What I Read in February + Mini Reviews

I was completely terrible at blogging last month…I’m not even sure why. In January, I had a whole plan and everything. In February, I have barely found a chance to reply to comments! (Lovely commenters, I’m getting back to you now!)

Nonetheless, I thought I should at least round up the month, which was successful at least in my reading. Below are the books I read/listening to, and some brief thoughts!

Royal Assassin / Assassin’s Quest – Robin Hobb

I read the first of this trilogy last month, and it was a reread, I really didn’t hang about in finishing the set!

The Midnight Library – Matt Haig

Synopsis: Somewhere out beyond the edge of the universe there is a library that contains an infinite number of books, each one the story of another reality. One tells the story of your life as it is, along with another book for the other life you could have lived if you had made a different choice at any point in your life. While we all wonder how our lives might have been, what if you had the chance to go to the library and see for yourself? Would any of these other lives truly be better?

TW: suicide

Now, I’m conflicted when it comes to this book. Firstly, I listened to the audiobook, which is narrated by Carey Mulligan and so that’s already excellent. The premise of the story is naturally quite distressing, and centres around Nora, who ends up at the in-between life place called The Midnight Library. It’s a chance for her to read about the different lives she might have lived, had she made different choices.

Just from the synopsis, which tells you nothing about Nora, it’s quite evident this is what I’m going to call ‘self-help fiction.’ I don’t like self-help books; as a rule they have to make assumptions about their readers, and I don’t get on with this. And yet, for a very large part of The Midnight Library, it felt like that was what I heard. Many one-liners about seeing life with a different outlook, coming to grips with depression and loneliness. We as readers are meant to accompany Nora through the rollercoaster of experiencing the lives she could have lived and go on the same journeys of ups and downs.

But I just didn’t! Without knowing what this book is about, I would have expected something a bit more sci-fi. And although I did enjoy listening to Nora experiencing different lives – what if she had gone to live in Australia, what if she had become a famous rock star – it felt a bit rote, particularly because the middle section of the book was far too long. It felt like the author wanted to explain why Nora’s regrets weren’t regrets in minute detail. That’s fine, and can be an incredibly reassuring thing to hear: that you didn’t make all the wrong choices in life. But in my opinion, regrets serve the purpose of braver and wiser choices in the future. In this book, Nora ret-cons the entire feeling of regret.

I don’t want to give too many spoilers away, so I will stop here. I did rate this 3-stars, partly because of the excellent narration, partly because I did like the conclusion of the book. But it did take a bit to get there.

Iron Widow – Xiran Jay Zhao

Synopsis: The boys of Huaxia dream of pairing up with girls to pilot Chrysalises, giant transforming robots that can battle the mecha aliens that lurk beyond the Great Wall. It doesn’t matter that the girls often die from the mental strain.

When 18-year-old Zetian offers herself up as a concubine-pilot, it’s to assassinate the ace male pilot responsible for her sister’s death. But she gets her vengeance in a way nobody expected—she kills him through the psychic link between pilots and emerges from the cockpit unscathed. She is labeled an Iron Widow, a much-feared and much-silenced kind of female pilot who can sacrifice boys to power up Chrysalises instead.​

This book, on the other hand, is a five-star read. I literally read it in two days, last month, and I’m still obsessed. 100% the hype is right!

I have too much to say for a mini-review, but the important points are: firstly, the world building. It’s incredible. The marketing for this book presented it as a retelling of Wu Zetian’s life, the only female Chinese Emperor, and so I expected something similar to She Who Became the Sun (not to draw trite comparisons). However, I would say this book instead is inspired by Wu Zetian as a character. The setting for this book is not the Tang Dynasty of this world, but a futuristic one where China was invaded by robot aliens and the only way to defeat them is by fighting them in Pacific Rim jaegar-esque machines powered by qi. I mean! The imagination!

Second, this is, I think, a gold-standard for sci-fi inspired by real-world cultures. Rather than simply creating a fantasy world in an ancient civilisation (which, let’s not lie, is also an excellent type of book), the author gathers parts of Chinese storytelling and puts her own, SF&F spin on it. As she warns at the beginning of the book, it is not a retelling of Chinese history; however, many parts of the story are inspired by Chinese culture, such as the qi-powered robots which take the forms of various mythological creatures, or the repurposing of classical literature like Journey to the West as making Sun Wukong (the protagonist of that novel) the pilot of a Monkey-mecha. I mean! It’s just very clever! I’m not an expert on any part of Chinese history at all, but the care that was taken in fleshing out each detail of the story here is lovely to read.

This mini-review is already in danger of straying from ‘mini,’ so let me just say at last that Zetian, in this novel, is a phenomenal character. She knows what she wants. And she takes it. And I’m obsessed.

The narrative of misogyny, patriarchy, Wu Zetian’s desire to get revenge against the status quo for the way it has treated women and girls, is obviously a huge part of this book, and it’s not treated lightly either. But I’ll go into that in a longer review, so keep an eye out!

I’m currently midway through a couple of books which I’m only getting through slowly, probably because I put everything aside to read Iron Widow and discover the joy that is The Sims 3, but I have enjoyed my reading in Feb!

What have you been reading this month?

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