The Leaning Pile of Books is a feature in which I highlight books I got over the last week that sound like they may be interesting—old or new, bought or received in the mail for review consideration. 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. Cover images are affiliate links to Bookshop, and I earn from qualifying purchases.

Last week brought a book I pre-ordered and a soon-to-be-released book in the mail, and I’m also highlighting a horror graphic novel that I’m a bit late with!

In case you missed it, here’s what was posted since the last one of these features:

And now, the latest books!

Cover of Heart of the Sun Warrior by Sue Lynn Tan

Heart of the Sun Warrior (Celestial Kingdom #2) by Sue Lynn Tan

The latter half of the Celestial Kingdom duology was just released last week (hardcover, ebook, audiobook). The Harper Collins website has text and audio samples from Heart of the Sun Warrior.

The publisher’s website also has text and audio samples from Daughter of the Moon Goddess, the first book in the series.

Daughter of the Moon Goddess, a novel inspired by the legend of Chang’e, was one of my most anticipated books of this year and ended up being one of my favorites I’ve read this year. I really enjoyed Xingyin’s story and relationships, and the Immortal Realm is a fantastic setting.


The stunning sequel to Daughter of the Moon Goddess delves deeper into beloved Chinese mythology, concluding the epic story of Xingyin—the daughter of Chang’e and the mortal archer, Houyi—as she battles a grave new threat to the realm, in this powerful tale of love, sacrifice, and hope. 

After winning her mother’s freedom from the Celestial Emperor, Xingyin thrives in the enchanting tranquility of her home. But her fragile peace is threatened by the discovery of a strange magic on the moon and the unsettling changes in the Celestial Kingdom as the emperor tightens his grip on power. While Xingyin is determined to keep clear of the rising danger, the discovery of a shocking truth spurs her into a perilous confrontation.

Forced to flee her home once more, Xingyin and her companions venture to unexplored lands of the Immortal Realm, encountering legendary creatures and shrewd monarchs, beloved friends and bitter adversaries. With alliances shifting quicker than the tides, Xingyin has to overcome past grudges and enmities to forge a new path forward, seeking aid where she never imagined she would. As an unspeakable terror sweeps across the realm, Xingyin must uncover the truth of her heart and claw her way through devastation—to rise against this evil before it destroys everything she holds dear, and the worlds she has grown to love . . . even if doing so demands the greatest price of all.

Deluxe Edition Cover of Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson

Snow Crash (Deluxe Edition) by Neal Stephenson

This thirtieth anniversary hardcover deluxe edition of Snow Crash is coming out on Tuesday (November 22). The Penguin Random House website has a sample from the novel and the ability to look inside this version of Snow Crash, beginning with Neal Stephenson’s foreword for this edition. As this mentions, there are a couple of scenes about Lagos included with this version of the book.


Now in a gorgeous new hardcover edition featuring never-before-seen material, the “brilliantly realized” (The New York Times Book Review) breakthrough novel from visionary author Neal Stephenson, a modern classic that predicted the metaverse and inspired generations of Silicon Valley innovators

Hiro lives in a Los Angeles where franchises line the freeway as far as the eye can see. The only relief from the sea of logos is within the autonomous city-states, where law-abiding citizens don’t dare leave their mansions.

Hiro delivers pizza to the mansions for a living, defending his pies from marauders when necessary with a matched set of samurai swords. His home is a shared 20 X 30 U-Stor-It. He spends most of his time goggled in to the Metaverse, where his avatar is legendary.

But in the club known as The Black Sun, his fellow hackers are being felled by a weird new drug called Snow Crash that reduces them to nothing more than a jittering cloud of bad digital karma (and IRL, a vegetative state).

Investigating the Infocalypse leads Hiro all the way back to the beginning of language itself, with roots in an ancient Sumerian priesthood. He’ll be joined by Y.T., a fearless teenaged skateboard courier. Together, they must race to stop a shadowy virtual villain hell-bent on world domination.

Cover of Where Black Stars Rise by Nadia Shammas and Marie Enger

Where Black Stars Rise by Nadia Shammas and Marie Enger

This horror graphic novel, a reimagining of Robert W. Chambers’ The King in Yellow, was just released last month (trade paperback, ebook).

The Nightfire website has a few pages from the interior, as well as more information on the comic and its inspirations from writer Nadia Shammas, artist Marie Enger, and editor Kelly Lonesome.


Where Black Stars Rise boldly pushes the limits of what a comic can do. …It’s a gorgeous work. I loved it.” —Trung Le Nguyen, author of The Magic Fish

Nadia Shammas and Marie Enger’s Where Black Stars Rise is an eldritch horror graphic novel that explores mental illness and diaspora, set in modern-day Brooklyn.

Dr. Amal Robardin, a Lebanese immigrant and a therapist in training, finds herself out of her depth when her first client, Yasmin, a schizophrenic, is visited by a nightly malevolent presence that seems all too real.

Yasmin becomes obsessed with Robert Chambers’ classic horror story collection The King in Yellow. Messages she finds in the book lead Yasmin to disappear, seeking answers she can’t find in therapy.

Amal attempts to retrace her patient’s last steps—and accidentally slips through dimensions, ending up in Carcosa, realm of the King in Yellow. Determined to find her way out, Amal enlists the help of a mysterious guide.

Can Amal save Yasmin? Or are they both trapped forever?

“Strange is the night where black stars rise, and strange moons circle through the skies. But stranger still is lost Carcosa…” —From The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers

I’m thrilled to have a guest post by Lavie Tidhar to share with you today! He’s the editor of The Best of World SF (Volume 1 and Volume 2), and his writing includes the World Fantasy Award–winning novel Osama and the science fiction novel Central Station, which received the John W. Campbell Memorial Award, the Neukom Literary Arts Award for Speculative Fiction, and the Xingyin Award (among several other award nominations). Neom, a standalone novel set in the same world as Central Station, is out today!


Cover of Neom by Lavie Tidhar
More Information & Book Excerpt

About NEOM:

Today, Neom is a utopian dream—a megacity of the future yet to be built in the Saudi desert. In this deeply imaginative novel from the award-winning universe of Central Station, far-future Neom is already old. Sentient machines roam the desert searching for purpose, works of art can be more deadly than weapons, and the spark of a long-overdue revolution is in the wind. Only the rekindling of an impossible love affair may slow the inevitable sands of time.

“This was superb and I’m in awe of Tidhar’s vision. He’s conjured up a futuristic city that feels simultaneously ultramodern and also run down. The rich histories of the region and its cultures are seamlessly interwoven into the fabric of this fully-realized world.”
The Speculative Shelf

The city known as Neom is many things to many beings, human or otherwise. It is a tech wonderland for the rich and beautiful, an urban sprawl along the Red Sea, and a port of call between Earth and the stars.

In the desert, young orphan Elias has joined a caravan, hoping to earn his passage off-world. But the desert is full of mechanical artefacts, some unexplained and some unexploded. Recently, a wry, unnamed robot has unearthed one of the region’s biggest mysteries: the vestiges of a golden man.

In Neom, childhood affection is rekindling between loyal shurta-officer Nasir and hardworking flower-seller Mariam. But Nasu, a deadly terrorartist, has come to the city with missing memories and unfinished business. Just one robot can change a city’s destiny with a single rose—especially when that robot is in search of lost love.

Lavie Tidhar’s (Unholy LandThe Escapement) newest lushly immersive novel, Neom, which includes a guide to the Central Station universe, is at turns gritty, comedic, transportive, and fascinatingly plausible.

Another Science Fiction
Lavie Tidhar

A while back, I got one of those ideas I have for books that make no sense for anyone to write. This comprises pretty much all my books – A Man Lies Dreaming has the preposterous elevator pitch of “Adolf Hitler: Private Eye” and The Escapement was “a clown western”, and so on. You get what I’m saying.

So I had one of those ideas.

And the idea was that, as much as I love the sort of American science fiction I grew up on, I wanted to write something that was the total opposite of it. I wanted to write “a science fiction novel where nothing happens”. No action-adventure plot. No lone space cowboy saving the world. No galactic empires and exploding spaceships and all that. In fact, it was going to be a book where America never even got mentioned. It was, in short, a ridiculous idea, and the only thing I knew with any certainty was that no one was going to publish it.

I was briefly living back in Israel at the time, and became fascinated with the area around Tel Aviv’s central bus station. The station itself is a giant monstrosity, a cavernous mini-universe with its own nuclear fall-out shelter. Around it live a community of the dispossessed: African refugees and economic migrants from Asia, in crumbling Bauhaus neighbourhoods that became Tel Aviv’s drug and prostitution hotspot a long way back.

It was, in short, an ideal space to write a science fiction novel around.

I grew up reading American SF in translation. Lord of Light and Nova, Dune and Gateway, Zenna Henderson and Anne McCaffrey and Andre Norton, The Stars My Destination and City and Ringworld. You know. The classics. Asimov and PKD. Le Guin and Silverberg. And so on.

I wanted to write, I decided, a novel where nothing happened, about people who didn’t save the galaxy or had adventures. Instead of a lone hero I would write about the big extended family that I knew all too well. Where your second cousin’s aunt by marriage isn’t talking to your great uncle’s son from the other side because of whatever happened at your third cousin’s Bar Mitzvah two decades ago. A world where a lone hero couldn’t exist because to exist they must live in a network of familial obligations. You can’t go off to have adventures when you have a bris to go to first.

This, I knew. Space cowboys saving the universe I knew less about.

But I wanted to take all the shiny toys from those books I loved. The robots and the spaceships, the bio-hacking and the A.I., domed cities on Mars and broken down androids, even sand worms, and all the rest of it. And then, I wanted to put them in the background and sort of ignore them and just write about the little people who have to live their lives against that shiny, Golden Age future.

All I knew for sure was that no one was ever going to publish it.

So I came up with a plan. Some of my favourite science fiction came from the days of the pulp magazines. Authors would write the book in sections that worked as stand-alone short stories. They would then sell the stories to the magazines, get published and even be paid. Later on they took the stories, put them together and made them back into a novel. City. Lord of Light. Foundation. I could go on.

I knew, at that point, that I could sell short stories. And if I did it in this way, I could also take my time writing it, and write “proper” books in the meantime, and just work on my Central Station (as I decided to call it) stories/novel when I had a chance.

It pretty much worked, too. I wrote it over five or six years and sold the stories as planned, and then I tried to put it back together again into a book and couldn’t quite work out how it all fit together, and the only thing I really knew for sure was that no one was going to publish it anyway. I figured I would put it out myself, but my agent, for some reason, liked the idea of the book and convinced me to hold off on it and then sold it to Tachyon. Who then sent me a page of editorial notes that told me exactly how to make all the pieces fit to make it back into the novel I imagined.

So, as it turned out, I was wrong. Central Station did get published, and then it continued to get published around the world, and it even picked up some awards along the way.

I don’t get it either! Some readers always complain they didn’t like it because “it has no plot” and “nothing happens” – which was kind of the point.

Over the years I kept writing short stories set in the same extended universe – some on Mars, or Titan, or Earth again – but the idea of coming back to that universe in another novel proved elusive, and besides, I had other things to write. But then came the pandemic, and by the second lockdown we had I could think of nothing else to do but to step back into something that gave me comfort. The image of a robot and a rose came into my mind. I thought I’d write a tiny science fiction story. I wrote it. One day a robot comes to the city of Neom, on the shores of the Red Sea. It buys a rose and takes it into the desert…

I was about to send it off when it occurred to me I had no idea why the robot had come to Neom. Why it bought a rose. Why it carried it out to the desert. What was this robot doing?

I wrote another story to find out. Then another. Then realised I wasn’t writing short stories at all – I was writing the chapters of a novel.

I wrote the rest of it just to find out what happens.

These days I don’t often write a book not knowing where it goes. This was a novelty, and I wrote it purely for fun, following the lives of imaginary people (and a talking jackal and a bad-tempered robot) as the world froze around me. I’d gone back to the world of Central Station, and back into its ethos – that this was to be not an American SF novel but another kind of science fiction. It moves from Earth to the outer reaches of the solar system, and back, and there is even some peril, of a sort, but no one has to save the world because people are too busy making a living and mourning or falling in love and looking after elderly relatives. They live everyday lives, against the shiny background of a science fiction future.

I think I’m happy with that.

Photo of Lavie Tidhar British Science Fiction, British Fantasy, and World Fantasy Award–winning author Lavie Tidhar (A Man Lies Dreaming, Unholy Land) is an acclaimed author of literature, science fiction, fantasy, graphic novels, and middle grade fiction. Tidhar received the John W. Campbell, Xingyun, and Neukom Literary awards for the novel Central Station, which has been translated into more than ten languages. He is a book columnist for the Washington Post and recently edited the Best of World Science Fiction anthology. Tidhar currently resides with his family in London.

The Leaning Pile of Books is a feature in which I highlight books I got over the last week that sound like they may be interesting—old or new, bought or received in the mail for review consideration. 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. Cover images are affiliate links to Bookshop, and I earn from qualifying purchases.

There are no new posts since the last one of these features, so let’s get straight to the books!

Cover of The River of Silver by S. A. Chakraborty

The River of Silver: Tales from the Daevabad Trilogy by S. A. Chakraborty

This collection of stories related to the Daevabad Trilogy came out in audiobook earlier this year, and it is now also available in hardcover and ebook formats. The publisher’s website has audio and text samples from The River of Silver, as well as all three books in the trilogy:

  1. The City of Brass
  2. The Kingdom of Copper
  3. The Empire of Gold

My husband pre-ordered a signed copy of this plus signed copies of all three Daevabad books for me for Christmas and gave them to me as an early present. The River of Silver was one of my most anticipated 2022 releases since I rather enjoyed the Daevabad books for their blend of history and myth—especially the second book, which was one of my favorites of 2019 with all its politics and family drama. (The trilogy’s conclusion was also one of my favorite books of 2020.)


Bestselling author S. A. Chakraborty’s acclaimed Daevabad Trilogy gets expanded with this new compilation of stories from before, during, and after the events of The City of BrassThe Kingdom of Copper, and The Empire of Gold, all from the perspective of characters both beloved and hated, and even those without a voice in the novels. The River of Silver gathers material both seen and new—including a special coda fans will need to read—making this the perfect complement to those incredible novels.

Now together in one place, these stories of Daevabad enrich a world already teeming with magic and wonder. Explore this magical kingdom, hidden from human eyes. A place where djinn live and thrive, fight and love. A world where princes question their power, and powerful demons can help you…or destroy you.

A prospective new queen joins a court whose lethal history may overwhelm her own political savvy…

An imprisoned royal from a fallen dynasty and a young woman wrenched from her home cross paths in an enchanted garden…

A pair of scouts stumble upon a secret in a cursed winter wood that will turn over their world…

From Manizheh’s first steps towards rebellion to adventures that take place after The Empire of Gold, this is a must-have collection for those who can’t get enough of Nahri, Ali, and Dara and all that unfolded around them.

Cover of The Luminaries by Susan Dennard

The Luminaries (Luminaries #1) by Susan Dennard

This YA contemporary fantasy novel will be released on November 1 (hardcover, ebook, audiobook). The publisher’s website has an excerpt from The Luminaries.

Susan Dennard ran a choose-your-own-adventure story involving this world and protagonist on Twitter in 2019. It was a lot of fun, and I looked forward to seeing the discussion about which poll options were best and seeing where the story went every day. Though this story differs from the novel, I’m curious about the order of monster hunters and have also been enjoying the new daily choose-your-own-adventure that started a few days ago.


From Susan Dennard, the New York Times bestselling author of the Witchlands series, comes a haunting and high-octane contemporary fantasy, about the magic it takes to face your fears in a nightmare-filled forest, and the mettle required to face the secrets hiding in the dark corners of your own family.

Hemlock Falls isn’t like other towns. You won’t find it on a map, your phone won’t work here, and the forest outside town might just kill you.

Winnie Wednesday wants nothing more than to join the Luminaries, the ancient order that protects Winnie’s town—and the rest of humanity—from the monsters and nightmares that rise in the forest of Hemlock Falls every night.

Ever since her father was exposed as a witch and a traitor, Winnie and her family have been shunned. But on her sixteenth birthday, she can take the deadly Luminary hunter trials and prove herself true and loyal—and restore her family’s good name. Or die trying.

But in order to survive, Winnie enlists the help of the one person who can help her train: Jay Friday, resident bad boy and Winnie’s ex-best friend. While Jay might be the most promising new hunter in Hemlock Falls, he also seems to know more about the nightmares of the forest than he should. Together, he and Winnie will discover a danger lurking in the forest no one in Hemlock Falls is prepared for.

Not all monsters can be slain, and not all nightmares are confined to the dark.

The Leaning Pile of Books is a feature in which I highlight books I got over the last week that sound like they may be interesting—old or new, bought or received in the mail for review consideration. 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. Cover images are affiliate links to Bookshop, and I earn from qualifying purchases.

Happy House of the Dragon day to everyone else who is excited about it! (I am obsessed and can’t get enough of this show and all the messy drama.)

I’m a week behind on this, but before I get to last week’s book, here are the other posts since the last one of these features in case you missed them:

On to the new book!

Night of Demons and Saints by Menna van Praag Book Cover

Night of Demons and Saints (The Sisters Grimm #2) by Menna van Praag

The second novel in the contemporary dark fantasy series The Sisters Grimm will be released on October 25 (trade paperback, ebook, audiobook).

The publisher’s website has a sample from Night of Demons and Saints, as well as audio and text samples from the first book, The Sisters Grimm.


All Hallows’ Eve meets All Saints’ Day in critically acclaimed author Menna van Praag’s mesmerizing second book featuring the Sisters Grimm—a dark, contemporary fantasy that skillfully blends love, obsession, and dark magic.

After the battle with their demon father ends in a devastating loss, the Grimm sisters are separated. But, now three years later, as their twenty-first birthday approaches, dark fate brings them together once more.

For Goldie, this birthday is overshadowed by sorrow. She cannot forget the outcome of that battle, the devastating tragedy that has wreaked havoc on her already turbulent waking life. While her sisters have thrown themselves into their own endeavors, Goldie has grown distant and inconsolable. Driven by grief, she devises a diabolical plan using a human sacrifice to resurrect what she has lost.

When Liyana unexpectedly discovers what Goldie intends to do, she agrees to help if Goldie will try another way, without sacrificing a life. Returning to Everwhere, they combine their powerful magic to bring back what Goldie has lost. But something goes terribly wrong, and Scarlet is showing signs of being possessed by an evil spirit.

With their lives at stake, the sisters realize they must confront their personal trauma, make amends with the past, and once again prepare for a demonic fight to come.

On the night of their birthday, battle ensues . . . and tragedy strikes once more.

I’m thrilled to have a guest post by debut author Sophie Kim to share with you! Last of the Talons, her YA fantasy novel featuring an assassin and a Dokkaebi emperor, is out today. See below for more information on the book and author, and to read her essay “On the Duality of the Protagonist.”


Cover of Last of the Talons by Sophie Kim
More Information
Read an Excerpt

About LAST OF THE TALONS (Talons #1):

After the destruction of her entire Talon gang, eighteen-year-old Shin Lina—the Reaper of Sunpo—is forced to become a living, breathing weapon for the kingdom’s most-feared crime lord. All that keeps her from turning on her ruthless master is the life of her beloved little sister hanging in the balance. But the order to steal a priceless tapestry from a Dokkaebi temple incites not only the wrath of a legendary immortal, but the beginning of an unwinnable game…

Suddenly Lina finds herself in the dreamlike realm of the Dokkaebi, her fate in the hands of its cruel and captivating emperor. But she can win her life—if she kills him first.

Now a terrible game of life and death has begun, and even Lina’s swift, precise blade is no match for the magnetic Haneul Rui. Lina will have to use every weapon in her arsenal if she wants to outplay this cunning king and save her sister…all before the final grain of sand leaks out of the hourglass.

Because one way or another, she’ll take Rui’s heart.

Even if it means giving up her own.

On the Duality of the Protagonist
by Sophie Kim, debut author of Last of the Talons

Humans are composed of hundreds of thousands of little puzzle pieces, each one unique. Anxiety. Assurance. Joy. Distaste. Dreams. Nightmares. Millions of facets blending together to form an individual.

Some of these facets are contradictory. The kind may be cruel. The greedy may give. But one set of characteristics need not eliminate the other. In fact, they can complement one another — much in the way that blue and yellow, although far different in color, are both greatly enhanced when placed together.

It’s within this reasoning that we find contradictions in attributes greatly intensify characterizations within literature, adding a layer of depth that can both mystify and delight in a truly realistic fashion.

The protagonist of Last of the Talons, eighteen-year-old Shin Lina, is a highly trained assassin/gangster. She is strong and determined, with a hearty dose of bravery to match. Lina is wicked, named the “Reaper” for the efficiency with which she kills her targets.

But she is also an older sister — the sort of older sister who steals dumplings from the academy’s kitchen for her younger sibling, who laughs as they secretly devour them while hidden in a closet. She is the sort of sister to give piggyback rides and murmur bedtime stories under the stars.

She murders under those same constellations, yes — but that night sky watches her closely, and knows of her terrible phobia of snakes. Of how the seemingly fearless assassin will leap back, shrieking, at the sight of one — no matter how small it is.

Lina knows that a detail as small as her ophidiophobia is not enough to redeem her, knows she has been a weapon wielded in the wrong hands. That remorse haunts her. It sharpens her sense of inner inadequacy until it alters the way she views herself physically. Lina is harsh on herself both inside and out, externally focusing on details such as her “too-sharp” nose and gaunt face, while internally hating herself. And next to the eternal beauty and wisdom of the Dokkaebi, Lina feels her insecurities tenfold. Some may argue that this insecurity takes away from her bravery as the protagonist.

But what takes more courage?

Seducing an emperor when you know you’re beautiful, or when you’re worried that you’re not?

Facing down a monstrous serpent when your heart is steady, or when you have ophidiophobia?

Setting out as an assassin when you have nothing to lose, or when you have a little sister’s life hanging in the balance?

Lina is a character with many complexities that supply her with a depth that is reflected in the denizens of our own world. She is neither good nor bad, instead toeing the line somewhere in-between. In many ways, she is a foil to herself. Evil, but kind. Sensual, but insecure. Brutally dangerous, but afraid. These qualities represent the very core of her, of who she is. To characters, contradictions are complementary colors. Lina wears her dualities with pride, and they look good on her.

Sophie Kim spends her days both studying at her university and writing her novels, which are strongly influenced by her firm belief that diversity and non-stereotypical representation in literature are vastly important. Blessed (or cursed) with a voracious appetite for all things bookish, Sophie can often be found wandering the aisles of a library or curled up with a precariously balancing stack of stories. Last of the Talons is her first novel.

The Art of Prophecy
by Wesley Chu
544pp (Hardcover)
My Rating: 5/10
Amazon Rating: 4.4/5
LibraryThing Rating: 4.57/5
Goodreads Rating: 4.18/5

As an Amazon Associate and Bookshop affiliate, I earn from qualifying purchases.

Book Description:

A “superb fantasy saga” (Helene Wecker) of martial arts and magic, about what happens when a prophesied hero is not the chosen one after all—but has to work with a band of unlikely allies to save the kingdom anyway, from the #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Lives of Tao

“An ambitious and touching exploration of disillusionment in faith, tradition, and family—a glorious reinvention of fantasy and wuxia tropes.”—Naomi Novik, New York Times bestselling author of A Deadly Education

So many stories begin the same way: With a prophecy. A chosen one. And the inevitable quest to slay a villain, save the kingdom, and fulfill a grand destiny.

But this is not that kind of story.

It does begin with a prophecy: A child will rise to defeat the Eternal Khan, a cruel immortal god-king, and save the kingdom.

And that prophecy did anoint a hero, Jian, raised since birth in luxury and splendor, and celebrated before he has won a single battle.

But that’s when the story hits its first twist: The prophecy is wrong.

What follows is a story more wondrous than any prophecy could foresee, and with many unexpected heroes: Taishi, an older woman who is the greatest grandmaster of magical martial arts in the kingdom but who thought her adventuring days were all behind her; Sali, a straitlaced warrior who learns the rules may no longer apply when the leader to whom she pledged her life is gone; and Qisami, a chaotic assassin who takes a little too much pleasure in the kill.

And Jian himself, who has to find a way to become what he no longer believes he can be—a hero after all.

Note: You may want to read this review on the website (instead of by email or feed reader). There are spoiler tags before the last paragraph that should be hidden on the website but may be visible elsewhere, although some may not consider these spoilers since they are from the first fifth of the book.

The Art of Prophecy is the first book in The War Arts Saga, an epic fantasy series by Astounding Award winner and New York Times bestselling author Wesley Chu. I was excited about this novel with magical martial arts due to the premise of a prophecy that turned out to be wrong and a couple of the characters: namely, an older woman who had thought her adventuring days were over and a chaotic assassin. But I ended up having rather mixed feelings about The Art of Prophecy, which I enjoyed throughout Act I but was less and less enthusiastic about the further into it I got. Basically, I moderately liked one character and one other character’s storyline, was fairly indifferent to another character and most of her plot, and was outright annoyed by the point-of-view character introduced around the halfway point.

The story begins with the great martial arts master Taishi evaluating Jian, the teenage boy destined to one day defeat the Eternal Khan, and his progress as their future savior. But as she watches him fight, Taishi realizes there is a big problem: despite having potential, Jian is not a good fighter, or even an adequate one. Sure, his moves look good, but his opponents hold back, knowing they will be killed if they so much as nick their hero. If in a real fight, he would have been dead several times, and it will be years before he can just hold his own against a foe like the Eternal Khan, let alone emerge victorious. Furthermore, Jian is indecisive in the heat of battle, which Taishi finds unsurprising given that he’s being trained by eight masters—mainly appointed for political reasons rather than skill—who tend to give him contradictory advice. So Taishi takes matters into her own hands, revealing their champion’s shortcomings and appointing herself his new and only master, as someone who is not only a legendary martial artist herself but also someone who has faced the Eternal Khan. However, shortly after she takes over his training, something happens that changes everything. It seems that Jian is not the chosen one after all, and suddenly, the goal he’s spent his entire life training for is obsolete—and many see the existence of their so-called savior as an issue.

This was an intriguing setup, but I felt that this was the best part of the book and that it became less compelling once Taishi and Jian went their separate ways. My favorite element of The Art of Prophecy was the dynamic between the two, whose mentor/mentee relationship had a rough start given that Taishi publicly humiliated her pupil and dismissed his previous teachers. Jian is not used to being challenged or viewed as a human being rather than a divine one, and he hates that Taishi treats him like a mere teenage boy and even dares to suggest he could improve. Taishi was also the most interesting character to me: an experienced older master who lost an arm, has power over wind, and is just kind of grumpy and over everyone’s crap. Yet beneath her grouchy exterior, she does have a soft spot for Jian and wants what’s best for him, even when he’s cross with her for ruining his luxurious lifestyle.

Taishi may have been my favorite character, but I actually preferred Jian’s story to hers once the two split up. Jian has to pretend to be a normal person with little training in a martial arts school, where he makes new friends and deals with students rivalries. His friendships and time spent in school were moderately entertaining, and I found this more engaging than Taishi’s search for more information on the prophecy and what went wrong with it. Even though I was curious about what she would discover on her quest, there was more traveling and fighting than learning more about it, which I didn’t find especially gripping.

In addition to the first two characters introduced, there are two other viewpoints, also written in third person. Sali is a mighty warrior and close friend of the Eternal Khan’s, and I did enjoy having the perspective of someone from the other side of the conflict. However, I found the first few chapters focusing on her role among her people more compelling than her later adventures, after she decides to search for someone. It probably didn’t help that the further I got into her story, the more she ran into the one character I did not like at all: Qisami, an assassin seeking Jian.

Even though the first three main characters introduced had potential to be compelling, none of the four had in-depth characterization. Jian is the only one with even a basic development arc, given that he starts as a spoiled chosen one and is humbled through his experiences and lack of daily worship. The others are all in pursuit of various goals, and the approach to creating their characters seemed to be giving them a few key traits—one of which is “being a badass”—and really leaning into these characteristics. Taishi is a grumpy badass who can control the winds and hides a heart underneath her cantankerousness, Sali is a badass who wields a cool shapeshifting weapon and is loyal to her younger sister, and Qisami is a badass with shadow powers and an insatiable lust for blood (and Sali, once she meets her). Whereas Taishi and Sali have at least a little duality, Qisami does not, plus all her main personality traits are amped up to 11. She’s focused on fighting and killing, flirting, and spouting quips that try much too hard to be amusing (and fail miserably). This got old really fast, and I started internally groaning every time I started a new chapter and saw the name “Qisami” somewhere on the page.

My feelings about the worldbuilding were similar to that of most of the characterization: though there were some intriguing concepts introduced, they were surface level and weren’t fleshed out enough. The various fighting magics sounded like they could have been visually fantastic, and I did love learning about Sali’s people’s customs in her earlier chapters—what was expected of her (which I won’t discuss for fear of spoiling too much) and the mobile cities that set them apart from the “land-chained.” But as someone who wants societies and people with dimension in the stories I consume, these were not expanded on enough for my taste.

There’s one other thing that bothered me related to the book’s premise that I want to mention for others who also thought it sounded promising. Some may not consider this a spoiler since why the prophecy went wrong is revealed in the third chapter, and the aforementioned specific part is 20% of the way in, but it’s behind spoiler tags for those who would rather not know.

Despite a promising start, I ended up dissatisfied with The Art of Prophecy as a whole. Other than one character’s chapters, it wasn’t a bad book, but it was also only mildly entertaining at best after Act I—and even the lines I found amusing during that first 28% of the novel were not memorable enough that I could recall them later. As I was nearing the end, I discovered I just didn’t care anymore or have any desire to find out what happens in the next book, and the more I reflect on it after having finished it, the more I find the lack of world and character depth disappointing.

My Rating: 5/10

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

Read an Excerpt from The Art of Prophecy