a book review blog by purnima bala

The Midnight Lie by Marie Rutkoski: Book Review

Book cover of The Midnight Lie by Marie Rutkowski

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Enthralling, mysterious, and delightfully sapphic, Marie Rutkoski’s THE MIDNIGHT LIE is a captivating story of division, magic, and secrets untold. 

The world in THE MIDNIGHT LIE revolves around a caste and class system that divides its people: At the top is the High Kith, for whom life revolves around decadent pleasure, luxuries and flamboyance. They know no hardships and are content in basking in the scent of perfumes and the taste of drugs that induce visions and experiences akin to magic. On the second tier are the Middlings, those who cater to the High Kith but aren’t without their own comforts. The Middlings have a geographical section of society dedicated to their own property and lifestyles, able to amass their wealth in the hopes of getting in with the High Kith crowd. And then there’s the Half Kith, of whom our protagonist, Nirrim, is one. The Half Kith form the lowest tier of these three classes, only above those called the Un-Kith – those without a home or any kind of standing in society, performing the most derogatory of tasks and fading into the grime and dark, unnoticed.

It is what it is is the mantra deeply interwoven into the society and mindsets of the people. There’s no room for question here, no particular need to wonder why and how things came to be. And when asked about the past, about how things were different before, there is no before, no way of knowing when the rules came in place, why the High Kith are who they are or why the Half Kith are made to live within the Ward, prohibited from entering the Middling or High Kith zones and separated by a wall that keeps them within their designated area. Nirrim has no inkling of what the sea looks like, what worlds lie beyond the wall, beyond the kingdom and the ever-present structure she’s been privy to all her life. She doesn’t wonder, doesn’t seek out answers about where she came from, going about her daily routine and chores without complaint.

However, there are hints of there being something more, something that doesn’t fit in with the perception of the world that Nirrim has formed, the perception that has been formed for her. There are rumours of gods having once roamed the land, images that flash before her eyes like forgotten memories, hints that these are actually remnants of the past, glimpses into a world that used to be – and to top it all off, a magnificent Elysium bird that catches everyone’s eye circles the city, its feathers glinting red.

They say this bird was blessed by a god, though we can’t remember which one. That the sight of its feathers will charm people.
This is the sort of thing people will kill for.

Nirrim’s voice is clear and distinct, the character development steady and gripping. Torn between wanting to stay with the status quo that she’s known her whole life and the doubts that keep creeping into her mind along with a need for adventure, an itch for more, Nirrim’s character is one you will hold your breath for, get into a murderous rage for, fervently turning the pages to see how her story will progress.

So you tell me what would make a good, quiet girl get herself in trouble, especially when she had so much to lose. Tell me.

The plot picks up when Nirrim meets the nefarious and adventurous Sid, who shrouds her identity in mystery, wears her passion for seducing women like a cape. Sid calls herself a traveller and has all the markings of a High Kith in her manner of being, ability to open doors and get her way, and she introduces Nirrim to a brand new world, a new way of thinking, of questioning all that she’s been told to believe in. Sid holds a lot of secrets and allows Nirrim her own, their stories interwoven with rays of possibilities, passions and hidden insecurities.

Rutkoski’s prose is gorgeous, layered with vivid imagery, beauty, and a careful choice of words, building up the world and characters with deliberate accuracy, shedding light on their vulnerabilities and personalities. With the Half Kith, we see a class of people desperate for their own identity, one that isn’t woven in with their duties to the higher classes, grasping onto every sliver of independence they can get. But always within the window offered to them. After all, it is what it is.

If you wondered why we had a festival for the god of the moon when we didn’t believe in the gods, we’d get a little tight around the eyes. We’d think, Will this be taken from us, too, our one holiday of the year?

As Nirrim begins to take steps towards understanding herself and her true place in this world, it is not only the system around her that seems to disintegrate, revealing deceit and unexpected horrors, but also her personal standing with her adoptive mother Raven – a hard taskmaster who goes from hot to cold in the blink of an eye, one second lifting a hand against her so-called surrogate daughter and stating her undying love the next. The merciless and cutthroat nature of her mother is clear from the very beginning, seen through her actions and lack of compassion towards her daughters. However, for a young girl like Nirrim, conditioned to accept what she’s given, not having experience true love ever before, it is hard to accept Raven’s actions for what they are – passive-aggressive and abusive. As Nirrim journeys through this world with Sid, she begins distinguishing reality from falsehoods, hard evidence helping the pieces fall together; and in her personal life, going from accepting Raven’s possessive and manipulative countenance to standing on her own two feet.

Marie Rutkoski unravels each part of Nirrim’s life and growth with sensitivity and tenderness, making my heart ache along each step of the way. Nirrim’s character is so well-developed that it’s hard to not root for her along her journey, especially with each piece of her life that’s shattered before she can put them back together the right way. The ending came as a huge surprise as well, going down a path that I did not expect, and it was refreshingly suspenseful, making me eager for the next book in this two-part series.

This is a stunning and impeccable novel, with Marie Rutkoski gaining an immediate fan here. I relished every word in THE MIDNIGHT LIE and highly recommend it for anyone looking for some adventure, fantasy, and multi-dimensional LGBTQ+ characters.


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The Extraordinary Tales of the Fantastical Creatures in the Supreme Being Galaxy: A Book Review

The image shows the book cover for The Extraordinary Tales of the Fantastical Creatures in the Supreme Being Galaxy by Nidhi Goswami

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The Extraordinary Tales of the Fantastical Creatures in the Supreme Being Galaxy is a collection of 20 short stories written by author Nidhi Goswami, each inspired by mythological elements, themes and characters. With a witty and comical approach and a healthy dose of cynicism, Goswami pulls you into the universe she’s created, making you laugh along with the characters, take sides and root for an agenda, and even connect the various instances and realisations with that of the real world.

The first story in this book, The Prophet’s Office and Their Royal Screw Up, is focused on a scenario wherein there’s a party in the Supreme Being Galaxy, and the prophecies of the mortals get intertwined due to the prophets’ carelessness and drunken debauchery. Goswami subverts tropes and expectations built up by mythology to present a fresh take on the way things work in this universe—for one, Eve is the Almighty, and not even she is spared from the shenanigans. With mishap after mishap being thrown at the characters, no organised approach to dealing with the crisis, or even a modicum of upheld authority, the story is an exhilarating one, providing hope and reprieve from times of despair in a fun, sarcastic manner—if the gods themselves are so messed up, it’s no wonder humans are.

This merely touches upon the surface of the extensive character development that the author has done for this book. We have an Angel of Death who gets offended and hurt at being thought of as a scary monster, a war demon with a penchant for music, sapphic sirens, gods who are disorganised and flustered, Zeus as a closeted poet, and so many more diverse characters. This is the kind of book that you can pick up around a campfire, during a party, or an online reading with your friends and flip to any story for laughter and fun or even a serious discussion on the rich and layered themes involved.

Through her engaging stories related to gods and mortals, heaven and hell, demons and angels and everything else in the Supreme world, Goswami provides commentary related to capitalism and work culture as well as misogyny and feminism. This can be seen in the fundamental notion of each god performing a job or assigned role that they can resign from, be usurped from, or no longer fit the job description. Such references and connections to the capitalistic real world with all its rules and inequalities is sprinkled across multiple stories—some overt and others seamlessly blending in with the setting and scene, such as in The Witch and the Mermaid, wherein there’s a “Magical Soul Afterlife Manifesto” and “Travel Restrictions During Limbo”. Another related aspect is the presence of “Angels of Mindfulness”, who perform the role of therapists in the Supreme Being Galaxy, mentioned in the story The Soul Sorter and her Therapist; in this, Goswami notably forms a clear connection to real-world professions while normalising therapy and a focus on mental health. Again, if the gods aren’t ashamed of obtaining a rational third-person’s perspective and guidance, why should mortals?

The agency and independence of the femme characters in this book stand out as well. Whether it’s an angel who knows her worth, a god that wants an upgrade in her job profile or the respect she deserves, or a dragon who decides that she’d rather spend time with Aphrodite than her husband who doesn’t even know the names of his 13 wives or the meaning of pleasure, Nidhi Goswami’s portrayals of the women in each of these stories reflects the frustration, imbalances, and desires that we experience in real life. Despite the comical relief in many of the stories, the undertones are of being fed up with the status quo and these women reclaiming what they deserve—another powerful and life-affirming theme interwoven into the lightness of these tales.

That is not to say that Goswami has taken on the same approach to each story. Far from it in fact. While her humour and sarcasm are abundant in this book, there are also tales filled with sensuality, sorrow and yearning, interwoven with wordplay and experimentation with form and style. Some of these pieces are written in verse, some in the form of plays or a play within a story, some with a mixture of both prose and poetry, and it is clear that the style and approach for each have been carefully chosen to bring out the full extent and impact of the story being told.

One of my favourites in this book is There is a Spot Where Heaven and Inferno Meet, which revolves around a mermaid called Juniper and a God of Poetry. Juniper would sing and the god would write, their tales coming to life in the form of dreams, bleeding into reality. Below is an excerpt from one of the poems in this story.

She wove a web, deeper

than the depths of perdition, her

song like the wound left by a scalpel on

my mind; she kissed fire, and

her lips slipped away from me, like sand

that hastened away while I was

breathing …

(p. 76, paperback)

The author showcases her versatility with verse writing in each of the poems in this book, some following a rhyme scheme while others flow more freely, but all of them helping weave together a larger tale.

Each of the characters in this book has a unique voice and a clear, identifiable personality. While the stories stand alone and aren’t parts of a larger, overarching plotline, they have subtle references to other characters and tales set in the same universe. For instance, in The Hound of Hell Who Didn’t Like Parties, there’s a reference to Chronos pausing the mortal clock, which is a plot point in a different story in this collection. Such scene markers and references show Goswami’s attention to detail and the level of worldbuilding and character development that has gone into the creation of this book.

A strong debut collection, The Extraordinary Tales showcase Nidhi Goswami’s knack for storytelling and versatility in style. This is an author with clear talent, and I’m excited to see what she comes up with next.

Find Kindle and Paperback versions of the book on Amazon and Notionpress

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When the Stones First Fell by Jonathon Joiner: ARC Review

This image shows the book cover for When the Stones First Fell, a novel by Jonathon Joiner.

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When the Stones First Fell is a compelling novel set in a vast new world that’s plunged into conflict, dealing with forces that seek to tear it apart from both the outside and from within. This book has all the markers of the first in a longer series, with extensive world-building and character development that pulls you into the events taking place and leaves you wanting to know more by the end of it.

The story follows protagonist Shia Bander and his group of friends as they navigate the complexities of teenage relationships alongside defending themselves from a new and powerful enemy, hell bent on targeting their home city Iyravir and kidnapping all the children for reasons unknown. Stones fall from the sky to wreak havoc and terror among the citizens, and they’re faced with a seemingly helpless scenario against a force much more powerful than them.

Joiner weaves together a mysterious and suspenseful story, with hints and plot points trickling into a larger depiction of the kind of world they live in. At the head of the conflict is a boy king with a penchant for cruelty, a queen who loses her standing and has her own agenda going on, and a general with supernatural powers to help conquer each part of the realm. Iyravir ends up being the last city standing, the last city to fall, the last city to mount a defense against the tyranny while sticking to its morals and values; but right when you begin to think you know who the enemy is and the dynamics that are in play, the plot twists and turns, shedding light on various aspects of humanity, the kinds of thought processes, prejudices, and belief systems that are upheld during times of crises, and the ugly side of governance.

What stood out to me the most was the author’s careful portrayal of each of Shia Bander’s friends. This is not a simple chosen-hero-saves-the-world kind of story, although that is what Shia’s destiny seemingly is. Jon Joiner focuses on building up the personalities, backstories and skills of the supporting characters as well, to the point that they are each as much the protagonist of this story as Shia himself. With elements of magic—or ‘Dominion‘, as the powers are termed in this story—an enigmatic prophet who knows more than he can reveal, combat that is portrayed in a realistic manner that’s befitting of the characters’ ages while being thrilling at the same time, a city on the edge of desperation, and, most importantly, disability representation, When The Stones First Fell is a solid fantasy novel that sets the stage for further exploration of the world and characters.

Thank you to Reedsy and the author for providing an advanced reader copy of this novel. This is not a paid review; all opinions are completely my own.

This book launches on September 8, 2020. Find it on Amazon.


Beyond Cloud Nine by Greg Spry: A Book Review

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I’ve been going back and forth about what rating I should give this book. Overall, it’s remarkable. The plot and themes involved are twisted and sinister and send you careening down one morally grey path after another. However, some of the characters fall flat and their storylines end before they can be completely developed, which is a shame because they have a great deal of potential. I finally decided to give this four stars because I did enjoy it and there wasn’t anything particularly problematic even though certain aspects seemed lacking.

If you’ve decided to pick this up, you’re in for a thrilling ride for sure. But here’s something you might want to keep in mind: This is not the kind of book that you can read at your own pace over a week or two. It’s the kind that keeps you turning the pages, things happening one after the other at such a fast pace that you need to complete it before you lose track of everything that’s going on—which did happen to me a couple of times. But this wasn’t a bad thing. The plot was so engaging and intense, getting more complex with every new twist, that despite my having to back to check up on a detail or skimming a few pages to refresh my memory, I was not annoyed or frustrated by the pacing.

So, what is this book anyway?

For one, it’s a space opera. Think spaceships, combat, advanced tech, AI systems, other beings, humans fighting among themselves having to put aside their differences and face a common, otherworldly enemy. But that’s not all; it never is. Secret agendas and conspiracies come to light, and by the end of it, you’re left wondering who the good guys and bad guys were, if there were any at all. Read the rest of this entry »

Thorunn by Esther T. Jones: An ARC Book Review

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[Honest review in exchange for an advance copy of the book]

Set on a fictional planet and filled with dangers, unique beings and creatures (an aspect I love about this book), natives trying to protect their homelands, and human settlers as despicable as ever, this adventure-filled high-stakes fantasy is a rollercoaster ride of enjoyment.

If I’m being honest, I was a little disappointed with how slowly the first few chapters progressed—there were too few details about the main conflict in the story, and certain aspects of the world and some characters were vague, leaving me puzzled, my curiosity tinged with a bit of annoyance at not being given enough to be completely drawn into the plot. Some dialogues here and there sounded clunky, but then there would be a gorgeous piece of description to grab my attention on the next page. Such a lack of consistency was scattered about the initial chapters, but not even close to enough to make me want to put the book down: Overall, the language was light and easy to flow with, even if a little wanting, which is excellent for this kind of story, the world seemed to have a lot of scope, I had already categorized characters into those I rooted for and those I hated, and I was eager to get answers for the questions I had. So, I shoved aside every little misgiving I had and carried on… and that’s probably the best decision I’ve made this week! Read the rest of this entry »

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