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 (often these 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.

Before covering the latest books, here’s what happened last week in case you missed it:

  • Review of Iron and Magic (Iron Covenant #1) by Ilona Andrews — After hearing that it was best to read the first book in this spin-off from Kate Daniels before reading the final book, I purchased a copy to read first. I did not like it.
  • Review of Magic Triumphs by Ilona Andrews and a Reflection on the Kate Daniels Series — This is a review of the final Kate Daniels book beginning with some context about the series as a whole, focusing on why I LOVE the earlier books and why the later books didn’t work for me nearly as well. Magic Triumphs was fun enough to read once (though not nearly as great as earlier books), but I thought it was horrible as a finale to this ten-book series. My experience with Magic Binds (Kate Daniels #9), Iron and Magic, and the rushed wrap-up in this novel have led me to conclude I’m done reading any books related to this series— even though it was one of my favorites until around book seven. (I probably would have stopped reading after book nine if it had not been the penultimate installment.)

Now, on to the latest book arrivals!

The Antidote by Shelley Sackier

The Antidote by Shelley Sackier

This young adult romantic fantasy—with a rather lovely cover!—will be released on February 5, 2019 (hardcover, ebook).


From the author of The Freemason’s Daughter comes a lush romantic fantasy perfect for fans of Everless!

In the world of healers, there is no room for magic.

Fee knows this, just as certainly as she knows that her magic must be kept secret.

But the crown prince Xavi, Fee’s best friend and only source of comfort, is sick. So sick, that Fee can barely contain the magic lying dormant inside her. She could use it, just a little, to heal him. But magic comes at a deadly cost—and attracts those who would seek to snuff it out forever.

A wisp of a spell later, Fee finds herself caught in a whirl of secret motivations and dark pasts, where no one is who—or what—they appear to be. And saving her best friend means delving deeper into the tempting and treacherous world whose call she’s long resisted—uncovering a secret that will change everything.

Laini Taylor meets Sara Holland in this lavish fantasy from lauded historical romance author Shelley Sackier!

The Spectral City by Leanna Renee Hieber

The Spectral City (The Spectral City #1) by Leanna Renee Hieber

This gaslamp fantasy will be released on November 27 (ebook).

Leanna Renee Hieber has written a couple of guest posts here discussing Gothic fantasy that offer some insight into her type of story:

Penny Dreadful‘s Betrayal and the Complexity of Feminism in the Gothic Tradition

The Gothic as a Canary in Fear’s Coal Mine (from Women in SF&F Month 2017)


Solving crime isn’t only for the living.

In turn-of-the century New York City, the police have an off-the-books spiritual go-to when it comes to solving puzzling corporeal crimes . . .

Her name is Eve Whitby, gifted medium and spearhead of The Ghost Precinct. When most women are traveling in a gilded society that promises only well-appointed marriage, the confident nineteen-year-old Eve navigates a social circle that carries a different kind of chill. Working with the diligent but skeptical Lieutenant Horowitz, as well as a group of fellow psychics and wayward ghosts, Eve holds her own against detractors and threats to solve New York’s most disturbing crimes as only a medium of her ability can.

But as accustomed as Eve is to ghastly crimes and all matters of the uncanny, even she is unsettled by her department’s latest mystery. Her ghostly conduits are starting to disappear one by one as though snatched away by some evil force determined to upset the balance between two realms, and most important—destroy the Ghost Precinct forever. Now Eve must brave the darkness to find the vanished souls. She has no choice. It’s her job to make sure no one is ever left for dead.

Additional Books:

Magic Triumphs is the tenth and final book in Ilona Andrews’ New York Times bestselling Kate Daniels series, though it won’t be the last book set in this world since there are two more Iron Covenant books planned. The epilogue of this novel also teases another spin-off, but I’m not planning to read any of them: as far as I’m concerned, this series should have ended earlier, and many of the issues I’ve had with the later books were present in this unsatisfying conclusion.

It’s with a mixture of sadness and relief that I bid farewell to Kate Daniels: a little sadness that it’s over but more because it ended without fulfilling its great potential, and relief because I no longer need to keep reading to find out how the story ends. You see, this series was one of my favorites once, books that remained with me after I finished them in a way that few manage to do. The authors maintained a fantastic balance between action and characterization, all while incorporating exciting fights and underutilized mythologies that resulted in novels that were precisely my cup of tea. The earlier books also had a darker edge that appealed to me, one that led to lasting consequences as a result of living in such a dangerous world. When a character made a difficult choice, the results were not easily swept under the rug like it never happened. When a character died or dealt with trauma, it mattered.

But most of all, I loved Kate: her development, her determination, and the way she approached every situation with a sense of humor. I enjoyed watching her go from a loner who had been taught that her very survival depended on hiding and avoiding relationships to finding a best friend in Andrea and love with Curran—and the way her first person narration reflected this, as she went from being secretive about her powers and family history to gradually becoming more and more open.

I was thoroughly invested in these characters and their stories for more than half the series. Although I thought the plot and mythological components were not as well done in the sixth book (Magic Rises), the dialogue, humor, and the amazing fight scene with Hugh made it work for me regardless. (Hugh was a large part of the reason I found that one incredibly engaging, and I was incredibly disappointed by his story in Iron and Magic.)

Then my enthusiasm for the series began to wane around the seventh book (Magic Breaks) and hit an all-time low with the ninth book (Magic Binds). Looking back, it seems it was around this point characterization started taking a backseat to characters being badass and cracking jokes—and without the former, they just seemed to be going through the motions instead of being fully fleshed out individuals, especially since the dialogue was weaker. Though there were still fun moments, they didn’t pack an emotional punch, and once-vibrant personalities seemed to be mere shadows of what they once were—even Kate.

It also seemed to me that the books lost their edge and developed a pattern of playing it safe closer to the end of the series. Obstacles were often easily removed, and Kate was kept from making choices that might have led to compelling character development but would have made life more difficult for her. That’s not to say that bad things never happen in later books, but when they do, they wrap up easily without major lasting effects. They just don’t matter like they once did.

Magic Triumphs follows the recent trends of minimal character development and overcoming challenges so swiftly that victory doesn’t seem earned. That said, it is entertaining and I found it far more readable and polished than Iron and Magic (even if it did annoy me that Kate’s child’s age was inconsistent). But despite some fun dialogue and amusing moments, it still fell short in comparison to older books in the series and wasn’t all that memorable—aside from the fact that it is a horrible finale to a ten-book series, that is.

It begins rather typically with a mystery: two hundred people vanished, and whoever or whatever could manage to make a great number of people disappear from their homes left only their bones behind. Kate then attempts to figure out what’s going on while protecting her thirteen-month-old (or maybe eighteen-month-old?) son from assassins. Meanwhile, various characters show up at different stages, creating an excuse for snappy dialogue. At this point, there are so many characters all getting a brief moment in the spotlight that they do not get a chance to shine as individuals, and even Andrea and Kate’s friendship seemed stale.

The biggest problem is that this seems like a filler book in the middle of a series for approximately the first 90%. Roland is mentioned once in awhile but barely even present until close to the end, and Magic’s Big Triumph occurs in about 20 pages. (This is not an exaggeration.) The ending is so rushed that there’s not much tension, and one part that should have been heart-wrenching was resolved so quickly and neatly that it barely left an impression. After that, there are a few emotionless paragraphs summarizing what happened to various characters. Earlier in the series, I would have found some of the more tragic fates affecting, but the wooden delivery combined with the more recent wooden characterization meant it didn’t have that much of an impact on me.

If Magic Triumphs had not been the final book in the series, I probably would have found it fine—certainly nowhere near the quality of earlier books in the series due to the lack of characterization and poor pacing, but not bad as a quick diversion. It was a delight to revel in Kate’s prowess as a magical sword-wielding badass and discover her son’s developing powers, and I was glad that the series finally tackled a particular mythology (which I won’t spoil!). However, it was weak as the culmination of Kate’s arc, and I’m disappointed that a series once so full of heart didn’t end on a high note.

My Rating: 4/10

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

Reviews of Previous Books in the Kate Daniels Series:

  1. Magic Bites
  2. Magic Burns
  3. Magic Strikes
  4. Magic Bleeds
  5. Magic Slays
  6. Magic Rises
  7. Magic Breaks
  8. Magic Shifts
  9. Magic Binds

Iron and Magic is the first book in the Iron Covenant trilogy, a spin-off from Ilona Andrews’ New York Times bestselling Kate Daniels series set between the ninth and tenth books (Magic Binds and Magic Triumphs, respectively). This novel focuses on Roland’s former warlord, Hugh d’Ambray, as he fights an internal battle and mysterious magical forces—and his new wife, a powerful woman known as the White Warlock.

After a prologue showing how Roland had Hugh brought to him as a child, Iron and Magic opens by showing the aftereffects of Hugh’s failure to do as commanded. Since Roland dismissed him and cut him off from his magic, Hugh has largely existed in a drunken stupor attempting to drown out the void left where his master’s godlike presence once dwelt. But when the soldiers of the Iron Dogs are being killed for their loyalty to Hugh, he realizes he must pull himself together for their sake.

Hugh and his remaining soldiers need food and shelter, and Elara has a castle but needs defenders against the head of the Golden Legion and his vampires: exactly the type of enemy the Iron Dogs specialize in destroying. However, the two leaders’ advisers fear that an alliance between their peoples will not work unless it’s difficult for their union to be broken when it inevitably becomes advantageous for one side to split, and they propose a political marriage. Neither Hugh nor Elara is particularly pleased with the idea of marrying the other, but they both agree to do so for the good of their people—and they wed even though they despise each other from the first time they meet.

Though I once considered the Kate Daniels series to be one of my favorites, my enthusiasm for these books has been steadily waning since the seventh installment. The last few novels have not met the same high standards set by the earlier books, and I thought that the last book I’d read before this (Magic Binds) was the weakest one yet—in fact, I probably would have quit reading the series at that point if the next book had not been the finale.

Given that, I was leaning toward skipping Iron and Magic even though I would have once devoured any book related to Kate Daniels. I was somewhat curious about Hugh’s story, though, and then I heard that this should be read before Magic Triumphs. So I set aside my copy of the latter and purchased a copy of Iron and Magic to read first.

Reader, I have regrets.

For all my problems with Magic Triumphs (which I read right after finishing this and will be reviewing separately), it was at least readable and fun. Despite occasional interesting parts, I cannot say the same about Iron and Magic, which I found to be largely boring and nowhere near as polished as even the more recent Kate Daniels books. It had many of the classic Ilona Andrews features—a magical mystery plot, a grand fight, main characters being powerful and badass, incorporation of less commonly utilized mythology—but the execution fell flat. The fights and tactical discussions were dull, the attempts at witty dialogue failed miserably, and typographical errors were numerous. The secondary characters did not have much personality of their own, and the main characters were not particularly engaging either.

There was potential for some interesting characterization with Hugh, but it seemed to me that the authors erased a lot of what made him compelling in an attempt to make him more palatable as a protagonist. Part of what made Hugh such an intriguing villain in the Kate Daniels books was that he and Kate were raised similarly but made different choices and ultimately decided to follow very different paths—but it turns out that Hugh never actually had a choice.

The very beginning of this novel shows how Roland not only started training him when he was a child without a family, but promised him he’d never be hungry again. He told him he was special and unique and he’d teach him to be able to take care of himself, all while exuding that loving charismatic demeanor that made Hugh feel as though he were looking upon God. However, instead of exploring this connection and how it shaped Hugh, all his bad actions are waved away by making him into Roland’s puppet. Hugh didn’t want to do evil, and if Roland wanted him to do something he didn’t want to do, he simply overrode his free will and adjusted him to want to do as commanded.

That’s not to say that Hugh was automatically a good person as he dealt with the aftermath of having been cast out by Roland. He certainly acted like a real jerk at times, but there were also plenty of cliche signs that he wasn’t so bad underneath it all: his men remained loyal to him, animals and children immediately liked him, and of course, Elara eventually fell for him.

Like Hugh, Elara had potential to be fascinating but didn’t quite hit the mark. In many ways, Elara seems like Kate except her character was built in a rush and not handled with nearly as much skill. Elara too has a mysterious power that she tries to hide, but it’s not as subtly drawn as Kate’s was nor does it seem as creative as hers. Her magic even reminded Hugh of Kate’s, and she’s also fiercely protective like her.

The love-to-hate relationship between Hugh and Elara was also reminiscent of the romance that occurred in the main series, but instead of gradually developing throughout several books as a secondary plot, it was a hurried and unsatisfying main plot. The progression of their relationship did not seem natural since they went from despising each other to sometimes being attracted to each other for no apparent reason to TRUE LOVE. Though there were some scenes in which they’re supposed to be seeing each other in a new light, I didn’t think they worked well. They didn’t get across why they would suddenly start to like each other strongly enough, and it seemed more like they were drawn to each other because the story required it than because it seemed fitting for their characters to do so. Furthermore, their “banter” was not particularly amusing or clever: it largely consisted of the two calling each other names like “harpy” and “bastard.”

Despite not enjoying most of Iron and Magic, I did enjoy learning more of Hugh’s thoughts on Kate and Roland and having some background when reading Magic Triumphs. (And I did rather like the divine elephant, brief as its appearance was.) However, this novel was not vital to reading the last installment of Kate Daniels, and in retrospect, I would have preferred to spend my time and money on a different book. I doubt I’ll be continuing Iron Covenant or reading any further stories related to the Kate Daniels—even though it was, once upon a time, a series I loved.

My Rating: 3/10

Where I got my reading copy: I purchased it.

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 (often these 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.

Since there was only one book arrival the week before last, there are a couple of weeks to cover here—but first, here are the posts that went up since the last one of these features in case you missed either of them:

  • Review of The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang — I enjoyed this dark war story quite a bit and found it engrossing from the very first page.
  • Phoenix Unbound by Grace Draven (& Romantic Fantasy Giveaway) — This contains some information on upcoming romantic fantasy Phoenix Unbound and how to enter a Romantic Fantasy Starter Kit giveaway including this book plus five more by Ilona Andrews, Patricia Briggs, Nalini Singh, Chloe Neill, and Anne Bishop. (Phoenix Unbound came in the mail last week and sounds intriguing, but I’m not featuring it today since it’s already covered in the last blog post!)

And now, recent books in the mail (minus Phoenix Unbound)!

The Last Unicorn: The Lost Journey by Peter S. Beagle

The Last Unicorn: The Lost Journey by Peter S. Beagle

A special hardcover edition of this book will be released on November 12 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Peter S. Beagle’s beloved The Last Unicorn. The Lost Journey contains an earlier draft of the story that was eventually reworked into the tale of the Last Unicorn that so many of us know and love.

This version of the book features an introduction by Patrick Rothfuss, a preface by Carrie Vaughn, an afterword by Peter S. Beagle, and illustrations by Stephanie Law. The publisher’s website has some examples of the original artwork.


Special Commemorative Edition celebrating the 50th Anniversary of The Last Unicorn

Introduction by Patrick Rothfuss
Preface by Carrie Vaughn
Original illustrations by Stephanie Law

Peter S. Beagle first imagined his beloved heroine when he was twenty-three, half a decade before she sprang into the world. Now the Last Unicorn’s fantastical origins are recaptured in this lovely commemorative hardcover. Here you will discover the eighty-five page genesis of Beagle’s masterpiece, his own wry musings upon his early career, charming original illustrations, and tributes from modern fantasy legends Patrick Rothfuss and Carrie Vaughn.

In this wonderfully strange adventure, a brave unicorn leaves her solitary life behind, determined to discover if she is the last of her kind. She is forewarned by a forlorn dragon and befuddled by a chatty butterfly; her unfamiliar traveling companion will be an exiled demon with a split personality and a penchant for philosophy.

Somewhere between mythology, modernity, and magic, the Last Unicorn has found herself on the road less traveled by . . . until now.

How to Fracture a Fairy Tale by Jane Yolen

How to Fracture a Fairy Tale by Jane Yolen

This short story collection will be released on November 5 (trade paperback, ebook). The publisher’s website lists the stories and poems found within How to Fracture a Fairy Tale.


Fantasy legend Jane Yolen (The Emerald Circus The Devil’s Arithmetic), adored by generations of readers of all ages, delights with these effortlessly wide-ranging fairy tales, myths, and legends. She fractures the classics to reveal their crystalline secrets, holding them to the light and presenting them transformed: a spinner of straw as a falsely-accused moneylender, a philosophical bridge who longs for its troll, and the villainous wolf retiring to a nursing home. Each offering features an intimate author note and poem, allowing readers to discover stories old, new, and refined for the world we live in―or a much better version of it.

Someone Like Me by M. R. Carey

Someone Like Me by M. R. Carey

This speculative fiction thriller by the author of The Girl with All the Gifts will be released on November 6 (hardcover, ebook, audiobook).


From the author of the million-copy bestseller The Girl With All the Gifts comes a heart-stopping thriller with twists you won’t see coming and a heroine you can’t trust.

Liz Kendall wouldn’t hurt a fly. Even when times get tough, she’s devoted to bringing up her two kids in a loving home.

But there’s another side to Liz—one that’s dark and malicious. She will do anything to get her way, no matter how extreme.

And when this other side of her takes control, the consequences are devastating.

Love her or hate her: there are two sides to every story….

Thin Air by Richard K. Morgan

Thin Air by Richard K. Morgan

This science fiction noir novel by the author of the Philip K. Dick Award–winning novel Altered Carbon will be released on October 23 (hardcover, ebook, audiobook).


An atmospheric tale of corruption and abduction set on Mars, from the author of the award-winning science fiction novel Altered Carbon, now an exciting new series from Netflix.

From the moment Richard K. Morgan’s dazzling debut, Altered Carbon, burst onto the scene, it was clear that a distinctive new voice had arrived to shake up science fiction. His subsequent novels—including the sequels Broken Angels and Woken Furies—confirmed him as a master of hard-boiled futuristic thrillers. Now Morgan returns to the world of SF noir with a riveting tale of crime, corruption, and deadly crisis on a planet teetering close to the edge.

On a Mars where ruthless corporate interests violently collide with a homegrown independence movement as Earth-based overlords battle for profits and power, Hakan Veil is an ex–professional enforcer equipped with military-grade body tech that’s made him a human killing machine. But he’s had enough of the turbulent red planet, and all he wants is a ticket back home—which is just what he’s offered by the Earth Oversight organization, in exchange for being the bodyguard for an EO investigator. It’s a beyond-easy gig for a heavy hitter like Veil . . . until it isn’t.

When Veil’s charge, Madison Madekwe, starts looking into the mysterious disappearance of a lottery winner, she stirs up a hornet’s nest of intrigue and murder. And the deeper Veil is drawn into the dangerous game being played, the more long-buried secrets claw their way to the Martian surface. Now it’s the expert assassin on the wrong end of a lethal weapon—as Veil stands targeted by powerful enemies hellbent on taking him down, by any means necessary.

Today I have a spotlight of one of this month’s releases, Phoenix Unbound by Grace Draven, to share with you—and information on entering to win this plus five more romantic fantasy books from Penguin Random House!

Phoenix Unbound by Grace Draven
Ace Trade Paperback | September 25, 2018


A woman with power over fire and illusion and an enslaved son of a chieftain battle a corrupt empire in this powerful and deeply emotional romantic fantasy from the USA Today bestselling author of Radiance.

Every year, each village is required to send a young woman to the Empire’s capital–her fate to be burned alive for the entertainment of the masses. For the last five years, one small village’s tithe has been the same woman. Gilene’s sacrifice protects all the other young women of her village, and her secret to staying alive lies with the magic only she possesses.

But this year is different.

Azarion, the Empire’s most famous gladiator, has somehow seen through her illusion–and is set on blackmailing Gilene into using her abilities to help him escape his life of slavery. Unknown to Gilene, he also wants to reclaim the birthright of his clan.

To protect her family and village, she will abandon everything to return to the Empire–and burn once more.


Grace Draven is a Louisiana native living in Texas with her husband, kids and a big, doofus dog. She is the winner of the Romantic Times Reviewers Choice for Best Fantasy Romance of 2016 and a USA Today Bestselling author. Find out more about Grace Draven online at

To celebrate this month’s release of Phoenix Unbound, Penguin Random House is running a Romantic Fantasy Starter Kit giveaway including this novel plus five more series openers! Twenty runners-up will win a copy of Phoenix Unbound. (This giveaway is open to US residents at least 18 years of age.)

Romantic Fantasy Books in Giveaway

The giveaway will be running through September 19 and includes the following books:

  • Cry Wolf (Alpha & Omega #1) by Patricia Briggs
  • Magic Bites (Kate Daniels #1) by Ilona Andrews
  • Phoenix Unbound (The Fallen Empire #1) by Grace Draven
  • Slave to Sensation (Psy/Changeling #1) by Nalini Singh
  • Wild Hunger (Heirs of Chicagoland #1) by Chloe Neill
  • Written in Red (The Others #1) by Anne Bishop

More details and the entry form are on the giveaway page linked above.

The Poppy War, R. F. Kuang’s fantastic debut novel and the first book in an epic fantasy trilogy inspired by Chinese history, is partially based on the Second Sino-Japanese War, particularly the horrific massacre that came to be known as the Rape of Nanjing. As such, it’s a story that unflinchingly examines how war shapes and changes people, for better and worse—with heavy emphasis on worse.

The heart of The Poppy War is Rin, a war orphan determined to avoid the fate her guardians plan for her: marriage to an older man whose position would benefit their opium smuggling business. Rin’s only viable alternative is doing well enough on the Keju to be accepted into a prestigious military school. It’s a long shot for a young peasant woman who has not been preparing for the test since a young age, but she steals drugs from her foster parents, hides her theft through bookkeeping, and convinces a local tutor to help her study in exchange for her stolen goods. For two years, Rin spends every spare moment and many sleepless nights immersed in the Four Noble Subjects, and her dedication pays off: she receives the highest score in the entire province, securing herself a spot in the academy.

Rin quickly discovers that getting into the school was the easy part, despite the amount of effort it took. Approximately 20% of the students are rejected as unfit to become a master’s apprentice after their first year, and Rin has a large disadvantage given that she has not been training for this throughout her entire life like her noble-born classmates. To make matters worse, the Combat Master despises peasants like her who pass the test and refuses to teach her—and she knows that none of the masters will want to mentor a student lacking martial arts skills.

Nevertheless, she persists, even managing to become a top contender in her classes. Though she struggles with teaching herself martial arts, her attempts come to the attention of Jiang, the eccentric opium-growing Lore Master most of the school views as a joke, who agrees to instruct her. She learns that he knows the secrets of the gods she once believed to be mere legends, and Jiang discovers that Rin has an affinity for shamanism but also fears her connection to the wrathful Phoenix.

But Rin’s education at the military academy is cut short when the Federation of Mugen attacks the Empire and all students and masters are needed to fight in the Third Poppy War. Rin’s god could save her and her people—but at what cost?

The Poppy War is one of the better 2018 releases I’ve read. It’s well paced and engrossing from the very first page, plus it features an intriguing main protagonist, some engaging—and at times amusing!—dialogue and narrative, and a world with a rich history. Although I found it to lag very briefly once or twice and had a couple of other minor issues with it, I enjoyed the book immensely overall and especially appreciated the boldness of Rin’s character progression.

As compelling as I found it, I do want to be clear that it seems like a major understatement to write that The Poppy War gets really dark toward the end. R. F. Kuang’s description of the book on Goodreads discusses some of its influences and what can be expected, including the following statement that sums up the novel’s core:

This book is primarily about military strategy, collapsing empires, mad gods, and the human ability to make awful, ruthless decisions. It’s about how dictators are made.

To be entirely frank, if you’re turned off by violence, I might pick up a different book.

It also includes abuse, rape, genocide, and human experimentation, among other topics that many may prefer to avoid in their reading. The author’s blog includes a full list of content warnings.

The earlier part of the novel serves as a sharp contrast to what follows, even though it does touch on some of the aforementioned subjects (such as discussions of a past genocide). This section shows Rin’s sheer grit and determination as she conquers her classes through hard work and aggressively removing any obstacle that could potentially get in her way (and, on one occasion, smuggling out a library book that first year students are not allowed to read). She makes a friend and a nemesis, and like the rest of the academy, becomes captivated by their star apprentice, the last of the Speerly people and an undefeated warrior whom the teachers wish other students would emulate—who, she later learns, is hiding a lot of baggage despite his many accomplishments.

Then Rin’s classes are interrupted when her nation is once again attacked by the Federation of Mugen, and she discovers that no amount of learning can truly prepare one for actual war: the fear that comes with being in the heat of battle and killing another soldier for the first time. There’s a huge difference between theoretical discussions about strategy that take place in the safety of a classroom and making decisions that will impact a country’s people. Suddenly, Rin’s epic rivalry seems inconsequential, and both she and her rival immediately turn to working together against their common enemy. (I rather loved the development of their relationship as it moved from adversarial to friendly, from wanting to kill each other to wanting to save each other’s lives.)

From here, Rin is immersed in the war, and I really admired that R. F. Kuang did not play it safe when it came to Rin’s choices: they are clearly horrible, but they are completely hers. They are not brushed off as having been influenced by higher powers. They are not made in ignorance since she’s not only been warned but has also come to better understand the reasons behind these warnings by the time she gets to the point of no return. Her decisions have consequences and change her relationships, both creating new bonds and tearing old ones apart.

The Poppy War is a gutsy fantasy novel that increasingly delves into the grimmer side of humanity: the involvement of gods adds to the story and raises the stakes, but it’s ultimately about people’s capability to create horrors all on their own. Though I didn’t quite LOVE this book—I thought some of the secondary characters could have had more depth and that the writing could have been stronger at times—I came close to it, and I’m looking forward to the next installment in the trilogy.

My Rating: 8/10

Where I got my reading copy: I purchased it.

Read Chapter One of The Poppy War

Read R. F. Kuang’s Women in SF&F Month Essay “Be a Bitch, Eat the Peach”