Zhara (Guardians of Dawn: Book 1) by S. Jae-Jones

Publisher: St. Martin’s Press, Wednesday Books

Date of publication: August 1st, 2023

Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult, Young Adult Fantasy, Fiction, Mythology, High Fantasy, Romance, Magic, Asian Literature, Retellings

Series: Guardians of Dawn

Zhara—Book 1

Purchase Links: Kindle | Audible | B&N | AbeBooks | WorldCat

Goodreads Synopsis:

Sailor Moon meets Cinder in Guardians of Dawn: Zhara, the start of a new, richly imagined fantasy series from S. Jae-Jones, the New York Times bestselling author of Wintersong.

Magic flickers.
Love flames.
Chaos reigns.

Magic is forbidden throughout the Morning Realms. Magicians are called abomination, and blamed for the plague of monsters that razed the land twenty years before.

Jin Zhara already had enough to worry about—appease her stepmother’s cruel whims, looking after her blind younger sister, and keeping her own magical gifts under control—without having to deal with rumors of monsters re-emerging in the marsh. But when a chance encounter with an easily flustered young man named Han brings her into contact with a secret magical liberation organization called the Guardians of Dawn, Zhara realizes there may be more to these rumors than she thought. A mysterious plague is corrupting the magicians of Zanhei and transforming them into monsters, and the Guardians of Dawn believe a demon is responsible.

In order to restore harmony and bring peace to the world, Zhara must discover the elemental warrior within, lest the balance between order and chaos is lost forever.

First Line:

The rent was due, rodents had gotten into the rice, and Zhara had just dumped a bag of salt instead of sugar into the custard filling.

Zhara (Guardians of Dawn) by S. Jae-Jones

Jin Zhara’s life hasn’t been easy. Her mother died as a baby, her father was taken and killed in a purge of magicians, and she is treated horribly by Second Wife, her father’s second wife. She also has to hide that she has magical powers. Her only joy is tending to her blind younger sister, reading romance serials, and working at the apothecary shop. But that will change when she bumps into a young man named Han. Through him, Zhara discovers that a plague corrupts the magician’s powers and turns them into unrecognizable monsters. She also finds the secret organization, the Guardians of Dawn, sworn to help the surviving magicians and discover what caused the plague. Zhara doesn’t know or understand that she is instrumental in balancing order and chaos. But Zhara must learn to control her magical abilities, or the world as she knows will be lost. Can Zhara do that? Can Zhara learn to control her magical powers and save the world?

When I got the email containing the widget for Zhara, I was pleasantly surprised. I had read Wintersong a couple of years ago and enjoyed it (which, it turns out, puts me in the minority). I accepted the invitation and downloaded the book. Also, what figured into my downloading the book was that I love the mythology and lore of South Korea. Seeing that this book is loosely based on those myths and lore, I knew I needed to read it.

Before I get further into the book, I want to put up some trigger and content warnings. The warnings are:

  1. Child abuse (off-page but prevalent. It consists of emotional, verbal, and physical)
  2. Genocide (off-page and vividly remembered by everyone in the book)
  3. Death of parents (Zahara’s mother died of a fever when she was a baby, and her father was killed in the genocide of the magicians in the land. Han’s mother was also killed during that same genocide)
  4. Possession (on and off page. Demons possess the living bodies of magicians and transform them)
  5. Body Horror (Zhara, without permission, used magic to try to help Suzhan (her stepsister). Instead, she ended up blinding her sister)
  6. Abelism (Second Wife shames Suzhan constantly for being blind. Suzhan’s suitors discard her after discovering she is blind.)

If any of these trigger you, I suggest not reading the book.

Zhara is the first book in the Guardians of Dawn series. Here is where I post if this book is a standalone or if you need to read the other books in the series. But since this is the first book in a new series, you can disregard anything I usually say.

The author has a forward explaining how this book is loosely based on Korean mythology and lore. She also apologizes for any inconsistencies that arise because of it. It was a very tongue-in-cheek forward, and it did make me smile.

There are three storylines in Zhara. One follows Zhara, her introduction to the Guardians of Dawn, and her home life. The other storyline follows Han and his search for a book, Songs of Order and Chaos, and the shenanigans he and Xu get into. Towards the middle of the book, Han and Zhara’s storylines merge, following them as they look for a cure for the plague and figure out who was behind it. All of these storylines were wonderfully written and could keep my attention.

I loved the characters in Zhara. I found them all to be complex characters. Some of these characters had more depth, more layers, to them than what the author had written.

The storyline following Zhara, the Guardians of Dawn, and her home life broke my heart. I was beyond angry at Second Wife and her treatment of those girls. She kept reminding Zhara that she kept her safe from the Kestrels and that she houses and feeds her. The abuse that both Zhara and Suzhan went through (even if it wasn’t on page) was awful. But, at the same time, I liked that Zhara started to see herself as more than Second Wife’s property (even though she wasn’t). Her character growth during the book was terrific. It reached a head during the battle scene, where she faced and overcame her demons (literally).

The storyline following Han, Xu, and their shenanigans did give a bit of a comedic break between Zahra’s chapters. But, there was a darker undercurrent running underneath. Han and his brother were forced to watch their mother die because she was a magician. Before she died, Han’s mother made him promise to take care of his brother, who was a magician himself. It was a lot to put on an 11-year-old, but he did it. He ensured his brother was kept safe from the Kestrels at all costs. His friendship with Xu was one of the best I have ever read. The search for the book became a backdrop when Han and Zahara’s storyline merged.

The storyline following Han, Zhara, the plague, the reason for the plague, and the search for the book was interesting. I liked that Zhara slowly started to accept that she was worthy of her power and love. There was a part that I wasn’t fond of. It was the engagement of Han and Yuli. This brings me to another thing I didn’t like: Han keeping who he was from Zhara. It made that scene where she finds out heartbreaking.

The fantasy angle of the book was wonderful. The author created a world that, while similar to ancient Korea, was different. I liked that magic was something people were born with. I also loved that there were antimagicians. I wasn’t expecting that revelation, and who was revealed to be one.

There is an LGBTQIA rep in the book, and I loved how the author wrote those characters. Xu was gender-neutral. I loved their personality and their friendship with Han. They were like Jiminy Cricket was to Pinnochio with Han: a voice of reason. Yuli, who is introduced later in the book, is lesbian. She isn’t exactly loud and proud, but she doesn’t hide it either.

The end of Zhara was interesting. The battle scene and what happened while Zhara was in the Void was anti-climatic. But Zhara needed it. The fallout from that battle was widespread but needed. Also, something shocking happened, something that I didn’t see coming. The author did wrap up most of the storylines but left a few hanging. That makes sense if there is going to be a second book. Also, the epilogue was fascinating, and I can’t wait to find out if that person is a friend or foe.

I would recommend Zhara to anyone over 16. There is no language, but there is violence and a couple of kissing scenes. Also, see my trigger warning list.

Many thanks to St. Martin’s Press, Wednesday Books, NetGalley, and S. Jae-Jones for allowing me to read and review Zhara. All opinions stated in this review are mine.

If you enjoy reading books similar to Zhara, then you will enjoy these books:

Other books by S. Jae-Jones:

The Comeback by Lily Chu

Publisher: Sourcebooks Casablanca

Date of publication: May 9th, 2023

Genre: Romance, Contemporary, Fiction, Contemporary Romance, Chick Lit, Adult, Canada, Adult Fiction, Asian Literature

Trigger Warning: Racism

Purchase Links: Kindle | Audible | B&N | Kobo

Goodreads Synopsis:

Who is Ariadne Hui?

• Laser-focused lawyer diligently climbing the corporate ladder
• The “perfect” daughter living out her father’s dream
• Shocking love interest of South Korea’s hottest star

Ariadne Hui thrives on routine. So what if everything in her life is planned down to the minute: That’s the way she likes it. If she’s going to make partner in Toronto’s most prestigious law firm, she needs to stay focused at all times.

But when she comes home after yet another soul-sucking day to find an unfamiliar, gorgeous man camped out in her living room, focus is the last thing on her mind. Especially when her roommate explains this is Choi Jihoon, her cousin freshly arrived from Seoul to mend a broken heart. He just needs a few weeks to rest and heal; Ari will barely even know he’s there. (Yeah, right.)

Jihoon is kindness and chaos personified, and it isn’t long before she’s falling, hard. But when one wrong step leads to a world-shaking truth, Ari finds herself thrust onto the world stage: not as the competent, steely lawyer she’s fought so hard to become, but as the mystery woman on the arm of a man the entire world claims to know. Now with her heart, her future, and her sense of self on the line, Ari will have to cut through all the pretty lies to find the truth of her relationship…and discover the Ariadne Hui she’s finally ready to be.

First Line:

When my phone flashes a notification, I’m primed to be irritated before I even see what it is. It’s been a busy morning, and my eyes were so dry my eyelids stick together when I drag my gaze away from the moniter.

The Comeback by Lily Chu

Ariadne Hui is living what she thinks is her best life. She is a lawyer at one of the most prestigious firms in Toronto and thrives on routine. That changes when her roommate (and best friend) invites her cousin to stay for a few weeks. He had a bad breakup in South Korea and needs a place to lay low while he heals. Her roommate forgot to tell Ari, and she freaked out; she came home to a strange man sleeping on her sofa. But, as she got to know Choi Jihoon, she realized he was a sweet man who had been badly hurt. Soon, Ari falls for Jihoon. But Jihoon isn’t precisely who Ari thinks he is, and she is shocked to find out who Jihoon is. With rumors and lies swirling around her, can Ari cut through everything and see what she has? Or will she give everything up because she can’t handle who Jihoon is?

The Comeback is a fast-paced book that takes place mainly in Toronto, with Ari traveling to Seoul towards the middle of the book with Jihoon. She spends a couple of chapters there before traveling back home. I was thrilled that the author had some of the book set in Seoul, but at the same time, I was a little disappointed. There needed to be more travel (which I get because of Jihoon’s KPop idol status) around the country. I did like that the author took us to some off-the-beaten-track places in Toronto. It made that city more appealing and made me want to visit.

There are trigger warnings in The Comeback. They are:

  1. Racism: Hana, Jihoon, and Ari are subjected to overt and not-so-overt racism throughout the book. Some of the best examples come while Ari is working at the firm. The white daughter of a woman who is friends with the partners is picked over Ari for cases. That woman is tone-deaf regarding Ari’s race (she is Chinese), and there is a conversation with another coworker that Ari overhears talking about her race.

The main storyline of The Comeback centers around Ari, her journey of self-discovery, and her relationship with Jihoon. At the beginning of the book, Ari is a workaholic lawyer doing everything to make a partner in her firm. But, it was very apparent early on in the book that it wouldn’t happen. The overt and not-so-overt racism (looking at you Brittany and Meredith) was sad and even sadder that Ari thought she had to deal with it quietly. She found joy in planning trips, and she was good at it. But she felt she couldn’t do it as a job because she needed to follow in her father’s footsteps. I did feel awful for her because of all that pressure she kept putting on herself. It took Jihoon scaring her and then living with her to open her eyes to the fact that there might be more to life than her job. And it wasn’t until after Seoul, when her boss fired her for dating a KPop idol, that she realized she could do what she loved. Her relationship with Jihoon was based on a lie, and then Jihoon told her to keep it a secret. She did the right thing the last time she broke up with him.

I like Ari, even if she did come across as a rigid workaholic at the beginning of the book. It is explained that she felt that if she did what Ari loved (planning trips), she would let her father down. She also was furious at her sister for leaving her with that burden. Her relationship with Jihoon was a huge turning point for her character. I didn’t blame her for being angry or not knowing what she wanted when having a relationship with him. She also understood the need for secrecy. But when everything blew up (because of a picture) and what Jihoon said to take care of the backlash, I was on her side. I would have done the same thing as she did. What Jihoon did was demeaning and gave their relationship zero value. But, in a way, it did work for her. She was able to get out of that toxic work environment and start a career that she loved. She could heal from Jihoon’s actions and accept that higher powers controlled him. Of course, I wasn’t a fan of what she did next, but I figured it would happen sooner or later, with this being a romance novel.

I liked Jihoon a lot. He had spent almost his whole life under a microscope and was suffering from burnout. So, he jetted to Canada and ended up crashing with Ari. In the beginning, he was the perfect blend of innocent and worldly. He loved talking about his shoe and earring collection (at this point, Ari had zero clue he was in a KPop band). He tried to do things himself but failed massively (turning Ari’s bathroom blue was freaking amazing). My only issue is that he lied by omission. When his cover was blown (in a grocery store, of all places), he had to tell Ari who he was. He didn’t tell her until she was forced to leave her home and go into hiding. Then he left for Seoul. When Ari met him there, he explained more about his life (he had zero downtime, everything was scheduled). He also told her he didn’t want to be in the band anymore (neither did his other bandmates), but their contract held them. Then Jihoon and Ari are spotted as tourists, and everything goes to hell. Jihoon told Ari that he would take care of everything and for her to trust him. I didn’t like him at this point in the book because of what Jihoon did. He broke Ari. But he also set her free (if that makes sense). The daily emails (along with the apology) were a step in the right direction.

I liked Jihoon and Ari’s romance, even if it started with a lie and was kept secret until Seoul. You could tell that Jihoon adored Ari and that Ari adored him back. It was sweet. I liked that the author kept the sex scenes PG-13. There was a lot of kissing with the chapter ending and the next one beginning with them in bed. And let’s not forget the sexual tension between Ari and Jihoon. You cut it with a knife during some parts of the book.

The end of The Comeback felt rushed. I liked that Jihoon and Ari got their happy ending. But I didn’t buy that the band’s rabid fans did a 180 when it came to their relationship. It didn’t make sense to me (considering they hated her). That was my only quibble. I did love the epilogue!!!

I recommend The Comeback for anyone over 16. There are nongraphic sex scenes (lots of kissing), mild violence, and language. There are also some scenes of overt and not-so-overt racism.

Many thanks to Sourcebooks Casablanca, NetGalley, and Lily Chu for allowing me to read and review The Comeback. All opinions stated in this review are mine.

If you enjoyed reading this review of The Comeback, then you will enjoy reading these books:

Other books by Lily Chu