Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao

Wu Zetian enlists to be a concubine pilot even though it means she could lose her life. For nothing is more important than seeking vengeance for her sister’s death.

However, her plans go awry when she discovers that the Prince-General she plans to assassinate is the least of her problems, and there are horrifying secrets kept hidden from the people of Huaxia.

Xiran Jay Zhao’s writing is all action-packed, pulsating in and out of scenes with a cinematic flair. The descriptions are vivid and so intricate that it can take you a while to understand the details she is elaborating on.

Copyright © 2022 Meera Nair

It took me a while to get used to the magic system because there’s just so much to understand. The last I remember of a world where humans pilot robots was watching the Power Rangers TV series as a kid.

This coupled with elemental magic and the rules of the world made for a thoroughly engaging reading experience.

The world the author creates is a fascinating mix of dystopian sci-fi, Chinese culture, and corrupt politics.

I feel that some of the dialogues could have been refined a bit more. It appeared a little over the top at times or as trying too hard to establish an image of a certain character.

Apart from world-building, one of the most powerful aspects of Iron Widow is its social commentary.

From gender inequalities to class hierarchies and toxic family environments to crimes against women, the author addresses various such social concerns expertly through Zetian’s indignant persona.

The dynamic between Zetian, Yizhi, and Shimin was a lot of fun to read about. What started out as a fantasy trio battling corruption soon turns into more and I loved that!

Yizhi’s backstory isn’t as much of a focus as Shimin and Zetian’s is; It would’ve been great if we had gotten to know more about him, his background, etc.

The experiences that the women characters go through are truly horrifying. So it was very satisfying to see Zetian reclaim some of the power and agency that so many people have been wrongfully denied in Huaxia.

That said, I think Zetian’s character sometimes presents a dissonance between what she thinks is her goal and how she acts.

The main conflict gets resolved quite early in the book, and so I was wondering what is in store for us, readers. But there are so many layers to the plot that you’ll find yourself caught by surprise at how things twist & turn right up until the end.

I also listened to the audiobook while reading which helped with pronunciation and such. I need to be able to retain words while reading a book in order to remember elements of the story better, and the audiobook definitely helped with that.

Except for a couple of minor things, I really enjoyed reading Iron Widow and would love to read more instalments set in this world.

Daisy Darker by Alice Feeney

Daisy Darker was born with a heart condition and has never really felt at home in the Darker family. When her Nana’s 80th birthday comes up, the entire family is invited to Seaglass, their family home on a Cornish island.

Soon after everyone has arrived, Nana is found dead. This marks the unravelling of a series of mysteries surrounding the dysfunctional Darker family.

Daisy Darker was one of my most anticipated reads of 2022.

Just from the premise, I knew it had a lot going for it – a framework inspired by Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, an isolated island, a family that doesn’t get along. What’s not to like about that premise?

Copyright © 2022 Meera Nair

The writing is crisp and punctuated by foreshadowing. I love the way Alice Feeney narrates a story; there’s always so much substance to it that you’re never going to feel bored.

I’ve come to admire her writing style after having read and really enjoyed Rock Paper Scissors.

Since this book is written from Daisy’s POV, we get into the mindset of a protagonist who has felt lonely and estranged most of her life. She keeps hinting at some incident that happened in her childhood; it tugs at your curiosity further.

Initially, each chapter covers consecutive hours at Seaglass. As the story progresses and more developments are revealed to us, the time gaps between chapters also lessen.

I like that the entire book is primarily set over two days (around Halloween time!) with a few flashback chapters thrown in.

While the pacing and build-up in Rock Paper Scissors literally had me at the edge of my seat, the writing in Daisy Darker is not as thrilling per se and didn’t elicit that sense of apprehension (at least from me).

I love that there are poems and altered versions of a children’s lullaby that lend the novel a dark tone. Some of the themes explored are absent/ negligent parenting, child abuse, health concerns, trauma, and dysfunctional family.

Most of Feeney’s lead characters come across as complex people with secrets. The same is true in Daisy Darker too.

But one thing I noticed, and I don’t know if it was intentional or not, is that several characters in this book have a duality which makes it difficult to believe them. I wasn’t a fan of that aspect because it felt like almost everyone was superficial in some way.

Especially Lily and Rose (Daisy’s sisters) – they would say and do things that don’t align.

Nana’s character presents a fun, eccentricity that I liked for the most part. You wouldn’t be able to tell just from her appearance what goes on in her mind.

I had my own theories about the mystery and I was right about one angle of it. Despite having guessed it, I still enjoyed reading the book largely because of the author’s writing.

There are twists and turns at the end. In fact, in the span of the last 1-2 chapters, there are multiple jaw-dropping moments.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this mystery novel; there are just a couple of factors as to why I didn’t rate it 5 stars. If you’re new to Alice Feeney’s works, I’d recommend reading Rock Paper Scissors first and then this one.

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The Women Could Fly by Megan Giddings

Josephine Thomas’ mother disappeared years ago. In a world where women and witches are both at the mercy of the State, her mother going missing drew a great deal of scrutiny from others.

So when she receives her mother’s will, asking her to head to an island and fulfil her wish, Jo hesitatingly embarks on a dangerous journey.

A dystopian fantasy, The Women Could Fly is an intimate look at what it means to be a bisexual woman of colour in a highly prejudiced society.

It perfectly creates a parallel between the gender inequalities that are true to our society and the persecution of witches in human history that we’ve heard of.

Giddings’ writing style is at once straightforward, bold, and imaginative. She brings out her protagonist’s inner thoughts well through the narrative such that you get a better understanding of Jo and all that she’s gone through.

The story is set in a world where women are forced to get married by the age of 30 or relinquish all rights to their life.

With themes like mass surveillance, absentee parents, and societal pressure, you’d think that the book would only have a dreary tone to it. But surprisingly, the fantastical elements and Jo’s character voice balances it out.

Copyright © 2022 Meera Nair

Dystopian fiction is one of my all-time favourite genres. So I’ve read more than my fair share of dystopian books and know what elements to look out for.

Something I always observe is how the minority-majority dynamic plays out in these dystopian novels. And in contrast to the characters who have been failed by their peers, how others with an upper hand are characterised.

It was quite sad to see Jo’s father giving in to the system and not being there for her. The only other significant role played by a male character is that of Jo’s love interest, Preston.

There’s a scene where you can clearly make out that he has a streak of disobedience towards the authorities but he isn’t too vocal about his stance, and if you don’t like the knight in shining armour trope, you’ll probably not care too much about his role either.

I was really fascinated reading the scenes set on the island. What transpires there is so unexpected that for a few pages, I didn’t know what to think of it.

Jo is a self-aware character, and that makes the narrative more interesting. She knows she has limited options and how she navigates the restraints that women experience adds to her character arc.

I did have some questions by the end of the novel about how a particular plot point was possible, considering the supposed panoptic governance. But there were enough plus points to the book to keep me engrossed.

I feel that The Women Could Fly truly deserves a second and a third re-read simply because of how intricate the storytelling is. I am definitely going to pick this up again.

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Note – I received an ALC of this book from Libro.fm in exchange for an honest review.

The Life of a Stupid Man by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa

With 3 titles in this Penguin Little Black Classic, two of which are autobiographical, the author captures fleeting glimpses of the human experience.

I haven’t read many stories by Japanese authors so I thought perhaps this could be a taste-tester of sorts. I’m not sure I’m the right audience for it because although these short stories have some essence in them, I felt lost after having read the book, especially the last story.

Image Courtesy – Goodreads

In a Bamboo Grove, being the first story, engaged me well. It explores the mystery behind a man’s death through the testimonies of various witnesses. I found that to be an interesting approach considering how this technique is often used in novels to piece the puzzle. But here, it doesn’t particularly lead to anything except for varying anecdotes of the same event.

The next two titles, Death Register and The Life of a Stupid Man are both split into several parts. While I like the way it’s narrated with clarity in terms of the narrator’s thoughts, beliefs, and experiences, I just wish the writing wasn’t as disjointed.

On the whole, I wouldn’t recommend this to you unless you don’t mind reading abstract, lingering passages.

The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G Wells

A shipwreck nearly spells the end for Edward Prendick when he is rescued by a peculiar man called Montgomery. For one, Montgomery’s assistants have a strange way about them. To complicate matters more, the island he is brought to is the hideaway of an infamous scientist.

Image Courtesy – Goodreads

One of the primary reasons I quickly made room for The Island of Dr. Moreau on my reading list this year is because I heard about Silvia Moreno Garcia’s latest release, The Daughter of Doctor Moreau.

Although they say that you don’t necessarily need to have read the classic to properly appreciate Garcia’s work, I like to be prepared so, of course, I picked it up.

While the content of this book provides fodder for great discussions on ethics, animal cruelty, and science, I am not a big fan.

I’ve previously read The Time Machine, and that too was only a moderately enjoyable read for me.

I think it has something to do with the author’s writing. I didn’t find myself naturally engrossed in the storytelling, and I continued reading because I had a vague idea about Dr. Moreau’s grotesque experiments.

Thankfully, it’s a short read with short chapters. So I could get through it relatively quickly with the help of an audiobook.

It is also quite fast-paced in the sense that soon after Prendick arrives on the island, he figures out what Montgomery and Moreau are up to.

What I do appreciate about reading The Island of Dr. Moreau is seeing how the man vs nature angle plays out. The author stresses the idea that no matter how much you try to tame animals, they remain true to their instincts.

I like that the story is set on an island and there are 1-2 scenes that fully employ the location to the benefit of the book.

The ending seemed convenient and I think the book, as a whole, would’ve been more memorable with some tweaks to the writing and ending.

I would not recommend this to anyone. I’m confident that I will enjoy reading The Daughter of Doctor Moreau far more than I did The Island of Dr. Moreau.