by Tessa Barbosa
Publication Date: March 21, 2023
Genres: Young Adult, Science Fiction
Source: Neon Rainbow
I received this book for free from Neon Rainbow in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.My rating:
I promised my mother I would never come to Bato-Ko…and yet here I am.
Narra Jal is one of the cursed, cast aside her whole life, considered unlucky. But with her mother’s life on the line, she will return to the city where she was born to face the trials: a grueling, bloodthirsty series of challenges designed to weed out the weak, the greedy, and the foolish. Trials to select the next ruler of Tigang.
Narra has nothing. No weapons. No training. No magic. No real chance of leaving with her life. Just her fierce grit and a refusal to accept the destiny she’s been handed. Even the intense, dark-eyed Guardian she feels a strangely electric connection with cannot help her. Narra is on her own. But she’ll show everyone what the unlucky can do.
Let the bloodbath begin.
That is such a gorgeous cover, and the sound of a Filipino-inspired fantasy? Absolutely tantalizing! And while this book didn’t work out as well as I’d hoped, it still lived up to being a promising new voice in YA fantasy.
When Narra’s mother disappears, she does the one thing she’s sworn she’ll never do – go to the city of Bato-Ko to search for her. But her mother is a prisoner in its palace fortress and there’s only one way in: entering the Sundo, the deadly competition for their people’s next ruler. Unprepared, friendless and posing as her sister, Narra has enough to worry about without adding in strange visions and the very handsome Guardian who seems to recognize her. But it’s the secrets from her past, not the competition, that may prove the most deadly.
I went in expecting the standard “teen must enter fantasy competition in order to….” (in this case rescue her mother from imprisonment) setup and there is that. Narra literally shows up to the competition with nothing. She’s spent her life as a nomadic cloth merchant, has very little knowledge of magic or combat or basically, well, anything that would be useful in the competition, oh, and she hates parties and sucks at making friends. That’s an amazing setup for an underdog and some crafty competitions! But rather than seeing Narra overcome the challenges through ingenuity or will or sheer spite, instead they’re mostly focused on her having visions of her past lives.
And that’s my big issue with this book. I’m not a big fan of past lives story lines and that plays a big part in this story. Things feel strangely familiar to Narra and people – especially Teloh, the cute guard – recognize her, but she has no idea why. It was especially annoying at the beginning because people – it’s Teloh, pretty much entirely Teloh – had all these expectations and baggage about Narra’s past lives, despite her repeatedly telling him that she didn’t remember him or anything else. It’s all wrapped up in an interested fate versus free will discussion, but at the end of the day, even that (and the cute doomed romance) couldn’t save it for me.
That’s not to say there’s not a lot of good things about the book. The book draws from Filipino culture, from food to cultural mores to clothing. Elders are to be respected and family is everything. The magic system is also intriguing. Magic is performed through orasyons, written or painted magic spells, and it requires sacrifice, usually your life force. Narra also has a birthmark on her neck and shoulders that lead many people to (superstitiously) believe she’s cursed. While her mother has always tried to protect her, in the times she hasn’t been there Narra’s been subjected to violence and hatred since she was a child. And that’s part of her motivation for going after her mother – she wants to prove that she’s not worthless, that she can save the life of the person who’s saved her life so many times.
Overall, while there’s many good aspects, I just wasn’t a fan of a good chunk of the storyline. Despite that, I will be definitely be keeping an eye on this author and looking for what she writes next.
Content notes: View Spoiler »