Three Japanese Short Stories

Nothing is better than homemade matcha on a rainy day.

I have been making an effort to read more non-English literature, and these new Penguin Moderns are great bite-sized tasters for new authors and unfamiliar cultures. I’m already halfway through my second one, Four Russian Short Stories!

Heroes have always been monsters who crushed sentimentalism underfoot.

Behind the Prison: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Lethally sharp satire whetted against uncomfortably relatable truths. Behind the Prison is at once uproarious and unapologetically pessimistic.

“No, nothing in this world is as oppressive and debilitating as blood ties.”

“For her I would gladly ferry across the Sumida on the coldest winter day to buy her those sakura-mochi sweets from old Edo that she loved so much. But medicine? Not even on the warmest day would I want to go buy her medicine.”

Closet LLB: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

The most personally terrifying of the three. Like Otsukotsu Sansaku, I had “embraced the unshakeable goal of becoming a novelist” as a child, and I, too, steep myself in literature while I have supposedly settled into (and here is the most obvious difference) medicine. Thankfully, studying medicine was my own choice, and I hope to become something of a Paul Kalanithi or Atul Gawande. But my goodness, may I never be reduced to a Sansaku!

“How much fun are you getting out of life?”

General Kim: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

This last story fits the blurb best: “beguiling, strange, funny and hair-raising”. A delightfully surreal parody of Patriotism with a capital P to round it all off.

“To any nation’s people, their history is glorious. The legend of General Kim is by no means the only one worth a laugh.”

Overall rating: 5/5 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟

Have you read any Penguin Moderns yet? If so, which ones were your favourites?

An Enchantment of Ravens

Tried to be ~conceptual~ with the “living rose” among books, Aster’s Craft.

Why I still gave this four stars: A Review.

TLDR: The A Court of series had as many problems as the moon has craters, and yet I still gave it four to five stars. So why not this?

Here belies another fork in the age-old debate: should language or content take precedence when judging a novel’s quality? Obviously, having both would be ideal. But you can’t always get what you want.

An Enchantment of Ravens may be Rogerson’s debut, but her pen evoked the easy elegance of a seasoned veteran. Her flawless prose was never purple nor plain. It was infused with sly wit, laugh-out-loud wit, dry wit, wry wit. And she detailed oh so succinctly all the pretty particulars of her own renditions of fair folk. Ladies and gentlemen, this is how you write.

“He was astonishingly vain even by fair folk standards, which was like saying a pond is unusually wet, or a bear surprisingly hairy.”

A splendid line in a splendid opening paragraph; from a single sentence, I could already discern the defining characteristic of Rogerson’s faeries.

“Once, a Whimsical poet died of despair after finding himself unequal to the task of capturing a fair one’s beauty in simile. I think it more likely he died of arsenic poisoning, but so the story goes.”

And from another splendid sentence (also in the opening chapter), I could already discern how these faeries exerted their influence on their mortal counterparts.

“Imagine all the things I could give you! I could make pearls drop from your eyes in place of tears. I could lend you a smile that enslaves men’s hearts, or a dress that once beheld is never forgotten. And yet you request eggs.”

And from yet another splendid section, I could even discern how exactly these faeries wreaked havoc on humans. No elaboration was needed; Rogerson simply appealed to our cultural consciousness: the French fairy tale, Diamonds and Toads, is internationally ingrained in our childhood canon. And through our enduring fixation on folkloric subversions, we all know very well how this one really ended (spoiler alert: not well for the diamond-spewing sister either)*. Extrapolate this to the latter two suggestions and it would be easy to imagine the woe the promised attention would only have brought.

“I quite like eggs,” I replied firmly. Besides, what on earth would I do with men’s hearts? I couldn’t make an omelette out of them.

Oh, and did I mention the wit?

This post has become less of a review and more of a discussion on what good writing is, but let me curve back around my digression. Clearly, Rogerson writes sublimely. The problem lay in the plot. Nothing in particular was wrong with it; the pacing was just too breakneck, and left little room for meaningful character development. And for what was essentially a romance, this costly mistake pushed the focal relationship dangerously close to insta-love (gosh I dislike this portmanteau so much, but I suppose bloggers must keep up with zeitgeists).

Now, I do not agree with all those reviews slamming An Enchantment of Ravens as a bare-bones copy of A Court of Thorns and Roses. We get it, here we have another faerie prince, and another mortal girl, and the prince also abducts the girl, and they fall in love. But isn’t that like, the premise of half the medieval folk tales our beloved fantasy novels continue to be inspired by? (Beauty and the Beast being just one notable example.) Broad tropes are not nearly enough to make a book a ‘copy’. Otherwise most – if not all – romances would be copies too. (Yes, A Court of Thorns and Roses included, what with its many clichés.) Broad tropes, in themselves, are not valid reasons for dismissing a plot either. Tropes are tropes for a reason, and when reimagined cleverly or stirringly or subversively, they can be powerful stuff. In short, the rest of this book was so different from S.J. Maas’ bestseller, it hardly merited a comparison anyway.

As for the romance, I do not think it qualified as insta-love either. Isobel initially seemed to tick all the wrong boxes, but it soon became apparent that she was just infatuated with the first handsome stranger who didn’t act like a douche. And she did realise this, poor lonely thing. Indeed, I was pleasantly surprised to find this timely discussion on infatuation versus real love – an almost meta move, considering the painfully many young adult releases trying to pass off the former as the latter.

I also appreciated how Rogerson subtly showed the small moments where Isobel slowly fell for Rook, so that the reader realised she really was in love before even she herself did – another brilliant move that made her feelings that much more convincing.

Still, the breakneck pacing made it difficult to discern Rook’s reasons for falling for her. So much was glossed over that their relationship could still easily be misconstrued as a fleeting fancy. And the rest of the plot wasn’t nearly intriguing enough to salvage it. For once, I think An Enchantment would have worked much better if it were expanded by 100 pages or so. I acknowledge Rogerson’s success in spinning a story that never bored or so much as tempted me to skim – a remarkable feat. And yet – balance.

All in all, I gave An Enchantment of Ravens four stars because it is so
to find such a wonderfully-wrought fantasy novel. I simply could not bear to downgrade it to a three, despite all the disappointments with the plot. I mean, under Rogerson’s hand, even lines that would normally have been cringeworthy were splendent similes instead.

“No. You surpass us all.” Beside me she looked colourless and frail. “You are like a living rose among wax flowers. We may last forever, but you bloom brighter and smell sweeter, and draw blood with your thorns.”

I highly recommend reading An Enchantment of Ravens if you can get past the silly notions of ripped-off storylines and un-ironic infatuation.

Rating: 4/5

*Try Gail Carson Levine’s The Fairy’s Mistake or Catherynne M. Valente’s In Cities of Coins and Spices.

The Language of Thorns

Illustrations by Sara Kipin.

“Because we know – even as children – that impossible tasks are an odd way to choose a spouse, that predators come in many guises, that a prince’s whims are often cruel.”

Subversions of classic fairy tales, villainous origin legends, and just damn good short stories, The Language of Thorns is not another funny but forgettable Tales of the Peculiar, or a mellow and melancholic Beedle the Bard (though I do very much love Beedle the Bard!). The depraved and disturbing roam wild in Bardugo’s own signature Small Science: a language truly wrought from thorns.

Each tale is seasoned with the subtle savour of the sprawling, breathing, beating world Bardugo first fashioned in Six of Crows – one with myriad palpable cultures and customs.* The Language of Thorns presents six stories from four nations, and in the names and shifting landscapes, we see reflections of the real countries that Bardugo’s world was built on.

When Water Sang Fire aptly springs from the Scandinavian Hans Christian Andersen’s universally recounted The Little Mermaid. The Witch of Duva is infused with Russian leanings towards Baba Yaga cautionary tales, though its solvent is a purebred German bedtime story: Hansel and Gretel. In true Ketterdam fashion, The Soldier Prince blends The Nutcracker (another German tale retold by a Frenchman and dressed in a Russian ballet) with Velveteen Rabbit, an Anglo-American children’s book. Amaya and the Thorn Wood introduces the spirits and superstitions that frequent African folk tales, and slides down the same spiral streams of Arabic tales within tales. Amaya herself is something of a Scheherazade too.

Love speaks in flowers.
Truth requires thorns.

I only wish these tales were still more strongly steeped in the cultures they supposedly were the vessels of. As they stand, they resemble retellings of traditional European fairy tales more closely than the varied collection I had expected from the author who had so effortlessly written the most diverse fantasy novel I have ever read. I also wish we had something from Shu Han, the only nation influenced by Asian cultures; the only Shu character in Six of Crows had the least screen time and character development.

I adored (an understatement) Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom, but I have yet to read the Grisha trilogy – it strikes me as a plain-Jane-Mary-Sue. Judging from other reviews, those who have read the trilogy may be delighted to find one or two familiar faces. But The Language of Thorns was darkly delightful even without such prior knowledge.

More favourite quotes: “It was the wounds from the thicket that had proven all the sweet blossoms and starlight had been real.”
“A thousand desperate wishes had been spoken on these shores, and in the end they were all the same: Make me someone new.”

Favourite tales: The Witch of Duva (Ravkan)
When Water Sang Fire (Fjerdan)
The Third Tale, Amaya and the Thorn Wood (Zemeni)

Rating: 5/5 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟

*I do realise the Grisha trilogy came first, but that was set in only Ravka. Six of Crows was a considerably more cosmopolitan adventure.

Gold Shadow

Thanks to the author for providing me with an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review. For my full review request policy, please click here.

“Don’t look like you’re going to cry all the time. Tears are one of their favourite drinks around here.”

I liked the second half decidedly more than the first; it was difficult believing both were written by the same person. But first, coffee some general observations: Gold Shadow promised diversity, and it delivered – superlatively. Some uninspired introductions were a little on the nose, unlike the easy assembly of Kaz Brekker’s criminal crew. But it never crossed into tokenism, and once the North American setting was revealed, it lost its studied air.

Imagine if Black Mirror’s Nanette Cole had yelled at Robert Daly, “You think you’re the misunderstood nerd, but you’re just another sick, entitled white guy who can only feel masculine behind a computer screen!” The first half of Gold Shadow would have been the expository equivalent. In fact, it may as well have been one grand explanation, with a side of sudden jumps into minor characters’ points of views, as if the protagonists’ running commentaries were not explicit enough. Besides, for a character whose whole life had been eked out in the same hellhole, the dutifully described details would have long been taken for granted. An especially exasperating scene saw another character explaining the types of slaves to an escaped slave.*

Having said that, getting through the first half was not hard; the plot was intriguing enough. It just could have been a much more full-bodied blend of form and function, given how much better the second half already was.

Ah, the second half. We were finally allowed some actual action, and Perry likewise progressed to more polished prose. Her writing showed such articulate restraint, I almost forgot my prior frustration. I especially enjoyed experiencing Ebony’s world through her enemy’s eyes – after all, this enemy was not privy to any information, so she had no explanations to lavish on us. No, she had to deduce, as we should have been allowed to deduce.

Without the crutch of clarifications, character development also flourished. The main cast was finally dressed with flesh beneath their stereotypical façades: the strong and silent one, the broken beauty, the outwardly cold but secretly soft-hearted leader… A few characterisations had come off as contrived in the beginning (Ebony’s soulless survivor persona, for example; the self-evident declarations of emotional detachment did not help), but Perry’s better bridled hand ended up convincing me to unreservedly, unconditionally invest my (rather delicate) emotions in the entire cast – the ‘good’ and the inane alike.

Another reason Perry is a babe is the blessèd absence of romance. I do like my realistic romances, which I think add some welcome hope and lightness and angst and pathos to high-stakes and action-packed plots. Amongst these characters however, the mildest insinuation of that kind of emotional intimacy would have been a blue whale out of water. So thank goodness for Perry’s wisdom here – a virtue that is sadly absent in worryingly many recent and raved-about young adult releases.

Ironically, the few instances of additional world-building in the second half were also far more effective than all the descriptions in the first half combined. There were still some details missing that would have helped me care more about the characters’ country. I have yet to grasp just how advanced the technology has become, or what the general populace think or know or want. But since Perry concentrated on crafting the slave cities and the rebellion in this first book, it was understandable.

All this to say, I look forward to reading the second book. The ending of this one was tantalising, to say the least. And if the second half was anything to go by, I am sure the next instalment will have writing deserving of a place in young adult bestseller displays.

“Being early meant being on time. Being on time meant being late. But being late was unacceptable.”

And may it be published early, then.

Favourite quote: This may be my new favourite dedication: “To all those aspiring writers who dream first and sleep later.”
Rating: 3/5

*Show, for heavens’ sake, don’t tell! seems to be my personal Peeves. A small selection of books that give their readers proper credit: A Darker Shade of Magic (its sequels, not so much), The Bear and the Nightingale, Caraval, The City of Brass, Daughter of Smoke and Bone, How to Live Forever (the novel), The Night Circus, and of course, the ever beloved Harry Potter.

“If a writer knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them.

The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.” – Ernest Hemingway

The Last Namsara

An enjoyable but ultimately forgettable read, Ciccarelli’s debut novel relied too heavily on clichéd characterisations and predictable plot twists. While the symbiosis between stories and dragons was an interesting original element, for a plot line that attempted to spin hair-raising intrigue, the consequences rang hollow.

The Last Namsara had a suffocating focus on the royals’ machinations, with no convincing portrayal of their people’s emotions. If we do not know what the people want, what they believe, who they believe, where their loyalties lie, or how they would react, does it really matter who wins? Not if we don’t really care about said royals either.

Their motivations rang hollow too. Jarek’s insatiable lust for Asha was bewildering; even if it branched off a desire for the throne, there was no need to also desire her body. Did he just want what other men could not have? Because few other men would want her. Was he just a jerk? Maybe. Dax’s revolutionary tendencies were similarly abrupt and uncertain. The romance was even more contrived. Only Asha and the king’s bloodlust was somewhat believable.

Besides, if the people detested the old stories so much, why would they name the wicked girl they feared the most after an ancient goddess? Why did the people become hesitant to execute a criminal once she was given another fabled title? The anti-Old One regime seemed to be deeply entrenched, yet it was only enforced one generation ago. Certain things just didn’t seem properly thought through, as if the author herself did not adequately understand the country or the culture she was creating.

But having said all that, The Last Namsara still was enjoyable. Asha was not exactly likeable (or relatable), but she was sympathetic. I especially liked the short stories wedged between each chapter. Will I be waiting for the second book? No. But this one is still worth a try if you’re in a fantasy book slump. Maybe Ciccarelli will be more ambitious in her next novel.

Rating: 3/5


In the same spirit of seasonal sentimentality, I reread Gail Carson Levine’s least popular fantasy novel. I had bought my copy from one of those mail-order catalogues my primary school used to hand out – what an era – but I had found the prose too different from her other books to give it more than a perfunctory skim.

Last year, I made a conscious effort to read more books by non-Anglo-American authors. And remembering that Ever was heavily inspired by ancient Mesopotamian myths and texts, I impulsively gave it another go at 2 a.m.

This time around, the writing wove through my mind seamlessly. Each sentence was simple and succinct, but by no means stiff. Some readers have complained that whenever white authors attempt to emulate foreign voices, they contrive gross caricatures of broken English. While in some cases I would agree, Levine’s language was reasonably reminiscent of Pritchard’s anthologies of ancient Near Eastern texts. And regardless of authenticity, the prose was perfectly fluent, lush even, and conveyed lucid Mesopotamian landscapes without the crutch of verbosity.

The plot itself was not exactly impressive, nor were the mythical ordeals empathy-inducing. The romance was heartwarming fluff, but fluff nonetheless. Yet the unexpectedly ambitious themes warrant a full review. Ever was the first novel I had read (well, skimmed) that attempted to navigate the tricky, easily stuffy theological realm. Kezi was raised a devout worshipper of Admat, the omnipresent, omniscient god of her country, Hyte. When she meets a very different god in the flesh, she understandably experiences a spiritual crisis.

Through her eyes, Ever deftly traversed some Big Questions: Is there a God? How can we know whether He exists? How can we know whether He is good? Why do we suffer? Must we suffer? As a second-generation Christian, these questions were certainly relatable. But because of its bold subject matter, Ever has also been met with astringent criticism. Disapproving readers have drawn parallels between the seemingly callous, absent Admat and the Judaeo-Christian God; from that angle, Ever may well seem like an attack on the Abrahamic faiths.

Personally, however, I found few theological similarities. Kezi’s religion may be monotheistic, but the sacred text and religious practices contradict Abrahamic teachings too greatly to permit deeper or more serious comparisons. Levine herself said she deliberately distanced the book from the Bible.

Even if young readers were to draw their own parallels, this novel is still an engaging preface to the crossroads every child raised in a religious family will ultimately reach – questioning what they have always been taught to believe. Whether this leads them to their own personal relationship with their god(s) or to disillusionment, formulating your own understanding of your religion is, in my opinion, the only way you can truly believe. So why rule out a book just because you (or your child) might end up disagreeing with some parts of it?

“A mind is like a parachute. It does not work if it is not open.” – Frank Zappa

Rating: 3/5

How to Live Forever

“Remember is the last month,” said Festival.
“Remember’s not a month.”
“Of course it is,” said Festival. “There are twelve months thirty days long and the five days at the end of the year that are left over are called Remember. It’s when we all remember what happened in the past year, all the people who were born and all the people who died. You have to have Remember, otherwise you’d start the next year out of balance.”

Caesar’s calendar may not have had Colin Thompson’s witticisms, but the Romans did found a December Christmas, which more than suffices for a wallow in nostalgia. In this spirit of seasonal sentimentalism, I watched four seasons of Winx Club and reread this childhood gem.

It took me forever and a day to find this book, in part because I only remembered the above quote (I thought it was the cleverest thing as a child). But more maddeningly, Thompson also wrote a picture book with the exact same name – and a remarkably different plot. The picture book is quite well known – the novel, on the other hand, is not even in print anymore (you can buy a secondhand copy for US$170 on Amazon).

What a trip.

When I did find the book, I was surprised by how few people know of it. Essentially every English novel can be found and dissected on Goodreads – the bibliophile’s digital paradise, overflowing with needlessly lengthy reviews and pre-reviews and pre-release-reviews of the most niche books – and only 18 other people have rated How to Live Forever (compared to the 1074 who have rated the picture book).

My surprise was compounded by how well-written it is. For a children’s novelist, Thompson showed surprising restraint. Incongruous expository dialogues were sparse, the obstacles convincing, and the solutions not dei ex machina. The magic made enough sense to keep me invested in the characters’ mortal perils. And most impressively, the quirky details of the magical world were littered dismissively – that is to say, delightfully realistically – throughout the first three quarters of the book, until the protagonist finally caught on and all was explained. An infinitely more engaging introduction to a magical world than most children’s books allow.

Tricked into an alternate reality where books are as large as houses (in fact, they are houses), Peter searches for his father and the fabled Ancient Child with his Caretaker, a girl who was born at the same minute he was and consequently tasked with showing him around. As they journey through each gallery of the living library, readers will discover witty subversions of idioms and clichés, peculiarly disgusting creatures, and a strange abundance of wizened old men of dubious character.

“They live down on gallery two in the Chinese Sixteenth.”
“Don’t you mean the Chinese Quarter?” said Peter.
“No. That would be a quarter of a gallery. This is only a sixteenth.”

Unfortunately, some common pitfalls were still left unfilled. The scenes attempting to heighten the suspense by evoking an emotional response were embarrassingly overdone. Of course, as a child, I was less critical. I did find Peter’s outbursts irritating, but I brushed off his overzealous internal dilemmas as passable ways to raise the stakes. Then again, I was also stuck with other ‘age-appropriate’ books whose authors were often much more uncomprehending of children’s emotional capacities.

Ultimately, How to Live Forever is still a marvellous specimen of a children’s book that does not underestimate children – an increasingly elusive breed. Its wit will be sure to charm even grown readers wanting a light, heartwarming, winter read.

Rating: 4/5