Susan Dennard – Sightwitch

And I’m back with more Witchlands. The next instalment in the series just came out, so I didn’t want to read it right away (makes the wait for the next book shorter). But thankfully, there is this prequel-novella (200 pages still counts as a novella?) about side-character Ryber.

SIGHTWITCH
by Susan Dennard

Published by: Tor Teen, 2018
Ebook: 224 pages
Series: The Witchlands #2.5
My rating: 6,5/10

First sentence: You don’t remember me, do you, Kullen?

Before Safi and Iseult battled a Bloodwitch…
Before Merik returned from the dead…
Ryber Fortiza was a Sightwitch Sister at a secluded convent, waiting to be called by her goddess into the depths of the mountain. There she would receive the gift of foretelling. But when that call never comes, Ryber finds herself the only Sister without the Sight.
Years pass and Ryber’s misfit pain becomes a dull ache, until one day, Sisters who already possess the Sight are summoned into the mountain, never to return. Soon enough, Ryber is the only Sister left. Now, it is up to her to save her Sisters, though she does not have the Sight—and though she does not know what might await her inside the mountain.
On her journey underground, she encounters a young captain named Kullen Ikray, who has no memory of who he is or how he got there. Together, the two journey ever deeper in search of answers, their road filled with horrors, and what they find at the end of that road will alter the fate of the Witchlands forever.
Set a year before TruthwitchSightwitch is a companion novella that also serves as a set up to Bloodwitch, as well as an expansion of the Witchlands world.

Although this is technically a prequel (#0.5 of the Witchlands, if you will), and you can read it without having read any of the other books in the series, I think it is better to read it after Windwitch. Certain things that happen in this novella could spoil the second book otherwise. So, if you’ve read the first two Witchlands novels, you have already met Ryber Fortiza on Prince Merik’s crew and you know she and Merik’s Threadbrother Kullen are together.

Here, we meet a much younger Ryber during her time with the Sightwitches, waiting to be summoned herself and gain the power of Sight – remembering everything immediately, seeing the future, preserving memories from the dead. Year after year, young Sightwitch Sisters are summoned into the mountain to converse with the Goddess Sirmaya. Except Ryber. Yet she doesn’t give up, she follows every rule and is a model student, hoping that her devotion will get her summoned eventually.

It’s a great set-up for a story and one that made me sympathise with Ryber immediately. Nobody likes being the one left behind. And as Ryber watches her friends, especially her Threadsister Tanzi, summoned, with herself  still left Sightless, she becomes more and more desperate. When all Sightwitch Sisters are summoned, leaving Ryber completely alone, she knows that following the rules isn’t an option anymore. If she doesn’t take matters into her own hands, none of the Sightwitches might ever return. An no rulebook is worth that!

It was really nice that this shorter book finally explained the magic in a bit more detail. Sure, we focus on Sightwitches here, completely ignoring all the other magic out there, but the system seemed beautifully thought out and even based on a sort of common mythology. I guess that mythology and ancient history will be quite important for the series in general. We learn how people in the Witchlands came to possess magic in the first place and the events that led to this change. I found all of that incredibly interesting, not just because it’s a great story in itself but also because it gives the world so much more depth than it had with just the two main books in the series.

But this book isn’t only about Ryber and her journey into the mountain to save the other Sightsisters. We jump back in time to another Sightwitch’s life – in fact, we jump straight  into Eridysi’s journals and learn what was going on a thousand years before Ryber. I also really liked Eridysi as a character and found her story almost more intriguing than Ryber’s. But – you may have guessed – the two stories aren’t just there by happenstance, they do connect in the end.

Ryber’s trip into the mountain was probably the most annoying part of the book. She meets Kullen (no spoiler, it’s literally on the first page) and while they don’t exactly hit it off, they form an alliance of sorts to try and get out of the crazy mountain alive. Why crazy, you ask? Well, there’s all sorts of monster and weird rooms and other stuff that wants to kill you down there. Fun to read, for sure, but I was way more interested in the background stories. Fleshing out the story of the Paladins and how they died many, many years ago. How magic came to the Witchlands, what kind of doors Eridysi was trying to build and whether she ever succeeded.

In the end, things connect really well, and many questions were answered. Although even more appeared, especially when it comes to Kullen and certain events from Windwitch. This book also doesn’t continue seamlessly into Truthwitch so I’m left wanting to know how Ryber got from the end of this book to where she is when we first meet her on Merik’s ship. But all things considered, this was a nice shorter trip into the Witchlands and I recommend this book to anyone who wants to read the series. Sometimes, you can leave out the bonus novellas or short stories that come with book series, but this one just feels important to the overall world.

MY RATING: 6,5/10 – Very good

Susan Dennard – Windwitch

After the happy surprise that was Truthwitch, I decided to continue Susan Dennard’s Witchlands series and see where she takes her characters and what else I can learn about this world. Unfortunately, there were a lot of things wrong with this sequel, but not enough to deter me completely from the series. I have high hopes for the next instalment and I’m already reading the (so far really great) prequel Sightwitch.

WINDWITCH
by Susan Dennard

Published by: Tor, 2017
Ebook: 384 pages
Series: The Witchlands #2
My rating: 6,5/10

First sentence:  Blood on the floor.

Sometimes our enemies are also our only allies…
After an explosion destroys his ship, the world believes Prince Merik, Windwitch, is dead. Scarred yet alive, Merik is determined to prove his sister’s treachery. Upon reaching the royal capital, crowded with refugees, he haunts the streets, fighting for the weak—which leads to whispers of a disfigured demigod, the Fury, who brings justice to the oppressed.
When the Bloodwitch Aeduan discovers a bounty on Iseult, he makes sure to be the first to find her—yet in a surprise twist, Iseult offers him a deal. She will return money stolen from him, if he locates Safi. Now they must work together to cross the Witchlands, while constantly wondering, who will betray whom first?
After a surprise attack and shipwreck, Safi and the Empress of Marstok barely escape with their lives. Alone in a land of pirates, every moment balances on a knife’s edge—especially when the pirates’ next move could unleash war upon the Witchlands.

Well, if ever there was a book that started with a bang, this is it! When I started reading, I thought for a little while that I had skipped a volume or missed a chapter because boy, stuff goes down right away! Prince Merik escaped from his exploding ship and now lives in hiding, scarred, hurt, and somewhat depressed at the state of his home country and himself. He misses his Threadbrother, he has no plan on what to do next, and he can’t stop thinking about Safiya fon Hasstrel…

Meanwhile, Safi and Iseult – separated as per the end of book one – don’t have it much easier. Iseult desperately tries to find Safi again and stumbles across Bloodwitch Aeduan – my (and probably most other readers’) favorite character. Safi starts out much like Merik, with a shipwreck and on the run. So the stakes are high right from the start, there is lots of interesting conflict  and character development to come, and I sank into this book smiling smugly, knowing I had chosen wisely.

And to be fair, the book does deliver a lot of these early promises. But it also has a lot of problems. Let’s start with the good stuff. I enjoyed, more than anything else, Iseult’s character development, the things that are revealed in her storyline, and above all her relationship with Aeduan. These two are thrown together by fate and continue their journey side by side for a while to mutual benefit. But as you can imagine, a sort of friendship does form, although one expressed through grunts and constantly saving each others lives rather than through actual spoken words. I loved every second of Iseult and Aeduan, especially because we get to read both their POVs and see how they’re both unsure they can trust the other person but they also both want the other person to stay alive.

Merik’s storyline was also not bad, although it had major parts that were too drawn out and quite frankly boring. He returns to his home unrecognizably scarred and while he enjoys this new anonymity, he still wants to save his kingdom. We also finally get to know Merik’s sister, Vivia, and let’s just say, there is more to her than meets the eye. I should say more than Merik has led us to believe so far. Because we get to see this ruthless, bloodthirsty and power-hungry character through her own POV chapters, she feels much more three-dimensional, much more multi-layered and although I can’t say I liked her (at least not at first), there is no denying that she was interesting as hell to read about!

Safi’s story was actually the weakest of them all. There were more things I disliked about her story than things I liked. First of all was the fact that her and  Vaness get throwin into situations involving other nations, bands of pirates, weird magic-resistant guys, and yet more groups of people who we may have heard of before but I just found it all very confusing and had a difficult time keeping all the new characters and factions straight. There is not enough explanation, not enough time to understand the world-building properly to get into the whole “which faction is betraying with other faction” thing.
Even worse though was Safi’s fickleness when it comes to the romance. I really liked her tense relationship with Merik in the first book and I wanted these two to find each other again. But Safi wastes no time being attracted to other men. Of course I know this happens, particularly with a teenager like Safi, but I felt disappointed in her nonetheless.

The middle part of the book is a bit of a drag all-round, with quick POV changes but very little happening to push the plot forward in each of the story lines. I felt like Iseult and Aeduan walked around for ages without getting any further, I felt Merik hid in the shadows without any plan of what to do, just sulking around, and Safi and Vaness stumbled from one kind of capture into the next – all without moving anything truly forward. But the last third of the book made up for the middle slog.

What really, really bothered me, especially toward the end, was the extremely quick jumps between characters. As soon as I got into a scene, felt comfortable with one character’s story line again, something shocking happens and it’s over – we jump to the next character. And then the same thing happens over again. And again. And again. It’s thrilling, no doubt, reading nothing but cliffhangers for about a hundred pages, but it never allowed me to fully engage with any one character or their story because I was constantly being ripped out of it again. I think putting the individual character sequences together differently would have greatly improved the book. But hey, that’s just me.

Despite the annoying POV jumps, the ending was quite epic. There were several revelations that open the world up even more and give plenty of room for the sequels. I would have liked to learn a bit more about the parts of the world that have already been established, as well as about the magic, but if the author decided to keep that for the upcoming books, I’m okay with that. This may have been a very flawed book that would have benefited off some better editing, but I’m still invested in the Witchlands and its characters. I can’t wait to finish the prequel Sightwitch and then dive straight into the newly-released Bloodwitch. Because, come on, it has to be focused on Aeduan and Aeduan is the best!

MY RATING: 6,5/10 – Pretty good

2019 Retellings Challenge – First Quarter Update

The first quarter of the year is almost over (how did that happen?), so it’s time for a little update on my reading challenges. I think I’ve been doing pretty well, especially with the Retellings Challenge which is the most dear to me because my TBR is overflowing with retellings and I really need to catch up!

What I’ve read

My retellings have been everything from mind-blowingly good (The Scorpio Races and The Language of Thorns) to still very good (Trail of Lightning and A Curse so Dark and Lonely) to meh (In the Vanisher’s Palace and Pride) to complete failure (Girls of Paper and Fire). Although, that’s a very mixed outcome, I am quite pleased all things considered.

The Scorpio Races took a while to get started for me, but boy did it grab my heart at the end. I cried, people! The Language of Thorns satisfied both my need for more Grishaverse as well as my love for fairy tales. Trail of Lightning was a fun post-apocalyptic Urban Fantasy romp in a unique setting and A Curse so Dark and Lonely caught me with its kick-ass active protagonist and its clever use of the Beauty and the Beast tropes.

In case you want to read my less favorable reviews, here’s Pride and here’s the complete trainwreck that was Girls of Paper and Fire.

My retellings reading plan

I don’t have any fixed plans on what to read next because I like to see where my mood takes me, but there are a few books that definitely have to happen soon.

  • Surprise Peter Pan retelling (depends on which book wins the poll for the April group read on Goodreads)
  • Katherine Arden – The Winter of the Witch
  • Madeline Miller – Circe
  • Rosamunde Hodge – Bright Smoke, Cold Fire

I’m really looking forward to the Peter Pan retelling, no matter which book wins. All the nominated books sound amazing, so I’ll be happy with whatever gets the most votes (except for Alias Hook which I’ve already read). Madeline Miller’s Song of Achilles was really beautiful, so I’m making her my choice for Greek myth retelling, Rosamunde Hodge is also one of my favorite retellings authors and I’m curious to see what her version of Romeo and Juliet looks like. And Katherine Arden has stolen my reader’s heart with her Winternight Trilogy, so finding out how the story ends is bittersweet. I really want to know what happens but I don’t look forward to not having any of her books left to read.

General Thoughts on the Challenge

I’ve been loving this challenge so far. I did notice that, after reading a lot of retellings I felt a need for something else. So I spent March reading mostly other books, catching up on some series, even reading something that isn’t SFF (Anne of Green Gables – it’s adorable!) but by now, I’m really back in the mood for more retellings. Since I always read more than one book at a time, I may try pairing a retelling with a new release – there are so many new books this year that sound absolutely amazing.

If you’re doing this challenge as well, how is it going for you? Have you discovered a hidden gem like I did with The Scorpio Races? Have you been disappointed in an over-hyped book? Let me know in the comments and if you participate in the challenge, make sure to link up at Cornerfolds.

Post-Apocalyptic Family Confusions: Sam J. Miller – Blackfish City

I read and loved Sam J. Miller’s book The Art of Starving last year, so there was no question I’d check out his non-YA novel. This book cemented my opinion that Miller is an author to watch and one whose books I can buy without hesitation.

BLACKFISH CITY
by Sam J. Miller

Published by: Ecco, 2018
Ebook: 336 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8,5/10

First sentence: People would say she came to Qaanaaq in a skiff towed by a killer whale harnessed to the front like a horse.

After the climate wars, a floating city is constructed in the Arctic Circle, a remarkable feat of mechanical and social engineering, complete with geothermal heating and sustainable energy. The city’s denizens have become accustomed to a roughshod new way of living, however, the city is starting to fray along the edges—crime and corruption have set in, the contradictions of incredible wealth alongside direst poverty are spawning unrest, and a new disease called “the breaks” is ravaging the population.
When a strange new visitor arrives—a woman riding an orca, with a polar bear at her side—the city is entranced. The “orcamancer,” as she’s known, very subtly brings together four people—each living on the periphery—to stage unprecedented acts of resistance. By banding together to save their city before it crumbles under the weight of its own decay, they will learn shocking truths about themselves.
Blackfish City is a remarkably urgent—and ultimately very hopeful—novel about political corruption, organized crime, technology run amok, the consequences of climate change, gender identity, and the unifying power of human connection.

Qaanaaq is a floating city in the Arctic Circle, built by rich men to flee a world devastated by climate change and war. It is run by AI, is heated by geothermal vents, and it’s rife with poverty. Add to that a new-ish disease, “the breaks”, and you’ve got a most intriguing setting, and that’s before anything resembling a plot has even started, before you’ve met any of the characters. Needless to say, this book had me excited from a very early point and kept my interest up through to the end.

The story  is told through four (occasionally more) POV characters who don’t appear to be connected at first but who will be brought together through Qaanaaq’s newest arrival – a woman who rode into the city on a orca, accompanied by a polar bear. Or so the stories go at least. Through the eyes of these very different protagonists, we don’t only get to know them, but we also learn about the city. And the city absolutely counts as a character in its own right.

Fill is a young man who must grapple with the hard truth that he has caught the breaks. So he considers his life as good as over, he is haunted by weird visions or dreams or memories more and more often, and even his wealth cannot help because there is no known cure. With Fill, we see Qaanaaq very differently than with the other characters, because his grandfather is an extremely rich man. So while Fill knows that parts of the city are overflowing with people who sleep in boxes (because there is no living space), he is not affected himself and his thoughts reflect that.
What I particularly liked about Fill’s chapters – I didn’t care for him as a person all that much – was his obsession with the broadcast “City Without a Map”. Nobody knows who writes these texts that talk about their city, show its beautiful and its ugly side, give accounts of things that happen, etc. Each broadcast is narrated by someone else, people without any obvious connection. But these texts were beautiful to read and did wonders for the world-building.

Fill may be a rich boy with little to worry about. Genderfluid Soq, on the other hand, is almost at the opposite end of the city’s wealth divide. They do sleep in a box, hunting job after job just to get by. At the same time, Soq felt  surprisingly savvy and wise to me, although they are very young. Soq works for one of Qaanaaq’s crime bosses and aspires to become on themself one day.

Probably my favorite characters at the start were Ankit and Kaev, the only two that are connected at the beginning of the story. Kaev is a fighter, paid to fight (and sometimes to lose) the spectacular battles that provide entertainment for Qaanaaq’s population. He is also Ankit’s brother but he suffers from some form of brain damage that includes memory loss. So these two never really connected. I loved Ankit because although it’s her job to look the other way when she sees people suffering from the breaks, she just can’t. Working for a politician does that to you.

All of these characters are simply going their own way and doing their own thing when the story begins. What changes everything is the arrival of the orcamancer, who at first is nothing more than an urban legend. But because of this woman, the course of every character’s life changes and – surprise! – they all come together somehow. I won’t tell you the orcamancer’s back story or how everything is connected, but I really enjoyed the revelations in this book.
It was just after the first big reveal that the plot got a bit slow. But like I said, all character get together and find out that their individual plans go pretty well together, so why not team up for an epic ending?

While this wasn’t a very comforting book to read – after all, the world is broken, many lives have been lost, and life in Qaanaaq is nothing more than pure survival for most – but it was an incredibly rewarding, exciting read. Finding out how the city works was almost as much fun as figuring the characters out. The social structures, the politics, the infrastructure of Qaanaaq – everything was just so interesting. And let’s not forget the past! It is often mentioned that the water levels rose, climate change has ruined most of the planet, ressources got low, there was war all over the place, and only some escaped to a place they could still live. Some things are almost like legends in people’s mind, like the nanobonded, people who have a mind-connection with animals and can control them. Were they real? Did they die out? How? All of these questions are not even the main plot but I wanted to find out the answers, so even when the plot slowed down a bit, I was never bored.

There is so much more to discover in Qaanaaq than I’ve talked about. The technology (chin implants to translate the numerous languages represented), the diversity, the orca and the polar bear… I could go on and on. But because I’d rather not spoil the fun for you, I will simply say I highly recommend this book and I totally think it should take home and award or two.

MY RATING: 8,5/10 – Excellent!

Gentleman Magicians: C. L. Polk – Witchmark

As someone who has never found their way into Urban Fantasy, I am more than delighted to see the different directions this sub-genre is going. Rebecca Roanhorse’s Trail of Lightning set familiar story tropes in a new and original setting, and this book here – while set in an alternate Edwardian England – also puts its own and rather wonderful spin on it. Go, Urban Fantasy! You may turn me into a fan just yet.

WITCHMARK
by C. L. Polk

Published by: Tor.com, 2018
Ebook: 318 pages
Series: The Kingston Cycle #1
My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence: The memo stank of barrel-printing ink and bad news.

In an original world reminiscent of Edwardian England in the shadow of a World War, cabals of noble families use their unique magical gifts to control the fates of nations, while one young man seeks only to live a life of his own.
Magic marked Miles Singer for suffering the day he was born, doomed either to be enslaved to his family’s interest or to be committed to a witches’ asylum. He went to war to escape his destiny and came home a different man, but he couldn’t leave his past behind. The war between Aeland and Laneer leaves men changed, strangers to their friends and family, but even after faking his own death and reinventing himself as a doctor at a cash-strapped veterans’ hospital, Miles can’t hide what he truly is.
When a fatally poisoned patient exposes Miles’ healing gift and his witchmark, he must put his anonymity and freedom at risk to investigate his patient’s murder. To find the truth he’ll need to rely on the family he despises, and on the kindness of the most gorgeous man he’s ever seen.

Doctor Miles Singer is in hiding. He works at a veterans’ hospital, trying to help his suffering patients as best he can and without the use of the magic he secretly possesses. When a dying man arrives at the hospital and knows about Miles’ magic as well as the cause of his own death (poison, he says), things get a little out of control. Together with the enigmatic Tristan Hunter, who brought the poisoned man to the hospital, Miles has to set out and figure out the mystery of this murder. But that also means he has to go out into the world, confront his estranged family, and discover secrets that range far wider than he would have thought.

Discovering the world of Witchmark was fun from the very beginning. The author doesn’t present everything on a silver plate but rather lets you figure everything out for yourself from context, from dialogue and description, from the way the characters act. This may not be everyone’s cup of tea but I love it when authors trust their readers to put things together for themselves. While set in an alternate Edwardian England, there are things that immediately stand out as fantastical, first among them the fact that there is magic. We learn early on that Miles possesses a magical gift and that he can use it to heal people. But it is only later that we find out how Miles fits into the larger world of magic and why he ran away from his family and his duties.

The plot starts out as a murder mystery and sticks to the tropes most of the time. Tristan and Miles investagate places and interview people, you know the deal. It could have been boring but with added bicycle chases and a wonderfully engaging sub-plot about Miles and his family, the book was exciting all the way. There are also two rather important plot twists, one of which I kind of saw coming (although not its details), the other of which made me gasp out loud. The only thing I didn’t really buy was the romance. I really liked where things where going but I felt there wasn’t enough there to base a relationship on. We should have seen more conversations, more moments between the two characters to understand why they fell for each other.

Polk also created some wonderful characters, not just in Miles and Tristan (who has his own secrets which I will not spill but you should totally read the book because it’s super cool), but also in Miles’ sister Grace. She is one of those characters that you think you’ve figured out from the first meeting but then she shows unknown depths. Her relationship with Miles is a very, very difficult one because of the way this society works and the way it deals with mages. Without spoilers, it’s impossible to talk about details, but rest assured that there is more to Grace than meets the eye and that she truly does love her brother.

What made the book work for me was mostly Miles as a character and finding out why he ran away to fight in the war rather than stay with his wealthy, respected family. He is yearning for freedom, for agency, for a place of his own even if it is tiny and he could afford something much larger and better. Understanding why he chooses a life that at first appears so much worse than what he could have had, was a lot of fun to discover and made both Miles and the world he lives in more interesting. There are also plenty of things that I want to explore more so I’m more than happy that this is the first book of a series.

Overall, I really enjoyed this read. It was charming and original, it sets up many things that will have repercussions in the sequel, and it made me really like the characters. While maybe not award-worthy (it’s nominated for a Nebula), this was a fun read that got better as it went along.

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very good!

Mary Robinette Kowal – The Calculating Stars

I didn’t think I’d enjoy this book as much as I did. From the description, it sounded like a quiet kind of story, one that is more about the people in the background of cool science fictional stuff, rather than the heroes who actually go on adventures. What I learned is that “hero” is subjective and Elma and her friends turned out to be my personal beloved heroines by the time I was finished with this book. It’s also my favorite of Kowal’s books so far and I can’t wait to read the sequel.

THE CALCULATING STARS
by Mary Robinette Kowal

Published by: Tor, 2018
Ebook: 431 pages
Series: Lady Astronaut #1
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: Do you remember where you were when the Meteor hit?

On a cold spring night in 1952, a huge meteorite fell to earth and obliterated much of the east coast of the United States, including Washington D.C. The ensuing climate cataclysm will soon render the earth inhospitable for humanity, as the last such meteorite did for the dinosaurs. This looming threat calls for a radically accelerated effort to colonize space, and requires a much larger share of humanity to take part in the process.
Elma York’s experience as a WASP pilot and mathematician earns her a place in the International Aerospace Coalition’s attempts to put man on the moon, as a calculator. But with so many skilled and experienced women pilots and scientists involved with the program, it doesn’t take long before Elma begins to wonder why they can’t go into space, too.
Elma’s drive to become the first Lady Astronaut is so strong that even the most dearly held conventions of society may not stand a chance against her.

When a meteor hits the planet, Elma and her husband don’t suspect just what an impact this event will have on their lives and the lives of every other human on Earth. They “only” think about the family members they have suddenly lost and wonder how their lives are supposed to continue after this. These first chapters were really hard to read, which is in large part due to Elma’s voice. Mary Robinette Kowal writes as if Elma were really talking to us, telling her story to a friend. There is an immediacy to the text that makes you like Elma from the first moment, so her losing almost her entire family at once hit me pretty hard even though they were characters we hand’t even met.

It doesn’t take long, however, for Elma to figure out just what devastating effects the meteor will have on the Earth as a whole. Apart from waves of refugees, people who have lost everything, food shortages and devastation along the coast, the future doesn’t look much brighter. The threat of climate change in this novel feels all too familiar. Elma explains beautifully how, in the next few years, things may look okay, but the Earth is going to be uninhabitable within decades. The voices of “What global warming? It’s snowing today” made me just as angry in this book as they do in real life.

But Elma and her husband Nathaniel pick up the pieces of their lives and make the best of it with the skills they have. They both happen to have PhDs, so they can both do their part to pave the way to space for all mankind. And this is where the setting really shines – if you can say that. The book starts in the 50ies and although it is made clear from the start that women have been pilots in the war, and that there are numerous competent women mathematicians (as well as other professions), they are treated anything but equal. Don’t even mention black people!

This unfair treatment made me so angry while I read but it also made one hell of a story! Elma faces a ton of situations in which things are presumed about her because she is a woman, in which she deals with stereotypes about Jews, in which her competence is questioned based on nothing but her gender. She herself messes up lots of times with her black friends. She makes mistakes, assuming things because of their skin color or simply forgetting that – hey, black people are also around! This actually made Elma even more likeable. She never has bad intentions, she is simply learning something that is new to her and that means making mistakes. I have been in situations where my own ignorance made me say something stupid, as I suspect many other readers have. You may not intend to be mean but words have consequences, whether you meant well or not. Making mistakes is part of it and we can all count ourselves lucky if we have friends like Elma’s who let us know when we said something idiotic.  Watching Elma learn these things, watching how her world and circle of friends grew richer through it, was almost as beautiful as seeing how humanity first ventures into space.

There were so many more things I loved about this book. Elma’s relationship with Nathaniel was simply beautiful. Here are two people with understanding for each other and each other’s flaws. Elma deals with crippling anxiety whenever she has to speak in front of a crowd or reporters or generally is the center of attention. I can relate so well! And so, it appears, can her husband although he doesn’t suffer from anxiety. It was just so lovely to see this married couple be there for each other, give each other space when needed, and talk things over without any drama. Also, it’s just refreshing to have a protagonist with a solid, loving relationship rather than adding some forced tension by throwing in a love triangle/divorce/cheating husband/whatever. Nathaniel is Elma’s safe haven and that’s something I suspect many people aspire to so it was really nice reading about it.

But not all people respect Elma and the other women the way Nathaniel does. They way the women in this story are treated when they want to join the male astronauts made me furious (yet again). Proven facts are simply ignored – such as women having an easier time dealing with G-forces – and instead it is taken as a universal truth that women are weaker and space “just isn’t for them”. They’re good enough to do all the calculations for the big boy astronauts but actually give them a chance to go into space themselves? What would people think? A lot of this book shows the narrow bridge women have to walk if they want to achieve anything. Be too demanding, you’re hysterical. Stay quiet in the background and let your work shine for you, you’ll be ignored or erased. So finding the right balance between making yourself heard but not so loudly that powerful men can call you hysterical is what Elma had to learn. It means staying quiet when you know how to solve a problem, it means being five times as good as a man when applying for a job, it means letting others ridicule you and smiling about it. As angry as this book made me, it also made me really happy to watch Elma persist and never give up on her dream.

This is also a book that shows female friendships, not in some way where everything is always peachy and nobody ever fights, but in a realistic way. These diverse women are kind of in the same spot – although one has to mention that Elma’s black and Asian friends are even more excluded than the others – so they stick together. Not all women in this book are perfect angels, they each have a personality and some of them are not nice people at all. But the general message that women can be friends, even when they’re competition (like for a spot on a space ship, say) is one I wholeheartedly agree with.

Mary Robinette Kowal has managed to write a book that works really well on so many layers. It explores women’s roles in what to this day is stereotypically “a man’s job”, it explores racism and antisemitism, grief and love, mental illness and dealing with pressure. It is peopled with excellent characters whom I grew to love without even noticing. The story is riveting although this is by no means what I’d call an action story. I have very little to nitpick, except maybe that I found Elma and Nathaniel’s dialogue that lead up to them having sex a bit cringeworthy (rocket ready to launch… ahem). But that’s a super minor complaint and also a question of taste rather than writing quality. I loved this book and will definitely check out the sequel to see what heppens with Elma, Helen, Ida, and all the others.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent

V. E. Schwab & Andrea Olimpieri – The Steel Prince

I’ve only recently  finished the Shades of Magic trilogy with mixed feelings. The third book was fun to read, but the conclusion felt rather underwhelming to me. There is no denying, however, that V. E. Schwab has created an intriguing world of parallel Londons that I’ll gladly return to every chance I get. Thanks to the publisher for this Graphic Novel ARC which let me dive back into Red London for a while and see what happened before Kell, Rhy and Lila.

SHADES OF MAGIC VOL. 1: The Steel Prince 
by V. E. Schwab and Andrea Olimpieri

Published by: Titan Comics, 2019
Paperback: 112 pages
Series: Shades of Magic #1
My rating: 6/10

First sentence: Once, there were four worlds instead of one, set side by side like sheets of paper.

Delve into the thrilling, epic tale of the young and arrogant prince Maxim Maresh, long before he became the king of Red London and adoptive father to Kell, the lead of A Darker Shade of Magic!
The youthful Maresh is sent to a violent and unmanageable port city on the Blood Coast of Verose, on strict orders from his father, King Nokil Maresh, to cut his military teeth in this lawless landscape.
There, he encounters an unruly band of soldiers, a lawless landscape, and the intoxicatingly deadly presence of the newly returned pirate queen, Arisa…
Collects Shades of Magic: The Steel Prince #1-4.

First of all, let  me tell you that if you haven’t read the Shades of Magic trilogy by V.E. Schwab, go do that now. I don’t think reading this graphic novel prequel will make much sense or really work for you  if you aren’t already familiar with the (wonderful!) world the author created in her novels. There is a whole magic system here that is not explained in the graphic novel, there are power structures that should also be understood to some degree before reading it. So with that important piece of information out of the way, let’s talk about the graphic novel.

I’ve been a fan of comics and graphic novels for a while now because the good ones manage to evoke as much emotion in the reader as a big fat novel can, all without much description but instead with pictures. That said, a good novel writer is not necessarily a good graphic novel writer because the two media are so different and you have to use different methods to get the story you want to tell across. While this was not a bad book, it was quite obvious that Schwab is more at home with prose. I enjoyed the story fine, but I just wanted a bit more. More of everything. More description, more world building, more character development, more magic, more intricate battles… It was all there to some degree but there was just never enough of it.

The story revolves around Maxim, Kell and Rhy’s father (or Kell’s adoptive father, if you want to be correct). In the novel trilogy, Maxim really got to shine in the third book, so I was eager to see what the king had been up to in his youth. The premise of the story is that the four Londons are separated, there are no Antari around, and the king is quite happy with this situation. Not so Maxim who is full of excitement and wants to save the world and make it better, but who is also impulsive and trusts too much in his own abilities.

Maxim was an intriguing character, especially compared to the older, wiser King Maxim we meet in the novels. He is easy to like because although he acts rashly sometimes, you know from the start that his heart is in the right place. The fact that he is amazing with his magic also doesn’t hurt.

Because Maxim’s father disapproves of his son’s efforts to find Antari magicians, he sends him away to Verose which – as you might expect – doesn’t go too smoothly. I don’t want to give too much of the plot away, but this is where Maxim meets Isra who faithful readers of Schwab’s books will recognise immediately. Seeing her former self was also a lot of fun, and I especially enjoyed the group dynamic between all the people Maxim meets. Naturally, there is an opponent that needs to be defeated and while I thought she was super cool as villains go, this was were the plot started losing me. The ending came way too quickly and felt sort of abrupt, particularly because the beginning took such care to introduce the world to the readers a bit and to show where Maxim is coming from.

Andrea Olimpieri’s art is beautiful, no doubt. I really liked how the characters were drawn but I had some problems with the action sequences and the magic. Arisa’s (the villain) magic looked absolutely stunning and managed to convey that sense of danger through art that I’m sure the characters felt whenever confronted with her. But the other types of magic didn’t really give me that sense of wonder that I want to feel when reading fantasy. The battle scenes – again, great ideas and great story telling as such – also suffered because of the medium chosen. You’d think any visual medium would be better suited for fast-paced action scenes than simple prose, but because comic books are comprised of still images, not moving ones, I think it’s incredibly hard to make fight scenes thrilling in them. For me, it didn’t really work in this book.

Overall, I enjoyed the read. I can’t say I fell into it the way I did with A Darker Shade of Magic, but it was time well spent. The ending rounds up the story nicely (if too quickly) but definitely leaves room for more of Maxim’s adventures. Even if this wasn’t one of my favorite graphic novels, I’ll probably check out whatever comes next because it’s a lovely world to escape to and there are so many details yet to explore. Maybe, if Schwab continues writing these, we’ll get to see Rhy’s birth and how Kell came into their lives. Here’s to hoping!

MY RATING: 6/10 – Good

Make sure to check out the other stops on the Steel Prince blog tour:

Epic bunnies: Richard Adams – Watership Down

When the TV show LOST was all the rage, I made plans to read all the books Sawyer read, among which was Watership Down. After about 50 pages, I gave up, unable to dive into the minds of rabbits and go with them on their long journey. I thought this simply wasn’t for me. I found it silly and a bit boring and abandoned the book. Until, last year, I picked it up again (because I’m nice to my books like that) and finished it in a couple of days. I still can’t explain why, but let this be a lesson to me, that sometimes, you just need to wait for the right time to read a particular book. I’m certainly glad I read this one!

WATERSHIP DOWN
by Richard Adams

Published by: Avon Books, 1972
Paperback: 478 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence: The primroses were over.

Set in England’s Downs, a once idyllic rural landscape, this stirring tale of adventure, courage and survival follows a band of very special creatures on their flight from the intrusion of man and the certain destruction of their home. Led by a stouthearted pair of friends, they journey forth from their native Sandleford Warren through the harrowing trials posed by predators and adversaries, to a mysterious promised land and a more perfect society.

When Fiver, smaller than most other rabbits and not taken seriously by them, shares a vision of their home’s destruction, only Hazel believes him. Fiver says they need to get away from the warren and find a new home if they want to survive because Something Terrible Will Happen. Although Hazel is a respected rabbit, only a small group join these two on their journey into unknown lands – and so begins the rather epic tale of Watership Down.

As someone who has never seent he movie as a kid (from what I hear, my parents spared me enormous childhood trauma), I had no idea where these rabbits wanted to go but I was game to follow them. Not only did I immediately enjoy the mythology and language that Adams has built around his furry protagonists, but I also found I liked their characters. They may be rabbits and as such rather similar, but each of them is also a distinct person. Impulsive and sometimes aggressive Bigwig (he was my favorite), calm and clever Hazel, tormented Fiver who shows such bravery event hough he thinks he’s a coward – they grew on me in a kind of sneaky way and it was only when they were in danger (which happens a lot, to be fair) that I realised how much I wanted them to be okay and reach this new home they’re dreaming of.

Their journey is a truly epic one. It leads them to other warrens, has them face dangerous animals – it’s not easy being a rabbit and as such prey for most other creatures you encounter – and also to political and social problems. How do you start a new warren without female rabbits? How do you trick a cat? How do you save your friends who have been captured by a superbly evil rabbit who is one of the best villains I’ve ever read about, never mind his furry face. How do you cross a river, for that matter? Find food and shelter? Richard Adams must truly love rabbits because I don’t think I know any other book with an animal character where I felt so much like the creature I was reading about.

I also loved that while these rabbits were clearly rabbits and don’t act rationally a lot of the time (or what humans would consider rational, at least), they also have a social structure and a group dynamic that is just as frail as in a human group. Decisions about who gets to be the leader and whether to take a peaceful or an aggressive approach must be made and they are often discussed among the rabbits. I thought this was especially well done in a scene where one rabbit gets caught in a snare. By trying to pull on it, it only gets drawn tighter, but rabbit instinct dictates that the rabbit must get away so he pulls and pulls. But these aren’t just any old rabbits, so the others come to help and fight their natural instincts to help each other and to trick humans and larger animals alike.

I will never understand why I couldn’t finish the book on my first try because I breezed through it so effortlessly the second time around. This was a truly enjoyable read, particularly because of the mythology about El-Ahrairah and how rabbits came to be what they are. The effort Richard Adams put into this is astounding and I am so, so glad I gave this book another chance. Because it turned out to be a lighter Lord of the Rings with rabbits and who’d want to miss that?

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very, very good!

Overhyped but a lot of fun: Rebecca Roanhorse – Trail of Lightning

Ah, here it is again. The dreaded post-hype disappointment of what is generally a very good book. Roanhorse’s debut novel has been one of the buzziest publications of 2018, so despite my dislike for Urban Fantasy, I decided to give it a go. I was well entertained and would sum this up as “a lot of fun” but I don’t really understand what the hype is about or why it’s supposed to be such a groundbreaking work of fiction.

TRAIL OF LIGHTNING
by Rebecca Roanhorse

Published by: Saga Press, 2018
Ebook: 287 pages
Series: The Sixth World #1
My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence: The monster has been here.

While most of the world has drowned beneath the sudden rising waters of a climate apocalypse, Dinétah (formerly the Navajo reservation) has been reborn. The gods and heroes of legend walk the land, but so do monsters.
Maggie Hoskie is a Dinétah monster hunter, a supernaturally gifted killer. When a small town needs help finding a missing girl, Maggie is their last—and best—hope. But what Maggie uncovers about the monster is much larger and more terrifying than anything she could imagine.
Maggie reluctantly enlists the aid of Kai Arviso, an unconventional medicine man, and together they travel to the rez to unravel clues from ancient legends, trade favors with tricksters, and battle dark witchcraft in a patchwork world of deteriorating technology.
As Maggie discovers the truth behind the disappearances, she will have to confront her past—if she wants to survive.
Welcome to the Sixth World.

Maggie Hoskie is, apart from her cultural heritage, your average Urban Fantasy heroine. Instead of the depressed, alcoholic and antisocial private detective, you get a depressed, antisocial monsterhunter with superpowers. She’s not the sassy kind of UF heroine that permeates so many werewolf-and-vampire stories, but I still didn’t find her to be very interesting as a character. Dealing with the consequences of her powers and things that happened in her past makes her multi-layered, sure, but again, nothing I haven’t seen before. Doesn’t every Urban Fantasy heroine have demons in her past, people she’d like to forget, or people she’d like to meet again? It’s no less intriguing for having done a million times before, but it has been done a million times before.

So while I didn’t dislike Maggie, I also didn’t particularly like her. She is stubborn to a fault, she is smart, but sometimes overestimates her own cleverness, she mistrusts everyone (which is not a bad thing given her occupation). She doesn’t let anyone get close to her but at the same time yearns for family and a place to belong. I may not have liked her all that much, but she did make for a compelling main character and I’d much rather have someone like her than a Mary Sue. All this  is quite different from how I felt about Kai, the mysterious, handsome medicine man who travels with her. Again, it’s obvious from the start that he is the main romantic interest. These two are thrown together by circumstance, have to work closely with each other and that means going into dangerous situations, saving each others lives and – naturally – growing closer. Again, I have nothing against that and I adored Kai whose sense of humor brought some light into this rather dark story. But it is still just a tired old trope – a well-done way, absolutely, but nothing new.

The writing was good, but  nothing groundbreaking (you see a pattern yet?). The exact same goes for the plot. Everything needed for a fun romp is there. The characters are fleshed-out enough to care about them, the pacing is on point, the things that happen are thrilling and keep you turning pages, the fights had me at the edge of my seat. But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s basically Buffy in a cool new setting with cool new monsters. There’s even a plot twist at the end (which I found to be quite well done) and then a bit of a cliffhanger (which I didn’t like so much).

Now the world-building is where it’s at, as it is the only aspect of this book that I found to be truly fresh and original. Based on Native American mythology, you get to read about monsters you (probably) haven’t read about before. No werewolves or vampires in sight! In fact, because the Big Water has destroyed most of the US, Navajo culture is now dominant, so every person Maggie and Kai meet, every place they visit, has a distinctive flair to it that was incredible fun to explore. There is still so much to discover because although the groundwork has been laid – the Big Water destroyed most of the US, Dinétah rose and with it, its gods and monsters, resources are scarce, it’s all very Mad Max: Fury Road but different enough to be exciting! We know some people are born with clan powers which can be anything from mind reading to super strength, we know there are witches and immortals… Roanhorse gave me just enough to always make me want more but she also always gave me the feeling that, yes, there is more and she knows it. Whether that’s true or not, it feels like the author has her world fully planned out, like she has a bigger plan that she’s following with the series. Dinétah is definitely a world I want to see more of, so despite disagreeing with the hype, I will probably read the sequel.

I realize I made this sound worse than it is. I’m nitpicking because I tried really hard to understand the hype and simply can’t. Apart from the setting and the characters, I found nothing in this book to be new or groundbreaking. But reading it was actually a lot of fun. You can breeze right through it, be thoroughly entertained, and then want more of the same. I wouldn’t put it on an awards ballot but I would put it into my friends’ hands. Because who doesn’t like a fun thrill ride through a post-apocalyptic world, hunting monsters and discovering mysteries?

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very good!

More than Nigerian Harry Potter: Nnedi Okorafor – Akata Witch

I chose the rather provocative title for this post on purpose. On the one hand, Harry Potter draws attention and I definitely want lots of people to pay attention to this book. On the other hand, Nnedi Okorafor managed to get a sort of Harry Potter vibe in this book, all while writing something completely original and her own. I read the sequel right after this book which is really something, considering how many book series I’ve started and not finished…

AKATA WITCH
by Nnedi Okorafor

Published by: Viking Children’s, 2011
Paperback: 349 pages
Series: Akata Witch #1
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: The moment Sunny walked into the schoolyard, people started
pointing.

Sunny Nwazue lives in Nigeria, but she was born in New York City. Her features are West African, but she’s albino. She’s a terrific athlete, but can’t go out into the sun to play soccer. There seems to be no place where she fits in. And then she discovers something amazing—she is a “free agent” with latent magical power. And she has a lot of catching up to do.

Soon she’s part of a quartet of magic students, studying the visible and invisible, learning to change reality. But just as she’s finding her footing, Sunny and her friends are asked by the magical authorities to help track down a career criminal who knows magic, too. Will their training be enough to help them against a threat whose powers greatly outnumber theirs?

In many ways, Akata Witch is similar to Harry Potter. A young girl finds out she belongs to a hidden, magical world. She makes friends, learns about her new powers, all while taking down evil. If that were all this story was then it would still be a great story – but it so, so much more than that. The plot is just the surface layer. It keeps things moving, it keeps up the pace and makes the pages fly as you read. But it’s not why I fell so hard for this book.

Sunny Nwazue is an outsider wherever she goes. With her West African features, she looks like her Nigerian friends, But she’s albino, so her skin is white, her hair is blonde, and she can’t go in the sun because her skin burns too easily. Also, children are cruel, and because Sunny looks different from the others, she doesn’t quite fit in. Until she meets Orlu, Chichi, and Sasha – a delightfully diverse mix of friends who all happen to be Leopard People. Leopard People is what magical folks are called in this story, while us muggles (sorry) are called lambs. However, even as a Leopard Person, Sunny is slightly special in that her magic jumped a generation and her parents are both non-magical. This makes her a “free agent” – basically someone with magic abilities who wasn’t taught from early childhood and now has to catch up on all the knowledge her friends already possess.

I could tell you all the little details of Okorafor’s magical world of Leopard People but I don’t want to take that experience away from anyone. The comparison to Harry Potter may not be entirely fair, but as I mentioned before, it is more the feeling rather than the ideas themselves that reminded me of that beloved childhood series. And if you loved the details in Harry Potter, you are sure to love these as well. The magic world is entirely different from anything I’ve read before, infused with West African mythology, with masquerades and a magical currency, with books written by and about Leopard People. It is simply delightful to discover all of this with Sunny.
My heart was especially taken with the book Sunny is given – “Fast Facts for Free Agents”  – of which a part is quoted at the end of each chapter. The narration of that fictional book was a joy to read. It is not written so much as a helpful guide (or at least not only as a helpful guide) but it has a sassy, snappy tone that made me giggle every time it came up. It also helped to flesh out the Leopard world through lore.

Another standout part were the characters. Sunny may feel like an outsider but she doesn’t wallow in self-pity, she simply takes things as they are and tries to make the best of them. When she discovers her magical abilities, she reacts very much as one would expect her to. She is bewildered and excited, eager to learn but scared to make mistakes. She is happy to finally have a place where she belongs and people who are true friends but the magical world is daunting and large and she knows almost nothing about it. In short, Sunny was easy to love.

Equally as wonderful were Sunny’s friends. Orlu, who is kind of the responsible father figure of the quartet, Chici, the excitable, talkative girl, and Sasha, who is American like Sunny. I read this book but I listened to the audiobook of the sequel, so let me tell you that the narrator does a phenomenal job of giving each character their own voice and personality. I highly recommend going for the audiobook with this duology. For the accents, for the wonderful narration of “Fast Facts for Free Agents” and for the different voices given to the characters.

Another thing I loved was the message of this book. Leopard People are often people who are considered to have “flaws” in the Lamb world. Sunny’s albinism may give her a disadvantage in our world, but in the Leopard world, it can be a strength. The same goes for people with ADHD or dyslexia, for example. Leopard society teaches you to embrace those perceived flaws because they are what makes you you. Even if the young people who read this book don’t find themselves as part of a hidden magical society, the book sends a beautiful message. Love yourself, love your flaws, don’t let the bullies get you down!

As for the plot, most of it is obivously Sunny learning about Leopard People and finding her place in this new world. But because there has to be something evil to defeat – and it wouldn’t be such a great story if there wasn’t – there is Black Hat Otokoto, a serial killer who has been roaming the area. I don’t think it’s a spoiler if I tell you that Sunny and her friends will have to use everything they have learned to defeat him.

I really hope my comparisons to Harry Potter don’t put anyone off this book but rather make you want to pick it up. Because although there are similarities (and let’s face it, there are many other books that share the same aspects of “normal” person discovers they belong to a secret magical world), this book stands very well on its own, it has so much to say, and it is a wonderful exploration of an underrepresented kind of fantasy. Set in Nigeria, based on African mythology, this book feels like a fresh wind in the mass of YA fantasies.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!