Tag Archives: Fantasy

Author Interview: JC Kang

Welcome to my Taiwanese American Heritage Week feature series! Taiwanese American Heritage Week is celebrated every year in May starting on Mother’s Day and ending the following Sunday. Each year during TAHW I spotlight Taiwanese authors and books in some form or fashion on my blog. You can find all of the past features in my Post Index.

The final author interview in my 2021 TAHW series is with self-published fantasy author JC Kang on his recently republished series starter Songs of Insurrection.

Synopsis:

Only the lost magic of Dragon Songs can save the world. Only an awkward girl with the perfect voice can rediscover it.

The Dragon Singers of old summoned typhoons and routed armies, liberating mankind from the orcs before fading into legend. Now, with the world again facing a new cataclysm, the power of music stirs in Kaiya, a naïve misfit with the perfect voice.

Without a master to guide her, she must rely on Hardeep, a disgraced foreign paladin, to help awaken her latent magic. His motives might not be entirely noble. When he leads her to the fabled Dragon Scale Lute, which only a Dragon Singer can wield, it is up to Black Lotus Clan to intervene. Because the instrument’s fell power can save the world…Or destroy it.

Interview:

Q: Obligatory food question! You told me you worked in Taiwan for some years when you were younger. What are some of your favorite Taiwanese foods, and what are your favorite memories of living in Taiwan?

A: One of the best part of living in Taiwan was the food! Because so many chefs from all over China fled to Taiwan, there were so many wonderful regional cuisines. Since I hung out mostly around 師大, I had several favorite haunts in the day/night market: a northern potsticker/dumpling/tricolor noodle dive; a man who flew in from Hong Kong on the weekends had a stand where he made amazing beef chow fun; and a restaurant that had delectable 滷肉飯.

Also, a peppered fried-chicken stand a block away from my apartment. It might be sacrilege, but my favorite beef needle soup was not on 永康街, but from the chain restaurant, 三商巧福.  Is it embarrassing to say, I actually loved McDonalds in Taiwan, too? I miss their fried pork sandwiches and teriyaki burgers!

Besides just the fun of being in my 20s and hanging out with friends, probably my favorite memory was the 1996 Presidential election. We were playing Mahjong at a friend’s apartment on Ren Ai Rd, and as the ballot returns were coming in, a huge commotion erupted on the streets. Honking horns, people marching and chanting, firecrackers… As someone used to seeing less than 50% turnout for American elections, it was so exciting to see the people being involved in the democratic process.

That said, I also met my wife in Taiwan, so I should probably include that as a favorite memory?

Q: I read Songs of Insurrection several years ago, so I was surprised to see that you recently republished it with not only a gorgeous new cover but also some content revisions. What motivated the update, and what was it like giving your book a makeover?

A: Even though it was the first book in the Dragon Songs Saga, Songs of Insurrection was actually the last one of the series that I wrote. I was misguided and arrogant in thinking that I had the skill to write a book that would appeal to everyone, and my goal was to create an insta-love situation which would eventually turned on its head and subvert that trope.

Many of the critical reviews mentioned a dislike for the insta-love, and Kaiya’s lack of agency because of it. Therefore, I revised the story to make her love interest, Hardeep, suspicious. It’s probably still too subtle for some readers.

The series ended up selling very well—60k copies and 35 million Kindle Unlimited page reads—so I wrote a prequel series following the most popular character, Jie. I also learned my audience was mostly women 30+ who liked romantic arcs, so I had the covers redesigned to target that demographic more.

When it came time to do the audiobooks, I decided to tweak The Dragon Songs Saga. I included some references to the prequel series, and added a few chapters with one of its popular characters. I simplified stuff like units of measurement and translated some Mandarin terminology into English so that it would be easier to follow on audio.

How do I feel about it? I probably spent way too much time in money for very little return, so there is a level of regret. However, it’s helped me find some new readers, and sell hundreds of hardbacks to existing fans. So, not a total loss.

Q: Indie authors, for lack of access to the same resources as traditional authors, tend to become a jack of all trades in order to advance their career. What kinds of useful skills have you developed since you started writing and self-publishing?

A: I would argue that the Big 5 put most of their marketing budgets into a handful of authors, and therefore, indie authors actually have an advantage over the average trad debut author (at least, in eBooks). However, they’re services we have to pay for out of pocket, and, as you point out, it requires developing a wide array of skills.

For me, that’s meant basic Photoshop. Data analysis to learn about audiences. Networking and alliance building. Learning how advertising platforms work. Using emerging big data technologies like pixels.

Q: Unlike in traditional publishing, where you have an agent who matches you up with an editor at a publishing house, self-published authors have to find their own freelance editors (to my knowledge, anyway). How do you decide who to go to for editing?

A: For me, it was word of mouth. I’ve used the same editor (Alexis at The Quick Fox, formerly known as Word Vagabond) for line edits and proofreading for years. For the Dragon Songs re-releases, I hired a second proofreader (Sarah Chorn of Bookworm Blues), who is very well-known in indie fantasy circles.

Q: I saw from looking at your past interviews that you watch a lot of East Asian media, which you cite as being among the influences for your work. Do you have any particular East Asian movies, dramas, etc. that have inspired your work and/or that you want to recommend to your fellow fantasy fans?

A: I am probably going to show my age with this one, but I’m a huge fan of 1990s Hong Kong movies and early 2000s Japanese Samurai dramas. Some of my favorites:

  • Once Upon a Time in China 1 & 2
  • Fist of Legend
  • Fong Sai-Yuk 1 & 2
  • The Taiji Master Zhang Sanfeng
  • Swordsman 2
  • A Chinese Ghost Story
  • Dragon Inn
  • Fearless
  • Hero
  • Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
  • House of Flying Daggers
  • The Myth
  • Drunken Master 1 & 2
  • Toshiie to Matsu
  • Shinsengumi
  • When the Last Sword is Drawn
  • Twilight Samurai

Q: I noticed the illustrations of your character Zheng Tian look suspiciously like the actor Hu Ge. Is he the inspiration for the character’s appearance by any chance? On a related note, who would you cast to play Kaiya, Jie, and Tian in a live-action adaptation of your work?

A: LOL, I’m probably showing my age, but Takeshi Kaneshiro was my visual muse for Tian. I pictured Vickie Zhao for Kaiya, and Maggie Q for Jie. I am not up to date on current Asian media, except tangentially through the K-Pop and K-Dramas that my kids follow, so I’d have to go with those three actors from 15 years ago!

Q: Please shout out some Asian indie authors whose work you’ve enjoyed with a short pitch for their books!

A:

  • M.L. Wang, Sword of Kaigen. Winner of Mark Lawrence’s Self-Publishing Fantasy Blog-Off. It’s a mix of Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Poppy War. Emotional Roller Coaster with deep, deep themes.
  • Jeannie Lin (hybrid), Gunpowder Alchemy. Opium Wars re-imagined as Steampunk.
  • Tao Wong, A Thousand Li. Wonderful character interactions and lush worldbuilding. Probably the second-most popular Xianxia series after Will Wight’s Cradle.
  • Sarah Lin, The Brightest Shadow. Epic Fantasy x Xianxia, with compelling characters and fabulous worldbuilding.

Book Links:

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Bookshop | IndieBound

About the Author:

Born and raised in the capital of the Confederacy’s urban blight, JC Kang grew up a total Twinkie. Though he savored the irony that his GI Joe: Greatest American Hero toys were made in Taiwan, he didn’t know where that was, or that his parents had once lived there. Interestingly enough, his father had been staunchly anti-KMT, and fled to Taiwan in 1947 to escape authorities in Xiamen, never expecting the Nationalist government to flee there; and his mother’s family had deep ties to the  KMT, her uncle eventually serving as the personal attaché to Madame Chiang Kai-Shek in New York. Apparently, love—or at least, young lust—conquered political differences.

JC’s life changed the summer between his first and second years at UVA, when he was accepted to the University of Paris for a summer program. Instead, his father sent him to the Mandarin Training Center in Taipei. It was such a life-altering experience that JC returned after graduation (and a year in Japan) to Taipei, where he worked as a translator and technical writer, apprenticed under an acupuncturist, and trained in Wing Chun Kung Fu under Grandmaster Ip Man’s nephew, Sifu Lo Man Kam.  Many of these influences found their way into his writing.

Author Links:

Website – jckang.dragonstonepress.us
Twitter – @JCKang804
Instagram – @jc.kang
Facebook – Legends of Tivara

[Blog Tour] Playlist and Fanart for These Violent Delights

Hello and welcome to part 2 of my stop for the These Violent Delights blog tour hosted by Shealea at Caffeine Book Tours. In case you missed it, my review can be found here.

The Playlist

1. Trouble Maker – Trouble Maker (Hyunseung and Hyuna)

I feel like this song fits the vibe of Juliette and Roma’s tension-laden chemistry and uneasy alliance, where everything feels like it could go up in flames at the smallest spark. The music video also happens to have a heist-ish plot that fits the story of TVD. I’ve included some of the translated lyrics here (translation credit: infinity13):

When I look in your eyes, I’m a Trouble Maker
When I stand next to you, I’m a Trouble Maker
A bit more, more, more
As I go more, more, more
Now I can’t do anything for my heart

So that you can’t forget me, I stand next to you again
I make your heart waver, you can’t escape
I steal your lips again and go far away
I’m a Trou-ou-ou-ouble Trouble Trou-Trouble Maker

2. Last Romeo – Infinite

As the title suggests, this song alludes to the story of Romeo and Juliet and the lyrics are written from Romeo’s point-of-view. I thought it was perfect for expressing Roma’s Roma-ntic (don’t shoot me pls) longing for Juliette and single-minded determination to fight for their forbidden love. Here are the translated lyrics for the song (translation credit: popgasa):

I don’t care if it’s poison, I will gladly take it
No other temptation can be sweeter or stronger than you
The dazzling you swallows all the darkness of the world
And that light blinds me
Any kind of darkness loses its strength in front of you
I only need you

Shine on my path,
whether I want it or not,
the decision has been made
I will put everything at risk
I will protect you no matter what hardships come
I can’t see anything else but you

(Rap) I push myself into broken music,
in the bleakness of a tragedy
A creaking prelude of love,
I’m gonna lose myself
That was sweet start
I don’t know how to stop,
my different emotions rise
An illusion that I’m sure of, you and I, got the top of the emotion

Flowers wither and scatter,
the moon tilts and disappears
But my heart won’t ever change,
I love you, I love you

Your lips embrace my sinful lips,
making me drunk with your scent
No other reward is stronger than this
I only need you

Shine on my path,
whether I want it or not,
the decision has been made
I will put everything at risk
I will protect you no matter what hardships come
I can’t see anything else but you

Look world, let me win
Sun, rise and give me strength
Listen destiny, don’t block me
I will protect her

I’ll be the last man to fight against the world over one love
I can face any kind of threat for you,
I only need you

Shine on my path,
whether I want it or not,
the decision has been made
I will put everything at risk
I will protect you no matter what hardships come

I can’t see anything else but you
I can’t see anything else but you
I can’t see anything else but you

(Rap) You’re complicated like a maze
Why do you keep pushing me away
Trust me, your Romeo

I have no one but you

3. I Hate – Infinite

This song is Juliette’s side of the story. The simmering hatred, the painful longing, it’s all there. Here are some of the translated lyrics (translation credit: popgasa):

I breathe but I’m not really breathing
My heart isn’t really my heart
Though you won’t understand
Baby I don’t wanna love you but I love you

I try to stop myself, try to comfort myself
But no matter how much I comfort myself, this pain won’t heal
You’ll probably never know
These days that are like hell

Only one thing I need, it’s you
But I can’t reach you, I can’t let you go
So what do you want me to do?

Let me break down, I can’t even turn around
It’s useless, hate you yeah
I hate you but I love you
I can’t take it, it hurts, it hurts so much, I miss you
My heart breaks so I can’t do anything
I Hate I Hate

I hate you but I don’t hate you
I said I forgot you but I haven’t forgotten
My heart doesn’t feel like my heart
Baby I don’t wanna love you but I love you

This place is a desert with only doubts and no answers
I’m sure you’re comfortable leaving me behind here, go
I’ll probably never know
Why you left me

Only one thing I need, a short answer
But I can’t figure out, I can’t even ask
Why did you leave me here?

Trying to put my broken heart back together
But I’m getting cut from the pieces
Only thing left to do is endure for a long time
Please teach me how to withstand

Isn’t there a way?
So I can breathe comfortably again?

4. 反撃の刃 (Hangeki no Yaiba) – 和楽器バンド (Wagakki Band)

The aesthetic of this music video feels perfect for TVD. Decadence and a feast ruined by calamity? Yes.The title translates as “The Blade of Counterattack,” and indeed, it’s a song about vengeance for what was stolen. It represents Juliette’s hatred for the shadowy enemies that have wreaked destruction upon her city and people. Here are some of the translated lyrics (translation credit: Aka @ Robot and Lyrics):

In the fiercely burning hatred
Climbing over the corpses…

I’ll give my body over to the burning, boiling feeling
Hating the squirming crowd, my eyes open
As we search for an answer to guide us
we join hands now and run away

The flowing tears are countless
The vows I reflect upon and a sword

The time for retaliation has come
Now, voices, crying loud
Attack the towering enemies
with obstinate will and these hands
I’ll twirl in the air and now strike
Until I die
What was stolen,
beyond the line of the high wall

The memories of the wails that pierced me
wander as they continue to search for a place
Like the husk of thirsting affection
the days that pass are a mirage

In the fiercely burning hatred
I accept the cruel reality
The flowing tears are countless
The vows I reflect upon and a sword

5. 你是情人還是敵人 (Are You a Lover or an Enemy) – 孫耀威/依拜·維吉 (Eric Suen and Ipay Buyici)

Angst, angst, angst. The title seems pretty self-explanatory in how it relates to TVD. Here are the translated lyrics (translation by me, do not use or repost without my permission and credit):

Are you a lover or an enemy?
Lovable or loathsome, it’s hard to separate
Are you a lover or an enemy?
Should I embrace you or resent you?

Forget it
At every moment when our vows were overturned
With no choice but to struggle
How could I have time to dispute truth and fiction?

Are you a lover or an enemy?
The more earnest I am, the more my body is covered in scars
Are you a lover or an enemy?
Why is it that happiness seems like a stranger?

Do you love me?
Could it be that heaven and hell have no time difference?
Might as well go crazy
So you won’t have to feign ignorance for me anymore

Are you a lover or an enemy?
Until what point will we keep loving and hating?
Are you a lover or an enemy?
Our hearts must shatter before it’s considered excessive

Let it go
Just admit that you and I can’t give anything
In the end, we are deficient
Of ways to not grieve over tears

Are you a lover or an enemy?
Are you heartless or my destiny?
Are you an instant or eternity?
Are you naive or cruel?

The Fanart

The Background: My original plan was to draw Juliette and/or Roma. However, when I was shopping got groceries at Walmart one day, I saw some packets of beads with color schemes that I thought were perfect for These Violent Delights, and it inspired me to make some earrings based on the characters instead.

The Process: This was my very first time ever making jewelry, so I had to buy some basic jewelry making supplies, including pliers, wire cutters, pins and earring hooks, etc. in addition to the 2 sets of assorted beads. After consulting a few tutorials on YouTube, I got to work stringing beads on the pins and opening and closing loops to attach stuff to the pins and attach the pins to the earring hooks. The results are pictured below. You can’t tell from the photos, but the loops at the bottom, from which the tassels are hanging, are extremely badly formed/ugly, but it’s my first time, so I won’t give myself too much grief over it. Considering how cheap the supplies were, they don’t look too shabby, in my opinion.

The Result:

The pair on the left is for the Juliette and the Scarlet Gang while the pair on the right is for Roma and the White Flowers.

[Blog Tour] Review for These Violent Delights by Chloe Gong+Giveaway

I am slightly late because school is kicking my butt, but I’m excited to present my review for the These Violent Delights blog tour hosted by Shealea at Caffeine Book Tours. The countdown to this release was a long one, but the wait is over! Stay tuned after my review for a TVD-inspired playlist and some fanart (specifically, DIY jewelry I made!) in a separate post.

Title: These Violent Delights
Author: Chloe Gong
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: 17 November 2020
Age Group/Genres: Young Adult, Historical

Synopsis:

Synopsis:

The year is 1926, and Shanghai hums to the tune of debauchery.

A blood feud between two gangs runs the streets red, leaving the city helpless in the grip of chaos. At the heart of it all is eighteen-year-old Juliette Cai, a former flapper who has returned to assume her role as the proud heir of the Scarlet Gang—a network of criminals far above the law. Their only rivals in power are the White Flowers, who have fought the Scarlets for generations. And behind every move is their heir, Roma Montagov, Juliette’s first love…and first betrayal.

But when gangsters on both sides show signs of instability culminating in clawing their own throats out, the people start to whisper. Of a contagion, a madness. Of a monster in the shadows. As the deaths stack up, Juliette and Roma must set their guns—and grudges—aside and work together, for if they can’t stop this mayhem, then there will be no city left for either to rule.

Review:

(Disclaimer: I received an ARC from the publisher as a part of my participation in the promotional blog tour in exchange for an honest review and that did not affect my evaluation of the book.)

There has been a lot of hype for These Violent Delights this year, and I’m happy to say that the book lived up to and perhaps even surpassed the hype for me.

Some people like to hate on prologues in books, but the prologue of this book hooked me from the first line. It sets the tone of the story quite well and establishes the sense of place with immersive details. You get the impression that the city will be its own character (and it is).

The story never lets you forget that the characters are in China in the early 20th century. Beyond mere aesthetic anchors, the narrative is contingent upon the geopolitics of its time and place: a Chinese city that is grappling with the encroachment of foreign European powers and a steep class divide. The push and pull between the natives and the foreigners, the Nationalists (Kuomintang) and the Communists, the Scarlet Gang and the White Flowers, the factory owners and the factory workers suffuse the story with tension.

Situated within this landscape are the two main characters, Juliette Cai and Roma Montagov, who are constantly negotiating their sense of belonging and loyalty to their families and to their own hearts. Both characters are morally gray and complex, making them compelling leads. They contrast a lot in their relationship with violence: Juliette often shoots first and asks questions later whereas Roma harms when he must but hates it most of the time. For those who found Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet somewhat vapid and lacking in chemistry, this story fills in the blanks and builds something substantial between the two star-crossed lovers. The events of the story take place four years after they first met, and there is a pronounced difference between their relationship as younger teens and their present one as 18-year-olds. Not only have they not seen each other in years, much of their innocence has been burned away by the violence they’ve experienced and inflicted since they met. The weight of these histories fuels the conflicting feelings they have toward each other. They oscillate between love and hate, yearning and guilt, and it’s simply *chef’s kiss*.

While Juliette and Roma dominate the story, the supporting cast is also well-developed. All have their struggles and motivations, and their relationships with one another and with Roma and Juliette enrich the story. My two favorites are Kathleen, who’s Juliette’s cousin and a trans girl, and Marshall, a queer Korean boy in the White Flowers who has an unspoken but obvious Thing going on with Roma’s cousin Benedikt. I might be biased because they’re queer, but they have my entire heart.

These Violent Delights gets very real about several issues, such as colonization, class conflict, and diaspora/immigrant experiences. Identity and power differentials play a central role in the story and shape the characters and their choices. The monster and the contagion give corporeal form to existing anxieties and bring them to the surface. While they facilitate violence, they also enables unprecedented alliances. They are not merely an external boogeyman to defeat, they are what expose the humanity of all the characters.

Reading These Violent Delights is over 400 pages, but it doesn’t drag at all. The suspense kept me turning pages, and the build-up was executed well, culminating in an incredible climax. The story provoked a lot of visceral reactions from me because it doesn’t pull any punches. It’s an immersive sensual and emotional experience. I can’t say much about it, but the ending is guaranteed to have you screaming. R.I.P. to all of us who must wait for the sequel.


Book Links:

Amazon — https://amzn.to/2RuiOIO
B&N — https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/these-violent-delights-chloe-gong/1136314561?ean=9781534457690 
Book Depository — https://www.bookdepository.com/These-Violent-Delights/9781534457690 
IndieBound — https://www.indiebound.org/book/9781534457690
Goodreads — https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/50892212-these-violent-delights

About the Author:

Chloe Gong is a student at the University of Pennsylvania, studying English and international relations. During her breaks, she’s either at home in New Zealand or visiting her many relatives in Shanghai. Chloe has been known to mysteriously appear when “Romeo and Juliet is one of Shakespeare’s best plays and doesn’t deserve its slander in pop culture” is chanted into a mirror three times.

Author links:
Author website — https://thechloegong.com/ 
Goodreads — https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/18899059.Chloe_Gong 
Instagram — http://www.instagram.com/thechloegong Twitter — http://www.twitter.com/thechloegong

Enter the giveaway!

GIVEAWAY INFORMATION

Prize: Five (5) hardcover edition of These Violent Delights by Chloe Gong

  • Open to international (INTL)
  • Ends on 25 November 2020 (Philippine time)

Rafflecopter link: http://www.rafflecopter.com/rafl/display/950d261642/

[Blog Tour] Book Playlist for Spell Starter by Elsie Chapman

Hello, welcome to the second half of my tour stop for the Spell Starter blog tour hosted by Shealea @ Caffeine Book Tours. If you missed my review, you can find it here.

For this playlist, I picked a bunch of songs with a darker tone, and they’re also heavy on the electric guitar. The links direct to YouTube.

Break the Wall – Dreamcatcher

This song expresses a struggle against extreme obstacles and I thought it was a good fit for the central conflict of the story. Here’s a translation the chorus (credit: 7DREAMERS Kim Hojoon):

Come on break the wall
That you protected till now
Fight it with all your strength
Defeat those hardships

Come on save your world
Above your world
Leave deep tracks
Shout towards a higher place

Don’t Don – Super Junior

Aside from presenting a gritty and edgy aesthetic in the music video, this song also talks about greed and corruption in society. I think it captures the spirit of Aza’s struggle with hunger for power and control. Here are the translated lyrics from the first chorus (credit: eeconomistt on LyricsTranslate)

Don’t Don
Everything in this world is about money
You that’s stuck in the middle
What is your mind?
You outta control (what is your mind)
I beg you to look around yourself
You can see the desire in one’s eyes
Stop bangin’ my head (my eyes gone red)

Strong Fate – Wagakki Band

This is a haunting song that sings of decay and a calamitous fate. Here are the translated lyrics for the first verse (credit: Kimhren/Aka at Robots and Lyrics):

One, two
Pasts fold over
A line between two points,
That is the voice that calls death

In this endless place,
Awaiting the cycle of rebirth

Not knowing that you’re confined;
If you examine it, (you’ll know) it’s a trap
Words of power that creep up
Fill your ears

Black eyes peer in,
Questioning the chain

Cries at the number of betrayals become yells
Gasping, shadows reflect in your vision

Roll the Dice – Takanori Nishikawa (T.M. Revolution)

This song is about risk and chance and being chained by darkness. It expresses Aza’s harrowing encounters in the tournament and also her broader sense of disillusionment and powerlessness. Here’s a translation of some of the lyrics from the second chorus (credit: newsonglyrics):

The wind that stroked my cheeks,
Is it the mercy of God or is it the whistle of a devil?
Seeing through the confusion,
Like fearing for the darkness unable to awake from it.

What the Hell – B.A.P

This song expresses revenge and righteous anger and captures the feelings Aza has toward her tournament rival Finch, who killed her sister. Here are the lyrics from the chorus (credit: Kaeryn & namtroll @ TSUndercover via itsbap.tumblr.com)

No way, no way, you strangle me
Even if I scream, no one helps me
Mayday, mayday, I am suffocating
Even if I shove you, even if I stand against this
Oh why are you you you you

What the hell you do, I will repay back
I will find you and wait until the end of the world
What the hell you do, even if I die, I will repay you back
Wait and see, in some time you you you you
You’re gonna break down

[Blog Tour] Review for Spell Starter by Elsie Chapman

Hello again! I can’t believe it’s already fall. 2020 has been a rollercoaster ride. Today I’m reviewing one of my most anticipated fall 2020 releases, Spell Starter (the sequel to Caster, which I reviewed last year and is getting a film adaptation!), as part of the blog tour hosted by Shealea @ Caffeine Book Tours. I’m also sharing a playlist for the book in a separate post, so check that out as well!

Title: Spell Starter
Author: Elsie Chapman
Publisher: Scholastic
Publication date: 06 October 2020
Age group: Young Adult
Genre: Fantasy

Synopsis:

The Sting meets Fight Club in this magical, action-packed sequel to Caster by Elsie Chapman.

Yes, Aza Wu now has magic back. But like all things in her life, it has come at a great cost. After the tournament, Aza is able to pay off her parents’ debt to Saint Willow. Unfortunately, the cost of the gathering spell she used to strip Finch of his magic has put her permanently in the employ of the gang leader. Aza has been doing little errands using real magic — collecting debts, putting the squeeze on new businesses in the district. But that had never been the plan. Saint Willow is nothing if not ambitious and having Aza as a fighter is much more lucrative than as a fixer. Especially if she can control the outcome. Aza is going to have to put it all on the line again to get out of this situation!

Review:

Disclaimer: I received an ARC from the publisher as part of the tour in exchange for an honest review. This did not affect my evaluation of the book.

Listen. I need everyone to support the heck out of the Caster movie when it comes out because I need Spell Starter to be adapted as well. Like Caster, Spell Starter is dark and atmospheric and a feast for the senses and would make a visually stunning experience on the big screen.

It was interesting to see how the author built upon the world, events, and stakes of the previous book. While the primary antagonist is the same, their relationship has changed since Aza is being forced to work for Saint Willow directly, under the threat of ruining her parents’ business. Aza is once again competing in a tournament, but it’s a different situation because the tournament is run by newcomers who have a different agenda and fewer scruples than the Guild. Furthermore, Aza is using magic that isn’t hers that she struggles to control, and her goal is no longer to win but rather to earn Saint Willow money from bets on the outcome.

Aza is no longer the same person she was at the beginning of the first book. Any naivete she possessed is gone; her psyche is haunted by bitterness, guilt, and anger. As her stolen magic drives her to new lows of excruciating pain, the anger grows and the temptation of power and destruction lurks in the shadows. Watching Aza grapple with this temptation and the costs of succumbing was a visceral and immersive experience because of the evocative imagery used to describe it.

The lows caused by the magic extend beyond Aza’s mind and body, affecting the entirety of Lotusland. The magic from the casting tournament wreaks greater destruction on the city than imagined and there is an ominous sense of impending apocalypse throughout the story. The magic is unstable and unsustainable, and the power and ego of a few threaten the whole population.

One of the things I really enjoyed about the book was the new bits of worldbuilding explored through the tournament. The tournament stages are more than aesthetic plot accessories, they’re very deliberately constructed to evoke a bygone era of abundance, a nostalgic tribute to a world that they cannot return to. Clear blue skies and verdant growth exist only in illusions. The final tournament stage in particular is a resurrected image of Lotusland’s Chinatown, and the announcer explains its origins and demise. It seems to serve as a warning to the casters about the consequences of greed and hubris.

The ending is a bit open-ended, but it feels right for the story that the author’s trying to tell. Both in the story and in real life, the destruction of the world (i.e. climate change) is an ongoing process that you can either enable, whether actively or passively, or fight against, and the ending seems to ask, “what will you choose?”

Content/Trigger Warnings: blood, death, murder


Book Links:

Amazon — https://amzn.to/31ioSK6
B&N — https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/spell-starter-elsie-chapman/1135037083?ean=9781338589511
Book Depository — https://www.bookdepository.com/Spell-Starter-Caster-Novel-Elsie-Chapman/9781338589511
IndieBound — https://www.indiebound.org/book/9781338589511
Goodreads — https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/49090458-spell-starter

About the Author:

Elsie Chapman grew up in Prince George, Canada, and has a degree in English literature from the University of British Columbia. She is the author of the YA novels Dualed, Divided, Along the Indigo, and Caster as well as the middle-grade novel All the Ways Home, and the coeditor of A Thousand Beginnings and Endings and Hungry Hearts. She currently lives in Tokyo, Japan, with her family.

Author links:

Author website — https://elsiechapman.com/ 

Goodreads — https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/5441417.Elsie_Chapman 

Instagram — https://www.instagram.com/elsiechapman/ 

[Blog Tour] Interview with Aiden Thomas

I’m super excited to host this interview with Aiden Thomas on their debut, Cemetery Boys, for the blog tour arranged by Hear Our Voices Book Tours. You can find more info about the book in my review.

Q: Writing #OwnVoices stories can be fraught for marginalized writers because it often feels like baring our soul to the world. What was it like to write a character who was like you?

A: It was actually incredibly stressful! The “baring my soul” part was actually a lot less scary than the intense fear I had of saying/writing the wrong thing and hurting a reader who shares marginalizations with me/Yadriel. For me, being an #OwnVoices author meant I was hyper of the sense of responsibility that came with it. Even though me and Yads share a lot of the same marginalizations, I know that everybody has their own internalized stuff to work through, which is why I got Authenticity Readers who could catch anything that accidentally made it onto the page.

It also meant being under a lot of pressure to get the representation right! Being one of very few books containing a trans main character (not to mention queer and Latinx) meant “Cemetery Boys” could be one of the first books someone has ever read with that representation. I didn’t want to mess it up! But at the same time, a lot of pride went into it, too. I’m very aware that I’m in a special position to even be able to tell this story, and I really take that as a serious responsibility. I’m so thankful for the support I’ve gotten from the community. Every time a reader reaches out to tell me they related to Yadriel, or that this is the first time they really saw themselves in media, it really makes my heart so full!

Q: Although marginalized communities are often treated as monoliths, the reality is that we are diverse, and mainstream media is only just scratching the surface of representing our experiences. With that in mind, what kinds of trans Latinx YA stories do you want to see in the future?

A: Honestly I want lots of stories across all genres! I want trans Latinx horror, thriller, high fantasy, contemporary romcoms — all of it! In order for us to push back against the idea of a “monolith,” we need diversity of representation across genres. We also need different types of trans characters — binary trans, nonbinary, agender, etc. — and different Latinx cultures as well. We, ourselves, are so diverse, I really want those differences and what makes us unique to be shared and celebrated!

Q: If Yadriel had a Twitter account, what would he use as his Twitter handle and what would his bio say?

A: I feel like Twitter would definitely be Yadriel’s social media of choice! He’d just be on Twitter to vent and talk into the void and get irritated when one of his tweets went viral. His bio would be short and sweet, probably just “Gay and Tired™.” For his handle, Yadriel would probably want to do something simple like just using his name, which Maritza would refuse to let him do, so she’d take over and make one for him that’d be like, “@pendejobrujo” and then he’d be stuck with it.

Q: If you could choose a song to represent Yadriel and Julian, what song would it be?

A: I make playlists on YouTube for all my books and characters so this is easy! When “Cemetery Boys” was still just a vague idea in my brain, I heard “Eastside” by Benny Blanco, featuring Halsey and Khalid while I was driving around one night. I fell madly in love with it and it ended up being the inspiration for like three whole chapters of the book!

Q: If Yadriel and Julian had animal alter egos, what animals would they be, respectively?

A: Yadriel would definitely be a black cat because he keeps to himself, is picky about who he gets close to and can be really stubborn. He’s also pretty quiet and just wants to curl up and be cozy with the people he cares about.

Meanwhile, Julian would be a husky because he’s so hyperactive, demands attention from the people he loves and never shuts up.

Q: Last but not least, please recommend a few books by queer authors of color that you love!

A: Oh gosh, there’s so many! But a few of my favorites are:


Aiden Thomas is a YA author with an MFA in Creative Writing. Originally from Oakland, California, they now make their home in Portland, OR. As a queer, trans, latinx, Aiden advocates strongly for diverse representation in all media. Aiden’s special talents include: quoting The Office, Harry Potter trivia, Jenga, finishing sentences with “is my FAVORITE”, and killing spiders. Aiden is notorious for not being able to guess the endings of books and movies, and organizes their bookshelves by color.

[Blog Tour] Review for Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas

Hello again, September 1st is a day of so many incredible book releases, not least of which is Cemetery Boys, and I’m thrilled to be reviewing this book for the blog tour hosted by Hear Our Voices.

Title: Cemetery Boys
Author: Aiden Thomas
Publisher: Swoon Reads
Release Date: September 1, 2020
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy

Synopsis:

Yadriel has summoned a ghost, and now he can’t get rid of him.

When his traditional Latinx family has problems accepting his gender, Yadriel becomes determined to prove himself a real brujo. With the help of his cousin and best friend Maritza, he performs the ritual himself, and then sets out to find the ghost of his murdered cousin and set it free.

However, the ghost he summons is actually Julian Diaz, the school’s resident bad boy, and Julian is not about to go quietly into death. He’s determined to find out what happened and tie up some loose ends before he leaves. Left with no choice, Yadriel agrees to help Julian, so that they can both get what they want. But the longer Yadriel spends with Julian, the less he wants to let him leave.

Review:

The moment I finished Cemetery Boys, I was ready to join the Yadriel Defense Squad. Yadriel is such a lovable character, and I was sucked into his story from the beginning. From his stubbornness to his insecurities, to his yearning for validation and desperation to prove himself, I saw a piece of myself in Yadriel’s character.

I also really loved the supporting cast. Yadriel’s cousin Maritza is a badass and a rebel who doesn’t take shit from anyone. She keeps it real with Yadriel and is his staunchest ally, and I couldn’t imagine a better friend to have by my side. Julian, the ghostly love interest, is also endearing in his own way. He reminds me of a puppy, eager and energetic and a little bit clumsy, loyal and without pretense. In particular, his penchant for getting idioms wrong had me laughing and shaking my head. His dynamic with Yadriel is engaging because of their drastically different personalities.

Yadriel’s big Latinx family, dead and alive, is a constant presence in and core aspect of his story. They span a range of personalities and add texture and nuance to the Latinx representation in the book. Their teasing and doting, their celebratory gatherings and more somber heart-to-hearts, all of these facets enrich the narrative. Notably, some are more accepting of Yadriel’s transness than others, and Yadriel has to navigate the complex tensions of familial love, which is idealized as unconditional but less straightforward in reality.

One of the things I appreciated about Cemetery Boys is the way Yadriel’s gender is inextricably tied to his culture. Going beyond the personal, his gender is linked with the role he plays as brujo. He is part of something greater than himself, a line of traditions that connect him to his ancestors and the gods, especially the Lady of Death, their patron goddess, who endows the brujx with their supernatural gifts.

Cemetery Boys is so many things at once: a cute romance, a heartening coming-of-age story, and a magical murder mystery. It balances the serious with the humorous, the dark with the hopeful. Every character has depth and their own personal journeys and conflicts, internal or external, some linked to salient contemporary issues affecting communities of color. Notably, there is a secondary character, Flaca, who is a trans Latina whose determination to be out and proud at school helps Yadriel in his own transition.

In short, I cannot recommend Cemetery Boys enough, and I hope you fall in love with Yadriel as much as I did. For more about this book and the author, check out my interview with Aiden Thomas.


Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iBooks | The Book Depository | IndieBound | Google

About the Author:

Aiden Thomas is a YA author with an MFA in Creative Writing. Originally from Oakland, California, they now make their home in Portland, OR. As a queer, trans, latinx, Aiden advocates strongly for diverse representation in all media. Aiden’s special talents include: quoting The Office, Harry Potter trivia, Jenga, finishing sentences with “is my FAVORITE”, and killing spiders. Aiden is notorious for not being able to guess the endings of books and movies, and organizes their bookshelves by color.

[Blog Tour] SFF YA Duologies by Authors of Color to Read After Mirage

If you’re following my blog, you might have noticed the pinned post featuring SFF YA trilogies by POC and Indigenous authors. For the #CourtOfLionsTour I’ve decided to round up a bunch of SFF YA duologies by authors of color since Court of Lions is itself part of a duology and the story focuses on two young women whose fates are intertwined. Disclaimer: This list is not exhaustive! Also, this is based on the information I was able to find; some of these may actually be longer than 2 books but have not announced further installments to date.

Completed Series

Mirage by Somaiya Daud

  1. Mirage
  2. Court of Lions (my review)

Want by Cindy Pon (my interview with the author)

  1. Want (my review)
  2. Ruse

The Epic Crush of Genie Lo by F.C. Yee (my interview with the author)

  1. The Epic Crush of Genie Lo (my review)
  2. The Iron Will of Genie Lo

Rosemarked by Livia Blackburne (my interview with the author)

  1. Rosemarked
  2. Umbertouched

SOS by E.C. Myers

  1. The Silence of Six
  2. Against All Silence

The Blood of Stars by Elizabeth Lim

  1. Spin the Dawn (my review)
  2. Unravel the Dusk

Ignite the Stars by Maura Milan

  1. Ignite the Stars
  2. Eclipse the Skies

Beasts Made of Night by Tochi Onyebuchi

  1. Beasts Made of Night
  2. Crown of Thunder

Empress of a Thousand Skies by Rhoda Belleza

  1. Empress of a Thousand Skies
  2. Blood of a Thousand Stars

The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton

  1. The Belles
  2. The Everlasting Rose

Exo by Fonda Lee (my interview with the author)

  1. Exo
  2. Cross Fire

The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi

  1. The Star-Touched Queen
  2. A Crown of Wishes

The Girl from Everywhere by Heidi Heilig

  1. The Girl from Everywhere
  2. A Ship Beyond Time

Wintersong by S. Jae-Jones

  1. Wintersong
  2. Shadowsong

Warcross by Marie Lu

  1. Warcross
  2. Wildcard

Rise of the Empress by Julie C. Dao

  1. Forest of a Thousand Lanterns
  2. Kingdom of the Blazing Phoenix

The Final Six by Alexandra Monir

  1. The Final Six
  2. The Life Below

Rebel Seoul by Axie Oh (my interview with the author)

  1. Rebel Seoul
  2. Rogue Heart

Tower of Wind by Makiia Lucier

  1. Isle of Blood and Stone
  2. Song of the Abyss

We Set the Dark on Fire by Tehlor Kay Mejia

  1. We Set the Dark on Fire
  2. We Unleash the Merciless Storm

Circle of Shadows by Evelyn Skye

  1. Circle of Shadows
  2. Cloak of Night

The Beast Player by Nahoko Uehashi

  1. The Beast Player
  2. The Beast Warrior

Gumiho by Kat Cho

  1. Wicked Fox
  2. Vicious Spirits

Caster by Elsie Chapman

  1. Caster (my review)
  2. Spell Starter (my review)

Ongoing or Unreleased Series

Shatter the Sky by Rebecca Kim Wells

  1. Shatter the Sky
  2. Storm the Earth (out October 13th, 2020)

War Girls by Tochi Onyebuchi

  1. War Girls
  2. Rebel Sisters (out October 20th, 2020)

The Never Tilting World by Rin Chupeco

  1. The Never Tilting World (my review)
  2. The Ever Cruel Kingdom (out November 10th, 2020)

Sands of Arawiya by Hafsah Faizal

  1. We Hunt the Flame
  2. We Free the Stars (out January 19th, 2021)

The City of Diamond and Steel by Francesca Flores

  1. Diamond City
  2. Shadow City (out January 26th, 2021)

The Queen’s Secret by Melissa de la Cruz

  1. The Queen’s Assassin
  2. The Queen’s Secret (out March 2nd, 2021)

Scavenge the Stars by Tara Sim

  1. Scavenge the Stars
  2. Ravage the Dark (out March 9th, 2021)

A River of Royal Blood by Amanda Joy

  1. A River of Royal Blood
  2. A Queen of Gilded Horns (out March 16th, 2021)

The Girl King by Mimi Yu

  1. The Girl King
  2. Empress of Flames (out March 16th, 2021)

The Wrath of Ambar by Tanaz Bhathena

  1. Hunted by the Sky
  2. Rising Like a Storm (out June 22nd, 2021)

The Light at the Bottom of the World

Light the Abyss by London Shah

  1. The Light at the Bottom of the World
  2. Journey to the Heart of the Abyss (out 2021)

Rebelwing by Andrea Tang

  1. Rebelwing
  2. Renegade Flight (out 2021)

Hollow Crown by Zoraida Córdova

  1. Incendiary
  2. Illusionary (out 2021)

The Good Luck Girls

The Good Luck Girls by Charlotte Nicole Davis

  1. The Good Luck Girls
  2. Untitled

A Song of Wraiths and Ruin by Roseanne A. Brown

  1. A Song of Wraiths and Ruin
  2. A Psalm of Storms and Silence (out 2021)

Raybearer

Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko

  1. Raybearer
  2. Untitled

Kingdom of Cards by Janella Angeles

  1. Where Dreams Descend
  2. When Night Breaks (out June 8th, 2021)

Blazewrath Games

Blazewrath Games by Amparo Ortiz

  1. Blazewrath Games (out October 6th, 2020)
  2. Untitled

Author Interview: Cindy Lin

For Day 4 of Taiwanese American Heritage Week, I interviewed Cindy Lin about her middle grade fantasy series The Twelve. The second book and conclusion, Treasures of the Twelve, releases July 28th, 2020.

Synopsis:

Usagi can hear a squirrel’s heartbeat from a mile away, and soar over treetops in one giant leap. She was born in the year of the wood rabbit, and it’s given her extraordinary zodiac gifts.

But she can never use them, not while the mysterious, vicious Dragonlord hunts down all those in her land with zodiac powers. Instead, she must keep her abilities—and those of her rambunctious sister Uma—a secret.

After Uma is captured by the Dragonguard, Usagi can no longer ignore her powers. She must journey to Mount Jade with the fabled Heirs of the Twelve, a mystical group of warriors who once protected the land.

As new mysteries unfold, Usagi must decide who she stands with, and who she trusts, as she takes on deadly foes on her path to the elusive, dangerous Dragonlord himself.

Interview:

Q: What sparked the idea for The Twelve?

It happened to be Lunar New Year right around the time I was taking my first creative writing course, and so there was a lot of mention of how we were entering the year of the Ox. And my sister is born in the year of the Ox, as well as other friends and family, and I was struck by how we usually identify ourselves as the zodiac animal itself, like “I’m an Ox!” or “I’m a Tiger!” That got me to thinking — what if people actually had the power of the animal that ruled their year? Like, what if someone born in the year of the Ox had incredible strength? Or if a Tiger-born person had super keen night vision? It seemed like it would be a fun concept to explore and write about, and it was! But it took me a long time to figure out how to make it work in a way that made sense to me. I initially tried setting the story in our contemporary world, but in the end, setting it in an imaginary mythical time and place unlocked it for me.

Q: What is your zodiac animal and what powers would that give you in the universe of The Twelve?

My ruling animal is the Dog, and I made sure to include a character with dog powers in my books — more than one, actually! I gave them different talents associated with dogs, like a hyper-powerful sense of smell, and the ability to communicate with and command dogs. Other talents might be strong jaws and a fearsome bite, or the ability to hunt anything down. There are so many types of dogs that the possible talents are endless, but I definitely had to start with a super sensitive nose that could identify all sorts of things near and far.

Q: In the book, there are twelve legendary treasures, each with a special power. If they were real, which of these treasures would you want to possess, and what would you use it for?

I’ve asked myself that question a lot! One thing about power is that it usually comes with a price, so I wanted to make sure that the powers of the Treasures were tempered somewhat. As a writer you don’t want an object that gives you unlimited power without consequence, because what’s the fun in that? It’s always more interesting when there’s a catch and a downside to having power, I think. I feel like I already have one of the Treasures — my smart phone is a lot like the Mirror of Elsewhere, and I struggle with its pull all the time. I wouldn’t mind having the Conjurer — the hammer that grants you whatever you wish for (albeit for just a day). But at this moment, in the midst of a global pandemic, what I really want is the Apothecary — the pillbox that holds cures for ailments — as well as the Bowl of Plenty, which fills up with whatever you put in it. We could really use those two now.

Q: What was your favorite part about writing The Twelve?

All the fun I had doing research! I visited museums, read countless books on all sorts of topics, tried different sports (including kendo, or Japanese fencing, which ended up being so fun that I joined a dojo), and generally got to geek out. It was also really gratifying to put in little mentions of things that are meaningful to me. For example, though the island kingdom of Midaga is inspired by many different places, I did write in a little shout-out to where I lived in Japan (Stone River Province is in honor of Ishikawa Prefecture) and gave some locations the names of actual landmarks in Taiwan, where my family is from. I loved the feeling of discovery as I wrote, and I also met so many great fellow writers as I worked on The Twelve. When I started all this, I didn’t realize I would find such an amazing community and kindred spirits.

Q: What was the hardest part about writing The Twelve?

Not knowing what I was doing, as it was my first attempt at writing a novel! It was hard to eke out a sentence, a paragraph, a page for the first time, and wonder if I could string together enough to make a coherent long-form story. It took many tries and many versions, and a lot of lost sleep and sacrifice. I wrote when I was on vacation with family, I got up early before my day job to write, I wrote in the middle of the night and wouldn’t get to bed until dawn — it was like I was possessed. I couldn’t not do it, but I gave up a lot for it, and at the same time, I was riddled with doubt. That was hard to wrestle with. And writing itself is so solitary. That can be lonely at times. Rejection is also no picnic, though all of the difficult stuff really does make you better and stronger.

Q: Who is your favorite character in the duology and why?

Of course, I love my main character Usagi, as I’ve been carrying her with me for years. But I did find a couple of supporting characters surprisingly fun to write, and so I feel a lot of affection for them. One is the hermit, Yunja — I have a blast with him every time I bring him into the story. I also love the Tigress, because she’s like my personal Yoda. Honestly I love all my characters for different reasons, but I’ll stop with those three!

Q: Sequels and sophomore novels have a reputation for being difficult to write. Did you find Treasures of the Twelve, which is not only a sequel but the conclusion to a series, to be a challenge compared to the first book?

It was a challenge for sure, but in a different way from Book 1. I had to figure out how to develop things that I’d set up in the first book, and how to start the book in a way that wouldn’t be horribly confusing for anyone who hadn’t read The Twelve, but not too repetitive for those who had. I tried to balance introducing new ideas, places and characters with including familiar bits from Book 1. I also had to wrap things up in a satisfying way. And I had to do it all in a compressed time frame. It took me many years to write Book 1, and just a fraction of that for Book 2. That said, it helped that I had already spent so much time building the world of my story — it did make some things easier as I drafted Treasures of the Twelve. I kept reminding myself that other authors have written sequels for publication in consecutive years, so it was in the realm of possibility — but I definitely worried about pulling it off. Given the constraints of time, I did the absolute best I could, and take heart in the fact that my publisher gave it the green light. I think it goes to show that there’s nothing like a deadline to help kick you in the pants!


About the Author:

Cindy Lin author photoA former journalist with degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University, Cindy Lin has worked for Sony Pictures Entertainment and has written and produced many multimedia news features for children, one of which received a Peabody Award. The Twelve is her debut novel.

Author Links:

Website: https://www.cindylinbooks.com/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/cindylin_tweets

Author Interview: Victoria Ying

For Day 2 of Taiwanese American Heritage Week, I interviewed Victoria Ying, whose debut middle grade graphic novel City of Secrets releases July 28th, 2020!

City of Secrets

Synopsis: