unprecedented acts of resistance. By banding together to save their city before it crumbles under the weight of its own decay, they will learn shocking truths about themselves.

Blackfish City is a remarkably urgent—and ultimately very hopeful—novel about political corruption, organized crime, technology run amok, the consequences of climate change, gender identity, and the unifying power of human connection.

Infomocracy by Malka Older - Book Cover

Infomocracy (The Centenal Cycle #1) by Malka Older

Infomocracy, the first book in a completed trilogy, is available in hardcover, trade paperback, audiobook, and ebook. It was a finalist for the Locus Award for Best First Novel and the Neukom Literary Arts Award for Debut Speculative Fiction (and was another book I’ve had my eye on for a while that I purchased after the awards ceremony). has the first five chapters from Infomocracy.


Read Infomocracy, the first book in Campbell Award finalist Malka Older’s groundbreaking cyberpunk political thriller series The Centenal Cycle, a finalist for the Hugo Award for Best Series, and the novel NPR called “Kinetic and gripping.”

• A Locus Award Finalist for Best First Novel
• The book The Huffington Post called “one of the greatest literary debuts in recent history”
• One of Kirkus‘ “Best Fiction of 2016”
• One of The Washington Post‘s “Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of 2016”
• One of Book Riot’s “Best Books of 2016 So Far”

It’s been twenty years and two election cycles since Information, a powerful search engine monopoly, pioneered the switch from warring nation-states to global micro-democracy. The corporate coalition party Heritage has won the last two elections. With another election on the horizon, the Supermajority is in tight contention, and everything’s on the line.

With power comes corruption. For Ken, this is his chance to do right by the idealistic Policy1st party and get a steady job in the big leagues. For Domaine, the election represents another staging ground in his ongoing struggle against the pax democratica. For Mishima, a dangerous Information operative, the whole situation is a puzzle: how do you keep the wheels running on the biggest political experiment of all time, when so many have so much to gain?

Infomocracy is Malka Older’s debut novel.

Book 1: Infomocracy
Book 2: Null States
Book 3: State Tectonics

Additional Books:

The Leaning Pile of Books is a feature where I discuss books I got over the last week—old or new, bought or received in the mail for review consideration (most of which are unsolicited books from publishers). Since I hope you will find new books you’re interested in reading in these posts, I try to be as informative as possible. If I can find them, links to excerpts, author’s websites, and places where you can find more information on the book are included.

In case you missed either of them, there have been a couple of reviews since the last one of these features:

And now, the latest books in the mail!

The Blue Eye by Ausma Zehanat Khan - Book Cover

The Blue Eye (The Khorasan Archives #3) by Ausma Zehanat Khan

This fantasy novel, the third book in the Khorasan Archives quartet, will be released on October 22 (trade paperback, ebook, audiobook on October 29).

The Harper Collins website has samples from all three books in this series:

  1. The Bloodprint (also includes an audiobook sample)
  2. The Black Khan
  3. The Blue Eye

You can read more about the Khorasan Archives in “The Companions of Hira,” Ausma Zehanat Khan’s 2018 Women in SF&F Month essay about its theme of the power and agency of women.


A band of powerful warrior women continues its resistance against an oppressive dark regime in this penultimate installment in the Khorasan Archives fantasy quartet—a series that lies “somewhere between N. K. Jemisin and George R. R. Martin” (Saladin Ahmed).

The Companions of Hira have used their cunning and their magic in the battle against the patriarchal Talisman, an organization whose virulently conservative agenda restricts free thought. One of the most accomplished Companions, Arian, continues to lead a disparate group in pursuit of the one artifact that could end the Talisman’s authoritarian rule: The Bloodprint.

But after a vicious battle, the arcane tome has slipped once more beyond her reach. Despite being separated and nearly losing their lives, Arian’s band of allies has remained united. Yet now, the group seems to be fracturing. To continue the fight, Arian must make a dangerous journey to a distant city to recruit new allies. But instead of her trusted friends, she is accompanied by associates she may no longer be able to trust.

Building on the brilliance of The Bloodprint and The Black Khan, this third volume in the Khorasan Archive series ratchets up the danger, taking the conflict to a darker, deadlier place, and setting the stage for the thrilling conclusion to this acclaimed #ownvoices fantasy.

Salvation Lost by Peter F. Hamilton - Book Cover

Salvation Lost (Salvation Sequence #2) by Peter F. Hamilton

This space opera, the second book in the Salvation Sequence trilogy, will be released on October 29 (hardcover, ebook, audiobook).

The Penguin Random House website has excerpts from both books in this series:

  1. Salvation
  2. Salvation Lost

All the best in humanity rises to meet a powerful alien threat in the sequel to Salvation—part of an all-new trilogy from “the owner of the most powerful imagination in science fiction” (Ken Follett).

The comparative utopia of twenty-third-century Earth is about to go dreadfully awry when a seemingly benign alien race is abruptly revealed to be one of the worst threats humanity has ever faced. Driven by an intense religious extremism, the Olyix are determined to bring everyone to their version of God as they see it. But they may have met their match in humanity, who are not about to go gently into that good night or spend the rest of their days cowering in hiding. As human ingenuity and determination rise to the challenge, collective humanity has only one goal—to wipe this apparently undefeatable enemy from the face of creation. Even if it means playing a ridiculously long game indeed.

But in a chaotic universe, it is hard to plan for every eventuality, and it is always darkest before the dawn.

The Immortal Conquistador by Carrie Vaughn - Book Cover

The Immortal Conquistador by Carrie Vaughn

The Immortal Conquistador, a book about Rick from the Kitty Norville series, will be released on March 13, 2020 (trade paperback, ebook).


Discover the deadly origins of the noble immortal Rick, ally to bestselling author Carrie Vaughn’s fan-favorite werewolf, Kitty Norville

Ricardo de Avila would have followed Coronado to the ends of the earth. Instead, Ricardo found the end of his mortal life, and a new one, as a renegade vampire.

For over five hundred years, Ricardo has upset the established order. He has protected his found family from marauding demons, teamed up with a legendary gunslinger, appointed himself the Master of Denver, and called upon a church buried under the Vatican. He has tended bar and fended off evil werewolves.

Life for a vampire is always long, but for Rick, it is never uncomplicated.

Additional Book(s):

Daughters of Nri
by Reni K Amayo
344pp (Trade Paperback)
My Rating: 7/10
Amazon Rating: --/5
LibraryThing Rating: --/5
Goodreads Rating: 4.45/5

Daughters of Nri is both Reni K Amayo’s debut novel and the debut publication of Onwe Press, whose website describes them and their mission as follows:

We are an independent publisher based in the UK. Founded by 2 black women in 2018, we want to disrupt the publishing industry offering opportunities to voices we need to hear more from.

At Onwe Press, we value three things above all: unforgettable stories, author ownership and highlighting diverse voices. We’re small but we’re mighty and we have a team dedicated to ensuring that writers, especially underestimated and underrepresented writers, get paid their due for their world-changing words.

Their recently released first book is young adult historical fantasy located in the titular Kingdom of Nri (a region within present-day Nigeria), mainly set during the year 994 AD, and is the opening installment in The Return of the Earth Mother series—and is a lovely story centered on twin sisters unaware of not only the fact that they are goddesses but also the existence of the other, having been separated shortly after birth for their own protection.

About a century before these two were torn asunder, the long-lived Eze of Nri encountered an oracle, who predicted the coming of the Earth Mother’s twins. She foresaw that they would be born in the kingdom he ruled and would bring about his end, just as he once brought about the end of the Earth Mother and the old gods who once roamed the land. After that, the Eze decreed that all twins born in Nri be put to death.

Naala and Sinai were spared this fate when they were stolen away and raised in two different places where no one knew who they actually were. Naala grew up in a village, but on the day she is supposed to be wed, the Eze’s soldiers arrive. They slaughter everyone except for Naala, who was not present for most of the attack because she was sent to a secluded hut reserved for people thought to be mad, all because she warned her people about an approaching army. Grieving and weak from awakening a power to shake the earth that she didn’t know she had, Naala is discovered by a small group of people who banded together after surviving the massacre of their own villages and seeks ways to resist the Eze’s reign of terror.

Naala’s sister Sinai grew up in a palace in the city of Nri, raised alongside the noble children under the belief that she was illegitimate royalty. She never felt like she truly belonged, and she has always been despised by Ina, a beautiful king’s daughter who becomes increasingly jealous as the handsome lord she had hoped to marry appears more interested in Sinai. One morning when Sinai is standing by a large window overlooking the city, Ina knocks her off balance, leaving her to plunge to her death. But Sinai survives the fall and is brought to the palace chef, who cares for her during her recovery—and sets her on the path to learning more of the truth about who she is, just as events steer her sister toward the same.

It took a few chapters for Daughters of Nri to completely draw me in since the beginning alternated the past with introducing Naala and Sinai, but I found it engrossing as the twins’ stories moved forward. It’s not a book to read if you’re looking for plot twists and action but one to read if you’re looking for a book that immerses you in the characters’ lives. I particularly appreciated its focus on community, Reni K Amayo’s adeptness at bringing to life the various bonds between characters, and that the two sisters’ journeys were unique yet mirrored each other in some ways.

Naala and Sinai have different personalities and experiences, but there are clear parallels between them and their paths. Both are considered to be unconventional, but they express this distinctly. Naala disturbs the other villagers by questioning their customs—and is punished for daring to disagree with their chief when she insists the group approaching is a dangerous army rather than tax collectors—and confounds them by rolling around in the dirt in her wedding dress and climbing trees. She’s more naturally inclined to take matters into her own hands than Sinai, who does not want to draw attention to herself. Sinai puzzles others by dreamily wandering the palace lost in her own thoughts, and she can be rather naive about the social workings of the nobility. Though their situations are not similar, the broad strokes share common elements. Both find friends and allies among others with similar goals and values, and both of their stories are about survival. Naala literally learns to survive in the wilderness after escaping the village with her life, and Sinai’s story is about survival as a woman surrounded by powerful men after escaping the fall with her life.

I enjoyed reading about both sisters, but I found Sinai’s chapters particularly compelling because of her relationships with Meekulu, the wise palace chef, and Ina (to my surprise). Meekulu is kind but also tells it like it is, and I rather liked the development of the “mentor giving the mentee a task” subplot since it went in an unexpected but welcome direction. That’s also what I loved so much about Ina’s progression: at first, this seems like the usual tale of a cruel girl hating a sweet girl because of a man, but it doesn’t follow the typical trajectory when Sinai makes a choice that changes everything. Ina actually ended up being my favorite character after the two main protagonists.

The prose was mostly smooth and sometimes elegant, although there were a few times it was a bit stilted, especially toward the beginning. Some of this could have been easily fixed and may have been in the final version, though. The largest issues I had with this novel were unrelated to the writing style but had to do with the Eze and the ease with which magic overcame obstacles. The Eze is an uninteresting villain: he’s the type who thinks he’s just but has no apparent redeeming qualities. It makes sense that he’d be set in his ways since he’s been alive for a while and it certainly makes it easy to want to see him defeated, but his dialogue and Big Villain Monologue are rather trite. I’m more divided on whether or not magic happened too accidentally and conveniently. After all, Naala and Sinai are goddesses, even if they don’t realize it yet, and magic seems like it would come naturally to deities. But training does prove to be beneficial in helping them control these abilities, and given that, I do feel like inadvertent use of power was relied upon too much to neatly solve problems.

That said, Daughters of Nri is an enchanting, absorbing novel with beautifully handled themes, and it drew me into its world and made me care about Naala, Sinai, Meekulu, and shockingly, even Ina.

My Rating: 7/10

Where I got my reading copy: ARC from the publisher.


Girl in the Arena
by Lise Haines
336pp (Trade Paperback)
My Rating: 6/10
Amazon Rating: 3.3/5
LibraryThing Rating: 3.23/5
Goodreads Rating: 2.99/5

Book Description:

During the week, Lyn lives in a big house in Cambridge and hangs out with friends in Harvard Square. But over the weekend, she cheers her father on as he gears up for neo-gladiator competition-a high-profile televised blood sport that rivals the NFL. Lyn’s father is the top player in the league, and the paparazzi that have always swarmed him have started to dog Lyn’s every move. All this fame comes with another price—Lyn’s family lives with the constant presence of violence, uncertainty, and a strict cultural code set by the Gladiator Sports Association. When a skilled young fighter slays Lyn’s father, the GSA imposes an unthinkable sentence—Lyn must marry her father’s murderer. Though her mother has made a career out of marrying into Glad culture, Lyn is prepared to do whatever it takes to claim her independence. Even if it means going into the arena herself.

Lise Haines’ debut novel, a dark satire for our time, is a mesmerizing look at a modern world addicted to violence, fame, and greed—a world eerily close to our own.

Girl in the Arena was not exactly what I had been expecting based on the title and my copy’s back cover description, which mainly focuses on Lyn facing off against her father’s killer in a fight to the death. Though there is violence (also, content warning for suicide), it’s not as much about fighting or even this one particular match as it is the messed-up culture the Gladiator Sports Association (GSA) has created—how it entraps people with its rules, making it difficult for gladiators and their families to escape—and Lyn’s dedication to finding a way out of doing as the GSA commands. Personally, I found reading about how this affected Lyn and her family far more compelling than if it had been primarily about gladiator competitions, and this is one of the novel’s best qualities, along with the unpredictability of the story.

The characters were not exactly what I had been expecting from a book with “One night only! Fight to the Death!” emblazoned across its back cover, either. Lyn is a pacifist who does not want to be a gladiator wife, especially after seeing what her mother has gone through as one, and dreams of leaving this whole lifestyle behind—but she becomes further drawn into it due to financial difficulty and the GSA’s bylaws, which state she needs to marry the man who slew her father in the arena. This gladiator, who goes by the rather unfortunate name of Uber, is basically an awkward, muscly cinnamon roll. He never wanted to fight or kill Lyn’s father, and he would also be happy to leave the gladiator life behind.

Although this is not a book that delves deeply into characterization, these characters are likable, and Lyn’s determination and relationships with her family are vividly drawn. Girl in the Arena also does a good job of making Lyn’s various difficulties palpable—not just those caused by the violence of the arena and the GSA’s rules, but also that of being a celebrity constantly in the public eye and that of making connections with people who are not immersed in gladiator culture.

It’s a novel with straightforward writing that cuts right to the point without pausing for pretty phrasing. This usually makes it easy to read through quickly, but I did have some problems with the way the dialogue was formatted: instead of using quotation marks, there was a dash preceding spoken text. As far as I’m concerned, quotation marks do their job, and I found this style distracting and occasionally confusing.

Girl in the Arena didn’t have the amount of depth or the type of beautiful prose that tends to make a book memorable to me. That said, I did appreciate that its plot did not follow a traditional course and its exploration of the various forms of destruction caused by the GSA and gladiator culture—and those combined with Lyn and Uber’s dynamic made it a fun book to read once (even if I can’t type the name “Uber” without cringing).

My Rating: 6/10

Where I got my reading copy: It was a book on my wish list that I received as a Christmas gift.

Book Description:

A rising star in the weightless combat sport of zeroboxing, Carr “the Raptor” Luka dreams of winning the championship title. Recognizing his talent, the Zero Gravity Fighting Association assigns Risha, an ambitious and beautiful Martian colonist, to be his brandhelm—a personal marketing strategist. It isn’t long before she’s made Carr into a popular celebrity and stolen his heart along the way.

As his fame grows, Carr becomes an inspirational hero on Earth, a once-great planet that’s fallen into the shadow of its more prosperous colonies. But when Carr discovers a far-reaching criminal scheme, he becomes the keeper of a devastating secret. Not only will his choices put everything he cares about in jeopardy, but they may also spill the violence from the sports arena into the solar system.

Zeroboxer, Fonda Lee’s debut Andre Norton Award–nominated novel, is set in a future version of our galaxy in which human habitation has spread to the Moon and Mars. Zeroboxing (zero gravity fighting) has become a popular sport primarily dominated by Martians since they do not have restrictive rules governing genetic engineering. Although basic modifications ensuring good health and eyesight are standard on Earth, enhancements that would make someone extraordinary are not allowed, making it impossible for the best athletes from Earth to compete on the same level as Mars’ best. Then seventeen-year-old Carr Luka of Earth begins winning nearly every one of his matches, becoming enough of a name to be the center of a large marketing campaign promoting zeroboxing on his home planet, which could open the way for more competition between athletes from Earth and Mars—but then Carr learns of a conspiracy that threatens all he holds dear…

This novel is largely a sports story with a crime/suspense element and touches on life as a celebrity, marketing, and ethics related to genetic engineering. Although I’m not a fan of boxing or similar athletic activities, I thought the mechanics of zeroboxing and the fights were the parts of the book that were done best, and everything else was underwhelming. The bits about marketing, celebrity, genetic engineering, and the rift between Earth and Mars were the most compelling to me but were not explored in depth; the characters were one dimensional; the romance between Carr and his marketing strategist was dull as one that seemed to be based more on physical attractiveness than personal connection; and the ending was abrupt since it concluded without showing the aftermath.

Zeroboxer may appeal more to fans of boxing or similar sports and/or those somewhat new to science fiction, but it was an average book for me personally: one I could finish without much of a problem, but neither one that kept me eagerly turning the pages nor one that I found particularly memorable or engaging.

My Rating: 5/10

Where I got my reading copy: I purchased it.

Read an Excerpt from Zeroboxer