Paul Cornell – The Lost Child of Lychford

Remember how much I loved Paul Cornell’s Tor.com novella Witches of Lychford? Well, there’s a sequel novella out tomorrow that builds on everything the first story did so well and invents a whole new – and super creepy – danger for our three witches to fight. I received an e-ARC of this book via Netgalley. Thank you to the wonderful people at Tor.com!

THE LOST CHILD OF LYCHFORD
by Paul Cornell

Published by: Tor.com, 22nd November 2016
Ebook: 136 pages
Series: Lychford #2
My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence: The Reverend Lizzie Blackmore slowly blinked awake, and found, to her surprise, that she was already furious.

It’s December in the English village of Lychford – the first Christmas since an evil conglomerate tried to force open the borders between our world and… another.
Which means it’s Lizzie’s first Christmas as Reverend of St. Martin’s. Which means more stress, more expectation, more scrutiny by the congregation. Which means… well, business as usual, really.
Until the apparition of a small boy finds its way to Lizzie in the church. Is he a ghost? A vision? Something else? Whatever the truth, our trio of witches (they don’t approve of “coven”) are about to face their toughest battle, yet!
The Lost Child of Lychford is the sequel to Paul Cornell’s Witches of Lychford.

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There is something utterly magical about how Paul Cornell draws you into his story within a few short sentences. It’s been a while since I read the first book but I immediately felt back at home in the small town of Lychford, and with the three resident witches, Judith, Lizzie, and Autum. A new evil is threatening their already stressful lives, what with Lizzie preparing for her first Christmas as the reverend, Autumn trying online dating, and Judith… well just being Judith and dealing with the demons she’s been dealing with for a while.

If, like me, you have forgotten certain bits about the first book, don’t worry. They are called back into memory easily, without bogging down the plot. And I absolutely loved the plot. All three witches get into serious trouble and the way Cornell wrote their descent into strange behaviors was so expertly done, I couldn’t pick any specific scene where the changes first happen. Like the witches, I only noticed something was way off when it was already too late!

Great characters in shitty, seemingly impossible to get out of situations is the best thing you can give to a reader. Whether it’s a little ghost boy following you around or the borders of reality turning all wobbly, a lot is going on in Lychford but Cornell juggles it all beautifully. There is not much time in a novella to explain things or slowly build up a threat, so I was really happy with the dread I felt at the dangers our witches have to face.

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There were some truly creepy moments in here and the ghost boy is not the reason. Halloween may be over but if you want a little treat with just a hint of scary and a lot of heart, this book is for you. It was more the things that weren’t said that gave me the creeps. The way that the protagonists’ minds are warped means that we readers also get an unreliable version of events.

While not as much time is spent on introducing the characters – we know them already, after all – the plot is fast-paced and doesn’t let off until the end. The ending includes a crowning moment of awesome for one of the witches (not telling you which) as well as the hint of more to come. There are epic villains to be defeated and borders between worlds to save, and I for one hope that Paul Cornell and Tor.co will give us many more adventures with Judith, Lizzie, and Autum, these three witches who are so very different and work together so well.

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very good!

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Brandon Sanderson – The Bands of Mourning

I can’t believe it. I am actually all caught up on a Brandon Sanderson series. Granted, it’s only one of his many book series and I still have a prequel-novella to read but novel-wise, I am up to date. And now I have to wait first for the next book to come out and then for Graphic Audio to adapt it. Ah, the beautiful agony that is waiting for books…

bands-of-mourningTHE BANDS OF MOURNING
by Brandon Sanderson

Published by: Tor, 2016
Hardcover: 447 pages
Series: Mistborn #6
My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence: “Telsin!” Waxillium hissed as he crept out of the training hut.

With The Alloy of Law and Shadows of Self, Brandon Sanderson surprised readers with a New York Times bestselling spinoff of his Mistborn books, set after the action of the trilogy, in a period corresponding to late 19th-century America.
Now, with The Bands of Mourning, Sanderson continues the story. The Bands of Mourning are the mythical metalminds owned by the Lord Ruler, said to grant anyone who wears them the powers that the Lord Ruler had at his command. Hardly anyone thinks they really exist. A kandra researcher has returned to Elendel with images that seem to depict the Bands, as well as writings in a language that no one can read. Waxillium Ladrian is recruited to travel south to the city of New Seran to investigate. Along the way he discovers hints that point to the true goals of his uncle Edwarn and the shadowy organization known as The Set.

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Vin’s story is long over but her victory over the Lord Ruler has left its marks on the world. It also left physical relics, such as the fabled metalminds which the Lord Ruler used to make himself practically immortal. Wax and Wayne get tangled up in another adventure that has them search for these Bands. Marasi, Me-Laan, and even Steris, get to be part of the crew and they pick up some new friends – and enemies – along the way.

As in Shadows of Self, it felt like a number of sub-plots were being juggled, but juggled rather hectically and without as much planning as in the first Mistborn trilogy. Where plot strings beautifully wove together to create a bigger whole at the end, here it feels like every book introduces new side plots, new political factions and character side stories, only to unceremoniously drop some (Wayne’s attempts at redemption, or his obesseion with their weapons supplier, for example). Others feel like they should have been foreshadowed way earlier but were instead thrown in quickly and info-dumpy to prepare for the scenes to come.

But I was pretty forgiving of that because of the sheer creativity that is coming from this author. After having explored this world and magic system for five books (of not inconsiderable size) I loved how Sanderson still manages to find a new way (or several, really) to use this type of metal magic. There is very little I can say without spoiling but if you’ve come this far in the series you already know that there’s always another secret.

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This book also took me on quite an emotional joy-ride. Not only was there a lot going on and it was a thrill to follow the characters as they solve problems each in their own way – I will never forget Spoiled Tomato – but I have also come to love all of them for being who they are. Marasi has grown into herself and trusts as much in her instincts as in statistical data, Wayne is slightly more serious, although you still mustn’t take away his hat. Ever! And Wax, who has been through so much, is put through hell once more. The biggest surprise was Steris, in her cold mathematical manner, who showed kindness and courage and creativity in the face of danger. So yeah, I love that gang!

One more aspect took me by surprise, in a very positive way. I had only read one romance penned by Sanderson and while I liked it, many people found it silly. Here, however, we find romance in an unlikely place and I was quite surprised at how much I rooted for this particular couple to work things out. It also shows a deft hand at writing character – Sanderson may have shown us certain aspects of these characters in the previous books, but that doesn’t mean we truly know them. In The Bands of Mourning, almost all of them got to show a different side of themselves and it was great fun to discover how amazing this group truly is.

The very end, of course, dangles a new bit of information in front of our noses, only to end in a cliffhanger. The main story of The Bands of Mourning may be resolved, but Wax’s tale is not over yet, and in the big picture, we have only seen the slightest glimpse of what the Cosmere has to offer.

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very good!

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Here are my opinions on all the previous books in the series:

 

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Kendare Blake – Three Dark Crowns

I got this book in a bookish subscription box (The Nerdy Bookworm Box), otherwise I probably wouldn’t have read it so soon after publication. Before you pick this up, know that it is NOT what the synopsis promises. It’s not a royal Battle Royale, a bloody fight between three siblings to the death. It is the preparation for that fight. That’s not a spoiler, trust me, that’s a fair warning that will make you enjoy the book more.

three-dark-crownsTHREE DARK CROWNS
by Kendare Blake

Published by: Macmillan Children’s Books, 2016
Paperback: 407 pages
Series: Three Dark Crowns #1
My rating: 6/10

First sentence: A young queen stands barefoot on a wooden block with her arms outstretched.

Every generation on the island of Fennbirn, a set of triplets is born: three queens, all equal heirs to the crown and each possessor of a coveted magic. Mirabella is a fierce elemental, able to spark hungry flames or vicious storms at the snap of her fingers. Katharine is a poisoner, one who can ingest the deadliest poisons without so much as a stomachache. Arsinoe, a naturalist, is said to have the ability to bloom the reddest rose and control the fiercest of lions.
But becoming the Queen Crowned isn’t solely a matter of royal birth. Each sister has to fight for it. And it’s not just a game of win or lose…it’s life or death. The night the sisters turn sixteen, the battle begins. The last queen standing gets the crown.
If only it was that simple. Katharine is unable to tolerate the weakest poison, and Arsinoe, no matter how hard she tries, can’t make even a weed grow. The two queens have been shamefully faking their powers, taking care to keep each other, the island, and their powerful sister Mirabella none the wiser. But with alliances being formed, betrayals taking shape, and ruthless revenge haunting the queens’ every move, one thing is certain: the last queen standing might not be the strongest…but she may be the darkest.

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We are introduced, one after the other, to each of the three queens fighting for the throne of Fennbirn, a magical island about which way too little is learned over the course of 400 pages. Katherine, weak and fragile, has been raised as a poisoner but her gift has still not properly set in. She is basically tortured on a daily basis by her host family, the Arrons. They let venomous snakes bite her, feed her all sorts of poisonous food, in order to build up resistance. But Kat comes away from it mostly scared and broken and full of scars.
Arsinoe is a naturalist and, just like her sister, shows very little gift. She is still waiting for her animal familiar while her best friend (and host sister) Jules has one of the most powerful gifts ever seen on the island. Her chapters are the longest and most detailed, because Jules is as much a protagonist as Arsinoe is.
Mirabella, already famous throughout Fennbirn, is the only queen with a powerful elemental gift. She can controll storms, lightning, and even fire. But she lives secluded and under constant surveillance by the priestesses of the Temple.

Three dark queens
are born in a glen,
sweet little triplets
will never be friends

Three dark sisters
all fair to be seen,
two to devour
and one to be Queen

So much for the set-up. Three Dark Crowns follows these three young queens as well as some side characters in alternating chapters and although they are all supposed to be different, the storylines and characters are all extremely similar. First of all, the side characters could easily be interchanged without anyone noticing. Most of them are just names thrown around when convenient. One side character, Luke, seems to be able to do whatever is needed for the plot at the moment. He is a librarian but also cooks and runs a coffee shop? Turns out, he can also sew dresses… and that’s as far as his personality goes. The others are literally just names, most of which I couldn’t keep apart because there is no description, not even age or relations. Sometime in the middle, I finally figured out that Madrigal is Jules’s mother, not some friend of the girls. I am the first to accept that I sometimes read inattentively, but this is not my fault, this is bad writing. Each girl gets a love interest, each is pushed or driven by a mentor figure, each has at least one friend to confide in. They do have different hair styles, which seems to be more important than giving their friends a past or character traits.

As mentioned, Arsinoe gets the most pages, Katherine gets by far the least. But I found her to be the most interesting character because she has it the hardest. But once the scheming Natalia, her mentor, throws young Pietyr in Kat’s path, this book is all about romance. Never mind why three queens have to battle to the death or how eating poisonous stuff without dying is going to help Katherine survive. Let’s talk about kissing because young adults are all hormonal idiots who want to read about kissing and nothing else. ARGH!!

Arsinoe, Jules, and Mirabella also get a love interest and, sure, some of that creates conflict, but come on! That’s not what it said on the tin. Do we really need another stupid love triangle? Kendare Blake tried to balance the r

omance with female friendships but by leaving the queens’ friends (except Jules) such bland, blank papers, the friendship becomes virtually worthless. Jules and Arsinoe are a great team, but Mirabella’s two friends, although one of them gets a story arc of a sort, are just stand-ins so Mirabella has someone to talk to. It’s a wasted opportunity if I ever saw one. However, Arsinoe’s storyline also contains the most world building and the best characters and development. Low magic, as the islanders call it, was mentioned plenty, although its roots are left unexplored. Joseph and Billy, the only two men with personality, also appear in Arsinoe’s story. This makes me belive that we are meant to like her best – so if the other two die, I won’t be surprised, but it is a rather obvious and cheap way of going about it. Let’s hope I’m wrong.

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Finally, at the very end, the plot actually moves foward. The queens each have to demonstrate their gifts in a ceremony that marks the beginning of the year in which they are to kill each other until only one queen remains. And shit goes down during that ceremony! Before that, the powerful houses of Fennbirn scheme around a bit, but because apparently young people are also too dumb to get subtlety, it’s all very obvious and the schemers are not very smart. Again, the villains of this story are also interchangeable. Put a serrated blade in ones hand and icy blond hair on the other, they are still basically the same person.

The ending did have two twists, one of which became sort of predictable while reading the novel. The other, I will happily admit, took me by surprise and actually made me say WTF! But is a two-page shocking twist enough to justify 400 pages of lame romance and a very unbalanced view of three sisters thrown into a terrible situation? I mean, Kendare Blake wrote the book she wanted to write, not one I wanted to read. But if you have a premise so interesting why would you not explore that at all? And if you build a world with so many strange rules, different sets of magics, why not mention anything about that? It makes me think that none of it is actually thought-through, but just window-dressing for some teen romances.

Fennbirn, for example, is super intersting but we only get glimpses of why when the delegations from the mainland arrive. It’s also a much smaller island than I originally thought (there is a cool map in the beginning of the book) because a character can walk, in a few days, over half the island. The magical gifts that the people of Fennbirn posses also don’t make much selse. Elementals are cool, and Naturalists are also interesting. But Poisoners, the only really non-staple fantasy magic, are pretty useless in my eyes. Anyone can learn how to mix a poison and, sure to survive poisoning is useful but what is the point? What’s the greater scheme of things? Why are poisoner queens so powerful when – forgive me – an Elemental can control the elements and a Naturalist might have a seriously vicious animal familiar. How would a battle between such people look? Well, if you want to find out, I guess you’ll have to wait for the sequel because this book ends just before the battle begins.

As many flaws as this story has, I did enjoy the read. I can’t tell you why because when I think about it, everything is wrong, there are plot holes all over the place, the characters mostly aren’t very good and the romances drifted into soap opera territory really quickly. But it was still fun. The chapters are short, I kept being pushed by the hope of learning more about the world, and I did grow to like the queens, although Katherine remains rather pale because she appears so little in the book. Look, it’s better than some other cliché and trope-ridden YA but not by a large margin. There are good ideas here, I only have to wait for the sequel to see if they actually come to anything. And at least, after reading this, I’m ready for some smart science fiction. I shall take delight in the lack of tropey YA love triangles!

MY RATING: 6/10 – Okay

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Angela Slatter – Vigil

I know, I know. I said I’d read anything the wonderful Angela Slatter writes and she warned me herself on Twitter that this was urban fantasy and thus nothing like her fairytale-esque story collections. But a great writer is a great writer and can dabble in many genres. Despite the underlying mythology, I found this to be a bit too much like my generic idea of an Urban Fantasy. It did have original ideas and was a fun read. I’ll just never love Urban Fantasy with all its tropes and clichés as much as I do other subgenres.

vigil1VIGIL
by Angela Slatter

Published by: Jo Fletcher Books, 2016
Paperback: 400 pages
Series: Verity Fassbinder #1
My rating: 7/10

First sentence: The ribbon was judging me, I knew it.

Verity Fassbinder has her feet in two worlds. The daughter of one human and one Weyrd parent, she has very little power herself, but does claim unusual strength – and the ability to walk between us and the other – as a couple of her talents. As such a rarity, she is charged with keeping the peace between both races, and ensuring the Weyrd remain hidden from us.
But now Sirens are dying, illegal wine made from the tears of human children is for sale – and in the hands of those Weyrd who hold with the old ways – and someone has released an unknown and terrifyingly destructive force on the streets of Brisbane.
And Verity must investigate – or risk ancient forces carving our world apart.

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I don’t read much urban fantasy and I’m probably doing the subgenre very wrong with my prejudices but every time I seem to pick up an UF book, all the tropes are there, the plot feels predictable, and I feel all the more justified in my reasons for avoiding books of that kind. I’m just not into your typical hot and sexy, yet snarky narrator girl who can kick ass despite weighing 45 kg. Please no more mysterious, dark handsome men – be they vampires or werewolves or something else entirely. I’m so tired of pecking orders in packs and covens or even the special supernatural FBI. It’s been done and done to bits, in so many books, TV shows, and movies.

Enter Angela Slatter, a woman who loves tropes. Well, she loves to play with and subvert them, so I knew I wouldn’t mind an Urban Fantasy written by her. She does fall victim to a cliché or two, but there are fresh ideas in here, definitely. It starts with Verity Fassbinder, who is an intriguing protagonist. First of all, I don’t know how old she is. Did I miss it in the book, was it never mentioned, was I just inattentive? Her tone of voice could put her anywhere from her early twenties to her fourties and that’s partly what made me like her but also annoying at times. A character that shifts so easily between “quirky badass young woman” to “seasoned and somewhat cynical adult” is difficult to identify with. It doesn’t matter much for the plot but I did notice and it kept taking me out of the reading flow.

My favorite part about Vigil was the world building and the cases Verity pursues. Those go hand in hand as it is those cases that show us more of the fascinating world. Angela Slatter has turned Brisneyland into a place with actual magic, both light and dark, but mostly dark and scary. Let me say first that the whole introduction of Verity’s past (or rather her father’s past) felt unnecessary and info-dumpy, especially right there at the beginning where we don’t even know who is who yet and what kind of world we are in. I would also like to say right now that if Verity’s (deceased) father surprisingly shows up alive in the sequel, I will throw something against a wall. It feels like that kind of setup and I really hope I’m wrong here.

But back to Verity Fassbinder’s Brisbane. Well, we are in a world with Normals (that’s us, folks) and Weyrd (all the weird shit) and some people who are in-between (Verity). The Weyrd hide from us with glamours and charms and so on and we all live happily side by side. Except when shit goes down, people go missing, or turn up dead – then Verity investigates. In Vigil she has both her hands full. Sirens – who are not what you think, by the way and I loved that twist to pieces – are dying and nobody knows what’s killing them. Turns out it’s not so easy to kill a mythological creature who is practically immortal. In addition, children are disappearing, and a terrifying whirlwind of evil is randomly killing people. Shit is hitting the proverbial fan and Verity has no clue where to start looking for answers. Her investigations are a lot of fun to follow, especially because she has a great relationship with her private taxi driver.

While Verity’s voice and character aren’t completely tropey, they did remind me a lot about the snarky, kickass, superstrong characters we see everywhere. Just make Buffy a bit older, fly her over to Australia, and there you go – it’s a Verity. However, she does have an interesting past, as her father was quite a… let’s say infamous figure in Weyrd circles. She also has a past with her hot vampire boss of course, which I found completely useless. It does absolutely nothing for the plot, and not much for anyone’s character development. They are not awkward with each other, their relationship doesn’t feel all heavy because of their past, it’s just a gimmick to give Bela more personality than he has as just “the boss”. On the bright side, the romance that comes Verity’s way throughout the book, is actually lovely. It’s not front and center, it happens naturally, there’s no big drama and I love both characters involved all the more for that.

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I also loved little nods like Bela’s name. Zvezdomir Tepes – Tepes as in Vlad the Impaler, I’m guessing – and Bela as a nickname after Bela Lugosi. It’s thinking around two small corners like that to create a name that fits the character perfectly, that makes me really happy. The Sirens as well all have appropriate (and lovely) names, as do the Norns. I loved the inclusion of them precisely because they are not werewolves or the usual Urban Fantasy creature. Slatter knows the treasure chest of mythology and folklore is deep and I love her for looking beyond wolves and fanged bloodsuckers. It’s not only Greek mythology you’ll find here, however, and I suspect (and hope) that the next books will show us even more creatures from all around the world.

Plot-wise, this was an engaging read. It moves along quickly, there is barely a moment to catch your breath. I like that Verity’s life feels like a lived-in place, there are people who know her or work with her and this all makes Brisbane feel much more real, more alive.

All things considered, reading this was fun, but there was nothing overwhelming or groundbreaking in it for me. It’s urban fantasy and it does exactly what you expect. Sure, there are cooler creatures that replace werewolves and vampires, the romance is a wonderful background-plot, and Verity is just a good person so it’s nice to follow her around trying to save everyone. The twists at the end were well-executed, but because the three cases get jumbled up, I felt like there was no way for me to guess any of the solution. I always prefer when the clues are there and just so well hidden that I miss them, but technically could have guessed right. So yeah, I’ll read the next book in the series, but I much prefer Angela Slatter when she’s not trying to fit in a subgenre mold but just does her own thing.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

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Shirley Jackson – The Haunting of Hill House

It’s October and that means creepy books. And what better way to deprive myself of some sleep than picking up a Shirley Jackson book? Horror movies don’t do much for me anymore, even the ones that try to avoid all the old tropes. But books? Put a well-written scary book in my hands and I’ll jump at every shadow in my bedroom and suspect the fridge noises of being a monster intruder, trying to eat my soul or something. This was scary, okay. I actually got really scared at night. I’ll tell you the embarrassing details below.

haunting of hill houseTHE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE
by Shirley Jackson

Published by: Penguin Classics 2013 (1959),
Ebook: 246 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream.

First published in 1959, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House has been hailed as a perfect work of unnerving terror. It is the story of four seekers who arrive at a notoriously unfriendly pile called Hill House: Dr. Montague, an occult scholar looking for solid evidence of a “haunting”; Theodora, his lighthearted assistant; Eleanor, a friendless, fragile young woman well acquainted with poltergeists; and Luke, the future heir of Hill House. At first, their stay seems destined to be merely a spooky encounter with inexplicable phenomena. But Hill House is gathering its powers—and soon it will choose one of them to make its own.

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Ah, Shirley Jackson! After watching all the horror movies out there, and expecting every jump scare, every evil horror twist, there are still things that make me scared enough to keep me from sleeping. The Haunting of Hill House has all the trappings of a haunted house story, fully furnished with strange noises in the night, writing on the wall, cold spots, and doors that seem to close themselves. But in Shirley Jackson’s hands the haunted house truly comes to life and shows us many more layers of horror than we expected.

Dr. Montague wishes to examine Hill House for supernatural activities. He invites, for that purpose, three other people. Luke, the future heir of Hill House, Theodora, a quirky, self-absorbed young woman, and Eleanor, shy and mysterious and with no confidence in herself. Throwing these four in an old creepy house together was a stroke of genius. The focus is definitely on the two women, with Eleanor being sort of the protagonist. I found the relationship between her and Theo both fascinating and terrifying. What starts as an instantaneous BFF vibe, with Theo declaring that they must be sisters because they get along so well, turns slowly into a darker thing. Friendship turns into admiration, which turns to jealousy, envy, disgust even. What made it so fascinating was that all these emotions were completely relatable in the beginning. It only gets strange when you realise you can’t be sure what’s true and what isn’t.

There is no first person narrator, so we’re not in any one person’s mind. But Eleanor is definitely the character we follow most closely. She is scared of Hill House from the get go, and for good reason. I shouldn’t have been as creeped out as I was. After all, this is your average, things-that-go-bump haunted house. But for some reason, I always managed to read the pleasant, daylight chapters during the day. At night, before bed, when I had some time to really get into the book, it was always night in the story as well. And we all know that’s when shit goes down. And shit did go down. A strange knocking on a door wouldn’t even merit an eye roll in a horror movie, but when you’re reading about it, and about the characters’ reactions, there’s no way to skip. You can’t close your eyes because when you open them again, you’re still at the same scary spot – you have to work through it.

I managed to read only scary bits three nights in a row – the last night I woke up my partner and made him hold my hand because I was convinced the shadows in our bedroom were moving strangely… yeah I know. But a book that can do that to me, a grown woman who absolutely does not believe in monsters under the bed or ghosts or whatever, that must be a great book. It really, really got to me. The descriptions of the scary parts were amazing, but what made it even better (or worse) was the psychological layer.

Without spoiling, something isn’t quite right with the characters. It might be the house, it might be insanity, it may be an unreliable narrator… I don’t know. The not knowing but constant suspecting, guessing, and trying to reason made this even more compelling. While Luke and Dr. Montague remained pale background characters, Theo and Eleanor are a riddle, each on her own and as a pair. Their behavior, especially in light of the mysterious events, is erratic at times and really bitchy at others. Eleanor’s past is another thing of interest. We don’t learn too much about it, but my imagination filled in the blanks with all sorts of horrors. Seriously, this is one of those cases where an active imagination is not your friend…

Despite the lack of sleep I am really glad I read this book. Shirley Jackson is a master storyteller! I don’t even mind her ambiguous, open-ish endings because with this book it’s the journey that counts.  You don’t work your way to a great reveal or twist, it’s about enjoying every page along the way. And although this book messed with my mind, I did enjoy the experience. If you’re looking for a good read for Halloween, pick this one up.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent

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C. S. E. Cooney – Bone Swans

I knew well before picking this up that I would love this book. Its description and marketing pushed so many of my buttons that there was no way around it. Fairytale retellings, beautiful language, a Kay Nielsen cover… turns out, it’s easy to bait me if you’ve got the right buzz words. It’s also easy to turn me into a fan if you write like Cooney. May the gushing begin.

bone swans

BONE SWANS
by C.S.E. Cooney

Published by: Mythic Delirium Books, 2015
Paperback: 224 pages
Story collection
My rating: 9/10

First sentence: That was the day the sky went dark.

A swan princess hunted for her bones, a broken musician and his silver pipe, and a rat named Maurice bring justice to a town under fell enchantment. A gang of courageous kids confronts both a plague-destroyed world and an afterlife infested with clowns but robbed of laughter. In an island city, the murder of a child unites two lovers, but vengeance will part them. Only human sacrifice will save a city trapped in ice and darkness. Gold spun out of straw has a price, but not the one you expect.

World Fantasy Award winner Ellen Kushner has called Cooney’s writing “stunningly delicious! Cruel, beautiful and irresistible.” BONE SWANS, the infernally whimsical debut collection from C. S. E. Cooney, gathers five novellas that in the words of Andre Norton Award winner Delia Sherman are “bawdy, horrific, comic, and moving-frequently all at the same time.” Cooney’s mentor, Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America Grand Master Gene Wolfe, proclaims in his introduction that her style is so original it can only be described as “pure Cooney,” and he offers readers a challenge: “Try to define that when you’ve finished the stories in this book.”

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Since this collection of novellas has absolutely blown my mind, I will have to say a little bit about each of the stories featured. The one thing they have in common is Cooney’s lyrical language, although her tone shifts effortlessly from snarky first-person narration to sinister third person post-apocalyptic tones. Her prose isn’t flowery but there is an underlying poetry to every story. And although I preferred some stories over the rest (as with any collection), I enjoyed every single one of them, their diversity, their originality, and the way they were told.

Life on the Sun

This first story was my least favorite of this collection. That doesn’t mean I disliked it, just that what came after blew me away so much that a few flying carpets, a prophecy, and the fantastic world-building of “Life on the Sun” paled in comparison. This story started strange, took a twist that made me believe I knew where it was going, and then twisted again to take me by surprise. I loved how the readers don’t know very much of what’s going on – there is a war and a prophecy and did I mention flying carpets? It’s a great tale, well-rounded with a satisfying ending. But I enjoyed this in a more distant way, if that makes sense.

The Bone Swans of Amandale

Now here’s where it gets going. A mash-up retelling of “The Juniper Tree”, “The Pied Piper of Hamelin”, and “The Swan Maiden”, this story shines not only because it utilises several fairy tales and makes something quite new out of them, but also because of the voice. Maurice, a rat who can change his shape, narrates a tale of blood rites and evil mayors and a broken piper. To tell you anything about the plot (other than its fairy tale inspirations) would be telling too much. But Maurice’s voice made for a delightful read, especially when faced with truly horrible things. Dark stuff happens in this story but Maurice, being a rat, and one in love/lust with Dora Rose (a swan princess) at that, manages to keep you smiling through it all. Whenever things may look bad, he makes an obscene comment that will make you chuckle. Another thing that surprised me was how well-drawn all the characters were, even ones that don’t say very much. The piper, who is a bit of a mystery, grew dear to me, and even Dora Rose, in all her aloofness (swans just are that way), became more and more likable. I loved everything about this story and would gladly have read a novel-length version of it.

Martyr’s Gem

Here’s another story that blew my mind. A complete departure from the familiar fairy tale style of “Bone Swans”, this is a tale of revenge, murder, family, and story telling. Shursta is chosen to marry Hyrryai, the beautiful daughter of the most powerful family on their island. Shursta, not being special in any way, soon finds out why he of all people was chosen as he learns Hyrryai’s secret.
This story – which is much shorter than “The Bone Swans of Amandale” packs so much world-building and character development that I could write a whole novel about it. The world-building creeps up on you as you are fed bits and pieces of mythology throughout the story. I loved discovering little snippets of history and lore without any info dumps. It simply came up naturally in the story.
The characters were breathtaking! Shursta is a wonderful protagonist, but it was his sister Sharrar who stole my (and everybody else’s) heart. A natural story teller, she manages to enthrall a room with her voice and there is one lovely scene in this story where she does just that. Reading it felt like being there.
But most touching about this story was probably the way it portrays a chosen family. Shursta and Sharrar are siblings and very close, but they bond with others and create a whole new, bigger family that feels so natural and right that it almost hurt. Again, no spoilers about the plot, but the ending – again – was spot on.

How the Milkmaid Struck a Bargain With the Crooked One

This was my favorite story of the bunch! Told by Gordie, a milkmaid who really enjoys being a milkmaid and taking care of her cow and bull, it is the tale of how her drunken father’s boast gets her into a lot of trouble. He may well say she can spin straw into gold but Gordie, not a drop of magical blood in her, certainly has no idea how to accomplish that feat. And we are right in the middle of a Rumplestiltskin retelling, the likes of which I have never read!
Drawing on mythology as much as the fairy tale, Cooney introduces Fey characters to help our practical heroine along the way. An ugly, crooked little man magics that straw into gold in exchange for the few trinkets of value Gordie possesses. But much more is going on. The kingdom is at war, both with the Fey lands and with itself. And apart from doing the straw-into-gold-trick, Gordie has to figure out an ancient secret.
Again, it was the combination of great storytelling and brilliant voice that made me love this so much. Gordie is absolutely lovable. She curses people, she rhymes by accident, she shows kindness where few others would… and mixed into the best version of Rumplestiltskin ever is even a beautiful romance. I had to take a break from the collection after this because the story gave me a major hangover. My heart!

The Big Bah-Ha

A very strange tale that reads more like horror than fantasy, this takes place in a world where a mysterious plague, the slap-rash, has killed all adults and will take children as soon as they grow too old. In this bleak place, gangs of children fight for survival. Except Beatrice, who has just woken up dead in The Big Bah-Ha, a sort of afterlife that is supposed to make you laugh. It’s a true nightmare, if you ask me, filled with clowns and circus attractions, but twisted and sad and horrifying, all of them. While Beatrice navigates this weird world, her gang seeks help from the mysterious Flabberghast (that is SUCH a cool name for a character, I just can’t get over it!).  Adventure ensues and each character can show their talents, but the Flabberghast totally steals everyone’s show.
Putting this story after “How the Milkmaid…” makes it hard for me to rate it fairly. It took me a bit longer to get into “The Big Bah-Ha”, simply because I didn’t want to let go of Gordie just yet, but once I found my footing – much like Beatrice – I was all in for this sinister, weird story about a strange sort of afterlife.

If I had to rank all the novellas/novelettes in this collection, my list would look like this:

  1. How the Milkmaid Struck a Bargain With the Crooked One
  2. The Bone Swans of Amandale
  3. Martyr’s Gem
  4. The Big Bah-Ha
  5. Life on the Sun

But it must be said, that even my least favorite story was still a great read. I cannot wait to discover more of Cooney’s writing. You can always tell when writers are also poets – there is just a particular kind of melody to their prose and every word feels carefully chosen to fulfill its purpose, but to also sound beautiful. I am completely blown away by the author’s talent and imagination. In about 40 pages per story, she manages to draw up entire worlds, filled with real people, histories, mythologies, and stories. Cooney goes on a shelf with my Cat Valente and Angela Slatter books – that should tell you just how much I have fallen in love with her writing.

MY RATING: 9/10 – Close to Perfection!

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To get you all hooked as well, here’s where you can read the stories (or excerpts thereof) for free online:

 

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Sabaa Tahir – An Ember in the Ashes

Ah what the hell, I’m only a year late. Actually, I tried to read this book during my last holiday (during June 2015) where the temperature – if not the tropical climate – would have been wonderfully fitting. But, as things go, I put the book away after a few chapters because I just wasn’t in the mood. Now that I read it, however, I have no idea how I managed to find a spot – ANY spot – in this book where I would put it down. It is one of the most page-turny books I’ve read this year.

an-ember-in-the-ashesAN EMBER IN THE ASHES
by Sabaa Tahir

Published by: Razorbill, 2015
Ebook: 453 pages
Series: An Ember in the Ashes #1
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: My big brother reaches home in the dark hours before dawn, when even ghosts take their rest.

Laia is a slave.
Elias is a soldier.
Neither is free.

Under the Martial Empire, defiance is met with death. Those who do not vow their blood and bodies to the Emperor risk the execution of their loved ones and the destruction of all they hold dear.
It is in this brutal world, inspired by ancient Rome, that Laia lives with her grandparents and older brother. The family ekes out an existence in the Empire’s impoverished backstreets. They do not challenge the Empire. They’ve seen what happens to those who do.
But when Laia’s brother is arrested for treason, Laia is forced to make a decision. In exchange for help from rebels who promise to rescue her brother, she will risk her life to spy for them from within the Empire’s greatest military academy.
There, Laia meets Elias, the school’s finest soldier—and secretly, its most unwilling. Elias wants only to be free of the tyranny he’s being trained to enforce. He and Laia will soon realize that their destinies are intertwined—and that their choices will change the fate of the Empire itself.

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Oh my glob, this was SO EXCITING. Like, good for raising your blood pressure exciting. But also keeping you up way past your bedtime and then showing up to work like a corpse the next day exciting. But I swear, every night spent reading this rather than getting some much-needed sleep was totally worth it. So if you pick this up, be warned what the effects will be. Okay, now that’s out of the way, let’s get to the bones of it.

The beginning of the book sets the tone for the rest of the story and it was much, much darker than I expected. As this happens in the very first chapter, it’s no spoiler if I say that… well, people are brutally murdered, a family destroyed, and a girl traumatised right at the beginning. And holy shit, I think I stopped breathing for a while when I read this. The protagonist Laia tells of these horrible events and then takes her chance to flee, to save herself from the same fate. Her brother, although still alive, is apprehended by a Mask (a super creepy military ninja police dude… more on them later). Her “cowardice” haunts her and she resolves to save her brother. That beginning already, despite being truly terrifying, was such a breath of fresh air in a YA book. Not only does the protagonist lose almost everything right in the beginning, but she runs away. She is no magical brave super-powered woman who can mysteriously kick people’s asses and save the day. She is a scared girl who wants to survive. So yeah, I loved Laia.

In alternating chapters, another person tells their story. Elias, almost finished with his training to become of those dreaded Masks, wants out of his life. Since he was six, it has been spent at Blackcliff Academy, where children are brutally trained to become amazing warriors and cruel enforcers of the Emperor’s rule. Oh yeah, I forgot, all of this takes place in a sort of alternate Roman Empire. I adored the names – Elias Veturius, Helen Aquilla – they gloriously melt on your tongue. Anyway, Elias plans to desert, being rather sick of a life watching his friends be flayed, beaten to death, “weeded out” during training for being too weak… so you see, more horrors coming your way.

The plot really kicks off when Laia starts working for the Resistance (because every evil Empire needs a Resistance) in exchange for them saving her brother from prison. She enters Blackcliff Academy as a slave girl, spying on the most feared woman in the entire Empire – the Commandant. This woman was straight up evil! She was responsible for the heart-stopping excitement I felt while reading this book. When Laia risked something, and spying is in and of itself a risk, I was truly afraid she would get caught and punished for it. And punishment by the Commandant might invole anything from a simple flogging, to losing a limb or eye, to being carved up like a ham. Talk about a great villain!

But that’s all I’ll say about the plot because otherwise I’ll just retell the entire book right here. There were things I truly loved about An Ember in the Ashes, and others that felt old and tired. Let’s start with the good stuff: the friendships. Elias and Helene have been best friends forever, and although growing past puberty and graduating from Blackcliff have changed their relationship, I loved how loyal these two were to each other. Things get pretty rocky along the way, and even though not everything turns out alright, I really appreciated the friendship between these two. Not as much as I appreciated the friendship between Laia and her fellow slave-girl Izzi, though. Reading Laia’s perspective, I immediately cast myself in her role, trying to think like a spy, suspicious of everyone and everything. But a true and wonderful friendship evolves out of shared fear and pain and the one thing that keeps them all going: hope.

Sabaa Tahir drifted into trope territory when it came to the romance(s). I knew and actually hoped for a budding romance between Elias and Laia, but to make things interesting (I guess), their feelings for each other are complicated by what turned out to be a love… square. Love triangles are old and boring and usually resolved really badly. Here, each of the protagonists has a second potential love interest. That would have been a-okay if the descriptions of their feelings and reactions to each other weren’t all exactly the same. To me, this read very much like Laia just gets excited when she sees dude A and gets excited when she sees dude B. Elias was a bit better as his reactions to his two girls differed slightly, if only because there was more backstory there. That’s all I can say without spoiling, but although I liked the descriptions of these new (to them) feelings, the secondary love interests seemed totally forced and unnecessary.

Back to stuff I liked: The world-building and magic. Yes, there’s magic, if not exactly front and center. The Roman Empire thing is a great idea, simply because it isn’t medieval England. But Blackcliff has a lot more to offer in terms of imagery and internal workings. The Masks, for example, are called Masks because they wear masks (duh). But masks that meld to their face and eventually can’t be taken off. So there’s a bunch of people running around with silver faces – that is super creepy! But the way Blackcliff works and trains its soldiers, is also intriguing. Terrible, yes, but amazing to read about. The Augurs, and the various mythical creatures that crop up every now and then, are a whole different story and I can’t wait to find out more about that part of the world in the sequel.

Another thing I didn’t like was that so many chapters ended in cliffhangers. It’s a cheap trick that reminds me of Dan Brown. Yeah, sure it worked, it kept me reading for hours and hours on end, but it also got annoying pretty quickly. I know I’m being manipulated, book, it’s fine, you can give me one chapter to breathe and get a coffee or have a toilet break.

And last, but definitely not least, my favorite part about this book was Laia’s character development. Awakening sexuality aside, it was fascinating to watch that scared, naive little girl grow up and realize just how strong she is. By the end of the book she’s still scared, don’t get me wrong (and I wouldn’t like her otherwise) but she has learned to use her fear, to work through it, to do the right thing anyway. She was incredibly naive and gullible at first, but grew more aware of her surroundings and the way people can manipulate and lie to each other. Way to go, girl!

This has turned into a very long review, although I left so many details out – that should tell you that these 450 pages really have some meat to them and aren’t just descriptions of how pretty people are (still looking at you, Sarah J. Maas). I loved the reading experience and would recommend this to anyone in a reading slump. And make sure you have the sequel ready because I’m throwing all my reading plans overboard to dive right in.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

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Click image for a cool article on the creation of this map of Blackcliff Academy

Click image for a cool article on the creation of this map of Blackcliff Academy

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Patricia C. Wrede – Dealing With Dragons

I believe that there are too many great books coming out this year. Which is why I finally did what I’ve been meaning to do for ages. I picked up an older book that is somewhat of a classic of fantasy literature. At least that’s my impression. My first Patricia C. Wrede read was much more charming than expected and I look forward to returning to the Enchanted Forest soon.

dealing-with-dragonsDEALING WITH DRAGONS
by Patricia C. Wrede

Published by: HMH Books for Young Readers, 1990
Ebook: 212 pages
Series: The Enchanted Forest Chronicles #1
My rating: 7/10

First sentence: Linderwall was a large kingdom, just east of the Mountains of Morning, where philosophers were highly respected and the number five was fashionable.

Meet Princess Cimorene–a princess who refustes to be proper. She is everything a princess is not supposed to be: headstrong, tomobyish smart… And bored. So bored that she runs away to live with a dragon. And not just any dragon, but Kazul–one of the most powerful and dangerous dragons arounds. Of course, Cimorene has a way of hooking up with dangerous characters, and soon she’s coping with a witch,a a jinn, a death-dealing talking bird, a stone prince, and some very oily wizards. If this princess ran away to find some excitement, it looks like she’s found plenty!

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Cimorene is a terrible princess, mostly because she is no good at princessing. She wants to do magic and fight and learn boy-stuff, not embroidery and dancing. As much as I hate the initial message of this book (everything girly is bad and boring), Cimorene makes up for all of it later on. She runs away, promptly meets some dragons and becomes the princess to the dragon Kazul. Because you see, much as it is tradition (and a form of establishing status) for princes to rescue maidens from dragons, having your own princess is a status symbol for a dragon.

Except most princesses want to be rescued and Cimorene will not have it. In fact, she has a rather hard time keeping away all the knights and princes trying to “save” her from the clutches of Kazul, who is much more a friend than an evil mistress. Cimorene likes cleaning up the dragon caves, organising the library, and sorting through the treasure cave. But dragons have politics of their own and not all is as peaceful as it seems.

The plot itself is quite cute, although very obvious to an adult reader. But despite seeing where the story was going from miles away, I enjoyed reading about Cimorene immensely. The villains may be obvious, but not always – prince Therandil, for example, may not be the sharpest tool in the shed but he is sympathetic enough. I really liked how things aren’t totally black and white, as in most books for children. I also liked the side characters, because they had their own flaws and personalities.

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Cimorene is just a cool heroine to root for. She is practical and brave, knows what she wants and is quick to make friends. But she’s also far from naive, and sometimes has to use all her cleverness to escape dangerous situations. Wizards and jinn are not to be trifled with, after all, and just because you may live with a dragon doesn’t mean their fire can’t hurt you. But my favorite part was probably the little remarks about fairy tale tropes. Like how it’s tradition to invite a fairy to a princess’ christening, or how it always has to be the youngest son who does important stuff. There are even little asides about princesses who did just what they were supposed to do – fall asleep for a really long time until a prince kissed them awake, spin straw into gold, and so on. These fairy tales are treated as the norm in this world, which gave this an added layer of fun and originality, because Cimorene so decidedly refuses to be put into that princess mold.

This was a delightful read, in every sense. The language was simple, but made it hard to put the book down at any point. The characters were lovely, the plot was nice, and the overall message – find what you enjoy and make that your job, pick your own family (and make it one who loves you for who you are) – is one I can wholeheartedly agree with. It rankled how distasteful Cimorene found her “girly” lessons at the beginning but even she has to admit, in the course of her adventure, that some of it came in quite handy.

I already look forward to the sequels because I have a feeling this series is a great comfort read, something to get you out of a reading slump, something to always leave you smiling. I also look forward to Cimorene growing up some more and finding her place in the world.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good!

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Top Ten Tuesday – My Fall TBR List

As I’m home sick and need some distraction anyway, I thought I’d do a Top Ten Tuesday again. The Broke and the Bookish have come up with another great topic that will hopefully help me organise my reading a litte. As much as I love making lists, I rarely adhere to them and just end up reading whatever falls into my hands.

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My Fall TBR list

this-savage-song1.Victoria Schwab – This Savage Song

Schwab disappointed me a bit with her sequel A Gathering of Shadows but I am still convinced that she’s got an awesome brain and comes up with great stories and characters. So I want to see what her latest novel – also the first in a series – is all about.

I know it’s about humans and monsters (and how they are not always what they seem) and music, and all of those sound pretty good. Plus, the title is brilliant.

bone swans2. C.S.E. Cooney – Bone Swans

I was so incredibly excited when I heard this was coming out and then I immediately got it and then… it’s been kind of sitting on my shelf. I’ve been waiting for the right moment to read it, wanting to really savor it. Cooney is still new to me but I have a suspicion that she might become a new favorite author. Everything I’ve heard about her and this collection is so up my alley that I will be majorly disappointed if I don’t fall in love with it hard.

haunting of hill house3. Shirley Jackson – The Haunting of Hill House

I said last year I wouldn’t wait around for another Halloween before I read my next Shirley Jackson book, but as new books came out, I ended up doing just that. The disctractions were too great, you guys. I don’t care, I’m going to read this creepy thing in October because I am still haunted by We Have Always Lived in the Castle and need more Shirley Jackson in my life.

shakespeares-star-wars-trilogy4. Ian Doescher – William Shakespeare’s Star Wars

Until this post goes up I may well have finished the trilogy already, but in case there’s still some returning Jedi left over, this goes on my Fall TBR. I mainly like these books for the illustrations and the little nods to Shakespeare. They are quick reads, they make me giggle at the Shakespearean version of famous Star Wars quotes and they are a fun way to revisit the Star Wars trilogy (I will most likely skip the prequels because why would I put myself into the pain of revisiting those stories without the one thing that made it bearable – the visual effects?).

bird-and-the-sword5. Amy Harmon – The Bird and the Sword

I stumbled across this book by accident but it sounds super-intriguing. The cover is mysterious, the synopsis makes me expect all sorts of mysteries, and magic, and myth. It might be totally not my taste but, hell, until I’ll try I won’t know, right?

Swallow, daughter, pull them in, those words that sit upon your lips. Lock them deep inside your soul, hide them ‘til they’ve time to grow. Close your mouth upon the power, curse not, cure not, ‘til the hour. You won’t speak and you won’t tell, you won’t call on heaven or hell. You will learn and you will thrive. Silence, daughter. Stay alive.

siege-and-storm6. Leigh Bardugo – Siege and Storm

I actually really, really want to read Six of Crows but because I’m weird and organised in my reading life (if nowhere else), I started the Grisha Trilogy first and intend to finish it before reading Bardugo’s other series. So Siege and Storm is up next and I have high hopes for it. While Shadow and Bone drifted off a little too much into YA-trope-land, I believe there is serious potential here and I quite liked the writing style. So let’s do this and do it quickly, then I can finally get into Six of Crows.

bands-of-mourning7. Brandon Sanderson – The Bands of Mourning

I am waiting for the Graphic Audio adaptations to come out (part one September 28th, part two October 26th) although I’ve had the physical book here since it came out. As my experience with Graphic Audio Sandersons go, I will probably eat this up in one weekend and it will probably be the first weekend after the entire audiobook is published. After that, I can start listening to the first part(s) of Words of Radiance as well, so the rest of 2016 looks very promising.

bryony-and-roses8. T. Kingfisher – Bryony and Roses

I am utterly in love with T. Kingfisher’s writing and the way she turns fairy tales into something new. Her collection Toad Words was lovely, and her novel The Seventh Bride both terrified and delighted me. I need more of that. Plus, the books are usually not very big (that’s a plus because I’ve started a few large series lately and feel quite intimidated by the page count).

three-dark-crowns9. Kendare Blake – Three Dark Crowns

I don’t own this book yet (as of writing this post) and I am on the fence about everything. But throw a cool book trailer at me, a gorgeous cover, and some buzz words in the description and I’m willing to try. So far, this sounds like Royal Hunger Games with magic – and that’s a pretty cool idea.

I know about Blake’s other series (Anna Dressed in Blood and the sequel) but I haven’t read it – don’t think I will either. The problem with these over-hyped books is that lots of people may end up liking them (see Sarah J. Maas) but I just can’t take the clichés and tropes anymore. I’m hoping for the best.

10. EVERYTHING ELSE by EVERYONE

I have SO MANY books on my TBR and I want to read at least half of them right this very moment. I can’t possibly pick only one for my last book, so I’m making a list within a list. That’s allowed, right?

  1. Carolyn Turgeon – Godmother
  2. Foz Meadows – An Accident of Stars
  3. Silvia Moreno-Garcia – Signal to Noise
  4. N. K. Jemisin – The Obelisk Gate (OMG, I forgot this one, I’m totally reading this, no matter what, this should be number 1!!!)
  5. Laure Eve – The Graces
  6. Indra Das – The Devourers
  7. Sarah J. Maas – A Court of Mist and Fury (started it already but it’s painfully bad, so I’ll read this if I’m in the mood for a ranty review…)
  8. Karin Tidbeck – Jagannath
  9. Nicole Kornher-Stace – Archivist Wasp
  10. Roshani Chokshi – The Star-Touched Queen

 

 

 

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Ian Doescher – William Shakespeare’s Star Wars: Verily, A New Hope

I resisted this a long time, suspecting it may be just as cheap a rip-off as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was (never managed to finish that book…), but a friend convinced me that this is not merely a script of the movies made to rhyme but actually a bit more clever than that. While I don’t think this is a masterpiece of literature, it was truly fun to read and it’s a beautiful physical book to have on my shelf.

verily-a-new-hope

William Shakespeare’s STAR WARS:
VERILY, A NEW HOPE
by Ian Doescher

Published by:
Hardback: 174 pages
Series: William Shakespeare’s Star Wars #4
My rating: 6,5/10

First sentence: It is a period of civil war.

MAY THE VERSE BE WITH YOU!
Return once more to a galaxy far, far away with this sublime retelling of George Lucas’s epic Star Wars in the style of the immortal Bard of Avon. The saga of a wise (Jedi) knight and an evil (Sith) lord, of a beautiful princess held captive and a young hero coming of age, Star Wars abounds with all the valor and villainy of Shakespeare’s greatest plays. ‘Tis a tale told by fretful Droids, full of faithful Wookiees and fearsome Stormtroopers, signifying… pretty much everything.
Reimagined in glorious iambic pentameter, William Shakespeare’s Star Wars will astound and edify Rebels and Imperials alike. Zounds! This is the book you’re looking for.

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I am really glad I bought this book. It came in a lovely slipcase including the other two books in the trilogy (they may be numbered 4 through 6 but who’s the publisher kidding?) and it looks fantastic on my shelf. Apart from the obvious good looks of this book, the content offered some interesting surprises as well.

The story is the one we all know and love. Princess Leia hiding the secret Death Star plans in R2-D2, who is trying to get them to Obi-Wan. Luke Skywalker picks up R2 and C-3PO and gets dragged into this big adventure involving a dark-clad man with a breathing problem, furry co-pilots and a damn sexy Han Solo. There is nothing new here, story wise, so don’t expect any extra scenes or background goodies – although there was a quite funny comment about who shot first (Han did! It’s always been Han!).

So what makes this book worthy of your time is mostly the fun of discovering famous quotes Shakespeare-ified. Whether it’s “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for” or Han’s nicknames for Leia, seeing them in wrapped in iambic pentameter actually made me giggle. However, it was Luke that got to me in this book more than he ever did in the movies. I was genuinely surprised by how well his yearning for adventure came through. In the movie, I always thought of Luke as somewhat of a brat, you know, a whiny teenager who wants to leave home to lead his own life, never mind family responsibilities. But in Doescher’s version, Luke’s speeches actually touched me and conveyed in how much pain he is because he’s stuck on Tatooine (which, okay, I get it, it’s a pretty shitty planet).

There are also a few little gimmicks that made the book worthwhile. R2 may still speak droid (“bleep” and so on) but there are a few asides to us, the audience, in English. It’s nothing you didn’t already expect R2 to think but it’s nice to have the little guy actually get to talk in our language for once and voice his annoyance at his companion droid. Chewie is still Chewie and all we get from him is his famous growing/howling noise.

Even if this book weren’t as entertaining as it ended up being, I would have been happy about it just for the illustrations. Like the cover design, they show the characters in immediately recognisable shape, except wearing old-timey garb. Vader especially cracked me up, dressed in his suit (complete with breathing apparatus) plus super fabulous fur coat and puffy sleeves. Seriously, just look at this:

There are many more fantastic illustrations, some of which made me laugh (the Cantina band), others which were more of a nod to Shakespeare than Star Wars (Luke holding a Stormtrooper helmet much like Hamlet’s Yorick skull), and others still that I’m not spoiling for you. Let’s just say, Jabba makes an appearance in all his Shakespearean glory.

The one thing – and this was to be expected – that simply can’t be done properly in this medium, is the space battles. Whenever description is needed, the choir enters to set the stage for us. In the case of the final battle at the Death Star, the author even acknowledges that it’s impossible to reproduce this scene on a stage (or in a written play), so we just have to put a bit more effort into our readerly imagination. That’s totally okay and there was no way it could have been done differently, but of course it also made that last battle feel much less epic. When all you have to go on is the rebel’s comm messages, some randomly shouting “I’m hit” and others coming to their companions’ rescue, that’s just not very exciting if you don’t see the fight. But it was the only real shortcoming of this version of Star Wars, for which I will gladly forgive the author.

I’m sure a lot of work went into these books and they’re not just the money-grabbing merchandise that they first appear to be. There’s not much to discover here that’s new but if you like Star Wars, you’ll probably get some enjoyment out of this. I quite liked it.

MY RATING: 6,5/10 – Pretty good

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Okay, I can’t resist. Have another picture:

verily-a-new-hope-illustrations

 

 

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