Overhyped and disappointing: Stephanie Garber – Caraval

See, the thing about books that are as overhyped as this one is that the disappointment when it’s not a great book (or not even a good one) is felt all the more keenly. This may have been a neat idea in the author’s head, but the execution is a disaster. This is a book just like its protagonist: pretty on the outside, absolutely vapid and without personality on the inside.

caravalCARAVAL
by Stephanie Garber

Published by: Hodder & Stoughton, 2017
Hardback: 402 pages
Series: Caraval #1
My rating: 3/10

First sentence: It took seven years to get the letter right.
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S. L. Huang – The Little Homo Sapiens Scientist

This week, a little special edition from Book Smugglers Publishing arrived at my house and made lying in bed all day a bit more bearable. I know it was a limited print run, but I still find it so charming that the Book Smugglers included a personalised thank you note and a bookmark. The story itself was also wonderful, although it took me a while to get into it.

little-homo-sapiens-scientistTHE LITTLE HOMO SAPIENS SCIENTIST
by S. L. Huang

Published by: Book Smugglers Publishing, 2016
Paperback: 70 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: Dr. Alan Zanga is to blame for this.

A dark retelling of The Little Mermaid from the author of HUNTING MONSTERS

I suppose if this is going to be recorded somewhere for posterity, I should set the record straight. The ghostwriter will probably cut it all, but hey, it’s the principle of the thing.

Dr. Cadence Mbella is the world’s most celebrated scholar of the atargati: sentient, intelligent deep-water beings who are most definitely not mermaids. When Cadence decides to release a captive atargati from scientific experimentation and interrogation, she knows her career and her life is forfeit. But she still yearns for the atargati–there is still so much to know about their physiology, their society, their culture. And Cadence would do anything to more fully understand the atargati… no matter what the cost.

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If you’re remotely interested in fairy tales, you know that Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” doesn’t exactly end the Disney way. Most of us know that and expect retellings of this story to be just as sad. But knowing that going in can also make us blunt to retellings of this melancholy tale because… well, we know the mermaid won’t be happily married to her prince, so why even get emotionally invested, right? S. L. Huang found the perfect way to bring back all the horror and gravity of what the protagonist does to become someone else, as well as twist the knife she puts in your gut right at the end. I can’t say it was a happy experience but it was damn well done!

Caddie Mbella has one passion in life: the study of the atargati (don’t call them mermaids!), a deep-sea species that baffles scientists all around the world. Caddie happens to be very good at what she does. In fact, she is the only one who can sing the way the atargati sing and is thus able to communicate with the “mermaids”. But of course, the government sticks their fingers in what could otherwise be beautiful science, kidnaps an atargati and keeps her in captivity for further study (and who knows what else). Caddie can’t bear the thought o fit and frees the atargati, knowing that from now on she has to live the rest of her life on the run. She takes that risk gladly, except without her studies, without the atargati, she has nothing left. A quick visit to a witch doctor, some DNA-manipulation, and you can see where this flipped Little Mermaid tale is going.

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There were several things that made me absolutely adore this retelling and one thing that bothered me a bit. I loved that Caddie is a lesbian kick-ass scientist (in case any Puppies are reading this: although there absolutely doesn’t need to be a reason for Caddie to be gay, it is truly important for the story!) whose passion for her job shines through in her entire narration. At first, it may feel a tiny bit like a lecture, but then again Huang is introducing a whole new species to her readers, and a bit of background knowledge is totally appreciated. The fact that Caddie delivered it only helped to flesh out her character while doing that crucial bit of initial world building. And the atargati are fascinating! They resemble human females just enough to have earned the name “mermaid” in the wider world, but they are sight-less, genderfluid species who communicate through underwater song. I found learning about them as interesting as Caddie.

However, that introduction was also my one issue with the novella (or novelette?). Because we have to learn all this information at the beginning, I didn’t really connect with the plot that much. My interest was there, but there was no emotional connection to either Caddie or the atargati yet and that made the book feel somewhat slow at first.

That all changes, however, when Caddie frees the captive atargati, has to go on the run, and eventually finds that witch doctor who can turn her into a sort of mutated atargati – with an expected life span of a few months, at best. That was where the emotional hooks finally took hold of me and it was also the first time since I was a kid that I truly felt how gigantic the decision Caddie makes really is – and how equally big the original little mermaid’s decision was (I mean, giving up your species is pretty heavy shit). As it becomes clear that Caddie has lost her purpose in life she pretty much agrees to go on a suicide mission, paved with pain and loss, for one chance to see the creatures she loves so much, live with them and learn from them. Remember when the sea witch tells the little mermaid how every step will hurt like she’s walking on knives? Oh, and how she loses her voice? Those bits are brilliantly incorporated into “The Little Homo Sapiens Scientist” and the loss of the voice especially becomes one of the most painful things for Caddie to endure.

S. L. Huang does a wonderful job of describing the underwater world of the atargati. Considering that Caddie is now missing both her sight and her ability to speak/sing, you’d think there wasn’t much left to tell. But I found the descriptions of atargati society fascinating! It was also the part of the story that let Caddie shine as a character and even offered a sort of romance. And then the ending came and it absolutely broke my heart! Even though I knew it wouldn’t end well – at least if it was a faithful retelling –  it still hit me really hard, like a knife being turned in a wound. I may or may not have cursed out loud while reading it…

All things considered, I really loved this version of The Little Mermaid, how it is both simple and clever in the way it translates the old fairy tale to a near future world. Iliked the author’s Hunting Monsters stories but I loved The Little Homo Sapiens Scientist, and I am hoping very much she’ll give us more fairy tale retellings. So here’s my plea to the Book Smugglers and S. L. Huang: Please, can I have some more?

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent

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Leigh Bardugo – Six of Crows

Okay, okay, so I planned on reading the original Grisha trilogy before the Six of Crows duology but I just couldn’t stop myself. These two books are so beloved by the entire internet that I had to see what the fuss was about. While it’s not necessarily a great heist novel (for that, go try some Scott Lynch), it was actually a great story about wonderful characters, set in a lavish world. I was positively surprised.

six-of-crowsSIX OF CROWS
by Leigh Bardugo

Published by: Henry Holt & Co., 2015
Hardcover: 462 pages
Series: Six of Crows #1
My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence: Joost had two problems: the moon and his moustache.

Ketterdam: a bustling hub of international trade where anything can be had for the right price—and no one knows that better than criminal prodigy Kaz Brekker. Kaz is offered a chance at a deadly heist that could make him rich beyond his wildest dreams. But he can’t pull it off alone…

A convict with a thirst for revenge
A sharpshooter who can’t walk away from a wager
A runaway with a privileged past
A spy known as the Wraith
A Heartrender using her magic to survive the slums
A thief with a gift for unlikely escapes

Kaz’s crew are the only ones who might stand between the world and destruction—if they don’t kill each other first.

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Oh boy, did I fall in love with that line-up of criminals! Leigh Bardugo introduces her six main players at the beginning of the book and although that takes quite a lot of time, not a single chapter could be considered boring, because the introductions happen right in the middle of the story. And at the same time, she gets a whole lot of world building done, without any info dumps or long explanations. Granted, I’ve only read Siege and Storm by Bardugo so far, but there is a definite improvement in character development, world building and pacing to be noticed between these two novels.

So the story begins with Kaz Brekker assembling a thieving crew to do one big job, and only the best of the best will do. His friend and thieving colleague Inej, known as The Wraith because she is basically a super cool badass ninja spy, is the first to be recruited. Shortly thereafter follow Nina, a Grisha Heartrender, Matthias, a drüskelle mountain of muscle, Jesper, the sharpshooter, and Wylan, a young man gifted with the building of explosives. It sounds like your basic fantasy Ocean’s Eleven but the huge difference is the focus on character.

Every character gets a proper introduction, showing us who they are, what their reasons for joining Kaz are, and why they do what they do. By no means do we learn everything about any of them right away, but we learn enough to be hooked and to get a clear image of their personalities. I cannot state enough how refreshing this is in a YA novel! Where you usually only get the main romantic interests to have any sort of distinguishing characteristics, with the other characters just standing in and saying their lines, here we have a whole cast of individuals. And they are beautiful in their diversity.

And it is also their diversity that helps flesh out the world Bardugo has created with almost no effort at all. Inej has a pretty dark past but she longs to return to Ravka and find her family, so in her chapters we see parts of Ketterdam that one would rather not, but that help make the place feel real nonetheless. Nina is also from Ravka, but she has her own reasons to remain in Ketterdam. Kaz is probably the centerpiece and it is his backstory that holds the most secrets and twists, and his knowledge of the Barrel lets us glimpse a side of the city that makes it feel like a real, vibrant place, filled with gangs and crime and gambling. Matthias also really grew on me because he’s got a pretty big internal conflict going on and his coming from Fjerda brings in a whole different culture that can clash with the others’. The only characters who remained a bit pale until the end were Jesper and Wylan, but they too got to shine eventually.

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Another thing I absolutely loved was the friendship between Inej and Nina. They don’t seem to have a lot to do with each other but whenever they get thrown together, you can just tell that they care about each other, that they share a true friendship. There is no jealousy, no forced love triangle where they fall for the same guy, and again – it’s just such a relief that YA novels dare to go without that old trope. That said, there is a fair bit of romance in Six of Crows and I am backing all of it. This is spoiler-free, so I won’t say who’s involved but maaaaaaan, some of those scenes were beautiful and sad and heartbreaking and lovely and all the things I want from a YA romance.

But even without the romantic aspects, it was just fun to watch the crew interact with each other. They banter, they bicker, they sometimes get along and sometimes not so much. They make plans, they stick together, they questions each other and are generally a chaotic bunch of criminals. But when one of them is in trouble, the others will move heaven and earth to help them and that’s what made it such a joy to read.

So I loved the characters and the way they interacted, I completely loved the world of Ketterdam and all the rest of the map I got to explore. Only the plot has some room for improvement. As someone who loves a good heist story, I do expect the heist to be clever and complex. And sure, I expect things to go wrong because where’s the fun otherwise. Here the characters showed great talent for improvisation but sometimes it felt a little too convenient, too much like handwaving a problem away. And the initial plans didn’t feel all that clever and relied quite a bit on coincidences. It was still great fun to read and mostly, I was pretty happy with the plot, as well as the balance between action and more character-focused chapters.

The ending was only partly satisfying, but I kind of expected that from the first part of a duology. But with the plots and sub-plots set up in Six of Crows I am now more than curious to see how it all ends in Crooked Kingdom. And I want to see my favorite couples get together because the author has totally wrapped me around her little finger and can play evil games with my heart. So everybody better survive and end up exactly the way I want them to… just sayin.

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very good!

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Helen Oyeyemi – What is Not Yours is Not Yours

I managed to spend this week at home in bed with a terrible bronchitis, so not only didn’t I read a lot (90% of my time was spent sleeping, sweating, and coughing… seriously, it’s not pretty), but I also didn’t tell you about the books I had read prior to turning into a pale, clammy monster. Today, I feel a little better and can stare into a computer screen without headaches, so let’s do some catching-up, what do you say?

what-is-not-yours-is-not-yours2WHAT IS NOT YOURS IS NOT YOURS
by Helen Oyeyemi

Published by: Picador, 2016
Hardback: 263 pages
Short story collection
My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence: Once upon a time in Catalonia a baby was found in a chapel.

Playful, ambitious, and exquisitely imagined, What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours is cleverly built around the idea of keys, literal and metaphorical. The key to a house, the key to a heart, the key to a secret—Oyeyemi’s keys not only unlock elements of her characters’ lives, they promise further labyrinths on the other side. In “Books and Roses” one special key opens a library, a garden, and clues to at least two lovers’ fates. In “Is Your Blood as Red as This?” an unlikely key opens the heart of a student at a puppeteering school. “‘Sorry’ Doesn’t Sweeten Her Tea” involves a “house of locks,” where doors can be closed only with a key—with surprising, unobservable developments. And in “If a Book Is Locked There’s Probably a Good Reason for That Don’t You Think,” a key keeps a mystical diary locked (for good reason).

Oyeyemi’s creative vision and storytelling are effervescent, wise, and insightful, and her tales span multiple times and landscapes as they tease boundaries between coexisting realities. Is a key a gate, a gift, or an invitation? What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours captivates as it explores the many possible answers.

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Normally when I review story collections, I like to talk about each story a little bit but I won’t do that here. As with most collections, I loved some stories, liked others, and disliked one or two. But “dislike” isn’t the right word because the few stories that I’d rate a little lower are simply ones that didn’t stick in my mind, not even a week after I read them. I do remember while reading them that I thought they were weird, strangely-constructed tales that start one way, then take a crazy turn and end up being about something completely different. That doesn’t make them bad stories, they just didn’t work for me (much like Oyeyemi’s strange novel Mr. Fox).

Before I get into my favorite stories and why they are so wonderful, one thing about their interconnectedness. Oyeyemi tried what Angela Slatter does so perfectly in her story collections (in case you want my fangirling thoughts, here are my reviews for Sourdough and The Bitterwood Bible). One story’s side character comes back later as a protagonist, or a new side character, or we go back in time and see their childhood – and that’s how the stories are supposed to be connected and tell one bigger tale. Except it doesn’t really work all that well in What is Not Yours is Not Yours. First of all, the stories are so different in tone, setting, and time period, that it was difficult for me to find any sort of common ground. And when I did recognise a character from a previous story, I had a hard time reconciling that person in the current story with who I met before. There was one mention of some previous characters that made me smile, because we find out what happened to them after their story ended, but in most tales, I didn’t really need them to connect to the rest of the collections. The stories stand on their own.

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Now. Here’s why you should read this collection. It has fairy tale-esque stories, like “drownings”, filled with evil tyrants who drown their enemies in the swamp, princesses and the perfect fairy tale voice, but it also has paranormal-ish (and seriously creepy) tales like “Presence” about a couple who tries a new sort of therapy which is supposed to help the bereaved reconnect with their dead loved ones. It was a truly chilling tale, but the creepiness levels were always just right.

There is one story that chilled me to the bone for other reasons. When a Youtube video exposes a famous musician – Matyas Füst – as having beaten up a girl, the world answers. And it answers pretty much the way you’d expect our world to answer. The social media attacks are aimed mostly at the victim, the half-hearted apologies by the celebrity are eaten up by his fans, and hey, why not use this incident to write a new song that will make him some more millions? This story was both sickening and fascinating, because we also see how a fan tries to justify her idol’s actions so she can keep liking him.

Then he stood over her in all his wealth and fame and arrogance and shrugged when she said she wasn’t going to keep quiet about this. Matyas Füst had shrugged and asked her if she thought anybody was going to give a shit that someone like her had got hurt. A nameless junkie with seriously crazy English. Look at you, he said. And look at me.

But by far my favorite story – and maybe because it is such an uplifting, hopeful one – was “A brief history of the Homely Wench Society” which tells of two Cambridge University clubs. The Bettencourt Society is basically the rich boys’ club and no women are allowed in their hallowed halls. Except when they pick the most beautiful girls to have dinner with them. However, the not-so-beautiful girls are fighting back. They created their own club whose purpose is to see the Bettencourt Society go down.
While this story starts as a basic us vs. them/boys vs. girls/beautiful vs. plain/rich vs. poor type tale, it slowly unwinds into something more complex and more hopeful. And inter-club romances make it just a little bit harder to keep hating each other. My favorite part was definitely the prank the Homely Wenches pull by breaking into the Bettencourt library and exchanging some of their male-authored books with some female-authored ones they brought. And both sides soon have to admit that the others have pretty good taste in books (and nobody gives a shit if the writer was male or female). It was adorable and I loved every part of the story, but that prank and the ending especially left me beaming with joy.

The book’s opening story “Books and Roses” was also beautifully told and although it has a healthy dose of magical realism, was the perfect tale to fall into. It’s also the beginning of the collection’s theme of keys. Much like the recurring characters, I didn’t think the key theme added much to the collection, because the subject matter and voice is so different from one tale to the next, but it is a lovely bit of imagery. I was also reminded just how many things can be considered keys and in how many shapes and sizes keys actually come.

Pretty much as expected this was a mixed bag for me, but I will continue to keep my eye out for Helen Oyeyemi’s books. When she goes too abstract, I usually don’t get much out of her fiction, but when she hits a note I like, she really hits it. I can’t wait to discover what she will come up with next.

MY RATING:  7,5/10 – Very good!

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Marissa Meyer – Wires and Nerve

I have no idea why, as the publication date everywhere (including Amazon, where I bought this) is listed as January 31st, but my pre-ordered copy of the first Lunar Chronicles graphic novel arrived at my house on Monday and, naturally, I couldn’t keep my hands off if for a second. The short version is: This is just like the novels themselves, fluffy, sweet, not very deep, but a wonderful read to crawl inside and get lost in for an afternoon.

wires-and-nerveWIRES AND NERVES Vol. 1
by Marissa Meyer
art by Doug Holgate

Published by: Feiwel & Friends, 2017
Hardback: 238 pages
Series: Wires and Nerve #1, The Lunar Chronicles #5
My rating: 7/10

First sentence: Once upon a time, there were nine unlikely heroes…

In her first graphic novel, #1 New York Times and USA Today bestseller Marissa Meyer follows Iko, the beloved android from the Lunar Chronicles, on a dangerous and romantic new adventure — with a little help from Cinder and the Lunar team.

In her first graphic novel, bestselling author Marissa Meyer extends the world of the Lunar Chronicles with a brand-new, action-packed story about Iko, the android with a heart of (mechanized) gold. When rogue packs of wolf-hybrid soldiers threaten the tenuous peace alliance between Earth and Luna, Iko takes it upon herself to hunt down the soldiers’ leader. She is soon working with a handsome royal guard who forces her to question everything she knows about love, loyalty, and her own humanity. With appearances by Cinder and the rest of the Rampion crew, this is a must-have for fans of the bestselling series.

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There were a few things that Lunar Chronicle fans were still waiting for after the series ended. For one, some of the romances weren’t officially resolved. And Iko never got to be the center of the plot. Until now. Although all of our favorite heroes make an appearance, this is firmly Iko’s story. After the Revolution and Cinder’s ascension to the Lunar crown, Iko mostly helps her friend pick the right dress for the right occasion, but there is a lot of stuff still to do. Just because one evil queen was overthrown, the world doesn’t simply fix itself. And so starts Iko’s job as a secret agent.

We meet her right in the middle of some rogue wolf pack catching action and I knew I would adore this story as much as I did the novels. It doesn’t take long for Thorne and Cress to meet up with Iko, and from then on it’s a merry romp that alternates nicely between action scenes, slower, more exposition-heavy ones, romantic tension sub-plots, and adorably silly ones whenever Iko is in the same room as a frilly dress. If you’ve read The Lunar Chronicles you know exactly what I mean.

Although, information-wise, nothing much is added to what we already knew from the mail story, I really enjoyed getting some more background about Cinder’s struggle with being queen. This may bring us some slower pages where people talk a lot and explain stuff to each other but Marissa Meyer never forgets to add a bit of humor to keep things moving. If you’re worried that your favorite couple won’t be featured – don’t worry! Everyone makes an appearance, although to my utter delight, Cress and Thorne definitely took center stage. While it was wonderful seeing Cinder in her new position, she is on Luna and Kai is on Earth…

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My favorite parts (after seeing Cress and Thorne captaining the Rampion and just being wonderful) were the new romance that may happen for Iko. I even have a favorite page in which the author – and Iko – identify a romance trope and just roll with it. And it worked beautifully, both as the trope should and as a comment on its existence. That’s all I’m willing to say – you should all experience it spoiler-free and have as much fun as I did.

The plot as such isn’t super original, but our heroes have a nice new-ish threat to fight off and it gives them plenty of opportunity for doing what they do best: work as a team! When I started reading this, I kind of missed that it said “volume 1” right there on the spine, but the open ending didn’t feel too much like a cliff hanger. It was definitely a satisfying ending, although I am now painfully aware of how long I’ll have to wait for the sequel…

As this is a graphic novel, I want to say a little bit about the art. The style reminds me a bit of web comics you see and while this could have worked in a lavish, more detailed comic book style, I really enjoyed the simplicity of it. Not all characters look the way I want them to but they were all identifiable, they all look right and I felt that the artist managed to show their emotions really well, considering there isn’t a lot of detail. I also really loved the muted, blue color scheme and I honestly wouldn’t change this to full color if I could.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good fun!

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Here’s a page from the book that gives you an idea of what our heroes look like:

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Mishell Baker – Borderline

I am so in love with this book! As somebody who really doesn’t enjoy Urban Fantasy no matter how much I try, for this book to make it onto my Hugo nominations list is a pretty big deal. But the fact that when I closed the book, I was filled with happiness and hope, is an even bigger deal. It went immediately to my favorites list and although it doesn’t sound like it from the description, it will probably become one of my comfort reads.

borderlineBORDERLINE
by Mishell Baker

Published by: Saga Press, 2016
Ebook: 400 pages
Series: The Arcadia Project #1
My rating: 9/10

First sentence: It was midmorning on a Monday when magic walked into my life wearing a beige Ann Taylor suit and sensible flats.

A cynical, disabled film director with borderline personality disorder gets recruited to join a secret organization that oversees relations between Hollywood and Fairyland in the first book of a new urban fantasy series from debut author Mishell Baker.

A year ago, Millie lost her legs and her filmmaking career in a failed suicide attempt. Just when she’s sure the credits have rolled on her life story, she gets a second chance with the Arcadia Project: a secret organization that polices the traffic to and from a parallel reality filled with creatures straight out of myth and fairy tales.

For her first assignment, Millie is tasked with tracking down a missing movie star who also happens to be a nobleman of the Seelie Court. To find him, she’ll have to smooth-talk Hollywood power players and uncover the surreal and sometimes terrifying truth behind the glamour of Tinseltown. But stronger forces than just her inner demons are sabotaging her progress, and if she fails to unravel the conspiracy behind the noble’s disappearance, not only will she be out on the streets, but the shattering of a centuries-old peace could spark an all-out war between worlds.

No pressure.

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As with most books that elicit this much excitement in me, Borderline is amazing in many respects. First of all, it tells a damn good story that made me want to know what happens next after every chapter. Secondly, it makes Urban Fantasy new and interesting again. You don’t need vampires and werewolves and Buffy-esque demons and Mishell Baker proved it. Thirdly, and most importantly, Borderlinehas the most amazing characters.

Millie Roper suffers from Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), something I personally knew nothing about before picking up this book. She als lost both her legs in a failed suicide attempt, so you can imagine that doing everyday things is not as easy as it is for an able-bodied person. On an intellectual level, I knew this of course. But reading about all the little things Millie has to think about, all the small situations that I take for granted but which create major stress in Millie’s life, was so fascinating. I wanted to learn more about BPD and about living with a wheelchair and/or prostheses. Mishell Baker manages to talk about these things without slowing down the story one bit, and without preaching. In fact, I found Millie’s personality so engaging, I probably wouldn’t even have been bored if I’d read about her going to the bathroom.

Once she joins the Arcadia Project, Millie is put together with a whole bunch of other people who have mental health issues or physical disabilities. I grew to love most of them and despise others, above all Gloria, who uses fake niceness to insult people and her disability to make sure she gets away with it. Oh, how I wanted Millie to say mean things to her… which, to me, is further proof of Mishell Baker’s talent in writing believable characters. A lesser writer might have written all the disabled characters as perfectly wonderful, kind people (I’m sure there’s a trope about that), but since disabled people are, you know, people, they also come in all shapes, sizes, and levels of assholery. It was precisely for that reason that I ended up liking all of them so much by the end. Even the constantly grumpy ones, the weird ones, the bitchy ones – they felt real and none of them fit into a good/evil type mould.

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Another thing I loved was the world building. I avoid Urban Fantasy for the simple reason that, every time I try it, I’m disappointed or bored out of my mind with the same old tropes. And I recognise them as “the same old tropes” even with the limited amount of Urban Fantasy books I’ve read. Imagine what someone who reads more of that sub-genre must feel like. But Mishell Baker managed to make it feel fresh and exciting, to give me new things to discover.
Most impressive was the way the Fae who live secretly among us fit in with our world and interact with us regular humans. Rather than just live in hiding without a reason, Fae have “Echos” in our world, a sort of human soulmate. Now if a Fae and Human Echo find each other, they both benefit greatly. The Fae acquires skills they usually don’t have (rational thinking, mathematics, etc.) and the human has found their muse – which is why the Hollywood setting makes so much sense and explains how some filmmakers seem to only make good movies. It’s a simple idea but it works so damn well! Plus, there are fairy politics and Hollywood shenanigans which were like an added bonus to an already fantastic world. It’s really cool, guys!

But the one thing that made me love this book so very much and rate it so highly was the ending. Baker’s pacing was perfect all along, with tension building constantly throughout the story, twists and turns along the way, and a brilliant climax at the end. But the same goes for Millie’s character arc, which is beautifully done. Nothing about it was heavy-handed or obvious, it’s all in the details and comes to a satisfying conclusion. And although I can’t pinpoint the exact moment it happened, sometime at the end this book started filling me with so much hope that I finished it with a big fat smile on my face, wanting to start all over again. Not many books do that to me anymore, so – at the very least for me – Mishell Baker has created a thing of beauty that I will cherish forever.

MY RATING: 9/10 – Close to perfection!

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Jenny Moyer – Flashfall

You know how some books take a while got get going? How a boring or difficult beginning can be hard to read but then the pay-off makes it all worthwile? This is the opposite kind of book. Here, the beginning was the best part, and then it all falls into pieces and gets worse and worse. This will be a rather long review.

flashfallFLASHFALL
by Jenny Moyer

Published by: Henry Holt and Co., 2016
Hardback: 342 pages
Series: Flashfall #1
My rating: 3,5/10

First sentence: Caves make good hiding places.

Orion is a Subpar, expected to mine the tunnels of Outpost Five, near the deadly flash curtain. For generations, her people have chased cirium—the only element that can shield humanity from the curtain’s radioactive particles. She and her caving partner, Dram work the most treacherous tunnel, fighting past flash bats and tunnel gulls, in hopes of mining enough cirium to earn their way into the protected city.
But when newcomers arrive at Outpost Five, Orion uncovers disturbing revelations that make her question everything she thought she knew about life on both sides of the cirium shield. As conditions at the outpost grow increasingly dangerous, it’s up to Orion to forge a way past the flashfall, beyond all boundaries, beyond the world as she knows it.

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Orion and Dram are best friends and cavers. They live in Outpost 5 and their job is to go into a cave and mine for cirium, a substance that is used by Congress in the protected city of Alara for a protective barrier against the flash curtain. If that sounds convoluted and clichéd, that’s because it is. Don’t expect any of this to make sense. However, good-natured as I am, I decided to just roll with it and enjoy the story on a different level.

Orion, our protagonist, is your typical YA heroine, and she is also quite obviously in love with her best friend Dram. They make a kick-ass team and their trips into Cave Nine were thrilling to read. If the author had stuck with that idea and run with it, this could have been a great YA book. But Jenny Moyer apparently didn’t know how to spread out her ideas (or other people’s ideas) and threw in everything and the kitchen sink, without regard for the plot or world building. While the beginning of the book is well-paced, introducing the progatonists and some side characters, there came a point where everything went to shit.

For conflict, Orion has to get into trouble, and I am totally okay with that because that’s what makes great stories. But her and Dram get transported, imprisoned, escape, get imprisoned again, sent somewhere else, escape to a new place, come back, get caught again – so many times and in such quick succession that any dangerous situation feels utterly ridiculous after a while. There also isn’t any sense of real danger because they conveniently get saved by some poor schmuck sacrificing themselves for them.

This actually bothered me a lot. At first, side characters who got some introduction blindly sacrifice themselves for these two teenagers without any hint of their motives. Later, the author just didn’t care anymore and randomly introduced new characters only to kill them off a few pages later so Orion can survive. In some cases, the sacrifice is relatable, but I got the feeling that the author wanted Orion so very much to be Katniss, with the same level of fame and respect from a rebellion that doesn’t even exist in Flashfall. But Orion is really not that special and, much more importantly, her story isn’t broadcast across the nation so nobody knows that she’s sort of uprising. All she does is break a sign. Why should random people – ones she’s only just met – blindly walk into death for her? And the amount of times that happens is just mind-boggling. It’s cheap and it’s bad writing and it weakens the entire story.

Another aspect that showed bad plotting was how convenient things were. Not just character deaths but other things as well. Like a side character is introduced only to give one vital piece of information to Orion and then never be mentioned again (or die in the next chapter). The same goes for tricky situations. They get out of them so easily and so quickly. Every plan immediately works, and if it doesn’t, just throw a side character into their death. Either way, the action scenes rarely took more than a page or two which gave the whole story a weird sense of time passing.

What makes things worse is the terrible world building. Where do I start? Oh, I know, let’s start with the map. I love maps in books because they usually give you a bit of additional information for the story and help you navigate an invented world in your mind while you’re reading. Not so in Flashfall. If anything, the map made things even harder to understand. To be fair, if all the artist had to go on was the descriptions in the book, there really wasn’t anthing to be done. Look here (click to biggify):

I wasn’t the only person who had trouble with this map or the descriptions in the book. Because the working of this world is never really explained, I tried to piece it together myself. But none of it made any sense! The flash curtain is apparently this radioactive wall of fog that kills regular humans, called Normals. Subpars, like Orion and Dram, can withstand the radiaton. They live in Outpost 5, I’m assuming that dividing line is the flash curtain – and the privileged Normals live in the city of Alara protected by that weird dome-like wall thingy. At least I think that’s what it is. However, there are also Normals living in Orion’s outpost – WTF? Why don’t they get sick? What is even the point of having them there if they can’t go down into the caves to mine for cirium? Oh yeah, and cirium is needed constantly for that protection dome/wall… I have no idea why. If there’s already a wall why would they need more cirium? As it turns out, the rich people are evil (who could have seen that coming?) and use cirium for other stuff as well. No spoilers although, trust me, you wouldn’t mind anyway.

As I mentioned before, Orion and Dram “visit” lots of other places as well, some Outposts, some cordons, although the main difference seems to be the vicinity to the flash curtain. The vague and really cheap explanations as to why people are in the cordons at all didn’t help with the world building either. It appears the elite is also really stupid if their secret evil plan is doing what they’re doing. To make things more confusing, we later find out a bit more about Alara and its inhabitants. Like that they have drones and helicopters. Which don’t go with the set-up of the world AT ALL. Everything is jarring, nothing fits together, even distances don’t make sense. The speed at which Orion travels between cordons makes it feel like distances on the map aren’t very far apart. But that doesn’t go with the descriptions of the caves’ vastness.

Very little thought went into the world building. The most effort was probably put into substitute curse words which also don’t make sense. People curse with “fire” or “flash me” – at least “flash me” goes with the general world. The flash curtain is a menace, a danger, so using it as a curse is fine. But why would anybody curse with “fire” ? Fire doesn’t have special meaning in this story, it’s not like fires have to be avoided at all costs because cirium is super flammable or anything. I have no idea where it comes from and it threw me out of the story every time it came up.

But the saddest part was the plot. As I said, it started off so well. I didn’t expect a great work of literature here, just some fun adventure with a romance thrown in or something.  And at the start, the book really showed potential. We see Dram and Orion in action doing their job and being damn good at it, we meet their families and friends, the way they live. They go into cave nine, meet some dangers and get out of them by themselves and by being a great team. However, that seems to have been the only consistent idea the author had, because once the world gets opened up and she tries to show us the bigger picture, it becomes clearer and clearer that there is no plan. The world makes no sense, Orion’s fame makes no sense, the mindless idiots dying for her make no sense. Throw in some magical people – Conjurors – who can manipulate the elements, throw in weird sub-societies in different outposts and cordons, incredibly convenient hints for the protagonists to find, really lame plot twists and a story that, in terms of character development and world building leaves you exactly where you started and you’ve got a hot mess named Flashfall.

In the end, I have more questions than answers. What even is the flash curtain? Why is it a straight line on the map? Why do Normals live with Subpars in the outposts if Normals aren’t resistent to the radiation? Why would anyone work for the protected elite in the first place? How does the world at large work? Why is there magic, why are the powerful people trying to stop Conjurers from using it? Why would they not let scientists work on a cure or a protection against radiation sickness? None of it makes sense. What’s even the point of having outposts and cordons, especially if some of them seem designed only to kill people in ridiculous ways? Why would a city even be built that close to the Flash curtain if it’s such a straight, nicely contained line? Why has Orion never seen the sky? If everything’s so full of clouds and radiation, how do the Normals even survive? What the hell is any of this about???

The ending isn’t really any better. Things work out super-conveniently for Orion again and we get an incredibly cheese last scene but there wasn’t even an attempt to make readers want to read the next book in the series. I can only assume that the many favorable reviews were written by people who still have hope that it gets better, that all those questions are answered in the sequels. I do not have that hope and I feel no need at all to continue torturing myself with a series that is so self-indulgent, so unfocused, and by an author who so clearly doesn’t have a plan.

For a well-executed romance and the nice beginning I’m giving this a handful of points. For starting well and leaving me angry, it’s not a big handful.

MY RATING: 3,5/10 – Bad

P.S.: If anyone has read this and can explain any of the things that were unclear to me, please leave a comment or send me an e-mail. I am genuinely interested if it was just me being an idiot while reading.

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Zoraida Córdova – Labyrinth Lost

So far, the #DAreadathon has brought me nothing but joy. My second read not only introduced me to a writer whose work I will definitely follow but also to a wonderful story set in a different sort of Brooklyn. Although Alejandra’s story is told, the world offers much more room for other characters’ tales. And I can’t wait to read those too.

labyrinth-lostLABYRINTH LOST
by Zoraida Córdova

Published by: Sourcebooks Fire, 2016
Ebook: 336 pages
Series: Brooklyn Brujas #1
My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence: The second time I saw my dead aunt Rosaria, she was dancing.

Nothing says Happy Birthday like summoning the spirits of your dead relatives.
Alex is a bruja, the most powerful witch in a generation…and she hates magic. At her Deathday celebration, Alex performs a spell to rid herself of her power. But it backfires. Her whole family vanishes into thin air, leaving her alone with Nova, a brujo boy she can’t trust. A boy whose intentions are as dark as the strange marks on his skin.
The only way to get her family back is to travel with Nova to Los Lagos, a land in-between, as dark as Limbo and as strange as Wonderland…

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Alex lives with her mother and her two sisters in a Brooklyn unlike the one you know. The entire family are brujas with magical powers that differ for every family member. Little Rose has a sort of sight, Lula, the eldest sister, can heal people, and Alex… well, Alex is The Chosen One. Except she really, really, really doesn’t want to be. In order to escape her powers, to get rid of them, she does something dangerous and, naturally, it backfires.

What follows is essentially an adventure story in the underworld, filled with strange and magical creatures, dangers untold and hardships unnumbered (see what I did there?). Alex only has the mysterious and kind of annoying Nova for company and while he is good-looking and saves her life occasionally, he remains surrounded by secrets.

There are so many little things to love about Labyrinth Lost. The world-building was fantastic, not only in Los Lagos, the underworld, but also the bits about brujos and brujas living in Brooklyn circa now. The author doesn’t spend too much time talking about the gods and mythology, but just the right amount to give readers a feeling for what Alex has grown up believing, what kinds of magic work and how brujas live, their rituals and relationships. As a heading for each chapter, there is a little excerpt – usually a line from a poem – of the Book of Cantos, and athough you could completely ignore those and still read the main story, they are a lovely addition to the world building of this novel.

I also loved how certain words were in Spanish, although the map sort of threw me. Bone Valle was hard to get used to – I always wanted it to be either Bone Valley or Valle de Huesos or something. The mix of Spanish and English in one name or title didn’t sit well with my brain (it wants things to be organised and orderly, although I rarely give in to that urge in real life), but I adored that the gods’ names were all Spanish, that Alex’s full name is Alejandra, which her sisters sometimes shorten to Ale. Oh yeah, I should mention, even if you don’t speak a word of Spanish, the pronunciation of some words is explained within the text. Zoraida Córdova found a totally simple, yet elegant solution to that problem. Look how she does it (emphasis by me):

“This is what we do, Ale.” Ah-ley. My family nickname.

See? It’s so simple, the author does it several times throughout the book, and it works. There are no lengthy explanations, the readers aren’t left completely alone with a name whose pronunciation they might be uncertain about… I love it. It’s a tiny little thing but I love it. And that’s basically what makes this book so charming. An accumulation of tiny little things that all add up to something great.

Labyrinth Lost, by Zoraida Córdo

If I take one feeling away from this book, it’s a sense of family and belonging. It’s a warm and fuzzy feeling that I totally wanted to hold on to. So… a little side-note, because I want to: I have loved the movie Labyrinth since I was a little baby. This is very likely the reason I jump on any movie, book, music album, or what-have-you with the word “labyrinth” in the title. Labyrinth Lost is very much like that old Bowie movie (oh, David Bowie :() in that it’s essentially about family. While Sarah, in the movie, in my opinion acts mostly because of guilt (sending your baby brother to the Goblin King is pretty harsh and will get you into SO much trouble), Alex in Labyrinth Lost acts more selflessly. Sure, she is also powered by her guilt because the whole mess is her fault and her family are suffering because of her. But she also really loves them and it is shown, over and over, throughout the book, how strong the bond between these family members is.

So, yay for family love. For still loving each other even if one of you makes a terrible mistake that almost gets everyone else killed. Not-so-yay for the obvious Nova story, but another sort-of yay for the friendship between Alex and Rishi. Rishi is the character you just have to love, even if you don’t want to. She is too wonderful and adorable and quirky to dislike. I think she was under-used as a character in the second half of the book but, hey, this is only the first book in a series. So I’m keeping my hopes up for more Rishi in the next volume.

Lastly, I have to talk about the characters. We mostly spend time with Alex, Nova, and Rishi and although they all have distinct personalities (and I adore Rishi), they felt a little superficial. Like each of them got three characteristics and that was the basis for all their actions. Alex did grow during her journey, and I actually liked Nova as a character, but there is definitely room for improvement. As for the side characters, I was surprised by how clearly Lula and Rose, Alex’s sisters, stood out in my brain. Those two, although we see very little of them, felt like real people, especially Lula. So I’m also hoping really hard for more about them in future novels.

Another huge brownie point goes to the author for (1) making her protagonist bisexual, and (2) for making the love triangle bearable and the conclusion satisfying. The romance was very understated and felt so natural… I am so not used to this in a YA book.

So although the story itself and the journey Alex takes is by no means original, Labyrinth Lost had so many small things going for it that I didn’t mind. The creatures the protagonists meet in Los Lagos feel almost like train stations they have to pass to get to the end boss, their adventures feel quite episodic. But none of that matters when I look at the bigger picture and at the insane amount of happiness and hope this book left me with. A book that you can close with a smile on your face and happy thoughts in your brain – that’s a great book if you ask me!

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very good!

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Second opinions:

 

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Emma Donoghue – Kissing the Witch

Because of the Dumbledore’s Army readathon, my first book of the year was a fantastic and diverse read. I chose this book first because it’s short and I needed to start 2017 with a feeling of success. So, yay, for reading my first book on the first day of the year. And double-yay for it being a great read!

kissing the witchKISSING THE WITCH
by Emma Donoghue

Published by: Harper Collins, 1997
Ebook: 228 pages
Short story collection
My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence: Till she came it was all cold.

Thirteen tales are unspun from the deeply familiar, and woven anew into a collection of fairy tales that wind back through time. Acclaimed Irish author Emma Donoghue reveals heroines young and old in unexpected alliances–sometimes treacherous, sometimes erotic, but always courageous. Told with luminous voices that shimmer with sensuality and truth, these age-old characters shed their antiquated cloaks to travel a seductive new landscape, radiantly transformed. Cinderella forsakes the handsome prince and runs off with the fairy godmother; Beauty discovers the Beast behind the mask is not so very different from the face she sees in the mirror; Snow White is awakened from slumber by the bittersweet fruit of an unnamed desire.
Acclaimed writer Emma Donoghue spins new tales out of old in a magical web of thirteen interconnected stories about power and transformation and choosing one’s own path in the world. In these fairy tales, women young and old tell their own stories of love and hate, honor and revenge, passion and deception. Using the intricate patterns and oral rhythms of traditional fairy tales, Emma Donoghue wraps age-old characters in a dazzling new skin.

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Twisted fairy tales are nothing new, not even genderbent ones, so it takes a bit more to impress me. Emma Donoghue doesn’t stray too far off the path in her versions of the most famous and well-known fairy tales. She revisits Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, Rapunzel, Rumpelstilstkin, and many more. The plot doesn’t change all that and the main hook appears to be that almost all fairy tale couples end up to be two women. Whether it’s Cinderella who falls for her fairy godmother or Beauty who discovers what is really behind Beast’s mask, if there is romance, it’s between women.

But that’s not what I found so amazing (although it is wonderfully refreshing). It wasn’t even the plot or the way Donoghue tells her stories that I found extraordinary. Even the structure of this collection is a fairly obvious one. At the end of each tale, the protagonist asks another character about their tale. They tell it and at the end of their tale, they, in turn, ask a character they met about their story. And so it goes on and on until the end of the collection. This has been done many times before and it has been done with fairy tales as well, but despite that, the structure drew my attention to something amazing.

We all know fairy tales are terrible to women and children. You can either be a beautiful but vapid princess, a fairy (godmother), or a villainous, jealous, evil female antagonist. And either way, horrible things will happen to you in a fairy tale. But what I had never noticed until now is how many fairy tales, especially Donoghue’s versions, have exactly two important female characters, the two who really carry the story, never mind the prince. Without the godmother, Cinderella would never make it to the ball. Without the witch, the little mermaid would just have to live without her prince. Without the jealous mother, Snow White would have grown up like a normal child. And since each story in Emma Donoghue’s collection invariably ends with one woman asking another about her story, it becomes obvious that every fairy tale has at least two female characters who do meaningful stuff. I loved that and I am going to pay closer attention when I read my next fairy tale retellings.

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What I didn’t like so much is how carelessly these connections between tales were made. You must remember that we meet each story teller in somebody else’s story first. So the horse in The Goose Girl apparently used to be Rapunzel – which is totally fine if you use some handwavium to explain that away (I mean, come on! Different species! Yet the damn horse only tells the Rapunzel story, not how it went from woman to horse… that’s a tale I’d gladly read any day.) but Emma Donoghue never does and never even bothers to mention the gaps between fairy tales. The little “connections” between these tales may sound nice enough and be useful as a sort of bridge between single stories but they make no sense whatsoever. And that makes them feel gimmicky and cheap.

But I never intended to read this collection as one larger story. I had no trouble enjoying every tale on its own merits, and these merits are pretty good. Donoghue writes beautifully and changes tone according to the tale told and who is telling it. As with any collection, I liked certain tales better than others, but I definitely enjoyed the variety. Sometimes we see things from the princess’ point of view, sometimes the villain’s. This is neither the most beautifully written I’ve ever read, nor the most original, nor the one with the cleverest twists. But I absolutely enjoyed every page of this collection and how it puts women front and center and allows them to take back the stories which have treated them so terribly.

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very good

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Sarah Porter – Vassa in the Night

I am so glad that one of the last books I read in 2016 was this weird, atmospheric modern twist on Russian fairy tales. It’s by no means a perfect book but I fell in love with Sarah Porter’s ideas and the way she incorporates fairy tale elements into a world sort of like our own, just more magical.

vassa in the nightVASSA IN THE NIGHT
by Sarah Porter

Published by: Tor Teen, 2016
Hardcover: 296 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence: When Night looked down, it saw its own eyes staring back at it.

In the enchanted kingdom of Brooklyn, the fashionable people put on cute shoes, go to parties in warehouses, drink on rooftops at sunset, and tell themselves they’ve arrived. A whole lot of Brooklyn is like that now—but not Vassa’s working-class neighborhood.

In Vassa’s neighborhood, where she lives with her stepmother and bickering stepsisters, one might stumble onto magic, but stumbling away again could become an issue. Babs Yagg, the owner of the local convenience store, has a policy of beheading shoplifters—and sometimes innocent shoppers as well. So when Vassa’s stepsister sends her out for light bulbs in the middle of night, she knows it could easily become a suicide mission.

But Vassa has a bit of luck hidden in her pocket, a gift from her dead mother. Erg is a tough-talking wooden doll with sticky fingers, a bottomless stomach, and a ferocious cunning. With Erg’s help, Vassa just might be able to break the witch’s curse and free her Brooklyn neighborhood. But Babs won’t be playing fair…

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The nights have gotten weird in Brooklyn. Vassa and her two stepsisters all know something is up, that the nights feel too long, that although they seem to drag on forever, time itself doesn’t slow down. But something is definitely not right. When Vassa storms out on a dare and walks straight into the local BY’s – a 24 hour convenience store whose parking lot is surrounded by heads on spikes (yeah, I know), that’s when things get going.

I loved every aspect of this story. In the prelude, we learn that something happened to Night, which explains the strange way nights behave for our protagonist. In the first chapter, we meet Vassa, a wonderfully practical girl, and her doll friend, Erg. This is where I started figuring out that this was going to be a weird book. Talking dolls, a supermarket whose owner beheads shoplifters, and nobody really batting an eye? When Vassa arrives at BY’s which is also supported on huge chicken legs, the connection to the Russian folktale couldn’t be clearer. BY stands, in this case, for Babs Yagg, the old and scary owner. And because Vassa isn’t all that careful, she gets herself into a big mess and has to work for Babs for three nights… however long those last.

While I marvelled at the originality of the plot and the way Sarah Porter mixes folktale and modern Brooklyn. But there is also a lot going on under the surface. Vassa’s relationship to her doll Erg was as touching as it was strange, and until the end, I was never sure what exactly Erg was or why she was there, such a clearly magical object in Vassa’s otherwise magic-free life. As we get to know Vassa more, it also becomes clear that her family situation isn’t exactly easy. Sure, the stepsisters aren’t as bad as Cinderella’s but their family is still a broken one.

I wish I could tell you all the other little things and ideas that made this book so much fun for me, but at the same time, I want you to be as surprised as I was. Well, one thing I’ll tell you is how refreshing it was not to have some forced romance pushed onto a story that doesn’t need one. Vassa is a teenage girl and she does show interest in certain characters, but there is no relationship drama because – come on! – Vassa has no time for that shit. She has to save her neighborhood, maybe even the world, and trying to survive leaves little time for flirting or putting on fancy clothes. I LOVED THAT!

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A lot of reviews I’ve read complain about the book not making sense or the plot being too crazy. I didn’t have that impression at all. In fact, there is a beautiful internal logic to everything, although, sure, dreamwalking and speaking to dolls while working the night shift in a chicken-legged convenience store can be construed as slightly insane. And I concede that certain side characters didn’t really have a place in the story. I loved Picnic and Pangolin, I adored the swans, but like many others, I thought this would have been a better story if Bea was never mentioned. But her presence also didn’t do a lot of harm, so you know.

The one thing that I believe still hasn’t reached its potential is Porter’s language. There are already moments of greatness in Vassa in the Night, stuff you’d want to hang on your wall as an inspirational quote, but then there are also passages that weren’t impressive, just pure worksmanship. The words get the meaning across, but there’s nothing extra to them. The only reason I mention this is because I think Sarah Porter is the kind of writer who gets better with every book.  If you hadn’t guessed, I will be keeping an eye out for any new books from this author because although it wasn’t perfect, this book completely took me out of my world and into another and it’s playing with fairy tales. What more can a girl ask for, really?

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very good!

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