A Gorgeous, Creepy Graphic Story: Neil Gaiman & Colleen Doran – Snow, Glass, Apples

A few years ago, I read Neil Gaiman’s short story Snow, Glass, Apples and was completely blown away. It takes the Snow White fairy tale, tells it from the point of view of the evil (?) stepmother and turns it on its head in a unique, original way.

SNOW, GLASS, APPLES
by Neil Gaiman and Colleen Doran

Published by: Dark Horse, 2019
Hardcover: 64 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8,5/10

First line: I do not know what manner of thing she is.

A chilling fantasy retelling of the Snow White fairy tale by New York Times bestselling creators Neil Gaiman and Colleen Doran!
A not-so-evil queen is terrified of her monstrous stepdaughter and determined to repel this creature and save her kingdom from a world where happy endings aren’t so happily ever after.
From the Hugo, Bram Stoker, Locus, World Fantasy, Nebula award-winning, and New York Timesbestselling writer Neil Gaiman (American Gods) comes this graphic novel adaptation by Colleen Doran (Troll Bridge)!

This is the story of a young woman who fell in love with a king. This king has a daughter, a young girl with hair as black as ebony, skin white as snow, and lips red as blood. You know how it goes. Except there is something off about this particular Snow White. I don’t think it’s a spoiler but just to be safe, I won’t tell you what’s up with Snow White. Let’s just say, she’s not the fairy tale princess you’d expect. And the evil queen is actually doing her best to protect her kingdom. Apples are involved as well as a super creepy twist on the prince who wakes up Snow White with a kiss. But that’s all best discovered for yourselves.

There are several things that made this story work so well for me. On the one hand, the way Gaiman incorporates all the beats of the original fairy tale into a story that is essentially the opposite of the Grimms’ tale. On the other hand, the art itself. It’s a matter of taste, of course, but I can hardly express how much I adored Colleen Doran’s drawing style. Inspired by Harry Clarke, the art is luscious and detailed and there’s plenty to discover. So I read this first for the story itself, following along where the author led me, and then went right back again just to look at the art on each page.

What I found really impressive was that the graphic novel works almost completely without the use of panels. Most pages are full-page artworks like the one above where smaller images blend into other small images. The way the pages are set up, however, makes the reading order totally intuitive. I always knew where the author, artist, and letterer wanted my eyes to go next. That’s something I didn’t expect at first glance, so now I am all the more impressed. I can’t explain why or how, but it works beautifully. And the pages are gorgeous to look at as complete pieces of art as well.

This is the kind of book you can read really quickly but it will stay with you long after you’re finished. Some lines in Gaiman’s story simply stick because they are so well written. With the graphic novel adaptation, the same thing goes for Doran’s images. I have read this book more than a week ago and yet I still vividly remember certain pictures. I had also forgotten just how dark the story goes at certain points and while it’s one thing to read about brutality, it’s quite another to see it depicted – even if it’s in an art style that’s not super realistic.

I should also mention that this is not a story for kids. When I say “twisted fairy tale” I don’t just mean that plot elements get twisted around. I mean actually twisted. There are dark scenes here, some truly disturbing things happen, and the ending is also not for the faint of heart. Although if you’ve read some fairy tales without the added sugar coating, you’ll know what you’re in for.

MY RATING: 8,5/10 – Pretty amazing!

N.E.W.T.s Readathon Wrap-Up

Hello and welcome to my wrap-up post for the nerdy madness that was the N.E.W.T.s Magical Readathon. What a ride this has been!

General Thoughts

I won’t lie, when I started my first two books – one hardback, one audiobook – I thought I had been a little too ambitious with my TBR. While I picked a few very short books (100-200 pages) for my O.W.L.s, the shorter books I chose for the N.E.W.T.s were all around 300 pages. Depending on the writing style, those can actually take a while to read. So I did switch around the TBR a bit, and I snuck in a graphic novel and two novellas. Lucky for me, it turned out all my books have been at the very least good and fun to read.

As I’m also a stickler for rules (Ravenclaws… we can’t help ourselves), I did read all the books in order, rather than reading the books for higher grades first and then catching up on the ones for the lower grades. I did always read books for several classes at once, I listened to some on audiobook, and I think that helped a lot in keeping me invested in this readathon. Although most of my books were full-length novels, I did choose a handful of short books. Otherwise, I would never have gotten all the grades I did.

Quidditch and House CUP

I am usually rubbish when it comes to appearing on Twitter at a certain time but by sheer luck, I was online when the Quidditch training matches were going on. And once I found out how much fun that stuff is, I made sure to be present during the actual Quidditch Cup as well. Basically, each team is asked trivia questions about Harry Potter and if you answer fast enough (and correctly, of course), your House can take the Quaffle and, answering more questions, score a goal. There are Bludger Moments, where both teams can answer and the fastest one wins, and the same goes for Snitch Sightings. Sometimes, the questions weren’t questions but word searches or “find the difference” pictures, but it was all amazing fun! And the best thing that I totally didn’t expect: RAVENCLAW WON THE QUIDDITCH CUP!

I didn’t follow the House Points that closely throughout the month of August. The few times I checked, Ravenclaw was always in last place which may not be good for House Pride but I didn’t really care all that much. My personal goals have all been achieved plus a lot of extra classes I didn’t even need. As it turns out, Ravenclaw came in second for the House Cup, so that was nice. And I do have to say, the Hufflepuffs were on fire the entire time!

CONGRATULATIONS TO HUFFLEPUFF FOR WINNING THE HOUSE CUP!

my N.e.w.t.s results and Career Options

CLASS

Grade achieved

Ancient Runes Exceeds Expectations
Arithmancy Acceptable
Astronomy Acceptable
Care of Magical Creatures Exceeds Expectations
Charms Outstanding
Defence Against the Dark Arts Outstanding
Divination
Herbology Acceptable
History of Magic Outstanding
Muggle Studies Outstanding
Potions Exceeds Expectations
Transfiguration Acceptable

As you can see, I passed my NEWTs in all classes except Divination. Although the prompts for that class were good ones, at some point I had to decide whether I wanted an Acceptable in all the classes or whether I wanted better grades in the ones that mattered to me. And if I really did go to Hogwarts, Divination would be the class I would care about the least. So I skipped it and instead grabbed some better grades in other classes.

Total books read 22
Total pages read 6148
NEWTs achieved 10

That leaves me with the two careers I aimed for – Hogwarts Professor for History of Magic, Muggle Studies, and DADA, as well as Writer – plus two other careers I could pursue: Auror and Ministry Worker for the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, the Department of International Magical Cooperation, or even the Department of Mysteries . I’d say my magical future looks pretty bright. Realistically (you know what I mean), I would become a Hogwarts Professor who writes novels in her spare time. 🙂

The Diplomas

Hogwarts Teacher:

Writer/Journalist:

The Books

Here they are, people. All the books I read in August and all the NEWTs I passed. I have to say, I’m quite proud of myself. With two careers achieved plus a bunch of extra credit classes, I think I’ve done Ravenclaw proud this year. (For final thoughs, skip to the bottom of this post.)


Ancient Runes – Acceptable

For Ancient Runes, I picked up a book I normally wouldn’t have read. However, with its story dealing heavily with the Grimms’ fairy tales, real life interwoven with Faerie, and a curse to be broken, it was exactly the kind of book I should want to read. But I admit it, that cover put me off for a long time. The Uncertain Places by Lisa Goldstein tells the story of the Feierabend family, from the point of view of young Will who falls in love with one of the Feierabend daughters. He finds out they are tangled in a bargain with The Other Folk and wants to solve the riddle, save the girl, and make a future for himself and his girlfriend. There was much to love about this book but I felt that the choice of perspective (Will’s first person POV) was not well done. I liked the many nods to well-known fairy tales but I would have liked to read this story from the girls’ perspective more, to be honest. (237 pages)


Ancient Runes – Exceeds Expectations

For my second Ancient Runes NEWT, I read The Lost Sisters by Holly Black. This was almost a short retelling of The Cruel Prince but from the point of view of Jude’s sister Taryn. There are spoilers for the fist book in this, so I won’t go into the plot much. But what this novella does quite well, is show why Taryn acted the way she acted, why she did or thought certain things that didn’t make much sense to Jude and us readers before. It was also a nice refresher on what happened in the first book and I enjoyed it way more than expected. Holly Black even makes her faerie world vivid in such a short tale. (50 pages)


Arithmancy – Acceptable

I had originally planned to read a shorter book for this one because the prompt leaves you a lot of options (ends on an even page number), but I just had to know how the Illuminae Trilogy ended. So I picked up the chunky beast that is Obsidio by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff. The upside is that the way these books are written, they are quick reads, despite being over 600 pages thick.
I loved this series overall, but this was by far the weakest of them. Because it puts all the characters from the previous books together and adds a new couple, there was just not enough time for these new characters. I loved how everything came together and the new challenges our characters faced. The ending was also fantastic, but not nearly as good as the previous two books. (618 pages)


Astronomy – Acceptable

This book just fell into my hands, and because it fit the prompt, was immediately devoured. Becky Chambers’ To Be Taught If Fortunate may be written in the same, optimistic style as her Wayfarers Trilogy, but plot-wise, it is quite different. A group of four astronauts sets out on a trip to several planets, to see what they can discover there, if there are signs of life or other interesting information that they can take home to Earth. The planets they visit are quite different and all super interesting to read about. But at some point, the astronauts stop receiving updates from Earth with no way to contact them quickly or know what’s going on back home. I quite liked this story about the value of learning, about knowledge for the sake of knowledge. The fact that the four protagonists are super excited about their job was just an added bonus that almost makes you want to become an astronaut yourself. (144 pages)


Care of Magical Creatures – Acceptable

For Care of Magical Creatures, I picked up a rather daunting book but after just the first chapter, I was all in. A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine is a sprawling science fiction epic that offered so much interesting world building that I couldn’t put it down. Ambassador Mahit Dzmare arrives in Teixcalaan because her predecessor has probably been murdered.  It has amazing characters, deals with issues of empire and colonization, cultural differences, political intrigue, and to top it all off, there’s a murder mystery to investigate.
I don’t know what I enjoyed more – the world-building and the many cool ideas, or the characters and their interactions. Mahit Dzmare, the protagonist, has definitely grown very dear to me and I look forward to the sequel(s) already. (462 pages)


Care of Magical Creatures – Exceeds Expectations

I needed something shorter to read, at this point, because although I managed many longer books, sometimes you just need to feel that immediate success of finishing something in a day or two. So I chose The Ice Puzzle by Chatherynne M. Valente, a novella she has published on her Patreon (Patrons only). It’s a sort of retelling of The Snow Queen, but a very strange version that mixes together lots of different cultures and their (potential) representation of this fairy tale. It’s all there, the mirror shard, the beautiful Snow Queen who kidnaps children, the young girl Gerda who goes out to save her friend Kay. Some chapters are poems, other are prose. It was a strange, immersive experience, reading this, but there wasn’t enough of a red string, not enough actual plot, to make me love this as much as I do Valente’s other work. (144 pages)


Charms – Acceptable

For this class, we needed to pick a book with a gorgeous cover, so I went with Echo North by Joanna Ruth Meyer. Because look at this cover! I know “gorgeous” is totally subjective, but I love the intricate detail and the symmetry of this cover. Also, it has Ravenclaw colors, so I feel like I’m representing my house even better. As a retelling of East of the Sun, West of the Moon, it did a fantastic job in brining to life all the fairy tale elements but infusing them with a new and original kind of magic. Echo, the scarred and clever protagonist, was so easy to love. I loved her goodhearted nature, her thirst for knowledge, and her wish to help her captor – in this case, a white wolf, not a bear. I was absolutely blown away by the originality of this book. I loved Echo, I loved the many little ideas, and I especially the twist at the end. Highly recommended if you like fairy tales, especially East of the Sun, West of the Moon. (400 pages)


Charms – Exceeds Expectations

My graphic novel did arrive on time (thank you Amazon)! This adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Snow, Glass, Apples by Colleen Doran was everything I had hoped. I had read the Gaiman short story a few years ago and absolutely loved it. It retells Snow White from the point of view of the stepmother, but with a lot of twists! With Doran’s gorgeous art, the story gained a whole new layer. Good thing, too, that I didn’t remember all the details, so this was almost like reading a new story. I was fascinated that this graphic novel has almost no panels. The story flows on the page simply by the skill of the artist and letterer. And have I mentioned that the art style is amazing.?Although this is a very short book, every page is a feast for the eyes, and the story itself is dark enough to keep you thinking about it long after you’ve finished it. (64 pages)


Charms – Outstanding

To get an Outstanding in Charms, I went right ahead and continued The Queen’s Thief series with The Queen of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner. I liked the first book but wasn’t overwhelmed and I didn’t really understand all the rave reviews. This second volume, however, pushed some of my happy buttons and made me really want to continue reading this series. It offered some surprising twists, nice political intrigue, and tender character moments that I wasn’t expecting. I also loved that we got to know the characters better in general, especially the two queens, Attolia and Eddis. Eugenides himself may still be a mysterious character but I’ve grown to really care for him. I will probably review this series as a whole when I’m done. If I keep reading the way I am now, that may happen very soon. (362 pages)


Defence Against the Dark Arts – Acceptable

I was going to read the graphic novel adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s short story “Snow, Glass, Apples” for this prompt but I didn’t think my pre-order would arrive on time.
So I took this opportunity to pick up another book I’ve been meaning to read forever – Yume No Hon: The Book of Dreams by Catherynne M. Valente. She is my favorite author of all time but I still have a lot of her older work to catch up on. This short book read, fitting enough, like a dream. It’s about a hermit woman who lives on a mountain and re-creates herself and others in dreams. She talks to the Mountain and the River, she is a woman and a sphinx, and although this book has no plot to speak of, it was a magical experience. Valente’s language alone makes all her stories worthwile and although this isn’t one of my favorite books of hers, I enjoyed it immensely. (149 pages)


Defence Against the Dark Arts – Exceeds Expectations

To advance my knowledge of Defence Against the Dark Arts, I read a book that is much older than the rest. George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin was charming and quaint. It’s the story of Princess Irene who has to be protected from the evil goblins who live underground and come out at night. Irene explores the big house she lives in, drives her maid crazy with worry, makes a friend in the miner-boy Curdie, and of course meets a goblin or two…
The story read very much like a fairy tale, with Morals on every page, especially on How To Behave As A Princess. The plot itself was nice; sometimes predictable, sometimes really original and sweet. I noticed that my mind is way too dark for this kind of story… I kept suspecting a helpful character of having some evil ulterior motive. But sometimes, fairy godmothers are just what they appear to be. (272 pages)


Defence Against the Dark Arts – Outstanding

Oh, it was so wonderful to read another Discworld novel. Thief of Time by Terry Pratchett reminded me why I love these books so much. Although this book belongs to the Death sub-series, there are many characters to follow. Susan, Death’s granddaughter and teacher par excellence, Jeremy, a young and gifted clockmaker (guess what he does during this story), Lobsang, a former member of the Thief’s Guild who visitis the History Monks, and of course the Auditors who have given Death some trouble in previous books. Plus, the five (yes, you read that right) riders of the Apocalypse. The title tells you what to expect from the plot, but all the little details, the insights about humanity that make a Pratchett book what it is, are also there. I loved this so much and I am again incredibly sad that my unread Discworld novels are shrinking in number.
(432 page)


Herbology – Acceptable

For this, I listened to The Wicked King by Holly Black, and boy, did that book sweep me off my feet. I liked The Cruel Prince well enough but I wasn’t as in love with it as the rest of the world. This sequel, however, hooked me right from the start and turned me into a proper fan. It was just the right combination of political intrigue, dangerous navigations of the Faerie Court, and very sexy (if problematic) romantic tension. Jude’s new position at court should make life easier for her, but of course it doesn’t. Being this close to Cardan – and being in her particular position when it comes to him – made things even more complicated. Then there is a threat of war, the fact that Jude’s plan has a time limit, and her estrangement from her sister… I think if I’d read the paper book I would have raced through it even faster, but I really enjoyed the audiobook narrator and will probably continue to listen to this series (although I do need a matching hardback copy for my shelf!).
(336 pages)


History of Magic – Acceptable

Gingerbread by Helen Oyeyemi was my very first book for the readathon and although it only has 272 pages, the language made it a much slower read than I had anticipated. Oyeyemi’s prose is dense, she doesn’t use a lot of dialogue and there are few paragraph breaks. I was confused for a long time about this book’s plot, because it seemed to move this way, then that way, then somewhere completely different. But once I found my footing and was invested in the characters, I did really enjoy it. It is not a retelling of Hansel and Gretel, although it does use many motifs from the fairy tale and there’s definitely some magic. Gingerbread features prominently, as do breadcrumbs in a way (metaphorical breadcrumbs, but still). It’s the story of Harriet Lee, her daughter Perdita, and Harriet’s past on the mythical island nation of Druhástrana. There are complex family relationships, a theme of friendship, love between mother and daughter, and beautiful language on every page. As long as you know you’re not getting a retelling, I recommend this to everyone. (304 pages)


History of Magic – Exceeds Expectations

Yet another book that took me longer than expected. Sorcery of Thorns by Margaret Rogerson feels like it was on everyone’s TBR for this readathon and I think many people will enjoy it, probably more than I did. Elisabeth Scrivener has grown up in a Great Library, a place that protects magical books from the world and the world from magical books. When shit hits the fan at her Library, Elisabeth has to go to the city, accompanied by a sorcerer, no less. She knows sorcerers are evil, but maybe country life hasn’t taught her everything there is to know about the world and maybe this guy isn’t all bad… The plot wasn’t exactly original and the characters rather flat, but I liked the action scenes, the friendship between Elisabeth and Katrien, and especially the side character Silas. The romance (come on, you knew there had to be one) was also okay. I am definitely not as crazy about this book as other people, but it was a nice lighter read, where you know what you’re going to get early on. (456 pages)


History of Magic – Outstanding

The prompt for this was to re-read a favorite or to read a classic. I kind of combined the two and re-read a classic, although not a favorite. A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin was the kind of book, however, that I suspected I may like more on a re-read. I didn’t love it the first time I read it, but a few reading years can make a lot of difference. Although I still felt the story was kept rather distant from the reader and I was just missing that immersion, that way I feel like I am really accompanying the characters on their journey, it was still a lovely book that promises much more to come in the sequels. (206 pages)


Muggle Studies – Acceptable

For this class, I replaced my original book (A Wicked Thing by Rihannon Thomas) with a new one that I realized fit the prompt and I was very excited for. This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone was absolutely not what I expected but as I kept reading, it sneakily wormed its way into my heart. Yes, it is about time travel, but not about daring adventures in the past in order to change the future. The acutal time traveling is only background. The heart of the story are the two protagonists, Red and Blue, who work for opposing sides in the Time War, and communicate across time and space and parallel universes to form a close bond with each other. With its short chapters and the generally low page count, this was the perfect book for a readathon. It also happened to be really good. (208 pages)


Muggle Studies – Exceeds Expectations

For the book set in our world, I went with Peter S. Beagle’s In Calabria. This was a lovely, quiet tale about a cranky middle-aged man who lives on his farm in Calabria and wants little do with other people. He is content with his goat, his cats and dog and cows, and with occasionally writing poetry. Until, that is, one day, a unicorn shows up in his vineyard. And with this change in his routine, other people enter his life as well. So Claudio Bianchi has to take a good look at his life and whether it is all he wanted it to be.
This novella may not focus very heavily on the unicorn itself, but I really enjoyed seeing the impact its appearance has on Bianchi and the few people in his life. It also shows just how disgusting humans can be and that some just want to destroy beautiful creatures. (176 pages)


Muggle Studies – Outstanding

For my Outstanding, I decided to read one of the few books by N. K. Jemisin I hadn’t read yet. The Awakened Kingdom was a novella set in the world of the Inheritance Trilogy and it took me right back to that world of gods and magic and characters I loved. We follow a very young godling named Shill, as she discovers her place in the world, her own powers, and the stupid things that humans are capable of. By living among the humans for a while, she sees injustice that she wants to fix, she meets people who grow dear to her. Simply put, she grows up. Shill tells her story herself and as she grows older and wiser as a person, her storytelling also evolves. It was a short but beautiful little book that made me want to pick up The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms all over again and re-live that beautiful story. (124 pages)


Potions – Acceptable

For this, I asked Twitter to help me pick my next book and the poll ended up at 90% of votes for Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor. Thank you, fellow Hogwarts students, for sending me on this wonderful journey!
I had already started this book once but then life stuff happened and I had to stop (although I loved the beginning). This time around, I loved it even more! It’s a chunky one and with Laini Taylor’s gorgeous, lyrical language not exactly a quick read. And I do admit, I dragged it out on purpose, not wanting this beautiful story to end just yet. Laini Taylor managed to create a stunning world, filled with incredibly endearing characters. She makes you love that world and then she goes ahead and rips your heart out. Needless to say, the second book has already arrived and sits comfortably next to this one on my shelf. (536 pages)


Potions – Exceeds Expectations

Here’s where I started switching around my TBR books. Although it was initially planned as a Care of Magical Creatures read, it ended up counting for my Exceeds Expectations in Potions class. Nnedi Okorafor’s Broken Places & Outer Spaces absolutely blew me away. It is a short memoir that tells the story of Nnedi’s paralysis and how she turned what she calls her “brokenness” into something wonderful. She became a science fiction writer – and a damn great one, at that – partly because of her paralysis. I loved everything about this book. How Nnedi deals with this difficult situation, what inspired her to write some of her brilliant novels, how she regained the use of her legs and what difficulties she still faces in everyday life – whether you know the author or not, I urge you to pick this up. It is truly amazing! (112 pages)


Transfiguration – Acceptable

I used this prompt to catch up on 2019 releases and read Kameron Hurley’s The Light Brigade. This military science fiction novel starts out like a Heinlein book and then messes with your head in the best of ways. The protagonist, Dietz, goes through military boot camp to join the war against Mars. For that war, the soldiers are turned into light and thus transported to wherever a battle is to take place. But Dietz experiences these jumps different from other people. This book was mind-blowing! It deals with themes of war, the value of humans, world-ruling corporations, and the meaning of time. There is so much to discover and you really have to pay attention while reading. Things get quite mixed up, but it all comes together beautifully at the end. One of my top reads of 2019 so far! (356 pages)


Final Thoughts

Readathons can be a blessing or a curse, especially if you have a tendency towards ambition. Sure, it’s nice to have the motivation to read a lot during a given month, but there is also the pressure many of us put on ourselves to achieve a goal. And if we don’t reach that goal, we can feal like failures. There’s also the danger of comparing yourself to others and considering whoever has read the most as “the best”. That is totally silly and we all know it, yet deep down, we still feel less worthy than those voracious readers. I tried really hard not to compare myself to others, to just pursue my personal goals and stay relaxed during the readathon. I did sometimes catch myself thinking “Wow, how much time does this person have to read all 36 books, I’m so jealous”, but I managed to come around and see this for what it is. And most importantly, to see what I have achieved as the amazing success it is. I usually read between four and six books a month. So even with short stories, novellas, and a graphic novel, 22 is a crazy number for me!

But there are a few things that make this particular readathon truly special. Not only are the prompts and the ideas absolutely fantastic and created with so much love for detail, but the whole spirit of the thing kept me motivated. Whenever I’d go to Twitter to see what people were currently reading, which classes they had already passed or what they had to say generally about the readathon, I was faced with a group of people from all over the world who shared a love for books and a love for Harry Potter. We cheered each other on, we lifted each other up, we congratulated the people who got trivia questions right – no matter our Hogwarts House!

I also have to mention again how well G did with her career booklet and the reading prompts. There were a lot of prompts (36 in all) but each of them made perfect sense for its Hogwarts class. Reading something with “moon” in the title or on the cover for Astronomy, a book with a certain page number for Arithmancy, or something green for Herbology – it’s all really fitting and yet vague enough for everyone to find a book they can read. Another thing I loved (and which makes me even more excited for next year) was that this year’s theme was The Chamber of Secrets. That means next year’s will be The Prisoner of Azakaban, my favorite Potter book. So you can bet I’ll be back for both the OWLs and the NEWTs in 2020 and I’m already excited.

An Icy Fairy Tale: T. Kingfisher – The Raven and the Reindeer

If you’ve had the pleasure of reading one of T. Kingfisher’s retold fairy tales, I’m sure you’ll have already bought all the rest. But just in case you don’t know the brilliant mind and practical heroines of T. Kingfisher (a pseudonym for Ursula Vernon, creator of Digger), then let me tell you why you should absolutely give her a try.

THE RAVEN AND THE REINDEER
by T. Kingfisher

Published by: Argyll Productions, 2017
Paperback: 224 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence: Once upon a time, there was a boy born with frost in his eyes and frost in his heart.

When Gerta’s friend Kay is stolen away by the mysterious Snow Queen, it’s up to Gerta to find him. Her journey will take her through a dangerous land of snow and witchcraft, accompanied only by a bandit and a talking raven. Can she win her friend’s release, or will following her heart take her to unexpected places?
A strange, sly retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s “Snow Queen,” by T. Kingfisher, author of “Bryony and Roses” and “The Seventh Bride.”

The Snow Queen has always been one of my favorite fairy tales, not so much because of the setting or the idea of having a piece of magical glass mirror stuck in your heart or eye, but because it was the one fairy tale I read as a kid where the girl goes out on a proper quest, where she meets witches and robbers, and has to be incredibly brave to save her friend. I also discovered a Finnish movie version that was, to me, utterly perfect. The musical score still breaks my heart and the imagery pops up in my mind whenever someone mentions The Snow Queen. So I’m invested in this story!

I have loved everything T. Kingfisher has written, so I was quite surprised when the beginning of this book didn’t really grab me. It read like a proper fairy tale – but like the bad parts of a fairy tale. Descriptions of plot, characters that are little more than names with maybe one attribute to them, and nothing to create any kind of immersion. The beginning read like the raw material out of which great fairy tale retellings are grown. I wanted to feel the atmosphere, to be told how cold it is in the North, why Gerta loved Kay so much that she’d be willing to go out into the world and save him. And because I trust T. Kingfisher, I kept reading. And I was rewarded.

Although the beginning does drag a little if you don’t want to read a story told just like a fairy tale, it gets better and better the longer Gerta has been on her journey. The stops she makes and the people she meets start to feel less and less like little episodes and more like parts of a whole, bigger story. And by a certain point, we were right back in that well-beloved Kingfisher fairy tale territory that I had hoped for. It just took a little longer this time than in The Seventh Bride or Bryony and Roses.

Gerta does meet some characters from the original fairy tale, but they aren’t exactly the same as you’d expect. She also meets new characters, such as a raven and a reindeer (I know, bit surprise). The way these Nordic myths were incorporated into the reimagined fairy tale was probably my favorite part. I grew to love both raven and reindeer so much that I was sad when the story was over. The reindeer especially offers something new to discover even for crazy fairy tale lovers such as myself – for us, a straight forward retelling can sometimes feel a bit boring because we know everything that’s going to happen. So I always look for the parts that the author added, maybe took from other fairy tales, from myth, from history, or even from pure imagination, to keep me hooked. T. Kingfisher succeeded in that.

But there is another twist on the original tale here, one which most blurbs and synopsis will tell you beforehand, and which I don’t consider a spoiler either. On her travels, Gerta meets a Robber Girl, and in this version, the Robber Girl gets a personality and a mind of her own. And she may just fall in love with our protagonist a little bit… As Kay isn’t all that great to begin with (flying off with the Snow Queen, leaving his Gerta behind. I mean, how cold is that [pun a little intended]), I found it absolutely wonderful and refreshing to see Gerta figure out her own life without the need for Kay. Oh, she’s an amazing friend and definitely wants to save him, but that doesn’t mean she wants to be his girlfriend. Instead, she discovers what she values in people, she sees what it’s like when someone sticks by your side through the bad times as well as the good, and she learns to just love whom she loves.

If you’ve picked up this book and didn’t like the beginning, I urge you to push through it to get to the good bits. Because they are so good they make it all worthwile. I started reading this with a lot of disappointment, thinking Kingfisher had lost her deft hand at rewriting fairy tales with feminist twists, clever heroines, and believable romances. But a little patience did the trick and I was rewarded with another lovely, heartwarming tale of friendship, bravery, magic, and love. And reindeer! Never forget the reindeer.

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very good!

 

Growing Up in a Fairy Tale: Lisa Goldstein – The Uncertain Places

This is a book that I would normally never pick up. Yes, yes, don’t judge a book by its cover, but let’s be honest – we all do it to a certain degree. And this cover has been begging me not to read the book. But it did win the Mythopoeic Award in 2012, I read all the other nominees and thought, if this book won over Cat Valente’s Deathless, there must be something to it. And it was definitely much better than the cover made me expect. But not so good that I personally would have given it an award.

THE UNCERTAIN PLACES
by Lisa Goldstein

Published by: Tachyon, 2011
Paperback: 237 pages
Standalone
My rating: 6,5/10

First line: It was Ben Avery who introduced me to Livvy, Livvy and her haunted family.

An ages-old family secret breaches the boundaries between reality and magic in this fresh retelling of a classic fairy tale. When Berkeley student Will Taylor is introduced to the mysterious Feierabend sisters, he quickly falls for enigmatic Livvy, a chemistry major and accomplished chef. But Livvy’s family-vivacious actress Maddie, family historian Rose, and their mother, absent-minded Sylvia-are behaving strangely. The Feierabend women seem to believe that luck is their handmaiden, even though happiness does not necessarily follow. It is soon discovered that generations previous, the Feierabends made a contract with a powerful, otherworldly force, and it is up to Will and his best friend to unravel the riddle of this supernatural bargain in order to save Livvy from her predestined fate.

Will Taylor tells the story of how he met Livvy Feierabend and learned about all the strange things that surrounded her family. Will and his best friend Ben are college students in the 70ies, soon they both go out with the elder Feierabend sisters Livvy and Maddie, and not long after that, Will discovers that there is something strange about that family. It’s not just the strange, massive house they live in, or the fact that their vineyard has always been going well. It’s the behaviour of the three daughters as well and the way they react when people make innocent jokes about fairy tales.

Fairy tales, you see, are something the Feierabends have some real experience of. I don’t think the first quarter of the book can be considered spoiler territory, so I’ll tell you that Will discovers why the Feierabends always seem to succeed in whatever they do, and what kind of prize they pay for that. Naturally, young and in love as he is, Will wants nothing more than to break that blessing/curse because he dreams of being with Livvy forever.

What follows is an interesting tale that intertwines fairy tale elements with real world issues. We get to see Will and his friends grow into adults, some even into parents. We see the effect that dealing with people from the Other Realm has on everybody’s lives and we delve deeper into the past to find out the truth of the fairy bargain at the heart of this novel. There was much to discover and lots of hints to well-known fairy tales. The particular tale that is important in The Uncertain Places may not be one we know in the real world but it feels like it could be and there certainly are many variants of its plot. As a fairy tale lover, I really enjoyed how well Goldstein managed to mix these fictional bits in with fairy tales we have in our world as well.

The plot was also quite  fun. Breaking a curse and dealing with faeries (or whatever you want to call them) usually guarantees a thrilling book. And there were scenes that I had to rush through because I needed to know what happened next. But there were also chapters that deal more with everyday issues, such as Will’s job, his marriage, or traveling from one place to another to see how old friends are doing.

The only problem I had – and sadly, it’s a big one – was that I didn’t connect with any of the characters. Sure, Will was likeable and I wanted him to succeed, but I didn’t really care about anyone. I was watching them, doing their thing, hoping that everything would turn out well in the end, but the story didn’t absorb me, it didn’t evoke any particular emotional response in me. And what makes it worse is that there was so much potential. The Feierabend family were all put in a really interesting situation that involved hard choices. The girls grew up with a cloud of tragedy hanging over their heads, knowing that any day, the bad thing that happens could happen. But the story is told by Will, in first person, so we never really get to see the more intersting characters’ point of view.

Had this book told through multiple POVs or even in third person omniscient, I think it would have been a much more exciting story. By showing us Will’s limited point of view, the best parts of the story are kept at a distance. I wanted to know what it was like being Maddie or Livvy growing up, or Rose, the third daughter who was always left out of the elder girls’ games. Or even Sylvia, their mother, who may be blessed with fortune but has been left by her husband and constantly has to worry about her daughters. But we only get glimpses of that through Will’s eyes and if you ask me, those eyes, perceptive as they may be, only see a small part of what’s there.

All that said, I did enjoy this book. It was a quick read, but neither the writing style nor the characters felt in any way award-worthy to me. This is the kind of book that I like to compare to a night at the movies, where you enjoy the movie while you’re watching it but when you get home afterwards, you already forget all the details. A week later, you don’t know what the characters were called and the whole thing turns out to be not particularly memorable. As well as the fairy tales were interwoven with a story set in our world, it didn’t lift the book over an average rating for me.

MY RATING: 6,5/10 – Good

The Dream Chooses the Dreamer: Laini Taylor – Strange the Dreamer

Sometimes, everything about a book is just right. While many books have lovely covers, only few manage to offer a story that equals it. This is a book where the feelings you get when you look at the cover (I have the UK edition which is my absolute favorite) actually give you a hint of what you’ll find inside. Something magical and strange, where the color blue is important, where moths are more than just annoying creatures that come out at night… I loved everything about this book!

STRANGE THE DREAMER
by Laini Taylor

Published by: Hodder & Stougthon, 2017
Hardcover: 536 pages
Series: Strange the Dreamer #1
My rating: 9/10

First sentence: On the second Sabbat of Twelfthmoon, in the city of Weep, a girl fell from the sky.

The dream chooses the dreamer, not the other way around – and Lazlo Strange, war orphan and junior librarian, has always feared that his dream chose poorly. Since he was five years old he’s been obsessed with the mythic lost city of Weep, but it would take someone bolder than he to cross half the world in search of it. Then a stunning opportunity presents itself, in the person of a hero called the Godslayer and a band of legendary warriors, and he has to seize his chance to lose his dream forever.
What happened in Weep two hundred years ago to cut it off from the rest of the world? What exactly did the Godslayer slay that went by the name of god? And what is the mysterious problem he now seeks help in solving?
The answers await in Weep, but so do more mysteries – including the blue-skinned goddess who appears in Lazlo’s dreams. How did he dream her before he knew she existed? And if all the gods are dead, why does she seem so real?
In this sweeping and breathtaking new novel by National Book Award finalist Laini Taylor, author of the New York Times bestselling Daughter of Smoke & Bone trilogy, the shadow of the past is as real as the ghosts who haunt the citadel of murdered gods. Fall into a mythical world of dread and wonder, moths and nightmares, love and carnage.

There are some books that take a while to draw you in, to make you feel part of their world, to turn characters from strangers into friends. Not this book! From the very first chapter, I was captivated, I wanted to learn everything about the world into which Laszlo Strange had been born. When I read that Laszlo’s nose had been broken by a book of fairy tales, I was already utterly in love with him – and so will many other book lovers.

Strange the Dreamer is about many things, but at its core, it is about a city. A city Laszlo first encountered in stories he heard as a child, a city filled with magical beasts, and brave warriors, and colorful markets. When one day, Laszlo – and everybody else – loses that city’s name from his mind and memory, he knows magic is real and wants to solve the mystery of what is now called Weep. I don’t think it’s a spoiler when I say that the city is by no means a fairytale and it has much bigger problems than a missing name… And Laszlo of course wants to solve them.

It is a rare book that gets me so emotional in such a short span of time. At the very beginning, when we still get to know Laszlo Strange and his life as an apprentice librarian, we watch him play Tizerkane – one of the legendary warriors from the city of Weep. I got so swept up in his dreams that I wanted the legends to be real as much as Laszlo did. When, shortly after that, something happens to Laszlo that is brutally unfair, I felt real anger on his behalf. I was only a few chapters into the book and already I felt like Laszlo was my friend! That is no small feat and I can only applaud Laini Taylor for it. She is equally deft with her other characters. Whether we’re meant to love or hate them, see them for the multi-layered people that they are, be uncertain of whether we like them – she does it all beautifully and has created a cast of amazing characters that will stay with me for a long time.

As the title would suggest, this book is like falling into a dream and the writing style goes perfectly with that theme. Lush descriptions, beautiful quotable passages, natural-sounding dialogue – I couldn’t find a fault with it even if I tried to nitpick. In fact, this book was so gorgeous (inside and out) that I dragged it  out the further I got to the end. I know there’s a second book – it has moved onto my shelf in the meantime – but the longer I can spend with Laszlo and the others, the better.

Speaking of the others, there are quite a few and all of them are interesting, even though I wouldn’t want to know all of them in real life. Thyon Nero, an alechemist prodigy, may not be in direct competition with Laszlo (as a librarian, he doesn’t exactly have a high social status), but he is something like Laszlo’s childhood rival, nonetheless. But although he seems to be the first “villain”, we soon learn that there is more to Nero than meets the eye. Sure, he may be a jerk most of the time, but there are reasons for that and it’s not that he’s a bad person, he’s just a victim of circumstance.
On the other hand, we have characters like Sarai, who became an immediate favorite. I won’t say much about her because although we meet her early in the book, there are a few twists and surprises that I don’t want to spoil for you. Let’s just say that she leads a pretty difficult life, filled with magic and monsters and moths. Yes, you read that right – moths. The cover isn’t just pretty (soooo pretty), it is actually meaningful. Sarai’s inner conflict would have been enough to fill an entire book, but pairing her story with Laszlo’s created something new and wonderful.
Then there’s Eril-Fane, lauded as a hero who has saved his city, and sure… he kind of did that. But again, there is way more to his story than you may think at first.

It’s quite difficult to talk about the plot without giving too much away. And it’s not even that there are that many plot twists, but the way Laini Taylor slowly unveils the secrets of her story is so utterly perfect that I don’t want to ruin it for you guys. She puts characters we love into impossible situations, she gives us moments of pure bliss, and moments of absolute desperation. And, at the end, she  puts a knife in our hearts and twists it around – because authors are evil, I guess. But, you know, the good kind of evil.

This was a story that will stay with me for a long time. Reading it was a wonderful experience, trying to figure out how to solve the various problems, speculating where the story might go, it was just pure fun. I haven’t been this emotionally engaged in a book for a while and although I really want to know how the story ends, I am also a little hesitant. Because once I’ve finished the second book, it will truly be over.

MY RATING: 9/10 – Nearly perfect!

A Classic Fantasy Re-Read: Ursula K. LeGuin – A Wizard of Earthsea

It’s a rare occasion for me to re-read a book. The few things I’ll gladly re-read are the Harry Potter books or anything by Cat Valente. But to pick up a book I didn’t even enjoy that much the first time has really never happened before. Thanks to the N.E.W.T.s Magical Readathon, however, I took the opportunity to dive back into the world of Earthsea so I can finally continue the series. The second time around, the book fared a little better than the first, but the same things that bothered me the first time, still bothered me now.

A WIZARD OF EARTHSEA
by Ursula K. LeGuin

Published by: Parnassus Press, 1969
Hardcover: 206 pages
Series: The Earthsea Cycle #1
My rating: 6/10

First sentence: The island of Gont, a single mountain that lifts its peak above the storm-wracked Northeast Sea, is a land famous for wizards.

Ged was the greatest sorcerer in all Earthsea, but once he was called Sparrowhawk, a reckless youth, hungry for power and knowledge, who tampered with long-held secrets and loosed a terrible shadow upon the world. This is the tale of his testing, how he mastered the mighty words of power, tamed an  ancient dragon, and crossed death’s threshold to restore the balance.

This is the story of Ged, a young boy with immense magical talent, who first learns from his witchy aunt in his home village, then becomes apprentice to a mage on his island, then moves on to magic school where he is trained properly in the arts of magic. During his time at school, Ged unleashes an ancient evil, a shadow that follows him wherever he goes from that moment  on. Now it is up to the young sorcerer whether he will forever keep running or face his fear and gain his freedom.

The plot as such is – nowadays – nothing groundbreaking. It seems like your standard fantasy novel, a coming of age tale about a boy wizard in a magical world. But we must not forget when this book was published and that there wasn’t anything like it then. Take alone the fact that there is no great war, no armys of Evil against which our protagonist has to fight. Instead, his battle is a quieter one, with a shadow he himself has set free in the world. Ged’s coming of age is mostly dealing with the consequences of his own actions as well as accepting who he is and finding his place in the world. We may be lucky enough today to have many fantasy books with similar premises but in the late 60ies, I’m sure this was pretty mind-blowing.

As Ged’s story unfolds, we make pit stops (literally) at many of fantasy’s standard tropes. There is a dragon to defeat – or at least to keep at bay – and people in power trying to abuse it. There are villages to be visited on the journey, friends to be made, and school rivals to defeat. And of course, there is the entire Archipelago and beyond to discover via boat and sometimes even on wings.

My biggest problem – both on my first read and this time around – was how very distant everything felt. The writing style is like a fairy tale without all the whimsy. We are served simple facts, we are told how Ged feels, we are told everything that happens in dry langage, without any apparent wish to let the reader get immersed. That doesn’t make the story bad, but it also never let me get close enough to feel anything. I didn’t every get the feeling that I was truly discovering the Archipelago with Ged. Every village seemed much like the last, even if Ged didn’t always receive the same kind of welcome. The world just didn’t come alive. The times when Ged physically encounters his shadow were the only instances where I felt something. And I did want him to succeed, to be free of the thing that haunts him, but while reading, I mostly felt like I was examining an interesting specimen under a microscope. I wasn’t in the story but on the outside, looking in, if you know what I mean.

There are also many hints as to Ged’s further adventures and accomplishments, mostly in throwaway lines that nonetheless make me interested to continue the series. I also heard that the second book will have a female protagonist and female characters of any kind were lacking in this book. In the Afterword, LeGuin explains that, for the time the book was published, she actually subverted the current standard by including women characters, and not just window-dressing women but ones with power who use or abuse it. The fact that most of the characters are also People of Color is another bonus – one that may not have appealed to publishers, judging by the many white-washed covers and the movie adaptation…

While I remember being bored a lot of the time when I first read this book, I didn’t feel that way this time. I wasn’t riveted, because the whole story happened to characters I wasn’t much invested in, but this was a quick read. The story entertained me, it made me want to learn more about the world of Earthsea and the many amazing deeds that lie in Ged’s future. But was this a standout book for me? One that I’ll remember for a long time? Not really.

MY RATING: 6/10 – Good

The Godfather With Magic: Fonda Lee – Jade City

Here’s a book I read a while ago and which completely swept me away. With the second in the series newly published, I wanted to go back and collect my thoughts about this fantastic series. If you like mafia movies (or even if you don’t) and magic, and diverse settings, then definitely check this book out. It is more than the sum of its parts, however, and I can’t wait to return to these characters that have grown so dear to me.

JADE CITY
by Fonda Lee

Published by: Orbit, 2017
ebook: 560 pages
Series: The Green Bone Saga #1
My rating: 8,5/10

First sentence: The two would-be jade thieves sweated in the kitchen of the Twice Lucky restaurant.

The Kaul family is one of two crime syndicates that control the island of Kekon. It’s the only place in the world that produces rare magical jade, which grants those with the right training and heritage superhuman abilities.
The Green Bone clans of honorable jade-wearing warriors once protected the island from foreign invasion–but nowadays, in a bustling post-war metropolis full of fast cars and foreign money, Green Bone families like the Kauls are primarily involved in commerce, construction, and the everyday upkeep of the districts under their protection.
When the simmering tension between the Kauls and their greatest rivals erupts into open violence in the streets, the outcome of this clan war will determine the fate of all Green Bones and the future of Kekon itself.

Jade City is one of those books that are best read without much prior knowledge, so I’ll tell you very little about the plot itself. Two opposing clans control the island of Kekon and their conflict reaches new heights throughout the course of this book. On this island, magical jade is produced which gives the people who wear it – if they are trained! – superhuman powers. Needless to say, jade is much sought-after and a large part of Kekonese culture is based on its magical properties. Whether it’s the fact that business owners swear fealty to one clan or another, or the magic schools in which promising young people are trained to use jade responsibly – Kekon is a magical place, albeit one with many dark sides.

But as amazing as the world building was, what really got me invested in the story were the characters. We follow the younger generation of the No Peak Clan and how they deal with the fact that they’ll soon take over certain responsibilities. These young Kauls –  Lan, Hilo, and Shae – are vastly different people with different goals in life. Lan struggles with the weight of responsibility as he is to become leader of the clan. Hilo is impulsive, prone to violence, and has to be held in check so he doesn’t accidentally (or not so accidentally) start a full-out war with the Mountain Clan. Shae has been gone from Kekon for a while and is just returning at the beginning of this book. She has her own troubles, not least of which is reuniting with her family after the unheard of act of leaving them. Apart from the general unrest brewing in the city, these siblings also don’t exactly get along. Figuring out why, and what has happened in their past to create this conflict, was just another layer that made this book so much fun to read.
And I haven’t even mentioned the fourth main character, a Kaul cousin named Anden, who is currently in training to become a Green Bone Warrior.

Which leads me to the magic system. The short version: It is AWESOME! A combination of magic and martial arts, it is the kind of magic that exacts a price. Using it drains energy, which is why you have to be trained before you can use jade, and why only the most powerful Green Bone Warriors wear a lot of jade on their body. The fight scenes, which can be difficult to do in  prose rather than a movie, were fantastically written. I always felt like I was right there, watching these amazingly powerful people battle each other.

There are also some greater conflicts at work in Kekon. Not only do the tensions between No Peak and Mountain reach a new high, but the larger world is involved as well. As I mentioned, jade is quite the popular material, because  of its magical properties, so it is only natural that other nations want it for themselves – for money, war, power… the usual. But jade in untrained hands can be more than dangerous, not just to the person wielding it, but to many others as well.

You see, there are so many things that come together in this book, and turn it into an almost perfect novel. Whether you prefer thrilling action scenes, quieter character moments where the protagonists have to make hard decisions, even a bit of romance (though very little of that), or simply a fantastic world that feels like a magical mafia story, it’s all there. And it’s all really well done! I couldn’t pick a single thing that Lee tried to do and didn’t succeed at. Her magic system follows its own  rules and makes sense (as much as magic can make sense, but you know what I mean), the characters all grow throughout the story and are definitely not the same people they were at the beginning of the book. The world itself is such an interesting place that I want to pack a suitcase and simply go out and explore what else there is to learn.

If it hasn’t come across yet, I was quite taken with this novel and I’m not even a big fan of mafia movies. But it is so easy to get swept up in the fate of the Kaul family because I cared so much about the characters, even the ones who don’t seem very likable at first. Fonda Lee has done a brilliant job in creating a magical world, multi-layered characters, family drama, and political intrigue. This book has pretty much everything that I love about fantasy and science fiction and I hope to read the sequel, Jade War, very soon!

MY RATING: 8,5/10 – Truly excellent!

Light and Easy Fantasy: Margaret Rogerson – Sorcery of Thorns

Here is one of this year’s YA fantasy books that have been surrounded by enormous hype. I understand completely that this cover makes people excited (I am one of them, after all), but a pretty cover does not make a great book. So I picked this up for the N.E.W.T.s Readathon to find out for myself if the content is a gorgeous as the packaging. The verdict is… not bad, but definitely not worthy of the hype.

SORCERY OF THORNS
by Margaret Rogerson

Published by: Margaret K. McElderberry Books, 2019
Hardback: 456 pages
Standalone
My rating: 5,5/10

First sentence: Night fell as death rode into the Great Library of Summershall.

All sorcerers are evil. Elisabeth has known that as long as she has known anything. Raised as a foundling in one of Austermeer’s Great Libraries, Elisabeth has grown up among the tools of sorcery—magical grimoires that whisper on shelves and rattle beneath iron chains. If provoked, they transform into grotesque monsters of ink and leather. She hopes to become a warden, charged with protecting the kingdom from their power.
Then an act of sabotage releases the library’s most dangerous grimoire. Elisabeth’s desperate intervention implicates her in the crime, and she is torn from her home to face justice in the capital. With no one to turn to but her sworn enemy, the sorcerer Nathaniel Thorn, and his mysterious demonic servant, she finds herself entangled in a centuries-old conspiracy. Not only could the Great Libraries go up in flames, but the world along with them.
As her alliance with Nathaniel grows stronger, Elisabeth starts to question everything she’s been taught—about sorcerers, about the libraries she loves, even about herself. For Elisabeth has a power she has never guessed, and a future she could never have imagined.

Elisabeth Scrivener has been left at the Great Library of Summershall as an orphaned baby and grown up surrounded by magical tomes and the wardens who protect them. Her ambition is to become a warden herself one day, just like the Director, her mentor/mother-figure. Elisabeth also knows sorcery is evil (that’s why the keep the dangerous magical books in chains and cages) and sorcerers are bad. When a new book arrives at the Library, and Elisabeth sees her first magister (read: sorcerer), things are set in motion that will rip her out of her life and into a world of magic, politics, and danger. Lots of danger!

Accused of a crime she didn’t commit, sorcerer Nathaniel Thorn takes  Elisabeth to the city to be tried. On the way, Elisabeth learns a lot more about the world she lives in and the place sorcerers occupy in it. There are demon servants, certain properties of magical books, a whole history of sorcerers on whose shoulders the society has been built. And of course there is Nathaniel, at the same time reserved and cocky. The fact that he’s the romantic interest is obvious from the start and I was happy to go along with that, expecting to learn more of his character and the world he’s grown up in.

Which leads me to my two big problems with this book. The world building is so shallow, everything there is to learn about it is told in a few chapters. Sure, there are hints here and there, that there could be more to certain stories of the past, but they are never expanded upon. The same goes for the characters, unfortunately. Elisabeth is just your standard YA fantasy heroine. She’s pretty and brave and clever. Her sole defining characteristic at the beginning seems to be her dream of becoming a warden. She leaves that dream behind so fast, you’ll miss it if you blink. And then she is basically a shell without hopes, dreams, or desires – other than making out with Nathaniel. That is such a shame. I was hoping for more of a proactive, actually smart protagonist like in A Curse so Dark and Lonely . But that still seems to be the exception.

Nathaniel does get some backstory and while I did like the idea of what happened to him, the way it is told was just so… underwhelming. Elisabeth is told the whole tragic truth in a single conversation, on one single page. It had no emotional impact for me, because it was just executed so badly.

Now what I did like about the story were the action scenes and a side character named Silas. In fact, Silas carried the entire book. In my opinion, if he had been the protagonist and this would have been an excellent book, not just an okay one. But at least he was there and he was amazing and he gave the story something to be emotional about. The romance – which should have been the thing to give me all the feels – was also only okay. I don’t want to say it was badly done, but if you make it that obvious who’s going to fall for whom, then there has to be something extra to keep me interested. There wasn’t any tension between Elisabeth and Nathaniel, they didn’t have particularly engaging dialogue, and the scenes where they do get closer to each other didn’t give me butterflies. That may just be me.

The plot was also nothing groundbreaking. It was a fun adventure story, with magic and evil books, demons and some great fight scenes, but I felt that the ending was artificially drawn out. Elisabeth figures out pretty quickly – and through rather stupid coincidences – what’s going on, who the villain is and approximately what he’s planning. The stopping of the plan is what takes up nearly half of the book, and because the suspense was already gone, it was precisely this last part of the book that dragged for me.

There is nothing especially bad about the novel or the writing style. But there’s nothing very great about it either. All things considered, this wasn’t a noteworthy book but it was fun and I think, with some work and deeper characterisation and world-building, the author could deliver a really good book next.

MY RATING: 5,5/10 – Okay

Fairy Politics and Forbidden Romance: Holly Black – The Wicked King

Unlike most other people, I did not love The Cruel Prince unconditionally. It was a fun read that offered a refreshingly complex story for a YA book. But apart from the twist at the end, it wasn’t the kind of book that made me go: I need the second one NOW! “Now” has arrived, however, and after reading this sequel, I am definitely among the people who are screaming for the third book. What an exciting ride this was! Spoilers for The Cruel Prince below!!

THE WICKED KING
by Holly Black

Published by: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2019
Hardcover: 336 pages
Audiobook: 10 hours 20 minutes
Series: The Folk of the Air #2
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: Jude lifted the heavy practice sword, moving into the first stance – readiness.

You must be strong enough to strike and strike and strike again without tiring.
The first lesson is to make yourself strong.
After the jaw-dropping revelation that Oak is the heir to Faerie, Jude must keep her younger brother safe. To do so, she has bound the wicked king, Cardan, to her, and made herself the power behind the throne. Navigating the constantly shifting political alliances of Faerie would be difficult enough if Cardan were easy to control. But he does everything in his power to humiliate and undermine her even as his fascination with her remains undiminished.
When it becomes all too clear that someone close to Jude means to betray her, threatening her own life and the lives of everyone she loves, Jude must uncover the traitor and fight her own complicated feelings for Cardan to maintain control as a mortal in a Faerie world.

At the end of The Cruel Prince, Jude had maneuvered herself into a precarious position. Yes, she wields incredible power, but that power is bound to run out. Over five months have passed when we rejoin Jude and Cardan at the Faerie Court and their relationship is… strained. Add to that the fact that Orla, the Queen of the Undersea, made a pact with the previous High King and now kind of considers that pact void – because reasons.

The shift in power dynamics between Jude and Cardan makes for excellent drama. Even if there hadn’t been a plot that includes the threat of war with the Undersea, Jude’s relationship with her sister, and her hiding that she is literally pulling the High King’s strings, this would have been enough to keep me entertained. As unhealthy and problematic as it might be, the tension between Jude and Cardan was also so damn sexy. I know I’m bad for liking them, but I just can’t help it. 🙂

I really don’t want to talk too much about the plot because, much like in the first book, there are plenty of things to discover. Jude is warned that someone close to her is a traitor, she meets new characters that reveal interesting things about the people she knows, she learns more of Cardan’s past… And all the while, she is worried about Oak, her sister is preparing to get married, and the Shadow Court is still doing its thing but we get way more insight into everything. Generally, it felt like Black used this second volume to expand her world, to give us a better idea how everything works and how the various political factions influence each other.

Jude is trying to juggle all the players on her Faerie chess board and, naturally, gets herself into the occasional super dangerous situation. This is not an action-packed book but when things get tricky for our protagonist, it’s impossible to put down. There was one chapter in particular that had me at the edge of my seat, filled with worry for Jude, and for the fate of Faerie in general. And apart from that, every scene between Jude and Cardan was just so loaded with tension, unspoken feelings, held-back desires, and struggles for power that I just couldn’t stop reading. Cardan also grew as a character which made it much easier for me to understand how Jude feels about him. In the first book – no matter how the ending tries to justify it – he was just an asshole. A cruel, heartless bastard who enjoys the pain of others. But here, we discover that there’s more to him than we first thought. He may still be a jerk most of the time, but he also has moments that show that there is definitely good in him.

For the middle book of a trilogy, this was truly a stunning novel. Most middle books don’t really do much to further the plot but rather set up the grand finale. That is the case here, too, but the book would also work really well as a standalone. It has its own story arc that would work well by itself, but of course, it also furthers the greater conflict of the succession to the Court, of Jude coming into her own and finding who she wants to be.

Without spoilers, let me tell you that the ending was again mind-blowing! Holly Black makes you feel that you kind of know what’s going to happen, then turns everything on its head. And then she puts an unexpected knife into her readers’ hearts and twists it around, because she can. I have come to believe that she is an evil genius who enjoys toying with her readers – and I am absolutely loving it! Now I feel that I am truly a part of all the other fans who are eagerly awaiting the publication of The Queen of Nothing (a title that makes so much sense now).

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

A Perfect Fairy Tale: Joanna Ruth Meyer – Echo North

As someone who reads a lot of fairy tale retellings, it’s become hard for books to blow my mind and truly enchant me. Not only do I know the fairy tale by heart but I’ve also read many versions, updates, twists, and retellings of it – so to discover a book that manages to be original while honoring its fairy tale basis is something special. Joanna Ruth Meyer has not only done that, but she’s added some amazing twists that actually left me gasping.

ECHO NORTH
by Joanna Ruth Meyer

Published by: Page Street Publishing, 2019
Hardcover: 389 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: I was called Echo for my mother, who died when I was born, because when my father took me into his arms he said he felt the echo of her heartbeat within me.

Echo Alkaev’s safe and carefully structured world falls apart when her father leaves for the city and mysteriously disappears. Believing he is lost forever, Echo is shocked to find him half-frozen in the winter forest six months later, guarded by a strange talking wolf—the same creature who attacked her as a child. The wolf presents Echo with an ultimatum: If she lives with him for one year, he will ensure her father makes it home safely. But there is more to the wolf than Echo realizes.
In his enchanted house beneath a mountain, each room must be sewn together to keep the home from unraveling, and something new and dark and strange lies behind every door. When centuries-old secrets unfold, Echo discovers a magical library full of books-turned-mirrors, and a young man named Hal who is trapped inside of them. As the year ticks by, the rooms begin to disappear, and Echo must solve the mystery of the wolf’s enchantment before her time is up, otherwise Echo, the wolf, and Hal will be lost forever.

When Echo was born, her mother died, leaving her only with her beloved father and brother and a thirst for knowledge. She grows up loved and happy, but at the age of seven, an encounter with a white wolf leaves one side of her face hideously scarred. From that day on, she becomes an outcast in her villages, can’t make any friends, and has people stare at her and avoid her. Things don’t get better when Echo’s father decides to get married again – to a greedy, superficial woman who demands more riches than the family can  afford. And then Echo’s father doesn’t return from a trip to the city, so she goes looking for him and finds… a while wolf.

From there, things follow the story of the fairy tale not exactly, but at least recognisably. Echo promises to live with the wolf for one year in order to save her father’s life. They sleep in the same room, and the one thing she is forbidden to do is light a candle in the night and look upon the sleeping wolf. But Joanna Ruth Meyer has added so many layers, so many ideas to this time spent with the wolf. Instead of a castle, they live in a magical house under a hill, with ever-changing rooms filled with both wonders and terrors. Discovering these rooms was so much fun, but best of all was the Library of Mirrors (I want one and I don’t care if it’s impossible)!

The idea of stepping into stories and living them, rather than just reading them on a page, will appeal to any book nerd. So you can imagine my joy when Echo discovered just such a marvel in the enchanted house. But she’s also the kind of character who doesn’t just sit around all day, living fictional people’s stories (not that that’s a bad thing… ahem) – she knows something is up, she knows the wolf is under some kind of curse, and she is determined to figure everything out and save him. Then there are the people she meets in books – a girl who becomes her friend, and a boy named Hal who may become even more than that. But he is also surrounded by mystery, so Echo has a lot of secrets to solve. Meanwhile, the house is starting to unravel, becomes more and more dangerous, and Echo and the wolf have their hands full just staying alive.

What made this book so special for me were a few small-ish things that added up to an amazing experience. First of all, Echo’s being scarred and always feeling like and outsider made her a great protagonist to follow. Like most young girls, she dreams of being beautiful, of being accepted, yet she knows that her scars will always scare people away. She is a resourceful, smart protagonist who desperately wants to help people even though people in general haven’t been very kind to her. If you know the fairy tale, you also know that the heroine does something incredibly stupid – I loved how Meyer solved that problem and made Echo’s decision to do that stupid thing feel not stupid at all. In this version of the tale, it made perfect sense and it didn’t make me think less of Echo.

The other thing that makes this retelling stand out is the underlying mythology Meyer came up with. While in the original, the wolf is a bear and the evil Queen is a Troll Queen, here everything is just different enough to keep people like me intrigued and guessing. If this is not the dumb Troll Queen from the fairy tale, what powers might she wield? How smart might she be and how much more difficult could she make it for Echo to save her wolf? The winds also make appearances, although not as literally as in the fairy tale. I was also delighted at the way they were incorporated into the story, especially the North Wind, who even gets a back story of his own.

As for the romance, it may not have given me butterflies, but it was the steadily building kind of romance that happens between the lines. By the end, I was invested in the relationship, although I don’t quite know when that happened. Speaking of the end – holy shit, there is a twist I did not see coming and that alone makes the book worthwile! The author really doesn’t go easy on her protagonist and just when you think she’s managed to save her wolf, when things start looking good, a knife is twisted in your heart.

If you couldn’t tell, I adored this book. The characters, the plot, especially the world building were all fantastically done. If I had to pick anything I didn’t like 100% it was the language. There were a few phrases that the author kept repeating, such as descriptions of the house’s features or people’s looks. But compared to everything else, that’s a tiny nitpick which didn’t diminish my reading pleasure at all. I am so excited to see what Meyer comes up with next and if it will be just as wonderful as Echo North.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!