Edith Pattou – East

I discovered the fairy tale East of the Sun and West of the Moon very late. Growing up on fairy tales, I knew most Grimms’ tales by heart, but somehow this norse version of Beauty and the Beast didn’t enter my life until I was well into my twenties. Despite knowing and loving Beauty and the Beast, I fell in love with this hard. Trolls, travelling on the four winds, a girl going on a journey to save her prince? Sign me up!

east

EAST
(also published as NORTH CHILD)
by Edith Pattou

Published by: Harcourt Children’s Books, 2003
Hardcover: 498 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: I found the box in the attic of an old farmhouse in Norway.

Rose has always felt out of place in her family, a wanderer in a bunch of homebodies. So when an enormous white bear mysteriously shows up and asks her to come away with him–in exchange for health and prosperity for her ailing family–she readily agrees. The bear takes Rose to a distant castle, where each night she is confronted with a mystery. In solving that mystery, she loses her heart, discovers her purpose, and realizes her travels have only just begun.
As familiar and moving as “Beauty and the Beast” and yet as fresh and original as only the best fantasy can be, East is a novel retelling of the classic tale “East of the Sun, West of the Moon,” a sweeping romantic epic in the tradition of Robin McKinley and Gail Carson Levine.

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There are three things that cam make or break a retelling of East of the Sun and West of the Moon: the build-up, meaning the story before the bear shows up to take the youngest daughter away. Secondly, the relationship between the bear and the girl, how they are friends, whether they talk, how they spend their days and if they have a chance to grow fond of each other. And the third thing is the journey. The epic journey the girl undertakes, including all four winds, to reach the troll castle and save her prince.

Edith Pattou got two-and-a-half out of three, which is pretty good if you ask me. The set-up for this story is beautiful. Rose’s family is introduced as a family, not merely an extension of her as a protagonist. The chapters are narrated alternately from Rose’s point of view, her brother Neddy’s, the white bear, and even the troll queen. This gives Rose’s family some backstory and makes us understand how scared they are for their daughter/sister when she goes away with a huge white bear.

Rose’s mother lives by superstition. The new title of this book is North Child and it becomes clear early on why it was changed. Rose was born facing North, but since this is a bad omen, her mother has been pretending she is an East Child her entire life. But crazy as these superstitions sound, there must be a grain of truth to them, because Rose is wild and adventurous, curious and can’t sit still – just like a true child of the North. The groundwork that Rose’s mother lays for the novel’s internal mythology is just wonderful. I grinned and shook my head at the same time, but couldn’t help but love Rose’s mother for all her faults.

north childRose and the bear were rather disappointing at first. It is a difficult act to write about a young girl who is visited nightly by a stranger who sleeps in her bed, and in books for children I always expect this part to be rushed. Rose’s time at the bear’s castle doesn’t pass quickly and I appreciated that the passage of time was written so well. But there is no relationship between the two. In fact, the only friendship of a kind Rose builds during her stay, is with one of the servants. Her and the bear – no chemistry, no bonding, nothing…

But the journey! Oh, the journey was wonderful. Rose goes through some serious hardships and while they are very different from the fairy tale, I think the changes make for a better story. She meets new characters along the way, one of which is Thor (not the god, just a sea captain) whose gruffness makes him all the more lovable. She spends some time with Inuit people (and on a side note, I was delighted to read about the bola, which I know from a video game called “Never Alone” which you should totally check out because it’s beautiful and atmospheric and you have an arctic fox as your companion, okay I’ll shut up now) and travels with Malmo who teaches her how to survive in the ice and snow. And the best thing is – Rose has to get over a language barrier with pretty much every other person she meets. Because Edith Pattou rocks and knows that not everyone in the world speaks the same language! Yay!

Again, once at the Troll palace, Rose doesn’t have it easy and it takes a long time for her to learn enough of the language and culture to work her way up into a position of relative power. During all these times, we keep getting glimpses into the White Bear’s mind, as well as Rose’s brother Neddy’s – and that not only makes for some refreshing change, it also demonstrates the family bond between Rose and her brother, and the strange feeling of being lost that the White Bear experiences.

The happy ending, if you haven’t guessed it yet, doesn’t come easy. There may be some slower passages while Rose is at the bear’s castle, but I loved (!) that this book actually conveys the hardships this young girl goes through. And the best thing: no insta-love. Her various traveling companions were all just as wonderful as brave, resourceful Rose herself. I immediately fell for scruffy Captain Thor, and I loved Rose’s bond with Sofi and Estelle, and especially Malmo. This was a wonderful version of the beloved fairy tale and I hope to read many more retellings that take so much care and incorporate so many new ideas while staying true to the original.

MY RATING: 8/10 –  Excellent

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Top Ten Tuesday – Top Ten Couples in SFF Books

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday theme arrives just at the right time. Since I read Sarah J. Maas’ A Court of Thorns and Roses, I have been thinking about why the romance didn’t work for me in that book but other romances in SFF novels push all my buttons. I don’t have a quick answer to the question, but I did remember some of my very favorite couples from fantasy books. They range from tender, romantic, slowly-developing love stories to steamy, sexy, take-me-I’m-yours type romances.

Top Ten Romantic Couples in SFF Books

uprooted#1  Naomi Novik – Uprooted (Agnieszka and the Dragon)

This book is not about the romance and I wouldn’t recommend you read it solely for the romance. It is about so many things, all of them awesome, but – WOW – did that love story take me by surprise and get me all emotional. Agnieszka and the Dragon are programmed to push my buttons. They bicker, he is a dick to her most days, there seems to be dislike between them but then they discover that they are both so much better when they work together. There are two scenes in particular that were just so well written, so perfect in every way, that I bookmarked them in case I want to remember what a good sex scene is like…

#2  Maggie Stiefvater – The Raven Cycle (Blue Sargent and Richard Gansey III)

dream thievesThis romance is, by default, much more tame and innocent. Blue cannot kiss a boy because it has been prophecied that her kiss will kill her true love. Whether Gansey actually is her “true love” or not, everyone can see that it’s better not to risk it. Maggie Stiefvater manages, without actual kissing or sex scenes, to create an atmosphere between her characters that can only be called sexy. Blue and Gansey’s yearning for each other is tangible and the fact that they can’t act on it is as much torture for the reader as it is for them.
There is a second couple that I really like in these books, but mentioning them would lead into spoiler territory and I want all of you uninitiated to pick up The Raven Boys spoiler-free and fall in love with it as hard as I did.

broken kingdoms#3 N. K. Jemisin – The Broken Kingdoms (Oree and Shiny)

Jemisin does romance really well. In the first book of the series, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, I loved the tension between Yeine and Nahadoth, but it was the second book that made me jump up and down on my couch, hoping for two characters to get together. Oree was a fascinating character by herself, but when Shiny steps into her life, I couldn’t keep my eyes of their relationship. This is another romance that goes from initial dislike to love (I know I have a thing…) and I can’t tell you exactly why it worked so well for me. All I know is that by the end of the book I was wringing my hands, full of feelings, needing these two to be together, no matter how impossible it is.

#4 Jaida Jones & Danielle Bennett – Havemercy (Thom and Rook, Royston and Hal)

havemercyThis is a book with only one romance, but I really wanted there to be a second one… I kind of hate the authors for doing what they did with my second couple of choice, but I understand why there is only one couple. Man, it’s really hard to explain this without spoilers…
Royston and Hal are thrown together by coincidence and their romance develops slowly and beautifully. A magician and a young, innocent boy who knows nothing of court intrigue and life in the big city, they each find something to love in the other.
My second couple begins spewing curses at each other. One of them is just a hateful, aggressive, impulsive dick, the other tries to kick some sense and manners into him. It’s hilarious and wonderful and intense to watch.

outlander#5 Diana Gabaldon – Outlander (Jamie and Claire)

Well, there’s a reason these books are now a TV show (an excellent one, I might add). Jamie and Claire are one of my favorite couples, not only because they go through some serious shit together, but because their story starts where most love stories end. The getting together bit is taken out of their hands and they only really get to know each other after they are married (by necessity). It’s also refreshing to see a couple go past the initial honeymoon phase and grow into something sturdier, based on love and loyalty, not just hormones.

 

tigana#6  Guy Gavriel Kay – Tigana (spoiler and spoiler)

Okay, this is difficult to talk about. There are two characters who, somewhere in the middle of the book, fall in love with each other. It is heartbreaking and beautiful and a little bit sexy, and that’s all I can tell you without spoiling the book.
But to make up for that, I’ll tell you about a surprisingly hot scene at the beginning of the book. No actual love involved, just a couple of young people stuck in a small room. This was my first Guy Kay book and I really didn’t expect to read a scene that was so sensual and hot. I’d love to read a book by him that has a romance at its center.

deathless#7 Catherynne M. Valente – Deathless (Marya Morevna and Koschei the Deathless)

You knew there’d be a Valente book here somewhere, didn’t you? Well, here’s my choice. Marya Morevna is taken away by Koschei the Deathless to be his bride. So far, so accurate to the Russian fairy tale. There are no explicit sex scenes in this book but, trust me, when you read about these two just eating food together, you’ll feel the sexual tension! However, it is  a different scene that cemented their love for me. After being separated for a while, Koschei shows up at Marya’s doorstep and delivers the most heartbreaking declaration of love I have ever read. Absolutely stunning!

#fairyland 38 Catherynne M. Valente – The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two (September and Saturday)

I lied. There’s another Valente book that needs to be on this list. September and Saturday were kind of, sort of, meant to be together from the start (honestly, they even catch a glimpse into their own future). They are children, of course, and grow older over the course of the book series, but it was this third instalment that used their romance to put a dagger in my heart and twist it really hard. Again, no details because spoilers, but I get all warm and fuzzy inside just thinking about it.

#9 Marissa Meyer – The Lunar Chronicles (Cress and Thorne)

cressHere’s the fluffy book for my list. The Lunar Chronicles in general are very fluffy, fun reads without too much depth. But the third and fourth book gave me Cress and Carswell Thorne. Thorne has been the star of the series ever since he showed up in Scarlet, and juxtaposing him with his very own fangirl Cress was bound to deliver some hilarious and romantic scenes. Their romance is a slow-building thing, mostly due to Thorne’s rogue nature, his arrogance and inability to notice when somebody honestly cares about him. I adored their back and forth, and the little moments they shared. Cress has to grow into herself, Thorne has to realise that he, too, has a heart, and it all ends up as a lovely, romantic action comedy.

charm#10 Sarah Pinborough – Tales from the Kingdoms (Snow White, Cinderella, and spoilers)

These are three very sexy retellings of Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty. The couples who end up together are not always the ones you’d expect, and the sexy scenes are not always between the couples who end up together. If that makes sense. Three short reads, they are each incredibly sexy without being smut (not that that would be a bad thing). My favorite character is the Huntsman, but I also adored the romance of Snow White. If you want a quick read with steamy sexy times, pick these up.

Honorable mentions:

  • The kiss in The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black
  • Tiffany and the Wintersmith in Wintersmith by Terry Pratchett
  • The ending of Cold Magic by Kate Elliott
  • The slow romance in The Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen Lord
  • The hot-and-cold romance in The Precious Stone Trilogy by Kerstin Gier
  • The romance in Graceling by Kristin Cashore

 

Sofia Samatar – A Stranger in Olondria

There are different types of hype. One is clearly pushed by clever marketing on the publisher’s part (blog tours, endless ads, book cover reveals and books generally showing up everywhere), and the other is when books are showered with awards and critical acclaim. I should have picked this book up way sooner because it has been nominated or won the kind of awards that are totally up my alley. It took me long enough but I now consider myself a Sofia Samatar fan.

stranger in olondria

A STRANGER IN OLONDRIA

Published by: Small Beer Press, 2012
Ebook: 320 pages
Standalone (sort of)
My rating:

First sentence: As I was a stranger in Olondria, I knew nothing of the splendor of its coasts, nor of Bain, the Harbor City, whose lights and colors spill into the ocean like a cataract of roses.

Jevick, the pepper merchant’s son, has been raised on stories of Olondria, a distant land where books are as common as they are rare in his home. When his father dies and Jevick takes his place on the yearly selling trip to Olondria, Jevick’s life is as close to perfect as he can imagine. But just as he revels in Olondria’s Rabelaisian Feast of Birds, he is pulled drastically off course and becomes haunted by the ghost of an illiterate young girl.

In desperation, Jevick seeks the aid of Olondrian priests and quickly becomes a pawn in the struggle between the empire’s two most powerful cults. Yet even as the country shimmers on the cusp of war, he must face his ghost and learn her story before he has any chance of becoming free by setting “her” free: an ordeal that challenges his understanding of art and life, home and exile, and the limits of that seductive necromancy, reading.

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There are books that want to be savored, to be taken in and drunk slowly like a fine wine (or whatever else you’re supposed to dring slowly). A Stranger in Olondria is one such book. Jevick of Tyom lives on an island and is meant to inherit his father’s pepper farm one day. This means he will have to go to Olondria to trade – and in order to prepare him, his father hires an Olondrian tutor, Master Lunre.

Master Lunre teaches Jevick Olondrian and, more importantly, how to read. These first chapters about Jevick discovering the magic of the written word were such a delight to read! There isn’t much action, the plot moves along slowly, carefully, but action wouldn’t have fit. Anyone who loves books (and I’m assuming many of you readers do) will understand Jevick’s delight at discovering how old some of the books are that he is reading. Words preserved over time, for hundreds and hundreds of years, one person’s thoughts kept safe, for new people to discover and love… it is a magic all its own.

But this isn’t just a book about books, it is also a ghost story. Jevick becomes haunted by a young girl’s ghost and a strange love story evolves. Nothing I could say here would be a spoiler because this isn’t the kind of story you read for a big reveal at the end or for puzzle pieces to fall into place. It’s a story whose every page is there on its own merits. It is about cultural differences, languages, the power of words and especially written words, it is about religion and belief, the educated versus the illiterate, and so much more, all contained in a fairly slim novel.

Sofia Samatar has created something wonderful here. Not only did I love Jevick as a protagonist but I also deeply cared for his brother Jom, his mother, Master Lunre, and Jissavet. The smallest side character gets enough to say or do to be fully fleshed-out, to feel like a real person. I also adored the language. Samatar’s words and names are just so beautiful, I kept sounding them out while reading: Jevick, Jessavit, Tinimavet, anadnedet, Tyom, Tialon, Kideti… doesn’t that sound beautiful? Yes, yes it does.

Whiel discovering new words himself, Jevick goes through some amazing character development. On his journeys in Olondria, he does discover certain things that could be considered plot twists, although definitely not of the cheap shock-value variety. But most of all, this is the story of how Jevick becomes an adult. Lost in books, in love with the spirited life in the Olondrian city of Bain, he has to learn a great many things about life and himself – and trust me, watching all of that was pure joy. His connection with the ghost girl starts as agony and ends as something quite different. This ghost has an attitude and ideas of her own. Just because you’re dead doesn’t mean you can’t have hopes and dreams – and Jissavet’s story was surprisingly touching when I didn’t really expect it to be.

The ending, as bittersweet as it may be, was like the last line of a poem that hits every note right, closes the story completely and brings it back full circle. Without giving away any actual plot points (and don’t let more negative reviews mislead you, there is a plot!), Jevick’s life before and after his journey to Olondria is at the same time in stark contrast as well as strangely the same. There’s poetry not only to Samatar’s words but to the entire story as well.

A Stranger in Olondria is an excellent book that does so many things right and very little wrong. If Olondrian politics and religion seem a bit muddled, that might just as well have been my own fault for not reading carefully enough. But Sofia Samatar is a writer to be reckoned with. I am so excited for her new book coming out this year – The Winged Histories – which isn’t a direct sequel to A Stranger in Olondria but set in the same world after the events of Jevick’s tale.

MY RATING: 8,5/10

P.S.: I just realised how difficult it is to type “Olondria” without typos, so props to the author and copy editor(s).

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Second opinions:

 

Benjamin Alire Sáenz – Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

This is not fantasy. It has become rare for me to read anything not at least related to the SFF genres, but after reading rave reviews, seeing all the glittery awards stickers on the book cover, and swooning over the cover in general, I had to get it anyway. I don’t regret reading this one bit and you should pick it up too!

aristotle and dante

ARISTOTLE AND DANTE DISCOVER THE SECRETS OF THE UNIVERSE

Published by: Simon & Schuster, 2012
Ebook: 368 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8,5/10

First sentence: One summer night I fell asleep, hoping the world would be different when I woke.

A lyrical novel about family and friendship from critically acclaimed author Benjamin Alire Sáenz.
Aristotle is an angry teen with a brother in prison. Dante is a know-it-all who has an unusual way of looking at the world. When the two meet at the swimming pool, they seem to have nothing in common. But as the loners start spending time together, they discover that they share a special friendship—the kind that changes lives and lasts a lifetime. And it is through this friendship that Ari and Dante will learn the most important truths about themselves and the kind of people they want to be.

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Ari, short for Aristotle, is angry and unhappy. He is a teenager who has no friends, and admitting that is not easy. One day, at the swimming pool, he meets Dante who is open and happy and can teach Ari how to swim. A friendship evolves, but it’s not the kind that only lasts a summer. You can’t forget Dante just because summer is over…

It’s easy to dive into this book because the writing style is just so clear. It makes you remember what it was like being a teenager, when you question everything, especially your own place in the world. Because of the great writing, I was hooked long enough to fall in love with the characters as well. I took a while to warm to Ari, but Dante was an immediate character crush. As different as these two boys may seem at first, it becomes clearer and clearer that they have a more things in common than they thought. And I swear I don’t just like them because they talk about books and art.

The plot starts as out as your average lonely boy spends a lonely summer and surprisingly makes a friend, but things really kick off when there is an accident. Not only does this leave the protagonists physically hurt, but it also opens up all sorts of side plots, about Ari’s parents, about his brother (who’s in prison), about Dante and Ari being separated because they go to different schools. It was that moment, when I realised Ari would have to be without Dante for a few months, that I realised how much I had come to love them, how much I wanted these two to always be together, to always be friends. Benjamin Alire Sáenz is sneaky like that. There I am, reading page after page of a beautiful friendship, thinking I’m distant from the plot, taking it in in an almost clinical way. And then the author threatens to separate these two boys and shatter the world I had come to love. That’s some great writing right there!

Ari’s relationship with his father was another strong point, and one that left me at the edge of tears. Ari’s father doesn’t say much, he has nightmares, he never talks about his time in the war, although it has clearly changed him as a person. While Ari desperately tries to have a father-son relationship (of any kind, really), his father just can’t open up. As the novel progresses, we learn just how hard Ari’s father tries and how difficult it is for him to be what Ari wants him to be. Theirs is a difficult relationship but none the less beautiful for it.

aristotle and dante

I make it sound as if this book is nothing but an examination of relationships – don’t let me fool you, there is plenty of plot! But it’s the relationships that show off just how damn good the writing is. Benjamin Alire Sáenz doesn’t tell his readers what the characters are feeling, he shows us. Through their actions, their choice of words, their emotions, we get to know them deeply and care for them. In stories about teenagers, the parents are usually conveniently absent. Not so here. Both Ari and Dante’s parents are a constant presence, and I can’t tell you how refreshing it was to hear Dante say that he loves them. They are wonderful people and their love for each other and for their son just oozes out of every scene.

When it becomes clear that Dante is in love with Ari, I was a mess of emotions. Because what if Ari didn’t love him back? At least not that way? Ari’s narration is much more telling than he might like. He has many things to be angry about. His silent father, not knowing anything about his brother, his lack of friends and direction in life – but he most definitely can’t be angry about having met Dante. That said, Ari being the narrator gives an intimate glimpse into his brain. We see the things he hides from others, from his parents, from Dante. But – whether because he spells it out or by omission – we also see the things he doesn’t let himself know, the things he denies himself. He may tell himself that he doesn’t want or need friends, but you can just tell that this is a lie he tells himself to make life more bearable. It made me love him all the more.

I have been rambling about this book for quite a while and I’m sorry for the lack of coherence. Take it as a sign of quality of the book. Because anything that can make me feel so wretched and so good within a matter of a few chapters can’t be bad. In fact, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is one of those books I’ll remember for a long time. It sticks with you, in all its beauty. Its quiet moments and its loud ones, the subverted tropes, the wonderful love story, the discovery that a messed-up family can still be the best place in the world, it’s too beautiful to put into words. Which is why I’ll stop here and urge you to read the book. There’s a reason it has a billion award stickers on its cover.

MY RATING: 8,5/10 – Truly excellent!

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For reviews that are actually structured and make sense, check out these second opinions:

Sarah J. Maas – A Court of Thorns and Roses

Oh boy.  This is my first book by Sarah J. Maas and I didn’t dislike it. But I’m terribly sad to see the same old tropes used in the same old ways yet again. Two thirds of this book are predictable, generic, and kind of silly, but then the last third suddenly kicks off the plot and it actually gets really good. I hope the next volume doesn’t take so long to build up some steam.

court of thorns and roses

A COURT OF THORNS AND ROSES
by Sarah J. Maas

Published by: Bloomsbury, 2015
Ebook: 432 pages
Series: A Court of Thorns and Roses #1
My rating: 6,5/10

First sentence: The forest had become a labyrinth of snow and ice.

No mortal would dare venture beyond the borders of their world to Prythian, a forbidden kingdom of faeries. But Feyre’s survival rests upon her ability to hunt and kill, and when she spots a deer being pursued by a wolf, she cannot resist fighting it for the flesh. Killing the predator comes at a price though – her life, or her freedom.
Dragged to Prythian, Feyre discovers that her captor, his face obscured by a jewelled mask, is hiding far more than his piercing green eyes would suggest. Feyre’s presence at the court is closely guarded, and as she begins to learn why, the faerie lands becomes an even more dangerous place.

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You know you can bait me with fairy tales pretty easily, but if you throw in fairy tales (Beauty and the Beast) and a riff on the ballad Tam Lin, my defences are disabled and I absolutely must have that book. Sarah J. Maas has been hyped like crazy which didn’t hurt my instinct to buy this book and start a new series.

The problem with this – and many books of its kinds (yes, there is a kind) – is that it focuses so much on a ridiculous romance and doesn’t really have any plot. Let me sum it up for you. Young girl hunts for food, kills a wolf that’s not really a wolf, invoking a treaty between humankind and fairies. She must spend her life in the fairy lands in exchange for the life she took. Her kidnapper/landlord is insanely beautiful, kind, protective, saves her from danger a couple of times, gives her a nice gift, and – poof! – they are in eternal love. If you consider this a spoiler, I am sorry. But I’d hazard a guess that most people pick this up specifically for that romance and would be pretty pissed if the protagonists didn’t fall in love.

Which, of course, follows in the sad little footsteps of Twilight. An ancient supernatural being (who may look like he’s 26 but has the experience and memory of someone hundreds of years old!) falls in desperate love with a human child. I get it, I really do. It’s wishfullfilment. We all want to be special, we all want to know that the regular, clumsy, non-special human being we are can be someone’s special little snowflake, can melt the heart of a being so beautiful and pure. But it’s sooooo boring. Feyre isn’t special in any way. She is a sympathetic protagonist but even if she looks like a Victoria’s Secret model, I don’t see why Tamlin or anyone else would bend over backwards to be her lover.

I would have forgiven much of this if the romance had been well written, if there were tension between Feyre and Tamlin, and if the actual romance scenes were the explosion of feelings they are supposed to be. But while plenty of tension is built up, Feyre and Tamlin kind of… talk it away in the most unromantic, unsexy fashion I could think of. The sex scene was actually embarrassingly flowery… (if you want a good one, pick up Uprooted).

Much more interesting than this generic teen romance is the politics of the fairy courts and the history between humans and fairies. The world-building stays far, far in the background for most of the story, because romance, but when the villain is finally introduced in the last third of the book, when some clunky exposition gives us a bigger picture of this world, that’s when things start getting interesting. It’s not well done, by any means, but at least there’s something there other than two gorgeous people pining for each other.

And you know what? When I’d pretty much given up hope about the plot, things actually start happening. Feyre goes through some fucked up shit in order to save the people she cares about and, in the process, gets to know two really intriguing characters. Lucien had been intriguing for the entire story, but Rhysand is a different story entirely. Coming from the Night Court, I immediately thought of him as this story’s Hades (and I cannot resist a good Hades and Persephone story, no matter how hard I try). But what makes him so exciting is that you can’t be sure about his motives. Is he evil, is he good, is he just a dick, playing Feyre for his own gain? I don’t really care, because reading about him was just fun!

So the ending gained a lot of brownie points for being exciting and dangerous and full of action. But – and this is a big but – it also involves a riddle that is so ridiculously easy and obvious that I guessed it the moment it was posed. So yeah, I’m good with riddles, but even Feyre has should have guessed it in the time she had to mull it over. The fact that she doesn’t makes her seem much stupider than she is supposed to be. Oh well. The actual ending was, again, predictable and tropey. I won’t spoil this for anyone still interested but there was a lot of eye-rolling going on when I read it.

Because I’m reviewing this for the Fairy Tale Retellings challenge, I should mention the use of fairy tales a little more. The mentions of Beauty and the Beast were easily discovered and done well enough. Tamlin wears a mask at all time (giving him a Phantom of the Opera vibe) and can change into animal form, so he is sometimes literally a beast. There is a curse, which is all I’ll say on the matter, and it takes the fairy tale’s curse and gives it a gentle twist, just enough to fit into this particular world. The ballad Tam Lin makes an appearance mostly through Tamlin’s name and the fact that there is a fairyland. This is one of the story’s strong points. It takes fairy tales, but doesn’t stick to them too much, rather using them to build an original world, peopled with gorgeous creatures and its own internal politics.

I hope that the next book will expose us to more of these fairy politics, show us some of the fairy courts, and do a little better on the romance and pacing. This wasn’t great and it took a really long time to get started, but it was an enjoyable enough read for me to probably pick up the sequel.

MY RATING: 6,5/10 – Good

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Second opinions:

Matt Wallace – Lustlocked

I just read and adored Matt Wallace’s first Sin du Jour adventure, Envy of Angels. Thanks to the friendly people at Tor.com, I was given a review copy via NetGalley of the second in this (hopefully long) series of hilarious culinary monster stories. It says on Tor.com that books 3 and 4, Pride’s Spell and Idle Ingredients will both be published in 2016. YAY!

lustlocked

LUSTLOCKED
by Matt Wallace

Published by: Tor.com, 2015
Ebook: 224 pages
Series: Sin du Jour #2
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: They aren’t biting today.

Love is in the air at Sin du Jour.
The Goblin King (yes, that one) and his Queen are celebrating the marriage of their son to his human bride. Naturally the celebrations will be legendary.
But when desire and magic mix, the results can be unpredictable.
Our heroes are going to need more than passion for the job to survive the catering event of the decade!

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Holy shit, David Bowie is the actual goblin king!! I’m sorry for that outburst but in Matt Wallace’s world and in this story, the king of the goblins is David Bowie and his singing and acting career is just a fun way to pass the time among us unsuspecting humans. Labyrinth is one of my favorite movies ever and “meeting” its goblin king Jareth again in a story where I really didn’t expect it was just wonderful, especially in the light of Bowie’s recent passing. I giggled with joy and then I almost cried.

Okay, now on to the actual review. The New York catering restaurant Sin du Jour is hired to cater the wedding of the goblin king’s son… so, the goblin prince, I guess. Goblins, apart from not looking the way we’d expect from fantasy stories, have interesting dietary habits which involve lots of precious metals and gemstones. Of course, the Sin du Jour crew have done their very best to create an unforgettable meal for the wedding.

My expectations for this second adventure in Matt Wallace’s hilarious series have been surpassed in some respects, and met in others. Darren and Lena are now official chefs, although still in their probationary period. Darren, other than being gay and much slower in the kitchen than Lena, doesn’t have much personality and he stayed mostly in the background in Lustlocked. I’m totally fine with that – he has potential but there are a lot of other characters that I fell in love with and want to see do stuff all the time.

Lena resolves her tension with sous-chef Dorsky, who is still a little shaken by having lost to her in their knife-fight. You know, because Sin du Jour is that kind of place. When gigantic, horny lizard-monsters attack (read: try to hump everyone to death), Lena and Dorsky have to work together to survive. And we all know how near-death experiences and being forced to cooperate can create a bond between two formerly bickering characters. I get a big fat grin all over my face just thinking about it.

“This giant lizard thing in a tux is trying to bone that dude from Grey’s Anatomy,” Pacific says, totally unfazed. “You know, the one with the hair.”

My other favorite part of Sin du Jour is the stocking and receiving department, consisting of Ritter, badass Cindy, idiot (but lovable) Moon, and Hara. I liked these four right from the start and seeing them on one of their missions is always fun. Ritter also shows aspects of his personality that were only hinted at in Envy of Angels. I am really curious where all of this is going.

Lustlocked – which, by the way, sports another perfect cover and title – also introduces some new characters. Little Dove and White Horse are just the kind of bickering grandpa/granddaughter team I love to read about. So the cast is growing to a considerable size which makes me hope for a novel-sized story about Sin du Jour, sometime in the future.

Also, without spoiling anything, that ending was totally not okay and I need the next instalment or short story or something RIGHT NOW!!! Please, Matt Wallace, and please, Tor.com, give us more of Sin du Jour. These are seriously funny stories with a great cast that plays out like a hilarious action movie in your head. I want more of the same. A lot more!

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

Bonus short story: SMALL WARS

small warsMy review copy of this novella also included a surprise bonus short story which was just published on Tor.com and which you can read there for free.

It’s a sort of double-prequel, telling – in one timeline – the story of how the stocking and receiving troupe acquires ingredients for the goblin wedding, and in an earlier timeline, how Ritter recruited Cindy, Moon, and Hara to work for Sin du Jour.

The plot wasn’t as funny as the novellas, but it is used instead to shine some light on Moon’s character. I found his actions and words during the crazy battle that invariably ensues to be touching and thought-provoking. Usually, he makes stupid comments, angers Cindy, annoys Hara and Ritter, and is generally a dick. Except there might be some humanity inside him and we get to see it during this trip to Wales. Looking for Welsh gold, the Sin du Jour guys discover the little creatures that live under the earth. And leprechauns are no joke, believe me…

I appreciated this story for the background information and for Moon’s character getting some spotlight. Other than that, it was a usual trip for these guys. Which doesn’t mean it was boring. They don’t do boring at Sin du Jour.

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Second opinions:

Christina Henry – Alice

I love Alice in Wonderland. Seeing its familiar characters used in different ways sounded really good. The only adaptation/retelling I’ve read so far was the less-than-stellar Looking Glass Wars. Christina Henry started out her horror version of Alice’s crazy adventures really well, only to lose steam along the way.

aliceALICE
by Christina Henry

Published by: Penguin, 2015
Ebook: 304 pages
Series: Alice #1
My rating: 5,5/10

First sentence: If she moved her head all the way up against the wall and tilted it to the left she could just see the edge of the moon through the bars.

In a warren of crumbling buildings and desperate people called the Old City, there stands a hospital with cinderblock walls which echo the screams of the poor souls inside.
In the hospital, there is a woman. Her hair, once blond, hangs in tangles down her back. She doesn’t remember why she’s in such a terrible place. Just a tea party long ago, and long ears, and blood…
Then, one night, a fire at the hospital gives the woman a chance to escape, tumbling out of the hole that imprisoned her, leaving her free to uncover the truth about what happened to her all those years ago.
Only something else has escaped with her. Something dark. Something powerful.
And to find the truth, she will have to track this beast to the very heart of the Old City, where the rabbit waits for his Alice.

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Alice lives in a mental asylum with only her neighbour Hatcher for company, whom she talks to through a little mouse hole in the wall. When the asylum burns down, however, and the two escape into the city, their memories of a life prior to being locked up come back and reveal all the horrors of who they really are.

Christina Henry has a lot of talent for building up tension. Alice and Hatcher are both suffering amnesia in the beginning of the book, but snippets come back to them, leaving the reader intrigued (and shocked!) about their past. Alice’s story is not that hard to guess but its initial horror almost drowns in the filthy pit of evil that is the Old City and the inhabitants we meet along the journey to come.

This version of Wonderland – or this secondary world based on Wonderland – is separated into  New City and  Old City. New City is where rich people live, where Alice grew up and was declared insane and locked away. Old City is the dirty underbelly, where – and here’s a big, gigantic problem with this book – every single man is a rapist, murderer, thief, cannibal, torturer or some other terrible thing. Seriously, not a single person is just a normal human being. As for the ones who don’t get a chance to be evil, they are victims of the very men desribed above. In fact, Christina Henry’s focus (obsession?) on rape and torture goes so far that any shock value these scenes should have had, flies right out the window. Whenever Alice and Hatcher reach a new place, I came to expect it to be (A) littered with bodies, or (B) full of naked girls being raped or bought or sold or kept as slaves. Also – it’s only ever girls. Nobody trades with young men, apparently.

So yeah, I get it, this is meant to be a dark story. But the amount of blood, gore, and disgusting torture devices was just too much. If there is nothing to contrast the horror, and no time spent on showing some variety in the Old City’s inhabitants, then I’m left with the impression that it was put in there as gratuitous shock-material. None of it, however, holds any power because it is so obviously put in there only to be shocking. The plot would have worked much better if some of the evil gang lords of Old City weren’t so very evil, and so very obvious about it. They are not characters, they are stand-ins. Little bosses before you reach the end boss. With the one exception of Cheshire, all the baddies Alice and Hatcher have to defeat are so evil that our heroes don’t have to have any qualms or remorse about brutally murdering them. Why bother with questions of morality when everything is so wonderfully black and white. I do have to say that Cheshire was a ray of light in that you can’t ever be sure if he is good or evil, on Alice’s side or on that of some underground boss – or simply working for his own gain. He’s one of the reasons I kept on reading.

The second reason is Hatcher. As you may guess from the name, this is the Mad Hatter, named Hatcher because of his favored weapon. He was a multi-layered character with a sad past, fighting with bouts of insanity, battling against his hunger for killing. In Hatcher, Christina Henry actually shows off some of her talent. Unfortunately, she didn’t grant Alice that favor…

Another problem with this book was the pacing. It starts out so good! Thrown into the dark, I wanted to find out how this Wonderland works, who is who, where characters were hiding or what new role they have taken on. Christina Henry scatters her references beautifully, some very obvious, others more hidden, and it was a joy to discover them.  But what kept me reading was the threat of the Jabberwocky as well as an interest in Hatcher and his memories. There is so much build-up to every single revelation or boss fight (I’m just calling it that now) – and then the author just lets us down.

Alice and Hatcher travel a lot and their journeys from place A to place B take quite a while. The good thing is, this time is spent showing us more of their characters (mostly Hatcher), the bad thing is – if you make me read 50 pages of travelogue (interrupted by attempted rape and consecutive murder), then at least make the big fight worthwile. But every single time they reach a destination, they face their current opponent and you’d expect an intricately choreographed fight scene – or at least a clever bit of magic – then everything is over before you know it. Unspectacular, uninteresting, unoriginal.

Which all leads back to Alice being Alice. The fact that all the female characters in this book are either sex slaves, caged up, tortured, or dead, is bad enough. But the protagonist is the most passive creature in this story. Alice is dragged along by Hatcher (who is much more interesting, simply by merit of doing stuff), follows other people, does as she is told, and when she finally does act, it is by accident. Only in two scenes – I counted – does she do anything pro-active. And these scenes, you guessed it, take about three sentences to be over. Whoop-dee-do!

And then there comes the final, climactic moment of catharsis – when Alice gets to face her own torturer – and she STILL doesn’t do anything. After that, it’s time to meet the end boss and, hopefully defeat him. That’s the whole point of this story, after all. But the climax is no climax at all, the final fight isn’t a fight (not even a struggle), and the ending is as predictable as uninteresting.

I am really sad that a book that started out with so much potential drifted off into gratuitous grimdark territory, losing sight of its story and just going for gore and blood. I may give Christina Henry a second chance with the next book in this series but if that’s a mess as well, my patience is over. The only reason I finished this one is because Hatcher was an excellent character and the references to Alice in Wonderland were actually very well done.

MY RATING: 5,5/10 – Meh! Great beginning turned very sour.

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Second opinions:

Top Ten Tuesday – Top Ten Books I’ve Recently Added To My TBR

Top Ten Tuesday, hosted by The Broke and the Bookish,  is a fun book blogging meme in which I plan to participate a lot more this year. The topics aren’t always up my alley but as I love making lists (especially lists of books), here’s my first TTT post of the year.

Top Ten Books I’ve Recently Added To My TBR

These are not the most recent additions to my TBR, but they are somewhat recent and definitely the ones I’m most excited to read. Some are a few months old, some even older, but I’ve just recently discovered them or decided to buy them.

  1. China Miéville – This Census-Taker
  2. Anna Tambour – Crandolin
  3. Silvia Moreno-Garcia – Signal to Noise
  4. Nike Sulway – Rupetta
  5. Lisa L. Hannett & Angela Slatter – The Female Factory
  6. Susan Dennard – Truthwitch
  7. Amie Kaufman & Jay Kristoff – Illuminae
  8. Daniel Polansky – The Builders
  9. Carla Speed McNeil – Finder (Book 1)
  10. C.S.E. Cooney – Bone Swans

 

 

Why am I so excited?

Anything new by China Miéville is cause for major excitement and this new book of his is surprisingly short. It also sounds dark and creepy and like there might be a few twists along the way. And for some reason, I believe it will make a perfect winter read.

Anna Tambour’s Crandolin had been on my wishlist only for a little while when it was included in one of the Humble Story Bundles – so naturally I bought the bundle and got a bunch of other intriguing books in the mix.

Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Signal to Noise has garnered lots of praise throughout 2015 but for some reason, I thought I wouldn’t like it. But the more I read about the book, the more I wanted to experience it for myself. So now it’s mine and I want to read it very soon.

Rupetta and The Female Factory are both products of my love for Angela Slatter. Rupetta is published by the same publishing house as Slatter’s beautiful short fiction collections, and Slatter co-wrote The Female Factory – which is one of Twelfth Planet Press series of short story collections. I just read Love and Romanpunk from them so that gave me the additional push to buy the book.

Truthwitch and Illuminae are two books that I bought purely on hype. Illuminae actually put me off with its cover, the authors both didn’t speak to me (Kaufman’s other books sound like generic teen romances, I found Kristoff’s Stormdancer novel only okay), but The Book Smugglers and many other people were so impressed that I have to read the book for myself. Truthwitch hooked me with the premise (again, the cover is not so much my thing), and the crazy amount of tweets this book has gotten – all of which are full of love and praise – did the rest.

Polansky’s Builders was always going to be read by me. It’s part of the Tor.com novella line-up from 2015 (which has been excellent!) and look at that cover! Come on, how could I resist?

Finder was an impulse buy after re-listening to old episodes of the SF Squeecast. They squeed well, they squeed convincingly, and I went out and bought this huge brick of a graphic novel. And that’s only part one!

Bone Swans tickles all my spots. The cover is a Kay Nielsen illustration, the author plays with fairy tales, her prose is described as lyrical – that’s really all it takes.

So this is it, my list of books that get me giddy with excitement and make me jump up and down in my chair a little when I think about them. Now all I have to do is read them, and quickly, because 2016 promises to be another great year for SFF publishing.

Marissa Meyer – Fairest

I’m all caught up on the Lunar Chronicles! Until the short fiction collection Stars Above comes out, I can officially say I have read all the books in the series, including all the short stories available so far. That’s a good start into the new year and I promise, you won’t hear me talk about mediocre books in fangirlish ways for a while now.

fairest

FAIREST
by Marissa Meyer

Published by: Feiwel & Friends, 2015
Hardcover: 222 pages
Series: The Lunar Chronicles #3.5
My rating: 6/10

First sentence: She was lying on a burning pyre, hot coals beneath her back.

Mirror, mirror on the wall,
Who is the fairest of them all?
Fans of the Lunar Chronicles know Queen Levana as a ruler who uses her “glamour” to gain power. But long before she crossed paths with Cinder, Scarlet, and Cress, Levana lived a very different story – a story that has never been told . . . until now.

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Queen Levana was simultaneously one of the weakest and the strongest parts of The Lunar Chronicles as a whole. She is an Evil Queen of Evil whose Evilness is so obvious and unsubtle that I kept being surprised how nobody dared defy her. But then again, she is a Lunar and their gift for mind manipulation is a cool idea that would put terror into the bravest of people. When somebody can control your body and make you do awful things to yourself (or the people you love), I understand that you’d not want to make that person angry…

But Levana was a child once, too. This is her story. She grows up spoiled in the palace of Artemisia, her coldness eclipsed only by her sister Channery. Channery is not outright evil but, my gods, what a spoiled, careless, heartless brat! She just doesn’t care about other people and she enjoys being cruel. So yeah, maybe evil after all. Levana has sympathetic moments, although she clearly isn’t what I’d call an empathetic person. Her parents’ death leaves her cold and more annoyed at having to go to a funeral. It’s the effort she has to put into looking sad that bothers her, not the fact that she is now an orphan.

But Levana is capable of love (or so she thinks, at least). She falls in love with a palace guard and as things unfold, that love and her hatred of her sister becomes the catalyst for her entire personality. Fairest was a strange book and Marissa Meyer walked a fine line with it. The things she did well were Levana’s different sides. She doesn’t start out as a purely good person, but she’s not completely bad either. Levana shows different facets of her character and Fairest makes readers understand why certain aspects of her character were slowly killed off while others were fed by circumstance.

I found this pretty impressive because I didn’t think it was possible to make the Queen Bitch that is Levana appear sympathetic in any way whatsoever. But there are moments when – while not condoning her actions – the reasons for why she is the way she is are understandable to a point. This tightrope walk is a difficult thing to pull of and Meyer didn’t exactly nail it. Levana seems to have mood swings and they don’t always make sense. In one moment she would be a cold-hearted, naive teenager, then she would have downright evil thoughts of murder, then again she would read like a little lost girl who just wants to be loved by the man she has chosen. These different feelings don’t appear organically but seem almost accidental at times.

Story-wise, Fairest doesn’t offer much and the amount of repetition – especially when it came to Levana’s “love story” – got rather annoying. And, whoa, that love story was creepy! But as a bit of backstory, as a bridge book between two parts of the series, as an illustration of the most evil character in the books, this wasn’t half bad. It’s not a riveting read, because we know the outcome of the story beforehand and the journey just wasn’t exciting or surprising enough. But it wasn’t a bad book either.

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This story is filled with moments of darkness, much more so than the main story arc of the series. Levana isn’t born into an easy life, no matter what we think about royalty. She is psychologically terrorised by her sister, she suffers physical harm and feels constantly worthless because of the scars she wears. She believes herself in love (I don’t know if I buy her actually loving anyone) but things don’t work out the way they should. This is nothing like a fairy tale and no prince is in sight to come rescue her. So Levana does what she can to take matters into her own hands. While her methods are terrifying, the motive is understandable. Under that veil, under that crown, there is a person who was once a girl with hopes and dreams. This is the story of how they were shattered.

I’ve had enough of The Lunar Chronicles for a while but I hold by my opinion that these are fun YA books, perfect for those times when you just don’t want perfect world-building or deep characters. If you go into this series without expecting much, you won’t be disappointed. In fact, you might be surprised at the moments of depth that creep up on you and peek around the corner. Fairest was NOT fun but highly interesting, in a look-into-a-microscope way.

MY RATING: 6/10 – Good

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Second opinions:

 

Matt Wallace – Envy of Angels

This was SO MUCH FUN! Before I say anything more about this Tor.com novella, let me tell you that if you feel down and you just want a quick adventure with great humor, go pick this up. I’m so excited that a sequel novella is coming out this year.

envy of angels

ENVY OF ANGELS
by Matt Wallace

Published by: Tor.com, 2015
Ebook: 225 pages
Series: Sin du Jour #1
My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence: A hotel room in São Paulo is the third worst place in the world in which to go into cardiac arrest.

In New York, eating out can be hell.
Everyone loves a well-catered event, and the supernatural community is no different, but where do demons go to satisfy their culinary cravings?
Welcome to Sin du Jour – where devils on horseback are the clients, not the dish.

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The Sin du Jour is a New York catering service. For demons. Darren and Lena, two chefs out of work, can’t believe their luck when they are hired by celebrity chef “Bronko” Luck to help out for a big event but when they arrive at Sin du Jour, things are… weird. They’re not allowed to get fresh ingredients themselves because, well, let’s say they don’t only stock meats and vegetables here but also giant killer monsters that want to eat you. Hilarity ensues.

Matt Wallace has written a seriously fun and funny story about a restaurant for the supernaturally inclined. Throwing Darren and Lena into this formerly unknown world is a great way to introduce readers to the craziness that is Sin du Jour. A parallel storyline tells of four Sin du Jour veterans who go out to get more ingredients – and “ingredients” could mean literally anything in this case. I immediately fell in love with the dynamics between stoic Ritter, quick Cindy, Moon, and hulking Hara when they do one of their missions.

The big conflict of Envy of Angels is the fact that, for this big diplomatic meetings between two enemy demon tribes, they are supposed to serve angel. A real coming-from-heaven angel. And while preparing all sorts of wild creatures for demons may have a detrimental effect on your morality code, that is something most people at Sin du Jour feel a bit uncomfortable with. So they need a plan.

Apart from characters with great potential (yay for the sequel!), Matt Wallace is really good at writing funny dialogue and scenes that play out in your head like an action movie. There are a few twists and surprises along the way that always hit the mark and were usually as creepy as they were hilarious. The writing is worksmanlike, the pacing is perfect, this adventure is impossible to put down. I also loved the references to a certain fast food restaurant chain and its famed-for-its-secrecy recipe. And once you read the story, you realise just how perfect that cover is.

This novella also makes me appreciate Tor.com all the more for offering such a variety of stories in their 2015 novella line-up. We’ve had stories with the purplest of prose (Sorcerer of the Wildeeps), urban fantasy about modern small-town witches (Witches of Lychford), a first contact story in space (Binti), a fairy story about changelings (Domnall and the Borrowed Child), the gorgeous perfection that is Angela Slatter (Of Sorrow and Such), and all sorts of other fantasies that I haven’t discovered yet. The often rather dark tales are interrupted by this funny urban fantasy romp that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Tor.com know their readers and they also know we don’t only like one thing. I loved Binti and Witches of  Lychford to bits (nothing needs to be said about Angela Slatter, you know I’d read her shopping list and love it), but I also adored Matt Wallace’s fictional restaurants with its chefs, busboys, and ingredient-hunting crew. Let’s hope Tor.com continue giving us such varied stories in 2016.

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Excellent fun!

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Second opinions: