Superheroes and Spies: Marissa Meyer – Renegades

In my ongoing attempt to continue and finish book series I have started, I decided to finally pick up the sequel to Marissa Meyer’s Renegades. Which in turn made me realize I had never even reviewed the first book here on the blog. So I’m writing this more than a year after having read the book and many things have become hazy in my memory. But I do remember the most important bit, which is that – much like Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles – I really enjoyed this book in a guilty pleasure sort of way. 🙂

RENEGADES
by Marissa Meyer

Published: 2017
Ebook: 563 pages
Series: Renegades #1
My rating: 6/10

Opening line: We were all villains in the beginning.

Secret Identities. Extraordinary Powers. She wants vengeance. He wants justice.
The Renegades are a syndicate of prodigies — humans with extraordinary abilities — who emerged from the ruins of a crumbled society and established peace and order where chaos reigned. As champions of justice, they remain a symbol of hope and courage to everyone… except the villains they once overthrew.
Nova has a reason to hate the Renegades, and she is on a mission for vengeance. As she gets closer to her target, she meets Adrian, a Renegade boy who believes in justice — and in Nova. But Nova’s allegiance is to a villain who has the power to end them both.

Marissa Meyer’s second series, after her wildly successful and ridiculously entertaining Lunar Chronicles, takes a step away from fairy tales and explores the world of superheroes. Nova is one such superhero, or prodigy as they are called, who lives in Gatlon City. Her parents were killed when she was just a child and ever since then, Nova has held a grudge against the Renegades – the superheroes who were supposed to save her family from the villains who killed them. It’s a pretty weak reason to join a group of villains set out to destroy the Renegades if you ask me, but if you just get over that one glaring problem, this book is a lot of fun.

But let’s start with the basic set up, because things do get a little confusing. The Renegades (officially good superheroes) fought against the Anarchists (the villains) a while ago after an age of Chaos. Many people died and many more were hurt. The Renegades now are a powerful society of gifted humans with all sorts of cool, weird, or funny superpowers. The world pretty much works according to the Renegades’ rules and while they have learned from past mistakes and implemented a code that is meant to protect civilians, their decisions are law. It’s an intriguing set up that immediately poses the question of who decides who the good guys are and who the bad guys are. Because obviously, it isn’t quite that simple.

Nova is an Anarchist hoping to avenge her dead parents and destroy one of the most powerful Renegades there is – Captain Chromium. Raised by her uncle, Ace Anarchy, the leader of the Anarchists, she was born into the life of a supervillain, although of course she sees herself and her friends as the Good Guys.
Our second protagonist, Adrian aka Sketch, is a Renegade – equally born into his role as a superhero – who wants to take down the Anarchists. He also hopes to figure out who killed his mother, Lady Indomitable, and he also has a big secret. Adrian’s ability is to draw anything and make it real. So if he draws a worm, he can take it out of the piece of paper and it’s an actual, live worm. That’s a pretty cool power and Adrian has figured out that if he draws tattoos on himself, he can create his own new superpowers. As the Sentinel, his secret identity, he hopes to help the Renegades even more in their quest to vanquish the Anarchists.
The Anarchists decide that it would be amazing if they had a spy among the Renegades and send Nova to compete in the trials looking for new Renegade members. Nova’s superpower is not needing any sleep and being able to put people to sleep with her touch. As an Anarchist, she goes by Nightmare, but in her new Renegade identity, she is Insomnia.

You can see how this book can get confusing but the whole secret identity thing also makes it incredibly compelling. Both Nova and Adrian have to worry constantly that their secret will be discovered, so even during the quieter scenes, there is a feeling of tension. One wrong word and Nova’s scheme will blow up. She also has to try to work against the Renegades while keeping up the pretense of working for them. Adrian, on the other hand, never wanted his Sentinel identity to stay secret but a certain turn of events makes it necessary for him to hide it. So you can expect scenes that almost reminded me of romantic comedies where one person pretends to be two people, leaving the room as one character and returning as another. Adrian needs to turn into the Sentinel occasionally, but then he has to explain where his regular self was during that time, and Nova faces the same problem as Nightmare/Insomnia.

The plot itself doesn’t actually have that much to offer. There are exciting action sequences and of course a budding romance, which I enjoyed a lot. But there isn’t that much story there. Most of the book is concerned with Nova infiltrating the Renegades, learning the ropes, and hiding who she really is. Meyer does do some groundwork for what I suspect will become the overarching story, though. A side character named Max is held in quarantine in the Renegades headquarter because of his particular superpower. Finding out what that is was part of the reason I kept reading. The whole Anarchist/Renegades shenanigans themselves weren’t that interesting because, while fun to read, they never really pushed the story forward. Until the very end, that is, when some things are revealed, but mostly more questions pop up to be (hopefully) answered in the later books. This reads more like an introduction to a story rather than a story in its own right, but if you’re okay with that, it’s still a lot of fun.

Renegades also doesn’t provide much in terms of side characters. There are plenty of them but they are as forgettable as they are difficult to tell apart. It doesn’t help that each one of them has a civilian name and a superhero/supervillain name. As they all remain pretty bland and are reduced mostly to their superpower and maybe a quippy line here or there, I didn’t remember any of them (seriously, not a single one) until I started the second book. And even now (20% through the sequel) I don’t really remember them, I feel like I’m meeting them for the first time. That’s not a good sign…

I read some other people’s reviews of this book in order to jog my memory and I have now learned two things. Number one: Boy, this book got some negative reviews! Not hateful ones, but really thoughtful, critical ones that point out everything that’s wrong with it. I remember when I first read the book I was a bit underwhelmed as well, but now, a year later, I seem to only remember the fun bits. Number two: I have forgotten so much! Again, not a good sign, but considering how “meh” this book was received by many reviewers, maybe it’s for the best that I kind of blacked out all its flaws?
Many people had problems with the clichés but I just assumed those happened on purpose. Because this is a story about superheroes and villains… I mean, you’d expect some cheesy dialogue, flowing capes, and somewhat predictable battles, right?

This review is probably not what it would have been had I written it right after reading the book, but what I remember was really not that bad. Sure, the romance is obvious, the side characters were pale cardboard cutouts, and there wasn’t much plot. But Meyer put so much creativity into her characters’ superpowers and she writes action scenes so well that I found the read quite engaging. Her prose may be on the simple side, but its straight-forwardness makes this such a page turner. Renegades is clearly not be on par with the Lunar Chronicles, although those books too weren’t particularly good from a critic’s standpoint. I am an unabashed fan, however, and I am determined to enjoy this series as well, regardless of the many sensible voices telling me why I kind of shouldn’t.

MY RATING: 6/10 – Good

The Witcher Continues: Andrzej Sapkowski – Sword of Destiny

I was so taken with The Last Wish that I didn’t wait long to continue reading about Geralt of Rivia and the various monsters he encounters. Although this second story collection is a little different than the first (in some ways better, in some rather worse), I like where the story is going. I also finally watched the first few episodes of the Netflix show and I really, really liked them!

SWORD OF DESTINY
by Andrzej Sapkowski

Published by: Orbit, 1992
Ebook: 400 pages
Series: The Witcher #0.75
My rating: 6,5/10

First line: “He won’t get out of there, I’m telling you,” the pockmarked man said, sahking his head with conviction.

The Witcher returns in this action-packed sequel to The Last Wish, in the series that inspired The Witcher video games.
Geralt is a witcher, a man whose magic powers, enhanced by long training and a mysterious elixir, have made him a brilliant fighter and a merciless assassin. Yet he is no ordinary murderer: his targets are the multifarious monsters and vile fiends that ravage the land and attack the innocent. He roams the country seeking assignments, but gradually comes to realise that while some of his quarry are unremittingly vile, vicious grotesques, others are the victims of sin, evil or simple naivety.
In this collection of short stories, following the adventures of the hit collection THE LAST WISH, join Geralt as he battles monsters, demons and prejudices alike…

Geralt of Rivia is back and he’s ready to slay some monsters for coin. Or, you know, not. He’s equally as ready to befriend the monster, refuse the coin, muse about the existence of destiny, and yearn for the sorceress Yennefer. And all that despite the fact that he’s not supposed to have feelings…
Lots of people have been recommending this series long before it was on Netflix, and I now understand why. Geralt is such a great character. Brooding and quiet, seemingly unfeeling but so obviously a Good Guy that it hurts, he goes through the world, seeing all the evils there are and trying to make things a little better. He can also do magic and use elixirs to give himself superpowers, so that doesn’t hurt. But I was most impressed that a character who says relatively little can feel so three-dimensional and real. In case you haven’t noticed, I love Geralt with all my readerly heart.

This book is, again, comprised of  (this time not so short) stories that aren’t immediately connected to each other but paint a wonderful picture of the world and start to flesh out a much  bigger tale. Although the allusions to fairy tales weren’t as obvious here as they were in the previous book, there were tales where I could recognise The Little Mermaid, The Snow Queen, and The Six Swans. The stories aren’t retellings but these fairy tales are used as a sort of kick-off point for an original tale. Of course, Geralt then tells us that we’re idiots for believing those old tales because reality is totally different.
And it’s true. The Little Mermaid asks her prince why he doesn’t change his appearence for her and comes to live with her under the sea. One of the former six swans (there weren’t even six) laughs about the idea that a shirt made of nettles should have lifted his curse, and so on. So fairy tales are used and turned on their head, and we can laugh at these tropes at the same times as reading about different ones. Although it’s not a big part of the book, I absolutely loved discovering these little hints and allusions, and seeing what Sapkowski makes of them.

What I loved the most in this book was Geralt as a character.  But I was also ridiculously happy to see some side characters from the previous book again. Dandelion the bard is back, Yennefer becomes way more important and has easily turned one of the most intriguing characters in this series for me. And we meet Ciri – who I only knew would be important from the video game (which I didn’t play myself but my boyfriend did and I caught the occasional glimpse of it). Ciri’s appearence also connects this volume to the first book because events that happened in The Last Wish have an effect on events from Sword of Destiny. So it’s not just random tales about a witcher that later evolved into a series of novels, but Sapkowski already had some sort of plan for a larger story.

There were obvious differences between the first collection and this one. Obviously, I jumped into this book because I really enjoyed the first one, so I was a little surprised that I wasn’t getting more of the same. The most obvious difference is the length of the stories and subsequently the entire book – but then, I consider more Geralt a good thing. However he writing style itself also changed and that is what put me off the most. It wasn’s stellar in the first book either, but since The Last Wish was so dialogue-heavy, I didn’t mind too much. I could pretend that characters simply expressed themselves in strangely or had certain ways of speaking.
In Sword of Destiny, there is a lot more description – which I find good, in general, as it helps flesh out the world and the characters – but most of it is rather bad and inconsistent. I stumbled across many lines where I thought “oh boy, was he trying to be poetic here?”, there are frequent repetitions, sometimes words just don’t quite fit. It was a pretty jarring experience and if I hadn’t loved the other aspects of the book so much, I probably would have DNFed this book. I assume much of this can be attributed to this being a translation. But, not speaking Polish, I don’t really know. It might just be how Sapkowski wrote it in the original. This has prompted me to try the next book in German, to see if the language is as jarring in a different translation. I will let you know how that went in my next review. 🙂

Despite my problems with the writing, I really enjoyed reading this and I would be totally happy to dive into the next witcher novel (a proper novel this time) right away. The last story in this collection, and its ending in particular, made me cheer out loud because not only was it very touching, it also delivered a pretty cool twist. My plan is to watch the first season of the Netflix show and then continue with Blood of Elves (Das Erbe der Elfen in German). I also got The Witcher III for my birthday, so I think I’m all set for the foreseeable future. All that’s left to say is: “Toss a coion to your witcher!”

MY RATING: 6,5/10 – Very good

Alien Politics and Space Travel: Brandon Sanderson – Starsight

I really loved Skyward – the YA sci-fi adventure I wouldn’t have expected from Brandon Sanderson – so naturally I didn’t wait long to pick up the sequel. After the revelations at the end of the first book I didn’t think Sanderson could deliver another surprise of such proportions. Silly me… it’s like I haven’t learned anything at all from reading all his epic fantasies. There are always more secrets to discover and more twists I didn’t see coming. This review will be spoiler-free, however there will be HUGE SPOILERS FOR THE FIRST SKYWARD BELOW!

STARSIGHT
by Brandon Sanderson

Published by: Gollancz, 2019
Hardcover: 468 pages
Series: Skyward #2
My rating: 8/10

First line: I slammed on my overburn and boosted my starship through the middle of a chaotic mess of destructor blasts and explosions. 

Starsight picks up about six months after the end of Skyward and Spensa and her friends have established themselves as competent pilots in the DDF. Spensa is still her daring, ambitious old self although her mission has changed. The things she found out at the end of the first book lead humanity on a whole new path to freedom from their prison on Detritus. All they want is to live in peace and prosperity, on a planet where aliens don’t constantly attack them. But in order to travel through space, humans have to find – or steal – the necessary technology. Or Spensa has to figure out her abilities and use them for the good of her people…

Starsight was surprising, not only because it has the usual Sandersonesque mind-blowing twists, but at first because the setting and plot were totally different from what I expected. Spensa doesn’t spend much time on Detritus (or in its orbit) but takes an opportunity that arises to travel to the aliens who keep humanity imprisoned and try to steal FTL technology right out from under their noses. Where the first book was about Spensa becoming a pilot, this one is her trying to be a spy… sometimes more and sometimes less successfully. She does have M-Bot with her, however, who not only guarantees great dialogue and some truly funny scenes but who also is more a friend than a sentient machine by now. I really found myself caring deeply about that AI and not just because he’s trying to figure out himself whether he could be called “alive”.
The question of what makes a living being arises on many occasions and M-Bot’s musings on the topic range from ridiculous or funny to really deep and thought-provoking.

When Spensa arrives on the titular station Starsight, she is not only confronted with the problem of how to infiltrate her enemies’ home and steal secret technology from them, but she also meets several different alien species in the shape of people who may even become friends. I was very impressed with all the new side characters introduced in this book. They are each distinct, they have their own personality and mannerisms, and their alienness – although mostly not very striking – does come through. Morriumur the dione and Hesho the kitsen especially grew dear to me, but even the characters I didn’t like were well-written. The difference between how the Superiority live and how Spensa grew up was particularly stark – and the rules for letting “lesser species” becoce part of the Superiorty were… interesting to learn.

The plot, now that I think about it, isn’t actually all that original or all that different from the first book. Spensa is once again put into a cockpit and has to train with other people to defeat an overwhelming enemy. However, the enemy has changed, as have her wingmates. And there’s also the fact that she’s pretending to be someone else in order to steal from the people she’s slowly getting to know… That’s the reason I really liked this book so much, I think. Spensa’s realization that the aliens she’s been fighting on her home planet are also just people – some good, some bad, but each with a life of their own, a family, maybe a pet – happens gradually, and then all at once. It shows not only that the world is bigger than Spensa (and we readers) originally thought but it also makes Spensa grow so much as a person. I was super proud of her!

M-Bot also put me through all the emotions in this book. There are certain things he can’t talk about or do to himself (changing certain parts his code, copying himself, etc.) but he keeps wondering if he could be called alive and what even makes someone alive. I won’t spoil anything but M-Bot is in danger on occasion – after all, he is Spensa’s ship – and I was shocked how worried I got about that space ship. Even if at the end of the series it turns out M-Bot is nothing special, just a very complex AI who’s been programmed with sarcasm, I will love him to bits until the very end!

There was one twist that I saw coming just a bit more than the others Sanderson has in store for us. Let’s just say the Superiority isn’t all that subtle with its politics or its ways to control other species. And maybe the whole “writing for a YA audience” thing just got out of hand for a moment.  Figuring out one plot point  a few moments before the protagonist did made no dent in my reading enjoyment, but I was surprised that the answer to this burning question was something I could actually come up with myself. But worry not: There are more revelations and more twists and more hints about things to come, none of which I expected. Just like after finishing Skyward, I want the next book RIGHT NOW and I don’t know if I can wait two years to find out how the story ends.

If you liked the first book, you will like this one as well. Just be warned that you don’t get to see much of the side characters from Skyward. But I believe the third book will put together all the characters from the first two books in one epic finale and, man, I cannot wait!

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

Sanderson does YA Sci-Fi: Brandon Sanderson – Skyward

I actually read this book right after it came out in December 2018 but last week I saw I had never reviewed it. As I have turned into quite a Sanderson fangirl, this situation could not remain! The man is known for writing excellent epic fantasy with brilliant twists, so this foray into both science fiction and YA was mostly new. I had read Steelheart – the first in Sanderson’s other YA series – and liked it okay but not enough to continue the series. So to sum it all up: I was very curious to see what Skyward held in store and I was not disappointed.

SKYWARD
by Brandon Sanderson

Published by: Gollancz, 2018
Hardback: 513 pages
Series: Skyward #1
My rating: 8/10

First line: Only fools climbed to the surface.

Defeated, crushed, and driven almost to extinction, the remnants of the human race are trapped on a planet that is constantly attacked by mysterious alien starfighters. Spensa, a teenage girl living among them, longs to be a pilot. When she discovers the wreckage of an ancient ship, she realizes this dream might be possible—assuming she can repair the ship, navigate flight school, and (perhaps most importantly) persuade the strange machine to help her. Because this ship, uniquely, appears to have a soul.

Young Spensa dreams of nothing more than to become a figher pilot like her father and defend her planet against the attacking alien Krell. Even though her father – and his death – brought shame on the entire family. Because the ace pilot did something so horrible that it cannot be forgiven – he was branded a coward – Spensa’s family has been shunned and Spensa’s chances of even getting into flight school are pretty much nonexistant. Jobs are assigned according to young people’s strengths but pilots tend to come from families who already have established pilots. Needless to say, cowards’ daughters don’t count…

There’s so much to love about this book, starting with the writing style. Sanderson is always immensely readable but when he does YA, he becomes even more so. The pages just fly, you forget the time only to realize it’s three in the morning and you’ve finished most of the book without noticing. It’s truly engaging and Spensa being a highly likable narrator only adds to that. Spensa is dedicated from the get go and she never stops following her dreams, even though many, many rocks are put in her way. I don’t think it’s a spoiler if I tell  you that she does get into flight school (although not easily) because the meat of the novel is how Spensa fares there.

I loved that although she is a gifted young woman, things don’t just fall into her lap. She may be a natural in the cockpit but that doesn’t mean she is immediately able to fly. In fact, Spensa struggles as much as her classmates, if not more, to just get a handle on her ship. The first lessons were filled with hilarious scenes of Spensa and her classmates failing to control their ships. And that’s without having to deal with all the rivalry, people looking down on her for having a coward father, or generally thinking she and her entire family are worthless. Learning to fly takes as much from Spensa as trying to make friends and prove herself worthy of being a pilot. Of course, she also doesn’t believe her father really was a coward and wants to find out what really happened. I can promise you there will be a secret or two waiting in store but probably not what you think.

This being a Sanderson book, you can also expect fantastic worldbuilding. The story is set on the planet Detritus where most people live underground because the surface is frequently attacked by the Krell. That’s why fighter pilots are so important as they are the only defense humans have against this alien threat. I loved how the world was set up, how the differences between the rich and the poor are made clear (it’s not pretty, let me tell you that) and how these people’s entire lives are based around the fact that you can’t see the sky. Questions of class differences are raised on many occasions and since we follow the underdog Spensa, it’s easy to side with those less fortunate. However, even the spoiled rich kids aren’t one-dimensional. Sure, they may have had an easier life than Spensa but that doesn’t mean  they don’t suffer from their own problems and challenges – they are simply different ones.
Another prominent theme is the question of what makes a hero. Spensa has heard many tales from heroes of Earth but she herself is still trying to figure out who she is, how she can be a hero, and why her dad seemingly wasn’t the hero she had always thought. The question isn’t discussed in detail (maybe because Sanderson thought it would be too much for a YA audience?) but I liked that it’s a constant that keeps coming up and makes you think about heroism yourself.

Now I’ve already said a whole lot and I haven’t even mentioned the sentient spaceship M-Bot, or Spensa’s snail friend Doomslug. It does take a while until Spensa finds that spaceship but trust me when I tell you it’s one of the highlights of this novel. Spensa finding an abandoned spaceship is one thing (and a pretty cool one at that) but said space ship literally having a mind of its own makes for some hilarious dialogue and wonderful dynamics between these characters.
The side characters were also interesting although they didn’t stick in my mind as much as Spensa or M-Bot did. And that’s maybe the one reason why I’m not rating this book higher. Don’t get me wrong, I had so much fun reading this but unlike other books by this author, the details didn’t really stay with me all that long. I had to look up character names so I could write this review (which isn’t a bad thing, especially when you read a lot of books, but I never for a second forgot any of the character names from Sanderson’s other books). The same goes for certain plot elements. I remember loving every page and enjoying myself thoroughly while reading it, but by now the details are a little hazy. However, that’s about the only negative thing I can say about this.

This wouldn’t be a Sanderson novel if it didn’t have a whole lot of unexpected twists in store. And it’s the same pattern as always – I think I see something coming or at least I think I have a vague idea what the twist will be about, and then it turns out I’m completely wrong and Sanderson comes up with something I totally did not expect and which knocks me off my socks. That’s all I’m going to say on the matter because you should all have as much fun as I did discovering what’s really going on and having your expectations turned upside down. It made me incredibly excited about the second novel Starsight (which I’m currently reading*) and I can’t wait to see what revelations are waiting for me this time. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from reading Brandon Sanderson, it’s that I can trust him completely to take me on a wild ride and always deliver a fantastic ending.

*Sanderson does a brilliant job of reminding his readers what happened in Skyward in the first few chapters of the second book. So if you also read this a while ago and are worried that you don’t remember enough details or characters, don’t worry. Just dive into the sequel, it will all come back. 😉

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very, very good!

P.S.: This is one of the cases where I have a massive cover preference for the UK editions. I really don’t like the US covers for this series. I think the illustrations are beautiful, but they just don’t fit the novel very well, in my opinion.

 

Twisty, Creepy, Wonderful: T. Kingfisher – The Twisted Ones

I love T. Kingfisher’s books so much. When I saw that she had published a horror novel – quite the departure from her fairy tale retellings I’d read so far  – I knew I had to try it. I just couldn’t believe that one author can write (and draw!) graphic novels, write fantastic retellings, and manage a good horror story as well. I’m very glad I was wrong because T. Kingfisher can do it all.

THE TWISTED ONES
by T. Kingfisher

Published by: Saga Press, 2019
Ebook: 400 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7,5/10

First line: I am going to try to start at the beginning, even though Iknow you won’t believe me.

When a young woman clears out her deceased grandmother’s home in rural North Carolina, she finds long-hidden secrets about a strange colony of beings in the woods.
When Mouse’s dad asks her to clean out her dead grandmother’s house, she says yes. After all, how bad could it be?
Answer: pretty bad. Grandma was a hoarder, and her house is stuffed with useless rubbish. That would be horrific enough, but there’s more—Mouse stumbles across her step-grandfather’s journal, which at first seems to be filled with nonsensical rants…until Mouse encounters some of the terrifying things he described for herself.
Alone in the woods with her dog, Mouse finds herself face to face with a series of impossible terrors—because sometimes the things that go bump in the night are real, and they’re looking for you. And if she doesn’t face them head on, she might not survive to tell the tale.
From Hugo Award–winning author Ursula Vernon, writing as T. Kingfisher.

When Mouse’s father calls her and asks if she can clean out her late grandmother’s house so they can sell it, of course she agrees. Because that’s what you do for family. But she’s not happy about the task, especially once she finds out that her grandmother (who hated everyone, most of all her own kin) was a hoarder. From stacks of old newspaper over a creepy doll collection, there is a lot to clean up and throw away. At least Mouse has her beloved, if not very smart, coonhound Bongo with her.

Mouse’s first person narration is exactly what I expected from a Kingfisher book. She is practical, relatable, and good-hearted. And most importantly of all – she’s not an idiot. Things may start out harmless enough but Mouse soon realizes that Something Is Wrong and that she may have entered horror movie territory. And she reacts sensibly. She’s neither too trusting, nor too suspicious. That’s why I love T. Kingfisher’s protagonists so much. They are smart enough to see what kind of story they have stumbled into and they try to figure things out but they don’t do idiotic shit like “let’s split up” or fall for obvious tricks.

The horror elements of this novel work on several different layers. There is the base line horror of Mouse being stuck in her grandmother’s creepy house, full of old stuff, porcelain dolls, and – more interestingly – her stepgrandfather’s journal. Now Mouse is well aware that he had dementia and his scribbles should not necessarily be taken at face value, but the weird ramblings in that journal added another layer of creeping suspense to the novel. And then there are the things in the woods… which is all I’m going to say about that because, come on, you should be as creeped out as I was!

I made faces like the faces on the rocks, and I twisted myself about like the twisted ones, and I lay down flat on the ground like the dead ones.

For me, a good horror story hinges on a handful of things. Number one is the protagonists’ behaviour. I already said Mouse is a fantastic heroine whose actions are always understandable and sensible. Number two is a slow build-up of fear or suspense. The writing style of The Twisted Ones is rather humorous because that’s just how Mouse deals with things, so it shouldn’t have worked as well as it did. But maybe Mouse’s ability to laugh at herself or see the bizarre things around her through a funny lens only increased the contrast to the horrible things that happen in this story. To give you a taste of how well it worked, let me tell you a little story.
I was going to bed after reading a few chapters of The Twisted Ones and when I stood in the doorframe of my bedroom, I saw something! It was tall and had a super round “head” with weird things growing out of it. For a fraction of a second, my heart stopped, I drew in a breath to scream, and then I remembered that it was my lampshade… I switched on the light and – surprise – my bedroom was my bedroom. There was no scary creature standing in the middle of it and I had a good laugh at myself. So although not every frightening scene in this book actually scared me while reading, apparently the book did push some of my buttons and got me on edge. Because, let’s face it, I’m a grown woman who got scared by her own furniture…

Without saying anything about the big threat in this story, I’d still like to mention how well I thought it was built up. I went into this with my horror movie glasses on – so I suspected every single character of being secretly in league with Evil, I expected every room Mouse explored in that old house to hold terrible secrets, and I tried guessing what her stepgrandfather’s diary would reveal and how Mouse would get out of it all alive. I was wrong on most counts, but  I loved how T. Kingfisher toyed with those expectations, clearly playing up some elements to make us think we know where the story is going even though she had completely different plans. Until the end, it was never quite clear which strange detail would turn out to be a real clue to finding out the truth. Once the antagonist (if you want to call it that) is revealed, the creep factor went down a lot – but that’s always the case with me. As long as I don’t know what’s going on, as long as I have no idea what the heroine’s fighting, I am terrified. Once it’s clear what we’re up against and maybe I even have an idea about how to fight it, it becomes more of an adventure story to me than a horror one.

If I had read older science fiction and fantasy more widely, I might have recognized certain aspects of this story. Kingfisher reveals her inspiration for this novel in the author’s note at the end. Having read it, I think I may even be glad I didn’t know the inspiration for The Twisted Ones because it may have made this book less exciting. But I won’t deny that I am now very interested in checking out the source material, if you want to call it that. I love when stories inspire other stories, especially if they turn out as great as this one.

I also quite liked the ending, even though it leaves quite a few questions unanswered. But it really fit with the narrative as a whole. I don’t think revealing all the secrets and answering all the questions would have been a good choice for this story. If there’s magic involved, it’s fine to keep things vague. The whole point of magic is, in my opinion, that it can’t be explained nor fully understood. The Twisted Ones wraps up in a believable and satisfying manner and it also lets us know that certain horrors never leave you, even if you’ve survived terrible things.

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very, very good!

Reading The Witcher: Andrzej Sapkowski – The Last Wish

Happy New Year, Dear Readers! The last book I read in 2019 has now turned into my first review of 2020 and I am so glad that I can start the year with a good one. With the Witcher now on Netflix (haven’t watched it yet but I’m very excited), it was about time I checked out one of those books. I think I may read one more of them before I dive into the TV show because this collection really got me hooked.

THE LAST WISH
by Andrzej Sapkowski

Published by: Orbit, 1993
Ebook: 353 pages
Series: The Witcher #0.5
My rating: 7/10

First line: She came to him towards morning.

Geralt of Rivia is a witcher. A cunning sorcerer. A merciless assassin. And a cold-blooded killer. His sole purpose: to destroy the monsters that plague the world. But not everything monstrous-looking is evil and not everything fair is good… and in every fairy tale there is a grain of truth.
A collection of short stories introducing Geralt of Rivia, to be followed by the first novel in the actual series, The Blood of Elves. Note that, while The Last Wish was published after The Sword of Destiny, the stories contained in The Last Wish take place first chronologically, and many of the individual stories were published before The Sword of Destiny.

I had known about the Witcher for many years and I watched my boyfriend play some of the game (The Witcher III) but I had always planned to read the books before I checked out the games for myself. Now there’s a Netflix show with none other than Henry Cavill (I like him 🙂 ) and that gave me the needed push to finally check out the first – in publication order – of the books. People have warned me that this is more of a short story collection than a novel and that is true but to me it never felt like a collection but rather like looking into Geralt of Rivia’s life at different points in time.

We first meet Geralt just before one of his adventures. As a witcher, his job is to find a monster who plague people, get hired to defeat that monster, and then get the  job done, get paid, and move on to the next village. That doesn’t, however, always mean killing a monster. Sometimes it first means figuring out who the monster even is – and having horns or vampire teeth isn’t always the necessary indicator. From that very first story it becomes clear that Geralt follows  his own code, that his ethics aren’t always the same as other people’s. And although he’s a quiet, thoughtful kind of man who doesn’t speak much (though he is an excellent grunter), I found myself quite liking him right from the start. Between the individual stories, a sort of frame story is set up that we follow as a red thread. I didn’t really find this necessary but it added a nice time layer to the story collection.

There were several things that surprised me. The first one was how dialogue-heavy the book was, especially during the first few stories. There is very little description and Geralt learns most details about his job or the monster-in-question through some other character telling him. This may not be to everyone’s taste but it sure made for a quick read. The other surprise was how heavily fairy tales feature in these stories. I had known before starting this book that it uses fairy tale tropes and sometimes even retells fairy tales, but to meet obvious versions of Beauty and the Beast or Snow White – although with a twist – was still a happy surprise for me. I loved how Sapkowski uses the tropes we all know from these tales and turns them upside down. Suddenly, you get a beast who’s not all that unhappy with his beastly form. And Snow White turned a little bloodthirsty after being almost killed for jealousy… there are more twists to discover that I won’t tell you here, but I was very happy with the direction these stories took.

As for recurring characters, there are few. Dandilion the bard follows along with Geralt on a couple of adventures and Yennefer – a well-known character to people  who played the Witcher games – is mentioned several times. I was super excited to get a story where Geralt and Yennefer met for the first time because although I don’t know how, I have gathered that she will be important later. Despite most characters only being there for one story, and considering the lack  of vivid descriptions, I find it all the more impressive that the world feels like a proper world. I have no idea of the geography or who rules what part of the land but every place Geralt visits feels lived in and believable.

The writing style is the one thing I’m conflicted about. I don’t know how much is due to the translation, how much would have been the same in the original Polish, but even though there wasn’t much description, I found it slightly weird how women were described. Reading about any of the women in these stories gave me major flashbacks to older fantasy books I used to read. Although there aren’t explicit descriptions of boobs, a woman’s body shape  is almost always remarked upon in some way, as is her beauty (or lack thereof). That doesn’t mean that women are reduced to their looks as there are quite a few powerful female characters here, and some of them are beautifully complex in their motives and actions. But I did notice that their bodiees were commented on quite frequently, especially compared to the male characters.

For me, this was an excellent book to end the year with. It wasn’t groundbreaking or particularly beautifully written, but it was highly entertaining, it surprised me with its twists, I really loved Geralt as a character and I will read another Witcher book very soon! If you want something fun that’s a quick read, that uses fairy tale roots to tell a whole new story, then pick this up. It also made me even more excited for the Netflix show because, even after reading just this one book, I feel like I know Geralt and I want to see how Henry Cavill plays this role. So yes, my first review of 2020 is definitely a recommendation.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

Who Knew This Would Be So Much Fun: Catherynne M. Valente – Minecraft: The End

I have never played Minecraft. I know of the game’s existence and I’ve seen some of the very impressive buildings people have created in it, but I still have no idea what the point of the game is. It just never appealed to me. But when my favorite author writes a Minecraft novel, there is simply no way around trying it. And holy smokes, it turned out to be excellent fun!

MINECRAFT: THE END
by Catherynne M. Valente

Published by: Del Rey, 2019
Hardcover: 256 pages
Series: Official Minecraft Novels #4
(but can totally be read as a standalone)
My rating: 9/10

First line: It is always night in the End.

For as long as they can remember, the twin endermen Fin and Mo have lived in the mysterious land of The End. On the outskirts of the great enderman city of Talos, they explore ancient ruins under the watchful gaze of the mighty ender dragon. They have everything they need in the end ship they call home, and know everything there is to know about their world—or so they think until the strangers from another dimension arrive.
The invaders are called humans, and they’ve come to steal artifacts and slay the ender dragon. Fin and Mo are ready to protect their home from the trespassers, but when they come face-to-face with the humans, they discover that they aren’t as prepared for battle as they’d thought. Caught off guard, the twins are trapped in the middle of a war between the endermen and the humans, with the future of their home at stake.

For someone like me, with no familiarity with the game whatsoever, the entrance into this world may have been a tad harder than for those of you who’ve played Minecraft. But Cat Valente does an excellent job in setting up the world, describing the countryside, the endermen, and of course ED – the Ender Dragon. I did look up shulkers on the internet, but even that wouldn’t have been necessary.

Fin and Mo are two outcast enderfrag twins who live on a ship with their shulker Grumpo (who is indeed very grumpy) and a lot of loot. Their only true friend is Kan, another enderman who isn’t fully trusted by others because unlike all other enderman, his eyes aren’t magenta, they are green. You can see why it’s easy to love those three. Everybody loves an underdog, and Fin and Mo are even more likable because their biggest desire is to just fit in, to belong somewhere, to have an End of their own. With their parents gone – presumed dead by rain or human in the Overworld – they are by themselves, however, and forbidden to train with the other ender children.

When a portal to the End is opened, many endermen come together and decide how to deal with the coming threat of a human army, bound to destroy them and their beautiful chaotic way of life. When some humans do show up, however, things turn out quite different than expected, and Mo and Fin find themselves not just between the fronts of two warring sides, but also questioning everything they know about themselves and the world. And there’s a zombie horse. That I completely and utterly fell in love with. If that isn’t a sign of great writing, I don’t know what is. But Loathsome the zombie horse will always have a place in my heart.

The beginning of this novel is mostly spent setting up the world and characters, and for that I was immensely grateful! With no knowledge of the Minecraft world or any of its lore, I could still just dive in and slowly learn what there is to know. I quite loved that endermen serve the Great Chaos while humans are said to be creatures of Order (what with putting blocks on top of each other quite neatly to make buildings and beds and other such nonsense). We get to meet the dragon ED, who is a whole mystery unto himself and seems to know a lot more than he lets on, we see the adorably hateful Grumpo whom I also loved despite his constant comments about hating everything and everyone, and the music-loving Kan, who desperately wants to learn what’s wrong with him and his eyes. And then the story truly kicks off.

One of the elder endermen – a cruxunit named Kraj who is known for telling long, sprawling tales that nobody wants to hear – mentions that the human army might already be assembled in the End, hiding as spies among all the real endermen. Because when humans put a pumpkin on their head, endermen cannot distinguish them from their own people. And then the twists start coming! I won’t give any of them away, but assuming you have spies among your own trusted people is such a great trope that Valente uses and turns on its head several times here. But trust me, things are never what you expect. All my suspicions were wrong and I am so happy when a book offers plot twists that seriously surprise me.

I can’t even express how much I loved this story. The characters grew on me, the mysteries became more and more intriguing and every time we learned something new, more questions popped up that kept me turning the pages. Valente paints a surprisingly vivid landscape considering there isn’t all that much to describe in the End, but I felt like I was there and I felt just as torn as Fin and Mo, trying to decided who were the monsters and who were the good guys. Or if it’s even as simple as all that.
There is action and adventure, there are trips to different places, secrets to uncover, there is magic and potions and clues all along the way. And there are two young endermen still just looking for their place in the world.

The ending is a thing of pure beauty. Don’t let anyone spoil this for you, because the surprises just keep on coming. I sat there with my mouth literally agape, surprised and thrilled that the story had gone the way it had. You can tell Valente trusts her readers – be they middle-grade kids, young adults, or adults like me – to follow along and wrap their heads around what’s happening. But she definitely doesn’t dumb her plot down because this is supposed to be for children and I love that so much!
If you’d told me that someday I’d read a Minecraft novel, let alone end up loving a Minecraft novel, I would have laughed at you. Not because I look down on the franchise but simply because Minecraft has never really caught my interest. But this story is such a perfect adventure with great characters and fantastic worldbuilding that I can’t help but give it a high rating. I loved every page and I can only imagine people familiar with Minecraft will love it even more.

MY RATING: 9/10 – Damn near perfection!

Joan D. Vinge – The Snow Queen

This book took me way longer to read than expected. As a sort of retelling of The Snow Queen (the fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen) and a Hugo and Nebula Award winner, I thought this would be just my jam. And it was enjoyable to some degree but it just never really grabbed me. Which is probably why it took me two months to finish the thing…

THE SNOW QUEEN
by Joan D. Vinge

Published by: Tor, 1980
Ebook: 495 pages
Series: The Snow Queen Cycle #1
My rating: 6,5/10

First line: Here on Tiamat, where there is more water than land, the sharp edge between ocean and sky is blurred; the two merge into one. 

The imperious Winter colonists have ruled the planet Tiamat for 150 years, deriving wealth from the slaughter of the sea mers. But soon the galactic stargate will close, isolating Tiamat, and the 150-year reign of the Summer primitives will begin. Their only chance at surviving the change is if Arienrhod, the ageless, corrupt Snow Queen, can destroy destiny with an act of genocide. Arienrhod is not without competition as Moon, a young Summer-tribe sibyl, and the nemesis of the Snow Queen, battles to break a conspiracy that spans space. Interstellar politics, a millennia-long secret conspiracy, and a civilization whose hidden machineries might still control the fate of worlds all form the background to this spectacular hard science fiction novel from Joan D. Vinge.

I’ll start this review with my very first impressions and those didn’t happen in chapter one, but rather with the author’s note. Normally, I find forewords interesting as they give some background info about how a book came to be or what inspired it. Joan D. Vinge was the first author ever that I slightly disliked after reading the foreword. I had never read anything else by her, I hadn’t read a ton of reviews of her books, I like to think that I approached this novel quite neutrally, or leaning towards positive. After I finished reading the introduction however, I felt like I’d just read a list of pretexts as to why the author didn’t publish for a while or why she published things that others may have disliked… Again, I knew nothing about her or her work and writers can publish or not publish whatever the hell they like, if you ask me, but reading this author justifying herself felt rather petty to me. This was not the best start for reading my first Vinge novel.

But when I got to the actual story, I quickly forgot all about the author and simply basked in the very interesting world she has created. On the planet Tiamat, people are divided into Summers and Winters. Winters are more tech-loving, logical people while Summers hold to spiritual traditions and felt like a more earth-bound people. The divide between technology and a more agricultural life was tangible from the very beginning of the novel, but the story holds much more world building in store. The Hegemony needs Tiamat because of a certain ressource that can grant you prolonged (maybe even eternal?) youth but it also needs Tiamat to stay technologically backwards enough that they don’t gain power over the Hegemony. It’s a super interesting concept that asks questions of colonialsm, “advanced” versus “backwards” planets and the value of human and animal lives compared to personal gain.

On that world, Moon and Sparks have grown up as Summer children and eventually young lovers. They both hope to become sibyls – a sort of Summer prophet who is said to have a connection to the Lady and be able to answer all questions truthfully. When only Moon is chosen as a sibyl, Sparks goes to the Winter city of Carbuncle, where the Queen rules. I really enjoyed his initial culture shock. Not only does his gullibility send him into dangerous situations right away but we also learned more about how different the worlds of Summer and Winter really were. And we see through Sparks’ eyes just how powerful and enticing the Queen can be. A chain of events sends Moon on an adventure of her own, but I want to say as little about the plot as possible to avoid spoilers.

There were several things I really enjoyed about this book. Some side characters grew on me quietly, others I disliked, but most of them felt quite fleshed out and three-dimensional. My favorites were probably the police offices – the Blues – Jerusha and Gundhalinu. In alternating chapters we follow Jerusha, Moon, Sparks, the Queen herself, and a handful of other side characters. Each of them brings their own point of view to the mix and lets us experience the truly amazing world through different eyes. The world practially built itself that way and I couldn’t get enough of it.

The other thing I liked, although it took a while to get going, was how this is a retelling of The Snow Queen. It’s not the most straight-forward retelling but I kept stumbling across elements of the original fairy tale again and again, and every time I made a connection I was happy. Sparks being drawn in by the Queen Arienrhod and turning more and more into a creature of ice, Moon undertaking a journey in order to save her boyfriend, the people she meets on the way, it’s all there.

The reason this book took me a ridiculous amount of time to read, however, was the writing style. This was one of those books that was fun enough as long as I was reading but whenever I put it down, I had no desire whatsoever to pick it up again. So I read other books in between. And then some more books. And every time I saw the cover of this one, I felt slightly guilty that I still hadn’t finished it, so I’d pick it back up again and start reading and wonder what my problem was. It was fine, why didn’t I want to know what happened next? I still can’t answer that question properly but I suspect that old timey writing style and the way some things just take ages to move along may have had to do with it. It is a well-written book but the style didn’t really grab me. It felt a bit outdated (even though I usually don’t mind that) and although I appreciated the characters, I never built an emotional attachment to them – the one exception being Gundhalinu at the end of the story. That guy really grew on me and I wanted his story to have a happy end so badly.

All things considered, I did like this book and I loved the world building, but it’s not a book I’ll remember super fondly. I would like to read the sequel simply because I can’t get enough of the world Vinge has created and I want to learn more about it, but knowing myself, it’s probably going to be a few years before I build up the motivation to dig into that.

MY RATING: 6,5/10 – Quite good

 

The Women Are the Heroes: Marion Zimmer Bradley – The Mists of Avalon

This is probably one of the oldest books I own. Not by publication year but by the sheer amount of time it has spent in my possession, unread. Finally – thanks again to Ashley from Bookkeeping for the recommendation – I picked up this mighty tome and dove into this world of myths and magic and powerful women.

THE MISTS OF AVALON
by Marion Zimmer Bradley

Published by: Ballantine, 1982
Hardcover: 912 pages
Series: Avalon #1
My rating: 8/10

First line: Morgaine speaks… In my time I have been called many thigns: sister, lover, priestess, wise-woman, queen.

Here is the magical legend of King Arthur, vividly retold through the eyes and lives of the women who wielded power from behind the throne. A spellbinding novel, an extraordinary literary achievement, THE MISTS OF AVALON will stay with you for a long time to come….

We’ve all heard the story of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, but never quite like this. If I had to sum up this book quickly, I’d say it’s Arthur’s story but from the women’s point of view – except that doesn’t even scratch the surface of what Bradley delivers in this epic story.

It begins before Arthur is even born, with his mother Igraine, who is unhappily married to Gorlois, a man twice her age. The very beginning of this book already sets the tone of the entire novel. I remember first picking up this book at a young age (I want to say 14 or 15 years old?) and being shocked that a young girl of 14 could be married off to some duke or prince and already have had her first child! While I may know a little more about history now, I still felt the same unease when I read about Igraine – essentially still a child herself – think about childbirth and her marriage bed and wifely duties. And of course love has no place in that world. But Igraine’s roots are in the magical island of Avalon and her ties to that world of magic lead Viviane and the Merlin to Tintagel Castle one day to prophecy that Igraine will bear the King who will unite all of Britain.

I won’t recount all that follows afterwards. This is an epic tale that spans many years, introduces new characters, sees beloved characters die, but always focuses on the women. If there is a protagonist, it surely is Morgaine, Igraine’s daughter who is sent to Avalon to become a priestessof the Goddess. Meanwhile, Britain is at war with the Saxons, and another war rages, quieter  perhaps, but even more dangerous to all those who hold with the old faith. Christianity is on the march and while those who still live the pagan way have no problem accepting people of other beliefs, we all know the Christian God will have no others stand beside him.

The plot often revolves around who will marrie whom, who should succeed the King, who can bear a male heir to whom, and so on. That may sound boring but Bradley made it really exciting. It also shows the divide between love and “usefulness”. Lancelet and Gwenhwyfar’s romance is a well-known part of Arthurian legend but I liked how it was shown here. It’s not even so much a matter of lust but actual love. These two just want to be together but are forbidden by the rules of religion and society.
Gwenhwyfar was actually my least favorite character. She is crazy pious and hates everything to do with magic and Avalon and the old faith. But at the same time, that makes her a highly interesting chracter to follow because her own dreams and wishes go so decidedly against her faith. She wants Lancelet, even if that means she would be an adulteress.

The other main focus of the story is just that – faith against faith. While Morgaine and Avalon fight for their place in the world, Christianity rages over the country with no respect for what was there before. Throughout the book, pagan rites slowly become fewer and fewer, people bearing the tattoos of Avalon are less respected, there are accusations of witchcraft, and things generally don’t look good for Avalon and the Goddess. The women of Avalon also have a very different outlook on love and sex than Christian women. For a priestess, it is her who chooses the men she spends time with, and if she wants to sleep with several man, that’s fine. As you can imagine, the more pious Christian women think of the priestesses as harlots. To them, the man decides and they are basically their husband’s property, even if, deep down, they may not agree with that.

There is no way for me to tell you in one short review just how many things happen in this book. It’s 900 pages long, so that should give you a good idea… it’s a lot! When I think about it, there was plenty of talk about marriage and succession and religion, but the amazing characters made those mundane topics interesting. Marion Zimmer Bradley not only put women front and center, she also made them varied and believable. None of them are purely good or evil, they each have their own hopes for the future, their own reasons for behaving the way they do. Some of their actions are questionable, others understandable. But even though I did not like all of them, I appreciated each and every single one of these women as characters. That doesn’t mean that men are powerless – given the time and setting, men still hold most of the power, but the women surrounding them don’t shy away from pulling a few strings here and there.

It took me almost two months to read this book (I read other ones in between, savoring this one) and I feel almost sad to let it go now. While I can’t say that the plot was always riveting or action-packed, I also couldn’t point to a single boring moment. I found the world Bradley has created immersive and magical and it definitely made me want to read more Arthurian legends. I don’t know if I’ll continue with this series anytime soon because The Mists of Avalon can easily be read as a standalone and I’m quite happy with the way it ended.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Very, very good!

An Artist’s Life: Steven Brust – The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars

Terri Windling’s Fairy Tale Series has been on my radar ever since I caught sight of the first of those gorgeous covers (I mean look at the one below!). The only book I’ve read so far was the amazing (if super tough to read White as Snow), so it was time I  tried another one of these retellings. This one takes a (to me) unknown Hungarian folktale and weaves it into a contemporary story. As a fairy tale retelling, I have to say this failed pretty bad, but as a novel in general, I really enjoyed it!

THE SUN, THE MOON, AND THE STARS
by Steven Brust

Published by: Ace, 1987
Hardcover: 210 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7/10

First line: You want to know what good is? I’ll tell you what good is.

Once upon a time there was a kingdom that lived in darkness, for the sun, the moon and the stars were hidden in a box, and that box was hidden in a sow’s belly, and that sow was hidden in a troll’s cave, and that cave was hidden at the end of the world.
Once upon a time there was a studio of artists who feared they were doomed to obscurity, for though they worked and they worked, no one was interested in the paintings that stood in racks along their studio walls.
Steven Brust’s fantasy novel The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars is a tale of two quests, of two young men who are reaching for the moon. And the sun. And the stars.

Greg is a struggling artist who shares a studio with some of his artist friends and still hopes tfor a break through, who wants so badly to create a masterpiece, a painting that will mean something. Until then, however, all he can do is pursue his art and hope for the best.

This novel was interesting first of all because of its structure. Each chapter is divided into several sub-chapters. The first deals with Greg’s past (his time at university, how he got to know his girlfriend, how he first met his friends, etc.), the second is about the present. Greg does karate and art. He spends most of his time in the studio and, at the beginning of this book, starts a new project on a large canvas, lovingly called “the Monster”. The other sub-chapters talk about how Greg approaches his new painting, about art in general, and – not to forget – about the Hunarian fairy tale Greg tells his friends. You may have guessed that this is the titular “The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars”.

As a huge fan of fairy tales, I was quite surprised that I found myself more drawn to Greg’s life in the 80ies and his musings about art than about the fairy tale he tells. The story of Csucskari and his two brothers who set out into the world to restore light to the sky was nice enough, but it didn’t really capture me the way Greg’s struggles did. You see, he and his four friends share their studio and it’s getting pretty hard raising rent, also due to the fact that most of them don’t really sell any paintings. They paint and draw and sketch because it’s what they love to do but during this novel, they all ask themselves what’s the point. Shouldn’t they just quit? Get a day job with a secure income? Maybe waste their potential?

There isn’t even a lot of plot in this book. Greg and his friends are thinking about doing an art show, so they can get their paintings out into the world. But mostly, the story deals with their relationship with each other and with art. Greg talks a lot about what he wants to achieve, about techniques and light sources and I am making it sound super boring right now, but it totally isn’t!! I don’t paint at all, although I did just do my very first painting with acrylics (an art class I got as a gift) and it was a lot  of fun and also way harder than I expected. But even without any real knowledge about art history or craft, I found everything Greg had to say about it interesting. His troubles can be easily translated into any other art, be it writing, or dancing, or martial arts. He talks about hours of practice, about using what you were taught at school, about how ideas may come easily sometimes and sometimes just won’t come at all. Even if you’re not artistic in any way, I’m sure you will be able to relate because everything Greg struggles with is utterly human.

What I didn’t get was how the fairy tale was supposed to fit into the narrative. Sure, Greg has Hungarian roots and he tells his friends folk tales sometimes, which is why we get to read “The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars” but it really had nothing to do with the main story. I guess if you put some effort into it, you can kind of see parallels between Csucskari’s quest and Greg’s search for meaning in his art and also the evolution of his new painting. But the connection isn’t really tangible. I enjoyed the fairy tale as such, especially because it was one I hadn’t read before, but I don’t think I’ll remember it for very long.

As for the characters, they are an interesting lot. I read several reviews that said Greg was a pretentious douchebag, and yeah, I guess to some degree he is. But I never had any trouble sympathising with him. The other characters remain rather pale, but as a group, the five artists felt real and believable. They critique each other’s art – sometimes that leads to them being pissed at each other, but it also makes them better at what they do. They chat among themselves, they dream together, they worry together, they fight and they make up. The present day passages are very dialogue-heavy so the characters come across mostly through what they say or choose not to say. Otherwise, we really only focus on Greg.

This book was not what I expected, especially as a fairy tale retelling. But I found it immensely entertaining, I learned a lot about painting and about art in general, and while I think the connection between fairy tale and real life was minimal at best, I’d recommend this to anyone who is involved in the arts and maybe wants to create something themselves. If nothing else, the book will make you feel understood and less alone.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good