REVIEWED BY J.S. FIELDS
Genre: high fantasy
Pairings: f/f (cis)
Queer Representation: cis lesbian
Warnings: racism, colorism, cultural appropriation, fetishized culture, misinterpreted cultural exchange, cultural misogyny
Demons are taking over the Hokkaran Empire (a mix of Japan, China, and Mongolia, but more on that later). A corrupt emperor rules. Two girls, born a month apart and on auspicious birthdays, are fated to save the land and each other through a mix of magic, love, and epic fantasy landscapes.
I just… I have a lot of feelings about this book. I have a lot of feelings and they’re all mixed up and I’m not sure how to write this review at all. I know we can love something and still admit it is problematic, but I didn’t want this book to be problematic, because it was so beautiful. Our two main characters, Shefali and O-Shizuka, are perfectly developed. Their world is rich and lush. The conflict is present but never overwhelming, the narrative driven but never reckless. The writing is lyrical to the point of near poetry. There is love, real love, between our two main characters, to the point where the descriptive sex scene felt too coarse, like the very act of them kissing was too much for me to handle.
On its most base layer, I loved everything about this book. I loved its generic fantasy setting that wasn’t Europe (finally), I loved the casual magic, I loved the writing style. The story pulled at my heart and wouldn’t let it go, and when I found out there was a sequel, I was as breathless as I was when Shefali and O-Shizuka first kissed.
But I knew, too, as I read, that some things seemed maybe not okay. I’ve spent a fair amount of time in various parts of Asia. I used to live in Thailand. I’ve studied Chinese and Japanese in both university and from private tutors. I spent some hard weeks in Cambodia. So as the narrative built, and the animosity between these Asia-inspired groups in the book grew, I got curious and flipped to the back. The author isn’t of Asian descent. And I took a deep breath, because I already loved the book at this stage. In my head I thought, surely she had sensitivity readers. Surely Tor vetted this. Please let me be overreacting. Maybe those lines about flat faces and the very obvious taking and mixing of Japanese and Chinese culture is just…it’s going to be okay. Right? Right?
I went to Goodreads. I saw reviews. I saw the review by Laurelinvanyar in particular, and it reaffirmed what my gut was telling me. This book had problematic themes. This book had problematic tropes.
This book hurt people.
God damn it, why? WHY couldn’t Tor have gotten some sensitivity readers to clean up this almost-book-of-my-heart? I want to cry, right now, at the potential this book had, and this world, and how none of that matters one damn bit because this book hurt people.
And like, in my head I’m still trying to rationalize it. Maybe it was just really good writing and it’s the characters that are racist. Maybe it’s just that the world built here is racist (except the world is basically dynastic Japan). Maybe that’s what the author was trying to show. Maybe the flagrant use of ‘ricetongue’ is an attempt hang a hat on a problematic slur. Maybe maybe maybe…
Maybe this world was built off a role playing game, as noted in the author bio, and off of a love of Japanese anime, and not enough time was spent really learning the deeper culture, or understanding how a pan-soup of Asia could affect readers.
I just… it could have been amazing. It could have been perfect. It could have been poetry, and it still is all of those things, it’s just so damn problematic, too. That tears my heart apart.
I can’t star this book. I can’t star it because my heart wants to give it five stars, and my brain wants to throw it out so it can’t hurt someone. I remain at an emotional impasse.