At the beginning of the year, I made a resolutions post for 2019. In it, I wrote that I would post a review for all the novels I read in 2019. And so I’m keeping my process! Today I bring you mini-reviews for these three Asian #ownvoices books. I loved two of them a lot, but was massively underwhelmed by another… But I’m still so glad I read them all!
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee (⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️)
I decided to pick this book up as a buddy read with Ayunda @ Ayundabhuana back in January. And I ended up LOVING IT! Pachinko tells the story of several generations of a family throughout the entire 20th century. We first meet Sunja, a young girl from an impoverished Korean fishing town, as she gets pregnant by a man much older and with an established family in Japan. From there, we see Korea under Japanese rule and during the war with the North, and Japan during the 20th century.
🌼 Why I loved this novel…
- The cultural aspect is done really well. We see so many different places in Korea and Japan, and therefore also learn a lot about those two countries’ history. It was really refreshing to read a historical fiction novel so deeply rooted in Asia.
- Large families = a happy Rita. As this takes place over the course of almost a century, we meet a lot of characters who are all connected to the same family. I love stories of large families, and this one definitely did the trick.
- The author deals with belonging and being shut out beautifully! The story of Koreans in Japan is not an easy or particularly happy one. A lot of these characters are discriminated against in Japan because they have Korean blood — despite them having been born there. Therefore, they feel very different things about their nationality. Some want to blend in and “pass” as Japanese. Others reject their Japanese identity altogether. Min Jin Lee handles this so gently, and I love her for it.
- Amazing characters! Although we don’t spend a lot of time with some of the characters, you can really see their growth and personality quirks. This made me so happy because I love character-driven novels!
- You will be sucked into the character’s lives, I’m warning you!! It was so easy for me to be sucked into the life and drama going on in this family. Sunja, in particular, is such a strong character who endures so much that you actually start to feel for her. This was so well done and gave life to the whole novel. After all, this isn’t just a history lesson, it’s the lives of people.
🌿 My only fault with this…
- As a novel that spans over almost nine decades, the time jumps sometimes felt a little awkward at times. There isn’t a fixed amount of time that went by between chapter jumps, it felt a little all over the place, unlike Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi.
💬 Favorite quotes…
“Sunja, a woman’s life is endless work and suffering. There is suffering and then more suffering. It’s better to expect it, you know.”
“People are rotten everywhere you go. They’re no good. You want to see a very bad man? Make an ordinary man successful beyond his imagination. Let’s see how good he is when he can do whatever he wants.”
“So save your own ass — this was what Koreans believed privately. Save your family. Feed your belly. Pay attention, and be skeptical of the people in charge. If the Korean nationalists couldn’t get their country back, then let your kids learn Japanese and try to get ahead. Adapt. For every patriot fighting for a free Korea, or for any unlucky Korean bastard fighting on behalf of Japan, there were ten thousand compatriots on the ground and elsewhere who were just trying to eat. In the end, your belly was your emperor.”
The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang (⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️)
During the 24in48 readathon this January, I decided to pick up a fantasy book that had been on my list for the longest time. And so I read The Poppy War in just five sittings, all in a day. The Poppy War follows Rin, a war orphan from a stigmatized province, who manages to get into the most prestigious school in the Empire. While she’s there, she is set to learn military arts, but along the way finds out she has powers no one thought could exist. However, in the meantime, the Federation of Mugen takes advantage of the Nikara Empire being at peace, and Rin might be one of the few who can stop them…
🌼 Why I LOVED this novel…
- History meets fantasy!!! I love how the whole novel is a really solid fantasy debut but at the same time it’s inspired by the Sino-Japanese wars. I had no idea these had happened, but then I saw a tweet from the author and did more digging. And you can so see the parallels here!! It’s a really smart idea that I can get 202% behind.
- Rin is one of the strongest and most interesting female characters in a while. Fight me. Okay, Rin is a badass. Not only is she really, really good at martial arts, she is also a badass for putting up with so much hatred and adversity. This girl has so much stamina and honestly, I’m rooting for her over everyone else in the series.
- The magic is so cool!!! I really liked the magic system in this book
even though I didn’t understand it completely. There are gods, shamans who communicate with those gods, there are psychedelic drugs to unlock those abilities. I’m super excited to see how the magic system will evolve in the next books.
- Magic school!! Training school!! This is a favorite trope of mine. Rin goes to Sinegard and lives on a very strict class schedule, complete with training and tournaments with other students. This was my favorite part of the book, if I’m being honest, and made me crave even more books with this as their central plot.
- Issues of race, colorism, and sexism aren’t forgotten. Rin isn’t a privileged character by all means. She is a war orphan, she is dark-skinned, and she is a girl, all things that set her apart from everyone else at the academy. This bigotry is never soft (obviously) and she gets so much shit at the school for being who she is. I loved seeing how this influenced her growth as a person.
🌿 What didn’t work for me…
- The middle section of the book was a little too boring for me. It wasn’t slow or anything (in fact, there’s a lot of gore and violence in part II), but it felt a little too messy and all over the place. There would be war scenes (fast-paced) and then the book would slow down by a lot and interpose other scenes. It felt somewhat confusing.
- The magic system isn’t easy to understand at first. I felt that there were times when the magic system didn’t really make sense to me. I’d feel confused and like I was way in over my head. But it all worked out in the end, sort of!
💬 Favorite quotes…
“She craved praise so deeply that she felt it in her bones. And just like an addict, she did whatever she could to get it.”
“What a difference an accident of birth made. In another world, she might have grown up at an estate like this, with all of her desires within reach. In another world, she might have been born into power.”
“What does it matter? They’re coming, and we’re staying, and at the end of the day whoever is alive is the side that wins. War doesn’t determine who’s right. War determines who remains.”
“You humans always think you’re destined for things, for tragedy or for greatness. Destiny is a myth. Destiny is the only myth. The gods choose nothing. You choose.”
The Gilded Wolves by Roshani Chokshi (⭐️⭐️)
If you’ve been anywhere near Book Twitter or the bookish blogosphere, you will probably have heard of this book. In a history-meets-fantasy novel set in Paris in the 1880s, a heist team plans to steal a treasure that belongs to the Order of Babel and that could have worldwide implications. And so we follow the lives of Zophia, Sophia, Laila, Enrique, Tristan, and Hypnos. They all come from different parts of the world but are united by their wish for a common cause.
🌼 What I liked about this novel…
- The characters are so diverse and fantastic in their representations. Seriously, there is so much representation (which is great!). There are barely any while characters (only considering the “good” ones) and I think this is the novel’s biggest selling point. Here is a list of the characters:
- Séverin ➽ Biracial leader of the group (Algerian and French). He cares deeply about everyone on his team and he is the one who has a valid claim to become the patriarch of one of the Houses.
- Laila ➽ Indian (ownvoices) baker and dancer at the hotel that Séverin owns. She is able to read an object’s memories and see what happened to it. She can’t really explain her gift, only that she has it and she has had it since birth.
- Zofia ➽ Polish and Jewish, on the autism spectrum, and may have OCD (not diagnosed in the book). She’s awesome with numbers and science and has some magical abilities of the mind (sets fires, I think?)
- Enrique ➽ Half-Filipino, half-Spanish young man who wants to fit in with an Asian-history society but can’t because of his heritage. History aficionado and bisexual.
- Tristan ➽ Séverin’s adoptive little brother, white, and loves his pet tarantula. He’s pretty cute but doesn’t seem to have any powers.
- Hypnos ➽ While not part of the heist team, he’s still a big character. He’s a black character, queer (either pan or bisexual), and comes from a line of slavery.
- The romance is pretty cute, even if it is subtle. If this were a contemporary full of romantic moments, I’m pretty sure I would have liked it more!
- There are some funny moments throughout the book! The comic relief scenes were pretty funny and made you relax from an intense plot.
- It all revolves around colonialism and erasure of cultures. A large part of the novel is centered around
🌿 What didn’t really work for me…
- The magic system and the worldbuilding is so, so confusing! It’s super hard for me to sum up the magic system to you because I can barely remember anything. And when we’re talking about a fantasy novel, that’s not good at all. We are thrown into the story and a lot of important information is dumped on us at once. Honestly, I couldn’t tell you what Forging (the magical ability) is right now, nor could I tell you how the Order of Babel and the Houses work (no clue…)
- The writing isn’t the best, in my opinion, and throws you on a loop. Again, it’s so hard to follow the story because the writing is very weird. It takes odd turns, stops narrating an important event abruptly, and then abruptly starts again. It was such a pain to try and follow the plot, by the end I was only skimming.
- Plot-wise, things happen but don’t make much sense. Reading this was a ride. I went from “oh cool, I understand these puzzles and why they need this very specific thing!” to “Oh??? I thought they were on a mission to find that specific thing? Why has it not been mentioned in the longest time?” I couldn’t follow it, basically.
💬 Favorite quotes…
“Zofia knew the definition of ‘civilize,’ but she didn’t understand why it was being used. In school, ‘civilize’ meant bringing people to a stage of development deemed advanced. But Zofia had seen the illustrations in the traveling books—the grand temples, the complex inventions, techniques and leaps in medicine that has been discovered and implemented long before they ever reached European shores.”
“They called him mestizo. His aunts and uncles even joked that his dark-skinned mother must not have been in the room when he was conceived. Perhaps this was why the Ilustrados did not let him into their inner circle. It wasn’t his intellect that made him unwanted. It was his face.”
“Take what the world owes you by any means necessary. The world has a shit memory. It will never pay its debts unless you force its hand.”
“The truth is I need someone on my side. Someone who might understand what it means to live in two worlds as I do. I have tried and I have failed. I cannot be both the descendant of Haitian slaves and the son of a French aristocrat, even if that is what I hold in my heart.”
Note: I think this could be a good book for some people. Just because it didn’t work for me, it doesn’t mean that it’s bad and won’t work for you! I really liked Kate @ Your Tita Kate‘s review. She gave it a really good rating and she’s a diverse blogger, so you shoudl definitely check her review out!
Have you read any of these books? What did you think about them?