King Arthur Secret Society: Tracy Deonn – Legendborn

This was the group book for the #mythothon readathon that’s running throughout the month of April. I had seen this cover around, many people have recommended the book and I think it might even end up on a Lodestar shortlist (we’ll find out soon!). I’m not super excited about King Arthur retellings, but as this book focuses on other things, that turned out to be a plus for me.

legendbornLEGENDBORN
by Tracy Deonn

Published: Margaret K. McElderberry, 2020
eBook: 512 pages
Audiobook: 18 hours 54 minutes
Series: Legendborn #1
My rating: 6.5/10

Opening line: The police officer’s body goes blurry, then sharpens again.

After her mother dies in an accident, sixteen-year-old Bree Matthews wants nothing to do with her family memories or childhood home. A residential program for bright high schoolers at UNC–Chapel Hill seems like the perfect escape—until Bree witnesses a magical attack her very first night on campus.

A flying demon feeding on human energies.
A secret society of so called “Legendborn” students that hunt the creatures down.
And a mysterious teenage mage who calls himself a “Merlin” and who attempts—and fails—to wipe Bree’s memory of everything she saw.

The mage’s failure unlocks Bree’s own unique magic and a buried memory with a hidden connection: the night her mother died, another Merlin was at the hospital. Now that Bree knows there’s more to her mother’s death than what’s on the police report, she’ll do whatever it takes to find out the truth, even if that means infiltrating the Legendborn as one of their initiates.

She recruits Nick, a self-exiled Legendborn with his own grudge against the group, and their reluctant partnership pulls them deeper into the society’s secrets—and closer to each other. But when the Legendborn reveal themselves as the descendants of King Arthur’s knights and explain that a magical war is coming, Bree has to decide how far she’ll go for the truth and whether she should use her magic to take the society down—or join the fight.

divider1

Bree Matthews is a young Black student who gets to go to UNC-Chapel Hill in an Early College program. Her very first night on campus turns out to be rather exciting, not because of some student party (although there is that) but because she witnesses things that shouldn’t be possible. Selwin Kane, a young and decidedly too handsome student, seems to be wiping people’s memories. Oh and let’s not forget that shimmery magical demon-thing that tries to attack people and is shot down by another student’s arrow – because who doesn’t carry bow and arrow with them when they go to a party? Needless to say, it’s all a bit much for Bree.
Add to this craziness that her mother died only a few months earlier, she seems to be the only Black girl on campus, and even her best friend notices that she hasn’t been the same since her mom’s death.

This novel was not what I expected. Sure, on the surface it’s your very average YA demon hunting secret society book (Clare’s Shadowhunters come to mind, or Buffy the Vampire Slayer when we’re looking at TV). Sure, the secret society is based on the legend of King Arthur, which is new (at least to me), but if that had been all this story was about, I would have been mostly bored and unimpressed. But Tracy Deonn is a Black writer who put a lot of her own experience into this book and it shows.

Not only does Bree deal with the most casual and blatant racism you can imagine, she’s also dealing with grief. Except she doesn’t know how to deal with it and that makes her feel incredibly real and lovable. These were my two favorite aspects of Legendborn but it takes a while to get there. The racism is there right from the start but Tracy Deonn doesn’t just show us the way the university’s dean or a random cop assume things about Bree based on nothing but the color of her skin, she goes much further, exploring the past and the history of the college. Whether it’s a slave owner’s statue that’s standing right there on campus or Bree’s family history, I loved how we got to see different aspects of the Black experience. That sounds strange because, as you can probably imagine, that experience isn’t exactly a nice one, but I hope you know what I mean. It fleshed out the world and gave the characters more depth, it made everything feel a bit more real.

My second favorite part – the way loss and grief is talked about and handled – didn’t appeal to me immediately. In fact, at the very start of the book, I must have missed somehow that Bree’s mother’s death wasn’t all that long ago. I was a bit surprised that Bree kept thinking about herself as a numb person who shuts out all emotions because she was After-Bree and her mother’s death had impacted her so much. I’m sure it was inattention on my part, but I kind of thought her mother had been dead for several years, so I didn’t get why the pain still felt so raw to her.
But I got it after a while and that’s when I started appreciating how Deonn described Bree’s pain and the way she tries to handle it – by shutting it out mostly. Although no person feels the same when they lose someone, I did understand Bree. And there was a moment in the last third of the book that managed to make me cry.

But this book isn’t only some exploration of difficult themes, quite the opposite. On a surface level, it’s an adventure Urban Fantasy story about demon hunters and magic. Plus, the obligatory teen romance.
The whole secret society of the Order was probably the weakest aspect of this book. The society is comprised of people who can trace their bloodlines back to King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. One special person is “the Merlin” and he can use magic like nobody else. Other than hunting and killing the demons that occasionally invade our world, these people do what most other secret societies do. They make sure they have the power and keep it, they hate outsiders, they’re mostly racist and classist, and they live by strict rules that includes oaths and use of magic and a lot of other stuff.
My problem with it was that this particular Order could have been based on anything other than King Arthur and it still would have worked. Sure, each knight’s Scion is granted some special abilities based on what the original knight was like but that doesn’t really have any impact on the plot. Don’t get me wrong, it was still fun to learn about how the Order works, it just doesn’t have much to do with the legend of King Arthur other than the names and/or titles. So depending on what you’re looking for when you pick up this book, you might be in for a disappointment.

I don’t have too much more to say about this book. I enjoyed the characters, although the side characters could definitely be more fleshed-out. Bree was a fantastic protagonist, some of the other more important characters also felt believable and three-dimensional, but the side characters were mostly cardboard cutouts who only existed to further the plot whenever needed.
The plot wasn’t as twisty as I was led to believe by other reviewers, but there are a couple of good surprises in there. I didn’t see either of them coming at all, and that’s exactly how I like it. The main antagonist of this book was a bit on the nose. This moustache-twirling one-track-mind baddie could have been done better, but as this is only book one in a trilogy/series, the true villain is still afoot. Maybe they’ll have a bit more to offer.
The writing was enjoyable and the book was quick to read. The ending almost felt a bit too rounded off. Sure, there are some questions left open, I see a love triangle coming up (hopefully, I’m wrong), and there’s still evil to fight. But this part of the story is done, we get a satisfying conclusion and I am quite happy with how things ended. I don’t see myself jumping on the second part of this series but I absolutely want to read more by Tracy Deonn.

MY RATING: 6.5/10 – Good

They Grow Up So Fast: Tamora Pierce – In the Hand of the Goddess

Although it wasn’t without its issues, I had a lot of fun re-reading Alanna: The First Adventure, the first book in Tamora Pierce’s beloved Song of the Lioness quartet. When I jumped right into the second book, I found it even more readable than the first – meaning I would have finished it in one sitting, had life not interrupted me. But the title for this review is only half in jest. The other half is honest criticism for the crazy pacing.

in the hand of the goddessIN THE HAND OF THE GODDESS
by Tamora Pierce

Published: Simon Pulse, 1984
Paperback: 264 pages
Series: Song of the Lioness #2
My rating: 6/10

Opening line: The copper-haired rider looked at the black sky and swore.

Disguised as a boy, Alanna of Trebond becomes a squire, to none other than the prince of the realm. But Prince Jonathan is much more to Alanna; he is her ally, her best friend, and one of the few who knows that she’s really a girl. Now it will take all of Alanna’s awesome skill, strength, and growing magical powers to protect him from the mysterious evil sorcerer who is bent on his destruction, and hers!
Here continues the story of Alanna, a young woman bound for glory who is willing to fight against enormous odds for what she believes in.

The story picks up about a year after the first book ended and mostly keeps up the series’ breakneck pace. But the writing has matured a bit and Tamora Pierce tried out a few new things in this book. First of all, she takes more time describing individual scenes, making the reading experience more immersive and the world of Tortall a bit more vivid. Secondly, we get glimpses into other POVs! I was positively surprised that we read about the antagonist early on. Although it was obvious from the first book, until his POV we didn’t really get a confirmation that Roger, Duke of Conté is the bad guy who’s trying to take the throne. As villains go, he’s not the most original but he has a lot of patience, I have to give him that.

The story opens with Alanna meeting the Goddess who promptly gives her a magical rock pendant (let’s all wonder if that will be important later). We are also introduced to Alanna’s new feline companion, Faithful, who stole my heart immediately because… well he’s a cat and he’s probably magical and also super smart. And then it’s back to Alanna aka Squire Alan’s life which still consists of training and doing squire-y things but now also includes potential romance.

And this is where my problems with the book begin. Alanna may be a great protagonist for kids to identify with because she is defined purely by her wish to become a knight. Otherwise, she’s pretty blank which makes certain decisions of hers difficult to understand. When George, her thieving friend, declares his love for her, for example, she says she doesn’t want romance and isn’t interested in anything other than being a knight and going on adventures. Okay, that’s cool, I guess. But then a second love intrested comes out and Alanna just goes for it. Towards the end of the book, there is one little dialogue that explores this behaviour and makes more sense of it, but up until that moment, Alanna just comes across as very inconsistent. And because everything in this series is so simplistic, this very real and believable behaviour of a teenage girl just doesn’t work.

The plot is similarly episodic and fast-paced as it was in the first book. Years pass between chapters without it every really feeling like a lot of time has passed. Alanna and her friends even go to war briefly, she’s dreading the upcoming Ordeal – a sort of exam after which she will be a proper knight – and her friends’ reaction when she reveals that she is not, in fact, Alan of Trebond, but Alanna. Things move along so fast that I couldn’t tell you what age Alanna was when they went to war, or when she had her first sexual experience. It’s all a big jumble.
I did enjoy that Alanna’s twin brother, Thom, becomes a more important character in this book. And I suspect he will become even more important in the next instalment. He may even have been the most interesting character here because he is so changed from the 11-year-old boy we met in the first book.

So I didn’t find this book in any way groundbreaking and the writing, although improved, is still very flawed. But I will continue the series because now is when things get really interesting. With Alanna’s training over, it’s anyone’s guess where she will got, what adventures she’ll encounter, and whether (and with whom) she’ll end up if indeed she chooses a romantic partner after all.
I’d recommend this for people looking for a (very) quick and light read without any real surprises but with characters that are easy to like. Bonus points for Faithful, the cat. 🙂

MY RATING: 6/10 – Good

So Begins the Song of the Lioness: Tamora Pierce – Alanna: The First Adventure

I think I must have been around fifteen or sixteen when I first read this book but I sadly never continued the series. There aren’t many things about it I still remembered but one was that it was the first fantasy book I read that mentions menstruation and the second was that I really liked it. No matter how long it’s been, I still want to finish the Song of the Lioness series and in order to refresh my memory, I thought I’d simply re-read the first book. Well done, me!

ALANNA: THE FIRST ADVENTURE
by Tamora Pierce

Published: Simon Pulse, 1983
Paperback: 274 pages
Series: Song of the Lioness #1
My rating: 7/10

Opening line: “That is my decision. We need not discuss it,” said the man at the desk. He was already looking at a book. 

From now on I’m Alan of Trebond, the younger twin. I’ll be a knight.
And so young Alanna of Trebond begins the journey to knighthood. Though a girl, Alanna has always craved the adventure and daring allowed only for boys; her twin brother, Thom, yearns to learn the art of magic. So one day they decide to switch places: Thom heads for the convent to learn magic; Alanna, pretending to be a boy, is on her way to the castle of King Roald to begin her training as a page.
But the road to knighthood is not an easy one. As Alanna masters the skills necessary for battle, she must also learn to control her heart and to discern her enemies from her allies.
Filled with swords and sorcery, adventure and intrigue, good and evil, Alanna’s first adventure begins – one that will lead to the fulfillment of her dreams and the magical destiny that will make her a legend in her land.

There’s something very comforting about picking up a childhood favorite, a book so clearly written for kids that it just lets you relax while you read it. I mean, in the first few pages, Alanna and her twin brother Thom are introduced, decide they are going to switch places because Alanna wants to be a knight and Thom wants to be a sorcerer (their father had different plans) and they see a vision in the fire of the local sorceress promising adventures to come. A lot happens very fast and there is little description but tons of dialogue.

So Alanna cuts her hair, blackmails/convinces Coram, her blacksmith/swordsmaster, to keep her secret and help her out once they’re in the capital, and the adventure begins. Something that fascinated me was how the writing matures over the course of the book, though. Where things happen very, very quickly at first – Alanna arrives at the castle, meets her fellow students, immediately makes an enemy and some friends – things take a bit longer later on. Time moves quickly at first, almost like a montage of Alanna’s everyday life as a page, but then, gradually, more and more scenes come up that the readers can fall into a bit more. These moments let us get to know the characters better and experience Alanna’s emotions more fully. It’s almost like the book starts extremely fast-paced to keep the (young) reader interested and then, once we’re hooked, slowly begins to take its time exploring the world and characters and plot. To me this meant that I enjoyed reading more and more the further along I got and that’s definitely something I can get behind.

I also noticed that the lack of flowery description meant my own brain had to work harder and I had to use my imagination if I wanted to “see” what someone’s clothes looked like or how a room was furnished. Turns out, I really missed that! Fantasy books these days are so well thought out, with perfect world building and clear rules that they often leave little for the readers’ imaginations to fill in. Tamora Pierce’s book is the opposite. You get a character’s hair and eye color, their general body shape (tall, short, muscular, skinny, etc.) but other than that, it’s all up to you what people and places look like.

The one thing I had remembered from my first read and which struck me again this time was that this children’s fantasy book mentions menstruation and just… deals with it. Alanna is pretending to be a boy, which is hard enough when the boys go swimming, but it gets even harder when her monthy cycle begins. What with the twins’ disinterested father and dead mother, nobody told Alanna that her body would change this way, so her first reaction is panic and shame. A trusted woman then explains to her in very simple an straightforward terms what’s up and how Alanna can deal with it. Alanna may be outraged at the annoyance her period poses but she takes it in stride, just like she does all the challenges her life as a page poses.

This book doesn’t really have a big overarching plot but rather sets up everything for the rest of the series. Alanna goes through the rigorous training to become a page, then a squire, then a knight. She makes some friends – among them the charming King of Thieves George, the Prince Jonathan, and her fellow students. She also has to use her magic, altough she doesn’t like it. Which adds another fantasy element to this secondary world novel. Although the magic isn’t explained super well, I love that it’s immediately clear that it has a cost. When a terrible sickness sweeps over the capital, the healers are soon exhausted and get sick themselves because using their magic for healing takes a toll on their own bodies.

My Thoughts Literally!: Series Review: The Song of the Lioness Quartet by  Tamora Pierce

One aspect that I definitely didn’t notice or think about when I read this as a teenager was how the whole “girl pretending to be a boy” thing would feel if a trans person read it. This is a well-known and beloved trope that creates tension and sometimes funny moments, but Alanna is often annoyed at her changing body, her breasts growing, her period starting, and expresses that she’d rather not be a girl because it complicates everything. She is then told in no uncertain terms that she has to accept her body as it is and just learn to live with it. Tamora Pierce probably didn’t have any big thoughts about trans kids reading this because, well, I don’t believe that this was talked about a lot in the early 1980s, but it did make me, reading this in 2021, think about it. I’m not sure hwat kind of a message this book sends to trans children so I would probably think twice about gifting it to one.

At the end of the book, a sort of mini-adventure/side quest happens that is over as quickly as it begins but serves to set up the villain for the next book(s). In general, most chapters are almost self-contained and tell their own little story. Despite the episodic nature and super fast pace, I had so much fun reading this. As I said, the fact that the language does evolve a bit helped. I also liked that we follow Alanna through several years of her life and watch her grow up, all within the matter of 270 pages. As I write this, I’m already halfway through the second book which I can tell you reads much more grown-up, offers new POVs and takes more time telling the story. It may not be a groundbreaking middle grade series for our age, but boy, is it great to help me out of a reading slump and race through books like I did when I was a child myself.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

The Song of the Lioness:

  1. Alanna: The First Adventure
  2. In the Hand of The Goddess
  3. The Woman Who Rides Like a Man
  4. Lioness Rampant

Religion on the Discworld: Terry Pratchett – Small Gods

Ah, Discworld! Going back for another adventure is like coming home to a comfortable bed after a long trip. I’m still saving up my unread Discworld novels but after one year of pandemic, various lockdowns, vaccination frustration (mainly because I’m still unvaccinated and the world is a corrupt shithole that would rather save rich people than the ones most vulnerable), it was time for a comfort read. A book I knew would make me smile and give me back some hope in humanity. Enter Terry Pratchett.

SMALL GODS
by Terry Pratchett

Published: Corgi, 1992
Paperback: 400 pages
Series: Discworld #13
My rating: 8.5/10

Opening line: Now consider the tortoise and the eagle.

‘Just because you can’t explain it, doesn’t mean it’s a miracle.’

In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was: ‘Hey, you!’ This is the Discworld, after all, and religion is a controversial business. Everyone has their own opinion, and indeed their own gods, of every shape and size, and all elbowing for space at the top. In such a competitive environment, shape and size can be pretty crucial to make one’s presence felt. So it’s certainly not helpful to be reduced to appearing in the form of a tortoise, a manifestation far below god-like status in anyone’s book.

In such instances, you need an acolyte, and fast: for the Great God Om, Brutha the novice is the Chosen One – or at least the only One available. He wants peace and justice and brotherly love. He also wants the Inquisition to stop torturing him now, please…

Terry Pratchett’s writing always gives me warm and fuzzy feelings and somehow manages to regrow my hope in humanity. I have read just over half of the Discworld novels and with every one I finish, I get a bit sadder that there are fewer left I haven’t discovered yet. Then again, Discworld is not only re-readable but practically begging to be re-read because there are always references and jokes and little asides that you don’t get on your first read. What I’m saying is I am so grateful for Terry Pratchett and his books and this one is giving me a major book hangover and I want to just continue reading Discworld for the forseeable future.

As the title suggests, this book deals with religion on the Disc, specifically with Omnianism (at least at the beginning). We follow young Brutha, a novice at the Citadel, who has no aspirations to become anything higher than that because he has no aspirations at all. He is perfectly happy doing the jobs nobody else wants to do because he is secure in his faith and knows that somebody’s got to sweep the floor and pull out the weeds in the garden. People think he is slow or even stupid when in reality, Brutha is just quite and not particularly eloquent. He is alsounbearbly honest and people just don’t know how to handle that. When, one day, an eagle drops a tortoise into the Citadel garden where Brutha is working, and said tortoise turns out to be the Great God Om who immediately curses Brutha and everyone else who comes near him, things change. Brutha is the only one who can hear the tortoise-who-says-he’s-a-god and Om realizes that his mighty smiting powers aren’t what they used to be. In fact, no smiting is happening at all, no matter how hard Om tries.

Om, Brutha, and we readers are confronted with a mystery. Omnia is, after all, an entire country built on Omnianism, the belief in the One True God Om and his Teachings. Everybody prays to Om, there are priests and high priests and even a Quisition that takes care of non-believers in their own way (you have one guess). And since gods get their strength from the number of people who believe in them, Om should be perfectly able to do all the smiting he wants. And also to take a more elegant animal shape. Bulls or swans come to mind, so why is he stuck as a tortoise, the least dignified creature imaginable?
You’ve got to love Terry Pratchett for putting complex Roundworld ideas and concepts onto the Discworld and making them not only interesting but also funny. It becomes obvious very quickly that belonging to the church in some way does not equal believing in Om. Whether it’s fear of the Quisition and its terrifying leader Vorbis, or simply not thinking about it too hard and just doing what everyone else is doing (saying the prayer but not feeling it, and so on) – rituals and words may have originated from belief but they can very well exist without belief.

As with any Discworld novel, there are myriad little jokes and references, many of which I surely missed. But I did giggle at “Fedecks, the Messenger of the Gods” and the very familiar but slightly different Cut-Me-Own-Hand-Off Dhblah. Brutha and Om form a sort of friendship by necessity. Om realizes that he better hold on to the one true believer he has and Brutha is just a good guy who’s always willing to help. I came to care about Brutha so damn much and it goes to show again what a masterful storyteller Terry Pratchett was. Here you have a character who is presented as slow, whom others consider unintelligent, but who has the purest of hearts! And as is often the case with people who are underestimated, there is more to him than meets the eye. Because although he may not be able to read or write, Brutha has an excellent memory and can recite any of the great books written by Om’s prophets.
Brutha’s abilities are soon noticed by Vorbis, head of the Quisition, and he decides to take Brutha on a trip to Ephebe, the neighbouring country where many gods are worshipped. On this journey, we don’t just see the relationhip between Brutha and Om grow, we see a lot of charachter growth in general. Om is coming to terms with his own past actions and his frail existence as a (now) small god, Brutha is learning that church and belief aren’t the same thing, and Vorbis… well, Vorbis is the type of villain who is easy to hate and even easier to fear, mostly because he is so realistic!

[…]That on the whole, and by and large, if a man lived properly, not according to what any priests said, but according to what seemed decent and honest inside, then it would, at the end, more or less, turn out all right.

Humor is super subjective, we all know that. But there must be something about Terry Pratchett that almost everyone likes. Maybe it’s that he does so many different types of humor. There’s puns, there’s situational humor, there are funny lines and jokes, and there’s the comparison to our world that can make you laugh. So even if you hate puns, there’s still plenty of other funny stuff for you to enjoy. I’m someone who can be left quite cold when authors try their hand at quippy banter (or let’s say I only like a very particular type of quippy banter) but I giggled a lot throughout this book! I did laugh at the puns, I grinned at the references I got (someone shouting “Eureka!” and someone else asking if they’re going to take a bath), I laughed at Om’s outrage at being a tortoise

Bishops move diagonally. That’s why they often turn up where the kings don’t expect them to be.

The theme of this book is religion, or rather organized religion versus true faith, and how the two are not the same thing. But dealing only with religion, corrupt priests, in/exquisitors, and misguided novices, isn’t enough for Terry Pratchett. In Ephebe, things get rather philosophical. Meeting Didactylos (the Discworld’s Diogenes) and Urn was so much fun. Through these two, something that looks a lot like our Greek philosphy turns up on the Discworld, and through Urn’s interest in mechanics and playing around with steam, you can see the first hints of an industrial revolution. And adding the atheist soldier Simony into the mix gives a nice rounded picture of the diversity of belief. Because although this book is very funny, Terry Pratchett never makes fun of religion or people who believe. He doesn’t judge faith, he only judges those who misuse it for their own personal gain, who pretend to believe in order to have power over others.

But the thing that always, always gets me most with Terry Pratchett is his characters and his deep insight into humanity. I cannot tell you how much I love Brutha and how he grew on me over the course of this story. I’ve made this book sound like it’s full of talk about religion and gods and philosophy, but don’t worry, there is also a rather exciting plot. Apart from Brutha’s journey to Ephebe (on a ship!), there is also a trip through the desert – as befits the theme of the novel – and a thrilling climax. There’s lots of danger and moments that made me hold my breath, mostly because I feared for Brutha and, occasionally, for Om.
I held back tears on several occiasions, especially when Brutha realizes something ugly about the world. Because what he does after that realization is understand that, while other people may be greedy and ruthless, that’s now what he is like. So even when he has the chance to let a properly evil person die, he won’t do it. Why? Because it’s not right!

I think every reader of the Discworld novels has their favorite sub-series (mine is the Witches). This book is a standalone, meaning there will be no more stories about Brutha or the other characters. That doesn’t mean that some familiar characters don’t show up. Some of you may remember a certain History Monk named Lu-Tze and – of course – Death himself. I am a little sad that this is the only book with Brutha I’ll ever get to read but it was so impactful and so much fun that I don’t doubt I will re-read it someday. And now I’ll curl up and nurse my book hangover while poring over my Discworld Mapp and maybe cooking something from Nanny Ogg’s cook book.

MY RATING: 8.5/10 – Bloody excellent!

So That’s Why They Call it Grimdark: Joe Abercrombie – Last Argument of Kings

Finishing series is so satisfying that I thought I’d get right on it again in 2021. Picking this chunky tome led to some serious review delay but was also so much fun that I can’t begrudge Abercrombie any of his 670 pages. I said I’d read this book soon after the second book but that was one of those book blogger lies that we like to tell ourselves. 🙂
It’s been 6 years since I read Before They Are Hanged. But I guess better late than never, right? Especially when the ending is such a bombastic, fun thrill-ride!

LAST ARGUMENT OF KINGS
by Joe Abercrombie

Published: Gollancz, 2008
Paperback: 670 pages
Series: The First Law #3
My rating: 7.75/10

Opening line: Superior Glokta stood in the hall, and waited. 

The end is coming.

Logen Ninefingers might only have one more fight in him – but it’s going to be a big one. Battle rages across the North, the King of the Northmen still stands firm, and there’s only one man who can stop him. His oldest friend, and his oldest enemy. It’s past time for the Bloody-Nine to come home.
With too many masters and too little time, Superior Glokta is fighting a different kind of war. A secret struggle in which no-one is safe, and no-one can be trusted. His days with a sword are far behind him. It’s a good thing blackmail, threats and torture still work well enough.
Jezal dan Luthar has decided that winning glory is far too painful, and turned his back on soldiering for a simple life with the woman he loves. But love can be painful too, and glory has a nasty habit of creeping up on a man when he least expects it.
While the King of the Union lies on his deathbead, the peasants revolt and the nobles scramble to steal his crown. No-one believes that the shadow of war is falling across the very heart of the Union. The First of the Magi has a plan to save the world, as he always does. But there are risks. There is no risk more terrible, after all, than to break the First Law…

If you’ve read the first two books in the First Law Trilogy, you already know that Joe Abercrombie is great at writing characters but not so great when it comes to plot. The second book especially was about a quest that led to… nothing. Sure, you could argue that he was using fantasy tropes and turning them on their head but it’s also not very satisfying for a reader to follow a group of misfits on a Super Important Quest and then return home empty-handed. Which is exactly what happened and which is also where this final book picks up again.

Any lack of plot in the first two books (at least concerning some of the story lines) is gone now. Whether you follow Collem West, Dogman and his crew, Sand dan Glokta (oh, how I love Glokta!), Logen Ninefingers, Jezal dan Luthar, or Ferro Maljinn – they each have stories that clearly move forward and even have some spectecular exciting action sequences. Obviously, I can’t spoil any of them but while some are more epic than others, you can expect Big Things to happen for each of our main and secondary characters.

Which leads me, yet again, to my favorite part about this book and this series and Joe Abercrombie’s writing. His characters, while certainly not always lovable, are so life-like and believable that it’s honestly just fun hanging out with them even if they end up doing nothing (like in book 2 for example). The way he flawlessly changes voice and style creates this atmosphere that comes with each character. Logen’s repeated phrase “Say one thing about Logen Ninefingers” for example, or the way Ferro calls white people “pinks”, Jezal’s almost boyish naiveté and, of course, Glokta’s sarcastic thoughts – they are all pretty simple devices if you think about it, but they are so effective. You open the book at any page and you know immediately which character you’re following.

And that’s just me appreciating the craft of it. What really stole my heart are the characters themselves which is a feat in an of itself. Because, let’s face it, they aren’t just “not perfect”, they each do things that are pretty despicable or at the very least morally questionable. My, and everyone else’s, favorite Sand dan Glokta is a torturer, let’s not forget that. Other people’s pain leaves him cold, maybe because he is in constant pain himself, but that shouldn’t excuse his lack of empathy but rather increase his compassion. It doesn’t, because although I love him dearly, he really isn’t a good person!
On the other hand, Jezal dan Luthar, that arrogant, self-absorbed, prancing moron, actually grew on me. The events of the second book did one thing – they made him want to become a better person. The quibbles I had with his sudden change don’t apply here because we clearly see that he wants to be better, we also see him struggling and not immediately doing it. His reunion with Ardee West which happens early on in the book didn’t go at all how I expected and neither of the two acted in a way I saw coming. I like when books surpsise me and when characters seem to have a mind of their own. Even if I don’t agree with that mind.
I also found a new appreciation for Logen in this book. Up until now I thought of his inner struggle and his self-castigation as just a thing he does because he “has a dark past” or whatever. From what we’ve seen of him so far, he’s actually a decent guy who just happens to get into terrible situations that often require killing in order to get out alive. In Last Argument of Kings, however, we see a different side of Logen, one that puts this series firmly in the grimdark subgenre.

As I mentioned already, this book brings all the plot that didn’t happen in the previous ones. There’s a lot of war, several epic battles, sieges, court intrigue, marriages of convenience, secrets that come to life, yearlong plans that come to fruition (or failure, depending on your perspective), and of course magic.
The magic system, if you want to call it that, is probably the series’ weakest aspect but I don’t think Abercrombie even wanted to create a magic system like Sanderson does. That’s not the focus of these books. I also enjoy when magic is something wild and uncontrollable, when it can’t be quantified or put in a neat table where spell X does Y and so on. That’s a little what it feels like here. Maybe there are rules to this magic, but they are so beyond the characters that we, the readers, definitely can’t make sense of it. Depending on what you want from a fantasy book, this may put you off. There is little enough magic as is and what little there is doesn’t make sense. But it looks cool. 🙂

Now I’d really like to talk a little about the ending but I have a no spoiler policy here, so this may not make much sense to people who haven’t read the book. The various plot strings lead to endings of very different kinds. You could say some characters’ stories end mostly well, others really bad, others somewhere in between. What you can’t say is that this book has an overall Happy Ending and I was glad about that. It would not have fit with the tone of these books and Abercrombie’s Lord Grimdark title. But I do have to say that I found certain parts quite unsatisfying.
Some characters reach a sort of point that feels like an end, but it is clear that for them it’s only one further step in their lives and things may still go to shit later. Other characters we just leave mid-story with hints of what’s to come next for them but no clear answers as to what actually happens. I both liked and disliked that. I loved how real it made this book feel. After all, when people disappear from our lives, that’s exactly what it’s like. You may not have seen your school friends since graduation and you may know what they planned to do with their lives but you have no idea what they actually did with their lives. I think my slight dissatisfaction stems from the way fiction tends to be written. We are so used to nicely wrapped up tales that end at a well-rounded point in a character’s life that any deviation from that norm grates somehow.
The overall ending, by which I mean the way this fictional world is left when we close the book, also felt like a lesson. Even if I tried to spoil it, I couldn’t exactly tell you whether I consider it a good or a bad ending. It’s as morally ambiguous as the characters and it doesn’t feel like an end.

Although this is a big book that took me quite a while to read, I enjoyed myself the entire time. There was a part, somewhere in the second half, that dragged on a bit and gave me the feeling that things just weren’t moving along at all. But other than that, there’s not much to complain. It’s been too long since I read the first two books in the trilogy but at least from my general memories of them, I think Joe Abercrombie has developed a whole lot between these books and I will continue reading what he writes. I hope his newer books feature more female characters and ones with a broader variety of personality.
But when I’m next in the mood for a grimdark world where everyone could stab you in the back, where things generally turn out the worst way possible, and where you can find yourself liking a ruthless torturer, I’ll be sure to pick up my next Abercrombie.

MY RATING: 7.75/10 – Very, very good!

The First Law Trilogy:

  1. The Blade Itself
  2. Before They Are Hanged
  3. Last Argument of Kings

Indian-Inspired Fantasy With Strong Characters: Tasha Suri – Empire of Sand

The days of alternate Medieval Europe as the one and only setting for the fantasy genre are well and truly over. The last decade has brought us increasingly diverse fantasy stories told by equally diverse people whose voices feel so fresh and new because they were left unheard for so long. Tasha Suri is only one among those voices but she demands to be heard. Her debut novel Empire of Sand was so good, you guys!

EMPIRE OF SAND
by Tasha Suri

Published: Orbit, 2018
eBook: 402 pages
Series: The Books of Ambha #1
My rating: 7.5/10

Opening line: Mehr woke to a soft voice calling her name.

A nobleman’s daughter with magic in her blood. An empire built on the dreams of enslaved gods. Empire of Sand is Tasha Suri’s captivating, Mughal India-inspired debut fantasy.

The Amrithi are outcasts; nomads descended of desert spirits, they are coveted and persecuted throughout the Empire for the power in their blood. Mehr is the illegitimate daughter of an imperial governor and an exiled Amrithi mother she can barely remember, but whose face and magic she has inherited.

When Mehr’s power comes to the attention of the Emperor’s most feared mystics, she must use every ounce of will, subtlety, and power she possesses to resist their cruel agenda — and should she fail, the gods themselves may awaken seeking vengeance…

Empire of Sand is a lush, dazzling fantasy novel perfect for readers of City of Brass and The Wrath & the Dawn.

There’s a reason Tasha Suri was nominated for an Astounding Award for Best New Writer and everybody seems to love her. It’s because she’s a damn good writer who effortlessly created a Mughal India-inspired fantasy world that feels fresh but still familiar enough for fans of fantasy tropes to enjoy.

Mehr lives a privileged but difficult life. Her father is a wealthy nobleman but her mother – now exiled – belonged to the Amrithi, a nomad people that is outcast from the rest of  society. They are seen as a sort of witches who are, at the same time, looked down upon and feared. For when the daiva come, it is the Amrithi whose blood can keep them at bay.
I fell completely and utterly in love with the world of this novel during the first few chapters. Through Mehr’s eyes, we are introduced not only to the Empire itself but also to some of its societal intricacies. Mehr is called to her little sister Arwa’s room because a daiva (a spirit) is scaring her. With confidence and grace, Mehr handles the situation and shows us not only how competent she is but also how deep her love for her little sister runs and how difficult her life is. Because the girls’ stepmother doesn’t want Arwa to grow up learning about her mother’s culture and beliefs. While it’s too late to keep Mehr from following “heathen” rituals, the younger sister can still be “saved”.

The plot kicks off when Mehr is married off to a man for the usual reasons. Political power, being rid off the half-Amrithi girl, you know the deal. But when Mehr is picked up by the Empire’s mystics and meets her future husband Amun, she soon learns that there is way more to her impening union than meets the eye. Her Amrithi heritage is not only knowing and performing certain rites, or even having special blood that can keep dangerous daiva at bay. And if Mehr doesn’t want to be used by power-hungry people, she and Amun will have to come up with something fast!

Although I wouldn’t consider certain aspects of this book as a spoiler, I am keeping things very vague for those of you who like to be completely surprised. Because let me tell you, this book has a few good surprises up its sleeve.
I loved most things about this story, so I’ll start with the one  I found the weakest: the plot. It starts out well enough, promising an exploration of a rich world with several cultures juxtaposed, societal norms, and a killer premise (force marriage and leaving a beloved sister behind!). Then comes a plot twist and after than, unfortunately, follows a bit of a dragging middle part. At the end, the plot picked up again but it was fairly predictable what would happen. So I was most intrigued at the very beginning. The kind of intrigued where you think about the book constantly when you can’t read it. After the main story was all set up, however, I lost a bit of interest. I still enjoyed reading the book when I picked it up but that urge to go read immediately when I get the chance was gone. Buuuut that was only one aspect of this book and literally everything else about it was phenomenal.

Possibly my favorite thing was the world buildling. Granted, I’m a sucker for non-European settings in fantasy, so I’m easy to please. But, Tasha Suri does more than just set her story in South Asia and give her characters Indian-inspired names. She built an entire world that feels real and lived-in, like it has centures of history that we don’t get to read about but whose influence and impact we feel on the page. I especially loved how easy it was to learn about the differences between Mehr’s Amrithi culture and the predominant cultures and/or beliefs in the Empire. Although they’re not described in great detail, it’s clear that different areas of the Empire aren’t all the same. Just like any kingdom/empire/country large enough, its people aren’t one big homogenous mass but each area has its own little rites, fashions, and behaviours.
I was super impressed how well the world came to life in this debut novel!

Adding to that, Tasha Suri also writes fantastic characters. I was immediately rooting for Mehr, not only because of her bond to her little sister and her strong wish to keep her mother’s heritage alive inside herself, but also because she is mentally strong, hopeful despite the odds, and loyal to a fault. The man she’s supposed to marry, Amun, may come across as gruff at first but at least I found it obvious from the start that there is more to him than you may think at first. His character was a lot of fun to read because his personality slowly unfolded over the course of the story. I really liked him and getting to know him better and better was a joy.
But even side characters, ones that appear only fleeingly and ones that recur, feel like proper human beings with their own hopes and wishes and that’s something that many debut authors struggle with. Many manage to write a compelling protagonist but forget that the other characters are supposed to be three-dimensional, too. Not so Tasha Suri. Even the somewhat tropey “evil stepmother” character didn’t come across like a cliché but rather like someone who means well and is doing her best, in her own (maybe narrow-minded) world. Even though she doesn’t get a lot of time on the page, having this kind of side character makes the entire book so much more compelling.

And after all that praise I haven’t even mentioned the magic yet. I won’t say much about it because discovering how it works is part of the plot and even more part of Mehr’s character growth. But to give you an idea of what to expect: This is not a neat Sanderson-style magic system where every move has exactly one outcome and things feel almost mathematical. It’s the kind of wild magic that refuses to be controlled, that doesn’t always make logical sense (because duh, it’s magic!) but that feels all the more exciting for it. I particularly liked that this magic is performed not through spells or brewing something up, but rather through movement of body. Tasha Suri described her magic well enough to convey it as dance-like but left enough room for the imagination. I sometimes saw the rites as a dance, sometimes as a sort of yoga flow, but it’s definitely something I haven’t seen done before and that’s always a plus.

I picked this book up because I was excited for Tasha Suri’s upcoming The Jasmine Throne and didn’t want to wait until June to sample her writing. Plus, when she was nominated for an Astounding Award, I didn’t get to this book and have felt a bit guilty ever since. Now at least I know that her nomination was more than deserved and I may just read Realm of Ash, the companion novel, before diving into her newest work.

MY RATING:  7.5/10 – Very, very good!

Mysteries, Colonialism, and Revolution: Andrea Stewart – The Bone Shard Daughter

Whenever a book is surrounded by lot of hype, I get suspicious but it also depends on what kind of hype we’re talking about. If the hype starts well before publication date, it’s likely just good marketing and may lead to disappointment on my part when actually reading the book. BUT if the hype begins slowly, building up more and more as more people read the book,  then that’s probably because it’s a good book that appeals to a great many people. In the case of The Bone Shard Daughter, I believe the hype is honest and comes from readers’ true feelings rather than a well-oiled marketing machine, although the latter definitely helped.
Long story short: This is a book everybody seems to love and I am part of everybody now.

THE BONE SHARD DAUGHTER
by Andrea Stewart

Published: Orbit, 2020
eBook: 438 pages
Audiobook: 13 hours 44 minutes
Series: The Drowning Empire #1
My rating: 7.5/10

Opening line: Father told me I’m broken.

In an empire controlled by bone shard magic, Lin, the former heir to the emperor will fight to reclaim her magic and her place on the throne.
The emperor’s reign has lasted for decades, his mastery of bone shard magic powering the animal-like constructs that maintain law and order. But now his rule is failing, and revolution is sweeping across the Empire’s many islands.
Lin is the emperor’s daughter and spends her days trapped in a palace of locked doors and dark secrets. When her father refuses to recognise her as heir to the throne, she vows to prove her worth by mastering the forbidden art of bone shard magic.
Yet such power carries a great cost, and when the revolution reaches the gates of the palace, Lin must decide how far she is willing to go to claim her birthright – and save her people.

This was exactly the kind of fun, thoughtful, epic SFF I had been hoping to get based on the buzz surrounding it. It has everything you could want from a fantasy novel, although I am still confused about it being shelved as YA on Goodreads. If fast-paced equals YA these days, then I guess okay, but other than that, the only reason I can see is that it was written by a woman and I had hoped we’ve come far enough to understand that women don’t automatically write YA… Oh well, whatever you want to call it The Bone Shard Daughter is amazing. Let me tell you why.

It is set in an archipelago ruled by an Emperor whose family is the only one that can use bone shard magic. With this magic, he can create constructs – animal-like creatures with his will embedded in them – that can do anything from run the country to serve in a construct army. The magic works with bone shards (duh) that are inscribed with a command which is then inserted into the construct, which in turn has to follow this command. So although it’s clearly magic, I love that there’s an undertone of logic to it. Creating a complex construct is almost like writing a computer program where different commands can’t contradict each other if the construct is to work properly, etc.
But this magic comes at a price, and it’s not one the Emperor pays, but rather his citizens. In regular tithing ceremonies, bone shards are extracted from the people’s children – those shards have to come from somewhere, after all. And whenever a bone shard is used in a construct, it slowly saps the life energy out of its original owner…

On Imperial Island, we follow Lin, the Emperor’s daughter, as she is working to prove herself worthy for the succession. When Lin was a child, she caught a mysterious sickness that made her lose most of her early memories. This sickness came with Bayan, the Emperor’s ward and Lin’s competition for the throne. There are many things Lin doesn’t understand: why Bayan’s memories seem to return more quickly than her own, why her father won’t grant her more keys to explore the palace and learn to do bone shard magic, why the things written in her recently discovered diary don’t make sense…
I can’t talk too much about Lin’s story line without giving things away. But it’s a thrilling plot with  many twists along the way. I must admit I guessed one of them quite a bit before it was revealed but that didn’t diminish my reading pleasure in the least. With or without plots, there was so much in Lin’s story to keep me entertained. Through her, we learn a lot about how bone shard magic works, as well as the way the Empire operates. I also enjoyed her relationship with Bayan, strained and mercurial as it is. And Lin doesn’t seem to be okay with the way her father exploits his own people for making constructs. His pretext is that the Alanga – a powerful magic people defeated by the current dynasty – may come back one day and he needs to defend the empire.

So the power dynamics in the empire are set up pretty clearly but Andrea Stewart doesn’t leave her world quite so black and white. On Nephilanu Island, we follow the governor’s daughter Phalue who is in love with Ranami – who in turn is part of a rebellion wanting to make life better for the lower classes. While the same power dynamics are at work here (albeit on a smaller scale), I loved how Stewart shows a different aspect of it through the eyes of different people. Both Phalue and Ranami have POV chapters which makes it all the more interesting to see their story unfold. Phalue has grown up privileged but she’s only now coming to terms with what that really means and what life is like for other people, including the woman she loves. Much like Lin, she faces some tough decisions between a comfortable life at the cost of others’ happiness and a revolution that may cost her her own safety.

The third, and for a long time my favorite, plot string follows Jovis, notorious smuggler and accidental savior of children. Jovis just wants his wife Emahla back but all he knows is that she was kidnapped and taken onto a dark ship with blue sails, a ship he has been hunting for years now, without ever catching it. On one of his stops, he saves a young child from the tithing ritual and also, purely by accident, a strange cat/ferret/seacreature that jumps onto his boat. After delivering the child back to safety, the strange creature – now called Mephi – stays with Jovis and will bring much joy and surprise to both Jovis and the readers of this book.
Jovis slowly turns into something of a legend, a man who snatches children away just before the tithing, saving them from having their skulls cut open and maybe dying in the process (like Jovis’ own brother when they were kids). But Jovis never loses sight of his quest and he never stops yearning for his wife, even when he sees that revolution is brewing in the empire and he may be needed to help it along.

There is one more POV character named Sand, but she appears so rarely and her chapters are kept so mysterious that I don’t want to give anything away. Just remember she’s important and may serve as a catalyst for the bigger story arc of the trilogy/series.

I had so much fun reading this book! Not only is the world building really interesting, there’s also a very cool magic system that I loved to explore. And the characters all came across as believable people with a history and hopes and dreams. Jovis especially grew dear to me, and not only because of his relationship with Mephi. I mean, who can resist a good animal companion? But Lin also goes through quite a few revelations, learning things both good and bad, and handling them capably but not perfectly. I can’t stress enough how wonderful it is to read about intelligent protagonists who aren’t perfect. Lin is clever and thinks ahead, but she’s also a young woman without a lot of life experience (and some of what she does have is missing along with her memories!), so she makes mistakes but her mistakes are understandable and only make her more relatable.

The world building already has so much interesting stuff to offer in this first volume, but it promises much more for the later books. The empire’s history is hinted at many times but we don’t get any real details about who the Alanga were and why they were so powerful. Many questions remain unanswered about the constructs or why only the imperial family can use bone shard magic, why Jovis’ wife was kidnapped and what that ship with the blue sails is all about. But even without answers to those questions, The Bone Shard Daughter delivers a satsifying ending to its three plot strings, all while making it clear that this is only the beginning and there’s much more epicness to come.

The only critique I have about this book is that things almost happen a bit too quickly. Normally, when I call a book fast-paced it’s a compliment. And I definitely recommend The Bone Shard Daughter for its quick plot(s), but because this novel isn’t only about the plot but has so much more to offer in terms of world building and character development, I almost wished there were more quiet moments that let me dive deeper into these aspects. Don’t get me wrong, Stewart does a masterful job of introducing her world and characters without long expositions or info dumps and that feat deserves all the praise. But every time we switch POV, it feels like the plot has already moved along at breakneck speed and we don’t get time to settle down with the last bit of new information we’ve learned before the next twist comes along. A little time to breathe in between epic revelations, action sequences, daring nightly excursions, etc. would have been nice.

It’s a flimsy complaint to make but it did have an effect on my reading experience. You see, I’ve noticed that I remember some books in much more detail than others and I’ve been trying to pin down why exactly that is. It’s not always the big, chonky ones that stick in my memory more (you’d think spending 500 more pages with a story will make it last longer in your brain, right?), nor is it necessarily the ones that I raced through because I was so excited and engaged. The Bone Shard Daughter was one of those books I never wanted to put down. I liked all the POV characters, I was engaged in the plot and sub plots, I wanted to learn more about the world and its magic and history, I wanted to unravel all the secrets, I wanted the characters to be okay, and those are literally all the things I hope for when I open a new book. But something was still missing. I read this book so quickly that I never felt I could truly fall into the world, if you know what I mean. It’s not like in a Robin Hobb book where I get so immersed in the world that plot becomes secondary.
I can’t tell yet because I’ve just finished this book but I suspect I’ll need a “previous on” when the next book comes out and I don’t remember any of the details I need. But no matter whether it sticks in my memory or not, reading this was an absolute pleasure and I wholeheartedly recommend it to lovers of SFF, especially ones looking to get out of a reading slump.

MY RATING: 7.5/10 – Very, very good

 

Why James McAvoy is a God (or at least one of the Endless): Neil Gaiman – The Sandman (Audible Original)

So here’s a little confession. I read the first three volumes of The Sandman ages ago and then never continued. I believe it was because at the time, I was still a student and didn’t have a lot of money to spend on books, let alone pretty expensive graphic novels. But now that I’m all grown up I want to dive back into this amazing universe and I needed a refresher. What better way than to relive the first three volumes as an audiobook?

THE SANDMAN (Vol. 1 – Vol. 3)
by Neil Gaiman & Dirk Maggs

Published: Audible, 2020
Audiobook: 10 hours 54 minutes
Series: The Sandman Audio #1
My rating: 8/10

Opening line: June 1920. The office of the senior curator of the Royal Museum.

Hailed by the Los Angeles Times Magazine as “the greatest epic in the history of comic books”, The Sandman changed the game with its dark, literary world of fantasy and horror – creating a global, cultural phenomenon in the process. At long last, Audible and DC present the first-ever audio production of the New York Times best-selling series written by acclaimed storyteller Neil Gaiman (who also serves as co-executive producer). Adapted and directed by multi-award-winner (and frequent Gaiman collaborator) Dirk Maggs, and performed by an ensemble cast with James McAvoy (It, Parts One and Two, X-Men: First Class, Split) in the title role, this first installment of a multi-part original audio series will transport you to a world that re-writes the rules of audio entertainment the way that The Sandman originally re-defined the graphic novel.

When The Sandman, also known as Lord Morpheus – the immortal king of dreams, stories and the imagination – is pulled from his realm and imprisoned on Earth by a nefarious cult, he languishes for decades before finally escaping. Once free, he must retrieve the three “tools” that will restore his power and help him to rebuild his dominion, which has deteriorated in his absence. As the multi-threaded story unspools, The Sandman descends into Hell to confront Lucifer (Michael Sheen), chases rogue nightmares who have escaped his realm, and crosses paths with an array of characters from DC comic books, ancient myths, and real-world history, including: Inmates of Gotham City’s Arkham Asylum, Doctor Destiny, the muse Calliope, the three Fates, William Shakespeare (Arthur Darvill), and many more.

A powerhouse supporting cast helps translate this masterwork into a sonic experience worthy of its legacy, including Riz Ahmed, Kat Dennings, Taron Egerton, Samantha Morton, Bebe Neuwirth, Andy Serkis, and more. Setting the stage for their performance is an unprecedented cinematic soundscape featuring an original musical score by British Academy Award winner James Hannigan. Fans will especially revel in a new twist for the audio adaptation: Neil Gaiman himself serves as the narrator. Follow him as he leads listeners along a winding path of myths, imagination and, often, terror. Even in your wildest dreams, you’ve never heard anything like this.

I didn’t expect to love this as much as I did but I want to say right away that I wouldn’t recommend this audiobook to people who have never read the comics before. It’s been a very long time for me but I did remember the most important bits as well as some characters and subplots. And that helped enormously with keeping the plot lines straight, remembering which character was related to whom and how that fits into the greater timeline and so on. Going in with no prior knowledge is not something I would do!

So, now that’s out of the way, if you have read the comic books – the first three have been adapted here – then chances are you’ll be as impressed as I was that comic books can actually make good audiobooks. It seems strange that a medium which relies so much on the visual aspect could translate to audible content so well. With Neil Gaiman as the narrator, images are still being drawn in a way, except in your mind instead of on the page. And while it’s definitely a very different experience from reading the books, it was in no way a lesser one.

Also, just let me get this out of the way before I explode: James McAvoy is SUCH A FANTASTIC ACTOR! I know, I know, lots of great actors out there and lots of them do voice acting, blablabla. But the reason I’m so taken with McAvoy’s portrayal of Morpheus is that I remember him as the lead role in another Neil Gaiman audioplay, done by the BBC. Neverwhere (extremely highly recommend, btw) was a brilliant audioplay in which McAvoy played the slightly lost but good-hearted protagonist who stumbles into a magical London beneath the London we know. I have listened to that audioplay many times and so McAvoy’s voice kind of belonged to Richard Mayhew in my brain. I was worried that suddenly hearing him as Morpheus wouldn’t work for me. I was very wrong!
Not only does he change his voice enough for the characters to sound completely distinct, but everything about the way he delivers lines is different too. Morpheus’ way of talking has a certain cadence to it, a gravity that reflects his nature as an Endless. I realize it’s their job and all but I still can’t get over how well certain actors can slip into different roles and appear as completely different people, especially when they do it with nothing but their voice. So. James McAvoy: Voice God!As for the story itself, I won’t go into a lot of detail here. It starts out with a group of power-hungry men trying to capture Death and thus, ensuring eternal, or at least prolonged, life for themselves. Instead of Death, however, they find themselves with a disgruntled Dream on their hands whom they keep captive for many decades. With Morpheus stuck in his prison and nobody else to do his job, a series of events is set into motion that will ripple out for many years to come.
So Morpheus is trying to break out of his prison and set the world right again. That means finding some important objects, punishing the creatures who’ve been doing mischief while he was gone, and righting wrongs wherever possible.
After that, it isn’t so much Morpheus that we follow but we rather jump around following a cast of other characters who – in some way or another – are connected to Morpheus. It could be someone who has suffered from Morpheus imprisonment, someone who threatenes the Dream realm, someone who is simply in a certain place at the right time… I don’t want to spoil any of the episodes for you but be warned that the audiobook, just like the comics, does feel episodic. There are some longer plots that carry on through several episodes but generally, you can enjoy this one chapter at a time and get a well-rounded little story.

The intertwining stories can get confusing at times and although the voice actors do a brilliant job, it wasn’t always easy to keep them apart. I also admit that I didn’t even recognize many of the famous voices in this production. I know what Taron Egerton sounds like normally, as well as Michael Sheen, Samantha Morton and Andy Serkis – I’ve seen movies with them and I should recognize their voices. But I guess that’s another sign of them being really good actors who can change their voice just enough for the not-overly-attentive listener to not notice who they are.
I will be listening to the next instalment as well when it comes out, although I definitely plan to read the comic books first. At certain times during the audiobook I was glad that I had an image in my head of what Morpheus looks like. I mean, him and Death are both striking characters with a very distinctive look. Hearing a description just isn’t the same as seeing it on the page. So, I’ll get myself the next three issues as soon as I can and then I’ll look forward to both the next part in the audiobook series (if indeed they make another one) as well as the TV show!

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent

 

Apparently, This is a Classic: Susan Cooper – The Dark Is Rising

Last year, I decided to catch up on some classic SFF that I hadn’t read yet because it’s so easy to get swept away by new publications. I started Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising Sequence and I found the first book quite nice. Not groundbreaking, but fun enough. The second book is a Newberry Medal winner and appears on all the lists of best fantasy ever so I had high expectations. Having read it, I honestly don’t know if me and all those other people have read the same book.

THE DARK IS RISING
by Susan Cooper

Published: Puffin, 1973
eBook: 272 pages
Series: The Dark is Rising #2
My rating: 3.5/10

Opening line: ‘Too many!’ James shouted, and slammed the door behind him. 

This night will be bad and tomorrow will be beyond imagining.

It’s Midwinter’s Eve, the day before Will’s eleventh birthday. But there is an atmosphere of fear in the familiar countryside around him. This will be a birthday like no other. Will discovers that he has the power of the Old Ones, and that he must embark on a quest to vanquish the terrifyingly evil magic of the Dark.

The second novel in Susan Cooper’s highly acclaimed Dark is Rising sequence.

Will Stanton is turning eleven just a few days before Christmas and strange things are happening. Birds behave weirdly, his wish for snow seems to be coming true, even though snow doesn’t usually stick around in his home town, and a homeless man appears to be following him around.
It doesn’t take long for Will (and us readers) to find out that Will is an Old One, a person involved in the epic battle between the Light and the Dark. No further details are given because I guess labeling things “good” and “evil” is enough. Will meets Merriman – whom we know from the first book – and is taught a little bit of the awesome powers he now possesses, such as making a fire out of nothing or talking with other Old Ones telepathically. Merrimen does not, however, tell Will not to use those powers because it draws the attention of the Dark… Which just seems like a cruel joke, considering any 11-year-old with the sudden power to make a fire would immediately try that power on his way home through the snow.
So Will does, gets into danger, and gets saved by Merriman who then gives  this vital bit of information to Will. And sadly, that whole introductory part of the book tells you exactly how the rest of it will go.

Will is the Sign-Seeker and he is entrusted with a quest by Merriman and the Lady and some other Old Ones, who happen to be Will’s neighbours. Six signs, shaped like a circle with a cross in the middle have to be found and put together. Again, that’s all they tell the boy. No clue as to where to start, what to do, who to talk to, how to use his powers to help him on this quest… not even any information on why the signs are important or what this battle between Light and Dark is all about. Nothing in this book is ever properly explained and therefore, nothing really makes sense. There are these signs and they get cold when evil is around and Will has to protect them somehow? He also gets this ancient book to read which conveniently pours all the knowledge he nees magically into his brain (forgetting that some of it might be interesting to the readers as well) but which doesn’t change anything about Will’s behaviour, powers, or the way he continues on his quest.

About that qBildergebnis für the dark is rising cooperuest: it may say that Will has to “seek” these magical signs but Will  doesn’t actually do anything in this entire book. Will comes across people who either straight up give him one of the signs or at least tell him exactly what to do to get to it. Will gets in danger occasionaly but those scenes also fell flat because he is immediately rescued by a convenient other Old One (they pop out of the ground whenever the plot requires it). So any tension there might have been is taken out by the author. Will is the most passive protagonist I’ve read in a long time and I don’t see why I should like him. There’s nothing about him to like (or dislike, for that matter). He is just a blank human-shaped something that does what he’s told by complete strangers who say they are the Light and he’s one of them and then he collects signs on his belt and hopes someone will save his ass when the Dark gets too close to him. Let me tell you, this was the opposite of engaging and exciting.

The part I enjoyed the most was actually the non-fantasy aspects. Will’s family is huge and while I have no idea which of the 12 siblings is which I really loved reading about their Christmas excitement, their childish banter, their joy at opening presents and so on. They go carol singing at one point and although there’s really nothing all that special about that part, I found myself enjoying the book way more than during any of the epic blahblah that was happening in between. Again, twelve siblings is a lot and most of them didn’t even get to speak, but the ones that do even felt like real characters with a distinct personality. Chatterbox Mary or calm and reliable Paul come to mind. They felt way more alive than Will ever did.

So to sum it all up, this book has three gigantic problems: a passive protagonist, no world building whatsoever, a thin plot without any real stakes.
What worked was the writing itself. I found the prose quite nice and it built up a great atmosphere of this wintery landscape and of Will jumping around in time – oh yeah, the Old Ones can just go through time somehow but don’t ask me how because with one exception where they go through an actual door, nobody explains how this works or if Will could do it by himself or whatever.
The whole quest never feels like a quest because Will just goes about his everyday life, doing whatever he would be doing anyway and then suddenly magic happens to him and one of the Old Ones is there and hands him a sign or tells him how to get it. He goes and gets it and we’re back to regular life until the whole thing starts over again until finally, all six signs are collected and can be united. Because reasons.

When I had finally reached the end of this tedious repetitive bore of a book, I felt quite cheated because there wasn’t even a big epic fight at the end. Sure, Will faces the Rider (kind of the boss of the Dark, at least in this book) and for the first time has to make a decision on his own, but then – conveniently as everything in this story – things just fall into place and Will can go back to doing whatever he was doing before. Merrimen and the Lady – whoever the hell she really is – conclude that now another one of the four big objects has been restored. The first one was the Grail from the first book which means two more are coming. So I guess that means two more books with “quests” and then, finally, the showdown between the Light and the Dark?

Look, I enjoyed the first book well enough but I would have just let it stand on its own if this series wasn’t hyped as such a classic of children’s literature, mentioned in the same breath with Narnia. If this second volume is any indication of how the series will continue, I’ll just call it quits here and go back to those new releases where plot and character and world building actually matter.

MY RATING: 3.5/10 – Quite bad

Monsters, Magic, and Complicated Friendships: Naomi Novik – A Deadly Education

Originally, I had planned to read this as soon as it came out because, come on, a magic school novel by Naomi Novik? Gimme gimme gimme! But then early reviews started coming in and they were very mixed. People said the first half is only info-dumps, there are problems with the diversity, and the protagonist is unlikable. So these reviews put me on guard and that actually helped me enjoy the novel when I maybe wouldn’t have liked it as much otherwise.

A DEADLY EDUCATION
by Naomi Novik

Published: Del Rey, 2020
eBook: 336 pages
Audiobook: 10 hours 59 minutes
Series: The Scholomance #1
My rating: 7/10

Opening line: I decided that Orion needed to die after the second time he saved my life.

Lesson One of the Scholomance: Learning has never been this deadly.
A Deadly Education is set at Scholomance, a school for the magically gifted where failure means certain death (for real) — until one girl, El, begins to unlock its many secrets.
There are no teachers, no holidays, and no friendships, save strategic ones. Survival is more important than any letter grade, for the school won’t allow its students to leave until they graduate… or die! The rules are deceptively simple: Don’t walk the halls alone. And beware of the monsters who lurk everywhere.
El is uniquely prepared for the school’s dangers. She may be without allies, but she possesses a dark power strong enough to level mountains and wipe out millions. It would be easy enough for El to defeat the monsters that prowl the school. The problem? Her powerful dark magic might also kill all the other students.

Okay, a few surprising things that made up my first impressions of this book:
Protagonist Galadriel – El for short – is not in her first year at Scholomance and it’s not the beginning of term when the story starts. I know this sounds like nothing special, but I have come to expect certain story beats from a Magic School novel and Naomi Novik decided to ignore them all. So the book begins when El is already well established in the Scholomance, knows the rules, knows some fellow students, and has a plan on how to survive up until and through graduation.

The problem is that this takes out a lot of the fun of the Magic School trope and makes it difficult to discover any actual plot until much later in the book. We’re thrown into this world, trying to learn how everything works, why things are the way they are, what’s the point of this strange school in the middle of the Void. El’s antisocial sarcastic voice may lead us through her monster-filled daily life, but there didn’t really seem to be a goal, other than “survive graduation”. That sounds badass, sure, but routine, no matter how monster-filled, doesn’t make for a compelling plot.
What kept me going nonetheless was El’s utter disgust and annoyance at having her life saved by a boy named Orion Lake. I wanted to find out why El would be so opposed to someone helping her when she needs it and also whatever Orion has done to her to make her hate him so. We weren’t off to the best start, but that seed of curiosity was there.

After a while, things become a little clearer, we learn more about how the school operates and what rules this world’s magic abides by. We also learn of a lot of things, creatures, jobs, and terms that aren’t explained yet but I guess Novik is keeping those for later books in the series. But those reviews I read weren’t wrong. The beginning of the book is mostly just a vehicle for getting information across to the reader. It could have been done in a more exciting way but I also can’t say that I ever felt bored. Sure, it wasn’t elegant but the information did get through and I was eager to learn about this crazy world where kids are sent to a school that is literally trying to kill them (not that Hogwarts didn’t have yearly murderous events, but come on). There are no teachers or supervisors. Assignments just appear in class, the school itself moves and changes in order to make life as hard as possible for the students. The library switches out books if you’re not looking, monsters fall from the ceiling, your food might be poisoned, and all things considered, the Scholomance is just not a very nice place to be…

What finally made this book gripping enough to make me go “just one more chapter” a dozen times in a row was the middle part and the characters. Although mentioned early on, it takes a while for them to become actual people, even El. Her off-putting, mean, and rude behaviour starts making sense the more you learn about the world. And the slow budding of friendships between her and some other students were well done. Her strange bickering relationship with Orion, whom she dislikes but who keeps saving her life and then being smug about it, her careful friendship with Aadhya and Liu, they were all lovely to watch, especially because they felt like individual friendships, not El simply joining a pre-existing group.
There was one scene that clearly stands out to me and probably added an entire star to my rating of this book. It happens around the middle and it is so good and so exciting and shows a side of El’s character that I had been hoping to see but had started to doubt existed. I know I’m super vague again but you guys! I do NOT want to spoil this part. It made me stay up late and pre-order the second book.

Towards the end, a sort of last-minute plot does come up to give the characters something to do other than just exist and survive. I enjoyed that part well enough even though it felt like a late addition to a novel that didn’t yet know what it wanted to be about. Naomi Novik has built an interesting world – at least judging from what little I know of it – and put some characters in it that have potential. I’m not sure how I feel about the Prophecy hanging over El’s head (we learn way too little about that, so I’m sure it will be back later in the series), but I did love the social commentary the Scholomance allows.
You don’t survive on your own, so alliances are the way to go. Some kids – the privileged ones, born into an enclave – appear at school already part of such an alliance. They share mana, they watch each other’s backs, they train and fight together to survive graduation as a group. The enclave-less students are either cannon fodder or they are granted the great honor of doing the work nobody else wants to do in order to maybe get a spot in an enclave. It’s not a particularly subtle metaphor for our own world but I found it worked really, really well and showed just how unfair it all is. How unprivileged people are being kept unprivileged, how the rich protect themselves and their own, how if you’re working your way up from the bottom you have to do 100 times more than someone who starts at the top simply by virtue of being born… That’s an aspect that truly grabbed me and it’s one more reason I want to continue this series.

There has been some controversy surrounding this book’s diversity. Well.. that sounded wrong. The controversy was about the use of the word “dreadlocks” and the fact that some evil magical critters (calle maleficaria) nest in the hair, implying it’s dirty and vermin-infested. I understand how that is hurtful to people with locs and Naomi Novik has apologized for her mistake. That’s really all I can say about that. We’ll have to see if she does better in the next book. I for my part am convinced she will be extra careful from now on.
The characters themselves are also meant to represent a wide range of people from all over the world. I love that thought but there wasn’t a lot of time to establish them as there’s always a monster trying to eat someone or an assignment to do. El is a half-Welsh/half-Indian girl, although there is very little mention of her Indian heritage. I liked learning about the Welsh side of her upbringing because, well, it was really interesting, not so much because she’s from Wales but because what we learn of her childhood is quite unusual and explains a lot about El’s personality. El’s fellow students come from all over the world and I loved how having different language skills makes an actual difference for your survival at school. If a spell only exists in Arabic or Hindi, then people who speak it are at an advantage – which is a super nice change to everything being English or tailored to English-speaking folks. In a place that is as skewed toward the wealthy and privileged (which come from places like New York or London), it’s nice to see that things other than money and “birthright” can help someone advance or at least give them a fighting chance.

My feelings about this book are very confused. I enjoyed reading it, even the parts that clearly could have been done better. Even the muddled, aimless beginning, even El’s unnecessarily gruff ways, even the bits where little happens. I loved some other parts and learning more about the world, seeing El manage to make some friends and finding a way to live by her own rules. But I know that Naomi Novik could have written this book much better with proper plotting from beginning to end, with better developed characters and just a teensy bit more info about why this world works the way it does. The rational side of me understands all of this but there was still something about this book that grabbed me. I try to analyze my own feelings about books but this time, I just can’t put my finger on it and I can’t explain it. I just liked it, okay!
I will definitely read the next instalment because now that all the set-up is done, I’m confident I’ll get all those things that were neglected here: deeper character development, more in depth world building, and a thrilling plot right from the start. Also, that mini-cliffhanger at the end didn’t hurt.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very Good!