Rage as Absolution in “The Book of Phoenix”

*Note: this post contains major spoilers.

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The Book of Phoenix follows the story of Phoenix – an accelerated “specimen”, created from the experiments of the secretive Tower Seven. Though she has the body of a forty year old woman she has only been alive for three years. She has never questioned the reasons for her existence, nor the intentions of her carers in Tower Seven.

When her friend and lover disappears under mysterious circumstances Phoenix begins to question her surroundings and doubt the only world that she has ever known. For the first time in her life she feels the sting of betrayal. For the first time she feels anger. Her anger burns within her, quite literally. Her skin starts to overheat, and as her emotions become too much for Phoenix to handle, she catches fire, like the mythical bird she is named after.

Much of the book’s progression involves Phoenix running from her creators, all the while learning more about how and why she was created. She comes into contact with various people who help her on her journey. The book touches on many issues – exploitation, racism, scientific ethics, but through it all injustice is the main player. Phoenix constantly mulls over the terrible going on in her world. She sees the suffering of those closest to her, and she feels the pain of it deeply. Perhaps because her introduction to the cruel aspect of life is so sudden, she is acutely sensitive to the pain inflicted on her and her loved ones. She is a deeply emotional being.

Being named and created for the bird that burns itself for new life seems to seal her fate. At the apex of each significant struggle, Phoenix burns. She rages, overheats, and wipes out anything and anyone that happen to be close to her. As a reader, I couldn’t help being attuned to Phoenix’s pain and anger at the many injustices she experiences. In fact, being inside her head reminded me of when I was younger. I also raged at the world’s injustices. I wondered how there could be so much suffering, and that a lot of it went unnoticed, uncared for. There are times, even now, when I do feel like the  world needs to be wiped out in order to rid it of the bad within it. But I know, of course, that this means erasing the good that is in the world, too.

You can see where I’m going with this. In the end, Phoenix’s burning is absolute. It is complete in its destruction. She bathes the world in her flames, a fiery baptism that allows it to be born anew, apparently rid of the evils that Phoenix had witnessed. I could understand her rage, I could understand her pain. But I couldn’t understand her decision in the end. It felt hollow. As if she was giving up, as if she was refusing to see that, despite the horrible things happening to her, there had been good moments, too. There had been kindness, and love, and there could have been hope.

I know this novel is meant to be a prequel to Who Fears Death, so it may very well be the case that Phoenix’s story had to end this way. For me, however, the ending left something to be desired. Phoenix’s story was beautiful, yes, and tragic, also yes. But I didn’t expect that it would be hollow.

(P.S. Also, what was up with that commentary on women being overly emotional? I know it’s framed within the perspective of the character who reads Phoenix’s book but considering everything that had come before, it seemed considerably out of place. It seemed to render the entirety of Phoenix’s journey redundant, and invalidate her final decision.)

Almost Everything, Everything Was On Point

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Maddy is sick. Really sick. Like can’t-leave-the-house-or-her-body-will-shut-down kind of sick. As far as she can remember of her eighteen years, she has been confined to her home with her mother and her nurse, Carla, for company. She has been home-schooled, and her only visitor is her architect teacher. Maddy is happy. She is happy reading all the books she can, building mini architecture models, and having game nights with her mom.

But when the new boy next door, Olly, walks into her life everything changes. Suddenly Maddy wants more. She wants to see the world and experience everything it has to offer.

I have to admire the dexterous balance that Nicola Yoon strikes with her simple, easy to gobble up writing style that simultaneously manages to be quite beautiful at the same time. She really does make it seem effortless. Reading the novel feels like slipping into a sundae.

Maddy is a likeable character. She is intelligent, mature, with a sense of humour, and good nature that’s allowed her to face her unique life without wallowing deeply in bitterness.Olly is equally well-characterized. He comes with his own set of problems. His home life is tainted by his dad’s violent outbursts. Maddy and Olly’s easy interaction was enjoyable to read.

Despite these good points, however, this novel did leave me feeling a bit non-plussed. First off, as enjoyable as the banter between Maddy and Olly was, their immediate adoration for each other was not. It was easy to see that they were going to fall in love, and I was all for them falling in love but the journey to the destination was far too short to be believable. Or at least for me to believe that their love had weight. I think the initial stages of their relationship could have been fleshed out a whole lot more.

Secondly, there is a twist at the end of the novel which renders the entire preceding character development that Maddy undergoes completely irrelevant. It was far too easy a solution and it was actually quite disappointing to read. I was eager to see how Yoon might portray the harder choices in life, and the consequences of sticking to them, and while she does to an extent, she doesn’t fully deliver on her message. The relationship between Maddy and her mother could also have been fleshed out, especially near the end. When the novel ends, it does not feel satisfying at all. Yoon tries to tie everything up with a neat little bow, and considering what she was trying to offer the payoff felt very insufficient.

The Diverse Books Tag

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Naz at ReadDiverseBooks has started up a great conversation on the twittersphere with #DiverseBookBloggers. Those who blog, and are marginally represented in the literature that is widely available for consumption have been able to gather and discuss the needs and importance of representation and diversity. It’s not simply throwing around the word “diverse” and being satisfied with that, but examining nuanced, and respectful portrayals of various cultures, and the positive results that such portrayals can bring about.

Following the enthusiastic response at twitter, Naz then came up with this tag to promote the emerging works of diverse authors out there. With this tag, you can choose books that you’ve already read and would recommend, or ones that you wish to read. If there are none on your tbr list that doesn’t fall in the category, then you can check out lists on goodreads, or simply do a quick Google search. There are a lot of newly published authors representing a wide range of cultures and nationalities, so there’s plenty to choose from.

And as Naz says:

Everyone can do this tag, even people who don’t own or haven’t read any books that fit the descriptions below. So there’s no excuse! The purpose of the tag is to promote the kinds of books that may not get a lot of attention in the book blogging community.”

Anyways, without further ado, here are my picks:

Find a book starring a lesbian character.

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I saw this book around tumblr, and have been wanting to read it after reading the blurb. Juliet is just heading off to do an internship after coming out to her family. She’s not sure that her mother will be speaking to her again, and so when she goes off to the internship it’s with hopes that working for her academic idol will help her on her journey in discovering herself. I can’t wait to read this book. I’m always desperately searching for “new adult” books. “New adult” is the term that’s used for stories centering around those who have just left high-school, and there isn’t a whole lot of fiction about that. The fact that this story’s protagonist is also Puerto-Rican, and a lesbian just makes it even more rare, and even better.

Find a book set in Latin America.

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This book has been sitting on my shelf for over a year or so, and there’s no way I wasn’t going to include it in this list. I’ve read some of Allende’s short stories awhile ago, and her writing is lyrically atmospheric. This widely loved novel of magical realism is an epic story of three generations of the Trueba family, and I can’t wait to immerse myself in this story. And don’t you just love that cover?

Find a book about a person with a disability.

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Another book that’s been sitting on my shelf, judging me for still not having read it. Naoki Hgashida wrote this book when he was thirteen years old, and it’s his account of what it’s like to live with autism. It has been lauded for its honesty and heart, and answers all questions about autism that family and friends of individuals of autism have been curious about. I’m not very informed about autism, so I’m definitely looking forward to reading this one.

Find a Science-Fiction or Fantasy book with a POC protagonist.

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I’m currently reading this one, and for someone who hasn’t read extensively when it comes to the Science Fiction genre, I’m thoroughly enjoying myself. Phoenix is an “accelerated woman”, a genetic experiment concocted and raised in Tower 7, a mysterious organization that specializes in such experiments. Phoenix has only been “alive” for two years, but has the body of a grown woman, and a mind which consumes and digests information like no other. Soon, however, events transpire that brings Phoenix to the realization that Tower 7 is nothing but a prison, and in an extraordinary burst of flames, she burns herself and her prison-like home down. That’s only the beginning of Phoenix’s journey however. This book is described as one of magical futurism, a unique label that I haven’t come across before. This is the prequel to Who Fears Death, which won the World Fantasy Award. Okorafor is a wonderful storyteller, and this is one I’d definitely recommend.

Find a book set in (or about) any country in Africa.

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Darling has grown up in Zimbabwe, running between the shanty homes that she and her friends live in, playing games, and stealing guavas from those that are far wealthier than them. They all dream of escaping their country, envying their relatives who’ve run off to the West. Eventually, Darling, too, leaves Zimbabwe to live in the States with her aunt and uncle. Of course that comes with its own challenges, and Darling doesn’t find her life is nearly as fulfilling living away from her home country as she thought it would be. This one is a strange recommendation, because there was something about it that didn’t quite fit well. I remember the novel’s ending felt far too abrupt. At the same time, however, this novel is brazenly honest about Darling’s suffering. Her hollowed realization that her life is not turning out the way she hoped it would left me with a deeply sorrowful feeling once I finished. Bulawayo’s writing is minimal, but powerful, I think, and I’d recommend this one simply for its thought-provoking story line.

Find a book written by an Aboriginal or American Indian author.

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I’ve seen this book around shops and libraries town but never actually picked it up. Perhaps if I had, I might have known that it’s a story about an Aboriginal girl, Oblivia, living in a future Australia, drastically transformed by climate change. Apparently, this book intertwines  myths and folklore, as well as experimenting with linguistic phrases from English, Aboriginal languages, French and Latin. I have to say the premise intrigues me, so I’ll be getting my hands on this as soon as I can.

Find a book set in South Asia (Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, etc.).

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This novel follows the lives of two cousins, Latha and Tsunami Wijesinha, chronicling their stories from girlhood to their maturation. Set during the emergence of the civil unrest in Sri Lanka, there are nuanced issues of caste and racism. The politics, however, are simply a backdrop for the story of the Wijesinha family. Latha’s vacation with her wealthier cousin’s family offers her a variety of experiences, and an escape from her more traditional mother’s views. As time goes on however, and a shocking scandal rocks Tsunami’s family, the girls find that it’s Latha’s family that offers the comfort and solace needed for two young girls trying to make their way in a harsh society. This book is steeped in beautiful writing, and wonderful references to literature. Yasmine Gonneratne is an academic of English Literature and her appreciation for it is obvious. Her own writing is masterful and honestly a joy to read. It’s a story that you’ll want to take slowly, just to be able to luxuriate in the wonderfully weaved sentences, and the fulfilling lives of the two girls.

Find a book with a biracial protagonist.

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This is a recently published novel set in Seattle, during the anti World Trade Organization protests. The novel’s narrative is constructed around the view points of seven characters, though the central one who opens and closes the story is Victor. Victor is a young, biracial, homeless man who has been wandering the world following the death of his mother, and his realization that he and his father have vastly conflicting ideas of the world. He is homeless by choice, an individual who has become disillusioned with the world he lives in. Unwittingly he becomes swept into the WTO protests. To make things more interesting, Victor’s father is the Chief of Police, stationed to control the protestors. Of course, some very ugly and violent situations ensue. Yapa addresses a world of complex issues in this one: human rights, economic rights, racism, equality. However, the story hones in on the compassion and empathy that humans need to cultivate for each other.

Find a book starring a transgender character or about transgender issues.

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Once again, this is an issue that I’m not very informed about, so I decided to opt for a piece of non-fiction. Let me tell you, it was a  little difficult trying to locate a text available in my local libraries that was a piece of non-fiction, actually written about someone who is part of the transgender community. This one especially appealed to me because I’m quite interested in how feminism accommodates – or fails to accommodate – transgender women. Intersectionality is certainly important, and I’m eager to read Serano’s account.

There we are, those are my picks. If you’ve read any of these, do leave a comment and let me know how you found the experience.

I’d like to thank Naz for this wonderful tag. Though I do make it a point to read as widely as possible about people from all walks of life, I realized that I still have a lot of way to go in that regard.

Now to tag some other bloggers:

Sabeena at thepocbookreader

Emma at wellthumbedbooks

Morgan at happilyeverbookish

Stefanie at yourdaughtersbookshelf

Sophie at Portal in the Pages

Naida at The Bookworm

And if there’s anyone else who’s interested in this tag, please let me know and I will change that asap. I’m keen to know how you all get on. Hope everyone’s having a wonderful weekend!

Breathing Life into Drawings

Sierra Santiago loves art. She has a knack for creating images, and is currently working on a giant community mural. Strangely though she suddenly notices that the images  around her are starting to move. Images are fading, facial expressions are changing. Strangers and strange creatures alike are suddenly chasing her. Sierra soon discovers that her family heritage is not as straightforward, or as ordinary, as she once thought, and she becomes embroiled in her most difficult project yet.

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Isn’t the cover beautiful?

There is a lot to like in Daniel José Older’s Shadowshaper. Sierra, a young Afro-Latina highschooler is a strong and intelligent heroine, with  insecurities and self-doubts that make her a multi-dimensional character. Her relationships with friends and family are warm and entertaining to read about, though interspersed with the inevitable difficulties. Her newfound ability – being powerful enough to render illustrations and infuse them with a magic that brings them to life – were, to be nerdy about it, totally cool. I think the young child in me was especially gleeful about that because one of my daydreams used to be having the power to do exactly that  – imagine drawing the exact thing you wanted or needed and simply willing it into life. (You’d never want for anything! Of course you’d have to be a pretty good artist for it work…) Shadowshaping, however, can also singing and telling stories. The power itself seems an ode to the act of creation, and it’s an inspired touch.

Older creates a world that is very vivid and imaginative. The paranormal aspect is smoothly woven into the narrative. It’s thrilling to see the fantasy dimension buzzing behind the facade of Sierra’s urban life. The characters within it are numerous and beautifully diverse. High-school me would probably have cried tears of joy at this novel. The novel did, however,  feel like it was lacking in character development when it came to some of the secondary characters. They weren’t as fleshed out as Sierra herself, and also made for some confusion in some of the scenes as I couldn’t immediately place who was who. I hope we get to see more of the other characters in the coming books.

Sierra’s coming into her own is beautiful to watch, especially as she discovers her own family’s deep involvement in this supernatural community. Her bravery when it comes to embracing a part of her family that her own mother shunned was touching.  My favourite scene involves a very important conversation with a female family relative that quite suddenly and unexpectedly moved me to tears. It was perhaps the most inspiring and heartening scene in the book for me. It seemed to encapsulate everything the book was about.

There is a strong theme running throughout it of oneness of community. The shadowshapers’ power stems from the strength of their relationship with their ancestors. Their entire system of power is structured around togetherness and community, and I loved that.It ties in with Sierra’s insecurities regarding her own skin colour, her African heritage, and watching her overcome her doubts, and even the doubts and jibes of those close to her made my heart swell. The novel is quite slim, so these scenes felt like they could have used a little more development as well. It was great to see Sierra take that first step but I wanted a something more surrounding that first step to make it more substantial. In any case Older has kicked off an entertaining series and I can’t wait to see where it takes us.

Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor

This novel follows Sunny Nwazue, an albino American born Nigerian girl. With her family having moved back to Nigeria, Sunny is finding it hard to fit in. Her looks and smarts are both fodder for the school bullies. Add to that her outsider status of being “akata”, an African American, life for Sunny is not exactly sunshine and rainbows.

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As if these daily pressures aren’t enough, Sunny also has special powers. The kind that are also a curse, as she is now privy to how the end of the world will unfold.

Thankfully, with the help of newly acquired friends Sunny learns she is actually part of a larger magical community.

Sunny’s is a very engaging character to read about. I think young readers will take to her – she’s an intelligent and resourceful child. She is curious and extraordinarily brave, yet at the same she feels very familiar, as if she could be any child you meet. I think this aspect will really endear her to young readers. She is just like any kid trying their best to fit in, worrying about balancing friends and family, while trying to establish her individuality.

The new world Sunny discovers is riotous with magic. There’s something new at every turn. There is a lot to take in, in that regard, but one of the positive side effects is that the story is never put on pause in order to make way for excessive word building. The reader is swept along into this magical terrain with Sunny. I can see how that could be a bit of a downside, as it’s a lot to take in, but then, you don’t get bogged down in overwhelming details about setting and foliage etc., either.

If there was one thing I wanted more of, it was to see more interaction between Sunny and her parents. Her mother obviously knows a lot more about this new world Sunny’s discovering than she’s letting on. Plus, Sunny’s relationship with her father is very rocky and fragile. I would love to see more positivity in that relationship in future novels but I can appreciate that Okorafor might be trying to convey that some relationship in life just don’t evolve past a certain point in life.

I think young readers have a hero to discover in Sunny. She is a newbie, thrown into deep waters, but she’s a conscientious kid who ultimately tries to do the right thing. I’m eager to see where this series will go.

English Magic Has Never Been More Fun

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Confession: I hugged this book close once I’d finished reading the last page. I wanted to absorb into my being, take it everywhere with me, show it off to everyone. Unfortunately, I sort of finished it on the day it was due so I had to give it back. But it’s one of those books that has earned my eternal love that I now have to buy my own copy. (Cos that’s the only reason to buy a book, duh).

Sorcerer to the Crown took the book blogging world by storm last year, and that’s when it caught my eye. Once I saw the words “Regency England”, “magic”, and “diverse characters” in a blog or review I had to hastily look away, because I knew that this book and I were going to become very well acquainted and I did not want to spoil a single thing for myself.

In case you couldn’t tell, the experience totally lived up to my expectations.

English magic is having a hard time of it. Magicians are struggling to perform spells, the Crown is at war with France, and is sneakingly requesting magical help, though this is technically  forbidden. Zacharias Wythe, the Sorcerer himself, isn’t exactly enjoying himself at the moment. Not only is he struggling to find the reason for the depletion of England’s magic, he has to also struggle with the Society’s (the community of English magicians) censure about his right to hold the Sorcerer’s staff, as the death of the previous Sorcerer (who also happened to be his adopted father) was under very mysterious circumstances.

There’s also the fact that Zacharias  is a black man. You add that into the mix, and suddenly Zacharias’s problems are two-fold. Zacharias’s position as Sorcerer is even more under threat with the Society questioning his eligibility to hold the staff, and latent racism rising rapidly to the surface.

Not only that, but since Zacharias agreed to speak at a girls’ school about magic, he’s suddenly and unexpectedly burdened with an orphan runaway by the name of Prunella Gentleman. Prunella, however, is no apathetic leech. Armed with the unhatched eggs of seven familiars (a treasure, indeed, in magically barren England) and the flimsiest of clues about her past, she concocts a plan to enlist the help of the Sorcerer Royal. Being half English and half Indian, Prunella knows the only way to secure a position in society is to marry well.

This story is described as a combination of Susannah Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and Georgette Heyer’s regency world. I would probably also add Diana Wynne Jones into the mix. I absolutely love the way that Cho describes the magic, and the way it’s used. It makes it seem very real and very practical, and not some unknown, inexplicable thing.

What’s more, Cho depicts the way magic is used to symbolize the complexities and inequalities of race, class and gender. Though Zacharias has the Sorcerer’s staff, his lack of a familiar sparks acidic conjecture within the Society, spurred very much by the darkness of his skin. Now that his father has passed away, he no longer has his protection against the vicious tongues of Regency society. English magic is also forbidden to women and the lower class. This, of course, makes Prunella’s position especially intriguing. Not only does she possess the magical familiars, her grasp on magic is very advanced, indeed, more so than a lot of the upperclass, male magicians. Oh, and the fact that menstruation actually strengthens her magic? Where has this book been all my life?

But it’s not all social commentary and no play. The story interweaves humour and wit beautifully. There were several instances where I found myself having a chuckle. In fact, I was pretty much grinning for the majority of this book. Seeing the various characters interact was a joy.

Prunella, though at times annoyingly impulsiveness, has resourcefulness and quick-thinking on her side to back up that impulsiveness. She’s whip smart, and I really loved that she was also allowed to take centre stage during the action. She has a lot of cunning on her side, and for an orphan, that’s always a handy characteristic to have.

Zacharias is a man after my own heart. After everything he goes through – being rescued from slavery by Sir Stephen, being grateful for this, while also resenting the fact that he never knew his own family; taking up the position of Sorcerer Royal though it is at the risk of his own happiness, well-being and peace of mind – it’s amazing that despite all of it he still manages to be composed, compassionate and kind. He has all the requisites for  being a Brooding Hero(TM) and, yet, that never stops him from being a genuinely good person. It’s just nice to see that authors are not afraid to write romantic heroes in this way.

The book is fairly brimming with memorable secondary characters. What I loved most about this novel was that Cho really exercised the extent of the “fantasy” element – it’s a world with magic, and as such, magic has the power to connect people from all over the globe. And hallelujah! FINALLY an author who makes use of that. Honourable mentions go to Prunella’s mentor, Mak Genggang, a Malaysian enchantress, whose power and withering wit will make her an immediate favourite.

Just read it. You’ll thank yourself you did.