Monday 13 March 2023

CBR15 Book 11: "Not My Valentine" by Jackie Lau

Page count: 136 pages
Rating: 3 stars

This was an ARC from the author. My views are my own. 

Helen Tsang has sworn off love as a lost cause after her boyfriend dumped her last Valentine's Day and someone filmed it, making her a very involuntary viral sensation. However, as Valentine's Day is approaching once more, she feels like she is getting excessive sympathy and pity from friends, family, and even the staff of her regular bubble tea shop. She doesn't really want to field any more questions and decides to ask her friend Taylor to act as her fake boyfriend. They can "break up" a while after Valentine's Day, very amicably, so no one needs to remember the viral video anymore or think about Helen's love life in the future.

Of course, as is always the case with fake dating stories, it doesn't take long before Helen starts seeing Taylor in a new light. They've been friends for years, and Taylor was extremely supportive when she was so very publically dumped last year. For some reason, a lot of the romantic gestures which Helen claims to hate are rather adorable when Taylor does them. He sends her flowers, and pictures of heart-shaped cakes to tease her and doesn't at all mind posing for cutesy couples pictures for her Instagram feed. Of course, as Valentine's Day approaches once more, Helen starts wondering if she wants her fake relationship with her friend to become a real one. 

The grumpy-sunshine pairing is a relatively common trope in romance, as is the fake dating scenario. Helen and Taylor are a cute couple, and as always, in a Jackie Lau romance, there's a lot of descriptions of food and baking. Nevertheless, while this novella was a perfectly fine read, it never became anything special, and now, about a month after finishing the story (I'm once more behind on my reviews), I'm having trouble remembering much of the specifics at all.

This was OK, but there are much better Jackie Lau romances out there - including several fake dating stories. This won't be a waste of your time, but it's also unlikely to stick in your memory. 

Judging a book by its cover: While this is an illustrated cover, I appreciate that there are no cartoony people anywhere on it. Just a bunch of brightly-coloured baking supplies and a little phone. It doesn't hurt that I'm very partial to teal, which is the dominant cover colour.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read

Friday 10 March 2023

CBR15 Book 10: "The Golden Enclaves" by Naomi Novik

Page count: 416 pages
Audio book length: 14 hrs 49 mins
Rating: 5 stars

This is the concluding volume in a trilogy. It won't really work for you unless you've read the previous two books. Start with A Deadly Education. Also, this review will contain spoilers for the previous book in the series, so proceed at your own risk if you're not caught up. 

Galadriel "El" Higgins has done the impossible. She has not only made it out of the Scholomance with her entire graduating senior class, but with every other student in the school as well. Everyone is alive and safe, except for one important exception. Orion Lake, who El had only really allowed herself to accept that she loved towards the end of the school year, when it seemed like maybe their insanely ambitious plan might work after all, and who literally threw her out of the gates of the school to face an enormous mawmouth by himself. El tries to spend incredible amounts of mana to get back into the school, only to find herself cut off entirely and can't do anything but grieve.

Her mother, Gwen, is beyond happy to have her daughter back, but she's also terrified when El tells her about Orion and her improbable book of Golden Sutras. The price both Gwen and El paid for El to be able to bring the book with her out of the Scholomance has been staggering, and now they are both left to grieve their loved ones. Not that El gets a lot of time in the yurt in Wales to nurse her grief. The indomitable Liesl, the senior class valedictorian shows up and demands that El come help the London enclave fight and kill a mawmouth. El is the only one on record who has been able to ever kill one singlehandedly, and now the London enclave will be lost unless El comes and helps.

Once she's performed the disgusting and gruelling task, the London wizards are shocked to realise that not only does El not want to become a member of their enclave, she wants nothing in return for her actions than for the enclave grounds to be opened up to all the magically inclined in London, so not only the privileged enclavers get to see the glories of the grounds. Having killed the relatively small mawmouth in London and finally putting all the poor people it had consumed over the years to rest, El realises that she has to go back inside the Scholomance, to kill Patience, the gigantic mawmouth that will inevitably have consumed Orion because she can't bear the thought of him suffering inside it for all eternity. The only place she is likely to get enough mana to attempt such a feat is in Orion's home enclave, New York. Which will mean meeting and facing Orion's parents - something El's not sure she's ready for. 

Because I waited until the final book was published before reading book two, I thankfully didn't have to wait a whole year for the cliffhanger at the end of that one to be resolved. I also waited long enough to finish the series that I read multiple reviews from others that reassured me that this volume wasn't going to be a letdown. What Naomi Novik has achieved with these books is impressive. They are classed as Young Adult because the characters are still teenagers, but so many of the familiar tropes and expectations of the subgenre are cleverly subverted and some really serious themes and moral quandaries are explored over the course of the series.

As I mentioned in my review of The Last Graduate, part of what really works for me about these books is the cast of characters. I don't just like reading about El and Orion, but all of their friends and compatriots too. With each book, Novik reveals more of how her magical universe functions, and in this last book, we are finally given more insight into the enclaves and how they are formed, not to mention where the horrible (and very creatively imagined) monsters originate and why they're so drawn to wizard adolescents. 

Based on the previous two books, I wasn't really worried that Naomi Novik was going to mess up the ending of this trilogy. I'm nevertheless greatly relieved that I can now wholeheartedly recommend this whole completed series to anyone who likes clever and dark fantasy. 

Judging a book by its cover: The covers are really my least favourite part of the series, but it seems appropriate that this final volume has a pale golden colour, like the golden sutras that El treasures so much. I still wish there was a bit more to the covers than a uniform colour and some mystical symbols, though. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read