ARC Review: “The Sleepless” by Victor Manibo

(thanks to Erewhon Books and NetGalley for granting me an ARC of this book!)

Read if you like: existentialism, mystery, angst, politics of all kinds, relatable/”lower” sci-fi, murder investigations, anti-capitalism, unreliable narrators, psychology, amnesia, anarchy, the power/cost of love, workaholism getting its due, intellectual worldbuilding

Triggers: workaholism, profanity, alcoholism, narcotics, violence, corruption

Goodreads Summary:

Journalist Jamie Vega is Sleepless: he can’t sleep, nor does he need to. When his boss dies on the eve of a controversial corporate takeover, Jamie doesn’t buy the too-convenient explanation of suicide, and launches an investigation of his own.

But everything goes awry when Jamie discovers that he was the last person who saw Simon alive. Not only do the police suspect him, Jamie himself has no memory of that night. Alarmingly, his memory loss may have to do with how he became Sleepless: not naturally, like other Sleepless people, but through a risky and illegal biohacking process.

As Jamie delves deeper into Simon’s final days, he tangles with extremist organizations and powerful corporate interests, all while confronting past traumas and unforeseen consequences of his medical experimentation. But Jamie soon faces the most dangerous decision of all as he uncovers a terrifying truth about Sleeplessness that imperils him—and all of humanity. 

(Goodreads book profile here)


My Review:

Manibo has created a deeply intellectual novel that explores the common existentialist question:

“What if we had more time?”

What if we never had to sleep, for instance? What would that mean for us? For those we love? For history? For culture? For politics? For the environment?

Humankind has always been obsessed with legacy. With time. With immortality. And Manibo’s book is centered on what that obsession might mean for a modern, diverse society.

Manibo’s answers to all these questions are successful, in my opinion, because he manages to root the answers in a world that feels concurrent (despite technically being set in the future). I could see this happening. I could believe it. And this is because I’m given a solid social, cultural, and political framework that felt relatable. If I woke up tomorrow and was told that Manibo himself is sleepless and that this is his way of breaking the news to us, then I wouldn’t bat an eyelash. I’d say “duh!”

Moreover, Manibo also succeeds at providing answers that consider all angles. There is no antagonist and protagonist here. There are just individual people believing in whatever they believe in, for whatever personal reason. Just as in real life. It’s a stark reminder that politics are made up by individuals. Politics is all about what individuals want, and how they achieve it via allies and opposition. It works on a much more singular scope than what it pretends to do, and Manibo reminds us of this.

If we delve into the actual plot of the book, Manibo specifically addresses how capitalism exploits the existentialist fear of “so much to do, so little time”. He addresses toxic work culture, unethical business practices, and corrupt politicians. He also highlights the sustainability debate and how a world of sleepless people will negatively impact the environment.

But this isn’t just a book of high stakes; it’s also a book of low stakes.

The low stakes are the personal stakes of the protagonist, Jamie, a journalist who is thrown into a murder investigation. The novel is a whodunit scenario in which Jamie must solve the details of the murder to prove his innocence in the matter. The murder is of his boss and mentor, meaning that Jamie’s arc is largely centered on loss and grief. Throughout the book, Jamie must decide what he’s willing to personally sacrifice for professional success. He goes from being a workaholic who is in denial of his situation, to a workaholic who attempts to save what few personal relationships he has left (alongside his freedom and life, of course). He must decide how selfish he wants to be, and how selfless he needs to be in order to turn the tide around. These are existentialist choices in their own right, albeit of a smaller scale, but they make you care about the book as a whole.

I’ve talked a lot about politics and plot so far, but this is a very character-driven story at its core.

Being character-driven, the pacing is also on the slower side. Especially for a whodunit plot. It’s less “piecing different plot elements together” and more “personal revelations that alter the plot and thus the mystery”. Basically, we care about this world because we care about Jamie. Not the other way around. And Manibo expertly unveils Jamie’s backstory at just the right pace for a character-driven narrative, weaving it seamlessly together with his relatable sci-fi worldbuilding.

And this, of course, reinforces the point I made earlier, namely that politics are made up by individuals, and Jamie is one such individual.

Even if you don’t like reading about politics, you will like reading about Jamie.


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ARC Review: “The Stardust Thief” by Chelsea Abdullah

(thanks to NetGalley and Orbit for granting me an ARC of this book!)

Read if you like: found family, banter, adventure, betrayal, loyalty, hard choices, resurrection magic, elemental magic, ghouls, multicultural setting, desert setting, multiple POV, smooth pacing, storytelling as a theme, magical trinkets, merchantry, questing, daggers, cinnamon rolls, stoic bodyguards, well-kept secrets, character-driven narrative, imagination in spades

Triggers: murder, blood, death, implied torture, family loss, off-page parental neglect and abuse, violence, profanity

Goodreads Summary:

Neither here nor there, but long ago…

Loulie al-Nazari is the Midnight Merchant: a criminal who, with the help of her jinn bodyguard, hunts and sells illegal magic. When she saves the life of a cowardly prince, she draws the attention of his powerful father, the sultan, who blackmails her into finding an ancient lamp that has the power to revive the barren land—at the cost of sacrificing all jinn.

With no choice but to obey or be executed, Loulie journeys with the sultan’s oldest son to find the artifact. Aided by her bodyguard, who has secrets of his own, they must survive ghoul attacks, outwit a vengeful jinn queen, and confront a malicious killer from Loulie’s past. And, in a world where story is reality and illusion is truth, Loulie will discover that everything—her enemy, her magic, even her own past—is not what it seems, and she must decide who she will become in this new reality.

Inspired by stories from One Thousand and One Nights, The Stardust Thief weaves the gripping tale of a legendary smuggler, a cowardly prince, and a dangerous quest across the desert to find a legendary, magical lamp. 

(Goodreads book profile here)


My Review:

I read this book in one sitting.

For a fantasy book that rounds the 400 pages, that’s an incredible achievement on the author’s side.

This is also why the superb pacing absolutely made this book for me, and why I want to start off talking about that. Specifically, about how Abdullah’s mastery of tension across multiple POVs reminded me a lot of Stewart’s “The Bone Shard Daughter”, which I also read in one sitting. It’s a flex of a balance act to weave gradual tension into a secondary world narrative that spans across several personalities and multiple POVs, and Abdullah manages to do this with ease, hence why I read this book in literally one afternoon. Each chapter transition pulled me in so expertly.

In my opinion, balance is the keyword when it comes to creating the coveted “unputdownable” book—and Abdullah understands this, 100%.

The way that she creates tension also reminds me a lot of videogames. And I want to dwell on that for a bit. Firstly, the book is built around a quest narrative, meaning that the plot itself is reminiscent of many videogame plots. Secondly, there’s as much necessary exposition in this book as there is in any fantasy novel, yet Abdullah twists exposition into the plot in such a way that I felt like I was playing a videogame. One with various possible storylines splayed out in front of me, endlessly. I felt that anything and everything could happen, all the time, so I had to keep reading, you know? It felt like I kept leveling up, yeah?

This also applies to the worldbuilding. Specifically, the magic. The scope of the world and of the magic that governs the world constantly evolve on the page as the backstories of the characters are revealed and the history of the world is conveyed. It’s a bit like spoon-feeding. This means that we start out with a scope that feels narrow (but never lacking), and we end up with a scope that feels broad (but never overwhelming). Again, we have balance. On a knifepoint.

As for the theme of the book, Abdullah doesn’t beat around the bush.

This is a story about stories.

In particular, it’s about the way that stories empower those who take the time to listen to them.

It’s just like Mazen, our storyteller prince of the book, would say: “It’s in the details.”

Storytelling is how humans understand the world. How we understand power and the lack thereof. That’s what the “The Stardust Thief” is about. We have a group of people that become united by stories over the course of 400 pages. Their own stories. The stories of those they care about. Even the stories of the people that they don’t care about. There are no good or bad stories, Abdullah seems to tell us. And the power is not in the story itself, or even in the storyteller, but in the audience. That’s where stories have power; they empower.

A second theme that resonates strongly throughout the book is the theme that the dead are never truly gone. Rather, they live on in the stories we tell and the trinkets we keep. Abdullah takes this theme very literally, incorporating ghouls and thereby resurrections into the plot, but she also keeps it emotional. For starters, each character suffers from the loss of someone they loved. Additionally, we have Loulie, our business-savvy merchant, whose character arc and transformation in large part revolves around this same discovery; that the dead are never truly dead and that she must now change her way of life to account for this. How that comes to be and how she achieves that, I’ll let you read and find out (because it’s worth it, believe me, and enough that I initially spoiled it here out of sheer excitement).

Lastly, let me talk about voice.

As far as I am concerned, voice really boils down to the joy of storytelling. If the reader can feel that the writer truly enjoyed writing their book (even if it’s a sad book, yes), then the voice is there—and Abdullah has voice in spades. She has joy in spades. And it shows. And I personally can’t wait to see where her joy takes us next.


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ARC Review: “The Bruising of Qilwa” by Naseem Jamnia

(thanks to Tachyon Publications and NetGalley for granting me an ARC of this book!)

Read if you like: blood magic, an overall science-based magic system, multicultural setting, healing, plants, sibling dynamics, a celebration of queerness, mentor figures, personal stakes, community, mystery, medicine/medical science, competent characters

Triggers: blood, dead bodies, disease, racial discrimination

Goodreads Summary:

In this intricately layered debut fantasy, a nonbinary refugee practitioner of blood magic discovers a strange disease causing political rifts in their new homeland. Persian-American author Naseem Jamnia has crafted a gripping narrative with a moving, nuanced exploration of immigration, gender, healing, and family.

Firuz-e Jafari is fortunate enough to have immigrated to the Free Democratic City-State of Qilwa, fleeing the slaughter of other traditional Sassanian blood magic practitioners in their homeland. Despite the status of refugees in their new home, Firuz has a good job at a free healing clinic in Qilwa, working with Kofi, a kindly new employer, and mentoring Afsoneh, a troubled orphan refugee with powerful magic.

But Firuz and Kofi have discovered a terrible new disease which leaves mysterious bruises on its victims. The illness is spreading quickly through Qilwa, and there are dangerous accusations of ineptly performed blood magic. In order to survive, Firuz must break a deadly cycle of prejudice, untangle sociopolitical constraints, and find a fresh start for their both their blood and found family.

Powerful and fascinating, The Bruising of Qilwa is the newest arrival in the era of fantasy classics such as the Broken Earth Trilogy, The Four Profound Weaves, and Who Fears Death. 

(Goodreads book profile here)


My Review:

Novellas have this peculiar innate power that always takes my breath away. They read succinctly—the shorter word count demands a scarcity of words, after all—yet there is such depth to unpack behind this succinctness that it can feel quite daunting as a reader to delve into.

Naseem Jamnia’s The Bruising of Qilwa also has this depth.

Plot and prose take a backseat in this book, thus allowing character, world, and thematic resonance to be the driving forces that hook the reader to the pages.

For starters, this is a book that includes minorities of all kinds. Ethnic minorities, sexual minorities, linguistic minorities, immigrant minorities, cultural minorities, religious minorities, political minorities—all types of minorities. The representation is thorough and consistent, and while we are dealing with minority groups, Jamnia still makes the world feel inclusive to the reader. Natural. As it should be. A large part of this is thanks to the great characterization of the nonbinary refugee main character, Firuz, and the way that we view the world through their eyes.

This is an extremely political book, at its depth, meaning it’s largely about the power of the individual within a group and how groupthink starts with the individual. We have an ideological clash in Qilwa (the main setting) that paints nobody a hero or a villain. Instead, the book invites us to consider the rise and the fall of power. Specifically, it invites us to discuss what it means to be an oppressed people when you were once an oppressor yourself. Jamnia derives from their own Persian heritage for this discussion, presenting the compelling answer of putting aside judgment and joining migrants (and other marginalized people) in creating a brighter tomorrow that isn’t built on fear and otherness.

To this end, the plot of the book is centered on the question of family. Of blood, as the title indicates. Firuz is a refugee practitioner who heals with blood magic. In the world that Jamnia has created, magic has a scientific basis. Magic is, in short, energy. It operates like energy. The transfer of energy becomes magic. In using the energy of their own blood, Furiz can heal the blood of others, for example. There are other types of magic as well. Structural and environmental. And they are all based on the principle of energy transfer.

The plot specifically revolves around stimulated/magicked parasitical blood that can kill (think an autoimmune disease), warping bodies to stay active even after (brain) death has occurred—and that’s all the spoilers I’ll give you.

Lastly, I want to talk about thematic resonance. I want to do so by bringing the title of the book into play. This book is about how blood bruises you—both literally and figuratively. It’s about bruises. About healing. It’s about whether you should hide your blood or use it for good at the risk of pain. It’s about what happens when a minority of any kind is not allowed to be at their best, to offer their best as they want to offer it, and to use their best to help others become better as well.

You will love this book if you enjoy thematic resonance and a character-driven plot, but you might find yourself less entranced if you’re looking for a twisty and unpredictable plot. What truly shines here, as far as I am concerned, is the theme, the world, and the characters.


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