N.E.W.T.s Magical Readathon – Check-In #3

Here we are again with my third readathon report. I have already surpassed all my expectations for this readathon and I can’t tell you how wonderful that feels. I have achieved all the necessary grades for my career as a Writer as well as a Hogwarts Professor (Muggle Studies and History of Magic). But because I have no intention of stopping the readathon before it’s officially over, I am now trying to achieve better grades on the classes I already passed and taking new classes to just achieve more grades.

Grades Achieved so far

Herbology: A
Muggle Studies: A, E, O
History of Magic: A, E, O
Charms: A, E
Defence Against the Dark Arts: A, E
Potions: A
Ancient Runes: A
Astronomy
: A

Grades achieved last week are again in Ravenclaw blue, the ones I had finished before are black. I didn’t read as much last week as I did at the beginning of the month because other things were just more time-consuming (work, chores, spending time with loved ones). But as I have already reached my biggest goals, I am going to take it easy for  the rest of this readathon. I am also thinking about switching around the books on my TBR because I started some of them and they just didn’t grab me. I want to read them someday, of course, but at this time, my mood demands something else. So I’ll probably look for a few replacements, maybe even bigger books because now I am not stressed at all.

Books read last week

  • Lisa Goldstein – The Uncertain Places (Ancient Runes: A)
  • N. K. Jemisin – The Awakened Kingdom (Muggle Studies: O)
  • Becky Chambers – To Be Taught if Fortunate (Astronomy: A)

The Uncertain Places is a very unfortunate book because its cover does not give you a feeling of what you’ll find inside. Personally, I don’t like the cover very much, but it feels like it belongs to an Urban Fantasy, maybe with vampires, or a haunted house with ghosts or something. In reality, this book is about a family in a special house (so far, so true) but it deals mostly with fairy tales, with The Other Folk, with the places where their world and ours blur together. It was a good book with lots of nods to the Grimms’ tales.
You can’t go wrong with N. K. Jemisin and I loved this novella sequel to The Inheritance Trilogy exactly as much as expected.
Becky Chambers’ latest novel just fell into my hands and because it clearly has a moon or two on the cover, I went ahead and passed my first Astronomy class with it.

N.E.W.T.s in Progress

  • Kameron Hurley – The Light Brigade (Transfiguration: A)
  • Amie Kaufman & Jay Kristoff – Obsidio (Arithmancy: A)
  • Arkady Martine – A Memory Called Empire (Care of Magical Creatures: A)

I was very unsure what to read after Strange the Dreamer (talk about book hangovers!), but Kameron Hurley’s sci-fi story immediately hooked me. It starts very much like Starship Troopers (on purpose, with many nods to the Heinlein novel) but there’s so much more to discover. Dietz, the protagonist, signed up for the space military where they turn people into light to send them between planets. So far, I’ve only read some of the training they go through and it’s tough and super thrilling to read and I can’t wait to find out what happens next.
I am also going to start Obsidio by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff soon (maybe today, maybe Monday) because although it’s a big fat book, I need to finish this trilogy. And it ends on an even page number, so it counts for Arithmancy class.
Aaaaand I’m still listening to A Memory Called Empire. I am enjoying it a lot and I have reached the last quarter but this is just a dense read. The plot is exciting but it’s not the kind of book you can just rush through. You need all the information to figure out what’s going on and you also don’t want to miss any little detail about the amazing world Martine has created. But I’m sure I’ll finish this in a day or two.


How about your readathon experience so far? Are you on track? Let me know your Hogwarts House and your current read in the comments! And of course: Happy reading!

The Dream Chooses the Dreamer: Laini Taylor – Strange the Dreamer

Sometimes, everything about a book is just right. While many books have lovely covers, only few manage to offer a story that equals it. This is a book where the feelings you get when you look at the cover (I have the UK edition which is my absolute favorite) actually give you a hint of what you’ll find inside. Something magical and strange, where the color blue is important, where moths are more than just annoying creatures that come out at night… I loved everything about this book!

STRANGE THE DREAMER
by Laini Taylor

Published by: Hodder & Stougthon, 2017
Hardcover: 536 pages
Series: Strange the Dreamer #1
My rating: 9/10

First sentence: On the second Sabbat of Twelfthmoon, in the city of Weep, a girl fell from the sky.

The dream chooses the dreamer, not the other way around – and Lazlo Strange, war orphan and junior librarian, has always feared that his dream chose poorly. Since he was five years old he’s been obsessed with the mythic lost city of Weep, but it would take someone bolder than he to cross half the world in search of it. Then a stunning opportunity presents itself, in the person of a hero called the Godslayer and a band of legendary warriors, and he has to seize his chance to lose his dream forever.
What happened in Weep two hundred years ago to cut it off from the rest of the world? What exactly did the Godslayer slay that went by the name of god? And what is the mysterious problem he now seeks help in solving?
The answers await in Weep, but so do more mysteries – including the blue-skinned goddess who appears in Lazlo’s dreams. How did he dream her before he knew she existed? And if all the gods are dead, why does she seem so real?
In this sweeping and breathtaking new novel by National Book Award finalist Laini Taylor, author of the New York Times bestselling Daughter of Smoke & Bone trilogy, the shadow of the past is as real as the ghosts who haunt the citadel of murdered gods. Fall into a mythical world of dread and wonder, moths and nightmares, love and carnage.

There are some books that take a while to draw you in, to make you feel part of their world, to turn characters from strangers into friends. Not this book! From the very first chapter, I was captivated, I wanted to learn everything about the world into which Laszlo Strange had been born. When I read that Laszlo’s nose had been broken by a book of fairy tales, I was already utterly in love with him – and so will many other book lovers.

Strange the Dreamer is about many things, but at its core, it is about a city. A city Laszlo first encountered in stories he heard as a child, a city filled with magical beasts, and brave warriors, and colorful markets. When one day, Laszlo – and everybody else – loses that city’s name from his mind and memory, he knows magic is real and wants to solve the mystery of what is now called Weep. I don’t think it’s a spoiler when I say that the city is by no means a fairytale and it has much bigger problems than a missing name… And Laszlo of course wants to solve them.

It is a rare book that gets me so emotional in such a short span of time. At the very beginning, when we still get to know Laszlo Strange and his life as an apprentice librarian, we watch him play Tizerkane – one of the legendary warriors from the city of Weep. I got so swept up in his dreams that I wanted the legends to be real as much as Laszlo did. When, shortly after that, something happens to Laszlo that is brutally unfair, I felt real anger on his behalf. I was only a few chapters into the book and already I felt like Laszlo was my friend! That is no small feat and I can only applaud Laini Taylor for it. She is equally deft with her other characters. Whether we’re meant to love or hate them, see them for the multi-layered people that they are, be uncertain of whether we like them – she does it all beautifully and has created a cast of amazing characters that will stay with me for a long time.

As the title would suggest, this book is like falling into a dream and the writing style goes perfectly with that theme. Lush descriptions, beautiful quotable passages, natural-sounding dialogue – I couldn’t find a fault with it even if I tried to nitpick. In fact, this book was so gorgeous (inside and out) that I dragged it  out the further I got to the end. I know there’s a second book – it has moved onto my shelf in the meantime – but the longer I can spend with Laszlo and the others, the better.

Speaking of the others, there are quite a few and all of them are interesting, even though I wouldn’t want to know all of them in real life. Thyon Nero, an alechemist prodigy, may not be in direct competition with Laszlo (as a librarian, he doesn’t exactly have a high social status), but he is something like Laszlo’s childhood rival, nonetheless. But although he seems to be the first “villain”, we soon learn that there is more to Nero than meets the eye. Sure, he may be a jerk most of the time, but there are reasons for that and it’s not that he’s a bad person, he’s just a victim of circumstance.
On the other hand, we have characters like Sarai, who became an immediate favorite. I won’t say much about her because although we meet her early in the book, there are a few twists and surprises that I don’t want to spoil for you. Let’s just say that she leads a pretty difficult life, filled with magic and monsters and moths. Yes, you read that right – moths. The cover isn’t just pretty (soooo pretty), it is actually meaningful. Sarai’s inner conflict would have been enough to fill an entire book, but pairing her story with Laszlo’s created something new and wonderful.
Then there’s Eril-Fane, lauded as a hero who has saved his city, and sure… he kind of did that. But again, there is way more to his story than you may think at first.

It’s quite difficult to talk about the plot without giving too much away. And it’s not even that there are that many plot twists, but the way Laini Taylor slowly unveils the secrets of her story is so utterly perfect that I don’t want to ruin it for you guys. She puts characters we love into impossible situations, she gives us moments of pure bliss, and moments of absolute desperation. And, at the end, she  puts a knife in our hearts and twists it around – because authors are evil, I guess. But, you know, the good kind of evil.

This was a story that will stay with me for a long time. Reading it was a wonderful experience, trying to figure out how to solve the various problems, speculating where the story might go, it was just pure fun. I haven’t been this emotionally engaged in a book for a while and although I really want to know how the story ends, I am also a little hesitant. Because once I’ve finished the second book, it will truly be over.

MY RATING: 9/10 – Nearly perfect!

A Classic Fantasy Re-Read: Ursula K. LeGuin – A Wizard of Earthsea

It’s a rare occasion for me to re-read a book. The few things I’ll gladly re-read are the Harry Potter books or anything by Cat Valente. But to pick up a book I didn’t even enjoy that much the first time has really never happened before. Thanks to the N.E.W.T.s Magical Readathon, however, I took the opportunity to dive back into the world of Earthsea so I can finally continue the series. The second time around, the book fared a little better than the first, but the same things that bothered me the first time, still bothered me now.

A WIZARD OF EARTHSEA
by Ursula K. LeGuin

Published by: Parnassus Press, 1969
Hardcover: 206 pages
Series: The Earthsea Cycle #1
My rating: 6/10

First sentence: The island of Gont, a single mountain that lifts its peak above the storm-wracked Northeast Sea, is a land famous for wizards.

Ged was the greatest sorcerer in all Earthsea, but once he was called Sparrowhawk, a reckless youth, hungry for power and knowledge, who tampered with long-held secrets and loosed a terrible shadow upon the world. This is the tale of his testing, how he mastered the mighty words of power, tamed an  ancient dragon, and crossed death’s threshold to restore the balance.

This is the story of Ged, a young boy with immense magical talent, who first learns from his witchy aunt in his home village, then becomes apprentice to a mage on his island, then moves on to magic school where he is trained properly in the arts of magic. During his time at school, Ged unleashes an ancient evil, a shadow that follows him wherever he goes from that moment  on. Now it is up to the young sorcerer whether he will forever keep running or face his fear and gain his freedom.

The plot as such is – nowadays – nothing groundbreaking. It seems like your standard fantasy novel, a coming of age tale about a boy wizard in a magical world. But we must not forget when this book was published and that there wasn’t anything like it then. Take alone the fact that there is no great war, no armys of Evil against which our protagonist has to fight. Instead, his battle is a quieter one, with a shadow he himself has set free in the world. Ged’s coming of age is mostly dealing with the consequences of his own actions as well as accepting who he is and finding his place in the world. We may be lucky enough today to have many fantasy books with similar premises but in the late 60ies, I’m sure this was pretty mind-blowing.

As Ged’s story unfolds, we make pit stops (literally) at many of fantasy’s standard tropes. There is a dragon to defeat – or at least to keep at bay – and people in power trying to abuse it. There are villages to be visited on the journey, friends to be made, and school rivals to defeat. And of course, there is the entire Archipelago and beyond to discover via boat and sometimes even on wings.

My biggest problem – both on my first read and this time around – was how very distant everything felt. The writing style is like a fairy tale without all the whimsy. We are served simple facts, we are told how Ged feels, we are told everything that happens in dry langage, without any apparent wish to let the reader get immersed. That doesn’t make the story bad, but it also never let me get close enough to feel anything. I didn’t every get the feeling that I was truly discovering the Archipelago with Ged. Every village seemed much like the last, even if Ged didn’t always receive the same kind of welcome. The world just didn’t come alive. The times when Ged physically encounters his shadow were the only instances where I felt something. And I did want him to succeed, to be free of the thing that haunts him, but while reading, I mostly felt like I was examining an interesting specimen under a microscope. I wasn’t in the story but on the outside, looking in, if you know what I mean.

There are also many hints as to Ged’s further adventures and accomplishments, mostly in throwaway lines that nonetheless make me interested to continue the series. I also heard that the second book will have a female protagonist and female characters of any kind were lacking in this book. In the Afterword, LeGuin explains that, for the time the book was published, she actually subverted the current standard by including women characters, and not just window-dressing women but ones with power who use or abuse it. The fact that most of the characters are also People of Color is another bonus – one that may not have appealed to publishers, judging by the many white-washed covers and the movie adaptation…

While I remember being bored a lot of the time when I first read this book, I didn’t feel that way this time. I wasn’t riveted, because the whole story happened to characters I wasn’t much invested in, but this was a quick read. The story entertained me, it made me want to learn more about the world of Earthsea and the many amazing deeds that lie in Ged’s future. But was this a standout book for me? One that I’ll remember for a long time? Not really.

MY RATING: 6/10 – Good

N.E.W.T.s Magical Readathon – Check-In #2

There I was, thinking I couldn’t possibly do as well this week as I did at the beginning of the N.E.W.T.s Magical Readathon. The  experience has continued to be rewarding and fun and filled with excitement and I’m happy we still have a couple of weeks to go.
My career as a Writer is a given, and because I did way better than excpected, I have also achieved all grades necessary to become a Hogwarts Professor in History of Magic. I am now pursuing more Outstandings, so I can teach more classes at Hogwarts.  My career as a writer will happen in my free time… See, I got it all worked out. 🙂

Grades Achieved so far

Herbology: A
Muggle Studies: A, E
History of Magic: A, E, O
Charms: E
Defence Against the Dark Arts: A, E
Potions: A

Newly achieved grades are in Ravenclaw blue, the ones I had finished last week are black. I did pretty well again! Considering that Strange the Dreamer is quite a big book and I had to find a replacement for my original DADA pick), I’m happy that I managed to finish five entire books this week.

Books read

  • Catherynne M. Valente – Yume No Hon: The Book of Dreams (Defence Against the Dark Arts: A)
  • Ursula K. LeGuin – A Wizard of Earthsea (History of Magic: O)
  • Laini Taylor – Strange the Dreamer (Potions: A)
  • George MacDonald – The Princess and the Goblin (Defence Against the Dark Arts: E)
  • Peter S. Beagle – In Calabria (Muggle Studies: E)

It will come as no surprise to most of you that I am absolutely in love with Strange the Dreamer and the world Laini Taylor has created. I ordered the second volume when I wasn’t even halfway done with the first because there is no way this story can be messed up.
Cat Valente is my favorite author, so this short early work of hers was very good, although I prefer her less experimental stories.
My Earthsea re-read went pretty much exactly as expected. I did like it a bit more this time around, but not much. The Princess and the Goblin was a much older work (and you can tell) but a lovely, quick fairy-tale-esque story. And Peter S. Beagle’s latest unicorn story was tender and quiet but quite well done.

N.E.W.T.s in Progress

  • Arkady Martine – A Memory Called Empire (Care of Magical Creatures: A)
  • Lisa Goldstein – The Uncertain Places (Ancient Runes: A)
  • Kameron Hurley – The Light Brigade (Transfiguration: A)

I was very unsure what to read after Strange the Dreamer (talk about book hangovers!), but with Lisa Goldstein’s story set in the 70ies, dealing with a haunted family that is definitely hiding a secret, I think I found something nice and palatable. I haven’t started Kameron Hurley’s sci-fi novel yet but everybody is raving about it, so I am excited!
Aaaaand I’m still listening to A Memory Called Empire. I swear the book is fantastic, it’s just not exactly a light read. There are space politics and confusing social structures, there’s a murder mystery and probably even more for our protagonist to discover. It’s a heavy book but I’m still enjoying it.


How about your readathon experience so far? Are you on track? Let me know your Hogwarts House and your current read in the comments! And of course: Happy reading!

The Godfather With Magic: Fonda Lee – Jade City

Here’s a book I read a while ago and which completely swept me away. With the second in the series newly published, I wanted to go back and collect my thoughts about this fantastic series. If you like mafia movies (or even if you don’t) and magic, and diverse settings, then definitely check this book out. It is more than the sum of its parts, however, and I can’t wait to return to these characters that have grown so dear to me.

JADE CITY
by Fonda Lee

Published by: Orbit, 2017
ebook: 560 pages
Series: The Green Bone Saga #1
My rating: 8,5/10

First sentence: The two would-be jade thieves sweated in the kitchen of the Twice Lucky restaurant.

The Kaul family is one of two crime syndicates that control the island of Kekon. It’s the only place in the world that produces rare magical jade, which grants those with the right training and heritage superhuman abilities.
The Green Bone clans of honorable jade-wearing warriors once protected the island from foreign invasion–but nowadays, in a bustling post-war metropolis full of fast cars and foreign money, Green Bone families like the Kauls are primarily involved in commerce, construction, and the everyday upkeep of the districts under their protection.
When the simmering tension between the Kauls and their greatest rivals erupts into open violence in the streets, the outcome of this clan war will determine the fate of all Green Bones and the future of Kekon itself.

Jade City is one of those books that are best read without much prior knowledge, so I’ll tell you very little about the plot itself. Two opposing clans control the island of Kekon and their conflict reaches new heights throughout the course of this book. On this island, magical jade is produced which gives the people who wear it – if they are trained! – superhuman powers. Needless to say, jade is much sought-after and a large part of Kekonese culture is based on its magical properties. Whether it’s the fact that business owners swear fealty to one clan or another, or the magic schools in which promising young people are trained to use jade responsibly – Kekon is a magical place, albeit one with many dark sides.

But as amazing as the world building was, what really got me invested in the story were the characters. We follow the younger generation of the No Peak Clan and how they deal with the fact that they’ll soon take over certain responsibilities. These young Kauls –  Lan, Hilo, and Shae – are vastly different people with different goals in life. Lan struggles with the weight of responsibility as he is to become leader of the clan. Hilo is impulsive, prone to violence, and has to be held in check so he doesn’t accidentally (or not so accidentally) start a full-out war with the Mountain Clan. Shae has been gone from Kekon for a while and is just returning at the beginning of this book. She has her own troubles, not least of which is reuniting with her family after the unheard of act of leaving them. Apart from the general unrest brewing in the city, these siblings also don’t exactly get along. Figuring out why, and what has happened in their past to create this conflict, was just another layer that made this book so much fun to read.
And I haven’t even mentioned the fourth main character, a Kaul cousin named Anden, who is currently in training to become a Green Bone Warrior.

Which leads me to the magic system. The short version: It is AWESOME! A combination of magic and martial arts, it is the kind of magic that exacts a price. Using it drains energy, which is why you have to be trained before you can use jade, and why only the most powerful Green Bone Warriors wear a lot of jade on their body. The fight scenes, which can be difficult to do in  prose rather than a movie, were fantastically written. I always felt like I was right there, watching these amazingly powerful people battle each other.

There are also some greater conflicts at work in Kekon. Not only do the tensions between No Peak and Mountain reach a new high, but the larger world is involved as well. As I mentioned, jade is quite the popular material, because  of its magical properties, so it is only natural that other nations want it for themselves – for money, war, power… the usual. But jade in untrained hands can be more than dangerous, not just to the person wielding it, but to many others as well.

You see, there are so many things that come together in this book, and turn it into an almost perfect novel. Whether you prefer thrilling action scenes, quieter character moments where the protagonists have to make hard decisions, even a bit of romance (though very little of that), or simply a fantastic world that feels like a magical mafia story, it’s all there. And it’s all really well done! I couldn’t pick a single thing that Lee tried to do and didn’t succeed at. Her magic system follows its own  rules and makes sense (as much as magic can make sense, but you know what I mean), the characters all grow throughout the story and are definitely not the same people they were at the beginning of the book. The world itself is such an interesting place that I want to pack a suitcase and simply go out and explore what else there is to learn.

If it hasn’t come across yet, I was quite taken with this novel and I’m not even a big fan of mafia movies. But it is so easy to get swept up in the fate of the Kaul family because I cared so much about the characters, even the ones who don’t seem very likable at first. Fonda Lee has done a brilliant job in creating a magical world, multi-layered characters, family drama, and political intrigue. This book has pretty much everything that I love about fantasy and science fiction and I hope to read the sequel, Jade War, very soon!

MY RATING: 8,5/10 – Truly excellent!

Light and Easy Fantasy: Margaret Rogerson – Sorcery of Thorns

Here is one of this year’s YA fantasy books that have been surrounded by enormous hype. I understand completely that this cover makes people excited (I am one of them, after all), but a pretty cover does not make a great book. So I picked this up for the N.E.W.T.s Readathon to find out for myself if the content is a gorgeous as the packaging. The verdict is… not bad, but definitely not worthy of the hype.

SORCERY OF THORNS
by Margaret Rogerson

Published by: Margaret K. McElderberry Books, 2019
Hardback: 456 pages
Standalone
My rating: 5,5/10

First sentence: Night fell as death rode into the Great Library of Summershall.

All sorcerers are evil. Elisabeth has known that as long as she has known anything. Raised as a foundling in one of Austermeer’s Great Libraries, Elisabeth has grown up among the tools of sorcery—magical grimoires that whisper on shelves and rattle beneath iron chains. If provoked, they transform into grotesque monsters of ink and leather. She hopes to become a warden, charged with protecting the kingdom from their power.
Then an act of sabotage releases the library’s most dangerous grimoire. Elisabeth’s desperate intervention implicates her in the crime, and she is torn from her home to face justice in the capital. With no one to turn to but her sworn enemy, the sorcerer Nathaniel Thorn, and his mysterious demonic servant, she finds herself entangled in a centuries-old conspiracy. Not only could the Great Libraries go up in flames, but the world along with them.
As her alliance with Nathaniel grows stronger, Elisabeth starts to question everything she’s been taught—about sorcerers, about the libraries she loves, even about herself. For Elisabeth has a power she has never guessed, and a future she could never have imagined.

Elisabeth Scrivener has been left at the Great Library of Summershall as an orphaned baby and grown up surrounded by magical tomes and the wardens who protect them. Her ambition is to become a warden herself one day, just like the Director, her mentor/mother-figure. Elisabeth also knows sorcery is evil (that’s why the keep the dangerous magical books in chains and cages) and sorcerers are bad. When a new book arrives at the Library, and Elisabeth sees her first magister (read: sorcerer), things are set in motion that will rip her out of her life and into a world of magic, politics, and danger. Lots of danger!

Accused of a crime she didn’t commit, sorcerer Nathaniel Thorn takes  Elisabeth to the city to be tried. On the way, Elisabeth learns a lot more about the world she lives in and the place sorcerers occupy in it. There are demon servants, certain properties of magical books, a whole history of sorcerers on whose shoulders the society has been built. And of course there is Nathaniel, at the same time reserved and cocky. The fact that he’s the romantic interest is obvious from the start and I was happy to go along with that, expecting to learn more of his character and the world he’s grown up in.

Which leads me to my two big problems with this book. The world building is so shallow, everything there is to learn about it is told in a few chapters. Sure, there are hints here and there, that there could be more to certain stories of the past, but they are never expanded upon. The same goes for the characters, unfortunately. Elisabeth is just your standard YA fantasy heroine. She’s pretty and brave and clever. Her sole defining characteristic at the beginning seems to be her dream of becoming a warden. She leaves that dream behind so fast, you’ll miss it if you blink. And then she is basically a shell without hopes, dreams, or desires – other than making out with Nathaniel. That is such a shame. I was hoping for more of a proactive, actually smart protagonist like in A Curse so Dark and Lonely . But that still seems to be the exception.

Nathaniel does get some backstory and while I did like the idea of what happened to him, the way it is told was just so… underwhelming. Elisabeth is told the whole tragic truth in a single conversation, on one single page. It had no emotional impact for me, because it was just executed so badly.

Now what I did like about the story were the action scenes and a side character named Silas. In fact, Silas carried the entire book. In my opinion, if he had been the protagonist and this would have been an excellent book, not just an okay one. But at least he was there and he was amazing and he gave the story something to be emotional about. The romance – which should have been the thing to give me all the feels – was also only okay. I don’t want to say it was badly done, but if you make it that obvious who’s going to fall for whom, then there has to be something extra to keep me interested. There wasn’t any tension between Elisabeth and Nathaniel, they didn’t have particularly engaging dialogue, and the scenes where they do get closer to each other didn’t give me butterflies. That may just be me.

The plot was also nothing groundbreaking. It was a fun adventure story, with magic and evil books, demons and some great fight scenes, but I felt that the ending was artificially drawn out. Elisabeth figures out pretty quickly – and through rather stupid coincidences – what’s going on, who the villain is and approximately what he’s planning. The stopping of the plan is what takes up nearly half of the book, and because the suspense was already gone, it was precisely this last part of the book that dragged for me.

There is nothing especially bad about the novel or the writing style. But there’s nothing very great about it either. All things considered, this wasn’t a noteworthy book but it was fun and I think, with some work and deeper characterisation and world-building, the author could deliver a really good book next.

MY RATING: 5,5/10 – Okay

Fairy Politics and Forbidden Romance: Holly Black – The Wicked King

Unlike most other people, I did not love The Cruel Prince unconditionally. It was a fun read that offered a refreshingly complex story for a YA book. But apart from the twist at the end, it wasn’t the kind of book that made me go: I need the second one NOW! “Now” has arrived, however, and after reading this sequel, I am definitely among the people who are screaming for the third book. What an exciting ride this was! Spoilers for The Cruel Prince below!!

THE WICKED KING
by Holly Black

Published by: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2019
Hardcover: 336 pages
Audiobook: 10 hours 20 minutes
Series: The Folk of the Air #2
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: Jude lifted the heavy practice sword, moving into the first stance – readiness.

You must be strong enough to strike and strike and strike again without tiring.
The first lesson is to make yourself strong.
After the jaw-dropping revelation that Oak is the heir to Faerie, Jude must keep her younger brother safe. To do so, she has bound the wicked king, Cardan, to her, and made herself the power behind the throne. Navigating the constantly shifting political alliances of Faerie would be difficult enough if Cardan were easy to control. But he does everything in his power to humiliate and undermine her even as his fascination with her remains undiminished.
When it becomes all too clear that someone close to Jude means to betray her, threatening her own life and the lives of everyone she loves, Jude must uncover the traitor and fight her own complicated feelings for Cardan to maintain control as a mortal in a Faerie world.

At the end of The Cruel Prince, Jude had maneuvered herself into a precarious position. Yes, she wields incredible power, but that power is bound to run out. Over five months have passed when we rejoin Jude and Cardan at the Faerie Court and their relationship is… strained. Add to that the fact that Orla, the Queen of the Undersea, made a pact with the previous High King and now kind of considers that pact void – because reasons.

The shift in power dynamics between Jude and Cardan makes for excellent drama. Even if there hadn’t been a plot that includes the threat of war with the Undersea, Jude’s relationship with her sister, and her hiding that she is literally pulling the High King’s strings, this would have been enough to keep me entertained. As unhealthy and problematic as it might be, the tension between Jude and Cardan was also so damn sexy. I know I’m bad for liking them, but I just can’t help it. 🙂

I really don’t want to talk too much about the plot because, much like in the first book, there are plenty of things to discover. Jude is warned that someone close to her is a traitor, she meets new characters that reveal interesting things about the people she knows, she learns more of Cardan’s past… And all the while, she is worried about Oak, her sister is preparing to get married, and the Shadow Court is still doing its thing but we get way more insight into everything. Generally, it felt like Black used this second volume to expand her world, to give us a better idea how everything works and how the various political factions influence each other.

Jude is trying to juggle all the players on her Faerie chess board and, naturally, gets herself into the occasional super dangerous situation. This is not an action-packed book but when things get tricky for our protagonist, it’s impossible to put down. There was one chapter in particular that had me at the edge of my seat, filled with worry for Jude, and for the fate of Faerie in general. And apart from that, every scene between Jude and Cardan was just so loaded with tension, unspoken feelings, held-back desires, and struggles for power that I just couldn’t stop reading. Cardan also grew as a character which made it much easier for me to understand how Jude feels about him. In the first book – no matter how the ending tries to justify it – he was just an asshole. A cruel, heartless bastard who enjoys the pain of others. But here, we discover that there’s more to him than we first thought. He may still be a jerk most of the time, but he also has moments that show that there is definitely good in him.

For the middle book of a trilogy, this was truly a stunning novel. Most middle books don’t really do much to further the plot but rather set up the grand finale. That is the case here, too, but the book would also work really well as a standalone. It has its own story arc that would work well by itself, but of course, it also furthers the greater conflict of the succession to the Court, of Jude coming into her own and finding who she wants to be.

Without spoilers, let me tell you that the ending was again mind-blowing! Holly Black makes you feel that you kind of know what’s going to happen, then turns everything on its head. And then she puts an unexpected knife into her readers’ hearts and twists it around, because she can. I have come to believe that she is an evil genius who enjoys toying with her readers – and I am absolutely loving it! Now I feel that I am truly a part of all the other fans who are eagerly awaiting the publication of The Queen of Nothing (a title that makes so much sense now).

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

N.E.W.T.s Magical Readathon – Check-In #1

The first one-and-a-half weeks of the nerdy madness that is the N.E.W.T.s Magical Readathon is over and I thought I’d do a little check-in to see where I stand. I’m happy and quite proud to say that I’ve already achieved all of the necessary grades for my career of choice, Writer/Journalist. But because I don’t want to stop and I love everything about this readathon, I will continue to pursue a secondary career. I am still torn between Hogwarts Professor (teaching History of Magic) and Ministry Worker. For now, I’m just reading the books that speak to me most and I’ll see where that takes me.

Grades Achieved so far

Herbology: A
Muggle Studies: A
History of Magic: E
Charms: E

That means I have read 6 books so far which is pretty mind-blowing, considering that’s what I normally read in an entire month. I don’t know what it is about this particular readathon, but it keeps  me motivated like nothing else. Maybe it’s the idea of going to Hogwarts, taking all those magical classes, and pursuing a wizarding career. Maybe it’s the amazing energy of all the participants – on Twitter, YouTube, on other blogs… I just feel surrounded by friends and like-minded people, exchanging book recommendations and cheering each other on. It truly is magical!

Books read

  • Helen Oyeyemi – Gingerbread (History of Magic: A)
  • Margaret Rogerson – Sorcery of Thorns (History of Magic: E)
  • Joanna Ruth Meyer – Echo North (Charms: A)
  • Holly Black – The Lost Sisters (Charms: E)
  • Holly Black – The Wicked King (Herbology: A)
  • Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone – This is How You Lose the Time War (Muggle Studies: A)

I just noticed that all of those books have covers in shades of blue or green… I mean, I am  a Ravenclaw but I swear this is total coincidence. 🙂

N.E.W.T.s in Progress

  • Arkady Martine – A Memory Called Empire (Care of Magical Creatures: A)
  • Laini Taylor – Strange the Dreamer (Potions: A)

I am currently trying to find out which of my books are black under the dust jacket. The ones I actually own in hardback aren’t really ones I feel like reading right now, and it’s quite difficult to find out which of my ebooks or paperbacks would have a black cover under the dust jacket. If they even have a hardback edition, that is.


How are your classes going? Are you collecting points for your Hogwarts House? Did you discover any amazing books because of this readathon? Let me know in the comments or leave me a link to your posts. I love seeing what other people are reading and which books they choose for the individual classes.

A Perfect Fairy Tale: Joanna Ruth Meyer – Echo North

As someone who reads a lot of fairy tale retellings, it’s become hard for books to blow my mind and truly enchant me. Not only do I know the fairy tale by heart but I’ve also read many versions, updates, twists, and retellings of it – so to discover a book that manages to be original while honoring its fairy tale basis is something special. Joanna Ruth Meyer has not only done that, but she’s added some amazing twists that actually left me gasping.

ECHO NORTH
by Joanna Ruth Meyer

Published by: Page Street Publishing, 2019
Hardcover: 389 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: I was called Echo for my mother, who died when I was born, because when my father took me into his arms he said he felt the echo of her heartbeat within me.

Echo Alkaev’s safe and carefully structured world falls apart when her father leaves for the city and mysteriously disappears. Believing he is lost forever, Echo is shocked to find him half-frozen in the winter forest six months later, guarded by a strange talking wolf—the same creature who attacked her as a child. The wolf presents Echo with an ultimatum: If she lives with him for one year, he will ensure her father makes it home safely. But there is more to the wolf than Echo realizes.
In his enchanted house beneath a mountain, each room must be sewn together to keep the home from unraveling, and something new and dark and strange lies behind every door. When centuries-old secrets unfold, Echo discovers a magical library full of books-turned-mirrors, and a young man named Hal who is trapped inside of them. As the year ticks by, the rooms begin to disappear, and Echo must solve the mystery of the wolf’s enchantment before her time is up, otherwise Echo, the wolf, and Hal will be lost forever.

When Echo was born, her mother died, leaving her only with her beloved father and brother and a thirst for knowledge. She grows up loved and happy, but at the age of seven, an encounter with a white wolf leaves one side of her face hideously scarred. From that day on, she becomes an outcast in her villages, can’t make any friends, and has people stare at her and avoid her. Things don’t get better when Echo’s father decides to get married again – to a greedy, superficial woman who demands more riches than the family can  afford. And then Echo’s father doesn’t return from a trip to the city, so she goes looking for him and finds… a while wolf.

From there, things follow the story of the fairy tale not exactly, but at least recognisably. Echo promises to live with the wolf for one year in order to save her father’s life. They sleep in the same room, and the one thing she is forbidden to do is light a candle in the night and look upon the sleeping wolf. But Joanna Ruth Meyer has added so many layers, so many ideas to this time spent with the wolf. Instead of a castle, they live in a magical house under a hill, with ever-changing rooms filled with both wonders and terrors. Discovering these rooms was so much fun, but best of all was the Library of Mirrors (I want one and I don’t care if it’s impossible)!

The idea of stepping into stories and living them, rather than just reading them on a page, will appeal to any book nerd. So you can imagine my joy when Echo discovered just such a marvel in the enchanted house. But she’s also the kind of character who doesn’t just sit around all day, living fictional people’s stories (not that that’s a bad thing… ahem) – she knows something is up, she knows the wolf is under some kind of curse, and she is determined to figure everything out and save him. Then there are the people she meets in books – a girl who becomes her friend, and a boy named Hal who may become even more than that. But he is also surrounded by mystery, so Echo has a lot of secrets to solve. Meanwhile, the house is starting to unravel, becomes more and more dangerous, and Echo and the wolf have their hands full just staying alive.

What made this book so special for me were a few small-ish things that added up to an amazing experience. First of all, Echo’s being scarred and always feeling like and outsider made her a great protagonist to follow. Like most young girls, she dreams of being beautiful, of being accepted, yet she knows that her scars will always scare people away. She is a resourceful, smart protagonist who desperately wants to help people even though people in general haven’t been very kind to her. If you know the fairy tale, you also know that the heroine does something incredibly stupid – I loved how Meyer solved that problem and made Echo’s decision to do that stupid thing feel not stupid at all. In this version of the tale, it made perfect sense and it didn’t make me think less of Echo.

The other thing that makes this retelling stand out is the underlying mythology Meyer came up with. While in the original, the wolf is a bear and the evil Queen is a Troll Queen, here everything is just different enough to keep people like me intrigued and guessing. If this is not the dumb Troll Queen from the fairy tale, what powers might she wield? How smart might she be and how much more difficult could she make it for Echo to save her wolf? The winds also make appearances, although not as literally as in the fairy tale. I was also delighted at the way they were incorporated into the story, especially the North Wind, who even gets a back story of his own.

As for the romance, it may not have given me butterflies, but it was the steadily building kind of romance that happens between the lines. By the end, I was invested in the relationship, although I don’t quite know when that happened. Speaking of the end – holy shit, there is a twist I did not see coming and that alone makes the book worthwile! The author really doesn’t go easy on her protagonist and just when you think she’s managed to save her wolf, when things start looking good, a knife is twisted in your heart.

If you couldn’t tell, I adored this book. The characters, the plot, especially the world building were all fantastically done. If I had to pick anything I didn’t like 100% it was the language. There were a few phrases that the author kept repeating, such as descriptions of the house’s features or people’s looks. But compared to everything else, that’s a tiny nitpick which didn’t diminish my reading pleasure at all. I am so excited to see what Meyer comes up with next and if it will be just as wonderful as Echo North.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

Magical Realism: Helen Oyeyemi – Gingerbread

I’ve been in love with Helen Oyeyemi’s writing ever since I read Boy, Snow, Bird and although Mr. Fox was a bit too experimental for my taste, her latest novel was a good one again. Not as amazing as Boy, Snow, Bird maybe, but an interesting story that combines fairy tale elements with magical realism.

GINGERBREAD
by Helen Oyeyemi

Published by: Macmillan, 2019
Ebook: 304 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7/10

First sentence: Harriet Lee’s gingerbread is not comfort food.

Influenced by the mysterious place gingerbread holds in classic children’s stories–equal parts wholesome and uncanny, from the tantalizing witch’s house in “Hansel and Gretel” to the man-shaped confection who one day decides to run as fast as he can–beloved novelist Helen Oyeyemi invites readers into a delightful tale of a surprising family legacy, in which the inheritance is a recipe.
Perdita Lee may appear to be your average British schoolgirl; Harriet Lee may seem just a working mother trying to penetrate the school social hierarchy; but there are signs that they might not be as normal as they think they are. For one thing, they share a gold-painted, seventh-floor walk-up apartment with some surprisingly verbal vegetation. And then there’s the gingerbread they make. Londoners may find themselves able to take or leave it, but it’s very popular in Druhástrana, the far-away (and, according to Wikipedia, non-existent) land of Harriet Lee’s early youth. In fact, the world’s truest lover of the Lee family gingerbread is Harriet’s charismatic childhood friend, Gretel Kercheval–a figure who seems to have had a hand in everything (good or bad) that has happened to Harriet since they met.
Decades later, when teenaged Perdita sets out to find her mother’s long-lost friend, it prompts a new telling of Harriet’s story. As the book follows the Lees through encounters with jealousy, ambition, family grudges, work, wealth, and real estate, gingerbread seems to be the one thing that reliably holds a constant value. Endlessly surprising and satisfying, written with Helen Oyeyemi’s inimitable style and imagination, it is a true feast for the reader.

This book felt like several stories wrapped into one. It begins with Harriet Lee, mother of Perdita Lee, trying to get into the social circle of the other parents of her daughter’s classmates. This proves more difficult than expected, despite her generous gift of home-made gingerbread. It’s also the story of her daughter Perdita, who wants to find out more about her heritage and the country of Druhástrana which doesn’t seem to exist yet her mother and grandmother supposedly came from. They even have the accent to prove it.

After Perdita takes radical action in order to visit Druhástrana, Harriet opens up to her about her own childhood on that island nation that is only mentioned as a myth. The descriptions of Druhástrana and the farmstead where Harriet spent her childhood are exactly as dreamlike and fairy tale-esque as you’d expect them to be. This made-up country is filled with weird places, weirder traditions, and some weird people. Whether it’s the Parkers, who train homing pigeons (unfortunately, the last ones never returned) or the Lees themselves, who are farmers like everyone else but who also happen to make the most delicious gingerbread.

It is during that childhood that Harriet meets Gretel, one of the stranger characters of this book. And considering that everybody is a little strange here, that’s saying a lot. But the two girls become friends quickly and it is through Gretel that Harriet gets to leave the farmstead for Druhá City where she becomes a Gingerbread Girl. She and her friends promote and sell their famous gingerbread in exchange for money that they can send home to their poor families. Except, Clio Kercheval, the woman who runs this operation, isn’t all she appears to be.

In fact, the Kercheval family features prominently in this book as Harriet gets to know more of them. Her journey leads her to London, more Kerchevals, and more gingerbread. This is where I stop telling you about the plot – it’s not the main thing of the book anyways. Although don’t be fooled, there is a plot and although it meanders at time, things fall into place at the end and make at least some sense. 🙂
On the way, there are talking dolls, a teenage pregnancy, friendship rings, lottery tickets, and maybe even a ghost.

What’s really more important for this book is its characters and their relationships. Most of them are complete mysteries, their motives unknown, their characters difficult to understand, but that was a large part of the appeal for me. I also enjoyed figuring out how everything fits together, learning who Perdita’s father is (her mother never told her) and finding out whether there will ever be a reunion between Harriet and Gretel.

Oyeyemi’s best quality, though, is her writing style. I don’t know any author who writes quite like her. Sometimes, there are pages upon pages that just flow into each other, changing subject rapidly but never taking you out of that reading flow. It’s impressive, to say the least, and at times felt like wandering around in a dream. You go from Harriet e-mailing the other parents to her feeding her daughter gingerbread to her remembering a girl named Gretel, who she made a promise to long ago all in the matter of a chapter but these topics bleed into each other so effortlessly that it all feels organic and makes the book hard to put down.

Although the title and cover could make you think this is a retelling of Hansel and Gretel, it’s not. Oh, there are definitely mentions of the fairy tale, there are hints here and there, little winks to elements of the Grimms’ story but it’s definitely not a retelling the way I understand it. Instead of telling of two siblings who are lost in the woods, this is the story of a mother and daughter who are lost in the world and just now starting to find their place. It’s about an intricate family network, about friendships that last decades, and, yes, about gingerbread. While I didn’t find this tale as exciting and emotional as Boy, Snow, Bird, it had many things going for it and the ending was a thing of pure beauty. I can’t wait to see what Oyeyemi comes up with next.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good