Publisher: Tor Books
The Hokkaran empire has conquered every land within their bold reach―but failed to notice a lurking darkness festering within the people. Now, their border walls begin to crumble, and villages fall to demons swarming out of the forests.
Away on the silver steppes, the remaining tribes of nomadic Qorin retreat and protect their own, having bartered a treaty with the empire, exchanging inheritance through the dynasties. It is up to two young warriors, raised together across borders since their prophesied birth, to save the world from the encroaching demons.
This is the story of an infamous Qorin warrior, Barsalayaa Shefali, a spoiled divine warrior empress, O-Shizuka, and a power that can reach through time and space to save a land from a truly insidious evil.
I went into this book expecting a grand epic fantasy with a historical Asian setting featuring two female leads who were hopefully lesbians. Instead, I got the gayest slow burn romance I’ve ever read with a side dish of demons, warfare, and political intrigue. Damn straight I liked this book just as much.
Firstly, I want to clarify. This book is written as a series of letters from Shefali to Shizuka, detailing what is essentially their origin story from birth to current day (Shizuka is now the empress, Shefali is… somewhere). As to why Shefali is chronicling her entire life experiences, especially when Shizuka was a main character in a majority of them? That’s for the reader to find out. Through this format, we get a lot of introspection on Shefali’s part, her thoughts, her musings, her desires and longings, as different events take place. As such, this book is told at a very languid pace. Shefali takes her time, making her she lets her lover know every one of her hidden thoughts, context she may have missed, as their lives progressed. While I didn’t mind the pacing, I know other readers found it too slow. Action happens, and when it does it’s very exciting, but there are many slow moments in between.
What originally drew me to this book was the Asian setting and personally, I was not disappointed at all. This book paints a lovely contrast between Shefali’s Mongol-inspired culture and Shizuka’s Japanese/Chinese culture and I think the author did a fantastic job with the development of both groups. In specific, a lot of effort goes into the details of each culture, their beliefs and superstitions, mythologies and values, and I think it really made these two cultures really come to life. As the two girls come from groups who’ve only recently finished warring against each other, the contrast between the two cultures really makes their own differences stand out and I felt like a lot what hinted about the character’s personalities based on what I learned about their respective countries.
That being said, what I didn’t realize until after reading that there were allegations of “problematic” use of Asian cultures. Rivera is not Asian, as far as I’m aware, but as someone who is, I think she did a pretty good job. Personally, there was nothing that stood out to me as I read that made me think, ‘yikes’. I’ll admit, being ABC, I don’t have the best grasp on Chinese or East Asian mythology, so I’m not going to go into a lot of the historical complaints people have, but I’ve seen complaints of mixing cultures, borrowing words from other languages, or slightly changing letters in words to make them different. All of this happens, but I wonder, is that wrong to do? We see these situations happen all the time with books set in fantasy-Europe to no complaint. Why is it any different when the cultures in question are Asian?
Secondly, there was a specific case of Shefali calling Shizuka flat-faced that I saw some readers take offense to, but I think in this case, context is important. Shefali and Shizuka live in Asia, where everyone’s face is flat. To describe someone as flat-faced as an Asian person living in Asia is to give a normal description. I’ve read enough Chinese webnovels and seen people described as flat-faced to believe it’s not insulting. If this book took place in modern America with Asian Americans, or the person calling someone flat-faced was not Asian and/or saying this in a derogative manner, I would take more issue, but I think in this case the use of the term ‘flat-faced’ was simply incidental.
Overall, I rate this book a 5/5. While not quite what I expected going into the book, I thoroughly enjoyed the slow-burn sapphic romance between Shefali and Shizuka, set in a historical Asian backdrop.
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