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.

Legendborn: This Book Broke Me

I definitely have not hesitated to come down with constructive criticism on stuff that deals with racism. However, I’m only showing one side of the coin. As confidently as I make quips like “It’s too ham-fisted” or “It’s just torture porn”, I don’t entirely feel that way. To be honest, every commentary on racism—no matter how well it’s framed—has broken me, especially after the George Floyd incident. And Tracy Deonn’s Legendborn is no exception. This book made me hate my own existence. In fact, I’ve actually read—and started writing this review—not long after the book was published; I was just so indecisive about how to go about writing it. I still don’t know if the post is proper even now. Oh well, it’s here.

In Legendborn, a girl named Briana Matthews (henceforth known as Bree) has been on an incessantly long road of recovery after the tragic death of her mother. She’s been attending this super-highschool-early-college academy place, and gets herself almost immediately expelled when she joins a dumb teenager-y gathering. During this gathering, a bizarre incident occurs, and she witnesses a strapping young man slay some kind of demon thing. This dude, named Selwyn Kane, is one of many Legendborn, and is able to alter people’s memories. It’s at this point that Bree realizes that they have a connection to the cause of her mother’s death, and with the help of fellow Legendborn Nick Davis, she’s going to find the truth even if it kills her.

As much as I’d like to say that Bree’s Blackness is irrelevant, I can’t because I’d be wrong. It’s ham-fisted, but necessarily so, considering its 2020 release year. Bree is frequently harassed by authority figures and other people in the Legendborn’s secret society of angsty special teens. That’s to be expected, but it goes further when some developments regarding slavery and the Civil War come up later. It’s so on-the-nose that it absolutely crushed my nose, and the momentum from that weight crushed my soul as well. 

But as integral to the plot racism is, the social commentaries feel like a vehicle to make otherwise uninteresting worldbuilding interesting. Beyond the racism, Legendborn’s basic lore is just Jujutsu Kaisen meets Last Round Arthurs. The reason for its resemblance to the latter is the fact that the Legendborn’s Order has King Arthur symbolism. They use lengthy exposition to make it seem like a really deep system, but the basic idea is that some kids are descended from King Arthur and his knights and can awaken those individuals’ powers once the demons decide to reenact the Battle of Camlann Hill (or something). This, along with Bree’s character arc, exists to cater to that fascination that individuals have with their family histories. The Order’s enemies are the Shadowborn, which are the same old “demons that feed off of human negativity” that have been used billions of times.

Despite my nitpicks, I have found Legendborn to be one of the better YA novels I’ve read. They ham in the mother’s death in that blatant “start with a tragic event as an easy emotional hook” scheme, but it’s done exquisitely. The writing is very descriptive, and gives the action sequences some punch that is often lacking in the genre. And although the story is pretty generic, it’s still fun to read. Last but not least, its portrayal of racism and its history is bone-crushing. My soul was broken, and the pieces were ground into dust. To be perfectly blunt, I barely remember how the book ended, mainly because the raw emotion of it took complete hold over me.

Bree is perhaps one of the best YA protagonists simply because she actually is what most YA authors try and fail to make their female leads. Her struggles are real, and her ability to be strong through all this grief is something else. Unfortunately, she is a case of “has unique powers for no reason”, but that doesn’t dampen her arc.

Most of the other characters aren’t that interesting. Nick Davis is an exception; his Prince Charming-esque relationship with Bree feels legit because neither of them exactly wanted the hands they were dealt in life. Selwyn, however, is your super-edgelord, and I have a bad feeling that he will reluctantly be part of a love triangle with Bree and Nick (since there is an upcoming sequel and all). That’s kind of where the likable characters end, as everyone else is either unremarkable and/or racist.

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Final Verdict: 9.2/10

Legendborn is a dime a dozen, but it’s a really, REALLY well-polished dime (wait, is that right? Well, you know what I mean). I am excited for the sequel, but I don’t exactly know what direction it could go in. As of now, Legendborn is more than worthy enough to be in a list of best #BlackGirlMagic books.

The Infinity Courts: What If Siri Ran the Afterlife?

I don’t know why I’m still trying to get into YA novels, considering that I tend to not like them. But sometimes, you just have an impulsive, smooth-brain moment. And in this particular impulse, I decided to try Akemi Dawn Bowman’s The Infinity Courts, the first in what is—according to Goodreads—a trilogy. I’ve apparently made a habit of reviewing individual installments of book series as of late, so I guess I’ll continue that pattern again!

In The Infinity Courts, a typical teenage girl named Nami Miyamoto is about to have the night of her life: a graduation party, whereafter she and her crush, Finn, will have their happily ever after. But when her dumb friend makes her buy something spur-of-the-moment, Nami has a true isekai-light-novel experience when she is shot in a convenience store and is awakened in a strange world known as Infinity. Everything here is perfect, which means it’s actually not even remotely perfect. And it doesn’t take long for Infinity’s Residents to start hunting her down.

I suppose that, being at most the one-third point of the bigger story, the following statement would be said too soon. But I’m going to say it anyway: if you’re looking for something that’ll make your brain gears whirl, then The Infinity Courts is not it. The world of Infinity is more-or-less that of The Matrix. Just like in those whacky conspiracy theories, our smartphone A.I.s—with this world’s model being named Ophelia—end up ruling the human race and want to brainwash everyone. Nami joins your typical Resistance group in an effort to take Ophelia down.

However, there is at least a bit more creativity this time around. Infinity has a lot of appealing and surreal setpieces, as implied by the map at the beginning. It helps that we get a good enough description of these setpieces; not too much and not too little. A lot of names are just common nouns with uppercase letters, but it’s not as excessive with that trope as other YA novels.

It also helps that Bowman is a legit good writer. Even though The Infinity Courts is a case of “same sh** different day”, I was thoroughly engaged with the story and wanted to know what happened next. It’s not too pretentious with metaphors, like most YA novels tend to be (even if it asks those philosophical questions a lot).

The cast is also surprisingly likable… for the most part. A lot of the resistance people are decent folks who just really prioritize the Colony above all else. However, Nami—despite being named after One Piece‘s Best Girl—is an incredibly hard sell. Like your typical YA female protagonist, she’s self-deprecating, and doesn’t want to fight the Residents even when shown how they enslave and torture humans. And of course, she has mysterious abilities that no one else has, even if this particular instance kind of makes sense, given her weird sense of sympathy with her smartphone in life.

Gil is the other hard sell. He’s a middle-aged, war torn veteran trapped in a teenager’s body, but some of that teenager-y-ness manifests as well. He’s so hard-headed and angsty, and is also that guy who hates the main protagonist just to be an asshole. The other leading lad is Prince Caelan, one of the four Princes of Infinity. He’s, well, Mr. Perfect, and is—for the time being—the only Prince to get an actual character arc. The main antagonist, Ophelia, is your typical robot overlord; she’s all like “humans are all born racist and violent and evil”, and thinks that trying to remove them from Infinity is an objectively good thing.

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Final Verdict: 8.75/10

The Infinity Courts is not original whatsoever, but it reinvents the wheel in a pleasantly surprising way. I’m more than willing to commit to this series, which is saying something considering how I feel about YA novels. I recommend it if you want raw entertainment, but don’t expect your thoughts to be provoked.

The Emerald City of Oz: Somehow, a Volume with a Literal War in it Has Next to NO Action

L. Frank Baum’s Oz books had been steadily getting better, up until the fifth book, The Road to Oz. I really hope that it was just a fluke. Well, the only way to figure out if the series is getting better or worse is to continue it! Let’s jump into book six: The Emerald City of Oz.

In this installment, Dorothy’s aunt and uncle are S.O.L. And while a good therapist would tell you not to run away from your problems, Dorothy suggests to do just that! She has Ozma invite them to live in Oz forever. And what a time to move in, as the Nome King is planning to invade.

Up to this point, the government of the Emerald City has been well-established. However, when Baum gave us the recap of how it worked, I realized another prophecy of Baum’s. But this one, er… Well, to sum up, everyone has equal money in the Emerald City. Oz is a Communist kingdom. Aaaaah, American culture, you never cease to baffle me.

Anyway, the basic structure of this volume alternates POVs, from Dorothy showing her relatives around Oz, while the Nome King’s general recruits followers for his cause. I initially looked forward to this, because I thought, “Hey, we can reintroduce some of the minor antagonists from earlier in the series! Continuity!” However, I was once again an ignoramus for having hope in Baum. Instead of doing that, we are suddenly introduced to a number of one-dimensionally evil races, one of which is a literal race of furries (different from the ones in The Road to Oz). 

Not only are there new bad guys in this volume, but there are also brand new denizens of Oz. Classic Baum, constantly adding new things instead of expanding upon existing things. Because it’s whacky! The new races are as imaginative as usual, such as a race of people made out of puzzle pieces. There’s also a race of paper people, all created by a single girl—once again, Baum unwittingly stuffs sacrilege into kids’ brains. At least he has balls. 

But no matter how creative Baum gets, it seems I just cannot get immersed in this world. Everything in it is just distributed, and doesn’t feel… like anything. People still love this series so much? How? I can only see this being good at the time, before Tolkein raised the bar (a bar that is definitely not met even these days). It takes so much more than ideas to have good worldbuilding, and I expected more out of such a beloved series. I guess that’s one thing that it has in common with most modern stuff (Oooooh snap).

Honestly, I have nothing else to say. The climax is boring and rushed, possibly shoehorning in a new plot device that I’m supposed to have believed was in the Emerald City from the very beginning (I say “possibly” because it could’ve been mentioned and I forgot because I was bored). Oz researcher Peter Glassman, once again, acts as if this is the greatest thing since sliced bread. But this time, his reasoning seems to entirely rest on the fact that Emerald City has alternating POVs. This is what I hate about classic literature as a whole. People just laud them for being the first at doing something, as if that makes it better than any later stuff that does the same thing better. By comparison, I can at least say that Dracula is one of the best vampire stories ever. It was a no-nonsense thriller, where the vampires were real monsters that didn’t glow with shoujo sparkles. Oz is not Dracula.

It’s not all bad, though. There were a couple of interesting bits that I feel like should be brought up. First off, there is a place (I forgot what location was called), where its people had anxiety attacks over literally every possible negative eventually, even the super improbable ones. Baum, arguably, predicted the slowly deteriorating mental health of America. It’s exaggerated, but I actually related to these people, since I’m living in a world where the media will make everything out to be the end of days. There is also another case of Glinda the Good being not-so-good. They meet these rabbits who have been forcibly evolved to a civilized state completely against their will, and only because Glinda felt like it. That final book looms ever ominously before me, man.

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Final Verdict: 6.7/10

Emerald City of Oz gets a slightly higher rating since it has some of the more inventive ideas (even if they are superficial). Overall, this book sucks. I would be glad to be finished with it, as it was meant to be the final Oz book. However, we are not even halfway. I’m suddenly Han Solo, because I have a bad feeling about this.

The Last Fallen Star: My First Ever Impression of Korean Culture

As someone who’s been alive within the last ten years, I have borne witness to the sudden rise of South Korea’s influence on the world’s entertainment industry. And considering I’ve been into Japanese culture for a long time, I’ve basically been jealous of Korea to this day. Anime have been out internationally for decades, and only a handful of them are accepted by your garden variety “all-American”. In my experience, it feels like Japan has only gotten more disdain as facets of their culture continue to come into the fold. And yet, all it took was ‘Oppa Gangnam Style’ for South Korea to be welcomed with open arms. Nowadays, manhwa and webtoons seem to be eclipsing Japan’s manga industry, and BTS the biggest active music group in the world, with their other K-Pop compatriots not far behind. Eventually, I just lost it, and absolutely HAD to know if I was missing something. And my voyage into Korean culture begins with Graci Kim’s novel, The Last Fallen Star, one of two Korean I.P.s from Rick Riordan Presents.

In The Last Fallen Star, you have your usual secret coven of witches. I’ll give you three guesses as to what the main protagonist, Riley Oh’s, problem is. …Did you guess that she has no magic? Yep, that’s exactly the case. The other old beans in the clan try to act like they don’t think she’s just baggage, but it’s not a particularly good facade. So, what does Riley do? She and her sister, Hattie, perform an illegal spell that has a chance to give Riley temporary powers. I’ll give you three guesses as to what results.

If you guessed that it goes horribly wrong, then that would be correct, but also an understatement. In fact, Riley’s parents end up in a position where they decide if they or Riley get permanently ejected out of the clan. Riley decides for them, and boots herself out, afterwhich the sisters perform ANOTHER illegal ritual that puts Hattie’s life at stake. Of course, the solution is for Riley, and her friend Emmet, to find a MacGuffin. Why wouldn’t it be?

Positives first. The story, unlike other Presents books, doesn’t waste time. The premise being entirely centered around MacGuffin-finding screams padding, but it’s actually relevant to a much bigger plot. It’s much more dialogue-driven than other Presents books, but not having random Korean monsters attack just for the sake of action is another plus for the pacing.

Sadly, that’s about where the positives end. The Korean-mythology-based worldbuilding is pretty typical. It’s your garden variety urban fantasy, with the different portals to witch-land in the middle of unassuming public areas, various rituals, and really dense-headed coven bigwigs. The specific legends used in the story, such as Korea’s creation legend, are… alright, I guess. Even taking my Shinto bias in mind, it’s your usual “the world is created perfectly and then someone does something stupid.”

The cast also leaves something to be desired (big surprise coming from me). Riley, being adopted, magicless, and wanting to be included in social circles, ticks all the boxes on the “relatable” checklist. I also dislike her for using the word “amazeballs”. The male lead, Emmet, is your typical best friend, and his arc revolves entirely around his response to the inevitable big plot twist reveal. We don’t get to see many gods—in fact, we only see one—and she is not as memorable as she could’ve been.

The only other issue I have is with the climax. It’s a good climax from a sheer entertainment standpoint, but I feel like some stuff happened solely for shock value. Also, the final twist feels like Kim trying to make readers feel that participation-trophy-specialness, which—according to Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck—leads to mental health disorders.

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Final Verdict: 8/10

The Last Fallen Star is the second best Rick Riordan Presents book I have read thus far, which is not saying much considering that I don’t like most of them. And even then, I still didn’t love it like I do that one series I will be covering at some point. I’m willing to finish this series, but I don’t think I’m going to learn why people like this particular brand of mythology.

Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard: Read it Before Ragnarök

Lately, I’ve been questioning my admiration toward Rick Riordan, the author of Percy Jackson, a.k.a. “The Storyteller of the Gods”. I read Percy Jackson over ten years ago, and needless to say, it helped me become who I am today. I would’ve never wanted to study Japanese culture to the Nth degree if it weren’t for Percy. But I haven’t reread Percy to this day. In 2017, I attempted to read Trials of Apollo—completely skipping over Heroes of Olympus—and I never finished it. With every Apollo book, I liked it less and less. Furthermore, I kept getting disappointed at the books published under the Rick Riordan Presents imprint; books that all had to get his seal of approval. With me questioning the tastes and talents of one of the most defining people in my life, I was tempted to do a Percy Jackson retrospective. However, that series is five stinking books long, and I had so much crap to do as it was. Instead, I turned to another series of his: Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard. It was only three books, so it was doable. Although Norse mythology is the second most overused template for fantasy worldbuilding, I at least had some vague familiarity with some of its more nuanced aspects, thanks entirely to one of my new favorite bands, Brothers of Metal. Without further ado, let’s see if I can like something by Rick Riordan!

In Magnus Chase, the titular character has been homeless ever since his mom died in a fire. After living in the slums of Boston, he gets your typical visit by a long-lost, mysterious relative. This time, it’s his Uncle Randolph, who tells him the usual: he’s the son of a Norse god. Magnus gets this fancy sword thing that’s been lying in the Charles River, but then he dies. He awakens in Hotel Valhalla, where he must join the other halfbloods on adventures.

Rick Riordan is at least good at jumping into the action. All that I just described happens in the first forty-seven pages, when most books would take almost a hundred to start in earnest. And like in Percy Jackson, you get acclimated to Hotel Valhalla while everyone there shits on him and his Valkyrie friend, Sam. As expected from Riordan, he does a great job of blending Norse folklore with the modern day in his own signature style. Riordan’s snarky sense of humor is also very prevalent.  

While there are a number of obvious similarities to Percy, Magnus Chase is a bit different. Due to the power of red herrings, it’s never clear who’s on whose side. All we know is that Ragnarök = Bad, and that some people want it more than others. Sam ends up being the daughter of Loki, who’s supposed to be the bad guy, and she gets ejected from Valhalla for bringing Magnus in. Is she sus and working for Loki? Is Loki sus? Whoooooo knooooooooows?!

In terms of writing, Magnus is actually not bad. Riordan is about as talented of a storyteller as I remember, even if I didn’t take the story as seriously as my younger self did Percy. I could easily visualize everything as it appeared, which most authors fail doing. One thing I noticed is how wordy the books are most of the time. Well, it’s kind of a thing I’ve noticed in most Western literature, and it kind of fascinates me for some reason. I know that flavor text can bring more life to the story, but sometimes it feels excessive. As an aspiring writer, my problem ended up being that my stuff was too short. I’ve taken inspiration from the 1952 adaptation of A Christmas Carol, which Leonard Maltin described as “understatement and restraint.” That’s why I try to not go for BS hyperbole on my blogs. Anyway, sorry for that tangent; let’s get back to the review.

Since middle grade books have to be dummy thick, Riordan does have a number of scenes that don’t seem necessary. I had problems with this in The Storm Runner and a certain other Percy-influenced franchise that I’ll be reviewing in the foreseeable future. Fortunately, Riordan at least has the ability to make the filler fun in its own right. Instead of dumb, arbitrary trials that tell stuff about the characters that we already knew, Magnus has more fun and varied activities, like fishing up Jormungandr and bowling with giants.

If there was another thing I could always trust Riordan for was his research. Readers are expected to recognize Thor and Loki (thanks to the M.C.U.), and perhaps Yggdrasil and stuff since everything in every JRPG series is named after Norse mythology. But me, I had Brothers of Metal. I recognized the Norns, Heidrun, and more. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t help me pay attention to the story when they come up. I know it sounds bad, but I couldn’t help it. A lot of the time, I was just thinking of this:

And I may or may not have come up with the post just to plug the band.

Like with more-or-less everything I’ve ever experienced, the characters—once again—don’t quite win me over. There’s nothing particularly wrong with them. If you’re familiar with Percy Jackson, then you’d probably like them just fine. But that’s the thing; they pretty much are Percy Jackson characters in every way. I don’t 100% recall how the Percy characters were, but at least going off of my nostalgic memory, the cast of Magnus is inferior in a number of ways. Magnus himself is that typical wish fulfilment character, with his initial homelessness as an added bonus. At least he’s appreciative of being whisked away to the lap of luxury, for once?

Sam is pretty much Annabeth, which I suppose is inaccurate, since Annabeth herself is actually Magnus’ cousin (apparently, every religions’ gods coexist in the same universe?). Basically, she’s a tomboy and has not much else going for her. Sam’s sibling, Alex Fierro, ends up packing much more sass. As the offspring of good ol’ Loki, their whole character arcs revolve around getting over their abusive pa. Magnus’ other main cohorts end up being Blitz and Hearth, a dwarf and elf respectively. They’re good dudes.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t fond of everyone. There are several other kids in Magnus’…  er… class(?), but they have no presence at all. They crap on him super early on, but they just suddenly stop doing that, and I can only assume Riordan did that initially for shock value. Even with more of a role in the final book, they feel like half-assed characters, especially by Riordan standards. 

The assorted Norse mythology characters, as expected, end up being the cast’s strong suit. They’re full of sass, as well as having the duality of being ancient characters who are in touch with the modern world (something that would lose its novelty if someone were to write a series based on Japanese mythology, since that duality is already part of their culture). Sadly, I was the most disappointed in Loki. SPOILER ALERT, the god of tricksters is—in fact—the main antagonist. While he is an entertaining villain, his role doesn’t exactly shed a new perspective on Norse mythology in the way that other series try with their villains (even if those books fail at the attempt). The only attempt in Magnus’ case is made towards the end of the series, where Loki just says the same old “there’s no real good and evil” schtick that I’ve only seen in stories that fail to actually convey that through context. I’m sorry, but wanting to jumpstart the end of days for no reason seems to be pretty close to one-dimensional evil, just saying. 

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Final Verdict: 8.5/10

I don’t think Rick Riordan deserves to be hailed as the Storyteller of the Gods, but he is a very capable writer (even if his references are pander-ously mainstream). Magnus Chase isn’t life-changing, nor(se) does it subvert Viking culture, but it’s nonetheless a solid action-adventure trilogy. It’s also taught me how shallow a lot of the Rick Riordan Presents books feel by comparison, where they merely seem to emulate what people find appealing in Riordan’s books instead of finding their own voices. I recommend Magnus Chase if you like Percy Jackson, or if you want an actually good urban fantasy for once.