Battle Dragons: City of Thieves is basically a Fusion of How to Train Your Dragon and Blade Runner

I’ve known about Alex London’s Battle Dragons franchise since it was new. However, because of the ruthless march of time, I’ve only just gotten around to checking it out. I mean, it’s a cyberpunk with dragons. I know I’ve been disappointed before, but something like this—knock on wood—can’t possibly be crap! Well, let’s FINALLY read the first installment, City of Thieves, and confirm my wild claim. Hopefully.

In City of Thieves, a boy named Abel stays up late to watch the custodial dragons burn some trash. Instead, he sees his older sister parkour her way into his room, where she subsequently gives him a mysterious address and a secret to keep. Apparently, she’s a dragon thief, wanted by gangs and the secret police. Better yet, when Abel checks out this address, he finds—surprise, surprise—a rare dragon, smack dab in the middle of Thunder Wings territory. He is now forced to become its rider and fight illegal battles for the Thunder Wings.

Let’s address the elephant, or rather, dragon in the room: the worldbuilding in this series is actually kind of awesome. I’ve seen so many cases where a cool idea falls flat, and thankfully, this isn’t one of those times. Dragons are everything in the city of Drakopolis, including in the aforementioned illegal battles. Also, like in any cyberpunk works, gangs like the aforementioned Thunder Wings run the city. They aren’t even subtle about it; people in public jobs are openly showing their gangster imagery. Even Abel’s teacher is in a gang!

However, I don’t know what is with American literature in particular, or maybe it’s seriously bad luck on my part, but… well… London’s execution is—surprise, surprise—as aggressively safe as it could possibly be. City of Thieves has a mind-numbingly simple plot, and next to no battles, despite the series’ title. This sucks, since the worldbuilding is so well thought out.

I suppose the “risk” comes with some of the twists that come up. However, can you even call them twists? The story is framed to make you think everyone is a criminal, so when these twists happen, it feels more ridiculous than a case of “Wow! Moral ambiguity!” You might as well throw in one of Team Rocket’s famous disguises while you’re at it.

The story would’ve likely been better if Abel wasn’t the main character. He simply isn’t ABEL to do much of anything, and yet he’s the chosen one of the dragon Lina stole, explained simply as “it loves her so much that it loves her blood relative too.” I was spoiled when looking the book up on Goodreads that Abel has AD-HD (since Goodreaders cannot shut up about representation these days), which is something that is not overtly mentioned in the story. I don’t really know how much that justifies his stupid actions, but I do know that a kid with AD-HD once saved the Greek gods, so… it’s only so much of an excuse. Honestly, what really set me off about him above all else is that he never gets that everyone is a criminal.

This includes his best friend, Roa. In the first of many telegraphed betrayals, Roa reveals themself as a Thunder Wings member. However, it really doesn’t mean crap in the long run. They are still smart, supportive, and a much more capable human being than Abel. The aforementioned gangster teacher, Ally, is probably one of the best characters, but she doesn’t get enough screentime. Even Abel’s mom gets to show that she’s a better character than he is. His older brother, Silas the police officer, is… kind of unremarkable. He’s a one-dimensional stuck-up older sibling, and there’s a plot twist with him that’s so obvious that I legitimately thought it was something that had been established in the opening chapter. 

To be honest, Lina should’ve been the main protagonist. She’s cool, knows parkour, and gets to see so much more of the criminal underworld that readers probably want to see than Abel. London could’ve taken some real risks with her, since she would’ve made a great anti-hero. 

I sure bashed City of Thieves a lot, but it isn’t bad. It’s just, like a lot of American novels I’ve read, safe. The writing is good; it describes stuff well enough, there’s great humor, and the few battles that happen (all two of them) get pretty intense. The book is just not cyberpunk-y enough.

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Final Verdict: 8.5/10

The first book of Battle Dragons is better than I expected, but still not particularly amazing. I’ll probably read the sequel, since the books are short, and light novels eat wallets for breakfast. At least it’s not as pretentious as other cyberpunks. That’s something, right?

Atlas Shrugged: The Sci-Fi Dystopia Novel That’s Also a Self-Help Book

I have the longest story with this book. I’ve been battling serious depression over the past two years (longer than that by the time the post actually goes out) because it feels like human civilization is falling apart. Heck, you could argue it’s been happening longer than that; since the #MeToo movement in 2017, it feels like violent protests have been a way of life. Of course, 2020 set a new precedent of despair, when COVID took the world, and simple matters of health became political. That same year, George Floyd was murdered, and divided the human race amongst itself overnight. 2021 began with a terrorist attack on Capitol Hill, organized entirely by American citizens with a political agenda. At the time of writing this paragraph, Russia is invading Ukraine, laying the groundwork for World War III. To top it off, earth is being ravaged by climate change, at a rate that keeps increasing at an exponential rate despite all the efforts that have been put in to delay it. As of completing the book, Ukraine is still at war, and abortion is now illegal on a constitutional level following the result of Roe v. Wade, not to mention a spike in mass shootings.

This is where Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged comes in. I was at a point when I finally figured out how to enjoy life, but now I’m drowning in despair. I can’t begin to list the violent emotions and twisted thoughts I’ve felt. To give you an idea, my mother has considered sending me to the psych ward numerous times. After some intense discussions with her, she offered up Atlas Shrugged. According to her, it would—at the very least—expose the media and these new-fangled activists as the BS-spewers that they allegedly are. I was skeptical, but Atlas Shrugged is apparently one of the most influential novels of all time; second only to The Bible.

Atlas Shrugged, however, is massive. This is the kind of book that I can only read with the new purging of pop culture media that I have committed to. One chapter can take about an hour, and there’s a lot of chapters; over a thousand pages’ worth. I started the book in February 2022, and you’re reading this post not long after I actually finished the book. That’s how much of an investment it is.

Like any hard SF novel, completing it is a monumental task. One aspect of these kinds of books is that merely figuring out the basic premise is a headache that you’re meant to experience, and thus, it feels like discussing any aspect of the novel is spoiler territory, even though it’s super old. So… Here’s a spoiler warning then. Read on if you wish.

Right off the bat, Rand’s prose feels like what a lot of modern writers, whom I consider pretentious, try to be. A lot of Atlas Shrugged is very verbose, and at first, it feels like nothing is happening. However, unlike books such as Monogatari, I wasn’t mad. A lot of passages give you hints pertaining to the book’s worldbuilding and how characters think and feel. The writing is also very poetic, describing things metaphorically but in a way that can be understood by anyone with a basic grasp of the English language; unlike a lot of YA and light novels that vomit nonsensical similes at everything. 

You are given your first signs of how messed up the world of Atlas Shrugged is with the initial conflict centered around Taggart Transcontinental, a railroad company. The organization has always been run by Taggarts, and this generation is brother and sister James and Dagny Taggart. When one of their lines desperately needs fixing, Dagny is literally the only person to do anything about it. She orders an untested metal from a company that James doesn’t trust, while his “trusted” metals haven’t been delivered in over a year since being ordered. What jumps out is that she is the only one in the whole organization who’s proactive; everyone else, except a guy named Eddie Willers, sucks. 

The story also involves the creator of the aforementioned untested metal, Hank Rearden. He went from slaving away in the mines to owning his own steel plant, an achievement that he knows he’s damn well earned. Dagny’s order for his metal is the first big order his company has ever received. The reason for this is because everyone else is afraid to risk using it.

Right off the bat, Atlas Shrugged should resonate with just about anyone alive, especially these days. Heck, a lot of the stuff brought up in this book is stuff I’ve had internal debates about for years. I one hundred percent relate to Dagny and Hank, who feel like they’re surrounded by morons at all times. Well, I say morons, but a more literal term would be sheep; they just stick to doing what they’re told, with no drive to make anything better. This isn’t even remotely a new trope, but in Atlas Shrugged, it feels more grounded and real. Every writer and their grandma these days would chalk this up to how humans are wired to behave and there’s nothing we can do about it. Good ol’ Ayn Rand, however, presents this behavior as an unnatural, conscious choice that most people—unfortunately—decide to make. 

Words cannot describe just how vindicating Atlas Shrugged is. Every other scene, there’s something that feels like Rand literally wrote for me specifically. The inane ignoramity (professional term) of mankind feels like every day of my life since Donald Trump ran for President. On a side note, Atlas Shrugged is significantly easier to digest than what I thought going in. It’s lengthy, sure, but the actual content of the book is incredibly straightforward. If you could get through crap like Of Mice and Men in high school, then Atlas Shrugged will be no problem.

The plot starts off in earnest at the end of part one. Dagny and Hank go on a road trip and stumble upon a mysterious machine, abandoned in a junk heap in an equally abandoned factory. Turns out that this device, if seen through to the end, would literally solve all of humanity’s energy problems and save the world. However, its creator is unaccounted for, and she scrambles to find that creator or reverse engineer the machine, all while surviving the ignorant world she lives in. Survival is not easy, especially when the few smart people that remain start abandoning their businesses unannounced.

Of course, you could look at the publication year saying “1957” and chalk Atlas Shrugged up for yet another McCarthy-ist novel written during the Red Scare. The thing is, due to everything discussed up to this point, I would’ve never guessed this was a Red Scare book because it sure didn’t feel like it at all. Despite the difference in eras, I could attribute so much more about Atlas Shrugged to real life in this day and age than any other cyberpunk I’ve ever experienced. However, the fact that Atlas Shrugged feels even more relevant than it did at the time isn’t exactly a good thing.

If you couldn’t tell, Atlas Shrugged is meant to have only two likable characters, and they are Dagny and Hank. Let’s talk about Hank first, since I’m saving the best for last. He loves his career with Rearden Metal, especially more than the stupid people he’s surrounded by, including his stupid wife. He doesn’t let other people’s thoughts get in his way, including those in the media. It’s ironic that someone who cares so little about people contributes more to their lives than most… or at least he would be if there weren’t politically correct idiots trying to ruin his business.

Meanwhile, Dagny… ho-hoh boy, lemme tell you. I daresay that she is the Best Girl in all classic literature. She’s like Hank in not caring, only better. Her proactive personality feels so modern compared to any other character of classic literature. Dagny is unimaginably badass, and if you told me that girls like Scarlett O’Hara from Gone With the Wind or anyone from Little Women were better, I would absolutely not believe you. 

Among these two awesome protagonists whom you’re meant to love, and these wingnuts that you’re meant to hate, there is an anomaly named Francisco d’Anconia. You could argue he’s the main villain of the book, despite him definitely not being an ignoramus like the rest of mankind. He has iconic and inspirational moments that feel amazing, like he really understands how life works, yet he seems to be working against the human race with most of his actions. I’d say he’s the extreme end of Dagny and Hank’s personalities, but at the same time, he could just be a massive troll.

If there are any flaws in the book’s writing, it’s that I always had trouble telling where anyone was in 3D space. The dialogue is the heart and soul of Atlas Shrugged, and it’s so easy to get absorbed in it that they can seemingly teleport to another location. You could also argue that some of the big long passages that convey the book’s themes get redundant (including a seventy page speech that is more-or-less a summation of all the themes explored), but the way Rand thinks is so unconventional, that you kind of need to see it multiple times to really process the full weight of her words.

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Final Verdict: 10/10

Why does anyone bother with any classic literature other than Atlas Shrugged? I’ve read crummy books with blurbs that say “I’ll be thinking about these themes for a long time”, but Atlas Shrugged is the first time I truly feel that way about a book. It’s so insane that—scratch that—it’s saner than almost anything else out there. If Ayn Rand wrote and published it today, it would get canceled ten times over. Heck, the FBI would’ve personally hunted her down. Atlas Shrugged would be considered by many to be pure evil, and that’s precisely why it’s a must-read. Just keep in mind that it will not give you hope for mankind; it’s only meant to give you hope for yourself.

The Last Fallen Moon: The Main Protagonist Dies in this One

Graci Kim’s The Last Fallen Star was one of the better series openers from Rick Riordan Presents. It’s only natural that I would be anticipating the sequel, The Last Fallen Moon. Let’s hope it doesn’t suffer the notorious sequel curse. 

When we last left off, Riley narrowly managed to save the world from a vengeful goddess. However, it cost her whole clan’s ability to heal, and almost everyone’s memories of her existence! Now she’s as miserable as the main protagonist of a YA novel. After a brutal attack on her household, she’s fed up, and decides to take matters into her own hands. Riley ingests a potion that temporarily stops her heart, effectively rendering her dead, so she can go to the heavenly realm of Cheongdang and find Saint Heo Jun and convince him to become the new patron of her clan to restore their powers. 

So, we have another installment set in the underworld. Classic. In Korean folklore, hell is known as Jiok, and to be honest… I wasn’t exactly impressed with Kim’s vision of it. If you’ve seen Coco, then it is basically the same idea, where modern bullcrap like customs and long lines are integrated into the mythological space. Jiok bears a striking resemblance to New York City, or rather vice-versa, which seems cool on paper, but the critic in me considers that Kim did this to avoid the logistics issues with figuring out where landmarks are relative to each other. The most creative aspect is how Kim retconned the crap out of the different punishments, where they go from chambers of torment to vacation getaways. It’s also a big aspect of the overall story, so it’s not just there for the lols.

Speaking of the story, the plot at least felt like a step up from before. There’s a lot of bobbing, weaving, sneaking, and stealing during the course of Riley’s journey through Jiok and Cheongdang. There’s also a lot more at stake this time around, although I cannot say exactly why, due to spoilers.

Unfortunately, any positives I might’ve had about the cast are kind of out the window. Three protagonists are in focus this time: Riley, Hattie—who is comatose and able to visit the spiritrealm as a result, and newcomer, Dahl. Is it just me or is it a trope for character arcs to reset in between books? Riley Oh is whinier than ever this time around! In fact, most of the book is basically the Riley Oh Torture Porn Train; a lot of it feels orchestrated specifically to dump on her.  

We at least get some more screentime with Hattie, but she has some moments that I felt like were there for shock value. Dahl is perhaps the best character thus far. He’s slick and smooth, but has many, MANY secrets underneath. He was born in the spiritrealm, and naturally, he wants to be human because what else would an immortal being want? At least his fascination with toilets is adorable.

With this being the spiritrealm, we get a lot of exposure to characters from Korean folklore. Unlike the Cave Bear Goddess from the previous book, they have way more personality, and better dialogue to boot. Sadly, I can’t discuss any of them due to spoilers. 

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Final Verdict: 8.65/10

The Last Fallen Moon is a big step up from the previous book, even if it is still rough around the edges. Even as a Japanese culture nerd, who’s always been jealous of South Korean culture for being more accepted by the West, I’ve been able to enjoy this franchise quite a bit. Hopefully the next (and final?) book will be even better!

Executive Action: When a WordPress Blogger Becomes a Published Author

Well, this is a first for me! I have never read an independently published book before, and Evolution’s Hand Book 1: Executive Action is by the very same Crow from Crow’s World of Anime right here on WordPress! I had a Barnes & Noble gift card leftover from Christmas, and since I don’t read light novels on nook anymore, I basically got this for free. Well, what’s important is that this review is going to help spread the word. That makes up for it, right?

I can’t really discuss the premise of Executive Action in a single paragraph like I normally do. It’s structured like a good ol’ fashioned sci-fi novel. You’re thrown right into the story, and introduced to many characters all at once. You don’t know who’s a main character or not because they all have full first and last names. There are also many different plot threads and POVs introduced right out the gate, making it even harder to know what’s going on. I would’ve devoured this book back in my teen years when this genre was my jam, but now as a weeb reading books for children… yeah, “rusty” would be an understatement here.

If anything about Executive Action is simple, it’s that it’s got the classic cyberpunk trope of “conglomerates ruin everything.” The big, bad company this time around is Terra Consolidated Products. They’ve gained so much traction that even the United Nations is powerless against them. Meanwhile, one of our intrepid heroes—Melchizedek Conrad—is running a small outfit called TranStell. They have a secret technology called Fissures, which expedite space travel, and it is inevitably leaked to TCP very early on in the story.

Crow, despite being an anime blogger, definitely didn’t write Executive Action for anime fans; this is adult fiction, and the first rule of being an adult is no fun allowed. The pacing is deliberate, the characters are grounded, and the “action” boils down to various forms of big business and subterfuge instead of cyborg Hollywood actors gunning everything up. On top of that, there are about as many subplots as characters, and you gotta keep track of them all!

The worldbuilding also keeps in hard sci-fi tradition. In order to be immersive, none of the actual mechanics are explained to us in any way; it’s supposed to be imagined as a contemporary novel in the actual future, instead of a hypothetical future. There are many new ways to address workers, for instance. Also, the notion that America will one day split into several splinter nations comes true in the book’s worldbuilding.

The main plot starts in earnest when a crew goes on their first expedition to the star system on the other side of the Fissure. TCP sends a mole in the form of Quaid Atair, who I of course pictured as Randy Quaid, to sabotage the crew. At this point, Executive Action becomes a long game of Among Us where we already know who’s sus thanks to the power of dramatic irony.

I sure sound like I’m giving Executive Action some flack, but I really mean the opposite. What I’ve described may sound like negatives, but this is simply what this kind of book is. Crow, for all intents and purposes, did everything one hundred percent correctly. The plot and its subplots all progress organically, and it feels like if Fissures were actually discovered IRL, things would play out more-or-less how they did in Executive Action, for better or for worse. In my case, it would be that latter.

As for characters, it’s a huge cast, and you’re generally not given enough features to visualize them, let alone keep track of them (this is also a hard science fiction trope, so it’s not a flaw on Crow’s part either). I’m sure I’ve put my fifteen cents in when it comes to super-grounded characters, but in case you didn’t see it before, allow me to tell you now: I have autism, and thus I cannot understand the appeal nor nuances of “normal” characters who behave very much like real people. It’s why I hate it when reviewers praise a character for “feeling like a real person” because I cannot understand how to arrive at that conclusion. In any case, I did find Matsushita to be the Best Girl. She’s Conrad’s secretary, and to be honest, she should be having his job because she’s better at it and more. She also gets to beat the crap out of someone, which was fun to see. 

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Final Verdict: 8.35/10

Objectively, Executive Action should have a higher score than this. While not on the level of peak sci-fi like Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem, I could definitely see the same level of quality as with any big contemporary franchise of the genre. However, when you start reading manga for children for a decade, you kind of become… er… stupider. I was unable to appreciate Executive Action for what it was, and it’s entirely my fault. If you enjoy  business-y, dialogue-driven dramas, then Executive Action is an easy buy. 

Oh, and Crow, if you’re reading this, I’m sorry for being harsh. I get the struggles of being a writer, and I truly wish you the best for your new career!

Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor: How is it Even MORE Anime than Iron Widow?!

One of the first things they teach you about the Internet is that anything you say on there is permanent. While I never made the mistake of giving away private information to strangers on social media, I have made posts that I now regret. One really damning post was my glowing review of Xiran Jay Zhao’s Iron Widow. Several months after reading the book, my outlook on it has completely changed. I could write a whole additional post about what I’ve been going through that made me love it at the time, and how I’m only just starting to face my personal issues head-on, but I won’t bore you (if you want context, you could read my other YA novel reviews and see how increasingly depressed I got over time). 

In any case, I’m not going to hide what Iron Widow is anymore. I still stand by Wu Zetian being one of the few proactive YA protagonists, and the book overall being great as a mindless, anime-like romp. However, if taken with anymore than a grain of salt, it is a toxic and unhealthy tome of Feminism to the most violent, hypocritical extreme. Regardless, I still think Zhao is one of the most promising rookies in the field. With all that being said, let’s see if their middle-grade debut novel, Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor, improves on their writing style while potentially being less of a loaded gun than Iron Widow was.

In Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor, the titular Zachary is a passionate fan of Mythrealm, an AR-game that combines Pokémon Go with ancient mythology. One fateful day, he meets a boy named Simon Li, who is the host of the spirit of one of China’s past emperors. Zachary himself is also able to be possessed by the spirit of China’s First Emperor, Qin Shi Huang, via his AR headset. The timing of this couldn’t be better, because his mom is captured by demons and needs saving.

I hate that my blog has gotten so political lately, because I wanted to be a breath of fresh air from said politics. However, when you’re reading a book by Xiran Jay Zhao, it’s impossible to not get political. Unsurprisingly for a book published in 2020 onwards, Zachary Ying is a victim of racism; people assume things because he’s Chinese, and he’s even ashamed to eat his authentically homemade Chinese lunch at school. This means nothing for the plot, but it’s there anyway because it’s topical. To be fair, this is significantly tamer than Iron Widow. Of course, almost everything is tamer than Iron Widow in terms of political undertones, meaning that Zachary Ying will still feel very political in and of itself.

Let’s stop getting political for a bit and discuss what makes the book interesting in the first place: its very anime premise. Like in Iron Widow, Zhao is at least able to come up with creative ideas and execute them well. In a world where so many stories involve VRMMOs, the rare instance of an AR game is novel already. One of the biggest criticisms of Iron Widow was that the mechanics weren’t thought out well enough, and Zhao actually learned from that mistake! The basic principles of Mythrealm and the whole spirit thing are simple: the powers of the spirits are determined by how they’re thought of by people in the living world, including their portrayals in videogames. It’s an easy way for Zhao to go all-out and make Zachary Ying maximum anime.

In addition to being more anime, the book is significantly more action-driven than Iron Widow. There’s a fight scene in almost every other chapter, and said fight scenes are absolutely nuts. This is good because subtlety is about as good as it was in Iron Widow, i.e. non-existent. Zhao tells you exactly how to feel, from political views to how to view the spirits pulling the reins. They at least pull a moral ambiguity angle, something that was SORELY needed in Iron Widow, where a mass murderer was considered a messaiah. 

So… the characters. Ohhhhh boy. Let’s discuss Zack first. He’s kind of a wimp, even when he has phenomenal cosmic powers. He’s meant to be an audience surrogate protagonist; the Asian-American who knows nothing about Chinese culture and history, and is therefore an incomplete human being. I’m not even exaggerating that last bit; part of today’s “woke” culture is the idea that every person is duty-bound to know and understand their “racial identity” to the Nth degree. Like almost all other books of this kind that I’ve covered, he gets stronger not by becoming more self-confident, but by learning random stuff about Chinese history.

Simon Li feels like he’s kind of there. He basically serves as an infodumper when the ghost of Huang doesn’t happen to be doing it himself. He has a brother in the hospital, but it feels like a shock value thing to make you like him. Oh, and here’s a kicker: the guy possessing his body is the real-life inspiration for Iron Widow’s drunk delinquent, Li Shimin. 

Speaking of Iron Widow, recall its protagonist, Wu Zetian. She’s here too, and I honestly felt PTSD from her reappearance. Zetian possesses the body of Melissa Wu, and their personalities are so identical that you can’t even tell who’s speaking out of Melissa’s body at any given time. Surprisingly enough, she’s not as much of an extremist this time around. She’s still the Best Girl, though, if not better because she’s not yelling P.C. P.S.A.s every five seconds.

Every time I review an urban fantasy like this, I’ve said that the actual mythological characters are boring. Fortunately, the many mythological and historical figures that Zack encounters on his journey are some of the best I’ve seen in a long time. They are memorable and faithful to their sources, and have the self-referential humor that you’d think more authors would take advantage of but don’t. 

If there’s anything I learned from Zachary Ying, other than a LOT of Chinese history, it’s that I still don’t get Xiran Jay Zhao at all. They say some things that are true, like how Chinese people aren’t all exactly the same as individuals, and a line about not caring about what other people think. However, they definitely portray Americans as a single, racist entity that hates Chinese culture, contrary to hard evidence that proves otherwise. Also, today’s culture literally revolves around people having to be “seen” by America in order to exist. Zhao seems to be establishing themself as a guru of Chinese history, but because of how political they are, and how things are in general these days, I don’t know if their interest is born of passion or civic duty. Their bio says they were “raised by the Internet”, which makes me feel like that their motives are purely the latter. Zack is often condemned for not knowing Chinese culture facts, and to be honest, I felt condemned by the author as well. That’s not how you should feel when learning about a foreign nation’s rich culture.

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Final Verdict: 9.85/10

I think I really like this book. It’s a significant step up from Iron Widow, at the very least. Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor is way more creative, and ties into Zhao’s vision to make the world learn Chinese history. It’s just a shame that it still has sprinkles of agenda throughout, otherwise it’d be almost perfect (although many would argue that the political aspects make it perfect). 

Regardless, I need to stop getting political. Other than a few rants I may or may not publish, I’m going to try my damndest to stop being obsessed with politics, and to stop reading these politically charged books. I might still find myself consuming more of them (including but not limited to the sequels to books I’ve covered), but if I do, you won’t be seeing them. Anyway… Zachary Ying is great. Just be wary of the potential to get triggered.

Ballad & Dagger: We Don’t Talk About San Madrigal

If you’re reading this post, then that means I have managed to complete the first YA novel published under Rick Riordan Presents: Daniel José Older’s Ballad & Dagger. But before we begin, we need to talk. No, I’m not breaking up with you! Anyway, the past two years have been really rough for me. COVID tore us apart physically, and the murder of George Floyd followed up on the mental side of things. The latter is what really broke me. Since his unfair death, some very influential, and politically extreme, individuals have been on a steady growth rate. And only a couple of months ago, I began to realize that almost my entire world—both I.R.L. and online—have been viewed through a lens provided by the political party that those aforementioned individuals follow. My parents insist that the followers of those people are few and far between. However, if they are really so few in numbers, how have they nonetheless influenced virtually every aspect of Western pop culture for the past two years? From South Park doing pandemic episodes, to childrens’ picture books teaching today’s generation how to be woke, the biggest conglomerates in the world now lick the boots of those people, regardless of their quantity. While I am struggling to comprehend life as I now understand it, one thing is certain: Ballad & Dagger will more than likely be the last novel of its kind I ever read.

In Ballad & Dagger, Mateo Matisse is a starving artist who just wants to play the piano. Sadly, fate has other plans for him. On a very special night for his little community in Brooklyn, someone announces that the long lost island of San Madrigal, where said community originated, will rise again. All it needs is the children who contain the three founding spirits’ souls. Naturally, Mateo is one of them. Oh, and some girl murders a guy for some reason.

Refreshingly enough, racism isn’t a big theme in this one. Or rather, you’re not constantly bludgeoned with it. The most brutal aspect of Ballad & Dagger is the fact that San Madrigal sank like Atlantis. As a result, the three big families that make up Brooklyn’s Little Madrigal are not inhabiting San Madrigal, and you’re supposed to feel miserable for them. The word “diaspora” is a favorite in the book, because apparently, the idea that home is where you’re surrounded by the people who love you is invalid. 

In case you’ve read some of the action-packed books from Rick Riordan Presents, just keep in mind that Ballad & Dagger is more like Sal and Gabi Break the Universe, in that it is way more slice-of-life oriented than other installments. While trying to find the two remaining demigods, Mateo lives his normal life, hanging out with his friend, Tams, and the famous folk rocker, Gerval. Without the occasional blurb of supernatural horror, it’s easy to forget there’s anything supernatural in the book.

Things do ramp up in the second half, though. Sh** hits the fan, to say the least, and Mateo’s little community starts crumbling out from under him. A lot of the sequences are legitimately powerful. However, you have to put up with a lot of fluff to get there. 

My biggest problem was that I couldn’t connect to almost anyone. Mateo is one of two characters who felt engaging at all. As narrator, his feelings come in full force, and he ends up with quite a lot of baggage in the second half. The female lead, Chela Hidalgo, is the aforementioned girl who murdered the dude in the beginning, and she’s alright. She gets some legitimate character development, but is a pretty standard YA protagonist through and through. And yes, their transition from friends to lovers is as sudden as any YA romance novel (oh spoilers, as if it wasn’t obvious enough that a YA novel has romance).

Everyone else felt like a plot device. Tia Lucia was there to be the wise old lady, Anisette was there to be the political extremist b****, etc. Gerval plays a pretty pertinent role, but in the end, his character arc will feel very familiar to anyone who’s seen a Saturday morning cartoon.

Sadly, I must also criticize the book’s worldbuilding. Riordan’s blurb says that San Madrigal is “as real as Wakanda or the Shire or Earthsea”, and I don’t get it at all. All that is divulged of the island, back when it wasn’t underwater, is that people worshiped the three gods who get trapped in the chosen ones’ bodies. Sure, its history plays a role in the plot, but that’s about it for the actual culture, beyond what you see preserved in Brooklyn. There is also next to no folklore present, except for some ghost who’s just there, and these weird mutant things.

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Final Verdict: 8.5/10

I do respect and admire Rick Riordan. If it wasn’t for him, I might’ve never gotten my fetish for Japanese culture and folk metal. However, almost every time I read one of the Presents books, I am utterly flummoxed at what he saw in it. Ballad & Dagger is a great read by the second half, but there are so many urban fantasies that are more than just fifty percent enjoyable. I don’t really know what to think about it, but I do know that I’m pretty much alone in my stance. Maybe you’d enjoy it more than I did!

Blood Scion: This Might be the Most Brutal YA Novel of All Time

Other than the amazing cover art, I honestly don’t know why I decided to read Deborah Falaye’s Blood Scion. Sure, I’ve read many books that deal with the topic of racism. However, with the exception of Tristan Strong, I can’t tell you if my glowing reviews of books like Legendborn and Blood Like Magic were based on the actual quality, or the guilt-stricken White man who’s tried to run from his American heritage his whole life. Also, I’ve been getting more and more into folk metal. Thanks to this sub-genre of music, I’ve begun to feel like these diverse books give off an understandable but grim rage and hatred that have caused me extreme mental anguish these past two years. Yet, here we are, with you reading my review of this book.

Why do I even bother going over the premises of these kinds of books? If you’ve read any of the aforementioned books, this’ll sound familiar: a girl named Sloane Shade is Yoruba, a race of innocent folk whose lives were turned upside down by the White supremacist Lucis menace. What’s worse is that she’s additionally a Scion, descended from Shango, the Orisha of Fire; Scions are an extra no-no in this world, and the Lucis do not hesitate to off them. She, like her mother before her, has stripped herself of her culture and heritage to keep her rinky-dink little village (and grandfather) safe from the Lucis, who tend to execute the relatives of those they deem criminals. And if it couldn’t get any YA-er, she gets drafted into the Lucis military to fight as a child soldier against the Shadow Rebels, who are Scions that refuse to hide. Cool. Might as well infiltrate their archives and get to find out what happened to her presumably dead mom!

Are people so P.C. that everything has to give a disclaimer warning? This is the third book I’ve read that’s done it, and the other cases came out in 2021 at the earliest. Anyway, if you couldn’t tell, Blood Scion checks off a lot of items on humanity’s laundry list of social issues that give me despair from the fact that they’re all still ongoing. In case you’ve never read a YA novel that deals with these issues before, let’s go over them thoroughly. 

The big one is racism. The Lucis persecute the Yoruba, and treat them as slaves. Some are taken from their homes to rot on literal plantations. This also technically counts as colonialism, since the Lucis are invaders who happen to have better technology. On top of that, we also have what I believe is called internalized racism, since the Yoruba have been brainwashed into hating their own heritages. There’s also mysogyny and sexual assault, since the Lucis are very much portrayed as rapists, such as one who tries to do such a thing to Sloane in the first chapter before he gets burnt to death by her power.

There’s also the child soldier thing. Yeah, that’s a bit messed up, especially since Sloane has essentially been drafted to kill her own brethren. Anyone who goes A.W.O.L. gets shot dead, plain and simple. Basically, it’s Divergent but harsher. The final cherry on top is cultural appropriation, which is shown when the Lucis queen, Olympia, is casually wearing Yoruba garb for shits and giggles.

Despite how fascinating West African culture is, I feel like a lot of authors who dabble in it paint a pretty bland picture. In fact, Tristan Strong paints the only picture I would call lively. Fortunately, Blood Scion isn’t “just take typical Western fantasy tropes and change the name” like a lot of other novels. There is a bit of a science fiction spin on worldbuilding, since the Lucins have electricity and whatnot, while the dark skinned villagers don’t have crap. *Sniff* Aaaaaah… the fresh reek of colonialism. Thanks I hate it.

Blood Scion is written as you’d expect any YA novel to be; verbose, full of adjectives, and in the present tense. It’s effective, but doesn’t at all stand out from its contemporaries, especially when compared to Xiran Jay Zhao. Nonetheless, “effective” means “effective.” Blood Scion sinks the dagger into your heart and twists for maximum laceration. Falaye hams in the brutality of how Sloane’s people are treated; a brutality that you don’t have to look too hard to find in the real world.

I thought that with COVID, the war in Ukraine, and this being the eighth-or-so book of its kind that I’ve experienced, that I would be desensitized to Blood Scion. Nope, that didn’t happen. I found myself overcome with the all-too-familiar, soul-crushing despair caused by White supremacy.

Despite how brutal Blood Scion is, it still has a lot of the tropes that occur when the main protagonist is sent to some kind of disciplinary facility to train in some form. In order to make an underdog story, Sloane starts out as a bad apple in a bunch of cosmic crisps. On top of that, we have the “impenetrable fortress” with the most convenient blind spots. It takes suspension of disbelief when they have spotlights, guards, and trained jaguars patrolling the place, yet they magically don’t get caught when sneaking out one night. Also, everyone and their grandma has smuggled some kind of weapon into the camp, meanwhile when they see Sloane they’re like “Oh my god, TEA LEAVES?! Nope, we gotta confiscate that.” 

The biggest flaw of Blood Scion is its cast, in that if you’ve read any YA novel besides Iron Widow, you’ve seen them all before. Sloane is literally Bree, Zélie, Rue, and Voya; yet, to my luck, she’s probably the weakest among them. Like many YA girls, she’s all talk and next-to-no walk other than random, arbitrary spurts of badassery. Like I said before, she gets pummeled in camp in order to make her an underdog. On the other hand, Best Girl Zetian would’ve just torched the place and been done with it. Sure, there is an actual stipulation in that Sloane can’t risk getting caught, but she still ends up using her power at least once, to save someone who just so magically happens to be Yoruba as well. Most notably—minor spoilers—there is no catharsis with her character arc, at least not at present since there is a forthcoming sequel and all. The training regimen is meant to strip kids of their humanity, and sadly, that’s inevitable with Sloane. I don’t even want to say any more about this, lest I puke.

On to all the other relatable and wholly unremarkable characters! Malachi is a bully who at least has a believable motive to hate Sloane; his parents died in a fire she caused by accident. However, all that does for him is make him a Saturday morning cartoon bully who is interchangeable with literally any YA male of his kind. Sloane’s supporters are relatable teens named Izara, Nazanin, and Jericho. Beyond their tragic backstories, they’re kind of deadweights.

Among the White supremacist Lucis, we have the somewhat human Dane Grey. He isn’t the most racist guy at camp; instead of killing Sloane, he just humiliates her instead. The rest of the Lucis? From Lieutenant Faas Bakker, to Queen Facism herself, they’re monsters, and I hate them. I hate them because they exist in this world, and are running it to the ground.

There is a silver lining here. Blood Scion really goes off the rails toward the end. Falaye legitimately caught me off-guard with a lot of developments, and pulled off things that I didn’t think any YA author had the gall to do. It also really showcases how convoluted the issue of race has become.

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Final Verdict: 9/10

Is this even an impartial score? Despite its flaws, Blood Scion was pure pain and suffering for me. It was full of such sadness and rage, and Sloane didn’t even feel like a particularly empowering character (although that could be because any YA protagonist other than Zetian feels like crap). In all honesty, I don’t even know if I have the mental fortitude to read the sequel, let alone any more books on this topic. Is this really supposed to help with racial healing? If you wanna try and find out, then be my guest.

Iron Widow: To Make a Great YA Novel, Just Add Anime

There is no shortage of Feminist power fantasies these days. In fact, I read one such novel back before COVID broke out: part one of Suzanne Young’s Girls With Sharp Sticks trilogy. It was good, but it was so generic and predictable, I’d rather not spend my time finishing it, because I figured a better Feminist power fantasy would come up. Sure enough, that happened in 2021, when Xiran Jay Zhao published their debut novel: Iron Widow.

In Iron Widow, we are taken to an alternate version of China, set hundreds of years in the past but with futuristic technology (what is this, Star Wars?). The alien menace known as the Hundun threatens the nation of Huaxia. Fight fire with fire, as they say, and by “fire”, I mean they build Gundams out of defeated Hundun. These mechs, known as Chrysalis, must be piloted by a male and female team. However, unlike those anime where the mech is powered by sex, the Chrysalises are powered by sexism, and the woman pilot more-often-than-not can’t handle the strain of her husband’s qi. Wu Zetian’s older sister was killed, not in battle, but murdered by her husband Yang Guang. Naturally, Zetian voluntarily sells herself to him just for an opportunity to murder him. What could possibly go wrong?

Unlike Blood Like Magic, the disclaimer at the beginning is fully needed. No, that’s an understatement. The only other book this viscerally brutal that I read was Legendborn, and even then, the searing social commentary was only prevalent like 60% of the time. In Iron Widow, every page is a reminder of the twisted world in the book, not too different from the twisted world that men created. I won’t spoil anything more about this aspect of Iron Widow’s worldbuilding, but just know it’s beyond brutal.

The main draw with Iron Widow is the very anime-inspired SF world, versus Girls With Sharp Sticks’ nothing. Zhao did their homework with this one, that’s for sure. The terms are easy to follow, and there isn’t an overabundance of Things That Have Common Nouns With Capital Letters As Their Names. I admit that I was enthralled by the mechs, especially Guang’s, which is a kyubi; Zhao knows the fastest way to a weeb’s heart is to make a yokai Gundam. 

The writing is great to boot. I had a great sense of 3D space and what stuff looked like. Plus the battles were spectacular, with no shortage of anime flair. Like I said before, the portrayal of sexism is unrelenting and bludgeoning, written with exquisite and tormented poetry. The only problem I had is that I couldn’t quite picture the Hundun. They seemed to be a generic robot menace, though. 

Anyway, how’s the plot? Well, it’s a YA novel, so it’s predictable. However, Iron Widow manages to be one of the best YA novels of 2021 all the same. Like in Wings of Ebony, the book cuts out the fat to get to the good stuff. Exactly seventy pages in, Zetian successfully murders Guang during the first major battle. She then becomes the rare instance of an Iron Widow (title drop), which is something that is—naturally—covered up. In order to maintain control of her, she is paired with the strongest guy they got: Li Shimin, who happens to be a convicted felon. The bulk of the story is her building a relationship with Shimin, while trying to survive the system that’s so jerry-rigged against her.

Boy-o-boy, the cast is… something. Zetian is so manufactured it’s almost funny; but you know what, women get so much crap, I’m not even mad. She is as uncompromising and fierce as it gets. Nothing—and I mean NOTHING—breaks her. She’ll slander anyone who disagrees with her, and has no remorse when she murders Guang. Most of the men are one-dimensional sleazes, but like in Girls With Sharp Sticks, there’s that one likable guy. And it’s Shimin of all people. Whoda thought that the guy who’s hyped up to be a monster… isn’t? I never predicted that exact thing as soon as his name came up for the first time. Another predictable thing is Gao Yizhi. He’s the childhood friend, who spends a good portion of the book abandoned by Zetian so she can pursue her goal. However, he uses money to get into the camp, and exists as the good boy to contrast Shimin’s naughty boy. This sounds like the start of a cringy relationship, but to my pleasant surprise, these three protagonists’ relationships with one another ended up being one of the best takes of the love triangle trope I have ever seen.

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Final Verdict: 9.8/10

Xiran Jay Zhao has single-handedly made me give a crap about YA novels again. Iron Widow puts them in my book as one of the most promising new writers going into this decade. My butt’s already clenched waiting for the sequel, and more importantly, the possibility that Zhao can actually follow-up. If only they would write a middle-grade novel to tide me over… oh wait, they are, and it’s coming out later this year. Anyway, Iron Widow is my favorite YA novel of 2021 (too bad it isn’t 2021 anymore so no one cares), and I highly recommend it.

The Patchwork Girl of Oz: The Best—I mean—Least Bad Installment Yet

Oz has had ups and downs. In fact, the previous two books, The Road to Oz and The Emerald City of Oz, were absolutely awful in my opinion. At the end of my rope, I turned toward The Patchwork Girl of Oz with next to no expectations. How much worse could it get?

In The Patchwork Girl of Oz, a munchkin boy named Ojo and his uncle(?), Unc Nunkie, head off to find food. On the way, they meet this magician, Dr. Pipt, who tries to bring a patchwork girl of his wife’s creation to life. He succeeds, but petrification juice gets splashed all over said wife and Unc Nunkie. With the help of the Patchwork Girl, named Scraps, and an incredibly sassy Glass Cat, Ojo sets out to find the ingredients for an antidote. 

When I asked “How much worse can it get?” in the intro, I was fortunate that that question would not be answered today. For you see, Patchwork Girl is actually pretty damn good. First off, CONTINUITY. The chemical that brings Scraps to life is, indeed, the same Powder of Life from book two, and Pipt is the very magician who created it. Finally!

There is also a drastic improvement in new characters. Ojo is unremarkable at first, but ends up being the first morally ambiguous character in the series (even if his arc is rather lackluster compared to more modern protagonists). By comparison, Scraps and the Glass Cat are on another level, at least for Baum. 

Scraps is bright, jovial, and very optimistic, like an innocent child. Unfortunately, she’s kind of a dichotomy. She’s created with the intention of being a servant, which is as sexist as you’d expect for the time. However, because Baum can never be consistent, she actually manages to become a strong, independent woman. The 19th Amendment wouldn’t come to pass for seven more years, but the movements in favor of women’s right to vote were probably present at the time. Was Baum the first author to be worried about political correctness?

In stark contrast to Scraps’ peppiness, the Glass Cat is very egotistical, always eager to remind you about her ruby heart and pink brains (you can see ’em work). Unfortunately, the Glass Cat ends up being annoying very quickly, and this is coming from someone who likes Senku from Dr. Stone. The Glass Cat’s entire personality is its catchphrase. Imagine a character with a catchphrase, then imagine that phrase being the ONLY THING THEY SAY. While I love it when Senku says “ten billion percent”, I only love it because it’s just one part of a very charismatic guy. The Glass Cat is fun at first, and then stops being fun.

Other than that, it’s the usual Oz antics. Like in many installments, there are random, self-contained encounters that have absolutely no significance to the plot and are not entertaining. This far in, it feels very clear that Baum has been pulling Oz out of nowhere since the very beginning.

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Final Verdict: 6.8/10

Geez, I’m awful. Halfway through one of the most beloved literature franchises of all time, and I still haven’t scored a single one higher than a 7/10! Hopefully, it’ll get better from here.

Blood Like Magic: A Family Drama With a Cyberpunk Twist

I don’t consciously try to read books about racism. But when I began Liselle Sambury’s new series opener, Blood Like Magic, I was greeted with a disclaimer that basically said: “This book is about racism.” Well, let’s see how soul-grinding this one is.

In Blood Like Magic, families of witches get magic by having their periods (and Westerners think anime should be banned?). A young’un named Voya Thomas just had her period, and the next step after that is to have her nigh-impossible-to-fail Calling. Assuming you’ve had experience with urban fantasy before, what do you think happens when it comes to the main protagonist attempting some sort of magic test that everyone else in the world could do just fine? If you think Voya fails, you’d only be half-right. She calls Mama Jova, who—of course—happens to be the Dark Souls of the Thomas family.

So, the disclaimer at the beginning implies that Blood Like Magic is even more heart-rending and brutal than any other urban fantasy out there. It’s not. There is one scene (arguably two?) where racism is referenced at all. The scene in question is brutal, but it’s extremely out of left field. The reason for it is because Blood Like Magic is set twenty-eight years in the future, and in this future, racism isn’t that prevalent. Voya says that she has never been called a racist slur, nor conditioned to feel ashamed of being Black.

However, the book is still—to some extent—about racism, or at the very least, the fancy term known as “systemic racism.” Despite it not being in-your-face like in Legendborn, it still abounds in society itself. An example is showcased by NuGene, a big genetics company with a lot of weight in society. Apparently, if your genetic code implies that you might have a violent personality, you’ll be treated like a serial killer without even committing any crimes (or something), and this just so happens to be more punishing when it comes up in a Black person. The company’s employees insist on doing the whole “use gender identity at the end of their names” thing, but it turns out they’re hypocritical homophobes, which is shown when Voya’s transgender cousin is given the wrong set of chromosomes in their official record. 

The cherry on top is that Voya, as narrator, still uses those same race labels, despite the fact that they should be archaic given the context. In a way, Blood Like Magic more cynical than any other books of its kind. No matter how much progress we make, those in power won’t change. In that way, Blood Like Magic has left me emotionally distraught not in the moments of reading it, but when reflecting on it afterwards.

ANYWAY, let’s discuss the actual story! If you’ve read a YA novel, Mama Jova’s task will seem straight out of the edgiest urban fantasy ever: Voya must kill her first love. Fortunately for her, she joined a gene-matching program by the aforementioned NuGene, and was paired with Luc Rodriguez, the sponsor son of NuGene’s CEO. Of course, they hate each other as soon as they first meet. Key word: “first”.

After being given her task, Blood Like Magic becomes part-romcom, part sci-fi mystery as she juggles a classic tsundere relationship with Luc, and this weird stuff her family’s been hiding from her. It’s balanced surprisingly well, especially since YA novels this thick (just under five hundred pages) tend to drag. I read it with my butt clenched waiting for that inevitable conspiracy to be revealed.

Normally, I’d criticize the characters, but this time… I don’t actually hate them even though I should. By themselves, pretty much everyone is either unremarkable and/or very snarky. But together, their chemistry made them among the more tolerable YA casts I’ve seen. I loved Voya and her cousin, Keis, bouncing witty remarks at each other, or Granny—who basically runs the Thomases—asserting her absolute authority. Even what would be a cringe-inducing, formulaic tsundere relationship between Voya and Luc ends up seeming more legitimate and believable than “I hate you! I hate you too! *Proceeds to viciously make out*”.

Despite all its novelty, Blood Like Magic still has a lot of those annoying YA tropes. If you guessed that Voya falls in love with Luc and can’t kill him, then congratulations! You’ve read at least one YA novel! At the very least, the story manages to play out in a way that’s quite unexpected for the genre.

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Final Verdict: 9.5/10

I’m probably wrong and off-base about a lot of what Blood Like Magic is trying to say. But regardless, the thing to be invested in is without a doubt the families’ relationships. And I use a plural possessive noun because I don’t just mean the Thomases; I’m referring to their relationships with each other, as well as with the other witch families. Overall, I’d recommend Blood Like Magic just for the emotional story of Voya’s family.