Interesting, but many issues
I’m in two minds about this novella. While there was a part of me that was intrigued by the general premise, there were still too many moments of confusion and poor characterisation for me to fully immerse myself in the story.
One of my issues is the world building, or lack thereof. The novel starts after the conclusion of a major battle, with Tashi, the protagonist, and their best friend on the run. We don’t actually discover what happened until further in the novel, which is not usually an issue for me, but combined with the inclusion – but no explanation – of magical elements, I found myself confused for a majority of the book. The reader is not even told why the two cultures – the Thim and the Myeik – were even at war in the first place.
However, I did enjoy the general idea behind the magical system – that certain people can be inhibitors which means that they are bonded for life to the soul of an animal. But when that animal dies, the human is left in a comatose state until they succumb to starvation. Unfortunately, the execution of this idea wasn’t the best, and the world building altered frequently, to the point where I couldn’t follow along without re-reading pages.
Like the world building, the plot was puzzling. Nothing much happened for a good portion of the novella, and then we discover the central plot point at the very end. I’m not saying that’s necessarily a bad thing, but as nothing really happens, my attention span was sidetracked.
I was quite annoyed by the characters, especially Tashi. While I am so so so hyped beyond words that Tashi is genderfluid, they were incredibly indecisive. They were incapable of making any decisions, and when they finally did, they changed their mind a minute later. It got quite annoying, especially in a book that is only 180 pages long. Also, I am seeing an alarming rise of YA “spies” who are just terrible spies. Tashi sneaks out to see their bonded tiger – despite being in the middle of a monastery filled with invaders – they pull a prank on a high-ranking member of the enemy’s army, and they forget to look for clues in the enemy commander’s room while the commander is away, until reminded by a friend. Just … come on.
I can’t comment on whether the explanation of the gender fluidity was done well as I am not gender fluid myself, but the author did talk about Tashi’s identity frequently, and how angry they were at being forced to change their image while in hiding. There are a few instances of misgendering, but it is always called out and corrected. What I did love about this novella is how normal sexuality and identity is viewed – there’s no shaming or judgement from other characters. They simply accept Tashi for who they are.
However, I did have an issue with the romance, and that’s probably my main issue with the novella. The love triangle felt quite unnecessary, and basically came out of nowhere. Tashi did state that they were in love with their best friend, Pharro, but as soon as they met Xian, they fell in lust with the enemy commander. I did enjoy Xian’s character though – how he was both sadistic, but had moments of vulnerability – and I can see how Tashi would be drawn to him, but there were also many moments where I just found their scenes cringy. I also didn’t understand how Tashi could be so in love with Pharro, when the reader is never really shown their relationship, aside from Tashi commenting on their crush. Just because characters are childhood friends doesn’t mean an author can get away with not properly developing a romance between them.
I think the issues I found with the novel could have been fixed if the book were longer. Writing a novella-length fantasy with complex cultures, politics, and magical systems doesn’t work too well with just 180 pages. There’s either too much info dumping or lack of proper explaining for the reader to fully engross themselves in the story. Will I be reading the next novella in the series? I think I might. The novella ended on a little cliffhanger, and I do want to know what happens next.