The Prelude to Insurrection by J.C. Kang

“Jie’s heart leaped into her throat. How had she not heard someone approach on the nightingale floors, or even open the door? She spun around, hand reaching for her bladed hairpin.”

Book Cover

Prelude to Insurrection by J.C. Kang is short story introduction to the author’s expansive #OwnVoices Chinese adult fantasy series, Legends of Tivara. It follows a young orphan half-elf spy known as Jie as she tries to thwart a dangerous rebellion before it even begins.

My acquaintanceship with J.C. Kang’s multi-book universe occurred late one evening while I was browsing Amazon’s catalogue of fantasy Kindle e-books. Overwhelmed by the various connecting serials, I visited the author’s website where they shared a recommended reading order for all books in the Legends of Tivara series. Prelude to Insurrection was the suggested place to begin, so I bought a copy  for ninety-nine cents and read it immediately.

Being only seventy-four pages long, the short story is a decent way to whet one’s appetite for a historical Asian-inspired fantasy narrative. The first thing I noticed was how descriptive the settings were without being overwhelming or too wordy. The manner of which everything is described helped transport me to the location and situation that the main character Jie was embroiled in. I also appreciated the way the character’s facial expressions were portrayed as that is something that I feel is often trudged over in short stories, more so if there is already a familiarity with the cast members being depicted.

The action sequences were written very well and created an almost cinematic picture wheel in my mind as I read on. It was fast-paced and pleasantly flowing, emanating an escapism suffused adventure. This worked to add some intrigue to the hints of political strife that were woven into Jie’s mission. My hope is that the political upheaval that was teased shall be expounded upon in the full-length novels that follow because the small revelations that were shared were quite interesting.

If there’s any complaint to be had about the short story, it would be that it was, well, too short, which made it seem one-dimensional and bit pointless as a starting position for a whole series. There just was not enough information provided to completely hook me into wanting to learn more about the world of Tivara. However, if I had picked up Prelude to Insurrection after already having read a couple of the full-sized books, I am sure that I would feel differently about it.

All in all, Prelude to Insurrection was a pleasant little tale that fell a tiny bit too brief as a launching platform for a whole fantasy series. My goal is to return to it again in the future when I have more fleshed out knowledge about the political tension, the important characters, and the sort of person Jie is as both a spy and as a normal person outside of that role. I do recommend the author’s writings though. It’s rather superb and shows immense promise.

The Map of Salt and Stars by Zeyn Joukhadar

Can sadness be too heavy for God? Maybe God can bear it all, but I don’t know if I can. The world is a stone in me, heavy with Baba’s voice and the old clock tower and the man selling tea in the street. I want to believe things are supposed to be better, but I don’t have the words to say how.”

The Map of Salt and Stars eBook by Zeyn Joukhadar - 9781501169106 ...

The Map of Salt and Stars by Zeyn Joukhadar is an #OwnVoices Syrian-American fiction story about a girl named Nour and her family after they move back to Syria in the wake of her father’s passing. As they struggle to build a new life together in midst of unbearable grief, their town is bombed, significantly changing the course of their life as they know it.

There were so many elements to The Map of Salt and Stars that made it a phenomenally beautiful reading experience, such as the lyrical prose, the duality of stories being told, the nuances of past and present grief, and the heart-breaking nature of a refugee’s fight for survival.

The main character is a little girl named Nour. She has a condition called synaesthesia, which is neurological condition where multiple senses that are not typically connected become joined together. For example, it allows for people to hear colours or to be able to see sounds. Because of that, the prose is stunningly eloquent with lush descriptives that utilises numerous shades of bright colours to express feelings of sadness, grief, longing, guilt, joy and more. Nour sees the pain and suffering around her as people are dying or starving in shades of reds, yellows, and blues, for example. Because her entire existence is so heavily focused on the reliance of colours, the way she communicates her thoughts and fears to her mother seem almost constantly metaphorical. Eventually, their colour communication shall help them with an impossible situation that arises during their journey.

Now, there are two stories that take place side-by-side in The Map of Salt and Stars. The first is Nour’s story, during the present time, as her and her family become Syrian refugees. The second one is a fictional tale that her father used to share with her, and it occurs 800 years earlier, following a girl that disguises herself as a boy so she can become an apprentice to a renowned mapmaker. They travel the lands and fill in the blank places on the map. What makes both of these narratives so fascinating is how much of an echo they are of one another. Rawiya, the girl from the fictional story, goes on a long journey that allows for her to truly understand what family means to her, as well as what culture and history can mean for a person’s identity. Through Rawiya the reader also gets to experience Syria back when it was thriving and filled with tons of splendour, highlighting huge aspects of West Asian culture.

With Nour’s voyage, the reader gets to watch as Nour comes to understand how precious her family is to her. The memories of her father become her most cherished treasure, thoughts of her Syrian home and how it lay in pieces show her of a home she lost before she was able to grasp what it meant to her, and how the complex sibling rivalries she held with her sisters are meaningless and a waste of life when that same life can end in a single moment. Nour’s journey is one that is brimming with sorrow and terror and uncertainty as her family travels across lands where the ground is blanketed with brass casings, broken rocks, and ill-intentions.

“He said, ‘People don’t get lost on the outside. They get lost on the inside. Why are there no maps of that?’ ”

The only time that these two separate stories felt disjointed to me was when we shifted from one to the other. Because there is such a vast reliance on what sometimes amount to purple prose aesthetics with Nour’s point-of-view, it sometimes made it challenging for me to focus on sections with Rawiya, which felt rather simplistic and lacklustre in comparison. My brain could not adapt quickly or comfortably from a straightforward and artless tone to the more sophisticated and impeccably ornate descriptives of Nour’s world.

The Map of Salt and Stars eBook por Zeyn Joukhadar - 9781474606783 ...

Beyond that, The Map of Salt and Stars is an exceptionally heart-wrenching story to read. One of the biggest themes of the book is how quickly life can change. Nour and her family are uprooted as their home is destroyed. They gather everything that they can carry with them, find a few loved ones, and take off on foot in search of a place they can call home where death and dust do not plague them like shadows. This is the brutal reality of what it means to be a refugee, and a traumatising experience that many all around the world have undergone or are still experiencing to this day. The devastating experiences and overwhelming sense of hopelessness that threatens to dismantle Nour and her family is never sugar-coated or diminished, which I appreciated immensely because in spite of everything going on, they never lost that bit of hope, and this is such a profound message, particularly in tales that centre on a loss of identity to various extents.

The Map of Salt and Stars is one of the most consummate books that I have read in years, especially as it pertains to the refugee experience. It is magnificently compelling and emotionally riveting. The story is not an easy one to digest as it portrays the harsh reality of loss in multiple layers and dynamics, with the loss of home, loss of loved ones, loss of individuality, and even loss of faith, but that is also what makes it one of the most important books that you shall read.

The Kingdom of Copper (The Daevabad Trilogy #2) by S.A. Chakraborty

The sky shatters into smoking pieces that dissipate like dust in water as the veil comes falling down, revealing a painfully azure sky from the realm beyond. The mountains groan as dunes of golden sand rush to swallow them, their life snuffed out.”

PLEASE NOTE: THERE WILL BE SPOILERS FOR THE CITY OF BRASS IN THIS REVIEW.

The Kingdom of Copper eBook by S. A Chakraborty | Rakuten Kobo

The Kingdom of Copper by S.A. Chakraborty is the second title in her #OwnVoices Islamic fantasy series, The Daevabad Trilogy. Taking place five years after the climactic events of book one, the story focuses on the almost tangible political tension that plagues the city, and our main characters, upon Darayavhoush’s savage attack.

The Kingdom of Copper fully embraces the three facets of storytelling that I originally fell in love with via the first instalment and nurtures them into a spellbinding masterpiece. With this continuation, the world-building is further fleshed out, the characters are more refined through devastating experiences with new characters being introduced that are as equally developed as the main cast, and with scorching political intrigue to rival that of fantasy (or sci-fi) epics such as A Song of Ice and Fire or Dune.

The creation of the city of Daevabad—and the overall universe of the series—is chock full of multi-dimensional characters that evoke an array of emotional responses. It consistently maintains some of the best individuals I have ever come across in the genre.

With Nahri, we have a woman that has always been fiercely independent, but now has to bow to a tyrannical king in order to save the lives of her people while trying to find a way to wrestle away their freedom from this dehumanising oppression. With Ali, we have a royal who was betrayed and thrown out by his own family, forcing him to survive in a way that shall test everything that he as ever believed in. With Dara, we have someone who has spent centuries being nothing more than a tool and slave for power-hungry persons claiming peace with some grand, self-righteous saviour complexes. Each one of these individuals is given their own unique journey of self-discovery in The Kingdom of Copper. Sometimes it is beautifully inspiring, whilst at other times, it breaks the reader’s heart and wraps them in a great sense of grief and sadness.

Out of the three of them, Alizayd was my second favourite to read about. In The City of Brass he was a spoiled palace brat that could never formulate political opinions that were distinctly his own; ideas and beliefs that were not tainted by the influences of a brother he worshipped and a father he respected above all else. Now that he has been exiled, having to fight for the simplest of things changes him in ways that are astounding as the narrative moves forward. He really comes into his own and becomes a man that is much more than his brother’s keeper or his father’s pawn. He is carved into a person with a ferocity and strength that only comes from wanting to abate suffering.

A second perspective that was as delightful as it was distressing to read about (and also my favourite in the whole book) was Darayavahoush’s. For the first time, we get a glimpse of how the world works through his eyes. There are so many moments when Dara has clarity and understands what it is that should not be done versus what should yet falls utterly powerless to help alter the actions that unfold in the pursuit of tragedy. The more darkness he witnesses with regard to the people he respects and admires, the more he comes to comprehend that things are not as blatantly black and white as he perceived them to be. It causes him to open his mind to the possibilities that he has been wrong for a very, very long time. These newfound personal revelations create an internal conflict within Dara that is breathtakingly sorrowful and perversely compelling as he is forced to choose sides.

“It was a grin that made Dara sick. That was what he looked like now when he shifted, his fire-bright skin, gold eyes, and clawed hands a mirror of the demons who’d enslaved him. That his ancestors had looked the same before Suleiman’s curse was of little comfort. It hadn’t been his ancestor’s grin he’d seen just before the fetid water of the well closed over his face.”

We also have a plethora of side characters that play key roles in keeping the main cast plunging onwards with their narratives. What I love about these more supporting individuals is how much attention they are given. They are not merely unnamed pieces on a board but have difficulties and morals and individualism all their own that helps the reader to formulate an intense emotional bond to them. I became wholly invested in their desires and pursuits, at times more so than the main trio. Everyone has phenomenal chemistry relative to their relationship to each other as well, whether they are friends or foes.

The Kingdom of Copper (The Daevabad Trilogy, Book 2) by S. A. ...

The rudimentary examination of the city’s tightly knit political atmosphere is taken up quite a few notches in The Kingdom of Copper. There is a near-labrynthine connection between the different factions, their faith and what they believe they’ve been owed for centuries, their right to exist, their desire to break from subjugation, and more. Betrayal is as common as the desert sand with compounding duplicities and jumbling loyalties. The intrigue is methodical with a slow-burn build of attrition that is provoked by dwindling hope and a fierce exhaustion of constant brutal persecution.   

The Kingdom of Copper is very different than the first book in that The City of Brass was jam-packed with action and snappy comebacks as well the magical acclimation of characters. Whereas, this sequel is dedicated in fleshing out the people we know and love and the minute yet vastly vital details of the city of Daevabad, particularly where stateship is concerned. Both are equally thrilling and irresistible without losing sight of the ultimate story and should be devoured by all fans of the fantasy genre.

The City of Brass (The Daevabad Trilogy #1) by S.A. Chakraborty

Crouched like a cat over the smouldering remains of a small fire—the sharp smell of burnt green wood filling the air—the djinn stared at her with a sort of wary curiosity in his bright green eyes.”

The City of Brass eBook by S. A Chakraborty - 9780062678126 ...

The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty is the first book in an #OwnVoices Islamic epic fantasy series called The Daevabad Trilogy. The remarkable story of Nahri, Dara, and Alizayd begins here and it is quite life-changing, to say the least. Nahri is an orphaned woman that has spent her entire life in the city of Cairo. Gifted with extraordinary healing abilities, she agrees to help a local lady with exorcising an evil spirit from a little girl, a practise that Nahri does not completely believe in. In the process, she accidentally summons a great and powerful being named Dara. With his arrival, he brings with him myriad questions and vengeful ifrit that quickly begin to pursue them. The mysterious Dara realises the safest way to flee the dark creatures hunting them is to travel to the grand city of Daevabad, where Nahri may finally receive answers about her parents and clouded past.   

The City of Brass crafts three elements of fantasy storytelling with absolute brilliance and they include intricately created and awe-inspiring settings, an introduction to characters dappled with imperfect moralities, and a distinct story within the overarching narrative, which helps the book feel complete upon its finale while still leaving the reader with intense anticipation of the next volume.

The world-building is phenomenal and breath-takingly detailed without falling victim to the commonality of info-dumping. Rather than receiving walls of boring textual information telling the reader what to imagine or feel, we are instead left to experience the surroundings ourselves. The outskirts of Egypt and Daevabad are threaded together in such a fashion that it is difficult to believe it is a work of fiction. The fragrances of food, fauna and flora, smoky and sweaty Djinns, mouth-watering teas, and scrumptious delights when combined with the rough and arid atmospheres of the desert and the beating heat of the sun, truly transports the reader to a whole new universe.

A chilly breeze swept through the winding streets, past intricately tiled bathhouses and the thick doors protecting fire temples whose alters had burned for millennia, bringing the smell of damp earth and tree sap from the thickly forested mountains that surrounded the island. It was the type of morning that sent most djinn scurrying indoors like cats fleeing in rain, back to beds of smoky silk brocade and warm mates, burning away the hours until the sun reemerged hot and proper to scald the city to life.”

We are introduced to the three main characters—Nahri, Dara, and Alizayd—with a basic understanding of their beliefs, morals, and values; aspects that shall be nurtured and expounded upon in the next two books, giving way to some of the most remarkable character development that I have read in years. Nahri is fiercely independent and defends her right to that individuality as much as she can, which means asking questions that others may not take a keen appreciation of. Dara has years of trauma and subjugation to contend with, which blind him to the fallacies of the beliefs that grew out these experiences. Alizayd is a sheltered, privileged young man who has no idea how the world works outside of the gold-glistening walls of entitlement and obeyance. Together they formulate a complex web of emotions and intellectual discourse of the fine lines between right and wrong, moral and immoral that play the part of plot progression as their individual journeys all collide towards the end.

The City of Brass (The Daevabad Trilogy, Book 1) | Rakuten Kobo

Even though there is an overarching plot in The City of Brass that shall be continued onwards through to The Kingdom of Copper and then The Empire of Gold,  the book has a tale that is unique to it. For example, Dara and Nahri’s journey is a necessary part of the narrative that not only creates the foundation for their relationship and bond, but also for the events that occur much later on. However, even though it plays such an impactful role for the series as a whole, conflicts that arise during their journey is mostly resolved by the end. When there is a series with multiple instalments, it becomes critical to have a need for each respective segment, otherwise everything blurs together and each book can feel like filler fluff, which is the mark of poor writing. It should be there to help develop and promote growth of a narrative, not to spread it out for the sake of doing so; something Chakraborty executes splendidly well.

For a first book in a trilogy, The City of Brass is almost flawless. It does everything that a first book should do, and it does it well, with excellent writing, pacing, world-building and fallible characters that shall lay down the groundwork for the next part of this grand adventure. It was a supreme honour being able to read such a masterful work of culturally-rich fantasy storytelling.

I highly recommend this to anyone that is in the market for an adult fantasy book that is beautifully diverse and fantastically constructed in just about every way imaginable.

The Moon in the Palace (The Empress of Bright Moon #1) by Weina Dai Randel

In truth, we were similar. Like two sides of a fan, we were at odds with each other, we competed with each other, but our fates similarly rested in the hands of the Emperor–the holder, the commander, the manipulator of our destinies.

The Moon in the Palace by Weina Dai Randel is an #OwnVoices Chinese historical fiction novel that is the first in a duology chronicling the life of Empress Wu as she rose from a simple concubine to become one of the most powerful rulers in Chinese history. The story begins with a little girl named Mei who is picked to become a potential paramour for the Emperor. In the wake of her father’s demise, she is whisked away to the palace, never to see her family again. When a rare opportunity arises for her to capture the Emperor’s attention, she crafts a gift that he will never forget, setting into motion an array of events that shall ultimately steal Mei’s childhood innocence to morph her into a calculatingly intelligent and resourceful woman of the court.

This is a difficult book to review because there are so many captivating elements about it, yet it was also quite challenging for me to stay invested in Mei’s journey from beginning to end due to its extremely basic prose.

The best parts of The Moon in the Palace are with the moments of intrigue and suspense that comes with palace politics, particularly where oppressed female roles are involved. Mei learns that not everything is as she fantasised about when she was younger, and that the privilege of visiting with the Emperor is exactly that: an honour awarded to only a handful of women who have proven themselves to be memorable to him. Friendships are superficial and a means to climbing the ladder of prestige and any hint of compassions is usually tied to a thread of devastating deception. The author has a talent for building tension slowly that makes the reader want to root for Mei while protecting her from the doom that is inevitable.

I knew now: love and destiny were two wild horses that could not be curbed. They galloped in different directions and ran down different paths where streams of desire and hope would not converge. To follow one was to betray the other. To make one happy was to break the other’s heart. Yet I supposed that was part of life, a lesson we had to learn. To grow up was also to give up, and to build the future was to dissolve the past. The only thing we could do was hope for the best, to believe that the horse we chose would find us a safe destination.

Since there are so many levels to the depths that people go to for power and authority, the story becomes dark and tragic very quickly. It is also powerfully vicious and emotionally tight; all necessary ingredients for an extraordinary exposition on the internal workings of Chinese state-ship at the time. The only thing that really diminishes the quality of the narrative as a whole is the overly simplistic prose.

The tone did not fit the time period at all and came off as rather contemporary in nature. If I did not already have prior knowledge of the book’s particular era, I would be inclined to believe that this was a modern-day telling of Empress Wu’s beginnings, just without the use of technology. There was also a lack of emotion in many dialogue exchanges and interactions that Mei had with other women of the court. There were only two women who evoked any sort of emotional response or association while reading, and they were ones that had impactful roles as well, which greatly alleviated the monotonous feel of the people of the court.

Lastly, the story is incredibly drawn-out. I understand the need for meticulous use of details, and I often appreciate the tediousness that comes with the historical fiction genre. However, with The Moon in the Palace, it would have been better to use some well-placed time jumps to cover more of the lacking portions. The pacing does pick up significantly within the final one-third to one-fourth or the novel, and that was where I finally began to feel more invested with the plot and Mei’s journey. I merely wish the first 70% was not such a slog to get through. By the time I arrived at the climax, I had utterly disconnected with the all the characters and storyline.

Even so, I recommend this book to fans of Chinese historical fiction. Some readers may appreciate the graduality of the novel more than I did, and as I mentioned, there are some rather marvellous aspects to The Moon in the Palace that can be overlooked by the slower development. At the very least, the beginnings of Empress Wu’s life in this fictional telling is still quite provocative and culturally fascinating; definitely worth experiencing, especially if one is an enthusiast of cultural histories.