Reading Harder in 2024! – Part 3

Welcome back to my Read Harder Challenge! In case you missed the beginning of this series, check out my first blog post where I explain what the Read Harder Challenge is. We’re halfway through the year and halfway through the challenge!

She Who Became the Sun book cover

Task 16 – Read a book based solely on the title

Book Read: “She Who Became the Sun” by Shelley Parker-Chan

I have to be honest, I didn’t choose this book solely based on the title. I had been considering reading it for years, and when I saw it was on one of our Read Harder lists, well it was fate! And hoo boy, there is so much discussion about fate in this book. As George Michael could have sung, “Zhu got have fate, fate, fate.” It follows the story of a young girl who denies the nothing fate given to her, and instead takes up her brother’s fate of greatness after he dies, taking on his identity and entering the monastery as a novice monk. “She Who Became the Sun” is an alternate history/historical fiction that had “Fantasy?” on the outline when it was being written, and it was never followed up on.

The setting is 14th century China, during a time of war and rebellion against the Mongol forces. Zhu ends up becoming involved with the rebel army in her disguise as a monk, a la “Mulan”, and it is in this middle section of the book that things slow to a crawl. I enjoy political maneuverings in my science fiction and fantasy, but this felt more like characters were being moved around on a chessboard to make plot happen, instead of characters having developed motivations or goals they were trying to reach. Important battles happened off page, and despite being at war, Zhu is able to get behind enemy lines multiple times and effectively walk up to the person in charge, seemingly without any kind of subtlety or subterfuge. Zhu’s characterization also seems to vary wildly — when we’re in Zhu’s head, she refers to herself as a woman, although she clearly struggles with her gender identity in relation to taking on her brother’s identity, and the near constant worry that the heavens will see she is not Zhu Chongba and strip the fate from her. Any time we see Zhu from another character’s perspective, he is wily, flirty, even scheming to some extent. The difficulty is that the inner and outer lives never quite intersect, to the point that it feels like reading two different characters. Zhu feels like a trans character to me, and maybe should have been more explicitly trans, even if that language wouldn’t have existed or been used in the way we understand gender now. The conversations around gender didn’t feel as ground-breaking to me as I think other readers found them, and the envelope could have been pushed further.

This book feels like it did something similar to “The Familiar” by Leigh Bardugo, which I just read a couple of months ago — by aiming for historical fantasy in a very specific time period where there could be characters whose names we would recognize, the book is almost too firmly set in reality. Where the characters we’re following aren’t just people living their own lives during the historical period, but they aren’t big enough players in the world to be rubbing elbows with better known historical figures either. Zhu is the first character we meet and serves as our introduction into the world, but overall it ends up being more of an ensemble cast for how much time is spent with other characters. Parker-Chan unquestioningly has a way with words, and I would be excited to see them writing more fantastically in the future.

Tress of the Emerald Sea book cover

Task 1 – Read a cozy fantasy book

Book Read: “Tress of the Emerald Sea” by Brandon Sanderson

For anyone not familiar with Brandon Sanderson, a crash course: the man writes books at a speed unmatched by most other authors. Okay, he writes his own books at speeds unmatched by most other authors, and they’re good! Usually written for adults in the science fiction and fantasy genres, Sanderson is probably best known for his books in the Cosmere. The even shorter version of the Cosmere is that many, but not all Sanderson books exist in the same universe, with characters showing up in different books, sometimes as cameos, sometimes for very important reasons. So how does “Tress” fit into this? It is a book set in the Cosmere, but wait, come back! You don’t need to have read a dozen other books before this. There are absolutely references and cameos, but nothing that detracts from a standalone story. If anything, let it make you curious to read other Cosmere titles! Softly chanting: one of us, one of us… Anyways, back to “Tress”!

The quick pitch for “Tress of the Emerald Sea” is to imagine “The Princess Bride,” but what if Buttercup went after Westley, instead of the other way around? Tress lives on an island in the Emerald Sea, and is very good friends with the son of the duke, Charlie. When Charlie’s father catches the two talking, he immediately whisks Charlie away to be wed to a princess. Before he leaves, Charlie promises to Tress that he won’t marry anyone else, and will be back before they know it. Cut to the duke coming back to the island with another boy, claiming that Charlie was lost to ransom by the Sorceress! At this point, Tress decides the only thing to be done is to take action into her own hands and go find Charlie, even if she has to sail to the Midnight Sea and face down the Sorceress herself. There is the small issue of needing a ship… What ensues is an adventure on the spore seas, including pirates, talking mice and cups!

Tress is an incredibly fun character, not least of which because she has common sense, a trait rarely found in heroes or adventurers. The narration style, reminiscent of its source material, gives us a peek into characters’ heads and motivations, while keeping the tension of how Tress will respond to the next situation. This is a cozy fantasy, but like “Princess Bride”, it does have some peril and death, so if you’re expecting a cozy on the level of “Legends and Lattes,” just be aware of that going in. I flew through this and really enjoyed the story, both for what it was and as a teaser for other Sanderson titles I still have yet to read. Solid, unique worldbuilding, highly recommended for fantasy fans.

The Memory Police book cover

Task 8 – Read a book in translation from a country you’ve never visited

Book Read: “The Memory Police” by Yoko Ogawa, translated by Stephen Snyder

Another alternate universe/alternate history novel, this novel from 1994 takes place in what can be read as Japan, although the island is never named. We follow the perspective of a young novelist as objects and ideas disappear from the island. When something disappears, everyone on the island is meant to destroy any reference to whatever was lost, to help the inhabitants move on more quickly, and because any item related to the lost thing loses its meaning. The Memory Police enforce the disappearances, ensuring that no one holds onto things that have been lost. Some people have the ability to remember, including the novelist’s mother, who hid disappeared things. The Memory Police sometimes enforce the disappearances by taking people suspected of keeping things they shouldn’t, or people who may remember. The novelist’s editor can remember, and is worried about what may happen to him; the novelist and an older friend of hers build the editor a secret room to keep him safe.

This novel was slow, quiet and clearly written and translated with thought and care. I picked this up because it sounded like an Orwellian dystopia, a speculative title about disappearing objects and the para-military force that was used to crack down on anyone who searched for answers. What I got was a piece of Literature that was incredibly insular in its scope. There is a whole world happening on this island and presumably outside of it, the door to which is imperceptibly cracked open, and we’re trying to peek through. I think this would be a good choice for high school English classes trying to find something besides “1984” or “Fahrenheit 451” to study; “The Memory Police” is clearly inspired by those and similar titles, but being more recent and non-Western could provide an interesting perspective. Even upon writing this review, I’m not sure how I feel about the book. I don’t think I enjoyed it as such, but neither was it badly written or flawed. It simply is what it is, and it would be foolish of me to expect more from it. There is certainly a lot to mine from the themes, and I have no doubt there are high school and college English students doing exactly that in papers; for better or worse, I was always told I’d make no money with an English degrees, and now I work in libraries, so. This is also the same author as “The Housekeeper and the Professor,” which I believe is more widely enjoyed, and definitely set in Japan, if you’re looking for more titles that fit this challenge.

Assassination Classroom book cover

Task 13 – Read a comic that has been banned

Book Read: “Assassination Classroom Volume 1” by Yusei Matsui

Assassination Classroom has a pretty wild premise: some kind of octopus creature has destroyed most of the moon, and is promising to do the same thing to the Earth in a year, unless the students in Class 3-E of Kunugigaoka Junior High can kill him first. I know, that sentence had a lot going on. This first volume sets up the premise, which is that Koro Sensei (a play on “teacher” and “cannot be killed”) is incredibly fast and immune to most things that would be deadly for humans. But for reasons that are so far his own, he wants to teach Class 3-E, the misfits, trouble makers, and academically challenged, while asking them to kill him.

Koro Sensei is quite a character, and what little information is given out in this first volume about him and what he is has left me wanting to pick up the next volume soon! This seems like it will be a fun series, with Koro Sensei trying to improve the students’ academic abilities and their self-esteem, while they are each actively gunning for him, quite literally in many cases.

Note: I read the first volume back in February, and now in June I am more than halfway through the series. It has in fact proven itself to be a lot of fun! I still have a lot of questions about Koro Sensei, and where the series is going as a whole, but it’s a great mix of slice of school life, action, and humor!

Are you participating in the Read Harder Challenge? Do any of these titles sound interesting to you? Don’t forget that there are plenty of other books to choose from, both at your library and elsewhere! See you at the next check-in!

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