Review: Witches Steeped in Gold (Smart)

A Review of Witches Steeped in Gold, by Ciannon Smart

Aiyca, the witch-led world of dueling narrators Jazmyne and Iraya, is absolutely fascinating.

Iraya (“Ira”) is the rightful heir to a toppled throne, sent to prison like so many of her Obeah sistren. Jazmyne is the heir to the Alumbrar usurper (or liberator, depending on how you look at it). With the Obeah imprisoned, subjugated and used for their talents, a rebellion is imminent. And Iraya is just the witch the Obeah rebels been waiting for.

“Trouble doesn’t give signs like rain, so we must always be ready for it.” – Witches Steeped in Gold

Jazmyne, meanwhile, wants to see her mother’s rule end, too. With no magic of her own (she can’t inherit the throne or her family’s magic until her mother’s death), she is stuck with politicking and plotting behind closed doors. Against gold conduit-fed magic and ruthless rule, her only weapons are loyalty and plans. She comes off disappointingly weak at times, but is also easy to root for.

Readers are dropped into the magic system and receive piecemeal information along the way, so it can be hard to get into at first. In certain sentences, plentiful clauses took me out of narratives I truly wanted to sink deeper into. I did eventually, and I thought the Jamaican-inspired world, and the system of gold conduits/inheritance were wonderful. The Obeah’s abilities to summon the help of the dead also ticked a few boxes for me in my Sabriel-loving heart.

Fantasy fans searching for female-led narratives and LGBTQ characters should also take a look at this one. In Aiyca, there’s not a dominant man in sight, and same-sex relationships are written of matter-of-factly and without any hints of social stigma (though note that these are relegated to peripheral characters and not the narrators themselves).

I found myself rooting for both heroines of Witches Steeped in Gold, knowing all the while (and eagerly anticipating that) they would one day face off. The snafu in everyone’s plans that is pirate society was also a great addition—and makes for some of my favorite chapters. As much as I appreciated this book, I do wish it had gotten to all the good stuff faster!

Gold coins
Gold conduits--mostly coins--channel witches' magic in the book.

Don’t overlook the fact that a sequel is coming, either. I sadly didn’t realize this and expected a more satisfying wrap-up. I also found the major decision of a certain character to be more unlikely than unexpected, though it sets the stage for future conflict. I’m undecided, at this moment, whether I’ll continue with the series (which could be a nod to my impatience with longer books more than anything), but it may be too hard to stay away from Jazmyne and Iraya’s world.

It’s just that good.

Review: The Empress of Salt and Fortune (Vo)

A Review of The Empress of Salt and Fortune

“The Empress of Salt and Fortune belongs to all her subjects, and she was romantic and terrible and glamorous and sometimes all three at once. There are dozens of plays written about her, and some are good enough that they may last a little while even after she is gone. Older women wear their hair in braided crowns like she did, and because garnets were her favorite gem, they are everywhere in the capital.

“In-yo belonged to Anh, but Thriving Fortune only belonged to us.”

– Rabbit, telling her story to Cleric Chih and Almost Brilliant

If you read any book this month, let it be The Empress of Salt and Fortune. It won’t take long. This beautifully written, surprisingly short book is as tidy as cleric Chih’s records, and as wonderful and heartbreaking as the story of the Empress of Salt and Fortune herself.

The writing leans toward prose (lovely, fast-moving prose), the ending is a bit abrupt, and I felt one of the key emotional moments in The Empress of Salt and Fortune was a bit too underplayed. Yet reading over the ending and some of my highlights, I feel that same heartache the story left me with all over again. I’m happy to overlook my grumblings about those things, and I think many other readers will be, too, precisely because of that writing and the emotional punch it carries.

“…You could also find a beauty in it, a kind of peace even in something that was at first so very unsettling. I’d cried the first time I saw the luminescence of the lake. Now most nights, I slept on the porch, bathed in its red glow. If it was a monster of some kind, it was a monster that watched over me, and, at the very least, it had not devoured me yet.”
– Rabbit, on Lake Scarlet

The Empress of Salt and Fortune is a story full of uncommon elements. The opening chapter is packed with world-building, without pausing to explain it; protagonist Chih is in a hurry, after all. Instead of grand battle scenes in this tale of revolution, there a plot twists. The title character appears only once as a ghost, treated reverently by other ghosts on a road, and Chih, who is at first mistaken for a girl by part-time narrator Rabbit, is a cleric from the abbey at Singing Hills and not a girl. In the world of The Empress of Salt and Fortune, clerics, who are charged with traveling the world to record its history and events and locations, are they and them.

Throughout the book, chapters often begin with Chih and Almost Brilliant’s inventory of the house at Lake Scarlet, the sarcastically named Thriving Fortune. This is part of Chih and their neixin companion’s work. “The abbey at Singing Hills would say that if a record cannot be perfect,” Chih tells Rabbit, the now-elderly servant she meets there, “it should at least be present. Better for it to exist than for it to be perfect and only in your mind.” Pride drives Chih on this detour to the newly declassified Lake Scarlet; she desires to be the first cleric to record Thriving Fortune’s details. “Welcome to your place in history, grandmother,” Chih tells Rabbit as the now-elderly woman begins her story.

And that story matters a lot, because of its famous former resident.

In-yo, the Empress of Salt and Fortune, and Rabbit meet in the capital, where Rabbit is a palace servant and In-yo has become the new wife of the emperor. As a northerner, from a country known for mammoths and being bullied by Anh, In-yo is ill at ease in the south, where mages keep winter at bay and mammoths can’t survive. She isn’t well-received, either. The ladies and servants of the court fear her at first, “because the women of the north were all thought to be witches and sorceresses. Then [the noble ladies] discovered her great secret, that she was only a heartbroken and lonely girl, and she became of no account at all.”

Though In-yo is exiled to Thriving Fortune after producing an heir, clearly she plays a long game. The beginnings of the revolution trickle into the story with details not even Rabbit, devoted to the Empress as she is, could make sense of at the time. In-yo is a complex character, seen only through the eyes of others but depicted sympathetically and unflinchingly by Rabbit. In The Empress of Salt and Fortune, revolution is told through relationships rather than battles.

There is more to Rabbit herself, too. “For a single faraway moment, she looked like something other than a simple servant woman, but it was there and gone so fast that Chih could not say for sure what it was.” Naturally, Rabbit is more entwined with history than anyone knows. She suffers for her association with In-yo, and without it, too.

Rabbit’s life with In-yo is also easier and less formal than at court. There are fewer risks, too, for many of the years they reside there. But later experiences that could have left her bitter and angry never affect the choices she makes, though they leave her feeling worn and older than her years. She’s an understated, constant and lovable presence in the story.

“She had a foreigner’s beauty, like a language we do not know how to read…her face was as flat as a dish and almost perfectly round. Pearl-faced, they call it where she came from, but piggish is what they called it here.” And “as far as In-yo was concerned, she had no equals in all the empire.”
– Rabbit on In-yo, the Empress of Salt and Fortune

Rabbit sums it up best, in one of her recollections, with one of the most quotable lines in the book (and there are quite a few): “One drunken evening, many years on, In-yo would say that the war was won by silenced and nameless women, and it would be hard to argue with her.” Alone at Thriving Fortune, having outlived the Empress and so many others but still carrying their secrets, Rabbit could easily have been one of those women without Chih’s arrival. It’s this sad reality that brings a quiet joy to Rabbit’s story of loss, revolution and betrayal.

The world-building of The Empress of Salt and Fortune is lightly sketched but creative. Rather than spend a lot of time on the details, key aspects are revealed in matter-of-fact conversation, from the glowing Lake Scarlet’s origin as the resting place of a dying star, to a carp that became a calico dragon, and the ghostly imperial palanquin that Chih encounters on the road to Thriving Fortune. There are hidden dangers from creatures we never quite see, and ghosts are omnipresent. It made me want to continue journeying with Cleric Chih and Almost Brilliant—and Vo’s beautiful writing—just to see more of it.

To learn more about this author, visit

Review: Gods of Jade and Shadow (Moreno-Garcia)

Gods of Jade and Shadow Review

Go on. Get your heart broken by this book. I dare you.

After finding the Mayan God of Death locked in her grandfather’s room, Casiopeia Tun embarks on a modern-ish (a hundred years ago) Odyssey-style quest to return Hun-Kame to power and thwart his usurping twin. Sounds like a romance, right?

Just wait.

Casiopea is not a willing participant in her adventure—although it’s fair to say she’s a dazed one. Trapped in a life of servitude to her harsh uncle and tyrannical (somewhat one-dimensional) cousin, she has dreams of driving a car, swimming in the sea and dancing like in the movies. Nowhere do her dreams include having the life slowly sucked out of her by Hun-Kame. And that’s exactly what will happen until she can help the deposed god reclaim the rest of his body.

Then again, life at home as a servant wasn’t that great, either. Family issues aside, her home region is also extremely religious. Now that she’s been seen leaving it with a man, her reputation is ruined. For Casiopeia, there can be no going home.

Fantasy without borders
Readers eager to read fantasy in non-european settings will be thrilled to delve into this Mexican mythology-based Adventure

With the promise of repayment and the whole thing just being over, Casiopeia bears it stoically even as Hun-Kame asks more and more of her (and her reputation is continually ruined). She flirts, she gets a flapper bob, she slides in amongst revelers in cities she only dreamed of seeing. It’s a wild ride, and she comes fairly close to taking it in stride even as a whole slew of mythological figures and creatures cross her path. Sometimes, though, it’s just too much. As strong as Casiopeia is, she has a vulnerable side and occasionally has to cry—as most of us would after meeting hungry ghosts.

Casiopeia is a dreamer, and though she always wanted more from life, what she really wants isn’t so unreasonable. All she’s ever hope for is to have control of her own fate. Though she’s finally away from home, her unwitting bargain with Hun-Kame means she has to face just how little control she has.

To put another wrench in the works, as Casiopeia begins to come into her own as a young woman, Hun-Kame becomes increasingly human. A theme of the hopefulness of the young—and a youthful romance—begins to take shape.

There isn’t much dawdling in the book, but I did feel as though I’d been on a long journey by the time it was through. For all its somewhat glib adventures, it’s an emotional story, and readers run the gamut alongside its young protagonist. The crisp prose and historical tidbits about each location on Casiopeia’s odyssey also added flavor. I very much enjoyed the writing, and often read the lightly snarky chapter openings aloud to family members, who were mostly willing. But as the story goes on, it becomes more character-driven, particularly as the end of the quest creeps into sight.

Of all the characters in the story, though, it’s Casiopeia and Loray, a demon she encounters, who feel the most real, which is perhaps why they find their way back to each other: they’re the only two who have the depth of character to continue on after so much change and loss. Casiopeia starts out young and hopeful; Loray, a little too wise about the ways of the world and literally trapped. For all Casiopeia stands to gain from her quest, she loses a lot, too—including her hope. It leaves the reader with the same sort of stunned emptiness Casiopeia feels at the end.

After going through so much with her, I wish there had been more to the ending than watching Casiopeia drive out of sight—even if she does seem to be in good company. For all he knows about human kind and the underworld, Loray is still full of a zest for life (and exploration), even if it’s all about simple pleasures. He also proves to be particularly kind.

Want more Mayan Mythology?

The Popol Vuh is filled with foundation myths and can be read for free on google.

The climax of the Gods of Jade and Shadow is heartbreaking, beautiful, and in all, makes it a gorgeous novel with a slightly abrupt ending that will still leave you thinking about it long after—and hurting for its characters. I did wish for a lot more out of the wrap-up section of the book, but was left with a lasting emotional impact from it, a sort of raw open ending that its main character is left with.

Then again, maybe that’s just a sign of good writing and a loveable character. It’s true that, just like Hun-Kame, I would’ve like to stay with Casiopeia a little longer.

To learn more about other titles by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, visit her blog.