Sunbolt

Sunbolt by Intisar Khanani reviewSunbolt
Intisar Khanani
3 Stars

Hey Lizzy,

Last November, while knee-deep in coffee, NaNoWriMo, and angsty wailings against my speech-recognition software, I paused to read and review a lovely self-published novella. Now a new NaNo has come around, and apparently I never posted this review. In my defense: uh. Whoops?

Anyway, let me tell you the story of how, one fine day, Pinterest noticed my general lack of interest in self-published novels, and took the time to bring Intisar Khanani—young adult fantasy author and a pinner of excellent taste—to my attention. (Thanks, Pinterest!)

I immediately hunted down her books, saw that they looked promising, and purchased one of them: Sunbolt, the first installment of The Sunbolt Chronicles. And then, because it’s what I do, I let the book languish in my Kindle app for, uh, over a year.

But its time came. (A year ago. Again I say: whoops?)

SIDE NOTE: yes, we do pin from each other’s boards, and every time her new pins pop up on my wall I give her the silent head-nod of approval. We’ve never actually interacted, though, and I don’t think I’m terribly biased in her/the book’s favor.

Well, okay. I’m biased in the sense that I recognize she probably didn’t have professional editing help, so I’ll phrase my criticisms in a gentler/less ranty manner than usual. It’s hard to get ranty over a self-published author’s mistakes, unless they do something really offensive—and no, Sunbolt didn’t get offensive. (Thanks, Khanani!)

Synopsis

The winding streets and narrow alleys of Karolene hide many secrets, and Hitomi is one of them. Orphaned at a young age, Hitomi has learned to hide her magical aptitude and who her parents really were. Most of all, she must conceal her role in the Shadow League, an underground movement working to undermine the powerful and corrupt Arch Mage Wilhelm Blackflame.

When the League gets word that Blackflame intends to detain—and execute—a leading political family, Hitomi volunteers to help the family escape. But there are more secrets at play than Hitomi’s, and much worse fates than execution. When Hitomi finds herself captured along with her charges, it will take everything she can summon to escape with her life.

Spoiler-Free Review

Check the good stuff out:

  • A biracial heroine who’s a racial minority in her home country (which isn’t modeled on a Western or white culture).
  • At a quick 140-ish pages long, it’s a speedy little novella that kept me engaged throughout.
  • The protagonists are awesome, and I absolutely must keep reading about them.
  • The magic system is intriguing, and I want to learn more about it.
  • The plot isn’t pushed aside for the sake of a ridiculous romance.

And, of course, some not-so-good stuff:

  • Too little worldbuilding.
  • The beginning was a bit slow, and would’ve benefited from a clearer portrayal of the villain and stakes.
  • Needed more consistent descriptions to ground the story in physical, real-feeling places.
  • The heroine’s emotions often weren’t as clearly or engagingly portrayed as I’d have liked.
  • A couple of the chapter titles spoiled for what happened in their chapters, thereby ruining my suspense and surprise.
  • The pacing seemed a bit odd, and it ultimately felt like Part One of a novel, not the first novella in a series; it would’ve benefited from either significant fleshing out, or being attached to its sequel (which, at the time that I read Sunbolt, was not yet published) in a single volume.

Overall: Sunbolt had its flaws, but I greatly enjoyed it, and will definitely be reading more of Khanani’s work in the, uh, near-ish future. (Sorry I’m awful at reading things in a timely manner; we all have our flaws, don’t look at me like that.)

Spoilery Critique

Spoiler Rating: Some (not major) spoilers

W-Praise

The Heroine is a (Bi-)Racial Minority in a Non-White Country

Hitomi’s the daughter of Hotaru and Rasheed, and she moved to the island sultanate of Karolene four years before the story begins. The people of Karolene are dark-skinned with curling hair, and Hitomi stands out among them as mgeni, outsider:

Although the local people generally accept and are kind to Hitomi, her race generates comments, and her inability to blend into the dominant culture has consequences:

I want to find more fantasy stories that incorporate a racial minority’s experience within a society that considers them other, and I appreciated that Hitomi’s experience in that position was portrayed with frankness and care.

The Story

At 140-ish pages long, Sunbolt doesn’t have time or pages to waste in getting its story told. Although the execution of the story wasn’t perfect, and I felt that the story should’ve been another couple hundred pages long, I was 100% engaged with it. Lack of boredom makes it a solid three-star read, despite its flaws.

Some Really Neat Magic

Magic isn’t used often in the story, but when it is, it’s great—especially because using magic takes a physical toll on Hitomi.

There’s nothing I love more than magic-use that has negative consequences, and oh my goodness does Hitomi face consequences.

Val

Oh, man. Val.

Val’s a particularly dangerous type of non-human, but exhibits that combination of restraint and ruthlessness that I and approximately every other reader in the entire world find appealing. Do I need to see more of him ASAP? Yes. Yes, I do.

This is Not a Romance

Three cheers for fantasy heroines who’re too busy heroine-ing for romance. Hitomi’s flinging herself from one dangerous situation to the next, and any heavy romantic aspects would’ve done the story a disservice.

(That said, she does develop a heterosexual friendship that ticks some of the Potential Boyfriend boxes, but I honestly don’t know if it’ll head in that direction. I must find out.)

W-Criticism

(Apparent) Lack of Worldbuilding

I don’t know how much worldbuilding the author did before writing this novella, but very little comes across to the reader.

The result is frustrating: cultures feel vague or completely unformed, how the different cultures and countries interact is a giant question mark, governing bodies are mentioned in passing as if we should already know who they are and how they work, and there’s too little sense of place. And no, I’m not going to spend several paragraphs explaining why I found the rebel group to be unrealistic and flat.

For much of the book, I was imagining the characters existing on a white sheet of paper. Sometimes a little detail (like what the little coffee cups look like) would pop up and add a smidge of color, but that’s not enough for me. I want to be immersed in the world, you know?

Ultimately, Sunbolt reads like a very polished draft that’s waiting for a final round of editing to really flesh out the details.

Villain Issues and Unclear Stakes

We’re told in the first couple chapters that the Shadow League is a secret rebel group that wants to dispose of Arch Mage Blackflame, who (a) is evil, (b) has his own military dudes, (c) has a lot of influence over the sultan, and (d) makes sure that anyone who speaks against him (him being Blackflame, not the sultan) ends up conveniently disappeared.

We’re also told that the heroine “know[s] what [the people] might lose” if the rebels can’t take down Blackflame—but the reader isn’t shown what exactly is at stake. As far as we can see, life seems to be pretty decent on the island of Karolene; we’re told that there’s an air of oppression and fear, but that’s about it. In fact, we’re more than a third of the way into the book before we see evidence supporting the rebels’ whole BLACKFLAME IS FILTHY FILTHY EVIL claim. (And even then, all we see is that he’s cool with killing people and torturing kids. That’s evil, yep—but how does this translate to a greater threat to the people of Karolene? The rebels didn’t know before now that Blackflame might torture kids, so what exactly was he doing [other than silencing his political opposition] that had them so inflamed? I’m still not sure.)

The story would’ve been instantly more compelling if the threat Blackflame poses, and what exactly is at stake if the the good guys fail, had been made clear early on.

Also, the rebels and Blackflame kind of disappear from the book entirely around the halfway point, and Blackflame’s role as primary villain is handed off to someone else—someone who is a direct threat to Hitomi, yes, but who has nothing to do with the rebels. The book’s conflict shifts from “rebels rebelling against Blackflame” to “Hitomi trying to survive this random dude’s plan,” and although the stakes in the second half of the story are clear (Hitomi’s life is on the line), it felt very disconnected from what was going on in the first half of the story. This is a large part of why I feel that this novella should’ve been just Part One of a unified novel; in itself, the novella felt fractured, incomplete. It needed something more to tie the first and second halves together into a complete whole.

Needs More Emotion

It wasn’t only the worldbuilding that was bare-bones; the depth and realism of Hitomi’s emotions were somewhat limited, too.

Again, this feels like a case where the draft needed another round of editing to flesh everything out. Hitomi’s emotions often (not always!) seem like placeholders for what should be something much more nuanced (like—and I’m totally making this example up—being just some simple version of upset when she’d realistically be some combination of surprised, confused, hurt, jealous, disappointed, and angry).

Also, Hitomi wasn’t brave, she was fearless.

Such as here, when she chooses to sacrifice her life to save someone else’s, and launches herself into (what she believes is) certain-death-by-guards:

Hitomi experiences zero interesting emotions during this scene (hesitation, fear, regret), which hobbles the potential emotional impact of this scene. Readers want internal conflict; they want a heroine being heroic despite her nagging fears and doubts. Those non-heroic emotions are what cause the reader’s white-knuckled grip on their book/e-reader/steering wheel/highly offended cat.

Fleshing out and adding realism to Hitomi’s emotions throughout the story would heighten my own emotional experience as I read the book.

Why Are the Chapters Titled?

Okay, this really bothered me.

Hitomi and the Shadow League are in the middle of a secret mission that’s been hitting some snags but is proceeding smoothly enough—and then I turn the page and see this is the title of the next chapter:

Well, all my suspense just went out the window.

Sure enough, one character betrays the others, with disastrous consequences. I’m neither surprised nor horrified by the betrayal, though, because I’d been warned of it beforehand.

Another chapter in the climax had the same effect. In the climax.

Bah.

Something Silly

And finally, here’s something silly for you: the leader of the Shadow League, a young man known only as the Ghost, protects his identity by wearing a hooded cloak everywhere he goes.

I don’t know of any hood that can totally hide someone’s face and still let them see out of it—and believe me, if I’d ever found one, I would’ve happily worn it to every possible Renaissance festival over the years.

Those kind of hoods that are so deep that they reliably/constantly obscure the wearer’s face in shadow are only found in fantasy artwork, not real life. That the Ghost wore one significantly reduced how seriously I could take him; he became an unrealistic Super Cool Assassin-type caricature. Every time the Ghost’s hood was mentioned, I snickered a bit.

Also, Hitomi herself points out that the cloak is vastly out of place in Karolene. Shouldn’t the Ghost, I don’t know, not want to stand out?

There are other types of head- and face-obscuring wraps he could have used that would’ve made more sense. Maybe something similar to a tagelmust, but with an additional bit of mesh across the eyes? Then, when he needs to take it off and store it quickly, it’ll just be a long scarf (that he could maybe wrap around his waist as a sash?) instead of a giant black cloak, which will never pass for anything other than a giant black cloak.

W-InClosing

On the whole, Sunbolt was totally worth the two bucks I spent on it, and—now that I’ve finally posted this—I’m excited to dive into its sequel. And, hey, maybe this time I won’t wait a year to post the review! (No promises.)

Love,

Liam


21 thoughts on “Sunbolt

  1. Okay, awesome protagonists, that’s a good point! I hate it when a plot is let down by weak and bland characters. Still, I need both great characters and a good world-building to immerse myself in a story. BUT no boredom?? I envy you, I spent 293 pages reading about soon-to-be queens’ lives where nothing happens.
    I need a magical hood that hides my face entirely without me bumping into people and walls!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Bland characters are a death sentence to even the best plot, you’re right.

      Three Dark Crowns, right? Just a guess. How do so many “BUT NOTHING HAPPENS” books get published?

      Ha! Yeah, the bumping into things issue would definitely need to be addressed when crafting this amazing hood; it’s hard to look badass when you keep slamming into doorjambs, etc.

      Like

  2. Aww, sorry this book didn’t fill up expectations and you didn’t love it completely! I’ve never heard of this one and I’m not too quick on picking it up because of the not-so-good stuff, but at the same time I’m still going to add it to my TBRs of maybes! Haha the characters sound great and I love that! 🙂 Really great review 👍 Love the post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! 😊

      I’d definitely recommend you add this book to your Maybe TBR list, especially since it’s so short. It’s a great, quick diversion, and all the good stuff in it is really memorable. Khanani’s written a couple of other things that look really neat, too!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Critiqueception is if/when you review your own pending book/story. When that happens, let me know. I’m here for it. I’ll only be as harsh as you are to yourself (which I’m hoping is a lot because, I have established in previous comment your tendency to hark on everything. People know me as the grumpy elder sheep in the community, maybe, but you’re a cut above imo — the eldest of elders beating books with your cane. I can only imagine).

    Three-point-five cheers for this story not having romance take the reins. (The 3 are from you. The .5 is from a distant me from Land of Hufflepuffs.) I’m actually on the team that protagonists with less emotion — though distant to the reader — may actually be an acute representation of some readers. But I haven’t read this, so. (But then again I reserve that judgment because they are also fearless and now they just sound psychotic).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, god, I don’t know how anyone puts up with me when I’m critiquing my own work. Imagine a loud, exasperated puddle of despair, put a pair of glasses on it, and that’s me. My work is never up to my own standards, and that fact will never fail to horrify me.

      I do love the possibility of an honest critique from someone outside of myself who’ll be just as demanding as I am, because (a) my writing needs it, and (b) I’m apparently a masochist like that. But ha ha now I’m talking like my work will ever see the light of day, which it won’t, BECAUSE IT’S AWFUL. Exasperated despair puddle. But hey, I’ll keep you posted on any plans I might have to publicly humiliate myself by sharing my stuff.

      FYI, my book-beating cane totally has a greyhound head for a handle, because I’m classy like that. What’s yours look like?

      You make a really good point about emotion; there are so many protagonists running around with volatile, exaggerated emotions (LO, THE ANGST)–and while I could’ve related to those characters more when I was a teen, I definitely feel more kinship with the quieter and steadier characters in my anciency.

      This particular character is certainly of the quieter and steadier type (which is great!), but I feel like her emotions were portrayed a little too one-dimensionally. Just a smidge. Nothing major. And, thankfully, not truly psychotic.

      Like

  4. Thanks for sharing this review with us, Liam! You pretty much had me at “racial minority in her home country” — that’s interesting to me and somewhat relevant to my life, and I always find myself seeking these narratives (and getting a bit disappointed because there aren’t that many). It’s unfortunate that the story itself has some flaws, but judging from your review I feel like they are minor storytelling flaws instead of, well, something that’s a dealbreaker. I’ll definitely keep an eye out for this book. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Aw, yay!

      Yep, none of the flaws upset me too much, except for the spoilery chapter headings.

      I didn’t mention it in the post, but I actually did reread the story before posting the review (just to make sure that, a year later, my opinion of the story hadn’t changed much), and I enjoyed it just as much in rereading as I had in reading it the first time. Even better, I remembered almost the entire thing–which says a lot, coming from me. (I’m not saying my memory’s a sieve, but I’m pretty quick to forget stories I felt ambivalent about.)

      It could use plenty of work, but it has some elements that really worked well for me. I hope you enjoy it too, if you do pick it up!

      Like

      1. Oooh, that sounds promising. Now, my memory IS a sieve and I forget even those stories I don’t feel ambivalent about, haha – perhaps this will be one of those that stay for a bit longer than others. 😛

        Thank you! I’m definitely looking into it.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Thanks for this awesome review – and you are not alone. Sunbolt has been sitting on my kindle app for at least a year, if not more (I can’t rememebr when I bought it) and I keep skipping over it and forgetting it. But you have done a great selling job on it – I am going to read it. Soon…

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Great review as per usual. Short books are in with me right now, so I kind of want to read this one… especially because it deals with an “othered” racial minority, and I have yet to see a fantasy story pull that off without half-assing it. Also, I managed to read through all of the spoilery bits and excerpts and STILL want to download this book, so congrats there. Lack of world-building can kill a story but maybe having to the second book readily available once I finish Sunbolt will help cushion the lack of description there and give me a fuller story [/fingers crossed hella tightly]

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Heck yes, short books.

      I should probably warn you that Hitomi is only in her home country (where she is the racial minority) for a few chapters; a significant portion of the book (once she’s started her adventure) doesn’t address her race or experience with racism at all.

      Aw, yay! I’m glad my spoilery stuff didn’t throw you off the book. If you get around to reading the sequel before I do, I hope you write a spoilery review of your own. Keep me posted!

      Liked by 1 person

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s