By Heather A.
4 out of 5 stars ★★★★☆
A soldier with a curse
Tala lost her family to the empress’s army and has spent her life avenging them in battle. But the empress’s crimes don’t haunt her half as much as the crimes Tala has committed against the laws of magic… and her own flesh and blood.
A prince with a debt
Jimuro has inherited the ashes of an empire. Now that the revolution has brought down his kingdom, he must depend on Tala to bring him home safe. But it was his army who murdered her family. Now Tala will be his redemption—or his downfall.
A detective with a grudge
Xiulan is an eccentric, pipe-smoking detective who can solve any mystery—but the biggest mystery of all is her true identity. She’s a princess in disguise, and she plans to secure her throne by presenting her father with the ultimate prize: the world’s most wanted prince.
A thief with a broken heart
Lee is a small-time criminal who lives by only one law: Leave them before they leave you. But when Princess Xiulan asks her to be her partner in crime—and offers her a magical animal companion as a reward—she can’t say no, and soon finds she doesn’t want to leave the princess behind.
This band of rogues and royals should all be enemies, but they unite for a common purpose: to defeat an unstoppable killer who defies the laws of magic. In this battle, they will forge unexpected bonds of friendship and love that will change their lives—and begin to change the world.
I received a copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Then I let the ARC lapse on the site after publication so I borrowed the book from the library to read it. #transparency
I am so sorry I didn’t get to this book sooner. It completely engaged me as a reader because of these reasons: one, I adore the magical elements of the book, two, I love how effortlessly the author incorporated the Asian-inspired cultures, and three, the characters were so dynamic and interesting. It made for an all-around great read! I learned that it is intended as a standalone novel which is so frustrating since the world building was so strong.
The two magical elements in the book are shade-pacting and metal pacting. Shade pacting is when a person bonds half their soul with an animal and can summon the animal to help them if the situation calls for it (Pokemon inspired!). For instance, Tala bonded with Beaky the crow and since she’s a solider would go out on campaigns and use Beaky as a defense. Xiulan also had a rat as a shade and it became a symbol for her role in the Shang dynasty. The animal asks a question of it’s potential host and the host needs to agree in order for the pact to form. I loved seeing this example when Lee originally tries to pact with a rooster and it asks for blood of its enemies, but Lee doesn’t agree. Later she finds a bond with a dog she names Bootstrap, and they get along much better.
Metal pacting is controlling the element of metal, in the kingdom of Tomoda this means engineering cars so only people with metal pacting ability can drive them or controlling a bullet so that it hits a target with 100% accuracy. Notably, the people who practice metal pacting see shade pacting a slavery and control over the animal, so there’s animosity towards one another. The rules for these magic systems make it seem like one person can only do one type of magic, but of course, rules are meant to be broken. I really loved learning the rules and then reading how they are immediately broken by some of the characters. It brought a lot of depth to the system.
Through researching interviews and other reviews, I see and understand that all of the kingdoms and territories in this novel are based on real life cultures and countries. For instance, Tomoda, where Jimuro is from is based on Japan (Author’s Reddit AMA). Tala is from Sanbu, based on the Phillippines, Xuilan is from Shang, based on China, and Lee is from Jeongson, based on Korea. There is also another community called Dahali, based on India. See also: this Goodreads review and this review from Geekly Inc. Honestly, this is refreshing to read. There are only a handful of fantasy books that I can name off the top of my head that have Asian-inspired characters and settings. In the acknowledgements, the Author says that it’s his most autobiographical work and I understand what he means because the writing is so hopeful and loving when writing about these different worlds (especially food references!) (though I’m sure there are other points of autobiography that I am not seeing).
The representation in this book is top notch, there are queer characters everywhere and not every relationship ends in tragedy! The most fun relationship is between Xiulan and Lee, who are complete opposites (princess and thief, respectively) and yet come together for a common cause. Both make the other question their ways of life and this makes them stronger as a pair. The pairing of Tala and Jimuro was interesting to me because it’s less romantic, though I can see that perhaps in a hypothetical future they would be together, but the writing was very careful and calculated when they had to consider each others world view. It was a very thoughtful approach to making and maintaining a relationship. It wasn’t like many high-fantasy books I’ve read in the past (or even a romantic trope, hate-to-love).
I think my only criticism was that I didn’t completely understand the relationship between each country and how they all fit together. The timeline was hard to follow. And I would have appreciated a map at the beginning of the book since there was a lot of travelling in the plot. This book is still highly recommended by me because it’s fun and entertaining. There were a few twists I didn’t see coming and I love how easily the battle scenes played out in my mind. Recommended for those interested in high fantasy a la Robert Jackson Bennett, N.K. Jemisin, and S.A. Chakraborty, or those that enjoy anime.