A Real Little Mermaid Retelling: Esther Dalseno – Drown

I had the hardest time finding an indie book for the Retellings Challenge for several reasons. Number one, I admit it, I am biased and book covers do have an impact on me. So if I see a cover that looks like someone threw it together with Word Art, I don’t want to read that book, no matter how amazing the text may be. Plus, it’s really hard to find recommendations when you’ve already read the most “hyped” indie retellings. But I did find something (with a gorgeous cover, no less) that turned out to be really, really good!

DROWN
by Esther Dalseno

Published by: Little Birds Books, 2015
eBook: 260 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7/10

First line: It was destined to fail because it was an artificial species.

Seven emotionless princesses.
Three ghostly sirens.
A beautiful, malicious witch haunted by memories.
A handsome, self-mutilating prince.
Belonging to a race that is mostly animal with little humanity, a world obsessed with beauty where morality holds no sway, a little mermaid escapes to the ocean’s surface. Discovering music, a magnificent palace of glass and limestone, and a troubled human prince, she is driven by love to consult the elusive sea-witch who secretly dominates the entire species of merfolk. Upon paying an enormous price for her humanity, the little mermaid begins a new life, uncovering secrets of sexuality and the Immortal Soul. As a deadly virus threatens to contaminate the bloodstreams of the whole merfolk race, the little mermaid must choose between the lives of her people, the man she loves, or herself.
A complete reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen’s classic fairy tale, this is a magical-realist fable that captures the essence of sacrifice and the price of humanity.

Many fairy tale retellings use the original tale and give it more depth by putting them in a different setting or time period, by giving the protagonists a job other than “prince” or “miller’s daughter” and by giving them a backstory and personality. That’s what I love so much about retellings – that you can discover something new about a tale you generally already know. So reading about an android Cinderella or a Beauty who is also a gardener is something I enjoy but that doesn’t mean it’s the only good way to retell an old story.

Esther Dalseno went a different route  in her version of The Little Mermaid. None of the characters in this book have names. The little mermaid is just the little mermaid, the sea witch gets no name, and even the prince and his uncle are only called by their title. It’s to the author’s credit that it took me a few chapters to even figure this out because the story flows beautifully right from the start and I didn’t feel like there was anything missing. There are enough original ideas to make up for this traditional way of telling a fairy tale. The prose in general was very good and made it easy for me to fall into the story. The one big gripe I have – and that goes to the list of baises I have against indie books – was the many, many typoes and even grammar mistakes. They got worse and worse toward the end of the book and that’s just not necessairy. A copy editor should have easily found those mistakes and fixed them. They’re not even style problems (which are subjective anyway) but really just spelling mistakes. That’s the only thing that ever took me out of the story. It’s a minor gripe but it bothered me nonetheless.

Now let me tell you why this was such a great book anyway. The little mermaid lives with her six sisters and her father in the underwater palace where they eat delicious food and admire their own beauty. The merpeople are completely emotionless and don’t really do anything, but learning about their species – and the way that the little mermaid just doesn’t seem to fit in – was quite fascinating. We don’t just see them they way they are now but we get a little origin story about how merpeople even came to exist. The same goes for the sea witch’s backstory which is revealed more and more throughout the novel.

The story follows the fairy tale pretty closely – definitely more closely than other retellings I’ve read and when I say “the fairy tale” I don’t mean the Disney version but the one by Hans Christian Andersen. The little mermaid falls in love with the handsome prince but what she wants even more than to be with him is an Immortal Soul! And because she believes that marriage grants you half your partner’s soul, she makes a plan to visit the sea witch and have herself turned human. She gives up her voice for human legs and goes to the palace to win her prince. So far, so predictable. But wait! While the prince may not get a name, he does get a personality. His father has just died and the prince is dealing with severe depression and self-harm. That came out of nowhere for me and gave the otherwise very pale character a lot of depth. In addition to the mermaid’s point of view, we also follow his and while I may not have liked him very much, I appreciated him as a character.

Once the little mermaid has turned human and lives at the palace, the story offers more and more original ideas that diverge from the fairy tale.The prince’s uncle (and king regent), for example, plays an important role. He was in fact the most interesting of all the characters. Servants gossip about how he picks a different maid each week to visit his room at night, yet he seems like a sad, lonely man. The little mermaid is quite scared of him (because she thinks his beard is an animal parasite sticking to his face). Figuring out the uncle’s character, why he is the way he is, and what his plans are for the future, was almost as much fun as following the little mermaid in her quest to marry the prince.

If you’ve read the Andersen fairy tale, you know it doesn’t end happily. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that this version has a similar ending. The tone of the book is pretty dark right from the start, so a happy ending would simply not have fit! But even though you may know how the little mermaid’s story ends, you’ll be hooked until the last page to find out what happens to her sisters, her father, the sea witch, and the merpeople in general. I liked how Esther Dalseno mixed a predictable story line (if you know the fairy tale) with her own ideas in order to keep us readers guessing. The whole backstory of the merpeople’s origin and the uncle’s role turned this into a fascinating read. Except for the many spelling errors, I really enjoyed it and would definitely recommend this if you like fairy tale retellings and want to try something published by a very small press. I certainly hope Esther Dalseno publishes more retellings in the future.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

If you’re curious about the type of errors I was moaning about, here are a few examples:

[…] before her could examine them[…]

[…] usually the couple were sick of the sight of each another by one year’s end. […]

[…] he had saw fit to […]

But then again, you’ve been to absorbed to notice.

Again, this doesn’t diminish the quality of the story for me but it is something that’s easily remedied. If I can find these errors while reading the story a single time, a publisher should have been able to see them as well and fix them.

A Messy, Trope-Ridden YA Novel: Lisa Mantchev – Eyes Like Stars

There are books you love and books you hate, and then there are books that are so mediocre, that offer so little to either rant or rave about that you just… nothing them. This is one such book. The more I think about it, the more I can put into words what’s wrong with it but while I read it, I just noticed that I didn’t  care about anything in it. The characters, the plot, the setting… nothing.

EYES LIKE STARS
by Lisa Mantchev

Published by: Square Fish, 2009
Paperback: 352 pages
Series: Théâtre Illuminata #1
My rating: 3,5/10

First line: The fairies flew suspended on wires despite their tendency to get tangled together.

The fantastic first novel in Lisa Mantchev’s Theatre Illuminata trilogy
Welcome to the Théâtre Illuminata, where the characters of every play ever written can be found behind the curtain. The actors are bound to the Théâtre by The Book, an ancient and magical tome of scripts. Bertie is not one of the actors, but they are her family. And she is about to lose them all because The Book has been threatened, and along with it the Théâtre. It’s the only home Bertie has ever known, and she has to find a way to save it. But first, there’s the small problem of two handsome men, both vying for her attention. Nate, a dashing pirate who will do anything to protect Bertie, and Ariel, a seductive air spirit. The course of true love never did run smooth. . . .
With Eyes LIke Stars, Lisa Mantchev has written a debut novel that is dramatic, romantic, and witty, with an irresistible and irreverent cast of characters who are sure to enchant the audience.

I thought I could begin this review the way the author began this book. By throwing you right in without any information whatsoever, with nothing making sense, and with a girl dying her hair blue. But I don’t want to be that kind of person. So I’ll just tell you how I experienced this strange book that I still don’t know how to classify. Is it YA? Is it Middle Grade? Does it matter?

Beatrice Shakespeare Smith, called Bertie, lives in the Théâtre Illuminata, a place where all characters from all Shakespeare plays reside and live to play their part over and over again. Their plays are all collected in The Book, a mysterious tome that is protected by the Theatre Manager. Bertie’s friends (if you can call them that) are the fairies from A Midsummer Night’s Dream and while they are obviously only there for comic relief, I quite liked them and their silly antics. Other characters include Ariel, the air spirit from The Tempest, Nate, a dashing pirate who is obviously in love with Bertie, and the Stage Manager as well as the heads of the Properties, Scenery and Costume Departments.

There is very little plot in this book but the basic premise is that Bertie is a troublemaker and faces explusion from the Theatre. If she wants to stay in the only home she’s ever known, she needs to prove that she can make an invaluable contribution. Her plan is to restage Hamlet in ancient Egypt. At the same time, Ariel is constantly flirting with her and trying to manipulate  her to set him free – because, as it turns out, all those characters are trapped inside the Theatre and have to play when management says so. That made Ariel, who is supposed to be the bad boy in an unnecessary and lifeless love triangle, the most sympathetic character to me. I mean, who wants to be enslaved? Of course he’s going to try everything to gain his freedom! And one of his attempts brings down chaos  on the Theatre. There is also a weird sub-plot about a magical amulet that Nate gives Bertie. And Ophelia randomly walks around and tries to drown herself in puddles. It all felt very contrived.

Bertie herself, our super special protagonist of the blue hair, was incredibly unlikable. Not only is it true that she makes trouble in the Theatre and I would totally have kicked her out as well had I been the Theatre Manager, but she is also just rude and mean to every single person around her. Nate obviously loves her, she leads him on, but then turns around and goes all googoo for Ariel because he’s pretty. Only to change her mind a few chapters later and treat Ariel like shit. Bertie is an entitled, mean girl who wants everyone’s attention, contributes nothing, and doesn’t care about anyone’s feelings but her own. What a bitch!

But I have no problem with antiheroes in general. If the rest of the book had made any kind of sense, I would have been there for it. A magical theater sounds like so much fun and I don’t always need a magic system that makes perfect sense. But in the Théâtre Illuminata, nothing makes sense. Scene changes happen automatically (by magic), so why is there even a scenery department? And there also doesn’t seem to be a crew, only players and managers – who does the costume manager manage? She doesn’t have any workers.
Another thing that bothered me about the setting was the time period. What time does this take place in? Characters mostly talk very old-timey, which may be attributed to them being Shakespeare characters, but the managers aren’t actors and they can technically leave the theatre whenever they want. Then suddenly the fairies will say something utterly modern, making references to things they can’t possibly know if they’ve never been out of the theatre. The same goes for Bertie, who orders a quadruple shot cappucchino (she doesn’t outright say “from Starbucks” but it felt like a line from a contemprary teen movie). But they also talk about horse-drawn carriages and people wearing monocles? It just left me confused and annoyed!

Here are some examples (emphasis mine):

“It’s rather like a spa,” Peaseblossom said, trying to rassure her from the safety of the button box.
(How would a fairy trapped inside a magical theatre know what a spa is?!)

Or take this:

“Did someone call for mummification?” Moth appeared, armed with a buttonhook. “We’ll prepare you for eternal slumber, internal organs removed and body wrapped in gauze, for one low, low price!”
“But wait” Cobweb added. “If you act in the next five minutes-”
(So fairies apparently also watch TV commercials, which makes the time period even hazier and the equipment of the old-timey theatre even more questionable.)

As for the forced love triangle, there was no chemistry between anyone. I did like Nate because all he does is look out for Bertie and try to protect her (not that she appreciates it). The bad boy Ariel was more enticing as a characters – because  unlike Nate, he has a personality and agency, he wants his freedom! Nate just wants Bertie. – but Bertie’s reaction to both boys changed so frequently and never made much sense. So I didn’t care if she ends up with either of them and I would recommend they both find themselves a kinder person to fall in love with. I mean, who kisses a guy, then literally enslaves him, then changes her mind again and again. And while she’s messing around with Ariel, she still kind of wants Nate’s attention as well. Again: Antiheroes are okay if their story is good, but I just didn’t understand Bertie and I really don’t like people like her who play with others’ feelings for their own personal amusement.

Oh yes, and let’s not forget another sub-plot which is probably going to be the story arc for the entire trilogy: How Bertie Came To The Theatre. Bertie has always lived there but she has no idea who her parents are or where she actually came from. Some of this is revealed at the end of the book but, as I cared nothing about Bertie or most of the other characters, the revelation fell flat. There was no emotional impact because there was never any build-up. Stuff just happens all the time, most of the book is chaos, but nothing ever got to me. It’s not even that I hated the story, I just really, really didn’t care. Which is probably worse than a book I actively hate because at least hate is an emotion and this book made me feel nothing.

The best thing I can say about this is that, because the book is pretty much made of dialogue, it’s a very quick read. There are random sequences that are written as stage plays for some reason, but only in the first third of the book. That was a nice idea but it felt like the author had no plan whatsoever for this book and just wrote whatever popped into her mind at the time.
For the next book, there will probably be a quest for Bertie (getting someone out of trouble for which she is responsible in the first place) and of course she wantsto find out more about her heritage. As I don’t care about Bertie or the others and didn’t find anything particularly appealing in the world or setting (whenever and wherever that may be), I won’t continue reading this trilogy. It’s a shame because the covers are really pretty.

MY RATING: 3,5/10 – Bad

Franz Kafka & Coleridge Cook – The Meowmorphosis

Holy shit, I had forgotten how utterly depressing Kafka was. Even this – at times quite clever – retelling couldn’t lift my spirits. I read The Metamorphosis in German a long time ago and while I remembered the main things that happened to Gregor Samsa after he wakes up as a cockroach/bug, I had forgotten how depressing every single character and every single monologue or dialogue was. Well, Coleridge Cook has reminded me. I can’t say this was a pleasure but I am rather impressed with the author’s skill.

THE MEOWMORPHOSIS
by Frank Kafka and Coleridge Cook

Published by: Quirk Classics, 2011
Paperback: 206 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7/10

First line: One morning, as Gregor Samsa was awking up from anxious dreams, he discovered thathe had been changed into an adorable kitten.

Thus begins The Meowmorphosis—a bold, startling, and fuzzy-wuzzy new edition of Franz Kafka’s classic nightmare tale, from the publishers of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies! Meet Gregor Samsa, a humble young man who works as a fabric salesman to support his parents and sister. His life goes strangely awry when he wakes up late for work and finds that, inexplicably, he is now a man-sized baby kitten. His family freaks out: Yes, their son is OMG so cute, but what good is cute when there are bills piling up? And how can he expect them to serve him meals every day? If Gregor is to survive this bizarre, bewhiskered ordeal, he’ll have to achieve what he never could before—escape from his parents’ house. Complete with haunting illustrations and a provocative biographical exposé of Kafka’s own secret feline life, The Meowmorphosis will take you on a journey deep into the tortured soul of the domestic tabby.

If you’ve read or at least heard about these Quirk Classics books, you pretty much know what you’re going to get. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was just that – the Bennett sisters fighting off zombies and polishing their swords instead of doing embroidery and learning French. It is a silly sort of fun that you have to be in the right mood for. These books are also essentially the original text with only some words or passages replaced so the new “version” makes sense. There’s Android Karenina, Sense and Sensibility and Seamonsters, and as I found out only recently, The Meowmorphosis.

Coleridge Cook took Kafka’s Metamorphosis and, instead of having Gregor Samsa wake up as a cockroach (“Ungeziefer” doesn’t actually mean cockroackin German, but it’s a sort of collective word used for small, unwanted creatures, usually bugs), he wakes up as an adorable kitten. But if you think the fact that Gregor has turned into something that our society views as cute and fluffy makes this a happy or fun book, you are so wrong. Kafka’s original was a great book but also super depressing. And what made it so depressing wasn’t even that the protagonist was changed into a huge cockroach, but rather how his family deals with this change.

In this version, Gregor wakes up as a kitten and does what kittens do. He has a fondness for naps, he has to learn how to walk on four paws instead of two legs, he wants milk and fish and also to be left alone. His parents react to this rather fantastic change not with the kind of outrage one would expect (like, what the hell, our sun turned into an animal overnight!!) but they think more of themselves and their future, as they were dependent on Gregor’s job as a traveling salesman. It’s been a while since I read the original text, but if this book is anything like the Austen adaptations, then the text itself remains very much the same, except Gregor is a kitten and not a cockroach.

Where the story does change – and that’s at the same time this book’s strength and what makes it even more depressing – is when Gregor escapes his apartment and explores the town. He soon meets another cat and (because humans don’t understand his speech anymore) tries to talk to it. As it turns out, Gregor isn’t the only sad working man who has turned into a cat overnight. He meets a whole group of cats who used to be men and now roam the streets of Prague in their new feline shape. This bit also incorporates one of Kafka’s other books, The Trial, into the plot. And Gregor talks with some other cats and how they are, in every way, superior to us humans.

But one thing is too obvious to have escaped me, namely, how little inclined they are, compared with us cats, to stick together, how silently and sullenly and with what unspoken hostilities they pass one another by, how only the basest of interests such as food, drink, or breeding can bring them together for a little time in ostensible union – and how often those very interest give rise to violent conflict among them.

The ending of the book is equally sad and disturbing as the original. But I do want to say that Colerdige Cook did a fantastic job writing the original parts in Kafka’s style. There are seriously long monologues about how shit the world is, especially if you’re working a mediocre job that you hate. I’m not personally a fan of Kafka’s writing style but I have great respect for anyone who can imitate it to the point where you don’t know where Kafka ends and Cook begins. The entire book reads as one, without any noticable breaking point.

My favorite part by far – because it was funny rather than depressing – was the little Kafka “biography” at the end which explains that Kafka has been followed by cats much of his life. The suggested reading group questions are even funnier (“Gregor Samsa has some issues, doesn’t he?” and “Frank Kafka had some issues, didn’t he?”). If you like Franz Kafka or even if you don’t like him and want to see one of his tales made slightly ridiculous, then pick this up. As much of a downer as it is, I actually quite enjoyed reading it.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

Currently Reading: My 2019 TBR Finale

December has arrived and with it the time where crazy book people like me get super stressed out about all the books we still want to read before the year is over. As ridiculous as this self-imposed “deadline” is, I can’t deny that I feel the urge to finish all my current reads and start the new year with a clean slate. So here are the books I’m currently reading and the ones I still want to cram into December somehow. It’s not going to be easy with the holidays, family visits, buying presents, and probably also spending a lot of time at work. But holidays and travel also means more reading time, and I look forward to cozying up with a blanket, a cup of tea, some cookies, and of course excellent books.

Current reads

I absolutely have to finish these books because all of them count toward the 2019 Retellings Challenge. I started out with the humble goal of reading 6-10 books for that challenge but now my bingo card is almost full. And I can’t very well leave it this way, right? Ambition holds me firmly in its grasp and I am determined to finish that challenge!

Joan D. Vinge – The Snow Queen
This was a book pick for the Sword & Laser podcast. It’s a Snow Queen retelling set in space and while I enjoy the book as long as I read it, whenever I put it down, I don’t feel a particular need to pick it back up again. So it’s not bad but I just need to give myself a little push to pick it up again and finally finish it. Status: 43% read

Marion Zimmer Bradley – The Mists of Avalon
This was a recommendation here in the comments (thanks again!) and I have been reading this book for a while. Again, I enjoy it, but at almost 1000 pages, it’s quite chunky. It tells the story of King Arthur from the women’s point of view and I love how women are definitely the protagonists in this story, but they’re not all equally likeable. I’ve also been told that the last part has more action and even a plot twist, so I’m confident I’ll finish this beast before the year is over. Status: 76% read

Lisa Mantchev – Eyes Like Stars
I picked this up on the one hand because it fits into the “Shakespeare retelling” slot of my challenge, and on the other hand because this book (and the entire trilogy) were nominated for a Mythopoeic Award. I’m not sure whether I like it yet but it is a quick read that I’m sure I’ll finish within the next few days. Status: 68% read


Still to read

There are a many books I’d still love to read this year, but because some of them are quite big, I tried to keep my TBR realistic.

Esther Dalseno – Drown
A Little Mermaid retelling by an indie author for – you guessed it – my Retellings Challenge. I’ve actually had my eye on that book before I knew about the challenge so I’m excited to read it. It sounds dark and twisty.

Julia Ember – The Seafarer’s Kiss
I need to read a retelling with a weapon on the cover and this book has been on my radar for a long time. I may change the book because I have two Little Mermaid retellings lined up and I’m not sure I’m up for that, even though this one is a lesbian retelling. But unless I find something that I’m more excited about, this is the book I’m going for.


I’m pretty sure I can manage to read those books and still have time to start another. Whether that will be the rather big but hopefully fantastic Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James or the horror novel The Twisted Ones by T. Kingfisher, I don’t know yet. Of course, there’s also Call Down the Hawk by Maggie Stiefvater and The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders calling my name. Not to mention Starsight by Brandon Sanderson. You see why reading can be stressful sometimes, but I think whichever book I’ll pick as my very last read of 2019, I’ll take it easy. No worrying about challenges, no stressing about deadlines, no pressure whatsoever.

2019 has been a fantastic reading year for me. I’ll post my favorite books of 2019, my challenge wrap-ups, and my most anticipated releases of 2020 in the next few weeks. If you have recommendations or think I should prioritize one of the books mentioned above, let me know in the comments!

A Slightly Too Quick Wrap-Up: Holly Black – The Queen of Nothing

After being swept away by The Wicked King I knew I needed to read The Queen of Nothing as soon as it came out.  This conclusion to the Folk of the Air series was satisfying in the end, although it felt rushed and a little to neat at times. I wouldn’t have minded an extra 200 pages for more character development, more action, and more Jude and Cardan. But maybe that’s just me. Warning: Massive spoilers for The Wicked King below (don’t read the synopsis if you haven’t read the first two books!)

THE QUEEN OF NOTHING
by Holly Black

Published by: Little, Brown, 2019
Hardcover: 308 pages
Series: The Folk of the Air #3
My rating: 7,5/10

First line: The Royal Astrologer, Baphen, squinted at the star chart and tried not to flinch when it seemed sure the youngest prince of Elfhame was about to be dropped on his royal head.

He will be destruction of the crown and the ruination of the throne.
Power is much easier to acquire than it is to hold onto. Jude learned this lesson when she released her control over the wicked king, Cardan, in exchange for immeasurable power.
Now as the exiled mortal Queen of Faerie, Jude is powerless and left reeling from Cardan’s betrayal. She bides her time determined to reclaim everything he took from her. Opportunity arrives in the form of her deceptive twin sister, Taryn, whose mortal life is in peril.
Jude must risk venturing back into the treacherous Faerie Court, and confront her lingering feelings for Cardan, if she wishes to save her sister. But Elfhame is not as she left it. War is brewing. As Jude slips deep within enemy lines she becomes ensnared in the conflict’s bloody politics.
And, when a dormant yet powerful curse is unleashed, panic spreads throughout the land, forcing her to choose between her ambition and her humanity…

Jude is stuck in the real world with her sister Vivi and her little brother Oak. She does what she can to teach Oak to be a good person, but she longs to go back to Elfhame. Whether she just misses the power she once held, her friends from the Shadow Court, or a certain king, she’s not ready to admit. But we readers know Jude well enough by now to understand that she’s not made for our world. As mortal as she may be, she belongs in Faerie. And as it so happens, an opportunity arises when Jude’s traitor sister Taryn arrives and asks for help.
Pretending to be her twin, Jude returns to Elfhame, only to discover that war is brewing (again). In disguise (well, sort of), she has to navigate her old family, find out secrets, and also save King Cardan’s butt from being assassinated. But it’s only a matter of time until someone recognizes her for who she really is…

I really enjoyed how all the plot strings from the previous books come together here. Madoc’s mad grab for power has reached dimensions where they can only be resolved by outright war. Jude and Cardan’s dancing back and forth finally has an end. But that’s the first thing where I felt the story went a little too quickly. Sure, much of their relationship was based on misunderstandings or their inability to just come out and SAY WHAT THEY FEEL, but here, Cardan felt like a completely different character. Suddenly, he just tells Jude outright how he feels. As romantic and lovely as that is, it felt out of character and came almost out of nowhere. Although he does still have a trick or another up his sleeve just to drive Jude mad. 🙂

The plot about impending war and its various rival factions almost felt like background decoration to me. I was fine with that because, hey, I’m not ashamed to admit that I read this mostly for Jude and Cardan. But there was potential here to do more. Or to do what was done (Madoc’s plan for the Queen of the Undersa is fantastically vicious!) but more of it. Everything felt a little rushed. A lot of characters from the previous books show up again: the Bomb, the Ghost, the Roach, and Nicasia. And they each get stuff to do and play roles of varying importance, but it felt like a bit too much was stuff onto too few pages. So I didn’t dislike any of this book, I just wanted more of it. Certain scenes could have lasted longer, some chapters could have been added just to give us a break between action-packed ones. But these are just my complaints and they’re not even really complaints… I’m just sad it’s over.

But there is maybe a bit too much plot for a 300-page book. So Jude needs to get back to Faerie, she needs to save her sister, there’s a war brewing, she finds out the queen of the Undersea is threatened, her friends are in danger, and then at one point, a prophecy about Cardan comes up – because Jude doesn’t have enough on her hands already. I’ll let Cardan tell you about that prophecy himself:

“There was a prophecy given when I was born. Usually Baphen is uselessly vague, but in this case, he made it clear that should I rule, I would make a very poor king.” He pauses. “The destruction of the crown, the ruination of the throne—a lot of dramatic language.”

Of course, this being a fantasy book, this prophecy is important! But in finest faerie fashion, it can also be read several different ways and doesn’t have to be interpreted literally. Not that Cardan has been a great king so far, but throwing one too many parties doesn’t equal the “destruction of the throne”, right?

Holly Black wouldn’t be Holly Black if she didn’t add a twist or two to her story. The first comes to you earily on and courtesy of Cardan himself, the second happens much later in the book – and that’s where the real action kicked off for me. Jude has a difficult and emotional choice to make, backed by allies, threatened by enemies, and the question is: Will she prove once again that she can outsmart the Folk? I won’t spoil anything for you here, but let me say that I love how clever Jude is and how she knows to play the faerie’s games and use their tricks against them.

The ending, quickly as it happens, felt well-rounded and satisfying. Again, I would have liked a bit more information, more about what the future might hold, more about the various Folk and their fate. But overall, I really enjoyed this book. It was a fast paced thrill-ride that played with my emotions just the way I like it. It wasn’t as good as The Wicked King but it’s a worthy ending to a great trilogy. And I kind of already want to start reading all three books again from the beginning…

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very good

 

A Brilliant, Dark, Adult Debut: Leigh Bardugo – Ninth House

This is my year of Leigh Bardugo. In January, I finally set out to finish the Grisha Trilogy and after that, it was all Bardugo, all the way. I couldn’t keep my hands off her books, I couldn’t get enough of her characters and the darkly magical worlds she’s created, and I have now – after finishing this book – read all of her novels! Ninth House is her first book for adults (trigger warning: it gets seriously dark!) and it also kicks off a whole new series. This turned out to be one of my favorite books of 2019, so I am delighted to know there will be more!

NINTH HOUSE
by Leigh Bardugo

Published by: Flatiron Books, 2019
Hardcover: 458 pages
Series: Alex Stern #1
My rating: 8/10

First line: By the time Alex managed to get the blood out of her good wool coat, it was too warm to wear it.

Galaxy “Alex” Stern is the most unlikely member of Yale’s freshman class. Raised in the Los Angeles hinterlands by a hippie mom, Alex dropped out of school early and into a world of shady drug dealer boyfriends, dead-end jobs, and much, much worse. By age twenty, in fact, she is the sole survivor of a horrific, unsolved multiple homicide. Some might say she’s thrown her life away. But at her hospital bed, Alex is offered a second chance: to attend one of the world’s most elite universities on a full ride. What’s the catch, and why her?
Still searching for answers to this herself, Alex arrives in New Haven tasked by her mysterious benefactors with monitoring the activities of Yale’s secret societies. These eight windowless “tombs” are well-known to be haunts of the future rich and powerful, from high-ranking politicos to Wall Street and Hollywood’s biggest players. But their occult activities are revealed to be more sinister and more extraordinary than any paranoid imagination might conceive.

Alex Stern has a second chance at life. After something horrible happened that left lots of people dead, she is given the opportunity to study at Yale and also work for a secret society that monitors other secret societies. There is already so much coolness in the setup of this story that I don’t really know where to start my gushing. So let’s just dive in head-first.

Alex, although she has made some seriously bad life choices, is a wonderful character right from the start. She knows she is in over her head, she has a hard time keeping up with her curriculum, she struggles with her grades, and – oh yeah – there’s all that magic business that she has to learn about, in addition to just handling an already difficult life. As the new Dante (code names are a thing here), she is being tutored by the old Dante, who is now the Virgil. This guy’s real name is Darlington (well, Daniel Arlington) and he is… let’s say not too pleased that he couldn’t pick his own successor but was forced to take on Alex. A girl who didn’t finish high school, who has a history of drug use, and was the only survivor at a terrible murder scene. But Darlington is nothing if not a gentleman and he is willing to do his very best with what he was given.

Although we see Darlington only in the flashback chapters from when Alex was first introduced to Lethe House and their job to keep all the other Yale secret societies in check, I immediately fell in love with him. While he may appear as just another spoiled rich kid who’s had it way too easy in his life, we learn that there is a lot more to him and that, despite some wealth, easy is not exactly a good way to describe his childhood. The dynamic between Alex and Darlington was also brilliant. I kind of expected there to be a hate to love thing going on or some other tropey romance, but what I got was something much more organic and realistic. There is no hate (maybe a bit of resentment) and I’m not sure that I’d call the budding friendship that develops between them love. But they do get closer to each other and they each learn to appreciate the other’s strengths.

Speaking of strengths… I haven’t even mentioned why Alex was chosen for this job, seeing as she’s not exactly your typical candidate for an Ivy League school. Well, Alex can see ghosts, or Greys, as they are called. You can imagine how fun her childhood was, seeing people that others couldn’t. But it turns out, Lethe House and the various other societies (Skull and Bones, Book and Snake, etc.) can really use that particular superpower. Because ghosts tend to appear and sometimes disrupt their rituals, someone who can see them is a valuable asset. Because Alex is so useful, people will just have to get used to her particular brand of swear words, snark, and throwing herself into dangerous situations.

There are some other characters who started out pretty minor but who have grown quite dear to me by the end. Quiet but truly clever Dawes, who is like everyone’s mom but also socially inept, and the policeman Turner, who doesn’t really want to believe in all that magic stuff but kind of has to because, well, it’s true. I loved both of them and was so glad that throughout the novel their characters got to shine and they weren’t simply side characters who served some plot purpose.

The plot itself is a beast. Leigh Bardugo started out with a great idea, one that would have been enough for a thrilling novel. But then she throws in sub-plots, and another sub-plot, and some of them may be connected, some may just arise because Alex lives in two worlds now. The regular Yale world where she has roommates who want to go to parties and order pizza, who help her with her essays and just want to be friends; and the world of secret societies, magical mayhem, and murdered girls. The focus lies much more on the magical side but I still felt I got a glimpse of university life. In Alex’s case it’s a life where ghosts follow you around and where you may need magical eye drops to work through yet another night without any sleep. There are always many things going on at once, so when you pick up this book, don’t expect to go to sleep early. Also… be warned that the content gets very dark in a lot of ways. There are depictions of violence, lots of blood, and some scenes that are just plain disgusting.

I could say so much more about how brilliantly the plot strings fit together at the end, how Bardugo not only created a fantastic world that makes sense (as much as magic can make sense, anyway), and how she leaves just enough questions open to keep me intrigued, but answers most of them for this to feel like a well-rounded, finished story. But mentioning any details of the plot could spoil your fun and, trust me, I want you guys to enjoy this as much as I did! Simply know that the ending, while maybe a teeny bit rushed compared to the build-up, absolutely nailed it. We find out some things about Alex’s past, about ghosts in general and some in particular, about secrets hidden even deeper than you expect, and about how this magical world even works. But there are still so many things to discover, there’s so much more exploring I want to do in this world! This book just came out a month ago, so I know it’ll be quite a wait until we get the next one. But I am already excited, and if the sequel is anything as good as this one, I hope Bardugo turns this into a long, long series.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

Lesbian Feminist Snow White: Melissa Bashardoust – Girls Made of Snow and Glass

In my everlasting quest to discover new and fresh takes on fairy tales and mythology, I have come across Melissa Bashardoust’s debut novel, which was sold as a lesbian retelling of Snow White. Teh strengths of the novel were definitely the original ideas the author brought to the table. Trying to kind of stick to the fairy tale may have actually hurt this book more than helping it. My overall opinion is both underwhelmed and positively surprised.

GIRLS MADE OF SNOW AND GLASS
by Melissa Bashardoust

Published by: Flatiron Books, 2017
eBook: 384 pages
Standalone
My rating: 6/10

First line: Lynet first saw her in the courtyard. Well, the girl was in the courtyard. Lynet was in a tree.

Frozen meets The Bloody Chamber in this feminist fantasy reimagining of the Snow White fairytale.
At sixteen, Mina’s mother is dead, her magician father is vicious, and her silent heart has never beat with love for anyone has never beat at all, in fact, but shed always thought that fact normal. She never guessed that her father cut out her heart and replaced it with one of glass. When she moves to Whitespring Castle and sees its king for the first time, Mina forms a plan: win the kings heart with her beauty, become queen, and finally know love. The only catch is that shell have to become a stepmother.
Fifteen-year-old Lynet looks just like her late mother, and one day she discovers why: a magician created her out of snow in the dead queens image, at her fathers order. But despite being the dead queen made flesh, Lynet would rather be like her fierce and regal stepmother, Mina. She gets her wish when her father makes Lynet queen of the southern territories, displacing Mina. Now Mina is starting to look at Lynet with something like hatred, and Lynet must decide what to do and who to be to win back the only mother shes ever known or else defeat her once and for all.
Entwining the stories of both Lynet and Mina in the past and present, Girls Made of Snow and Glass traces the relationship of two young women doomed to be rivals from the start. Only one can win all, while the other must lose everything unless both can find a way to reshape themselves and their story.

This is the story of princess Lynet and her stepmother Mina, told through both their perspectives. We are slowly eased into the world of this particular Snow White retelling, as well as to one of the two protagonists. Lynet lives in the castle with her father the king, and nothing weighs on her as much as her father’s pressure for Lynet to be exactly like her dead mother. As she died during childbirth, Lynet never got to know her, but she is told on a daily basis just how much like her she is – same look, same fragility (oh, how she loathes the word!), same spirit.

Mina on the other hand is Lynet’s stepmother and actually gets along really well with her adopted daughter. Some of her chapters are flashbacks to how she came to be queen and I really, really loved those chapters. They show a young girl with an oppressive, scary magician father. Mina is ambitious but she is also driven by fear. She wants to break out of her life and she wants power – because that is what she feels she needs to be safe. So she plays the part perfectly, gains the newly widowed king’s attention, and works her way into his inner circle via his small daughter. I found it fascinating how well Bashardoust managed to write a sympathetic character who is nonetheless using manipulation to get to her goal. Like, I thought I was supposed to hate her. She’s the villain right? Well… not so much. But she’s no goody-two-shoes either. So well done on flawed and believable characters!

The first half of the book has almost nothing to do with the fairy tale Snow White. A new surgeon beings working at the palace – a young girl named Nadia – and Lynet feels immediately drawn to her and strikes up a friendship. It’s not hard to see that this friendship will eventually bloom into a romance, so I was quite disappointed that we get so little development and chemistry between these two characters. There is far more spark between Lynet and Mina and it was their mother/daughter relationship that kept me glued to the pages more than anything else.

Lynet and Mina also are each special in a magical sort of way. The book title is a dead givaway and it’s revealed pretty early on in the book, so I’ll just tell you: Lynet was created out of snow and magic. Mina, whose heart failed when she was still a child, has a magical heart made of glass. These may sound like tropey fantasy add-ons at first, but it has a huge impact on the plot and the protagonists. While Mina has been told all her life that she cannot love and will never be loved, Lynet feels even more that she was just made to be a stand-in for her dead mother. Their personalities have evolved around their magic and I felt that this was also really well done by the author.

I won’t say much about the plot or the villain – they are both super obvious once the plot actually starts. At about the halfway mark, I felt the book lost a lot of its qualities. Inserting all the necessairy Snow White plot points to turn this into a retelling felt rather forced and ruined what would otherwise have been a beautiful character-driven book about a mother and daughter and a world that would pit them against each other. But you get it all: the poison, the stepmother worrying that she’s being replaced by a younger, more beautiful woman, the prince (in this case: princess), and so on.

The weaker points of the novel were definitely the world building. Except for a few mentions here or there about a curse that leaves the castle in eternal winter, about politics (North vs. South), and about university, there wasn’t much there. I also thought that the magic was built up too slowly at first, only to rush in with a bang at the very end. If you give your characters magical abilities, at least throw in some kind of a learning curve… The romance between Lynet and Nadia was just badly done, and I much preferred the more subtle and growing relationship between Mina and the huntsman!

As for the ending: I loved where the characters ended up and how they resolved the problem of succession and rivalry. Everything did fall into place a bit too neatly however, and because the villain of the novel was so over the top evil, and for no discernible reason, it also fell a little flat. Before the big showdown even began, I already knew how everything would be resolved and I prefer at least some element of surprise when it comes to fairy tale retellings.
All that said, I did enjoy what Bashardoust has done with these characters, and while this turned from a really good into a mediocre book, I will definitely check out her upcoming novel Girl, Serpent, Dove.

MY RATING: 6/10 – Good

Politics, Schemes, and Magic Battles: Fonda Lee – Jade War

One positive thing about being at home sick is that there is plenty of time to read. Granted, I currently have the tendency to fall asleep while reading (not because of the book, but because I’m ill and it makes me tired), but I managed to get through this highly awaited sequel nonetheless. If you haven’t read the first book, Jade City, I urge you to do so – it’s like The Godfather with magic-fuelled martial artists. I promise you it’s just as awesome as it sounds. Also: Beware of spoilers for book one below!

JADE WAR
by Fonda Lee

Published by: Orbit, 2019
Ebook: 600 pages
Series: The Green Bone Saga #2
My rating: 7,5/10

First line: It was madness to rob the grave of a Green Bone. 

In Jade War, the sequel to the Nebula, Locus, and World Fantasy Award-nominated Jade City, the Kaul siblings battle rival clans for honor and control over an Asia-inspired fantasy metropolis.
On the island of Kekon, the Kaul family is locked in a violent feud for control of the capital city and the supply of magical jade that endows trained Green Bone warriors with supernatural powers they alone have possessed for hundreds of years.
Beyond Kekon’s borders, war is brewing. Powerful foreign governments and mercenary criminal kingpins alike turn their eyes on the island nation. Jade, Kekon’s most prized resource, could make them rich – or give them the edge they’d need to topple their rivals.
Faced with threats on all sides, the Kaul family is forced to form new and dangerous alliances, confront enemies in the darkest streets and the tallest office towers, and put honor aside in order to do whatever it takes to ensure their own survival – and that of all the Green Bones of Kekon.
Jade War is the second book of the Green Bone Saga, an epic trilogy about family, honor, and those who live and die by the ancient laws of blood and jade.

There is a lot going on in this follow-up to the amazeballs Jade City. There’s no easy way to sum it all up, so let me just say, every single character has their hands full. Shae is dealing mostly with politics, both inside the Clan, in Janloon City, on Kekon in general, and internationally. Hilo has his hands full with some of the same, but he also has a baby on the way, a fairly new wife, he’s still looking for his brother’s murderer, and the Jade smugglers are making more trouble than ever before.

The beginning of the novel is used mostly to remind us readers of what happened before and I was immensely grateful for the way Fonda Lee eased me back into this world. Without info dumping, we get to hear who all the key players are again, we’re reminded of how the Clans are organized, how Green Bone culture works, what is at stake, and how opening up jade trade to the wider world has impacted life in Kekon. These first chapters may not be super action-packed but in my eyes, they were necessary to get back into the world of the Green Bone Saga. Even after that, the plot takes a long while to truly kick off. Many, many pages are spent setting up new characters, new locations, new conflicts. It is to Fonda Lee’s credit that none of those chapters could be called boring. She writes her characters so deftly that even a scene where people sit in a room and discuss a trade agreement can feel interesting. If you’re looking for a lot of action all the time, however, be warned that you’ll have to be patient.

Things have changed in the No Peak Clan since the ending of Jade City. Hilo and Shae have grown more into their roles, they have a functioning network of people, spies, and Lantern Men, but they also have more on their plates than they can possible handle. While Shae is dealing with the Espenians on the subject of Jade trade, Hilo is looking for Lan’s killer and trying to somehow gain an advantage over Ayt Mada and her Mountain Clan. And so begins a game of back and forth, where one Clan always seems slightly ahead of the other, only to change in the next chapter. While it can’t be called “action”, I found this really fun to read about. Following the No Peak characters and seeing how they are choosing each of their moves, how clever they are, was very entertaining. The problem is that sometimes, Ayt Mada is even cleverer and all of Shae and Hilo’s efforts are for nothing.

And let’s not forget Anden! After refusing to ever wear Jade again, he is promptly exiled to Espenia – although Shae makes it sound (and probably also means it) like a chance for an education, for seeing more of the world, for getting an outsider’s perspective. As much as Anden hates the idea initially, he eventually grows into the local Green Bone community in Port Massy, the Espenian city that is to be his home for a while. There is even a surprising romance, one that I didn’t see coming, that made me so happy for him and that also kind of broke my heart. Also, like in any good mafia story, Anden may not want to be part of the Clan as a Green Bone, but that doesn’t mean he won’t make himself useful otherwise. I loved that we got to see more of the world and especially a culture that viewed Jade completely different from all our protagonists. While Green Bones from Kekon look at Jade with reverence, as a status symbol, something that can be won in duels and must be worn with pride, the Kekonese in Espenia are quite different. Discoving this new culture along with Anden was one of the highlights of this book for me.

I’m not going to give any important plot points away. Rest assured that you will get some of the amazing action scenes that made the first book so thrilling. But they are few and far between. This volume is mostly concerned with politics. Whether it’s meetings between important people, assassination attempts of important people, spying on important people, and using the information gained that way to manipulate important people… you get the idea. While I love all the characters and enjoyed reading about their quieter moments very much, I do have to say that the book was just a bit too long. Sure, opening up the world to include other nations, a violent conflict on a different continent, and the smugglers working off another island – that all takes time to set up and explain. But maybe Fonda Lee tried to do a little too much at once in this book. It felt like there were always five subplots going on, all with different characters, many of whom don’t even survive until the end.

So where the first novel was streamlined and exactly as long as it needed to be to tell a kick-ass story, this one dragged on a bit. There were a lot of scenes that could have easily been cut. Wen meeting up with a spy, Shae spending time with her boyfriend, Anden’s time with his new Keko-Espenian friends, and so on. I understand that these scenes serve a purpose – whether it’s to show us more of the characters or advance the plot – but this is what editors are for. To do several things at once, like show us a character’s growth while moving the plot along.
Despite all my gripes, this book was highly entertaining and well written throughout. The last third or so delivered exactly the kind of action-packed finale that I had hoped for. There are shocking twists, good and bad surprises, and at least one epic fight scene. The ending leaves many questions open and No Peak in just as precarious a position as before. So despite being well written, this book suffers a lot from middle book syndrome. This book set up sooo many subplots. Only one of them gets any kind of conclusion, so it almost feels like it was added as an afterthought to give this middle book some kind of beginning, middle, and end.

So it wasn’t as good as the first book, but there is no denying that Fonda Lee is a master of writing characters, writing action scenes, and creating a fantastic world. It’s rare that world-building includes the economy as something just as important as, say, military strenght, and I loved how she incorporated it into her story. I will definitely check out the final book when it comes out in 2020, because I’m pretty sure all the set up that happened in Jade War will come to an explosive conclusion. Fingers crossed!

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very good

A Charming Middle-Grade Adventure: T. Kingfisher – Minor Mage

It’s no secret that I love everything T. Kingfisher writes, whether it’s her fairy tale retellings or the massive graphic novel Digger she published as Ursula Vernon. You can always expect lovable heroes with a solid moral compass, charming stories, and practical characters. The same goes for this little book aimed at a younger audience.

MINOR MAGE
by T. Kingfisher

Published by: Red Wombat Studio, 2019
Ebook: 185 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7,5/10

First line: Oliver was a very minor mage.

Oliver was a very minor mage. His familiar reminded him of this several times a day.
He only knew three spells, and one of them was to control his allergy to armadillo dander. His attempts to summon elementals resulted in nosebleeds, and there is nothing more embarrassing than having your elemental leave the circle to get you a tissue, pat you comfortingly, and then disappear in a puff of magic. The armadillo had about wet himself laughing.
He was a very minor mage.
Unfortunately, he was all they had.

Oliver is the resident mage of a small farming village – ever since the old mage died, after teaching Oliver everything he knew… or trying to at least, between periods of dementia. When the current drought has gone on so long that people worry about their crops, Oliver decides to go out into the world and bring back rain from the Cloud Farmers, only to find out that a mob of village people had that very same idea and is kind of forcing Oliver to go. Even though he would have done it anyway. So him and his familiar, an armadillo, make their way West to save their home (and maybe also a little bit to get away from that angry mob).

From the very beginning of this book, T. Kingfisher shows all the things she does best and the reasons why I love her fiction so much. You have an upstanding, brave hero who wants to do the right thing, a sarcastic but hilarious animal sidekick, and characters that are multi-layered and feel real. As a 12-year-old, being sent alone on a dangerous journey should make Oliver feel kind of pissed at his neighbors, but being the goodhearted boy that he is, with a real sense of responsibility, he does his best to understand why his friends would suddenly turn on him this way. He is not making excuses for them, but he sees them as real people with their own worries and fears and so can’t really be too mad at them for sending a child away alone.

This can definitely be described as an adventure novel, so Oliver and Armadillo get into quite a few scrapes along the way. I don’t want to spoil any details, but while there are encounters with supernatural creatures, the far more scary ones are those with other humans. Apparently, publishers refused to publish this as a middle grade novel, and yes, some scary stuff does happen, but I’d guess that kids could easily handle them. Especially because whenever Oliver is forced to make decisions where there is no easy division between Good and Evil, he examines his dilemma. Characters die in this story but Oliver doesn’t shrug these things off – they bother him, they make him wonder whether he’s made the right choice or not. It is small details like this that I find so important, not only because they show that the world just isn’t simply Good or Evil, but because it also doesn’t pretend that everything is always peachy and easy. Keeping ugly truths from kids – like that there are people in the world who will do gruesome things for no reason that you or I could understand – is way worse than writing something that will challenge a young mind to think for itself.

Oliver himself was such an endearing character. Not only the way he always tries to see from other peoples’s point of view and thus understand their motives, but also because he just has a good heart. He knows only three spells and using them gives him nosebleeds. But he wants to be so much better! So this story is not only an adventurous romp through fantasyland, but it is also about a young boy who, at first sight, may not have the greatest gifts or abilities, but who learns that sometimes what you already know is all you need. Armadillo, snarky as he may be, is a great help in teaching Oliver that the few spells he knows can go a long way, if employed creatively. It’s a beautiful message to both kids and adults out there who sometimes feel like they are not good enough. I’d say it’s a feeling we all know, and realizing that although there may be many others who are better at a thing than you are, that doesn’t mean your abilities aren’t worth anything. Sometimes, they are not only enough, but exactly right!

Lastly, let me say again how utterly charming Kingfisher’s language is. She writes with heart and humor and just gives me warm and fuzzy feelings whenever I pick up her books. Any of her stories are perfect for getting out of a reading slump, for picking up when you feel down. If you want to be certain that you’ll have a great time and close the book with a happy smile on your face, go for T. Kingfisher. I love her writing so much and I can’t wait to read her first horror novel which just came out this year. If she nails that as well, than I am all the more impressed with her.

RATING: 7,5/10 – Very, very good!

A Shallow but Fun Teen Romance: Kiersten White – The Chaos of Stars

I was so excited when the book of the month for the 2019 Retelling Challenge ended up being one about Egyption mythology. I had a particularly hard time finding a book for that prompt, not because there aren’t any SFF novels out there, but because none of them interested me very much. But this sounded really interesting. A daughter of Isis and Osiris but in contemporary times? Sign me up.

THE CHAOS OF STARS
by Kiersten White

Published by: Harper Teen, 2013
Ebook: 213 pages
Standalone
My rating: 4,5/10

First line: When I was a little girl, I still believed I was part of the world’s secret magic.

Isadora’s family is seriously screwed up—which comes with the territory when you’re the human daughter of the ancient Egyptian gods Isis and Osiris. Isadora is tired of living with crazy relatives who think she’s only worthy of a passing glance—so when she gets the chance to move to California with her brother, she jumps on it. But her new life comes with plenty of its own dramatic—and dangerous—complications . . . and Isadora quickly learns there’s no such thing as a clean break from family.

This book started out so well. Isadora lives with her family of deities and all the weirdness that comes with that. Being the daughter of Isis and her reanimated husband Osiris isn’t easy, especially if you’re a teenager full of crazy hormones. But the biggest conflict of this story – and the most interesting thing about it – is the fact that Isadora doesn’t feel loved by her mother. You see, Isis has a new baby every twenty years (being immortal makes that pretty easy) and Isadora suspects that Isis does this simply so she can have one more person every twenty years to worship her and thus keep her alive and well. Being sixteen is hard enough as it is, but feeling like just another girl in a sea of worshippers just sucks! So Isadora wants to be away from home for a while and takes a flight from Egypt to San Diego, where her half-brother Sirus lives.

And this is where the story happens, which has next to nothing to do with Egyption gods. Isadora is forced to take a job at a museum where she is promptly allowed to turn her interior design hobby into actual work. Because sure, I guess lots of museums let 16-year-olds design a room filled with priceless artifacts. Isadora also becomes friends with her co-worker Tyler and, through her, meets the incredibly gorgeous Ry. Teen romance ensues.

If I’m honest, this book really wasn’t very good. I can (and will) tell you all the things that make it a shallow, silly, meaningless story, but I want to tell you first that despite its many flaws, I quite enjoyed it. I’m just getting out of a reading slump – induced by books that were not as advertised and bored me to death – so this quick read about nothing much at all was just what I needed. The pages flew by, I never had to think very hard, the entire story was obvious and predictable from the start, but sometimes this is the perfect book!

So, on the things that worked and didn’t work for me. I really liked the idea of Egyptian gods living in our times and being… well, strange. We see glimpses of Isadora’s family in the beginning of the book, but we never really get to know them. There are short retellings of Egyptian myths at the beginning of each chapter but come on, I don’t want two paragraphs about the old myths if I can have the actual gods as characters in this story. The only interesting thing that sets Isadora apart from regular people is that she speaks all languages. Otherwise, she is a pretty standard YA protagonist, if a bit pale.

The side character fare even worse. Tyler is basically just a bubbly girl with no other personality traits whatsoever. Ry writes poetry and has pretty blue eyes. And is obviously crushing on Isadora (as is everyone else, by the way, because our heroine, despite being completely ordinary, is soooooo special). Isadora’s half-brother Sirus and his wife Deena don’t get much to say or do either. They are background decoration for a story that is already very thin.

The story – and by that I mean what you actually get to read about when you pick up this book – is about things like Isadora drinking slushies with Ry, Isadora being cynical about her mom, who has never, in this book, shown a single time that she doesn’t absolutely love her daughter. Oh yeah, and Isadora thinking love is a waste because we’re all going to die one day. I was sympathetic to her for a long time, but that is just the stupidest thing to believe and made me seriously doubt her intelligence.
Whenever the plot calls for something, it’s there. There is so much handwavium in this book, it reads more like something an actual teenager produced. Isadora is unfamiliar with a lot of American customs and societal norms (slushies) but has no problem using a cell phone and never even mentions that there may be other things her sheltered life among gods may not have taught her. We are also told all of these things, rather than being shown. We are told Isadora loves interior design and is obsessed with the constellation of Orion – we aren’t told why, so any impact these “obsessions” have falls completely flat.

There is also a sub-plot that is obvious from the start. When someone breaks in to Sirus’ house and steals only some protective amulets Isadora got from her mother, Isador gets scared for a while, but conveniently forgets about it when the plot calls for other thoughts (such as mooning at Ry’s blue eyes). Other things happen that make the culprit even more obvious but Isador – with all her supposed smarts – doesn’t get with the program. It’s like growing up with gods wiped out her brain cells and she behaves like a cardboard American teenager.

What I did like about the book, and what would have made for a much better story if the author had focused on this instead of a cheesy romance, was the mother daughter relationship between Isis and Isadora. The child feels unloved, the mother does everything in her power to protect her daughter, and yet somehow these two can’t just get together and work out their problems. The resolution of that plot string was also visible from miles away but I found it quite lovely, nonetheless.

I also enjoyed the tone of the narration. Again, it’s pretty standard. A snarky teen heroine narrates (why in present tense, though?) her story and adds all sorts of commentary about her weird family. There is a surprising amount of room descriptions (interior design is Isadora’s thing, remember) and certain passages feel almost like we’re actually reading Isadora’s thoughts. She interrupts herself, catches herself mid-thought, and so on. Nothing about this style is original and the language itself is very basic because… well, people don’t think like a thesaurus, right? But the bottom line is, it was fun to read this story from Isadora’s point of view, even though she can be incredibly thick at times.

So all things considered, this is actually a pretty bad book. It has no depth, no characterization, the mythology is window dressing at best and has no impact on the plot (serioiusly, everything could have worked without magic or deities as well), and the romance wasn’t particularly swoon-worthy either. It was… nice, I guess. Again, I absolutely enjoyed racing through this book, it was like a holiday for my brain, and I’d recommend it to people who don’t usually read much or simply need a break from heavier fiction. But while this book came to me at exactly the right time, I still can’t give it a high rating. I will probably check out one more Kiersten White book because I hope her writing has improved over the years. If it hasn’t, that’s one author I can check off my list. Too fluffy, not enough substance.

MY RATING: 4,5/10 – Kind of bad