I’m sharing another instalment of my Mini Review Mondays, the most recent of which was a couple of weeks ago. In case you haven’t seen any of my previous posts, I do ‘mini’ reviews of books that I’ve previously read and am now ready to share my full thoughts about.
First up, I’d like to talk about A Magic Steeped in Poison by Judy I Lin. Thank you so much to Titan Books for the eARC in exchange for an honest review.
I used to look at my hands with pride. Now all I can think is, these are the hands that buried my mother.
For Ning, the only thing worse than losing her mother is knowing that it’s her own fault. She was the one who unknowingly brewed the poison tea that killed her the poison tea that now threatens to also take her sister, Shu. When Ning hears of a competition to find the kingdom’s greatest shennong-shi – masters of the ancient and magical art of tea-making – she travels to the imperial city to compete.
The winner will receive a favor from the princess, which may be Ning’s only chance to save her sister’s life. But between the backstabbing competitors, bloody court politics, and a mysterious (and handsome) boy with a shocking secret, Ning might actually be the one in more danger.
Publication Date: 6th September
TW: poisoning, blood, death, death of a parent, grief, medical trauma, injury, terminal illness, torture, violence, vomit, sexual harassment, animal harm
A Magic Steeped in Poison is ingenious, innovative and has its own unique flavour. This is unlike anything I have read before and stands out amongst the crowd.
Firstly, any book with a magic system based on tea has my whole heart. I loved the way Lin has woven together elements of folklore, mythology and a deeply fascinating story. It is utterly captivating and unique. The delicacy and focus on the ritual of making tea, with its subtle nuances and rich history is so beautiful to see. Also, the way it ties characters together through connections, family and tradition adds this layer of something extremely human to the creative flourishes of magic. In this, Lin has created something so unique, intriguing and thoroughly gripping.
This is well-plotted, with plenty of narrative twists and shifts that kept me guessing. Lin keeps the tension and stakes constantly rising, starting with the shadow of death and the lingering touches of something deeply disturbing going on beneath the surface. Every page has that undercurrent of life or death, with an expectation of surprises in store. I loved how heavily Lin leans into political machinations and the intricate powerplays of the court. This is a book deeply steeped in privilege and the weight of expectations on the shoulders of the characters, igniting conversations about regional and class distinctions affecting perceptions of people and their skills.
Most of all though, I loved the detailed character work and these three-dimensional, flawed and lovable people that resulted from it. Ning is such a lovable and memorable protagonist, driven by a desire to prove herself worthy of the magic and to protect her family at all costs. There is also a weighty sense of guilt from that fateful cup of tea. Her perspective is distorted by her emotional fragility, but she also has that fire and passion to push through.
A Magic Steeped in Poison is a book that reminded me just why I love reading fantasy books. I cannot wait to get the second part in my hands.
Next up, I’d like to talk about Self-Made Boys by Anna-Marie McLemore. Thank you so much to Selena at Macmillan International for sending me an eARC in exchange for an honest review.
New York City, 1922.
Nicolas Caraveo, a 17-year-old Latinx transgender boy from Minnesota, has no interest in the city’s glamour. He rents a small house in West Egg from his 18-year-old cousin, Daisy Fabrega, who lives in fashionable East Egg near her wealthy fiance – and Nick is shocked to find that his cousin now goes by Daisy Fay and passes seamlessly as white.
Nick’s neighbour in West Egg is a mysterious young man named Jay Gatsby, whose mansion is the stage for parties so extravagant that they both dazzle and terrify.
As Nick is pulled deeper into the glittery culture of decadence, his feelings grow more complicated when he finds himself falling hard for Jay’s openness, idealism, and unfounded faith in the American Dream.
Publication Date: 6th September
TW: racism, colourism, sexism, transphobia, queerphobia, misogyny, infidelity, slurs, car accident, gaslighting, alcohol, classism
Self Made Boys pushes further in its exploration of the American Dream and how society measures success through assimilation and disguise.
Anna-Marie McLemore is one of those instant-buy authors for me. Their writing has such a gorgeous blend of magical realism and nuanced, heartfelt exploration of societal issues. Also, their characters are always so multi-faceted and engaging. So, when you take one of my favourite classics and add their unique spin on it, with plenty of BIPOC and queer representation, you have a guaranteed recipe for success in my book. McLemore really digs into issues surrounding sexuality, race and colourism. This is a book unafraid of asking the difficult questions and interrogating various forms of privilege.
Yet again, these are such complex and wonderfully three-dimensional characters. Nicolás is the naive newcomer into this social scene and watching him discover his happiness and safe spaces is joyous to see. However, it is mired by the blatant racism and queerphobia weaponised against him. The slight commentary on the Great Depression subtly nudged in by McLemore is also so interesting to see. Jay is as suave as ever, but masking that man desperate to be loved truly for who he is. That decadence and frivolity of the parties also takes on an emotional note, as a safe space for queer people to live their truth. My favourite character has to be Daisy though. This is a character with a lot more than you may initially think, plenty of layers and aspects to be fully unpacked. McLemore questions the inherent sexism in the vapidness and flatness associated with Fitzgerald’s female characters in the popular consciousness.
In Self Made Boys, McLemore has taken one of my favourite classics and made it ten times better. While it honours the original wonderfully, it adds so many more elements that compliment the story and elevate it for a modern audience.
Finally, I’d like to delve into Ithaca by Claire North. Thank you so much to Orbit Books for sending me an eARC in exchange for an honest review.
This is the story of Penelope of Ithaca, famed wife of Odysseus, as it has never been told before. Beyond Ithaca’s shores, the whims of gods dictate the wars of men. But on the isle, it is the choices of the abandoned women – and their goddesses – that will change the course of the world.
Seventeen years ago, king Odysseus sailed to war with Troy, taking with him every man of fighting age from the island of Ithaca. None of them have returned, and the women have been left behind to run the kingdom.
Penelope was barely into womanhood when she wed Odysseus. Whilst he lived, her position was secure. But now, years on, speculation is mounting that husband is dead, and suitors are starting to knock at her door…
But no one man is strong enough to claim Odysseus’ empty throne – not yet. Between Penelope’s many suitors, a cold war of dubious alliances and hidden knives reigns, as everyone waits for the balance of power to tip one way or another. If Penelope chooses one from amongst them, it will plunge Ithaca into bloody civil war. Only through cunning and her spy network of maids can she maintain the delicate balance of power needed for the kingdom to survive.
On Ithaca, everyone watches everyone else, and there is no corner of the palace where intrigue does not reign…
Publication Date: 8th September
TW: war, death, murder, slavery, violence, blood, gore, sexual assault, rape
Ithaca is such an intimate and emotional retelling of an oft forgotten side of one of our most famous stories.
I am beyond happy to see the resurgence of female voices reclaiming and reshaping our understanding of Greek mythology. From Jennifer Saint to Natalia Haynes, there are fiercely feminist retellings of these enshrouded narratives. Claire North offers another bold addition to this growing category. We open with a scene of brutal violence, indicating how this will not shy away from the gore and gritty reality of these stories. I loved how we got little vignettes that fully fleshed out the characters and necessary context to fully appreciate the story.
Our narrative voice is unexpected but ingenious in my opinion. It adds another layer of challenging expectations and reshaping these narratives. This voice is pretending a level of aloofness and detachment that is soon undermined by the deep emotional involvement in the lives of these queens. It really gives you an all-encompassing perspective that sees everything and nothing can be fully hidden from, but also belies a deeply vulnerable and hurting figure.
I particularly loved that way this book really digs into femininity and appearances. Nothing is ever fully as it seems here. In particular, North explores how women are dismissed on the sole basis of their outward appearance and associated notions of intelligence. This is often used as a subterfuge to disguise true power or influence here. Often, reading a scene and noting the subtle manipulations of power was so fascinating. They all add up into a rich tapestry that offers a diverse perspective on what femininity entails, what power truly is and also the role of a woman as queen, mother and daughter.
Ithaca mimics the treacherous loom of old, subtly and quietly creating a powerful narrative surrounding you before revealing its emotional intensity and masterful character work.