8

Erin Morgenstern – The Night Circus

It is no secret that The Night Circus was a NaNoWriMo novel that was whipped into shape so it could be published. If you ask me, it wasn’t whipped nearly enough because as pretty as the images painted by Morgenstern’s prose may be, there is very little that makes the novel readable or worthwhile…

night circusTHE NIGHT CIRCUS
by Erin Morgenstern

Published by: Vintage, 2012 (2011)
Paperback:  512 pages
Standalone
My rating: 4/10

First sentence: The circus arrives without warning.

In this mesmerizing debut, a competition between two magicians becomes a star-crossed love story.
The circus arrives at night, without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within nocturnal black and white striped tents awaits a unique experience, a feast for the senses, where one can get lost in a maze of clouds, meander through a lush garden made of ice, stand awestruck as a tattooed contortionist folds herself into a small glass box, and gaze in wonderment at an illusionist performing impossible feats of magic.
Welcome to Le Cirque des Rêves. Beyond the smoke and mirrors, however, a fierce competition is underway–a contest between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood to compete in “a game,” in which each must use their powers of illusion to best the other. Unbeknownst to them, this game is a duel to the death, and the circus is but the stage for a remarkable battle of imagination and will.

divider1I have asked myself many times, while reading this book, why I was still bothering. What plot was I following, which character did I care about? The answer to both questions is: none. The night circus is as vivid and stunning as its various book covers. But that’s the only thing that makes this book even remotely readable.

Morgenstern chose style over substance in every single chapter. Her descriptions of each of the circus tents, of the wonders created by the “rival magicians” Celia and Marco are imaginative and pretty much make you want to go there. But despite all its black and white glamour, the wonders untold, the stunning feats of its acrobats, the circus is a setting, nothing more. If you don’t fill it with interesting people, why should I keep reading?

I won’t list the many little ideas that the author has put into her magical circus. Be assured that they are beautiful and evocative, and they do exactly what they’re supposed to. I felt a sense of longing, of wanting to go to the circus and try a caramelised apple, see the Murray twins’ performance with their kittens, get lost in the labyrinth. So there is a lot to discover in The Night Circus, but unfortunately it is all description.

Take the characters that exist in this story. Celia and Marco, two magicians pitted against each other, fall in love. That’s the premise and it sounds great with its Romeo and Juliet vibe. Both of them, however, remain such pale cardboard creatures that I couldn’t have cared less if they fall in love or into a river and drown. I am serious. They remain distant and unknowable, and maybe that’s on purpose, but to keep the protagonists of your story this far away from your readers is a mistake, in my opinion. Aren’t I supposed to feel with them? To be desperately in love and want to be together, not fight a magic war that started generations before they were born? The way it is, we see little enough of them and when we do, all we get is a short glimpse that doesn’t tell us much about their personality. They are only what they need to be for Erin Morgenstern’s dream circus to exist. They make the circus, keep it going, adding more and more extravagant tents. Oh yes, and then they fall in love (or so we’re told) and that’s that.

The only character I connected with in any sort of way was Bailey, a young boy who falls in love with the circus as a kid and waits for it to come back for years and years. He has a back story, he has a family. It isn’t a vast backstory and, apart from his passion for Le Cirque des Rêves, there isn’t all that much to him, but at least we get SOMETHING. Tsukiko, the contortionist, is supposed to be important at the end, but apparently wasn’t worth the time putting a few words down on paper before that. She has no personality whatsoever and don’t tell me that the few paragraphs we get at the end make up for anything. I am especially angry because she could have been awesome. Poppet and Widget feel a little more real in that they do childish things when they are children. But I’m referring to one single, lonely chapter among many that are filled with descriptions over descriptions of – you guessed it – the circus and its many marvels.

nigth circus detail

Another unnecessary and utterly confusing device was the jumping in time. No matter how much I think about it, I can’t see a good reason for jumping back and forth – sometimes a year, sometimes a few days – between chapters. Keeping dates in your head is annoying enough when you have to for school but remembering a date from five chapters ago where this or that happened and connecting it with what you’re reading now, but which is happening five months prior, is just confusing. Look, I am not stupid, and I enjoy a challenge – non-linear novels can be brilliant, if done well. But giving away which characters die only to then jump back in time and describe things that have nothing to do with their death whatsoever, just makes no sense. “Oh, by the way, that person dies – now let’s go back a few years to a shiny tent where you climb around clouds. That character who dies, you ask? They don’t feature in this chapter. Or the next. Or the one after that.” The time jumps were useless at best, and off-putting at worst. This convoluted type of non-linear storytelling failed at whatever it was trying to do. It didn’t create suspense, it didn’t foreshadow – it just annoyed. The alternating characters were a more logical device and made more sense, as we see the circus through different eyes.

At about 80% through the novel, finally something of interest happens. The circus itself is in danger! Conflict! Problems! That’s what stories are all about, doesn’t everybody know that? These problems were resolved pretty quickly and sloppily but at least the characters had to do something. It made absolutely no sense, the ending is a loose affair but I had to mention this single occasion of actual plot just because it came so out of the blue and was in such stark contrast to the rest of this novel. At this point, I had long stopped trying to make any of the puzzle pieces fit together. Clearly, the author didn’t care, so why should I hurt my brain by trying to infuse sense into a “novel” that didn’t make any?

Erin Morgenstern has great ideas, even if you don’t count her visual design of the circus. Celia’s relationship with her father could have been intriguing. But, again, it was left on the sidelines and had no impact on anything, really. The two rivals who started the game – namely, Celia’s father and his opponent, merely exist in that particular role. They are gentlemen rivals and they each picked a champion to compete. We don’t know why, we don’t know what happens when either one wins, it’s like a Hollywood reason for having shiny things. Never mind reason or background, if we want sparkly magic and rooms made of ice, we will damn well have them. Oh and then let’s throw some pretty people in, they don’t have to talk. Just look hot and kiss occasionally.

There is so little plot or substance to this novel that I am astounded at how well it did when it came out. Granted, it would make an excellent Tim Burton movie but even then the script writers would have to come up with a plot (ANY plot). If they ever do make a movie of this, I’ll definitely go and see it, simply because the circus must be an impressive thing to look at. But I can promise you that, in a week, I will have forgotten every single character’s name as well as their roles. They are so unimportant to this ode-to-a-place that, at best, I’ll remember their clothes. As to who they are as people… I have no idea, and I suspect neither does the author.

RATING: 4/10  -  Not so good.

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3

Ekaterina Sedia – The Alchemy of Stone

Reading books by new (to me) authors has been paying off big time. Ekaterina Sedia definitely made me curious and eager for her other books. But, as sometimes happens, I still don’t quite know how I feel about The Alchemy of Stone. I loved  most of it, I was indifferent at times, then I loved it again. But I don’t think I’ve ever read anything quite like it and that alone made it worthwile.

alchemy-of-stoneTHE ALCHEMY OF STONE
by Ekaterina Sedia

Published by: Prime Books, 2008
Ebook: 304 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence: We scale the rough bricks of the building’s facade.

Mattie, an intelligent automaton skilled in the use of alchemy, finds herself caught in the middle of a conflict between gargoyles, the Mechanics, and the Alchemists. With the old order quickly giving way to the new, Mattie discovers powerful and dangerous secrets—secrets that can completely alter the balance of power in the city of Ayona. This doesn’t sit well with Loharri, the Mechanic who created Mattie and still has the key to her heart—literally.

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For a relatively short book, The Alchemy of Stone is crammed full of amazing ideas and characters. This is both a strength and a weakness. When I picked up the book (lying in bed with the stomach flu) I expected to get a little taste of what Sedia’s style was like. In no time at all, I had read more than half the book and didn’t plan on stopping there.

Mattie, an intelligent automaton, lives in the city of Ayona, a place that was so vibrant and alive that it reminded me – at first – of the little towns we sometimes see in Ghibli movies. Red-shingled roofs on pretty little stone houses, smoke coming out of fireplaces, the market filled with delicious smells and the voices of people… except here, steam-powered machines are omnipresent. They clear the streets,  the do hard labor, they are a means of transportation. This picturesque setting and the hard, metal bodies of steampunk automatons went surprisingly well together. Ekaterina Sedia particularly likes describing smells – a sense that is usually underrepresented in fiction – and I suspect that it aided in bringing the city to life so quickly. Ayona has a cute feel to it in the beginning, until you discover the underlying tension and political intrigues.

The story begins when the city’s gargoyles, silent but powerful creators of its magnificent stone buildings, come to Mattie’s workshop for help. They are slowly turning more and more to stone, losing their ability to move and think, and Mattie’s alchemy is their only hope. I have a soft spot for gargoyles anyway, and these were surrounded by myth and legend, which added to their strange distance to the people of Ayona. The gargoyles are a group but they seem to think and act as one. We never get a clear answer as to who or what they are and that suited me just fine. Not all secrets need to be revealed.

alchemy of stone italianBut it was the other characters that I was really interested in. Mattie herself has to deal with being an emancipated automaton but also identifying as a woman. Her maker, Loharri, built her to have feelings – pain, friendship, love, desire. She is fairly independet and lives her life happily, if it weren’t for the fact that the key to her clockwork heart still rests in the hands of Loharri. Until Mattie owns that key, she will never truly be free. Being ignored and seen only as a machine is almost secondary to that. Wanting to be able to love somebody is another matter yet. Following Mattie was a bittersweet experience, to say the least.

Loharri, Mattie’s maker, fascinated me to no end. I would have loved to see more of him, to find out more about his past, and about why he made Mattie the way she is. He is at the same time a father figure and a tyrant but the author never forgets to also paint him as a man with his own hopes and dreams. When Mattie befriends a dark-skinned alchemist named Niobe, I couldn’t get enough of those two together. They cautiously get to know each other, teaching the other what they know about alchemy, bonding over magical potions and homunculi. Niobe also gave the author a chance to explore the city’s racism through a more personal lens.

Now the Soul-Smoker is something else! Introduced very early in the story, I fell in love with this character immediately. A man who smokes the souls of the deceased in an opium pipe and keeps them contained within himself until he dies. This tortured man embraces Mattie’s friendship because Mattie – as an automaton – doesn’t have a soul and can safely come near him without fear. Although we do see quite a bit of him, I still wanted to find out more about him and the other brilliant characters. They all have a past, some of them harbor dark secrets, they each have a story to tell. One which I didn’t get to read because it wasn’t essential to the main plot. And this is where I wouldn’t have minded a few chapters that don’t advance the story but simply show some aspect of Niobe, Loharri, the Soul-Smoker or even Sebastian, the mechanic in hiding whom Mattie takes a fancy to.

The Alchemy of Stone shows many glimpses of great things. The problem I had was that most of them are explored only a little bit when I would have liked to delve in deeper. We learn of the political unrest and the class difference that caused it, but it all seems to happen on the sidelines. The same goes for the blatant racism of the enforcers, or for Mattie’s identity. There is one scene, when Mattie may or may not be in love, where her otherness becomes a true obstacle. After all, if you are made of smooth metal and wood, how could you ever have sex? What kind of cruel creature would give you the desire but not the abilty? Mattie has taste and smell sensors, but her face is a static mask. She can be kissed and feel it, but, needless to say, it’s not really the same. That scene was probably the most emotional of the entire book for me. As for the other issues, I would have liked if this had been a bigger book that spent more time building on the ideas and putting them in the center rather than just a throwaway sentence here or there.

alchemy of stoneI cannot find fault with the world-building or the writing style. It has been ages since I gobbled up a book in one day and it goes to show how much I loved Sedia’s voice. But when certain characters died, I felt more like a scientist looking into a microscope. Aah, now that’s interesting, rather than Oh my God, why did you have to die?! Emotionally, the characters remained at arm’s length and that took away from the impact the later events would have had. The ending was sad and wonderful and depressing and hopeful all at once but, again, strangely distant. I know intellectually that this is a good story. I just didn’t feel with the characters as much as I would have liked.

However, not every book has to rip your heart out and leave you in tears and in this case, it may have been a choice by the author – after all, we do see the events unfold through a robot’s eyes. An intelligent machine is nothing if not distant from what we are as humans. I was hooked enough to finish the book really quickly and still want more. The Alchemy of Stone was a strange little story that I would recommend in a heartbeat with the small reservation not to expect any Robin Hobb style scenes of heartbreak.

MY RATING: 7,5/10  -  Very good

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0

Lauren Beukes – Broken Monsters

Lauren Beukes just blew me away with last year’s The Shining Girls, so naturally I jumped at the invitation to read an ARC of her latest novel. This was such an amazing book and probably the first novel I ever read that felt truly contemporary in its use of social media. Lots of love ahead.

broken monstersBROKEN MONSTERS
by Lauren Beukes

Published by: Mulholland Books, 2014
Ebook: 448 pages
Standalone
My rating: 9/10

First sentence: The body. The-body-the-body-the-body, she thinks.

IN A BROKEN CITY, A DISTURBED KILLER IS TRYING TO REMAKE THE WORLD IN HIS IMAGE.
Detective Gabriella Versado has seen a lot of bodies. But this one is unique even by Detroit’s standards: half-boy, half-deer, somehow fused together. And it’s only the first.
As winter closes in on Detroit, strange and disturbing corpses start turning up in unusual places, pulling several lives into the killer’s orbit.
Gabi has to juggle the most harrowing case of her career with being a single mom to her troubled teen daughter Layla.
Layla, egged on by her best friend Cas, is playing a dangerous game with an online predator.
Broken Monsters is a dark and gripping thriller about the death of the American Dream, online fame, creativity, compromise and the undercurrents of the world we live in right now.

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I’m not a big reader of horror novels or, indeed, anything other than fantasy and science fiction. Lauren Beukes has been settled fairly well into the SFF genre, but The Shining Girls was much more horror than science fiction (if you forget about the part where the serial killer is also a time-traveller). It goes to show that trying out new things is usually a good idea – at least if it leads people like me to authors like Lauren Beukes.

Broken Monsters is many things. A police procedural about hunting down a serial killer, a portrait of Detroit, a psycho-thriller, and a healthy dose of reality. Because it was so fantastically done, let met talk about that bit first.

Among the protagonists is Detective Versado’s teenage daughter, Layla. She and her best friend are  probably the most realistic teenagers I’ve ever read about. They clearly live in our time, although there are no mentions of what year the story is set it. They use facebook, know about reddit and 4chan, hell, youtube has a huge influence on their lives. The internet is often forgotten or boiled down in fiction. Like a fictional universe – whether it’s on TV or in a novel – only has those parts of the internet that are useful to the story (i.e. Wikipedia or Google) but none of the ugly sides. Truth is, and we all know this, the internet as a whole doesn’t have rules. It doesn’t have ethis. Once something bad is out there, you can never ever get rid of it completely. And these ones and zeroes somewhere on a server have real influence on people’s lives. Lauren Beukes does an A-MA-ZING job portraying this. And she doesn’t overdo it. Her characters sometimes speak in memes, but only as far as is realistic and believable. Layla regrets calling her cat NyanCat, for example, and her mother still makes fun of her for it. I won’t spoil anything but let’s just say that the internet (and the hunt for likes, views, or reddit gold) is a major player in this story, as it is in most of our lives. I wish more authors took that into consideration.

broken monsters international editions

Joey Hi-Fi cover (South African edition) for the win!

I’ve already talked about Layla in terms of her grounding the story in a certain time, but she is much more than that. She and her best friend Cas do stupid things, as teenagers will. Layla’s mother also happens to be on the case of the Detroit Monster, a serial killer who combines animals with human remains, to create “artwork” – or so we assume. Here’s the next surprise: I also never considered myself a fan of police procedurals but, boy, was I glued to the pages when reading about the investigation for the Detroit Monster. I could have spent hours and hours at the police station, following every single deputy on his or her part of the investigation. It was just all so damn interesting! Then again, maybe Lauren Beukes is just one hell of a great writer (yes… yes, she is).

The other characters – Jonno, the “citizen’s journalist”; TK, the homeless man with a horrible past; Clayton, the sculptor whose mind is decaying – were also vivid and very different types of people. Clayton’s chapters constantly sent chills down my back, I empathised with TK, and I kind of hated Jonno for the attention-seeking, greedy fuck-up that he is. On the other hand, I understood them all. There are no good or bad guys here. Every single character makes mistakes, every one of them does something good(ish). And you can’t know whether their next decision will be good or bad.

Lastly, the city of Detroit needs to be mentioned as a character in its own right. It came to life mostly through Jonno’s chapters, and gave me a real sense of being there. From graffiti artists to hipster coffee shops, to ruined buildings and soup kitchens for the homeless, we get to see a lot of the city, and not just through the eyes of someone who’s lived there all their life. You might think this was just the author cramming in exposition to create a nice setting, but it’s all relevant to the plot – which makes the book so amazing.

broken monsters coverThe writing is so on point, I really don’t know what else to say about it. Just like in The Shining Girls, Lauren Beukes doesn’t need 50-page chapters to set a scene, develop a character, and push the plot forward. It’s all done so effortlessly. There was not a single chapter, not even a page, that bored me or took me out of the plot. This is one of those books that you sink into and don’t come up for air until you’re done. Beukes also effortlessly wrote a cast of characters that represent groups of people who don’t get to shine much in SFF. Most of the characters are black or Mexican or biracial, one has diabetes – a trait that doesn’t take over the plot but stays present, nonetheless – one is homeless, and several have suffered through events that would give anyone PTSD. None of the characters are defined by their race or disability or past, but it follows them around wherever they go. Of course it influences their daily life. I loved reading about all of them and I loved seeing so much diversity in a book that is, ostentatiously, just about a crazy serial killer who glues together animals with humans.

There is one thing to be said about having the stomach flu – if you have to stay in bed all day, might as well bring a fantastic book. So take a weekend and make sure you have no appointments. Once you start reading, you’ll gobble this up, no interruptions allowed! I’m still in awe and can’t wait to see what Beukes does next.

RATING: 9/10  – Close to perfection

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When I am this much of a fangirl, I like to offer second opinions for you guys:

2

Jaida Jones & Danielle Bennett – Shadow Magic

When I read Havemercy last year, I was pleasantly surprised. The cover and blurb were highly misleading but the type of book I ended up getting was just up my alley, the characters so interesting that I knew I wanted to discover more of that world of iron dragons and magicians. Shadow Magic is similar in tone and focus, but it takes place in the Ke-Han empire, a place somewhat based on feudal Japan/China.

shadow magicSHADOW MAGIC
by Jaida Jones & Danielle Bennett

Published by: Spectra, 2009
ebook: 464 pages
Series: Metal Dragons #2
My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence: On the seventh and final day of mourning for the loss of the war, my brother Iseul came to my chambers to tell me that our father was dead.

Led to victory by its magic-fueled Dragon Corps, Volstov has sent a delegation to its conquered neighbors to work out the long-awaited terms of peace. Among those in the party are the decorated war hero General Alcibiades and the formerly exiled magician Caius Greylace. But even this mismatched pair can’t help but notice that their defeated enemies aren’t being very cooperative. The hidden truth is that the new emperor is harboring a treacherous secret—and once it is revealed, Alcibiades and Caius may be powerless to stop it.

With their only ally an exiled prince now fleeing his brother’s assassins, the countryside rife with terror, and Alcibiades and Caius all but prisoners, it will take the most powerful kind of magic to heal the rift between two strife-worn lands and unite two peoples against a common enemy: shadow magic.

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Shadow Magic continues where Havemercy left off, although with a different set of characters. The war is won and the Esar sends a delegation of wizards and diplomats to the Ke-Han court in order to work out the details of the peace treaty. Quiet and grumpy Alcibiades is not happy to be paired up with the flamboyant young Caius Greylace who seems to stick his nose into anything, whether it’s his business or not. But Caius is what he gets and, after many fights about appropriate clothing and Ke-Han food, a sort of friendship develops between the two unlikely companions.

The two remaining protagonists are the younger prince, Mamoru, and his loyal servant Kouje. Once the new emperor Iseul declares Mamoru a traitor, Kouje takes matters into his own hands and gets the prince out of the palace. They spend most of the novel as fugitives. Hunting rabbits in the forest and sleeping on the naked ground are not the worst things prince and servant have to deal with, however. For Kouje, trained from childhood to serve his master, it is almost worse that he suddenly has to treat Mamoru like an equal. Or – on some occasions – as beneath him in status. The Ke-Han take their duty and honor very seriously and I think the authors did a fantastic job in conveying just how deep these beliefs are ingrained in their culture. Mamoru himself is a lovable young man who has to deal not only with the death of his father and the loss of the war, but also the betrayal of his own brother.

shadowmagic

My favorite part, though, was the dynamic between Alcibiades and Caius. The constant bickering, the annoyance on Alcibiades’ part and the Caius’ “oh, my dear”s made for great humor in an otherwise serious book. When two characters seem so unfit for each other’s friendship, ever little gesture doubles in meaning. Alcibiades, for example, refuses to politely wear blue – the traditional Ke-Han colour – and continues to appear to formal dinners in Volstovic red. So Caius, in an attempt at friendship, has robes made in red for himself to show loyalty, or affection, or… who knows what really toward Alcibiades. Theirs is an interesting relationship because I never knew quite where I stood with Caius. His flamboyant openness was infectious and made me just as eager to get to know Ke-Han culture as he was himself.

I loved discovering art and food and theater with Caius and the Ke-Han warlord Temur. The fact that the diplomats react differently to, say, Ke-Han cuisine, was realistic and, at times, amusing. While Caius is eager to learn new things and try what Ke-Han has to offer, Alcibiades would much rather have some traditional Volstov food and people whose faces show emotions.

Shadow Magic may contain some magic at the end, but it is first and foremost a fantasy of manners that examines cultural differences and the things that unite us, no matter how we grew up. It was a lovely experience both for the amazing characters and the world-building. Mamoru and Kouje travel the countryside, showing the readers a world beyond the splendor of the palace and that even within one’s own culture, there are vast differenences between social stations. At the palace, the Volstovic diplomats mostly illustrated what divides Ke-Han culture from Vostolv culture and so the authors draw a beautiful picture of both empires.

Although it is a quiet book whose focus is character development, there are scenes that could be considered action-packed. Alcibiades training sword-fighting with a Ke-Han warlord almost took my breath away. The ending itself is full of action and magic – and maybe because of that, it felt a little rushed. Everything else took such careful planning, such slow developing, that the resolution came almost too quickly. But I’m not complaining, I enjoyed the hell out of this book. Towards the end, a character from Havemercy has a cameo and I’m told the next book brings back two of my favorite protagonists from that novel as well.

Either way, I am nowhere near done exploring this world. Jaida Jones and Danielle Bennett have created a beautiful setting (still with very few women, although we do get Josette who even has some lines) and characters that stick with you. Whether their relationship is romantic in nature or merely platonic, I loved getting to know them and seeing them grow (both personally and on each other). Let’s see what the authors have in store for me with their next book.

RATING: 7,5/10  – very good, leaning towards an 8

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The Metal Dragons/Havemercy Series:

  1. Havemercy
  2. Shadow Magic
  3. Dragon Soul
  4. Steel Hands
5

Terry Pratchett – Mort

Mort was the first Discworld novel I ever read. I still have my old German paperback hidden away in the second row of a shelf somewhere. I was 16 when I first read it and, to say the least, the sparks didn’t really fly. Since then, I have rediscovered the amazingness that is the Discworld, so I thought it was time for a reread (or re-listen, in this case). What I have learned from the experience is that I do not envy the translator/s of these books – transporting Terry Pratchett’s wit into another language must be causing migraines all over the world…

mort1MORT
by Terry Pratchett

Published by: Corgi, 1987
Ebook: 316 pages
Audiobook: 7h 38m
Series: Discworld #4, Death #1
My rating: 7/10

First sentence: This is the bright candlelit room where the lifetimers are stored – shelf upon shelf of them, pouring their fine sand from the future into the past.


It is known as the Discworld. It is a flat planet, supported on the backs of four elephants, who in turn stand on the back of the great turtle A’Tuin as it swims majestically through space. And it is quite possibly the funniest place in all of creation…
Death comes to us all. When he came to Mort, he offered him a job.
After being assured that being dead was not compulsory, Mort accepted. However, he soon found that romantic longings did not mix easily with the responsibilities of being Death’s apprentice

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Mort is a young man who doesn’t quite fit in. When he decides to become an apprentice and learn a trade, people find the most exciting pretexts for not taking him on. So he waits until the fair is over. Until midnight, to be precise. Standing there, when most people have left, still un-apprenticed, Mort’s hope begins to fade. Until a big white horse with a suspiciously skinny rider appears and Mort gets the job as Death’s apprentice.

Many people recommend Mort as a Discworld starter novel and I see why (although I disagree). It is the fourth Discworld novel and the first one to introduce Death as a protagonist. However, and many Pratchett fans will tell you this, the earlier novels aren’t nearly as great as the later ones. I fell in love with the YA novels (The Amazing Maurice and Tiffany Aching) long after I tried the starter novels. Both Mort and Guards! Guards! were fun but, to me, they come from a time when Discworld was still growing and each sub-series was still finding its own voice. And you can read them without any plan or order whatsoever and still get all the fun. To me, reading the witches books after meeting Granny and Nanny in the Tiffany Aching novels, was still brilliant. I didn’t stick with them after reading Equal Rites, the first witches novel, which goes to show that starting at the beginning is not always the best idea.

That said, I adore Death as a character. His deep, booming voice appears right in the heads of people rather than being spoken out loud. It is written in CAPITAL LETTERS, which seems like such a simple trick to convey tone and strength in writing, but it actually works pretty well. Nigel Planer, the narrator of the audiobook, adds a little something extra through his reading of Death. His deep voice delivers Death’s speech as monotone, seemingly without emotions, which makes for hilarious moments, for example when Death COULD MURDER A CURRY.

I enjoyed Mort much more the second time I read it. The audiobook narration is probably as much responsible as my general love for the Discworld, and if you know me, you’ll guess that it’s really the characters that make this book so good. Death personified could have been many things, but Terry Pratchett decided to make the Grim Reaper not all that grim, rather a very strange, ancient being who is trying to learn more about humans. Watching Death learn how to have fun and watching Mort grow more and more into his master was just fascinating.

The story kicks off when Death sends Mort on his first night out alone. Mort knows how to collect souls by now, he can use the scythe, he does the first two jobs really well. For those who have read The Long Earth, there is a bonus appearance of Lobsang which is worth a giggle or two. But when it comes to collecting the soul of princess Keli, Mort’s feelings get in the way. His crush on the pretty girl make him change destiny, despite Death’s warnings that even the smallest change can destroy the entire world. I quite liked the theme of the plot. It puts human emotions, love and empathy, up against the smooth course of the world. If these two collide, whatever happens can’t be good. But how can you go against your own nature? Taking the souls of an old witch and a priest who seems to be re-born over and over again anyway doesn’t seem so bad. But a young girl with most of her life still ahead of her? I believe, even without Mort’s crush, most of us would have qualms doing that particular job.

My favorite Discworld characters will always be the Lancre Witches, but there is a lot to be said for Death as well. Death, Mort, Ysabel, and Albert are subtler personalities than, say, the wizards. You can’t quite put your finger on what Death is thinking any given moment. Mort’s story is a coming-of-age tale, but a very different one from most boys. And Ysabel… well, Ysabel. I vaguely remember disliking her a lot when I first read the book as a teenager. This time, she grew on me so much that I was sad to find out she probably won’t show up as much in the next Death novel. She had great insight into Death’s personality, having lived with him for such a long time and without her, Mort would have been lost on more than one occasion.

The ending was a tad disappointing, in that it went so smoothly. Or maybe that’s just me making excuses. I really grew fond of Mort and Susan and am sad to say goodbye so soon. But, knowing Sir Terry, maybe there will be a cameo or two in one of the other Death novels. I’m about to find out, as I’m already halfway through Reaper Man.

RATING: 7/10 – Very good

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The Death Series (Discworld):

  1. death discworldMort
  2. Reaper Man
  3. Soul Music
  4. Hogfather
  5. Thief of Time
3

Fairy Tale Retelling: Marissa Meyer – Scarlet

It’s been a few years since I read Cinder – the fact that I’ve waited so long to continue the series speaks volumes. While Meyer’s Cinderella retelling was fun and added an interesting twist (Cyborg Cinderella!), the writing was lacking on many levels. But I hate having unread series lying around and I knew this would be a quick read. Scarlet was pretty much exactly what I expected. Not great, not terrible. A kind of guilty pleasure.

scarletSCARLET
by Marissa Meyer

Published by: Feiwel and Friends, 2013
Ebook: 452 pages
Series: The Lunar Chronicles #2
My rating: 5,5/10

First sentence: Scarlet was descending toward the alley behind the Rieux Tavern when her portscreen chimed from the passenger seat, followed by an automated voice: “Comm received for Mademoiselle Benoit from the Toulouse Law Enforcement Department of Missing Persons.”

Cinder, the cyborg mechanic, returns in the second thrilling installment of the bestselling Lunar Chronicles. She’s trying to break out of prison–even though if she succeeds, she’ll be the Commonwealth’s most wanted fugitive. Halfway around the world, Scarlet Benoit’s grandmother is missing. It turns out there are many things Scarlet doesn’t know about her grandmother or the grave danger she has lived in her whole life. When Scarlet encounters Wolf, a street fighter who may have information as to her grandmother’s whereabouts, she is loath to trust this stranger, but is inexplicably drawn to him, and he to her. As Scarlet and Wolf unravel one mystery, they encounter another when they meet Cinder. Now, all of them must stay one step ahead of the vicious Lunar Queen Levana, who will do anything for the handsome Prince Kai to become her husband, her king, her prisoner.

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Scarlet lives on a small farm in the French village of Rieux. When her grandmother disappears and the police do nothing, Scarlet wants to take matters into her own hands. How lucky that the dark and mysterious stranger who just stumbled into town is connected to grand-mère’s dissapearance… Meanwhile, Cinder escapes from prison, dragging along the flamboyant Captain Thorne, on her way to find out more about herself and her past.

The plot in the second Lunar Chronicle book is thin, to say the least, but it does offer a few scenes that make it a worthwhile read. Cinder’s escape from prison and the introduction of Captain Thorne were among my favorite parts of the book. Their bantering and bickering even made me giggle a few times. Scarlet’s plotline, on the other hand, takes ages to get going and ends up as predictable as the big twist in the first book. Of course, a Red Riding Hood retelling has to have the girl fall in love with the wolf. No surprise there. And, if I’m completely honest, the romantic scenes were among the better ones of the entire book. Marissa Meyer managed to create moments of tension while completely adhering to the strange rule of YA romance that people who have known each other for less than a day are already utterly in love. To the point where they’d give up their life for the other person… [insert gigantic eye roll here]

Once the story did kick off though, there were other mysteries to be explored. If you have a character called Wolf who is prone to violence, it’s not very hard to guess what exactly he might be. This is where things are changed up a bit, making for a more interesting story than, say, regular werewolves. A bit more interesting, not anything mind-blowing. Alternating between Cinder, Scarlet, Emperor Kai, and – just once – Queen Levana, it’s easy to keep reading despite the many problems the novel has. It may be very readable, but it is also clearly just a prelude for bigger things to come. Very little of consequence happens during the course of this story, but it does set things up neatly for the next book. Characters are put into positions and put together with other characters in order to make for a (hopefully) better story in book three.

The novel’s biggest flaw is still the writing. Yes, it’s quick and simple and has nice (though unoriginal) dialogue. But hardly anything is learned or discovered without massive amounts of exposition and characters explaining everything to the protagonists. The characters’ actions don’t always make sense, but hey, if you can fall in eternal love with a person after only a day, I’m already questioning your judgement. So their overreactions and strange behavior make sense, I suppose, within the context of the story. Add to that the lack of depth in any and all of the characters and you’ve got a perfect example for a popcorn novel.

After ranting and giving you the reasons why this isn’t a very good book, why did I rate it as “okay”? Shouldn’t it get a “bad” rating? Well, because it is also a lot of fun. It’s fluffy and simple and doesn’t require a lot of thought on the reader’s part. It’s like a Hollywood action movie where you know from the start that the protagonists end up kissing, and of course some form of evil is defeated, leaving the big enemy alive for the sequel. I don’t have a lot to say about Scarlet because there is just so little substance to it, but I can say that if you’re home with the flu and your head is having a hard time concentrating, this might just be the right series for you. Switch off the brain, switch on the movie screen inside your head, and off you go into a world of cyborgs and girls with red hoodies and brooding dark men with hearts of gold.

So did I like it? Yeah, knowing I really shouldn’t, I kind of did. Not enough to read the next book immediately, not even enough to read it this year. But I’m sure the days will come again when I just don’t want to concentrate too hard or think very much for fear of missing a plot point, when a silly, fluffy romance on a spaceship is all I want. And then I’ll be ready with a copy of Cress.

RATING: 5,5/10  -  Okay

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The Lunar Chronicles:

  1. Cinder
  2. Scarlet
  3. Cress
  4. Winterlunar chronicles
7

#Diversiverse Review: Karen Lord – The Best of All Possible Worlds

diversiverse3I’m a little ashamed to admit how long this book has been sitting on my TBR pile. I got a review copy right before it first came out and have only managed to finish it now. But being unread for a while is no judgement on the book’s quality and I am so glad I read this for Aarti’s A More Diverse Universe challenge. I liked this much more than Redemption in Indigo despite some minor qualms.

untitledTHE BEST OF ALL POSSIBLE WORLDS
by Karen Lord

Published by: Del Rey, 2013
Ebook: 325 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: He always set aside twelve days of his annual retreat to finish reports and studies, and that left twelve more for everything else.

A proud and reserved alien society finds its homeland destroyed in an unprovoked act of aggression, and the survivors have no choice but to reach out to the indigenous humanoids of their adopted world, to whom they are distantly related. They wish to preserve their cherished way of life but come to discover that in order to preserve their culture, they may have to change it forever.

Now a man and a woman from these two clashing societies must work together to save this vanishing race—and end up uncovering ancient mysteries with far-reaching ramifications. As their mission hangs in the balance, this unlikely team—one cool and cerebral, the other fiery and impulsive—just may find in each other their own destinies . . . and a force that transcends all.

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I know Karen Lord as a playful, witty writer who retold a Senegalese folktale in Redemption in Indigo. As she ventures into science fiction, she shows that there is much more to her than that.

As the Sadiri’s home planet is destroyed and they lose the majority of their population in one blow, extinction seems inevitable. A small group of Sadiri come to the planet Cygnus Beta to scout for appropriate wives for the largely male survivors of the disaster. With a deep desire to keep their culture and genetic lines alive, finding fitting wives is not an easy task.
Grace Delarua, the narrator of this story, joins the Sadiri on their mission and travels across the planet for likely candidates to help the Sadiri race survive.

Delarua’s narration is fresh and charming, full of humor and passion, and so creates the perfect balance between her personality and that of the Sadiri, above them all Dllenahkh, seemingly cold and reserved. The Sadiri, renowned telepaths, keep their emotions to themselves, if indeed they have any. Their thoughts are impossible to read on their faces, their body language gives away nothing. To juxtapose such people with open and outspoken Delarua just made their differences more visible and the entire book more interesting. Discovering more about Sadiri culture, about their customs and their use of telepathy, is what kept me reading wide-eyed and curiously.

best of all possible worlds banner

Once the group of scientists set off on their journey, among them gender-neutral Lian, the Sadiri Dllenahkh, Nasiha, and Tarik, as well as Cygnian doctor Queturah, the story becomes somewhat episodic. Every chapter narrates their discoveries in a different settlement which, most of the time, has little to do with whatever they learned in the last one. At this point, the novel felt a little stitched together like a quilt of smaller stories, none of them boring, but none of them properly glued together either. Some of these earlier chapters have no consequence on the larger plot whatsoever, others are an opportunity to give the characters depth and show the readers more about them. The visit to Delarua’s family, for example, opened a world of questions, only some of which are answered. It was a great exercise in world-building without bogging down the narration, of character growth and development on several levels, and it was the point – for me – where the story really kicked off.

After that, Karen Lord put more focus on her characters and their reaction to whatever settlement they visit at the time. What fascinated me most, apart from Sadiri culture in general, was the sense of doom hanging over Dllenahkh at all times. By losing their home planet, most Sadiri have lost people close to them. Partners, children, parents, and grandparents, and that tragedy is felt in almost every chapter. To make things worse, they are facing extinction if they don’t find suitable wives for their single (or newly-single) men to keep the race going. They are a proud people and want to keep their culture alive as well as their genetics. It’s not just about finding a wife they like but it’s about genetic and cultural compatibility. As they pass settlement after settlement without much success, their desperation becomes more and more clear. Karen Lord does a phenomenal job of conveying that dread and fear without ever actually saying it. No exposition is needed as it becomes clear through the characters’ actions and emotions. And, yes, after a while, the readers learn to interpret Sadiri emotions, just as Delarua does.

best of all possible worlds alt coverThe closer to the end you get, the clearer it becomes that The Best of All Possible Worlds is also a love story. Furtive glances, accidental touches, and all the other little things that people do to get closer to each other, are difficult enough within one’s own culture. Try the same thing across two cultures that are so vastly different and you’ve got a really thrilling tale of romance. For the romance-deniers among you, don’t worry. There is nothing cheesy or cliché about this story. Even the end, which felt a little too perfect at first glance, struck me as utterly real and honest after a little while.

I had started reading this book around its publication and then stopped reading because its episodic nature made it easy to put down after a chapter. This time, I pushed through the beginning up to the moment I got hooked. And then there was no stopping me. I enjoyed this far more than the author’s debut, Redemption in Indigo, simply because it focused more on characters and matters that offer food for thought. Culture, race, gender, relationships, they all find a place in The Best of All Possible Worlds, and they do so effortlessly. Nothing feels forced, nothing feels fake. Sure, the narration could have used some tightening, some red thread to follow, especially in the early chapters, but even those weren’t ever boring.

I think Karen Lord is finding her voice (in a delightful way, might I add) and I believe she will only get better and better. I am now really curious about the quasi-sequel, The Galaxy Game, which will follow Delarua’s nephew Rafi. The author has created a fantastic world, one that I’m not done exploring.

RATING: 8/10  -  Excellent

EDIT: Squee! I got an e-ARC of The Galaxy Game via NetGalley. Thank you, my day is made. Now I only need to restrain myself until January (or its vicinity) before reading and posting a review.

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4

Maggie Stiefvater – The Raven Boys

The internet has been buzzing about Maggie Stiefvater ever since her Shiver Trilogy. As far as I know, it is settled somewhere in the vicinity of werewolf romance novels, which is why I haven’t felt the need to pick them up. Then came the universally praised Scorpio Races and I gave myself a nudge and bought it. However, when both Renay and Justin Landon raved about The Raven Boys, I knew there must be more to this book than just a squeeworthy teen romance. And there must be far more to Maggie Stiefvater as a writer. Spoiler: they were right.

raven boysTHE RAVEN BOYS
by Maggie Stiefvater

Published by: Scholastic, 2012
Ebook: 468 pages
Series: The Raven Cycle #1
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: Blue Sargent had forgotten how many times she’d been told that she would kill her true love.

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“There are only two reasons a non-seer would see a spirit on St. Mark’s Eve,” Neeve said. “Either you’re his true love . . . or you killed him.”

It is freezing in the churchyard, even before the dead arrive.
Every year, Blue Sargent stands next to her clairvoyant mother as the soon-to-be dead walk past. Blue herself never sees them—not until this year, when a boy emerges from the dark and speaks directly to her.
His name is Gansey, and Blue soon discovers that he is a rich student at Aglionby, the local private school. Blue has a policy of staying away from Aglionby boys. Known as Raven Boys, they can only mean trouble.
But Blue is drawn to Gansey, in a way she can’t entirely explain. He has it all—family money, good looks, devoted friends—but he’s looking for much more than that. He is on a quest that has encompassed three other Raven Boys: Adam, the scholarship student who resents all the privilege around him; Ronan, the fierce soul who ranges from anger to despair; and Noah, the taciturn watcher of the four, who notices many things but says very little.
For as long as she can remember, Blue has been warned that she will cause her true love to die. She never thought this would be a problem. But now, as her life becomes caught up in the strange and sinister world of the Raven Boys, she’s not so sure anymore.

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This book presents real difficulties when it comes to reviewing, mainly because of its meandering plot lines. How can one sum up such a novel? Short answer: you can’t. So let me preface this rambling review-ish thing by telling you that I loved it. It was such a pleasure to find a gem like this in between the copies of whatever is currently successful (looking at you, Hunger Games and Twilight knock-offs).

The Raven Boys is about a group of eponymous boys and a girl named Blue Sargent who has grown up in a family of psychics without having the ability to see the future herself. Blue’s talent is making the occult forces “louder” or more clear for her gifted family. Except for that one St. Mark’s Eve when she doesn’t just help her aunt see the future dead but instead sees one herself. Gansey is clearly a Raven Boy – the school crest on his expensive sweater is a dead givaway. And Blue can see him because she will be the instrument of his death, one way or another.

The story is heavily loaded with magical portents and prophecy but other than so many fantasy prophecies – one unlikely hero to save the world from evil forces and all that – Blue doesn’t react all too strongly to what has been foretold. One day, she will kill her true love. And, so it seems, she will kill Gansey. The first part she has known all her life, the second comes as a bit of a shock but, hey, what’s she going to do? Try and prevent his death, of course. But knowing how prophecies work, she’s more interested in solving the mystery and less sure that she’ll be able to change the future.

raven boys detail

What drew me in at first was this prohpecy, because I just like that kind of thing. I have a very soft spot for them, especially self-fulfilling prophecies (Macbeth *sigh*). But what made me stay (and immediately buy the second book) were the Raven Boys themselves. Their relationships are complex and intricate and not easily summed up in a sentence or two. What Maggie Stiefvater does in this book is draw vivid paintings of a group of young men who care deeply for each other but are, to some degree, equally codependent. You’d think the rich kids who go to a preppy private school like Aglionby wouldn’t have many problems of their own and if they did they would be petty problems. Not so the Raven Boys. Sure, they may be rich and lead an easier life than someone who has to struggle for every penny, but they are each looking for something more from life, first and foremost true bonds with other people.

Gansey had once told Adam that he was afraid most people didn’t know how to handle Ronan. What he meant by this was that he was worried that one day someone would fall on Ronan and cut themselves.

This is not at all, as some reviewers have said, a romance novel. Blue and Adam do develop a certain magnetism but this is not what the book is all about. Navigating first love is part of it, certainly, but at the heart of the novel is friendship. I was most intrigued by the question who these people really are. It’s hard to pinpoint, which is what makes each and every one of them so interesting. As a female reader, I somehow cast myself into Blue’s role and debated how I would react in certain situations. Would I run away from anyone I could fall in love with? And so deny myself the joy of true friendship? Would I help the Raven Boys on their quest for finding a mythical king, shrouded in paranormal mystery? I don’t know. What I do know is that I can’t get nearly enough of the Raven Boys and their interactions.

In that moment, Blue was a little in love with all of them.
Their magic. Their quest. Their awfulness and strangeness.
Her Raven Boys.

Another reason this book stands out from that kind of YA – you know, the kind that makes me angry at having spent money on it – is that it’s also not about the plot. What happens is interesting and helps to keep you reading but despite the mystery, and the small part of it that’s resolved in this first instalment of the Raven Cycle, personally I wouldn’t have cared if this had just been 400 pages of Blue, Gansey, Adam, Ronan, and Noah spending time together. Whether they’re hunting for ley lines or having pizza and watching a movie really didn’t make much difference to me. Their personalities are what shines, their relationships are the real mystery. I can’t put my finger on anything with this book and that’s a huge part of its appeal. Ronan’s inexplicable anger at the entire world, Adam’s pride and desperate attempt to hide it, Gansey’s quest for keeping the group together, and Noah’s quiet observations were far more intriguing than finding a Welsh king’s grave could ever be.

The novel’s closing lines open up entire new worlds to be discovered in the sequels, making this a clear prelude to something bigger. But what is normally annoying, especially in longer fantasy series, doesn’t feel like a cop-out at all. This book needs to exist for whatever happens next to have any impact. If the story had started where The Raven Boys ends, I wouldn’t care nearly as much about the characters as I do now. It is an astounding feat by an author I unjustly dismissed so far. Here’s another lesson to all the YA-avoiders (as I still am, in part): The only reason this can be classified as YA in the first place, is that it’s protagonists are teenagers. The writing isn’t more basic than in adult novels, the relationships are just as complicated, the exploration of human emotions just as real.

I’m off to read The Dream Thieves next and whatever new mysteries await me there, I’m all in, as long as the Raven Boys are there with me.

RATING:  8/10 – Excellent

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The Raven Cycle:
raven cycle

  1. The Raven Boys
  2. The Dream Thieves
  3. Blue Lily, Lily Blue
  4. TBA
5

Zen Cho – The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo

I don’t remember how I stumbled upon this little book but the cover and premise both intrigued diversiverse3me enough to go buy it, no waiting on the wishlist required. And since it’s #Diversiverse time, this was the perfect moment to read the story – also, I’ve never read anything by a Malaysian author before and that needed to be remedied. Zen Cho’s story had some aspects that I loved and others that left me very disappointed.

perilous life of jade yeoTHE PERILOUS LIFE OF JADE YEO
by Zen Cho

Published by: self-published, 2012
Ebook: 81 pages
Standalaone novella
My rating: 6,5/10

First sentence: I had tea with the intolerable aunt today.

 

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For writer Jade Yeo, the Roaring Twenties are coming in with more of a purr – until she pillories London’s best-known author in a scathing review. Sebastian Hardie is tall, dark and handsome, and more intrigued than annoyed. But if Jade succumbs to temptation, she risks losing her hard-won freedom – and her best chance for love.

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Jade Yeo is a young Chinese woman, making her way in 1920s London by writing for a newspaper. She deals with her insufferable (and very rich) aunt and learns, for the first time, what it is like to fall in love and fall in lust.

Since it’s the first thing mentioned in the synposis, I need to adress the time and setting of this novella. The Roaring Twenties are somewhat of a buzz word that makes me happily buy a book. Except there isn’t really much roaring or twenties in The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo. Sure, the time period becomes somewhat apparent in how women are viewed by society, how Jade’s insufferable aunt things Jade should behave, what is considered proper and what makes a scandal. But for everything else that’s there, this could as easily have been set in the 1950s.

The story is set in London and as a Chinese woman, Jade has to deal with some degree of cultural misunderstanding and prejudice. I don’t know if it’s because of her practical, witty character that we don’t see much of it or because the author didn’t want to turn this novella into a novel, but I expected Jade’s life to be much, much harder. A young, unmarried woman whose proper name people can’t pronounce, whose family values are completely different from what she sees on an everyday basis… there should have been more problems for Jade than just paying the rent.

Taking into consideration, however, that the novella is written as Jade’s diary, she may just not be telling us everything there is to know. And  I must say that I adored her voice. She is a practical, surprisingly modern woman with a sense of humor and a hunger for life. When famous author Sebastian Hardie makes advances on her, she just goes with it. Because hey, adventure! She knows she isn’t in love but having an affair is just so damn interesting. The problems I had with the time and the setting are probably due to the fact, that Hardie – as well as his wife – are equally practical modern people. The arrangement that married couple has would be frowned upon by a lot of people, even by today’s standards. For clever, adventurous Jade to fall into the hands of such a freedom-loving couple is unlikely and lessens any drama there could have been given other circumstances.

But the writing and characterisation are spot on. Jade has something of a Jane Austen in her, with her clever observations, her quick comebacks, her overall view on humanity. She’s charming and funny and at the same time vulnerable and real. And she has fun with words which makes me love her infintely more.

A nice Indian servant gave me a drink (I wish I could have spoken to him). I skulked in a corner clutching it and trying as hard as I could to look inscrutable and aloof, but feeling scrutable and loof as anything.

This is a novella that basically reads itself. It happily goes along, without much risk for the protagonist or much impact. Jade may think she’s in trouble but that same trouble is resolved within a matter of a few pages. Zen Cho hints at some heavy subjects but because everything turns out well for our heroine, and everything is so easy, they are somewhat lessened. Come to a different country all aloneperilous life of jade yeo, having (and enjoying) sex as an unmarried woman,  and unwanted pregnancy are just a few things that feel like they were drizzled over the story to give it some depth. Except they don’t feel like issues because EVERYTHING FALLS INTO PLACE SO DAMN EASILY. As soon as a problem arises, somebody goes “Oh that? Don’t worry, here’s a neat little solution.”

At the very end, when Jade realises that she has fallen in love (rather predictably, one might add), that’s the only time where cultural differences really present obstacles. Of course Jade is determined to overcome them and make their love work somehow, but at least we get a glimpse of the difficulties they will face on the way to marital bliss. And even that discussion is over within minutes. But at the very least, there isn’t an immediate, pretty solution. They talk about the issues at hand and promise to find a way to make things work. But we, the readers, know it’s not going to be simple and it’s going to alienate people. Traditional, conservative families whose child wants to marry someone from a completely different culture, will be up in arms. They know this, we know this, and there’s no easy way out.

There were so many things I loved about this story, the protagonist’s voice the foremost among them. I can’t really say anything bad about it except that everything was too easy and happened too fast. A novel-length version of this story with some stakes for the characters would be perfect. If the solutions to Jade’s problems weren’t as quick to arrive, for example, that would have already made this more interesting. If her future hangs in the balance for a mere (short) chapter, I won’t get overly excited. If, however, her uncertainty and at some points, her helplessness were to last longer, that would make it memorable. That would make her little troubles real problems. I commend her for wanting to do everything herself and not relying on the help of others but again, help does come and it pretty much gets her out of any situation without much fuss.

This was only a nice and very quick read that keeps your heartrate at a steady level. No sizzling romance, no danger for our heroine, but a lot of interesting people with surprising views on love, sex, and culture. It’s a peasurable read but not one that will stay with me for long, I suspect. Who would have thought I’d ever say it but here it is: I need a little more drama in my fiction. If I don’t feel with the characters I’m not likely to remember their stories for long.

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10

#Diversiverse Review: Intisar Khanani – Thorn

diversiverse3My first read for Aarti’s A More Diverse Universe challenge can be declared a success. I am still very careful with self-published titles but if enough recommendations float my way, I usually give the book in question a try. As far as the usual prejudice against self-published books go, Thorn did really well. Either the author has a knack for spotting her own mistakes or she got herself a copy editor. Either way, well done Intisar!

thornTHORN
by Intisar Khanani

Published by: self-published, 2012
Ebook: 246 pages
Standalone
My rating: 6,5/10

First sentence: “Try not to embarrass us”, my brother says. “If you can.”

divider1Fairy Tales Retold

  • The Goose Girl

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Synopsis

For Princess Alyrra, choice is a luxury she’s never had … until she’s betrayed.
Princess Alyrra has never enjoyed the security or power of her rank. Between her family’s cruelty and the court’s contempt, she has spent her life in the shadows. Forced to marry a powerful foreign prince, Alyrra embarks on a journey to meet her betrothed with little hope for a better future.
But powerful men have powerful enemies—and now, so does Alyrra. Betrayed during a magical attack, her identity is switched with another woman’s, giving Alyrra the first choice she’s ever had: to start a new life for herself or fight for a prince she’s never met. But Alyrra soon finds that Prince Kestrin is not at all what she expected. While walking away will cost Kestrin his life, returning to the court may cost Alyrra her own. As Alyrra is coming to realize, sometimes the hardest choice means learning to trust herself.

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Having just read a retelling of “The Goose Girl”, I knew Intisar Khanani wouldn’t have an easy job with me. After all, even if she told the story beautifully and faithfully, I had just read it and wouldn’t be very surprised with her take on things. Except Khanani didn’t worry about any of that, and while clearly similar to Shannon Hale’s The Goose Girl, Thorn’s story is entirely her own.

Princess Alyrra lives in the shadows, always hiding from her abusive brother and her heartless mother. She finds more solace with the castle’s servants and with the wind who talks to her sometimes. When a powerful king comes to visit and picks Alyrra for his son’s bride, Alyrra looks at the developments with trepidation and fear. But also with hope. Then, of course, her servant Valka happens and Alyrra’s life is once more turned upside down.

One of the most intriguing aspects of Intisar Khanani’s version of this story was the identity theft commited by Valka. In Hale’s novel, there is mutiny, an uprising that kills all loyal servants and  anyone who could vouch for the real princess’ identity. However, in Thorn, the Menaiyan king had already seen Alyrra with his own eyes, has talked to her. Simply pretending to be her wouldn’t be enough for Valka. That’s where the magic comes in. It’s a bold move but I loved what the author did. Valka and Alyrra change bodies, voices, clothes, even scars. Magic also makes sure Alyrra can’t tell anybody about her curse. If she tries, she may just die. It’s a simple solution to one of the fairy tale’s problems but I loved how well it worked. If you die as soon as you speak about the curse, that is a solid reason for keeping your mouth shut and even trying to keep up illusions.

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Naturally, Alyrra has to deal not only with having lost who she is and the power that comes with that position, but also get to grips with living in a new body. If I’m honest, I would probably go mad. Now Valka is described as rather pretty – and a redhead of course, because princesses in novels always have to end up special even if they weren’t in the beginning – but even if I switched bodies with a Victoria’s Secret model I would probably lose my mind. Alyrra is confused at first, finding her way around in this new body. She’s also shocked at how differently people suddenly treat her. Valka was rather famous for being a nagging, selfish, greedy little brat and Alyrra – the total opposite – isn’t used to people reacting to her that way. Once she got over her first shock, Alyrra sees this magic as an opportunity. After all, she never wanted to sit on a throne, she never wanted the responsibility or the courtly talk and intrigue. A simple life among people she cares about sounds pretty damn good, no matter her social status.

She gets a job as the goose girl, makes new friends and discovers that not all is well in the land of Menaiya. Social injustices, some strange things happening around the prince, and of course that magical force responsible for Alyrra and Valka’s body switch is still hanging around somewhere… this is where the plot started getting a little convoluted, as if the author wasn’t sure what to keep in and what to cut. Mid-novel, a band of thieves is introduced to represent “street justice” if you like. A young girl is brutally raped and beaten – for no other discernible reason than to show Alyrra  that the justice system doesn’t work. The girl was barely properly introduced except for a few throwaway lines and I don’t know how to feel about that.

What I did like was how hard it was for Alyrra to pick up the Menaiyan language. She calls herself Lady Thoreena, but ends up being Thorn because the Menaiyans mispronounce her name. Thorn doesn’t spend a week and can hold conversations about politics. She starts out just like anybody, by learning how to say hello, how to count, how to ask for the most basic things. Especially fantasy novels tend to forget that different languages even exist, and when they do, they usually find a convenient reason for our heroine to learn it within hours or days. Thorn has to clumsily make herself understood, using hands and facial expression as much as her limited vocabulary. This makes it not only more realistic but also helps to show the readers how scary Thorn’s new life really is. Magic threats and hiding who you really are is one thing, but learning a new job, a new language, picking up a new culture is something entirely different. Thorn has a lot on her plate and her growth is a pleasure to watch.

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Thorn’s romance with the prince was mostly absent and built on mystery and mistrust rather than conversations and friendship. It wasn’t a tender thing slow to grow but rather one of suspicious glances, careful probing how far each one could go, and small infrequent gestures of kindness. The end felt a little to convenient and predictable to me. I do like that Alyrra had to save Prince Kestrin’s life, but that part came out of practically nowhere and could have used some build-up. Foreshadowing is a wonderful thing, when done right. In Thorn, it wasn’t done at all, it just whacks you over the head with a hammer.

However, despite my misgivings, this was a competent novel, especially since it was self-published. By that I don’t mean that self-published authors are generally bad writers but that it is obvious whether somebody just published their first draft or carefully went over it, got feedback from others, had someone proofread the book, and so on. Intisar Khanani clearly put in the effort to make what she published something she could be proud of. And in my opinion, she really can.

RATING: 6,5/10  -  Good