The Witcher Continues: Andrzej Sapkowski – Sword of Destiny

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

SWORD OF DESTINY
by Andrzej Sapkowski

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY RATING: 6,5/10 – Very good

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

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

THE TWISTED ONES
by T. Kingfisher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very, very good!

Reading The Witcher: Andrzej Sapkowski – The Last Wish

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

THE LAST WISH
by Andrzej Sapkowski

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

First line: She came to him towards morning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

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

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

MINECRAFT: THE END
by Catherynne M. Valente

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

First line: It is always night in the End.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY RATING: 9/10 – Damn near perfection!

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

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

THE MISTS OF AVALON
by Marion Zimmer Bradley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY RATING: 8/10 – Very, very good!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

A Real Little Mermaid Retelling: Esther Dalseno – Drown

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

DROWN
by Esther Dalseno

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

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

[…] before her could examine them[…]

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

[…] he had saw fit to […]

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

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

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

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

EYES LIKE STARS
by Lisa Mantchev

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are some examples (emphasis mine):

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

Or take this:

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

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

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

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

MY RATING: 3,5/10 – Bad

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

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

THE QUEEN OF NOTHING
by Holly Black

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very good

 

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

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

NINTH HOUSE
by Leigh Bardugo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!