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Kate Elliott – Cold Magic

It’s review catch-up time! I’ve been reading and reading but not posting any reviews. Since it’s one of my 2015 resolutions to keep up on the blog, I’m being a good bloggeress and posting reviews to all the books I’ve read this year. Kate Elliott was a completely new-to-me author and I’d heard nothing but good things about her. The Book Smugglers love her, Renay loves her, so picking up one of her books couln’t possibly be a mistake.

cold magicCOLD MAGIC
by Kate Elliott

Published by: Orbit, 2010
Ebook: 544 pages
Series: The Spiritwalker Trilogy #1
My rating: 7/10

First sentence: The history of the world begins in ice, and it will end in ice.

The Wild Hunt is stirring – and the dragons are finally waking from their long sleep…

Cat Barahal was the only survivor of the flood that took her parents. Raised by her extended family, she and her cousin, Bee, are unaware of the dangers that threaten them both. Though they are in beginning of the Industrial Age, magic – and the power of the Cold Mages – still hold sway.

Now, betrayed by her family and forced to marry a powerful Cold Mage, Cat will be drawn into a labyrinth of politics. There she will learn the full ruthlessness of the rule of the Cold Mages. What do the Cold Mages want from her? And who will help Cat in her struggle against them?

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Here’s a book that takes your expectations and turns them upside down right from the start. Catherine Barahal and her cousin Bee are best friends. They study at the academy, where genders are segregated and women are clearly not taken very seriously. So naturally I’ve come to expect a steampunk college novel that explores feminist issues – which would have been awesome! Instead, Cat’s story takes a turn when she is forced to marry a powerful Cold Mage and taken from her home and from Bee. (If, like me, you don’t always read the blurb, this comes as a surprise.)

That early twist could have gone quite wrong. Like I said, a college novel with two female protagonists would have been totally up my alley, but then again, the turn the story took instead was equally brilliant so I have no complaints. Cat’s life is somewhat shrouded in secrets. Having lost her parents at an early age, all she has left of her father are his journals, telling of his expedition to the Ice Sea, and a locked with his picture in it. It’s clear from very early on that there is more to Cat than we may think, that she is somehow special, and I am so very tired of prophecies and Chosen Ones that this, too, could have gone terribly wrong. But Kate Elliott manages to just scrape past these tropes and make the story entirely her own.

The world is essentially an alternate Europe but its population is refreshingly diverse. Not only do Cat and Bee have darker skin, the rest of the population isn’t all white either. You’ll find people with fair skin and red hair, people with very dark skin, and all shades in between. Add to that the lizard-like trolls and you’ve got a nice mixture of cultures that make this particular Europe much more interesting than the usual epic fantasy stuff. But characters aren’t defined by their skin color or where their ancestors came from. Cat is her own person and her friendship with Bee was just so wonderful to read about. Friendship between women is still underrepresented in most fantasy fiction (that I read) so I was a little disappointed that the two were ripped apart so soon in the novel.

But this separation leads us to another intriguing character. Andevai, the husband force upon Cat, is an arrogant prick with little care for her comfort or well-being. He’s a snobbish, ruthless, vain sort of guy that was easy to dislike. But in best Mr. Darcy fashion, there is more to him than meets the eye. Slowly, it is revealed that Andevai is not only arrogant and snobbish, but that he does have a heart buried deep down somewhere under all the fancy clothing. I can’t say I really liked him but that ending… oh gods, that ending kind of redeemed him and gave me all the feels. Well played, Kate Elliott!

Throughout the novel, I found myself frequently annoyed at one particular aspect of Cat’s character – one that has to do with that beautiful jerk Andevai. Cat is clever and quick, handy with a sword, and she can definitely take care of herself. She gets scared as much as the next person but her actions are intelligent and make sense. However, when it comes to Andevai, she seems blinded by his beauty, constantly thinking about his full lips and what it would feel like to kiss them. After he’s been treating her like dirt, denying her food, dragging her through the country and generally being an asshole! Look, I get it, Cat isn’t perfect and Andevai is super handsome, and wanting to kiss someone does not mean you have to like them… but please girl, have some sense. There must be other hot guys out there, ones that don’t try to kill you.

cold magic detail

The plot is hard to summarise so I just won’t. Cat is on the run for most of the novel but instead of campfires and a misfit group of heroes, we meet almost exclusively interesting people and creatures that help us learn more about Cat and her past. Again, it was obvious that there is more to her than she knows, but the secrets that are revealed don’t feel cheap or trope-ish. Instead, they leave more questions to be answered in the rest of the trilogy. There are mysteries upon mysteries, politics, class differences, gender inequality – in short, there’s a lot of potential that wasn’t quite realised (yet!) and that I hope to read more about in the next book. Mostly, things were hinted at in an attempt to introduce the reader to all sorts of world building aspects. Personally, I prefer digging into one or two aspects in depth and learning about the others later (say, in the next book) but this is a small concern.

The story is well-written with a cast of memorable characters, but in the end, there was still something missing. It wasn’t so riveting that I couldn’t put it down, the aspects that interested me the most weren’t explored enough – air travel, steampunky-ness, cold magic, Cat and Bee’s relationship – but then again, it is the first part of a trilogy. It was good enough to leave me wanting more so I’ll definitely pick up the next book in the series and see where it leads me. I have the suspicion that there are very cool things in store. Plus, more Cat and Bee, which by itself makes it worthwile. And yes… more Andevai, too.

MY RATING: 7/10  –  Very good

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Karen Lord – The Galaxy Game

Posting an honest review in exchange for a free copy of a book is a good deal, no question. But that doesn’t mean I don’t feel slightly guilty when I don’t like a book that was given to me for free. Sure, writing reviews – positive or negative – generates buzz and will probably do the book’s sales more good than harm. But of course I’d prefer to only read books I love rather than ones that disappoint me the way this one did.

GALAXYgame_R.inddTHE GALAXY GAME
by Karen Lord

Published by: Jo Fletcher Books, 2015
Ebook: 336 pages
Series: The Best of All Possible Worlds #2 (sort of)
My rating: 4/10

First sentence: The only cure for a sleepless night was to lie in bed and watch the constellations projected on his ceiling.

For years, Rafi Delarua saw his family suffer under his father’s unethical use of psionic power. Now the government has Rafi under close watch but, hating their crude attempts to analyse his brain, he escapes to the planet Punartam, where his abilities are the norm, not the exception. Punartam is also the centre for his favourite sport, wallrunning – and thanks to his best friend, he has found a way to train with the elite.

But Rafi soon realises he’s playing quite a different game, for the galaxy is changing; unrest is spreading and the Zhinuvian cartels are plotting, making the stars a far more dangerous place to aim. There may yet be one solution – involving interstellar travel, galactic power and the love of a beautiful game.

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In The Best of All Possible Worlds, a book I needed to start twice but ended up loving, Grace Delarua was a fascinating character. Her nephew, Rafi, grew up in strange and difficult circumstances, giving him the potential to be even more exciting to follow than his aunt. The book blurb makes it sound like this story follows Rafi as a main character. That is a lie.

My problems with The Galaxy Game all lead to one big mistake by the author – not picking a main character. There simply was none. Rafi felt more like a side character, showing up occasionally but never being the center of the plot. Rafi’s friend Ntenman tells his parts of the story through first person narrative (for some unfathomable reason, because he is also not the protagonist). Add to that a whole bunch of other side characters, whose parts – like Rafis’s – are told through third person. Sometimes the jumps between first and third person happen within one chapter. One should think that the singled-out first person narrator in a story otherwise told through third person is supposed to be the center of the plot. But that is also not true. We have Rafi, we have Ntenman (who is, unlike the others, at least interesting), there is Serendipity, there are a bunch of others whose names become more and more ridiculous and unpronouncable, and there are cameos by old friends from the first book.

I simply didn’t know who to hold on to. Whose story was I following here exactly? Then again, there are many great novels that don’t focus on one character but on a large cast. If that is what the author wants to do, great, but then they should be careful that the connections between characters and the story that is told make sense.

The Galaxy Game starts out well enough. The prologue offers a glimpse into the future, showing us Rafi as he will be. Now, what drove me to read on was wanting to find out how he got to be that person, how he came to be in that place at that time. The first part of the novel is still somewhat coherent. It introduces Rafi and his two friends, Ntenman and Serendipity, as well as showing the life Grace and Dllenakh are leading now. Considering Rafi’s past experience with psi-abilities, I was hoping for more insight into that sort of life. The Lyceum is a school exactly for kids like Rafi, kids who don’t know their own power yet and should learn to use it fairly. But we don’t get to see any of that. At least Rafi and his friends are introduced and we learn of their relationships with each other, secret crushes included.

But once Rafi leaves for Punartam, things go topsy turvy. I liked certain ideas that Karen Lord presents in this book but none of them were fleshed out enough for me really get into. Social networks have extremely high value on Punartam, and ones connections can even be used like currency. To this moment, I don’t fully understand the wallrunning game – whether that is my fault for reading when tired or Karen Lord’s fault for explaining it badly, I can’t say. The people Rafi meets on Punartam all blur together in my memory. Not only are their at least seven-syllabic names impossible to remember, some of their names were so similar that I confused two characters that really shouldn’t be confused. This may sound nitpicky but choosing names is an important part of writing a good story. The names took me out of what was already a weak plot. I frequently put the book away and only picked it up out of a feeling of obligation (because review copy).

Also on Punartam, we are shown some political difficulties the galaxy is facing. There are talks about transportation, about New Sadira going crazy about keeping its “pure” bloodlines alive (references to which will only make sense if you’ve read The Best of All Possible Worlds, btw.) and there is an underworld and bets about Wallrunning games, and I don’t even know what the point of it all was. The story lacked focus. It was all over the place but stayed nowhere for long enough. Is it about a futuristic sport? About exploring different cultures? About a young man growing up? Intergalactic politics? Well, none of the above but also kind of all of them. It felt like the author tried to stuff too many things into one story and – because of that – didn’t focus on any of them properly.

galaxy game detail

Later in the novel, politics become more and more important (and less and less understandable) and Big Changes may happen to upset the order of the entire world. But, seeing as I never had a chance to care for any of the characters, these events left me cold and unimpressed. See, a book with bad plot and great characters is still a good book. A book with bad characters and a riveting plot may be a decent summer read. But a book with a jumpy plot, no focus, and mediocre, underdeveloped characters – that’s just not a good book, no matter how I twist and turn it.

I was very disappointed, especially because The Best of All Possible Worlds was such a careful, character-focused story in a world that had so much potential. The Galaxy Game reads like a hurried effort to write a quasi-sequel without plan or plot or care. I still love Grace Delarua and Dllenakh, but I can’t say I will remember Rafi, Ntenman or any of the others long after reading The Galaxy Game. I really like Karen Lord, but this book was a galaxy-sized mess.

MY RATING: 4/10  – Not  good

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Caitlín R. Kiernan – The Red Tree

I fell hard for Caitlín R. Kiernan’s The Drowning Girl so it’s a bit of a surprise that I waited so long to try one of her other stories. I fully expected to be blown away again. It wasn’t as good as The Drowning Girl but it did haunt me for a few nights.

red treeTHE RED TREE
by Caitlín R. Kiernan

Published by: Roc, 2009
Ebook: 400 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence: I have visited the old Wight Farm and its “red tree”, there where the house squats ancient and neglected below the bogs that lie at the southern edge of Ramswool Pond.

Sarah Crowe left Atlanta to live alone in an old house in rural Rhode Island. Within its walls she discovers an unfinished manuscript written by the house’s former tenant-an anthropologist obsessed with the ancient oak growing on the property. And as the gnarled tree takes root in her imagination, Sarah risks everything to unearth a revelation planted centuries ago…

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Unreliable narrators are one thing but CaitlÍn R. Kiernan really takes it up to eleven in The Red Tree. Sarah Crowe moves to a remote house to finally write that book she owes her publisher. Instead of actually writing said book, she begins a journal that chronicles the events during her stay in the house. And some of those events are so batshit insane that, while I read, I frequently checked that my boyfriend was around because I did not want to be alone in the house with that book. It’s the stuff of nightmares and what makes it worse is that you can never be sure what’s real and what isn’t.

This isn’t a haunted house story. I don’t even know if it’s a haunted person story. As Sarah becomes more intrigued by and obsessed with the red oak growing outside her kitchen window, things begin happening. Another woman moves into the attic of the house and while they get along well enough, something just isn’t right. That’s pretty much the tenor of the entire book – something’s definitely not right but you can’t put your finger on it.

The narration (and its reliability) depends on Sarah’s mental health, on her memory, on the way she interprets things, so it is naturally flawed. Sarah takes medication for her epillepsy but as readers, we don’t know if she takes her pills regularly, if she takes too many, if she is slowly going insane. A few visits to the famous Red Tree make you suspect the latter – except Sarah doesn’t go there alone. The cellar of the house is yet another mystery, and one you shouldn’t read about when you’re home alone at night. These scenes sent chills down my spine and made the book impossible to put down. Fridge noises, creaky floorboards, and noisy heaters should be avoided  – in fact, I suggest reading this in broad daylight, surrounded by people you trust. It’s that scary.

It seems to be a Kiernan thing that there never is a right place to pause, to put the book away and make lunch, for instance. These books demand to be read in one sitting, without coming up for air. The Red Tree drew me into its descent (whether it’s mental or paranormal) and part of the thrill was wanting to find out whether Sarah truly is insane or whether the tree is actually a force of evil, causing brutal murders and bloody rites over centuries. In the manuscript Sarah digs up from the cellar, the former tenant of the Wight Farm, put down his research about the red tree and some of these chapters are as bone-chilling as the events that happen to Sarah.

In the two books by Kiernan I’ve read so far, the themes are clear and recurring. Women who can’t trust their own minds, who don’t know if or how stable their mental health is, if the things they see are real or a figment of their imagination. It’s not exactly a pick-me-up when you’re feeling down, but these books are just so damn good. The writing just flows from one chapter into the next and even when there are breaks in the text, you don’t want to stop. Just like in The Drowning Girl, Sarah’s journal entries include a short story she wrote (without remebering writing it, I might add), excerpts from the manuscript about the red oak, and descriptions of Sarah’s dreams and nightmares.

As a mystery, the ending was a bit disappointing. It’s true that the (fictional) preface tells us right away that Sarah Crowe will die, but I had hoped for at least some resolution, some glimpse of what the hell is going on around that tree. In that respect, I felt let down, but considering that the book was engrossing and thrilling and scary as fuck throughout, the open ending is really not that big of a deal. I still don’t know what went on in that house (concerning any of the mysterious events that happened in or around it) but that doesn’t change that The Red Tree sucked me into its strange world for a few hours and happily scared the living crap out of me. Nicely done, Ms. Kiernan!

RATING: 7,5/10 – Very good

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Alaya Dawn Johnson – The Summer Prince

Well, this came out of nowhere. The Summer Prince was totally different from what I expected but it completely swept me off my feet. A hundred times. It’s been a few weeks since I read it and I still haven’t quite gotten over my hangover. Short as it is, the story really resonated with me and gives me that warm feeling when I think of certain scenes or descriptions. Believe me, these 300 pages really pack a punch!

summer princeTHE SUMMER PRINCE by Alaya Dawn Johnson

Published by: Arthur A. Levine Books, 2013
Paperback: 304 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8,5/10

First sentence: When I was eight, my papai took me to the park to watch a king die.

A heart-stopping story of love, death, technology, and art set amid the tropics of a futuristic Brazil. The lush city of Palmares Tres shimmers with tech and tradition, with screaming gossip casters and practiced politicians. In the midst of this vibrant metropolis, June Costa creates art that’s sure to make her legendary. But her dreams of fame become something more when she meets Enki, the bold new Summer King. The whole city falls in love with him (including June’s best friend, Gil). But June sees more to Enki than amber eyes and a lethal samba. She sees a fellow artist. Together, June and Enki will stage explosive, dramatic projects that Palmares Tres will never forget. They will add fuel to a growing rebellion against the government’s strict limits on new tech. And June will fall deeply, unfortunately in love with Enki. Because like all Summer Kings before him, Enki is destined to die. Pulsing with the beat of futuristic Brazil, burning with the passions of its characters, and overflowing with ideas, this fiery novel will leave you eager for more from Alaya Dawn Johnson.

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Wow! Whoever wrote that blurb tried to do the book justice, but it’s not easy to condense the multitude of its themes into a neat little paragraph or two. Alaya Dawn Johnson balances so many subjects in one story that I am stunned by how well each of them was developed and how her characters didn’t get lost on the way.

June Costa is a visual artist. She does graffiti in her free time but she wants something more. She wants fame, she wants Palmares Três to know that she is the best damn artist in the entire city. June’s ambition is unapologetic, which makes her stand out among literary heroines already, but these ambitions don’t exist in a vaccum. The city of Palmares Três , its inequality, its politics, its technology and traditions are as much protagonists as June herself.

I find it hard to talk about any one aspect of the novel without going into long explanations of how the city of Palmares Três works. Which makes it all the more impressive that Alaya Dawn Johnson managed to sneak in all her world-building without boring her readers, dumping information in random places or explaining things in the middle of the plot. Let’s just say, Palmares Três is a highly complex city. In future Brazil – future, as in after everything was bombed to shit – the city is built as much on tradition as it is on modern technology. There are divides between the young and the old, the rich and the poor, the technophiles and those afraid of new technologies. It is also a city based on tradition – one in particular plays a role in this book. The Summer King, chosen by the people, rules for one year alongside the queen, only to be sacrificed at the end. The auditions reminded me a lot of reality TV – you choose to be Summer King but you may not be the only one. Cameras follow the candidates everywhere, interviews are conducted, and the people of Palmares Três watch their holos to make an informed decision.

When Enki becomes Summer King, it is clear from the beginning that he is unlike his predecessors. Coming from the verde, the slums of Palmares Três, his agenda is clear but takes shape only when he collaborates with June to create art. What The Summer King teaches, among other things, is that art can take all kinds of shapes. It doesn’t have to be a picture or a piece of music, a sculpture or a dance. Art can be a statement, a wake-up call to all the politicians pretending the world is perfect. That is exactly what June and Enki set out to do. But this, too, seems like such a small part of a much bigger story. Technology is so advanced that living to see your 150th birthday is nothing special – and with that comes conflict between generations. The political system in general is wildly interesting. At its head, the queen rules, but with her are the Aunties (sort of like ministers) and, of course, the short-lived Summer Kings.

I’ve been rambling about the world-building (because it is seriously awesome!) but the story is still about June. Her fraught relationship with her mother, her trying to live up to her father’s memory, her best friend Gil and his romance with Enki… there’ so much to explore. Palmares Três was a refreshingly diverse place. After June’s father died, her mother remarried one of the Aunties. June’s best friend Gil has a relationship with Enki. Sexuality may not be an issue in Palmares Três but that doesn’t mean the city is perfect. Enki may sleep with Gil, June’s mother can marry a woman, and nobody bats an eye. But the city has other problems, trust me.

I won’t even try to summarize the plot. June’s quest for fame as an artist is a driving force, of course. But then so is her relationship with Enki and with the city she lives in. Palmares Três lives and breathes and while not all is perfect, June realizes that it is her home and special in its own way. YA dystopias are still all the rage, what with the last two Hunger Games movies coming out, and I cannot stress enough how unlike them The Summer Prince is. This is not about a world that is completely messed up, abandon-all-hope-style, and that needs a gigantic revolution to be fixed – if it can be fixed at all. It’s a world in which people genuinely try their best. These powerful people may not all be good and their efforts may not always lead anywhere, but Palmares Três is not without hope.

The ending seems pre-decided from the start and you may not expect a big surprise. Summer Kings die after a year, that is a fact. But Alaya Dawn Johnson didn’t end her book on a purely melancholy note. Instead, June has grown into herself, has learned something about the world she lives in and about the people she loves. There is a bittersweet note to the end that filled me with joy and hope and greed for more of Johnson’s books. I loved every chapter, every page of The Summer Prince and (similar to The Goblin Emperor) am hoping for a sequel even though there really shouldn’t be one…

MY RATING: 8,5/10  – Excellent!

P.S.: Look at that cover. It’s rare that everything on a book cover actually pertains to the story but in this case, they nailed it. June, her art, the pyramid city – it’s all right there. Plus, it’s just really, really pretty! divider1Other reviews:

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2014 in Review – Spotlight on Diverse Reads

Wow – I am so late with this post. I had hoped it would go up a little closer to the beginning of the year, but better late than never, right? Right! In my Favorite Books of 2014 post, I told you that I tracked not only what books I read but also how they hold up in terms of author and character diversity.

While I had no problem at all with reading more female authors and keeping a balance between author genders, I didn’t read all that many books that featured diverse characters.

Did I read as many books by women as by men?

Looking back at my reading year, it feels like I only read books by women. As it is quite often, my perception is wrong. I did read more women authors than men but the amount of female-authored books is not as extreme as I thought.

Author Gender 2014I read 33 books written by men and 53 books by women. There were two collaborations – Ellen Klages and Andy Duncan’s excellent Wakulla Springs, and Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples’ Saga Volume 3. As these are two male/female collaborations, I counted one book for each gender. For next year, I’ll probably add a new category in my spread sheet for collaborations and anthologies – after all, I may not always be lucky enough to have an even number of man-woman-teams and then how do I count these authors?
These stats are not bad though, right? I read a lot more women authors this year (which is probably due to not having any more Discworld Witches books left) than last year. The Worlds Without End Women of Genre Fiction Challenge is definitely what gave me the initial kick, and once you’re in that mode where you actively seek out not just women authors but women authors who you’ve never read, it becomes a habit. Instead of going back to the same (fantastic) authors I had loved for years, I tried a lot of new ones – and now my list of favorites is becoming ridiculously long.

When did I read the most and the least?

My reading has been spread out pretty logically throughout the year. Obviously, in the months where I had some time off work, I managed to read a lot more books. The years when 10 books per month were the norm are over, however. The way things are going now, I’m happy if I read 5 books a month, especially if they’re not all comics.

books read per month 2014

I had some time off work in both June and December. Considering how insane last year was, I’m surprised that I read so much during the first 6 months. In summer, things started getting a bit less busy, work hours went back to something resembling normal so I think I must have spent most of August sleeping instead of reading. I had no particular goals for how many books per month I wanted to read, I just think it’s interesting to look at the stats. :)

So how about diversity?

As promised in my Favorite Books of the Year post, let’s take a look at how many books by authors of color I read, how many diverse characters I met in 2014 and just generally how much I still have to work on picking more diverse books.POC authors 2014
Meh… that’s not great, is it? I am confident that next year I’ll read a lot more authors of color, just because I discovered a few of them in 2014 (Helen Oyeyemi, Octavia Butler,…) whose books I really enjoyed – and they have backlists for me to catch up on. 25% would be nice, so let’s aim for that in 2015.

I did a little better with diverse characters this year. The thing that struck me, though, was that the books featuring characters of color are usually the ones that generally have more diverse characters. All of the disabled characters I read about, for example, were found in books that also featured a protagonist of color or LGBTQI characters. I get the feeling that contemporary YA fiction is where it’s all happening, but then those books never appealed to me much. I always expect to find “issue books” and those are really not my cup of tea…

POC characters 2014

See now that’s not half bad. Almost a quarter of all the books I read featured characters of color. I was strict in counting them, too, so minor characters didn’t count. I may have let the odd sidekick into these statstics but only if they were vital to the plot. The rest are all protagonists. The same goes for the LGBTQI characters. The absolute stand-out book for these two charts is Jacqueline Koyanagi’s Ascension, a book that is so full of diverse characters it might have gone terribly wrong. Except it didn’t. The heroine, despite suffering from a disability that follows her every step she takes, doesn’t let it define her life. The plot doesn’t evolve around the disability, it’s just something that is in the back of your mind all the time.

LGBT characters 2014

As for LGBT characters – they are still a minority in the books I read. Again, I dislike issue books so I mostly read books with LGBTQI characters where the plot is not about them being gay, transgender, intersex, or what have you. Malinda Lo’s blog diversity in YA is a good source for YA books by diverse authors and featuring diverse characters, but you know my fragile relationship with YA fiction. It’s getting back on its feet what with brilliant writers like Maggie Stiefvater and Ysabeau S. Wilce, but I’m still careful when picking my YA fantasy books because I just can’t handle another useless love triangle, dumb heroine, or trope-laden storyline. Thanks to the interwebs, it shouldn’t be too hard to find recommendations, though. I’ll set my goal to at least 10 books featuring an LGBTQI protagonist for 2015.

Disability in the books I read is an even smaller minority  – I didn’t even make a chart, as I read only 3 books featuring disabled characters (and looking at that pie chart makes me sad). They were Lauren Beukes’ Broken Monsters, Nalo Hopkinson’s Sister Mine and Jacqueline Koyanagi’s Ascension. In Broken Monsters, a character is diabetic but she is not a protagonist. In Sister Mine, the protagonist’s sister has one leg that is shorter than the other and she has to walk with a cane or walking stick. If I had stuck to counting only protagonists, that would leave Jacqueline Koyanagi’s Ascension – which has more than just one disabled character.

Science Fiction and Fantasy is getting better at featuring diverse characters but they are far from the norm. I will continue to seek out books that show different aspects of life – even fictional life in fantasy worlds, on space ships, in fairy tales and wherever else – and all kinds of different people.

My resolutions for 2015 include keeping the balance between books written by male and female authors, reading more diversely than I did in 2014, and also finding a balance between comics and novels again. Oh yeah, and my Goodreads Reading Challenge goal is now set to “only” 90 books. That is just a little bit more than I managed to read in 2014, but then it was a crazy year (work-wise) that I don’t want to repeat. Balancing author genders is nice but a healthy work-life balance is what I’m really putting my focus on in 2015.

Any blogging resolutions?

Well, yeah. I’ve been posting less frequently, writing half-reviews that I never published, and no reviews at all for some books. I’ve never been a schedule blogger. Normally, I finish a book, gather my thoughts, write them down and share them with you guys. As I type this, I have at least six unpublished reviews lying around on my harddrive.

My resolution is to find more time to interact with my book blogging friends (including at least one read-a-thon!), read my ARCs and review time in a timely manner, and generally post more often again. Wish me luck.

Happy Reading, everyone!

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Best of 2014 – My Favorite Books

2015 is already here and I still owe you the obligatory Best of The Year List!

This year, more than ever before, work has taken over my life. I didn’t read as much as I wanted to, and I read a ton of comic books simply because their lower page count made it possible to finish them within a few days. My brain and patience were not up to the doorstopper-like challenges of Brandon Sanderson’s Way of Kings (although I did enjoy the half I read) or even another China Miéville.

I hope to find some sort of balance this year and I’m confident that the gigantic fantasy bricks on my shelves won’t be left unread for much longer. But on to the books. It was a good reading year. I read tons of books that were good and quite a few that were absolutely fantastic. I’m also happy that I managed to read so many new books (published this year) although by now I am quite behind on reading and reviewing the ARCs I got. First resolution for 2015: Read those damn ARCs right when you get them!

My favorite books published in 2014

in no particular order

My  single most-beloved, standout, wonderful, favorite book of 2014 was The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison. I had never read anything by Sarah Monette (pseudonym of the same author) and didn’t know what to expect. The book blew me away, slowly at first, then all the way.  It’s tough to get into, what with huge made-up fantasy language words, but it is oh so wonderful to follow Maia, the naive young goblin emperor, as he learns to rule a country and stay a good person at the same time.

My favorite comic book was Rat Queens for most of the year. Then I got Sex Criminals for Christmas, and picking a favorite became more difficult. I’d say, Sex Criminals has the potential for a fantastic but more serious comic book series while Rat Queens is just pure fun, wrapped in bright colors and trope-defying characters.

Two literary fantasies made it onto my best of the year list. Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy, Snow, Bird was so perfect in composition, language and theme that I went and bought all her other books right after reading this one. With Genevieve Valentine, this was more expected. I knew I loved her voice and I fully expected to love her retelling of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” set in the Roaring Twenties. The Girls at the Kingfisher Club isn’t exactly speculative fiction and neither is Boy, Snow, Bird – but they both retell fairy tales and they both break your heart time and time again.

In the horror/weird fiction area, two books clearly stood out (not that I read a lot of books in that sub-genre). Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy has been buzzed about all year. I have yet to read books 2 and 3, but Annihilation was creepy and weird in a strangely satisfying way – and it makes you want more of the same. Lauren Beukes stole my heart with last year’s The Shining Girls and cemented my high opinion of her writing with the new Broken Monsters. Not only does she delve deep, deep, deep into her characters’ personalities but she also depicts modern media in a believable (and believably scary) way. The murder story was almost an added bonus to what was already a riveting family tale.

Lastly, a short story and a short story collection. Returning to Califa in Ysabeau S. Wilce’s Prophecies, Libels & Dreams was truly like coming home. The Flora Segunda books grow ever more dear to me and my fingers are itching to return to the city of Califa where magic, house spirits, shape-shifting houses and brave rangers live side by side with a short, red-headed girl of spirit and her dandy friend Udo. The Book Smugglers became publishers of fiction this year and while I liked all of their stories, one stood out to me especially. “In her Head, in her Eyes” is a retelling of a story I hadn’t known but have read by now (A Girl With a Bowl on Her Head) and its atmosphere, the characters and especially the twist at the end were just amazing. (P.S.: The collection of their six published stories – Retold – is only 2$ at the moment, so go and buy yourself a copy!)

My favorite books NOT published in 2014

I read a lot of new publications this year (yay for me!) but the “oldies” must not be forgotten. My favorites crystallized pretty quickly because they are all stories that left a little something behind. When I look at the cover art, I remember reading the books, I remember how I felt and – unlike some “blockbuster fiction” – I remember the names of the characters that I loved.

I read Will McIntosh’s Love Minus Eighty right at the beginning of the year and couldn’t find fault with it. A love story, a discussion of morality, a depiction of what social media might hold in store for us in the future – every aspect of it was done beautifully!  My other adult book crush of 2014 is Bill Willingham’s Fables series. I have a long way to go yet but my shelves are now graced with the first 8 deluxe hardcovers and the entire Jack series. Fairy tale characters in modern New York was just too good to pass up. Plus, the sort-of-prequel Telltale Game The Wolf Among Us has great re-play value and tells a fantastic story too. It’s a large universe to get into but it is absolutely worth it.

Best of all, I have rediscovered my love for YA fiction. Alethea Kontis’ fairy tale retellings, Enchanted and Hero, may sound fluffy at first. That’s because they are, but there is much more to them than a teen romance with fairy tale creatures. What made me fall so hard for these books is the Woodcutter family and how they stick together through the good and the bad. These are books that you can cuddle up with and that make you feel good and happy about the world in general, and Kontis’s world in particular.
But my current absolute YA star is Maggie Stiefvater. I read The Raven Boys, based on several recommendations but especially Renay’s (of ladybusiness fame). What I got was a careful, detailed look at a group of young people with their own struggles. Being rich does not automatically solve all your problems. A dash of mystery and magic just makes these books even more interesting. In The Dream Thieves, Stiefvater outdid herself. I cannot put into words how much I love Blue and her Raven Boys.

So you see, it was a pretty good year for me with a variety of favorites. Once my graphics are done, I’ll give you all the dirty details about how much I read, how well I kept the balance between male and female authors (spoiler: I did pretty well) and whether I read as diversely as I set out to. That post will be up by the weekend if everything works out.

And to finish this off, here are some books I didn’t manage to read yet but want to – and soon:

  • Robert Jackson Bennett – City of Stairs
  • Emily St. John Mandel – Station Eleven
  • Jeff Vandermeer – Authority and Acceptance
  • Andy Weir – The Martian
  • Ann Leckie – Ancillary Sword
  • Rebecca Levine – Smiler’s Fair

I love these end-of-year lists (or, in my case, beginning of next year list) and reading what everybody else loved, so if you wrote your own feel free to link to it in the comments. Maybe there are some wonderful books I have completely overlooked and you want to nudge me gently towards them?

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Maggie Stiefvater – The Dream Thieves

I want to hug Renay over and over for giving me the final nudge to start reading The Raven Cycle. The amazing, stunning, brilliant Raven Cycle! The Raven Boys was surprising in many ways. Instead of the average YA fantasy romance (love triangle optional), I got a wonderful portrait of a group of boys and a girl who are so multi-layered I didn’t know who to love best. And guess what: The sequel was even better!

dream thievesTHE DREAM THIEVES
by Maggie Stiefvater

Published by: Scholastic, 2013
Ebook: 439 pages
Series: The Raven Cycle #2
My rating: 9/10

First sentence: A secret is a strange thing.

Now that the ley lines around Cabeswater have been woken, nothing for Ronan, Gansey, Blue, and Adam will be the same. Ronan, for one, is falling more and more deeply into his dreams, and his dreams are intruding more and more into waking life. Meanwhile, some very sinister people are looking for some of the same pieces of the Cabeswater puzzle that Gansey is after…

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If the first book belonged to Gansey, Adam, and Blue, this one is clearly Ronan’s. He may, so far, not have been the most likable Raven Boy, but he sure is the most interesting. Now it turns out he can take objects – even living ones – out of his dreams. His pet raven Chainsaw is the living example. That premise, in and of itself, would have been enough to keep me entertained, but Maggie Stiefvater doesn’t leave it at that. She threw in a few twists that made me gasp in surprise. This is not where I expected the story to go. Secrets are revealed and the group has to deal with the consequences of what they’ve done. Of what their parents have done…

Ronan is front and center of The Dream Thieves and I just loved learning more about his past, about his parents and siblings, about who he is – and why. But the other Raven Boys and Blue go through a fair share of character development themselves. Adam and Blue’s relationship, tender and strange, goes on a roller coaster ride when Blue discovers things about herself and grows up just a little bit more. Even Noah, the “smudgy one”, isn’t forgotten. These characters were already vibrant but now they are virtually glowing with life. I still can’t get enough of them. New characters are also introduced and while at first it seems they are there simply to make things more interesting (and more difficult for our protagonists), they also are well fleshed out and have a life of their own. Both Kavinsky and the Grey Man grew on me, in a strange and slightly uncomfortable way. Again, they may not be likable or even redeemable characters, but they are so damn well written!

The search for Glendower continues, of course, but just like in the first book, it’s not the focus of the novel. It may be a driving force for the characters but, honestly, I don’t much care when they find that Welsh king or if they do at all, just so long as I can spend some more time with them. Blue’s family makes a few appearances that stand in crass contrast to Ronan’s family life, for example. There is romance and heart-break, there are moments shared between siblings, there is a spectacular gesture from one Raven Boy to another that almost made me tear up. It goes to show that each Raven Boy shows affection in a different way. The scene between Noah and Blue, the numerous scenes in which Ronan reveals something about himself, that one scene between Blue and Gansey… this is where my brain refuses to spit out words and just goes into full gush mode.

dream thieves quoteThe writing continues to amaze me. I don’t believe I have ever read such a complex, thought-provoking and riveting YA novel. It explores class difference and broken families, the dynamic between a set of very different people with very different goals, and falling in love for the first time. Add to that a healthy dose of beautiful imagery and symbols and – boom – you’ve got a book that I simply can’t find fault with.

The only reason I’m not halfway through Blue Lily, Lily Blue yet is that I have to get over The Dream Thieves first. These books reverberate, they stay with you, they’re not meant for quick consumption. They are the kind of books that give you hangovers from too much emotion. And I look forward with terror in my heart to the moment I’ll have caught up with the latest book and have to wait for the next instalment to come out.

I wonder how much longer until the Hugo Awards finally add a YA section so I can throw all my votes at Maggie Stiefvater. This is a serious concern because these books totally deserve award recognition and, as we all know, YA doesn’t really do well unless it gets its own category (that’s why I love the Andre Norton award). I’ll keep my fingers crossed and read everything the woman has written until then.

RATING: 9/10 – Close to perfection.

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Most Anticipated Books of 2015

Far more fun than looking back at the year is looking forward to ALL THE BOOKS that are yet to come. 2015 promises to be a fantastic year for reading, because… because TWO CAT VALENTE NOVELS! Yay!

this puts sparkles in my eyes

I’m still mulling over my top books of 2014, so in the meantime, here are my most anticipated books of 2015 (all of which I have pre-ordered because I’m greedy and can’t wait and must have them ASAP):

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Catherynne M. Valente – The Boy Who Lost Fairyland (March 3rd 2015)

boy who lost fairylandOMG OMG  OMG! It’s coming. And it’s not titled “The Girl Who…” I have been in emotional turmoil ever since the title was revealed. Scratch that. Ever since the end of The Girl who Soared Above Fairyland. Expect gushing and fangirling and general emotional-ness from me once this is out.

When a young troll named Hawthorn is stolen from Fairyland by the Golden Wind, he becomes a changeling – a human boy — in the strange city of Chicago, a place no less bizarre and magical than Fairyland when seen through trollish eyes. Left with a human family, Hawthorn struggles with his troll nature and his changeling fate. But when he turns twelve, he stumbles upon a way back home, to a Fairyland much changed from the one he remembers. Hawthorn finds himself at the center of a changeling revolution–until he comes face to face with a beautiful young Scientiste with very big, very red assistant.

Time magazine has praised Catherynne M. Valente’s Fairyland books as “one of the most extraordinary works of fantasy, for adults or children, published so far this century.” In this fourth installment of her saga, Valente ‘s wisdom and wit will charm readers of all ages.

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Catherynne M. Valente – Radiance (August 18th 2015)

radiance“The Radiant Cars Thy Sparrows Drew” was a strange little short story that I loved to bits. Cat Valente may be famous for her fantasies, for weaving myth and monsters, beautiful prose and diverse characters – but don’t forget that she writes excellent short fiction and SF. I can’t wait for the novel that came out of the short story.

The first adult novel in more than three years from the bestselling author of the Fairyland books
Radiance is a decopunk pulp SF alt-history space opera mystery set in a Hollywood—and solar system—very different from our own, from the phenomenal talent behind the New York Times bestselling The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making.
Severin Unck’s father is a famous director of Gothic romances in an alternate 1986 in which talking movies are still a daring innovation due to the patent-hoarding Edison family. Rebelling against her father’s films of passion, intrigue, and spirits from beyond, Severin starts making documentaries, traveling through space and investigating the levitator cults of Neptune and the lawless saloons of Mars. For this is not our solar system, but one drawn from classic science fiction in which all the planets are inhabited and we travel through space on beautiful rockets. Severin is a realist in a fantastic universe.
But her latest film, which investigates the disappearance of a diving colony on a watery Venus populated by island-sized alien creatures, will be her last. Though her crew limps home to earth and her story is preserved by the colony’s last survivor, Severin will never return.

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Alethea Kontis – Dearest (February 3rd 2015)

dearestYou know I love the Woodcutter sisters. Both Enchanted and Hero were two of my favorite reads of the year. They are playful and clever and so very, very charming. Not without fault, they are heartwarming like cuddling into a blanket after coming home from a snow storm. The third volume retells the fairy tales “The Goose Girl” and “The Wild Swans” – and the way I know Princess Alethea, a handful of others just thrown in for good measure.

In her third book about the delightful Woodcutter sisters, Alethea Kontis masterfully weaves “The Wild Swans,” “The Goose Girl,” and a few other fine-feathered fairy tales into a magical, romantic companion novel to Enchanted and Hero.
Readers met the Woodcutter sisters (named after the days of the week) in Enchanted and Hero. In this delightful third book, Alethea Kontis weaves together some fine-feathered fairy tales to focus on Friday Woodcutter, the kind and loving seamstress. When Friday stumbles upon seven sleeping brothers in her sister Sunday’s palace, she takes one look at Tristan and knows he’s her future. But the brothers are cursed to be swans by day. Can Friday’s unique magic somehow break the spell?

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N.K. Jemisin – The Fifth Season (August 4th 2015)

fifth seasonI adored The Inheritance Trilogy for its breath of fresh air that the genre needed desperately, but also for Jemisin’s style, her characters and – who’d have thought – the romance. The Killing Moon wasn’t quite my cup of tea but I just bought the Inheritance novella (The Awakened Kingdom) which may be my last book of the year. Needlessly said, I am giddy with excitement over this new series from one of the best writers out there.

This is the way the world ends. Again.
Three terrible things happen in a single day. Essun, a woman living an ordinary life in a small town, comes home to find that her husband has brutally murdered their son and kidnapped their daughter. Meanwhile, mighty Sanze—the world-spanning empire whose innovations have been civilization’s bedrock for a thousand years—collapses as most of its citizens are murdered to serve a madman’s vengeance. And worst of all, across the heart of the vast continent known as the Stillness, a great red rift has been been torn into the heart of the earth, spewing ash enough to darken the sky for years. Or centuries.
Now Essun must pursue the wreckage of her family through a deadly, dying land. Without sunlight, clean water, or arable land, and with limited stockpiles of supplies, there will be war all across the Stillness: a battle royale of nations not for power or territory, but simply for the basic resources necessary to get through the long dark night. Essun does not care if the world falls apart around her. She’ll break it herself, if she must, to save her daughter.

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Genevive Valentine – Persona (March 10th 2015)

personaLook, I’ll read anything by Genevieve Valentine, okay? It’s been two years and I still get all the feels when I think about Mechanique. Valentine has her very own particular style (lots of parentheses) that I happen to love. Plus, this book is extra exciting as it’s published by shiny, new Saga Press.

An acerbic thriller from a Nebula award finalist, set against the backdrop of a near-future world of celebrity ambassadors and assassins who manipulate the media to the point where the only truth seekers left are the paparazzi.
When Suyana, Face of the United Amazonia Rainforest Confederation, secretly meets Ethan of the United States for a date that can solidify a relationship for the struggling UARC, the last thing she expects is an assassination attempt. Daniel, a teen runaway-turned-paparazzi out for his big break, witnesses the first shot hit Suyana, and before he can think about it, he jumps into the fray, telling himself it’s not altruism, it’s the scoop. Just like that, Suyana and Daniel are now in the game of Faces. And if they lose, they’ll die.

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Elizabeth Bear – Karen Memory (February 3rd 2015)

karen memoryIt took one look at the cover and I was hooked. Then I read the synopsis and it was a sure thing I would need this book. I’m still reading the Eternal Sky trilogy by Bear but, judging from its quality, I expect I will love this new book as well.

“You ain’t gonna like what I have to tell you, but I’m gonna tell you anyway. See, my name is Karen Memery, like memory only spelt with an e, and I’m one of the girls what works in the Hôtel Mon Cherie on Amity Street. Hôtel has a little hat over the o like that. It’s French, so Beatrice tells me.”
Hugo-Award winning author Elizabeth Bear offers something new in Karen Memory, an absolutely entrancing steampunk novel set in Seattle in the late 19th century—an era when the town was called Rapid City, when the parts we now call Seattle Underground were the whole town (and still on the surface), when airships plied the trade routes bringing would-be miners heading up to the gold fields of Alaska, and steam-powered mechanicals stalked the waterfront. Karen is a “soiled dove,” a young woman on her own who is making the best of her orphaned state by working in Madame Damnable’s high-quality bordello. Through Karen’s eyes we get to know the other girls in the house—a resourceful group—and the poor and the powerful of the town. Trouble erupts into her world one night when a badly injured girl arrives at their door, seeking sanctuary, followed by the man who holds her indenture, who has a machine that can take over anyone’s mind and control their actions. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, the next night brings a body dumped in their rubbish heap—a streetwalker who has been brutally murdered.
Bear brings alive this Jack-the-Ripper-type story of the old west with the light touch of Karen’s own memorable voice, and a mesmerizing evocation of classic steam-powered science.

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These are the books that make me hop on one leg for excitement. But there are plenty of others that I look forward to. Nnedi Okorafor’s Book of Phoenix sounds interesting, Terry Pratchett announced the fifth Tiffany Aching novel, The Shepherd’s Crown [insert wild squeeing here], although I don’t know whether it will come out in 2015. Maria Dahvana Headley’s Magonia intrigued me with its description, I missed the kickstarter for Megan Lavey-Heaton’s anthology Valor but I am so going to get a copy, somehow. Also, if Scott Lynch’s Thorn of Emberlain comes out, I’ll be eating it up. I’m curious about Grace of Kings by Ken Liu although I still haven’t read any of his short fiction.

It looks to become a thrilling year full of potentially brilliant books. I can’t wait to see what else 2015 brings but I’m sure there will be a few surprises and, hopefully, new authors to discover, and new fantastic worlds to explore.

 

 

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Laura Lam – Pantomime

The year is coming to an end and I’m rushing to finish at least some of my reading challenges. Laura Lam’s debut novel was on several of my lists and while it was a quick enough read, I felt rather disappointed once I reached its end.

pantomimePANTOMIME
by Laura Lam

Published by: Strange Chemistry, 2013
Ebook: 320 pages
Series: Micah Grey #1
My rating: 6/10

First sentence: “They say magic left the world with the Chimaera and the Alder.”

R.H. Ragona’s Circus of Magic is the greatest circus of Ellada. Nestled among the glowing blue Penglass – remnants of a mysterious civilisation long gone – are wonders beyond the wildest imagination. It’s a place where anything seems possible, where if you close your eyes you can believe that the magic and knowledge of the vanished Chimeras is still there. It’s a place where anyone can hide.
Iphigenia Laurus, or Gene, the daughter of a noble family, is uncomfortable in corsets and crinoline, and prefers climbing trees to debutante balls. Micah Grey, a runaway living on the streets, joins the circus as an aerialist’s apprentice and soon becomes the circus’s rising star. But Gene and Micah have balancing acts of their own to perform, and a secret in their blood that could unlock the mysteries of Ellada.

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This book has a huge problem right from the start. If you read the synopsis and have had even a glimpse of a review, you know that Micah Grey and Iphigenia Laurus are the same person. This is not a spoiler because – even without the prior knowledge – it takes about three pages to figure it out. The story, however, hinges on this secret as a creator of suspense. To say it simply: It doesn’t. Micah Grey has just joined the circus and is now training to be a trapeze artist with the beautiful Aenea and the seasoned Arik. Hiding that he is, in fact, not a boy could be so thrilling (just think of the Alanna books by Tamora Pierce) but the execution doesn’t let it get interesting. Micah has a lot of understandable angst but things go pretty smoothly. (NOTE: For the sake of readability, I call the protagonist Gene and use female pronouns in this review, although this naturally shifts in the book, depending on whether she is Gene or Micah at the moment.)

Iphigenia Laurus’ story is told in flashbacks. Frequent visits to medical professionals, discussions about her “condition”, her trying to hide her terrible secret and not quite fitting into the role her parents have planned for her – that’s Iphigenia’s, or Gene’s daily life. In these chapters, another tendency that bothered me came up. Gene doesn’t like being a girl and so hangs out a lot with her brother and his friends. She climbs trees, she secretly smokes with the boys, she doesn’t like wearing dresses.

So far, so fine. But in these flashback chapters, it became more and more disconcerting how negatively all things feminine were described. The short version is: girls get dolls and dresses, boys get books. Girls only care about their looks and finding a husband, boys get to do stuff, to be active. They climb trees, they go outside and play games, they are where all the fun is. As if a feminine girl couldn’t possibly be interested in outdoor activities, as if liking to dress up made you a superficial idiot. That’s the message I took away from these early chapters and it made me quite uncomfortable. In a book with an intersex protagonist, shouldn’t the author be more careful with the language she chooses to describe stereotypical “boy” and “girl” things? Shouldn’t this book also be the platform to discuss these stereotypes?

To be fair, the tone does get more neutral towards the end when Gene puts on a dress of her own volition and quite enjoys it. From Gene’s point of view, I totally get it. But the narration makes it sound like it’s a fact that girls are narrow-minded dolls and boys are interested in all things cool.

“Don’t call me Genie,” I said automatically, crossing into the room that was as masculine as it was possible for a room to be. The air smelled of musty books, the acrid tang of old smoke and the orange oil used to treat furniture. Everything was maroon, hunter green, and brown.”

Girls, on the other hand, get frilly pink dresses and discussions of upcoming balls. Going outside or playing a game would be unheard of…

We spent the afternoon being young noblewomen, dressing up and applying cosmetics, eating cakes and tea and discussing plans for the upcoming season. I made more of an effort this time than I usually did, trying to fit myself into the role of a girl to see if I could ever make it work, instead of convincing Anna to play board games or go for a carriage ride through the city.

I may read too much into this but having chapters with this mindset juxtaposed, it becomes blatantly obvious that, at the very least, Gene’s viewpoint on gender roles is limited. More interesting was, perhaps, her sexuality. Gene feels very insecure in her own skin and things only get worse when she finds herself attracted to aerialist Aenea. Is Gene a lesbian girl? A straight boy? And what about Drystan, the white clown with an air of mystery? Gene’s confusion was very well described, her jumbled feelings whenever Aenea or Drystan interact with her felt real. I found the actual romance bits (kisses, for one) to be described in a very bland way but that may just be me. I did totally love Drystan and he is the main reason I want to continue reading this series.

micah grey

All the gender discussion aside, the plot wasn’t great either. To me, it felt like this story should have started where the first novel ends. Perhaps I would feel differently had it been told in a more gripping manner. As mentioned before, hiding who you really are when you live in very close quarters with other people could be so very intriguing. How do you shower? When and where do you change clothes if nobody is allowed to see you naked? To make things worse, Gene has her first period in the circus and needs to deal with that monthly complication as well. But, while mentioned briefly, all these little things are dealt with pretty quickly and never come up again.

The same thing goes for the world building. There are hints of true potential, little tidbits that grab the reader’s attention, but – just like any other conflict – they are throwaway remarks. I assume (and hope) that the Penglass, the myth of the Kedi, the strange damselfly and all the other little things are explored in the next book. Their brief appearences in Pantomime, however, didn’t serve the plot at all. They were clearly breadcrumbs left there for the next book. No conclusions are reached, no riddles solved, no revelations made.

The ending bothered me even more. Just as real conflict comes up, just as Gene is in real danger and her secret might be revealed to the world, things just fall into place. There is a fair bit of action involved and I was honestly surprised at how dark the story suddenly got. It was a well-written ending but not a well-plotted one. Because, to me, Gene ends up just where she was at the beginning of the novel. She didn’t grow, she made some friends, she is now a trapeze artist, but other than that it’s “welcome square one, nice to see you again.” It was a deeply unsatisfying ending, to say the least, because the proper story hasn’t even started yet, everything that was built up in this book is left behind, and I have to ask myself: Why write this book at all, then? Why not start with the real story and throw the events of Pantomime in as flashbacks?

The book does have redeeming qualities and certain aspects of the story totally hooked me. I am almost certain that Shadowplay, the second in the series, will be a better book in every single way. I’m just not in a particular hurry to read it. Maybe in a year or two… for Drystan’s sake.

RATING: 6/10  –  Okay

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Other reviews:

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Octavia Cade – Trading Rosemary

The Book Smugglers’ review of this novella made me curious when they posted it but it was only after I read one of their Book Smugglers Publishing fairy tale short stories (“The Mussel Eater”) that I realised I had heard the name Octavia Cade before. Once I made the connection from raving review to short story  that I adored, it was a quick decision to buy the novella and give it a shot. My conclusion: The Book Smugglers continue to be a reliable source of amazing fiction and Octavia Cade is a name to watch out for!

trading rosemaryTRADING ROSEMARY
by Octavia Cade

Published by: Masque Books, 2015
Ebook: 82 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: Among those who could accurately judge such things, it was generally acknowledged that Rosemary’s library was the finest of its kind in the entire archipelago.

In a world where experience is currency, Rosemary is the owner of a very special library—a library of memory, where scented coins transfer personal experience from one individual to another. When she trades away the sole memory of her grandmother’s final concerto, family opposition, in the form of her daughter Ruth, forces Rosemary to go on a quest to try and recover the lost coin. Yet having to trade away her own memories to get it back, how much of Rosemary will survive the exchange?

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The thing I remembered most about “The Mussel Eater” was Octavia Cade’s tendency to write food porn – gorgeous, mouth-watering, brilliant food porn. She did similar things in Trading Rosemary, although not limiting herself to food but describing all sorts of vibrant memories and experiences.

Rosemary is the proud and happy owner of one of the most valuable libraries in the archipelago. Her coins, each containing a memory and scent, are worth more than you can imagine and will ensure her family’s future. Except Rosemary’s daughter, Ruth, spoiled little brat that she is, doesn’t want anything to do with the memory coins. This daughter is the reason Rosemary sets out on a journey to bring back the coin containing her grandmother’s requiem – which she had traded for another, very rare one. To appease Ruth and have some peace and quiet at home, Rosemary is willing to trade the coin she wants for the coin her daughter demands back.

The author eases her readers into this strange world in the first two chapters. We find out how the memory coins work, read descriptions of the most wonderful scents, and get glimpses of memories that somebody once treasured and someone else might not have cared for. Despite the very strange and scary idea of embedding your own memories into coins, which are then used as currency, I had no problem suspending my disbelief and simply falling into the story.

The bulk of the book tells of Rosemary’s journey to get that damned coin back. The man she traded it to is willing to give it back, but at a high cost. Rosemary must collect nine other coins. One condition of the deal is that Rosemary only use her own memories in exchange for these coins. So chapter after chapter, she hands over memories that range from melancholy to important to heart-breaking to (seemingly) less interesting. Trying to put a price on a personal experience seems like a silly, incredibly subjective thing to do but I’m sure one particular memory will shock other readers just as it shocked me. And what’s more, the question whether Rosemary is still Rosemary after giving away even one single memory. Memories are what makes us who we are (Anybody who has had a case of Alzheimer’s in the family knows just how true this is.) and while leaving one or two childhood memories may not seem like a big deal, it will inevitably change your personality. Maybe just a tiny bit, maybe a lot. Mulling this over in your head was a large part of my enjoyment of this novella.

Even more interesting than their “value” is how these memories slowly paint a picture of Rosemary as a person. On less than 100 pages, drawing a full character is not easy but Octavia Cade succeeds not only in making Rosemary come to life but even the side characters. Ruth – the daughter whom I despise – the people Rosemary trades with, they all feel so real and alive even though we only get to see them for the span of a few pages. It’s a remarkable feat that Cade pulls off without giving up some of her descriptions of smells and foods or the mood of a day by the sea. It goes to show just how powerful personal memories are. One single glimpse into an important moment of a life can be so very telling. I enjoyed how every memory evoked different feelings. Some where shocking, some lovely, others disconcerting. They all advanced the plot, however, and developed the characters.

I thought I had the ending all figured out. According to me, it could go one of two ways – I got half of it right, but I could’t have foreseen what comes after. The fact that it shattered my heart the way it did is yet more proof of Octavia Cade’s talent. Not only did I get attached to Rosemary as a character (even though she is mostly remote and somewhat cold) but to her coins as well. I didn’t want to give away a single of her memories and watched in horror as she had to give up other people’s memories.

I loved the style so much that I immediately bought Cade’s newer novella The Don’t Girls. Her ideas are original, her prose is gorgeous, she plays with my emotions as if I were her puppet – and I loved it! I’ll be watching closely for anything new she publishes. Maybe one day, I’ll even get a big, fat novel.

RATING:  8/10 – Excellent

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