Slow Start, Lovely Ending: Alix E. Harrow – A Mirror Mended

Alix Harrow is one of thos author’s whose shopping list I would pick up without a second thought. Her Fractured Fables series hit a sweet spot for me, although it wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, what with its many pop culture references and easygoing (maybe a bit too simple) plot. She has clearly taken feedback for this second volume but although I liked it generally, it wasn’t as great as A Spindle Splintered.

A MIRROR MENDED
by Alix E. Harrow

Published: Tordotcom, 14th July 2022
eBook: 176 pages
Series: Fractured Fables #2
My rating: 6/10

Opening line: I like a good happily ever after as much as the next girl, but after sitting through forty-eight different iterations of the same one-forty-nine, if you count my (former) best friends’ wedding – I have to say the shine is wearing off a little.

A Mirror Mended is the next installment in USA Today bestselling author Alix E. Harrow’s Fractured Fables series.

Zinnia Gray, professional fairy-tale fixer and lapsed Sleeping Beauty is over rescuing snoring princesses. Once you’ve rescued a dozen damsels and burned fifty spindles, once you’ve gotten drunk with twenty good fairies and made out with one too many members of the royal family, you start to wish some of these girls would just get a grip and try solving their own narrative issues.

Just when Zinnia’s beginning to think she can’t handle one more princess, she glances into a mirror and sees another face looking back at her: the shockingly gorgeous face of evil, asking for her help. Because there’s more than one person trapped in a story they didn’t choose. Snow White’s Evil Queen has found out how her story ends and she’s desperate for a better ending. She wants Zinnia to help her before it’s too late for everyone.

Will Zinnia accept the Queen’s poisonous request, and save them both from the hot iron shoes that wait for them, or will she try another path?

Zinnia Gray has been verse-hopping for a while and seen pretty much every version of Sleeping Beauty you can think of. Futurisitci sci-fi – check. Steampunk – check. Gender-flipped – check. All possible variations of LGBTQIA+ pairings – check. One gets the feeling Zinnia is getting a little bit bored with living through the same storybeats over and over again, albeit in slight variations. Sure, helping other sleeping beauties break out of their story, forge their own path, and defy fairy tale norms is fun, but how long does that novelty last, really?
There’s also something that happened between Zinnia and her best friend Charm which has led to them not speaking for six months! It’s clearly weighing on Zinnia, but she’d rather jump around fairy tales than face her real-world problems, especially when she catches a glimpse of a different tale, one involving a mirror and an apple, and promptly gets sucked in to it.

So in this volume, Zinnia finds herself in Snow White, (accidentally) summoned by none other than the Evil Queen. Whom Zinnia has an immediate crush on. Unfortunately, that part bothered me a lot because, sure, you can feel lust for someone you’ve only seen once, but this book is about something a little more growing between these two women and I was sad that it felt a little like insta-love and yet, at the same time, like only a fling. Eva – as the Evil Queen will be named soon – is a super intriguing character, in that she is pretty evil, yeah, but as with so many villain origin stories or falling in love with the villain tales, we get to see a different version of the well-known fariy tale and it puts Eva’s action into perspective. Killing your stepdauhter is still not the greatest pastime, mind you, but Eva’s reasoning is at least somewhat understandable here. She also undergoes a lovely bit of character growth which made me like her more than Zinnia in this book.

The plot is pretty weak, I’m sad to say. It starts with the fact that there’s almost no stakes to begin with. The only hook that’s there from the start is the mysterious fight between Zinnia and Charm and we only learn more details about that much later in the novella. The first half of it was – and I’m sorry to have to use that word – boring. Zinnia and Evil Queen meet, have some rather predictable chat, threatening each other and so on, and only later do they actually stumble into their own adventure. The second half of the novella is where things get interesting. There’s some more world-hopping, jumping around Snow White this time, dangerous situations and difficult decisions to make. As lackluster as I found the beginning, the later bits made up for a lot of it.

That fight between Zinnia and Charm also gets adressed and while I’m not going to spoil anything here, it was about something that will have consequences for later books in this series – if it is meant to continue, that is. The ending was well-rounded but gave the novella a highly episodic feel and thus detracted a bit from the relationship between Eva and Zinnia. I don’t know if the series will go on, and if yes, how exactly that might look after the things we’ve learned in A Mirror Mended. I’d like more adventures through differente fairy tales but I was already missing the wit and clever references and especially the spark that made the first book so exciting.

But if Alix Harrow decides to write more, I will absolutely read more of her fractured fables. Even if they’re “only” good, they are still a great addition to any fairy tale lover’s library. If you’re looking for easy to digest diverse takes on fairy tales, you’ll be quite happy with these novellas.

MY RATING: 6/10 – Good

Nothing New At The Scholomance: Naomi Novik – The Last Graduate

Publisher-generated hype can be very detrimental to a book’s success, especially when it builds up the wrong expectations. A generally very good book can end up disappointing its readers, simply because they were led to believe that it would tell a different kind of story. In the case of the Scholomance, this curse follows Novik even to her second book, which is fun to read but has very little to offer in terms of what was promised.

THE LAST GRADUATE
by Naomi Novik

Published: Del Rey, 2021
ebook:
389 pages
Audiobook:
13 hours 26 minutes
Series: The Scholomance #2
My rating: 6.5/10

Opening line: Keep far away from Orion Lake.

The specter of graduation looms large as Naomi Novik’s trilogy continues in the sequel to A Deadly Education.

In Wisdom, Shelter. That’s the official motto of the Scholomance. I suppose you could even argue that it’s true—only the wisdom is hard to come by, so the shelter’s rather scant.
Our beloved school does its best to devour all its students—but now that I’ve reached my senior year and have actually won myself a handful of allies, it’s suddenly developed a very particular craving for me. And even if I somehow make it through the endless waves of maleficaria that it keeps throwing at me in between grueling homework assignments, I haven’t any idea how my allies and I are going to make it through the graduation hall alive.
Unless, of course, I finally accept my foretold destiny of dark sorcery and destruction. That would certainly let me sail straight out of here. The course of wisdom, surely.
But I’m not giving in—not to the mals, not to fate, and especially not to the Scholomance. I’m going to get myself and my friends out of this hideous place for good—even if it’s the last thing I do.

I was skeptical from the beginning when I started reading Naomi Novik’s first Scholomance book but reviews had warned me of the info-dumping beginning, unlikable protagonist, and cultural insensitivities. I ended up really enjoying the first book but only once Novik started showing us the dangers of the school first-hand and put the characters in truly dangerous situations. I honestly didn’t feel like the information we got in the first book was “dumped” so much as delivered by El but the focus of the book was never pure action.

Now this second book had it a bit harder. With the Scholomance set up (although many, many parts of it make no sense at all and I still don’t understand how this world is supposed to work), the stakes needed to be repositioned. El and her friends are in their final year with graduation looming above everyone’s head like a big sword dripping blood. El’s former plan – make it out of the Scholomance alive and don’t become an evil Maleficer in the process – has changed a lot. Now she intends to be a Big Damn Hero and save everyone.

The bulk of the book is – yet again – not school life, lessons, not even really exciting fights against monsters, but rather lots of talk and politics and making alliances. Now I personally actually like that kind of stuff, but I must admit it wasn’t what I expected from this “adult magic school series”. The politicking and planning and making plans on how to graduate were fun to read and I mostly looked forward to getting back to the book whenever I took a break. But it felt like a broken promise, nonetheless.

I had also hoped that the world building and magic system would be described in more detail in this book, that we’d learn more things about how this secret magic society works. Rudimentary information would have sufficed, to be honest, because I still don’t understand how everyday life outside the Scholomance works for witches and wizards.
We got some insight into how the school works and also about what drives the mals but I wouldn’t say that I have a good idea of the world this series takes place in, nor its magical society. Originally, I thought thi would be a longer series (yes, I admit, that assumption was influenced by that most famous wizard boy and his seven book series) but the trilogy will be concluded with The Golden Enclaves, which comes out this September. So it’s not like there’s a lot of pages left to do some proper world building. And if this is all we get, I am far from impressed!

As fun as the plot of the book was to read, the characters were treated with even less love than in the first novel. I’m not going to comment on the diversity aspect much, other than that I enjoy reading about well-written diverse characters, but no matter their heritage, skin color, cultural background, or native language, the side characters all remained incredibly pale (no pun intended). Only at the end of the book do we get a little bit more from a couple of side characters than just them existing alongside El. Even Orion, the main love interest, feels like a parody of himself. He, too, only gets to be a proper person when the book is almost over and El finally talks to him like she’s taking him seriously, like he’s a full human being with his own hopes and dreams.

Novik has apparently also lost her ability to write good romantic scenes. Not one single kiss made me feel anything at all and the sex scene was just meh from beginning to end. As this is only a small part of the novel, normally I wouldn’t even mention it, but I have swooned over Novik’s romantic scenes in Uprooted and Spinning Silver and was thus expecting her to keep up that level of quality, if not raise it.
El’s interactions with Orion, although she clearly feels something for him, still read like she’s always annoyed with him. If she’s in love with him, she’s treating him terribly and I don’t appreciate how she is constantly making hurtful comments, acting like he’s beneath her, or like he’s an idiot. If she’s not in love with him, why the hell play with his feelings like that? Either way, it makes me dislike El on a whole new level, no matter how many lives she intends to save. If that’s how she treats her closest friends/potential boyfriend, then I’d rather not know her at all…

The ending wasn’t really surprising. Many reviews warned of the “shocking cliffhanger” but really, I found it quite obvious what was going to happen, at least after a certain point in the novel that offered such on-the-nose foreshadowing it was hard to miss. Had I been more invested in the characters and their relationships, it still might have shocked me but as Novik kept them all at arm’s lenght, I didn’t much care either way. Plus, I’m sure the next novel is going to fix everything and wrap things up extra tidily.

To sum up my feelings: I enjoyed the reading (or rather: listening) experience but it didn’t offer anything new in terms of worldbuilding or character development, so I don’t see how this instalment helps the series progress in any meaningful way. I am also still not convinced that this is a YA novel/series. If anything, this second book has less crossover appeal than the first. As for my Lodestar ballot, despite me having enjoyed the book, I will once again leave it off completely as, in my opinion, it shouldn’t win an award in a category it does not belong in.

MY RATING: 6.5/10 – Pretty good

Lots of Telling, no Showing: Roshani Chokshi – The Star-Touched Queen

I had high hopes for this YA adventure. I was promised a loose Hades and Persephone retelling, I was promised Indian mythology inspired stuff, fairy tale vibes, and a romance. What I got was a trip to YA trope land with bad writing and lots of plot problems. But also with some potential. Even for a debut novel, this wasn’t very good, but it also wasn’t bad enough for me to write off the author completely.

THE STAR-TOUCHED QUEEN
by Roshani Chokshi

Published: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2016
eBook: 352 pages
Series: The Star-Touched Queen #1
My rating: 3.5/10

Opening line: Staring at the sky in Bharata was like exchanging a secret.

Fate and fortune. Power and passion. What does it take to be the queen of a kingdom when you’re only seventeen?

Maya is cursed. With a horoscope that promises a marriage of death and destruction, she has earned only the scorn and fear of her father’s kingdom. Content to follow more scholarly pursuits, her whole world is torn apart when her father, the Raja, arranges a wedding of political convenience to quell outside rebellions. Soon Maya becomes the queen of Akaran and wife of Amar. Neither roles are what she expected: As Akaran’s queen, she finds her voice and power. As Amar’s wife, she finds something else entirely: Compassion. Protection. Desire…

But Akaran has its own secrets—thousands of locked doors, gardens of glass, and a tree that bears memories instead of fruit. Soon, Maya suspects her life is in danger. Yet who, besides her husband, can she trust? With the fate of the human and Otherworldly realms hanging in the balance, Maya must unravel an ancient mystery that spans reincarnated lives to save those she loves the most…including herself.

Things start out well enough. Maya is a Princess who is cursed with a really, really bad horoscope in a world and culture where people put stock into such things. When the stars promise that you’ll be married to Death, suitors don’t exactly come knocking by the dozens, the other girls in the Raja’s harem don’t want to be your friends, and even servants may avoid you whenever possible. So Maya’s life is somewhat lonely, except for her young sister Gauri who loves hearing Maya tell stories. Fairy tales and myths and legends – oh how I would have loved to share in that pastime with them. Unfortunately, us real-world readers get almost no legends or myths or fairy tales. We’re just told that they exist and are great.

When the Raja decides to marry Maya off for political reasons, things don’t exactly go as planned. Instead of the sacrifice she is supposed to make for her people and her home, a man named Amar spirits her off to Akaran where she is to be his wife, horoscope be damned. And that’s where the really boring part starts and the tropes go completely overboard.
Because – of course – Amar can’t really tell Maya anything important for magical reasons. Once the moon has turned, she’ll learn everything there is to know. Until then, she should just be meek and shut up and not explore her new castle too much. Which is a rather empty place, by the way. Except for her, Amar, and his assistant Gupta (who disappears whenever it’s convenient for the plot and only reappers at the very end when the author seems to have remembered that he exists), there is nobody there. So Maya explores the castle, which leads to some very, very boring chapters where nothing happens, we learn nothing new, and where even wonders that shouldn’t be possible (because magic) are taken for granted. Like, girl, you lived in the real world, aren’t you at least a little surprised to have mirrors in your new home that work like portals and let you look into other places?

Also, this is the part where the “romance” happens. If by romance you mean that two people exist in the same room together, find each other pretty and then randomly kiss someday. Also, Amar keeps the upper part of his face hidden to be extra mysterious and sexy, but when he finally reveals himself, there’s nothing special about it. Like, he’s handsome and all but there’s no reason for him to have kept his eyes hidden before. I still don’t get what that was about. But then I also didn’t get the attraction between them because we are only ever told things and never, ever, shown them. Their supposed undying love is ridiculous so I also didn’t care when it was threatened.

After a series of maybe not so smart, but to my happy surprise understandable, decisions, a plot of sorts finally kicks off. We’re talking the half-way mark of the book here, so don’t get too excited. Maya has done something stupid which has dire consequences and so now she has to try and fix things. This led me to hope once more that the book would tell a story that’s more than two people saying incredibly sappy things to each other for no reason whatsoever. I mean, this is the sort of writing you can expect:

His stare slipped beneath my skin. And when he saw my eyes widen, he smiled. And in that moment, his smile banished my loneliness and limned the hollows of my anima with starlight, pure and bright.

There are myriad instances of descriptions or dialogue where I simply asked myself what that’s even supposed to mean. The prose is so purple, even I though it was too much, and I’m a fan of Cat Valente and China Miéville, two writers who know a bazillion words and aren’t afraid to show them off.

As for the Indian-inspired mythology and setting, I would really have liked to get a bit more of that. Because what the author did was throw in lots of words without explanation or description, expecting that to do all the legwork for he world building. But when you don’t know there’s a glossary at the end of the book, you can get frustrated really quickly by the amount of names for mythological creatures that are just thrown in there without ever explaining what they are, what they look like, etc.
I generally like when an author expects something from their readers, like looking up things for themselves or understanding stuff by context. But if you give me literally nothing but a word, and then throw in three other words in the same paragraph, do you really think I’m going to stop reading to look each of them up on the internet so Google can do your author work for you and let me know who and what these creatures are? That can’t be in the author’s interest either, as it would totally disrupt the reading flow. But oh well, I still don’t know what a bhut is or a raksha or a timingala. One of them has fins I guess…

One of the few redeeming qualities of this book is (wait for it) the horse character! Not only is it the only positive female friendship in this book that has any meaning (Gauri’s name may be dropped but as we didn’t get any shared memories or development of that relationship, it’s totally meaningless), but Kamala the horse may also be the single most fleshed-out character in this entire book. She has her own way of speaking which may be a little creepy at times – she threatens to eat people a lot – but my god was it refreshing to read about her! Other than that, every single character might as well have been a shadow wearing a name tag. Amar’s name tag must also read “smoldering and full of cheesy one-liners” but that’s it.

There is no proper plot to follow, the world and characters change as needed for the author to reach her super cheesy conclusion. She wanted so badly to write impactful scenes but apparently forgot that, in order to make readers feel stuff, she has do to the build-up for that. Make us know and like the characters, show us why they belong together, put them in danger, make us fear for them, make us feel literally anything! Only then can big words have actual meaning, only then can the touch of a hand send electric sparks up our readerly spines, only then is it meaningful when lips touch, when friends are reunited.
This was just boring with occasional hints of promising ideas, but in order to be a good book, it would have needed to do a whole lot of growing up. Much like its protagonist Maya who is the same person at the end of this book despite all the supposedly life-shattering things she learns.

As bad as that sounds, I’m not willing to give up on Roshani Chokshi! I have Gilded Wolves on my TBR and I’m hoping that with a heist novel, there is no way she can make the same mistakes again. I mean, a heist novel needs a plot that makes sense and it also more than two recurring characters. My hope is that Chokshi developed and grew as an author in between these books. My expectations are definitely lower than they were, though.

MY RATING: 3.5/10 – Bad

Performing Girlhood Incorrectly: Seanan McGuire – Across the Green Grass Fields

McGuire’s Wayward Children series is so hit or miss for me that, with almost comical certainty, I will like and dislike alternating titles. That meant this one was supposed to be a good one and the rule still holds up. It was not only a good one but I’d say one of my top two favorites of the series so far.

ACROSS THE GREEN GRASS FIELDS
by Seanan McGuire

Published: Tordotcom, 2021
eBook:
208 pages
Series:
Wayward Children #6
My rating:
7.5/10

Opening line: At seven, Regan Lewis was perfectly normal according to every measurement she knew, which meant she was normal in every way that counted.

A young girl discovers a portal to a land filled with centaurs and unicorns in Seanan McGuire’s Across the Green Grass Fields, a standalone tale in the Hugo and Nebula Award-wining Wayward Children series.

“Welcome to the Hooflands. We’re happy to have you, even if you being here means something’s coming.”

Regan loves, and is loved, though her school-friend situation has become complicated, of late.

When she suddenly finds herself thrust through a doorway that asks her to “Be Sure” before swallowing her whole, Regan must learn to live in a world filled with centaurs, kelpies, and other magical equines―a world that expects its human visitors to step up and be heroes.

But after embracing her time with the herd, Regan discovers that not all forms of heroism are equal, and not all quests are as they seem…

Damn, the beginning of this novella hits hard! It’s about young Regan Lewis, a girl as average as they come. She loves running around, riding horses, and playing with her two best friends, Heather and Laurel. But when one day, Heather brings a snake to school and clearly adores it rather than be scared or disgusted by it, Regan learns that there are apparently rules on how to be a girl and those rules are set by society. In their little circle of friends society is represented by Laurel – who will not accept any aberrations from what she considers the norm.

She knew even without asking that Heather was no longer part of the trusted inner circle: she had performed girlhood incorrectly and hadn’t instantly mended her ways when confronted with Laurel’s anger. She was out.

This broke my heart in so many ways, not only because it is told excellently but also because McGuire either remembers her own childhood days or takes seriously the problems and feuds and intricacies of girl friendships at that age. When bringing the wrong kind of candy can make you ostracized, when liking football instead of dolls turns you into a pariah. Heather is out of the group but Regan has learned to keep things to herself until she is sure that Laurel approves.

When puberty starts hitting and Regan seems to be the last one left out, no hint of boobs or a period in sight, she talks to her parents about it and learns something about herself that, generally, isn’t a problem for her. The problems appear only once she confides in Laurel because it turns out, Regan is performing girlhood even more “incorrectly” than Heather ever did and also never should have trusted someone like Laurel, who is unaccepting of anyone the slightest bit different than herself. So ten-year-old Regan runs away and promptly stumbles through a door that asks her to “Be sure”.

What follows is the portal fantasy we all signed up for when pickin gup this book but I must say, it’s one of the more enjoyable ones. Regan is found by a centaur who takes her home to the herd with her where Regan makes friends with a young centaur named Chicory and is taken in as if she were family. She also learns a thing or two about the Hooflands and its hinhabitants. I absolutely adored the idea of unicorns – that revered species of mythical being – turning out to be beautiful, sure, but also completely dumb! Seriously, this made me giggle so hard, I’m still not over it.

Take unicorns. They’re as beautiful as it gets, and they don’t have the brains to come in out of the rain. They’ll just stand there trying to figure out why they’re getting wet and wait for someone to come along and fix it for them.

I mean:

More of Regan’s awe died during the first storm. It was hard to be dazzled by a wet, muddy unicorn that was attempting to eat your mattress.

But even though Regan’s time in the Hooflands is mostly harmonious and gives her the freedom of just being who she is without any strict rules on how to be a girl the right way, there is conflict on the horizon. Because humans come to the Hooflands only when something big is about to happen. Humans are heroes and have to do some heroing eventually and Regan kknows she will have to present herself to the queen someday.
I won’t spoil any of it but I really enjoyed that part. Both the fact that we get to go along on Regan’s quest and not just witness the aftermath, and the way McGuire even adds a twist at the end.

The world building for the Hooflands may not be stellar but it has everything that’s needed to tell this story and make me feel like I’m in a believable world filled with sympathetic characters. Just like all the Wayward Children stories, we know how this one will end ahead of time but that doesn’t mean it’s always impactful. This time, it absolutely was, and I’m counting this instalment among my top two (In an Absent Dream is the seocond).

I don’t know why bigger fans of McGuire and the Wayward Children series seem to not have liked this volume as much. It has the lowest rating of all the volumes on Goodreads (not that that’s saying much, really) so I feel like I have to come to its defense. I’m also grateful that this year’s Hugo nominated McGuire work truly deserves its spot on the ballot, even if it makes ranking my ballot that much harder.

MY RATING: 7.5/10 – Damn good!

Meandering, But Still Charming: Jessica Townsend – Hollowpox

The world of Nevermoor is such a comforting place. First of all, Middle Grade can be a source of strength during reading slumps or after reading about heavy or dark themes. Secondly, Jessica Townsend is still full of creative ideas and shows us new bits of her lovely world with every book. 500 pages feel like nothing when they’re about Nevermoor.

HOLLOWPOX
by Jessica Townsend

Published: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2020
eBook: 560 pages
Audiobook: 14 hours 27 minutes
Series: Nevermoor #3
My rating: 7/10

Opening line: On a glossy black door inside a well-lit wardrobe, a tiny circle of gold pulsed with light, and at its centre was a small, glowing W.

The captivating and heart-pounding third book in the instant New York Times bestselling Nevermoor series, as heroine Morrigan battles a new evil.Morrigan Crow and her friends have survived their first year as proud scholars of the elite Wundrous Society, helped bring down the nefarious Ghastly Market, and proven themselves loyal to Unit 919. Now Morrigan faces a new, exciting challenge: to master the mysterious Wretched Arts of the Accomplished Wundersmith, and control the power that threatens to consume her.

Meanwhile, a strange and frightening illness has taken hold of Nevermoor, turning infected Wunimals into mindless, vicious Unnimals on the hunt. As victims of the Hollowpox multiply, panic spreads. There are whispers – growing louder every day – that this catastrophe can only be the work of the Wundersmith, Ezra Squall.

But inside the walls of Wunsoc, everyone knows there is a new Wundersmith – one who’s much closer to home. With Nevermoor in a state of fear and the truth about Morrigan threatening to get out, the city she loves becomes the most perilous place in the world. Morrigan must try to find a cure for the Hollowpox, but it will put her – and everyone in Nevermoor – in more danger than she could have imagined.

Morrigan Crow is back and we get to follow her during her third year in Nevermoor, meet old friends and make new ones, explore interesting new corners of the Wundrous Society, and learn a bit of Wundersmithing with our young heroine.

Going back to Nevermoor is just lovely. There’s all the (by now) known little wonders of this world, there’s Morrigan’s established group of friends and the little found family at the Hotel Deucalion, but there is, of course, also new conflict and danger. The biggest threat to Nevermoor is surely the disease called Hollowpox which affects Wunimals, turning them into seemingly mindless beasts before they fall into a coma. The second, and far less severe, conflict is that Morrigan has gained access to a new type of lesson at Wunsoc, one that takes her away from her classmates and turns her into a little bit of an outsider.

I’ll be honest, this book took a while before it found its footing. It felt somewhat overloaded and didn’t focus enough on its individual aspects, like Townsend tried to cram just a bit too much into its pages. Generally, I love stories with several subplots going on at the same time as the main plot, and this is definitely the case here, but the pacing and the way the puzzle pieces fit together didn’t feel quite right. We get to spend time with most of the important side characters, such as Hawthorn and Jack, Jupiter and Fenestra, Cadence and – as evil as he may be – Ezra Squall, but most of these episodes felt like quick pit stops, just so we could check “funny banter with Hawthorn” off the list of things to do while in Nevermoor. This is a small quibble, but to me, the presence of those side characters wasn’t felt enough during scenes when they weren’t center stage.

As for the plot, that also needs time to find its path. At first, it seems like there’s no one plot to follow at all, just random Nevermoor things like celebrations, school classes, and so on. But as soon as the Hollowpox becomes the clear threat of this story, the plot gets streamlined as well. It’s not like Morrigan has any idea how to stop the spread of this terrifying disease but for some reason, that’s when the book flowed more easily for me and I felt like I was truly in it. There are still frequent side adventures, taking up open questions from previous books or advancing the world building, but it felt like at least we had a goal to work toward. Save the Wunimals, cure the Hollowpox. Also, don’t let Ezra Squall manipulate us emotionally into doing something stupid…

Apart from Townsend’s continuing originality and her wild ideas about all the things that make Nevermoor, Nevermoor, there isn’t all that much that’s new to this instalment. It’s “a Morrigan Crow adventure” and that’s a perfectly fine thing for a book to be. Except toward the end, when during one scene I was reminded that it’s not just a cute Middle Grade book but that I actually care a lot for the characters in it. No spoilers here, but as you can imagine, some characters are in danger at certain times during this book, and some other characters find it worthwile to try and save them. And even though I complained about the side characters not getting enough page time, this moment worked so very well emotionally that Townsend must have done something right.

The ending has one more surprise in store that will make the next book in the series very interesting indeed! Morrigan has grown during her adventures and it shows in her more mature behaviour, her careful handling of difficult situations, but she’s still only thirteen years old. I am super curious to see where her journey will take her and what consequences she’ll have to bear for her decisions…
The audibook narrator, Gemma Whelan, does a great job reading the story and giving the characters distinct voices and/or accents. I wasn’t too happy about Cadence’s way of speaking (she sounds like she’s talking through a pillow, mumbling, mouth full of marbles…) but in general, the audiobook experience was lovely and I think I might go this way with the next book as well. Silverborn: The Mystery of Morrigan Crow is supposed to come out in October 2022 but I guess I’ll save it up again for a time when I need a book that is guaranteed to be a quick read that gives me all sorts of happy feelings.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

Underwhelming, Loveless, and Without a Point: V.E. Schwab – Gallant

I put a lot of pressure on this (very) little book. Because while I adored Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic, I thought that, since then, everything she has written was lacking in many ways. Either she clearly didn’t have a clue where to go with her plot, how to develop her characters, or what to do with those (granted) cool ideas she has. I wanted to give her one more chance, this time with a Middle Grade adventure that sounded intriguing. Look, it wasn’t irredeemably shit, but it was one of the most useless, plotless, unlovingly told stories I’ve read recently and that’s just sad.

GALLANT
by V.E. Schwab

illustrated by Manuel Šumberac

Published: Titan Books, 2022
Hardcover:
310 pages
Standalone
My rating:
4/10

Opening line: The master of thehouse stands at the garden wall.

Everything casts a shadow. Even the world we live in. And as with every shadow, there is a place where it must touch. A seam, where the shadow meets its source.

Olivia Prior has grown up in Merilance School for girls, and all she has of her past is her mother’s journal—which seems to unravel into madness. Then, a letter invites Olivia to come home—to Gallant. Yet when Olivia arrives, no one is expecting her. But Olivia is not about to leave the first place that feels like home, it doesn’t matter if her cousin Matthew is hostile or if she sees half-formed ghouls haunting the hallways.

Olivia knows that Gallant is hiding secrets, and she is determined to uncover them. When she crosses a ruined wall at just the right moment, Olivia finds herself in a place that is Gallant—but not. The manor is crumbling, the ghouls are solid, and a mysterious figure rules over all. Now Olivia sees what has unraveled generations of her family, and where her father may have come from.

Olivia has always wanted to belong somewhere, but will she take her place as a Prior, protecting our world against the Master of the House? Or will she take her place beside him?

This book is 50% filler. Yes, I’m starting my review with this information because I think it’s only fair that everyone who’s thinking about buying it, knows what it is they’re buying. That doesn’t mean this is a bad book, just that you’re only getting about 150 pages worth of original writing, the other 150 pages are repetitions of that same writing, over and over again. Oh yes, and very pretty illustrations that also repeat after almost every chapter. And in the middle because I guess Schwab wanted desperately to publish a novel even when she only had a novella at hand…

So what’s this all about? It starts so well that I honestly thought this would be the book that made me want to follow Schwab’s career after all. Olivia Prior lives in an orphanage/school where she is being bullied (but only until she fights back!) and where she can see ghouls (and only she can see them). She is also mute which makes her life even lonelier than any orphan’s life already is. The one matron who taught her sign language doesn’t work there anymore and the others never bothered. The only consolation Olivia has is her mother’s journal which she reads over and over again, to the point of knowing it by heart.

Can you guess which parts of the real-world book Gallant are the repetitive ones? Because yes, it is Olivia’s mother’s journal. Every chapter has at least a few lines from that journal in it, repeated ad nauseum and mostly for no apparent reason. Then we get to read entire pages of that journal. Then later on in the book Gallant we get to read the entirety of that journal, even though we’ve already read ALL OF IT before, just split into snippets. The journal is also filled with illustrations that repeat equally as often as the written text does. As beautiful as I find these ink splotchy, ethereal looking images, I don’t quite see the point in printing each one of them four times within the same novel…

Anyway, the plot kicks off when Olivia receives a letter from a formerly unknown uncle who calls her to the family estate, Gallant, the one place her mother’s journal warned her to stay away from. So far, so intriguing. It is when she arrives at Gallant that it becomes apparent Schwab actually has no story to tell, no plot to follow, and her heart somewhere else when it comes to the themes she apparently tried to incorporate. What Olivia finds at Gallant is a very unfriendly cousin and two elderly housekeepers. Edgar and Hannah are very nice to Olivia, she explores the house a bit, it’s all kind of eerie and strange and there’s a sculpture of the cover image (two houses on a contraption, exact mirror images of one another), and of course ghouls. Then nothing happens for about 50 pages (which by this book’s standard is a lot!).

Eventually, Olivia explores that other Gallant – I mean look at the cover, nothing that happens in this book is in any way a spoiler or a surprise – and I guess this was meant to be creepy and atmospheric but it is written with so little love, constantly using the same descriptions over and over, that I felt absolutely nothing. When you meet a character who is called Death (although how Olivia got that idea, nobody knows, the book is not terribly logical either), maybe don’t describe him the exact same way three times in a row. And maybe add some real stakes to a supposedly dangerous adventure. And, just an idea, make that adventure last longer than three lines, so at least some tension can be built up and we readers can feel something – anything – for the characters. Sorry, not in this book.

The characters are just as bland and one-dimensional as the sad excuse for a plot. Olivia at least is interesting in that she doesn’t take the other orphan’s shit but fights back in quite original ways. But that is, unfortunately, all that sets her apart. Otherwise, she is a blank piece of paper. Hannah, Edgar, and Matthew have no personalities that go beyond one characteristic per person, yet by the end of this book I was supposed to care for them? To see them as a sort of found family?! Forgive me, but it takes a little longer than 25 pages to build up that kind of relationship. Or a much more skilled writer.

The plot is barely there, then some last minute plan emerges, which is followed by a ludicrous and utterly stupid ending which left me super unsatisfied. I mean, for fucks’ sake, if we’re reading a story about some family curse or a battle between good and evil, and if you’re unwilling to resolve that battle or lift the curse, at least tell us more about how it came to be, why it’s there, what’s going on, or anything really. This book just ends with some forced (and emotionally lacking) drama, a few lines that are meant to sound deep and meaningful but are completely empty because this entire book is empty, and then it’s just over. No resolution to anything, no background story, not even a particularly interesting view of the future.

Disregarding all else and just looking at the fantasy elements, the exact same lack of care was taken when it comes to that. Olivia can see ghouls, which is special because nobody else can. Except at some point at the end when, suddenly, people can. Without explanation or even taking much notice. It’s never really explained which parts of magic work in which version of Gallant, why ghouls even exist or if everyone who dies becomes one, what exactly they can do, and generally which rules apply in which version of Gallant. I personally don’t mind if magic doesn’t make sense – it’s magic, after all – but it should be internally consistent within one book at least.

The reason this didn’t get a lower rating is twofold. First, the writing – what little of it there is – is actually nice. I enjoyed the descriptions of the orphanage and Olivia’s life there, I generally liked how Gallant is written about. I just wish I didn’t have to read the exact same lines and descriptions twenty times and instead got more original Schwab words on the same amount of pages. The second reason is that I loved reading about a protagonist with a disability, especially a girl who couldn’t speak. I’ve never read about someone like Olivia and the only times I managed to feel anything much for the characters was when someone turned away from her and ignored her “speaking” with her hands. That frustration must be brutal and I, at least, thought Schwab did a good job describing it.

Does this mean this is the end of reading Schwab for me? Well, I have her Vicious books still on my TBR, so I’ll give those a go sometime. But I’m definitely staying far away from anything new she publishes. There is always a hype, simply because it’s her, and then it all just ends in disappointment for me. I’m not saying I’ll never read her books again, but if I do, it will be after reading lots of critical reviews and careful consideration. You can count me OFF the hype train, that’s for sure.

MY RATING: 4/10 – Bad

Had Potential But Turned Out Lifeless: Rebecca Ross – A River Enchanted

This started out so well but it never found out what it wanted to be. A paperthin plot, really lazy and illogical worldbuilding, and repetitive writing made this more and more unbearable the longer I read. It’s a shame because the characters had real potential. I have no idea why this would need a sequel but whenever that comes out, I will pass. It’s not a hate-pass, just a I-so-don’t-care-what-happens-pass.

A RIVER ENCHATNED
by Rebecca Ross

Published by: Harper Voyager, 2022
Hardback: 480 pages
Series: Elements of Cadence #1
My rating: 4.5/10

Opening line: It is safest to cross the ocean at night, when the moon and stars shone on the water.

Jack Tamerlaine hasn’t stepped foot on Cadence in ten long years, content to study music at the mainland university. But when young girls start disappearing from the isle, Jack is summoned home to help find them. Enchantments run deep on Cadence: gossip is carried by the wind, plaid shawls can be as strong as armor, and the smallest cut of a knife can instill fathomless fear. The capricious spirits that rule the isle by fire, water, earth, and wind find mirth in the lives of the humans who call the land home. Adaira, heiress of the east and Jack’s childhood enemy, knows the spirits only answer to a bard’s music, and she hopes Jack can draw them forth by song, enticing them to return the missing girls.

As Jack and Adaira reluctantly work together, they find they make better allies than rivals as their partnership turns into something more. But with each passing song, it becomes apparent the trouble with the spirits is far more sinister than they first expected, and an older, darker secret about Cadence lurks beneath the surface, threatening to undo them all.

With unforgettable characters, a fast-paced plot, and compelling world building, A River Enchanted is a stirring story of duty, love, and the power of true partnership, and marks Rebecca Ross’s brilliant entry on the adult fantasy stage.

Aaaaaah, the missed potential here really hurts! I’ll try and sum things up with a brief overview and then go into each individual aspect that could have been great but totally missed the mark. Otherwise, this review will just end up as a jumble of complaints.

This is the story of an island where magical spirits roam – the Folk of the Air, Earth, Wind, and Fire – where people have magical gifts, and where a feud between clans has been going on for centuries. The West belongs to the Breccans who tend to raid the East because they’re the Bad Guys (TM). The East is for the Tamerlaines, who just defend their border and keep their people safe. So far, so unoriginal.

Jack Tamerlaine has spent the last ten years on the mainland at university, learning music and becoming a teacher himself. He returns to the island of Cadence because his clan leader has asked him in a rather convincing letter. But Jack really doesn’t want to stay, he has a life on the mainland that he is desperate to get back to.
However, when he arrives, it turns out he is quite welcome. Everyone is glad to see him, even his childhood nemesis Adaira who is the Tamerlaine heiress, one day to become laird. When Jack finds out that more than Breccan raids are troubling the East, he agrees to stay for a little while and help solve the problem of the young girls that are going missing…

The plot:

Oh boy, there is so little of it and it is all so predictable that I don’t quite know how to talk about it without spoiling. I mean, the book kind of spoils itself. Adaira is the one who called Jack to the island for the sole reason that she needs a bard – meaning Jack and his harp – because the former bard (Adaira’s mother) has died years ago. She needs a bard because only a bard can call the spirits forth and Adaira really needs to talk to them. So… that’s what they do. Jack composes a piece of music, not described any further, to call forth the spirits of the Water, the Earth, and the Wind, and Adaira proceeds to question them about their missing lasses. They end up telling them the truth and that’s that. It’s like the most boring police procedural ever!
Alongside this, of course, there’s supposed to be some kind of romance between Jack and Adaira but I honestly can’t say that we get any yearning or slow burn or anything. They are just two regular boring people who talk to each other normally – no subtext, no shyness, pretty much no emotions at all – and then at the end we’re expected to believe they are in love somehow. But that feeds into the character aspect and I first want to talk about the most glaring problem I had with this book.

The world building:

What is even the point here? So the fairies, or spirits, or Folk, or whatever are real on the island of Cadence. They want to be played music at regular intervals (like equinoxes or something, I honestly don’t remember) and you can call them and talk to them like regular people. Otherwise they don’t do much, they just exist invisibly in the background.
Far more interesting is the fact that people on Cadence are apparently born with magical gifts. But these make no sense whatsoever and are really, really not thought through. Some are more understandable and useful than others, like Sidra’s gift for creating healing tonics and knowing which herbs to grow for what purpose. But Jack’s mother Mirin, for example, has the gift of weaving magical plaids. Except nobody ever explains what those magical plaids do. Do they grant the wearer extra protection? Make them invisible? Keep them warm even when it’s freezing outside? This point is just glanced over. People are handed a plaid with Mirin’s magic woven into it and they all look reverent and thankful but I have no idea what the point of these plaids even is…
Then there’s Torin, the head of the guard, whose convenient gift is sensing when Breccans cross the clan line. Like he has some sort of spidey sense when a bad guy comes across the border and he even knows how many of them there are. Granted, that is super useful when you’re guarding the place but also what?!
Oh, I almost forgot, Sidra can also see and talk to to ghosts. This only happens twice in the book, is never mentioned again, and none of the implications of this gift are ever explored. Like what the hell? That could be its own novel right there!

I don’t think any other gifts are mentioned in any detail and if I’m really honest, what little story this book tells would have worked fine without that magic. Seriously, none of it was necessary.
Instead of asking the fairies what they knew, Adaira could have just talked to humans. The special gifts of the Tamerlaines didn’t have any impact on the plot, or indeed the characters. Sure, they get exhausted and suffer pain when using their gifts too much, but there are no real consequences for anyone using theirs in this book. So why even make this a fantasy novel when the fantasy parts are so haphazardly thrown in there, with no care or love for detail?

The characters:

Now finally I can say something nice. Not about the two protagonists, mind you, but about the side characters who totally stole the show and were the reason I finished this book at all. Let me get the bad parts out of the way first and then I can gush about Sidra and Torin.

So Jack and Adaira are both lifeless husks whose actions and words constantly contradict themselves and who seem to have no personality at all. Jack first pretends to want to get back to the mainland ASAP but then he has no problem staying and giving up his old life because he didn’t like it anyway. What? That’s not what you’ve been saying for the entire first third of the book! The relationship between the two also made no sense. It is implied that they have this great history, that when they were children a lot happened, but it turns out to be just a couple of silly pranks and that’s it. Seriously, there was not a lot of history to unpack there and what little there is (one prank involving thistles) is told in the most unemotional way ever. I did not care about them, I did not care whether they got together, and apparently, neither did they. The whole undying love part comes out of nowhere, is not believable, and I couldn’t have cared less about them.
BUT. What this book does have is great side characters with depth and moral dilemmas and a history that weighs on them. Torin and Sidra, for example, have been married for a while (although the book is unclear as to how long. At first it appears that it’s been forever, then suddenly it is mentioned that it’s a fairly new relationship. Bad writing, is all I can say to that.). They are raising Torin’s daughter Maisie from his first marriage – the wife died, we can’t have complicated things like divorce in fantasy books after all – and they have a pretty lovely life together. It’s badly told but it becomes clear that Sidra has doubts about whether Torin is with her because he loves her or simply because he needed help with his daughter. Watching how these two, both filled with doubt and fear, open up to each other and find out whether it’s love that keeps them together or necessity, that was truly beautiful! Especially because we get to read both their perspectives.
I also quite liked Jack’s mother Mirin as a character and Jack’s surprise little sister Frae even though Mirin’s reasons for keeping quiet about some things are less than logical. But at least they had personality.

The writing and internal logic:

I swear if I had to read “old menace” one more time, this would have ended as a DNF. This book suffers from several writing issues, first and foremost a lack of foreshadowing that makes everything feel like it comes out of left field and contradicts what we’ve been told before.

From the very start we know Jack is returning to his home island after ten years on the mainland. So far so okay. But nowhere does it say that Jack was in any way ostracized from his clan. That only comes out later, mentioned somewhere as if it were nothing. It turns out his father is some unknown man (his mother simply won’t admit who it is but if you’re older than five you can pretty much guess this oh so surprising plot twist), and thus Jack somehow doesn’t belong anywhere? That is not consistent with what we are shown because he is received with open arms from literally everyone and nobody does or says anthing to make him feel like he’s not a real Tamerlaine. Quite the opposite, in fact.

But it’s not just aspects of Jack’s life. All the characters and plot points get at least one moment where I wondered if I had missed a chapter somewhere that hinted at a certain tradition or a rule about the magic system or something. I hadn’t. This book just doesn’t have any foreshadowing. But it has bad world building to make up for that. Whenever the author thought of something, she put it in the book, not bothering to go back and make it believable or check whether it fit in with what she had already told us. This gets so very frustrating because you also never know what the rules are. If some great obstacle comes up, it might just turn out there’s an easy solution that the characters pretend to have known all along but that has never occurred to the reader because it was never even in the realm of possibilities.
It’s like if you read a contemporary novel and suddenly someone whips out a wand and heals a broken bone, pretending that this is normal and you shouldn’t be surprised. This is just how the world works, don’t ya know?

The writing itself, on a sentence level, is a little better but also far from good. The constant ridiculous way Adaira calls Jack “her old menace” (again, as if they shared some deep bond when they really haven’t seen each other in ten years and then just pranked each other as 10-year-olds a couple of times) is neither funny nor poignant. It’s just annoying.
And most of the dialogue, although not particularly bad as such, was just so… mundane. Dialogue in books and movies isn’t the same as in real life. It just sounds wrong. So reading about two people planning to meet each other tomorrow at this and this time by that rock or whatever, is just plain boring. Do I really want the businesslike transaction of setting a time for a meeting spelled out for me? Not in a fantasy novel, I don’t. This is one of my smaller gripes but it may explain better why this plot-less book is almost 500 pages long.
“Have you set the table, honey” “Not yet, I’ll go do that right away, Mom” – that kind of transaction is partly to blame.

Lastly, there were a few scenes that I think were supposed to be suspenseful. Whenever Jack played for the Folk so Adaira could ask them questions, there were brief moments of… okay, fine, I’ll call it danger. But these were described in such a way that I was never in any doubt how things would end. Like not only would everyone survive, but there wouldn’t even be a scratch on them.
The same goes for those Breccan raids that everyone is so afraid of. Unfortunately (you know how I mean it) we never get to see such a raid or the effects they have, so there was never an atmosphere of danger. In fact, the whole feud, the power of the spirits, anything that could make Cadence interesting, is only things we are told. And then we are shown the complete opposite. A super lovely island, people who care about and respect each other, living in peace, everyone is safe and even when bad stuff happens, it’s only super brief and when it’s over, nobody is hurt.

Overall impressions:

It will come as no surprise that I didn’t particularly like this book. Then again, it also wasn’t terrible. Except for the world building, none of its flaws were bad enough for me to truly hate this book. I was simply in a constant state of being underwhelmed and surprised by the random things that popped up and were supposed to have always been there. The ending has one tiny plot twist in store that could actually have made things interesting but, just like any scene involving “danger”, it was over before it began and left no emotional impact whatsoever.
By the life of me, I cannot imagine what would warrant a sequel. Rebecca Ross had nothing to say in this book so what could she possibly have to add in a second one? Oh well, if you want to find out, you’ll have to look elsewhere. I will definitely skip it.

MY RATING: 4.5/10 – Bad to meh

P.S.: It just came to me that even the opening line is an example of the bad world building. “It is safest to cross the ocean at night, when the moon and stars shone on the water.” Nowhere is that ever explained! It just sounds cool but there’s not a single bit of information or world building that would support such a statement.

Fun, Light, Romantic: Laini Taylor – Night of Cake and Puppets

It may have taken me two tries to see and appreciate the genius that is Laini Taylor but when I did read the Daughter of Smoke & Bone series, it was like falling in love with a book and a world and a set of characters. There’s something so special about that feeling and so I kept this little novella that comprises part 2.5 in the series for a reainy day. This rainy day has come.

NIGHT OF CAKE & PUPPETS
by Laini Taylor

illustrated by Jim Di Bartolo

Published: Little, Brown, 2013
eBook:
218 pages
Series: Daughter of Smoke & Bone #2.5
My rating: 7/10

Opening line: On top of the cabinet in the back of my father’s workshop – which was my gradnfather’s workshop and will one day be mine, if I want it – there is a puppet.

In this stand-alone companion to the New York Times bestselling Daughter of Smoke & Bone series comes the story of Mik and Zuzana’s fantastical first date–as a gorgeously illustrated gift edition with bonus content included.

Petite though she may be, Zuzana is not known for timidity. Her best friend, Karou, calls her “rabid fairy,” her “voodoo eyes” are said to freeze blood, and even her older brother fears her wrath. But when it comes to the simple matter of talking to Mik, or “Violin Boy,” her courage deserts her. Now, enough is enough. Zuzana is determined to make the first move, and she has a fistful of magic and a plan. It’s a wonderfully elaborate treasure hunt of a plan that will take Mik all over Prague on a cold winter’s night before leading him to the treasure: herself! Violin Boy is not going to know what hit him.

Oh Zuzana, you tiny wonderful menace in need of a kiss! It may be mentioned in the main series how Mik and Zuzana met and, eventually, became a couple, but because that story sounds crazy and wild, I am glad we get the slightly longer and more detailed version with this book.

Zuzana had had her eyes on violinist Mik for a while and, as is only natural, has thus devised a plan to send him on a hunt through Prague, equipped with a hand-drawn treasure map, riddles, and – of course – puppets! What she doesn’t know is that Mik has equally noticed the girl they call “rabid fairy”. He is fascinated by her but also terrified of having her killer eyes turn on him. Two shy teenagers admiring each other from afar… it could have ended as nothing, it could have just fizzled out. But thank Zuzana’s bravery (and Karou’s scuppies) it didn’t because then we wouldn’t get to read this funny, lighthearted, romantic story.

There’s really not that much to tell about the plot. The story alternates between Zuzana’s point of view and Mik’s and even when you forget whose POV chapter you’re in, it’s always very clear from the voice because Laini Taylor knows what she’s doing and Zuzana is… let’s say pretty distinct. 🙂
The roaring teenage hormones come across very realistic but both protagonists are aware, right from the start, that this may be something special. They may be desperate to be kissed (or more) but neither of them wants to mess this up because it turns out there might be real, deeper feelings involved.

What gives the book an extra special vibe are the numerous illustrations by Jim Di Bartolo, who is not only brilliant, but also happens to be Laini Taylor’s husband. So you know he probably got things right. Whether it’s diabolical puppets, Zuzana’s deadly eyes, or Mik’s violin case, there’s always something to see that makes this book more than just a “filler novella” as they exist in so many popular trilogies.

It may not have the extremely high stakes that Karou’s story has but it’s no less special. Because taking the first step to meet someone you have a crush on is momentous and brave and I just love Zuzana and Mik even more now.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

The Many Faces of Powerful Women: Tasha Suri – The Jasmine Throne

This review comes with a warning that my brain wasn’t up to its usual standards when I read this book. I listened to the audiobook, which I liked, but I had a hard time concentrating, needed to re-listen to chapters a lot and I may have fallen asleep more often than not (due to my pregnancy, not because the book is boring!). I am aware that, had I read this at a different time, I might have enjoyed it much more, so take my rating and impressions with a grain of salt. I’m still recommending this book overall but it wasn’t the instant hit I was hoping for.

THE JASMINE THRONE
by Tasha Suri

Published: Orbit, 2021
Hardcover:
576 pages
Audiobook:
19 hours 43 minutes
Series:
Burning Kingdoms #1
My rating:
6.5/10

Opening line: In the court of the imperial mahal, the pyre was being built.

Author of Empire of Sand and Realm of Ash Tasha Suri’s The Jasmine Throne, beginning a new trilogy set in a world inspired by the history and epics of India, in which a captive princess and a maidservant in possession of forbidden magic become unlikely allies on a dark journey to save their empire from the princess’s traitor brother.

Imprisoned by her dictator brother, Malini spends her days in isolation in the Hirana: an ancient temple that was once the source of the powerful, magical deathless waters — but is now little more than a decaying ruin.

Priya is a maidservant, one among several who make the treacherous journey to the top of the Hirana every night to clean Malini’s chambers. She is happy to be an anonymous drudge, so long as it keeps anyone from guessing the dangerous secret she hides.

But when Malini accidentally bears witness to Priya’s true nature, their destinies become irrevocably tangled. One is a vengeful princess seeking to depose her brother from his throne. The other is a priestess seeking to find her family. Together, they will change the fate of an empire

This was one of those fantasy books that I appreciate for what it’s doing without ever really having built up an emotional connection to the story or the characters. Like watching events unfold from afar and being intrigued by them, but not feeling like I’m part of things. Until I give this a re-read, I’ll never know if that’s just a result of pregnancy brain or if I just didn’t vibe with this particular book but the listening experience was rewarding, nonetheless.

We follow a cast of characters, although two of them more closely than others, who live in a recently conquered place called Ahiranya. The Parijati Empire has taken over the land and done what Empires usually do – oppress the people, destroy and/or deny their culture, and forbid their religion. In this particular case, that meant killing all the Temple Children and Elders, the ones who could wield magic considered wrong in the eyes of the evil emperor. And the emperor is pretty straight forwardly evil. I mean, who sends their own sister to burn on a pyre and expects her to climb up there of her own free will (because honor or whatever) and when she doesn’t comply sends her into exile where she is to be slowly poisoned and kept in total isolation from other humans? That’s right, Emperor Chandra does.
I normally don’t like over the top evil villains and this one didn’t exactly show a lot of nuance, but as there are enough other characters to keep things interesting, I will forgive Tasha Suri the crazy emperor.

Much more interesting and complex are the two main female characters. First of all, the Emperor’s sister who refused to be burned alive (I know, how dare she, right?) and a young handmaiden named Priya who is happy to remain an unseen servant because it helps her keep her big secret. But Priya stumbles into the job of becoming Princess Malini’s servant and thus starts a tale not only of attraction and later romance, but also of accepting her own past and identity. And the same goes for Malini. They are very, very different people, not only because of their different cultures and social standing or even shades of skin color. But also in terms of moral code, one of them is definitely more inclined to sacrifice a few things (or people?) to reach her goals than the other. And even though I didn’t particularly feel the romance between them, I do so appreciate multi-layered characters! Especially female characters who get to be all sorts of protagonists. They don’t have to be the perfectly good, ultimately feminine, can-do-no-wrong kind of women, they just get to be people. Who have flaws and make stupid decisions sometimes and regret their words and save each other and have desires and dreams… you get the point.

Funnily enough, my favorite character was one that doesn’t even get that many viewpoint chapters. The Palace where Priya works before she becomes Malini’s maid, is run by a Regent who, in turn, is married to a woman named Bhumika. And Bhumika is that rare character that first appears as one thing and then turns out to be way more than we expected. I don’t want to give anything away here but I whooped out loud at a certain scene that had to do with her and I generally found her to be the coolest character in the book. That’ll teach me to underestimate side characters!

There are many more characters, some of whom are more important than others, some who appear more often than others, and all of them were interesting and believable in their own right. There’s Priya’s brother Ashok, the young orphan boy Rukh whom she helped get work at the Palace, a man named Rao who wants to save Princess Malini, and a few others that would get me into spoiler territory.

I haven’t even mentioned all the other layers this book has to offer and maybe it was because of those many layers that I had such a hard time concentrating. Because we have this whole cultural and magical past to figure out alongside Priya, we have characters’ shared histories to unravel, we have a magic system that’s pretty cool but also demans dangerous things from its followers, and – just as a side note – we have an emperor to overthrow if we want the world to become a better place. So there is plenty to discover between the covers of this book and I think it’s a rich addition to non-Western fantasy with its Indian-inspired setting.

I wish I had managed to let myself fall into this world a bit more deeply. The beginning, during which I could still concentrate much better, was quite atmospheric. I hope to re-read this when the second book of the trilogy comes out later this year. It will be called The Oleander Sword and is graced with another gorgeous cover! You could technically stop reading the series after the first book because although certain plot strings remain unresolved, the most pressing ones are well-rounded and lead to a more or less satisfying ending. The book could stand on its own is what I’m saying. But as there is much more of this world to see and certain things I hope to still happen with certain character pairings, I will continue reading the trilogy and see how Tasha Suri keeps growing in talent with every book.

MY RATING: 6.5/10 – Pretty good

Not Quite There Yet: Holly Black – Tithe

I am finally catching up on some older works by authors I have come to love in the last few years, and among them is Holly Black. Her debut YA novel subtitled “A modern Faerie Tale” didn’t sound like my thing and several anti-buzz words (I’m calling them that now) made me avoid this series. But Holly Black’s other books intrigued me enough to give this one a try as well. With mixed results.

TITHE
by Holly Black

Published: Simon & Schuster, 2002
eBook:
310 pages
Series:
Modern Faerie Tales #1
My rating:
6/10

Opening line: Kaye took another dragon her cigarette and dropped it into her mother’s beer bottle.

Sixteen-year-old Kaye is a modern nomad. Fierce and independent, she travels from city to city with her mother’s rock band, until an ominous attack forces them back to her childhood home.

To the place where she used to see Faeries.

They’re still there. But Kaye’s not a child anymore and this time she’s dragged into the thick of their dangerous, frightening world. A realm where black horses dwell beneath the sea, desperate to drown you . . . where the sinister Thistlewitch divines dark futures . . . and where beautiful faerie knights are driven to perform acts of brutal depravity for the love of their uncaring queens.

Once there, Kaye finds herself an unwilling pawn in an ancient power struggle between two rival faerie kingdoms – a struggle that could end in her death . . . 

It’s such an interesting experience to read an author’s work not as it is being published but in a mixed up order, starting with newer books and then going back through their backlist. In this case, I was both surprised and impressed with how much Holly Black’s writing has improved over the course of her career. My first read of hers was The Coldest Girl in Coldtown which I liked well enough, then I dove into the Folk of the Air trilogy and that one (the middle book, specifically) totally gripped me. As her Modern Faerie Tales were Mythopoeic Award finalists, I thought I would definitely love them. And I didn’t dislike Tithe but I also couldn’t help but see how very, very clumsy a book it is and how the writing is so below the standards I was used to from Holly Black.

Kaye is a super cool, weird teenager who lives with her musician mom, hasn’t been to highschool in years and used to have fairy friends when she was younger. Through circumstances, she and her mom return to their former home and move in with grandma for a while (just until they get back on their feet) which means a reunion with former friends – the human kind – for Kaye and of course an adventure for us to follow.

The first thing I noticed with this book and its biggest flaw in my opinion is that scenes aren’t set properly and everything happens way too fast. And by that I don’t mean what we usually talk about when using the word “pacing” – it’s more than that. It’s that life-shattering events happen over the course of three lines! And that goes for many scenes that could have been great and impactful, like when someone kisses someone for the first time or when characters are in danger. It makes the book a super fast read but I also felt overwhelmed a lot of times, like I’d missed a page or something.
Add to that the fact that Kaye “lets out a breath she didn’t know she was holding” a whopping three times in this rather short novel and it just goes to show that Holly Black was still a less experienced author then. Objectively speaking, this isn’t a well-written book.

BUT here’s the thing. At no point, while reading Tithe, did I want to put the book down or stop reading. The whole one more chapter shtick took on a whole new level for me and I race through this book in record time. Because despite its clumsy writing, lack of focus, and sentence-level pacing issues, there is that spark, that little bit of writing magic that draws me in.
Seriously, the world building is mostly basic faerie lore (Seelie vs. Unseelie, kelpies, pixies, etc.), the romance is just Kaye pining over a hot dude who likes her for reasons that are not further explained, but there’s something there anyway. I probably shouldn’t have but I enjoyed the hell out of this book!

This is the kind of book I recommend to people in a slump. It may not be great literature, not even particularly great writing (although we know the author has come miles since then!), but it’s light and fun and has some nice kissing in it. And it’s a fast read so you get the satisfaction of having finished a book again when things have been slumpy.
So even though the betrayal of year-long friendships is handled on half a page, the death of a character happens almost as a side note, and the characters don’t have a lot of depth, I will continue reading the rest of the series. Because who doesn’t like fun?

MY RATING: 6/10 – Good (for some reason)