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!)
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.
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.)
Spoiler Rating: Some (not major) spoilers
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.
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.
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.)
(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.
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.
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.)