Series Review: The Daevabad Trilogy

Rating: 4 out of 5.

I reviewed the first book in this series, The City of Brass, in 2019. I was pleasantly surprised by the mix of fantasy, mythology, history, and the Islamic faith in the first book, and my interest carried over the second and third books. For the first time in a while, I was very excited to read the final book in a series. Though I wouldn’t say the series is perfect, and it isn’t one of my favorite fantasy series of all time, I had a really good time reading the trilogy. It helped me get out of a reading slump and escape into another world.

The trilogy takes place in Egypt as well as parts of the Middle East, and there is a mix between the real world and the world of djinn, magical humanoids who live alongside humans but are invisible to them. Nahri is an orphan from Cairo who makes her living by stealing, telling fortunes, and using her strange healing affinity. One night she is ambushed by creatures she thought were only in myths. She is saved and whisked away to a mythical city by another being she thought was only a fairytale, a powerful djinn named Darayavahoush (Dara for short). Dara introduces Nahri to the city of Daevabad where she finds out more about herself and her family, but she also gets entangled in political struggles and centuries-long feuds between the djinn. In books two and three she meets many more mythical beings and finds out secrets about herself and her new friends. Ultimately, Nahri must choose between a future in Cairo and a future in Daevabad.

That description really simplifies what happens in the trilogy, and it doesn’t really do the series justice. The worldbuilding is probably my favorite aspect of these books. The books combine Middle Eastern history and myth as well as the Islamic faith to create a vast, rich world. For example, the real-world political struggles in Egypt in the 18th century are also included in the story. Though it isn’t a main plot point, I found that it grounded my view of the magical world and was a good parallel to some of the problems in Daevabad. Daevabad itself has a long history, and I love when a there are elements of a fantasy world’s history that have been skewed or covered up past leaders and when there are long-held secrets under the surface. There are also different tribes of djinn with unique histories and cultures too. I would actually like to see more books set in this world, perhaps centering on the other djinn tribes. You can read about the world on the author’s website to get a feel of it before reading. I don’t think there are any major spoilers, but read at your own risk!

I enjoyed many of the characters in the novels. Nahri is headstrong (sometimes to the point of annoyance), but she sticks to her morals and is loyal to her friends. Alizayd al Qahtani, the youngest price of Daevabad, is devout to his Muslim faith and must deal with his family’s tumultuous past. I enjoyed the moments with Alizayd and his siblings, and I wish that we had had even more time exploring his siblings’ personalities, especially in the third book. And though it may be an unpopular opinion, Dara was my favorite character, though he wasn’t always respectful or kind to Nahri. Dara battled with his own terrible past and had a very complex emotional relationship with those close to him. Ultimately, I wished that some of the side characters got more time on the page just because I liked them, but many characters were well developed. I was not a big fan of the romance in the book, and there is a bit of a love triangle. It was obvious to me from book one where the love story was going, so I was disappointed that this aspect was largely predictable.

However, I did not find the plot predictable. There are several good twists, turns, and reveals throughout the trilogy. I wouldn’t say that the books are heavy with tropes, and the world building breathes fresh air into what some might consider a traditional fantasy storyline with chosen ones, alliances with enemies, or epic battles. The plot is filled with political maneuvering, action, and challenges to morality. The pacing of the novels was okay for me, but some might find book one slow as there is a lot of traveling. I also found the final book to be a little longer than necessary. At around 800 pages, I felt that at least 100 could have been edited down. Still, I really enjoyed all of the time I spent with the novels.

If you’re looking for a solid fantasy story that tries to do something a little different by incorporating history, myth, and cultures that aren’t often written about in this genre, I would recommend The Daevabad Trilogy. I rated the entire series four out of five stars.

The Tiger’s Daughter

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This was the third and final book that was recommended by Tailored Book Recommendations (TBR).

O-Shizuka is the last member of her royal bloodline in the Hokkaran empire, and she is a fierce warrior empress who isn’t afraid to go against her family. Barsalayaa Shefali is an equally fierce member of the nomadic Qorin tribe who is a very accomplished mounted markswoman from a young age. O-Shizuka and Shefali’s parents were friends, and their daughters were raised together for many of their formative years, making the bond between the women very strong. As they came of age it became clear that demons were returning to their lands and threatening their people. O-Shizuka and Shefali believe that they can rid the world of the demon threat if they are fighting side by side, but the demons are not the only threat they will need to worry about.

This is a tough one! Give me an Asian-inspired fantasy any day, but this also promised a Lesbian romance! So, why didn’t I enjoy it? For one, the novel was mostly written in the form of a letter from Barsalayaa Shefali to O-Shizuka. From the start, we know that they grew up together, but they are now separated. The letter tells us why, but it is written in second person. I can imagine that some readers will dislike the fact that it is written in second person, but what bothered me more was that the letter recounts everything. If this were actually a letter to O-Shizuka, would Shefali really recount every instance of them together like this? Shefali’s perspective obviously would give O-Shizuka some insight into her lover’s mind all those years ago, but at times I felt that the amount of detail included in the letter would be redundant to O-Shizuka if she were indeed the reader.

My other main issue was that the Asian influence wasn’t utilized in the best or most respectful way. However, I will let the top review on Goodreads that explains the cultural issues speak for itself. I am not from the cultures that the novel is inspired by, nor am I an expert myself, but from what little I do know, a few of the aspects mentioned in the linked review bothered me too. Maybe you feel differently? Feel free to comment on this post if so because I’d love to hear about more perspectives on this to educate myself better.

That aside, I did enjoy parts of this reading experience. I haven’t read a lot of epic fantasy that has had lesbian romances, and I actually liked the romance itself. It is clear that the warrior women are very committed to each other, and they are stronger, both mentally and physically, than many of the other characters give them credit for. Their romance is fiery and bold, and I loved that. Although, personally, I just prefer romance as a subplot in fantasy, so I wanted more of the fighting and demons in addition to the romance. I also enjoyed what we saw of the characters’ abilities in battle and in magic, but I just wanted to see more of it all! The magic isn’t well explained in the first book, but since this is a trilogy, there is a lot of room for development and growth of these aspects in the subsequent novels.

All that being said, I am not overly excited to read the second book in this series after finishing the first. The Tiger’s Daughter was just a three star read for me, but if you prefer more romance in your fantasy and don’t mind the somewhat epistolary format of the novel, you might enjoy this book more.

 

The Night Tiger

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This was the second book I was recommended by Tailored Book Recommendations (TBR).

The Night Tiger follows two characters in 1930’s Malaysia, Ren and Ji Lin. Ren is a houseboy who assists doctors practicing medicine in Malaysia. Before Ren’s first master died, he told the boy that he needed to be reunited with his severed finger within 49 days of his death. Otherwise, his master’s spirit would restlessly roam the world forever. Ren is also haunted by strange dreams of his dead twin brother. Ji Lin dreams of being a doctor, but she is held back because she is female, her family’s personal problems, and her mother’s gambling debts. Because of all this, Ji Lin works as a dancehall girl to escape her household and earn money for her mother. Though she only dances with her customers, being a dancehall girl has negative connotations, which complicates her romantic prospects as well. Through mysterious circumstances and a dream-like connection, Ren and Ji Lin’s worlds collide.

This book ticked so many of my boxes. First, the writing was just my style. There were some beautifully written and descriptive lines, though nothing was overly flowery, and the way the mythology was incorporated in the narrative seamlessly blended it with reality. If you like books that are unclear whether the magical realism parts are real or not, you’ll enjoy this aspect in The Night Tiger. It felt like there was more distance between the characters and the reader in the structure of the narrative than I would have liked, but the characters themselves are well written and believable. Ren’s chapters are in third person perspective, while Ji Lin’s are in first person. The way the author plays with their perspectives was also very interesting. For example, a secondary character might be viewed very differently by Ren and Ji Lin because they have had different experiences with that character. These different experiences impact the way the characters act in events and dialogue.

The plot and pacing were also well constructed. The plot is primarily driven by the mystery of the missing finger with its magical realism elements peppered in, but along the way we see that Ren and Ji Lin have problems in their personal lives. I found it easy to be invested in their struggles, and I enjoyed seeing how the mystery impacted their lives and their futures. I found the pacing steady but slightly on the slower, more literary side. There is a romance that develops, and I found it to be a satisfyingly slow-ish burn, which I really liked.

This book will definitely be one of my favorites from this year. I would give it 4.5 stars out of 5. Although, maybe I should just give it 5 since I’m not sure how to express what I didn’t like about the novel. Either way, I would highly recommend this to lovers of quiet, magical realism novels that have historic and mythological influences.

 

Woven in Moonlight

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Okay, okay. It’s fantasy again, but this time it is Bolivian mythological and historical fantasy…

Ximena has been a decoy for the real Condessa, Catalina, for 10 years. When the Illustrians’ home was taken over by the conqueror Atoc and his magical relic, Ximena’s people fled the city to seek refuge in the hills. Knowing that the conqueror would not rest until the Condessa of the Illustrians was killed, Ximena was raised to be the real Condessa’s decoy. When Ximena is forcibly taken to be Atoc’s new wife, she must find a way to save herself and her people from inside the enemy’s walls. Can she trust anyone– including the masked vigilante whose motives for disrupting Atoc’s plans are still unclear?

I wanted to fall in love with this, but it just fell short in a few areas. My biggest complaint is that there just wasn’t enough to the story. My copy was a small-sized hardback with not quite 400 pages. I liked many aspects, but, in my opinion, they weren’t utilized to their fullest. Here are a few examples.

There is magic, even moon magic, but magic doesn’t play much of a role in the entire novel. We know that several characters have magic, but besides the main protagonist and the main antagonist, we rarely see or hear of anyone else doing magic. And even the main magic users’ powers aren’t fleshed out enough to know how they work or the extent of what they can do. Some characters get tired after using magic, but then others don’t seem to? I wanted the magic to play a bigger role or be explained a little more clearly. There is a lot that could have been done with all of the different magic the side characters possess too.

The main character is a decoy in enemy territory, and she has trained her whole life to be and act like the Condessa. Yet, she slips up often and lets her true self show or gives things away unintentionally. She also warms up to the enemy faction rather quickly, often having flirty/silly banter with them. There’s a romance that also heats up a little too quickly for me to be invested in. I liked the main character’s fierceness and heart, though. The other characters were interesting, but they (and their magic!) could have played a bigger role. A couple of characters were killed off so quickly, and even though we are told how important they were to the main character, I wasn’t attached enough to feel much loss.

I was a little bored around the midpoint of the novel. I expected more complex political maneuvering, but most of the novel is spent with Ximena in her small room as she worries about what to do. She sneaks out a few times rather easily, which I also didn’t think was realistic. She did some spying around, but I felt like a lot more could have been done with her being in enemy territory. She felt rather passive in general when I felt that she should have been doing more planning and plotting, especially since she was a trained decoy.

So, what’s there to like? I liked the writing. It is descriptive and pretty, especially the colors, flavors, and smells of the setting, but it doesn’t go overboard with lyrical prose. I liked that we were in Ximena’s head a lot because it was intriguing to see how she felt and why. She struggled with her own identity versus being a decoy, which made sense. I really liked the magic, but as I said before, I wish it had been used more throughout the novel or played a bigger role in the plot. The whole setting was interesting as was the political plot and revolution aspect, but the plot wasn’t particularly complex. It was fairly easy to see where things were going. However, I really appreciated reading something new in YA fantasy. I’ve certainly never read a fantasy inspired by Bolivian history and myth, so I was happy to expand my love of fantasy by reading this novel.

If you’re new to YA fantasy, or looking for something light in tone and depth but unique, I would recommend this novel. I gave it three solid stars out of five.

 

The Bear and the Nightingale

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Escapism is the name of the game for me recently. So, more fantasy! At least it is historical fantasy this time?

Vasilisa’s mother died bringing her into the world and her last words said that Vasilisa was special. Vasilisa comes from a family of women with mysterious powers and connections to the natural world. As Vasilisa grows into a wild and fearless child, her father decides to remarry, bringing home a devout young wife to tame his wild daughter. Vasilisa bucks her step-mother’s rule until a new priest comes to the town with the sole purpose to convert Vasilisa’s people to the city’s religion. A battle between the old world beliefs and the new, evil and goodness, and a lot of mythology fills the pages of this slow paced, cozy novel.

I started reading this on a quiet, snowy day, and I would say that it was the best atmosphere for reading this novel. It takes place in a village in northern Russia with a lot of focus on Russian myths. The plot is very, very slow. We are introduced to Vasilisa’s family and their town before she is even born. Then, the book follows her childhood and budding adulthood as the village also changes over time. There is a lot of buildup and focus on the characters and their world over action or furthering the plot. The only pace picks up over halfway through when Vasilisa is nearing adulthood and confronting the evil presence taking over her village. Honestly, I think I enjoyed the quieter, day-to-day sections of the novel than the way the story tied itself up at the end with action. Still, the conclusion is rather satisfying. Or at least everything gets tied up nicely.

The novel is in third person omniscient perspective and has a distant, fairy tale quality to the writing. Despite that, we do get to see into many character’s mind’s and pasts. Vasilisa, her father, her youngest brother, step-mother, and the priest are some of the most prominent characters. There is a good amount of realistic complexity to most of them. Vasilisa is a great character. She is headstrong and rebels against rules she deems unfair. She is kind to her family as well as the mythological creatures she encounters. I loved her bravery and admired her tenacity. Her opposite, the priest, is also well developed. Though the reader may not be on his side, what motivates his actions makes sense. Vasilisa’s father and siblings were not all as developed, but I came to love the ones that the book spent time on.

This isn’t a book for every fantasy lover, but those who are looking for something quiet to escape into will find a lot to love here. The magic is based in myth and not explained in depth, the plot is slow and focused more on character progression, and the writing is quite descriptive. I gave The Bear and the Nightingale four out of five stars.

Gods of Jade and Shadow

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I was actually anticipating this book since the beginning of 2019. Once I heard about it I knew it was for me: Mayan and Mexican mythology and history, the jazz age, gods and creatures, adventure. When it first came out I heard a few mixed reviews, but I eventually had to read to it anyway. It sounded too much like a “me” book to pass it up because of what other people said. And despite a few things, I liked this novel.

Casiopea Tun serves as a maid to her overbearing grandfather and her spiteful cousin, Martín. When Casiopea’s father passed away, her mother returned to her  family’s household in disgrace after marrying someone her family found undesirable. She and Casiopea became maids to their family because they had nowhere else to go. Casiopea has grown up in this stifling environment all her life and dreams of the freedom to do whatever she wants. After getting in trouble, again, Casiopea is left behind in her grandfather’s mansion to tidy up. She finds a box in her grandfather’s bedroom, and when she opens it, she finds a trapped death god who needs her help. Casiopea gets the adventure she has always dreamed of, but at what cost?

The one thing that I think most people will dislike about this novel is the writing style. It is written kind of like a fairy tale where the magic isn’t explained in detail, the characters feel a little flatter than usual, and you just have to go along with what is happening. Think about the Odyssey. We have characters and events, there’s magic, there’s strange mythological things, but it isn’t like a Brandon Sanderson structured magic system or anywhere near the level of character focus as something by Stephen King. If none of that bothers and you like everything I mentioned in the introduction, you might like this fantasy novel.

The amount of history and culture in the novel was great. The author alluded to trends and issues of the time. We get to see a good bit of the death gods and their realm as well as some other interesting mythical beings. I thought the writing could have been a little more atmospheric (I just love feeling like I am there in the time period.), but places and people were well described, so it was fairly easy to picture the scenes. Admittedly, I had to look up a few older terms and Spanish words, but the book has a small glossary to help in that area.

As for a couple of things I, personally, disliked, I wanted more from the romance. As I said, the characters could have been more fleshed out. The couple had a few cute moments, but it didn’t feel like they could have loved each so deeply after so little time/development. In general, I wish the book had just been longer. I wanted to see more of the land of death, more from the historical era, and more of the characters being together because I felt like they had some potential chemistry that could have built upon more. Though I liked the ending, it didn’t explain as much as I wanted. For example, what happened to Casiopea’s mother and grandfather? I also felt like the book was leading to something about her father, but that, too, didn’t really go anywhere. If there were more pages, maybe we could have had more answers and more fun.

To sum up my feelings, it was a very “me” book, but there were several things that I wanted from the book that it didn’t fully deliver on. I just wanted more, but that doesn’t mean that what was there was bad. I would give Gods of Jade and Shadow three and a half stars, but I rounded up to four stars on Goodreads.

Black Leopard, Red Wolf

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One of my goals for my blog this year is to review more new releases. This book got a lot of buzz from the start because the author, Marlon James, won the Man Booker Prize in 2015 for A Brief History of Seven Killings. I haven’t read that book, or any of his other work yet, but I could not resist the fact that Black Leopard, Red Wolf is an African myth-filled epic journey of a sort of anti-hero. I’ve seen marketing calling it “an African Game of Thrones.” Um… well, no. When I think of A Song of Ice and Fire, I think about complex political maneuvering, multiple characters’ point of view, Euro-centric myth and creatures, etc. Black Leopard, Red Wolf does not quite fit that description, which– I think– is a very important distinction to make. In fact, I would not even recommend this book for your general fantasy lover. It is also very dark and perhaps controversial. If gore, violence, homosexual relationships, descriptions of genitalia or sex acts, or rape (of basically everyone and everything) bothers you, beware of this book.

Black Leopard, Red Wolf focuses on one main character, Tracker. There are many, many characters throughout the novel, but the book is written in first person with Tracker as our main character and narrator. All we know about Tracker is that he has a nose that smell out anyone, and one of his eye’s is a wolf’s. The novel begins with Tracker speaking directly to you, with “you” being an inquisitor. We are given small hints about Tracker’s current situation and about this inquisitor throughout the tale, but Tracker tends to skip around in his storytelling. We learn about Tracker’s childhood a bit, his life in the African bush and with other tribes, how he met some of his companions, and a few tales of his past feats. However, the majority of the novel deals with Tracker being hired to find a mysteriously missing boy in the company of witches, shapeshifters, demons, spirits, and gods.

Trying to give a synopsis of this one is challenging, but I would highly advise reading a few pages before you buy it. Again, this isn’t your average fantasy novel. It is very, very lyrical and descriptive. The language and scenes are often surreal, and some reading between the lines may be needed to discern what is actually happening. I had a hard time at the beginning of the novel because I honestly had no idea what was going on. However, once I became accustomed to the writing style, characters, and plot, it became overall very enjoyable to read, if still challenging. I would not say that this is a novel that you can lose yourself in the world. The setting is amazing and unique, but the book is a little lax about explaining the hows and whys of the world. There’s no tidy Brandon Sanderson magic system here. Having some knowledge of African folklore might help you though. There is also a list of important characters/creatures that can be helpful to refer back to as you read.

The plot and characters are both very interesting. As I said, there are quite a few characters that come and go throughout the novel. It might be hard to remember everyone, but the main cast stays somewhat constant once you get to the main journey. Tracker and a few of the characters close to him are well written, but secondary characters often make an impression too. They all have distinct personalities with their own motives to drive them. One thing I like about Tracker being the narrator is that there are a lot of “holes” in the story. Tracker sometimes becomes separated from his comrades or knocked out, he may choose to leave something out of his narrative, or characters leave and return from their own journeys. In these moments we simply don’t know what happened to the other characters unless they tell Tracker and he tells us. This not only adds character depth but it also adds a lot of “off the page” plot, which sometimes pops back up later in the story and other times remains unexplained.

The plot could be confusing, especially early on. Tracker skips around a bit at the beginning of the novel. Once he begins talking about his quest for the missing child things start to make more sense and become more linear. This is going to be a trilogy, so it should be no surprise that this first books spends a lot of time setting up the plot, the world, and the characters. Much of the book is a mystery in that we do not know who this missing boy is or why everyone wants him. Each character Tracker encounters seems to have their own story about the boy. Who is lying? Who can Tracker trust? Most of the book is spent chasing the boy’s scent, which means a lot of traveling. If you don’t like travel adventures, you may dislike this first book, but in my opinion, enough happens in each location that it does not become boring.

Yes, this book has political maneuvering, but it is not quite to the scale of A Song of Ice and Fire (yet?)Yes, it has multiple characters, but they don’t have their perspectives. Yes, there is a lot of myth and magic, but it all feels very different than European-based fantasy. There is a raw, feral, and unforgiving feel to this novel. If you already like fantasy or magical realism and you also like surreal descriptions, lyrical writing, dialogue with dialects, don’t mind a little work to get into a book, and you don’t mind some dark themes, this might be a book for you. I would not go into expecting Game of Thrones or any other more mainstream fantasy. As someone who really likes unique fantasy and loves slightly overwritten novels, this is a pro for me, but I hesitate to say it is a book that a general fantasy lover would be interested in reading. Black Leopard, Red Wolf gets four solid stars out of five from me. I look forward to reading the rest of the trilogy in the future. It was certainly a memorable experience like nothing else I have ever read.