Gentleman Magicians: C. L. Polk – Witchmark

As someone who has never found their way into Urban Fantasy, I am more than delighted to see the different directions this sub-genre is going. Rebecca Roanhorse’s Trail of Lightning set familiar story tropes in a new and original setting, and this book here – while set in an alternate Edwardian England – also puts its own and rather wonderful spin on it. Go, Urban Fantasy! You may turn me into a fan just yet.

WITCHMARK
by C. L. Polk

Published by: Tor.com, 2018
Ebook: 318 pages
Series: The Kingston Cycle #1
My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence: The memo stank of barrel-printing ink and bad news.

In an original world reminiscent of Edwardian England in the shadow of a World War, cabals of noble families use their unique magical gifts to control the fates of nations, while one young man seeks only to live a life of his own.
Magic marked Miles Singer for suffering the day he was born, doomed either to be enslaved to his family’s interest or to be committed to a witches’ asylum. He went to war to escape his destiny and came home a different man, but he couldn’t leave his past behind. The war between Aeland and Laneer leaves men changed, strangers to their friends and family, but even after faking his own death and reinventing himself as a doctor at a cash-strapped veterans’ hospital, Miles can’t hide what he truly is.
When a fatally poisoned patient exposes Miles’ healing gift and his witchmark, he must put his anonymity and freedom at risk to investigate his patient’s murder. To find the truth he’ll need to rely on the family he despises, and on the kindness of the most gorgeous man he’s ever seen.

Doctor Miles Singer is in hiding. He works at a veterans’ hospital, trying to help his suffering patients as best he can and without the use of the magic he secretly possesses. When a dying man arrives at the hospital and knows about Miles’ magic as well as the cause of his own death (poison, he says), things get a little out of control. Together with the enigmatic Tristan Hunter, who brought the poisoned man to the hospital, Miles has to set out and figure out the mystery of this murder. But that also means he has to go out into the world, confront his estranged family, and discover secrets that range far wider than he would have thought.

Discovering the world of Witchmark was fun from the very beginning. The author doesn’t present everything on a silver plate but rather lets you figure everything out for yourself from context, from dialogue and description, from the way the characters act. This may not be everyone’s cup of tea but I love it when authors trust their readers to put things together for themselves. While set in an alternate Edwardian England, there are things that immediately stand out as fantastical, first among them the fact that there is magic. We learn early on that Miles possesses a magical gift and that he can use it to heal people. But it is only later that we find out how Miles fits into the larger world of magic and why he ran away from his family and his duties.

The plot starts out as a murder mystery and sticks to the tropes most of the time. Tristan and Miles investagate places and interview people, you know the deal. It could have been boring but with added bicycle chases and a wonderfully engaging sub-plot about Miles and his family, the book was exciting all the way. There are also two rather important plot twists, one of which I kind of saw coming (although not its details), the other of which made me gasp out loud. The only thing I didn’t really buy was the romance. I really liked where things where going but I felt there wasn’t enough there to base a relationship on. We should have seen more conversations, more moments between the two characters to understand why they fell for each other.

Polk also created some wonderful characters, not just in Miles and Tristan (who has his own secrets which I will not spill but you should totally read the book because it’s super cool), but also in Miles’ sister Grace. She is one of those characters that you think you’ve figured out from the first meeting but then she shows unknown depths. Her relationship with Miles is a very, very difficult one because of the way this society works and the way it deals with mages. Without spoilers, it’s impossible to talk about details, but rest assured that there is more to Grace than meets the eye and that she truly does love her brother.

What made the book work for me was mostly Miles as a character and finding out why he ran away to fight in the war rather than stay with his wealthy, respected family. He is yearning for freedom, for agency, for a place of his own even if it is tiny and he could afford something much larger and better. Understanding why he chooses a life that at first appears so much worse than what he could have had, was a lot of fun to discover and made both Miles and the world he lives in more interesting. There are also plenty of things that I want to explore more so I’m more than happy that this is the first book of a series.

Overall, I really enjoyed this read. It was charming and original, it sets up many things that will have repercussions in the sequel, and it made me really like the characters. While maybe not award-worthy (it’s nominated for a Nebula), this was a fun read that got better as it went along.

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very good!

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V. E. Schwab & Andrea Olimpieri – The Steel Prince

I’ve only recently  finished the Shades of Magic trilogy with mixed feelings. The third book was fun to read, but the conclusion felt rather underwhelming to me. There is no denying, however, that V. E. Schwab has created an intriguing world of parallel Londons that I’ll gladly return to every chance I get. Thanks to the publisher for this Graphic Novel ARC which let me dive back into Red London for a while and see what happened before Kell, Rhy and Lila.

SHADES OF MAGIC VOL. 1: The Steel Prince 
by V. E. Schwab and Andrea Olimpieri

Published by: Titan Comics, 2019
Paperback: 112 pages
Series: Shades of Magic #1
My rating: 6/10

First sentence: Once, there were four worlds instead of one, set side by side like sheets of paper.

Delve into the thrilling, epic tale of the young and arrogant prince Maxim Maresh, long before he became the king of Red London and adoptive father to Kell, the lead of A Darker Shade of Magic!
The youthful Maresh is sent to a violent and unmanageable port city on the Blood Coast of Verose, on strict orders from his father, King Nokil Maresh, to cut his military teeth in this lawless landscape.
There, he encounters an unruly band of soldiers, a lawless landscape, and the intoxicatingly deadly presence of the newly returned pirate queen, Arisa…
Collects Shades of Magic: The Steel Prince #1-4.

First of all, let  me tell you that if you haven’t read the Shades of Magic trilogy by V.E. Schwab, go do that now. I don’t think reading this graphic novel prequel will make much sense or really work for you  if you aren’t already familiar with the (wonderful!) world the author created in her novels. There is a whole magic system here that is not explained in the graphic novel, there are power structures that should also be understood to some degree before reading it. So with that important piece of information out of the way, let’s talk about the graphic novel.

I’ve been a fan of comics and graphic novels for a while now because the good ones manage to evoke as much emotion in the reader as a big fat novel can, all without much description but instead with pictures. That said, a good novel writer is not necessarily a good graphic novel writer because the two media are so different and you have to use different methods to get the story you want to tell across. While this was not a bad book, it was quite obvious that Schwab is more at home with prose. I enjoyed the story fine, but I just wanted a bit more. More of everything. More description, more world building, more character development, more magic, more intricate battles… It was all there to some degree but there was just never enough of it.

The story revolves around Maxim, Kell and Rhy’s father (or Kell’s adoptive father, if you want to be correct). In the novel trilogy, Maxim really got to shine in the third book, so I was eager to see what the king had been up to in his youth. The premise of the story is that the four Londons are separated, there are no Antari around, and the king is quite happy with this situation. Not so Maxim who is full of excitement and wants to save the world and make it better, but who is also impulsive and trusts too much in his own abilities.

Maxim was an intriguing character, especially compared to the older, wiser King Maxim we meet in the novels. He is easy to like because although he acts rashly sometimes, you know from the start that his heart is in the right place. The fact that he is amazing with his magic also doesn’t hurt.

Because Maxim’s father disapproves of his son’s efforts to find Antari magicians, he sends him away to Verose which – as you might expect – doesn’t go too smoothly. I don’t want to give too much of the plot away, but this is where Maxim meets Isra who faithful readers of Schwab’s books will recognise immediately. Seeing her former self was also a lot of fun, and I especially enjoyed the group dynamic between all the people Maxim meets. Naturally, there is an opponent that needs to be defeated and while I thought she was super cool as villains go, this was were the plot started losing me. The ending came way too quickly and felt sort of abrupt, particularly because the beginning took such care to introduce the world to the readers a bit and to show where Maxim is coming from.

Andrea Olimpieri’s art is beautiful, no doubt. I really liked how the characters were drawn but I had some problems with the action sequences and the magic. Arisa’s (the villain) magic looked absolutely stunning and managed to convey that sense of danger through art that I’m sure the characters felt whenever confronted with her. But the other types of magic didn’t really give me that sense of wonder that I want to feel when reading fantasy. The battle scenes – again, great ideas and great story telling as such – also suffered because of the medium chosen. You’d think any visual medium would be better suited for fast-paced action scenes than simple prose, but because comic books are comprised of still images, not moving ones, I think it’s incredibly hard to make fight scenes thrilling in them. For me, it didn’t really work in this book.

Overall, I enjoyed the read. I can’t say I fell into it the way I did with A Darker Shade of Magic, but it was time well spent. The ending rounds up the story nicely (if too quickly) but definitely leaves room for more of Maxim’s adventures. Even if this wasn’t one of my favorite graphic novels, I’ll probably check out whatever comes next because it’s a lovely world to escape to and there are so many details yet to explore. Maybe, if Schwab continues writing these, we’ll get to see Rhy’s birth and how Kell came into their lives. Here’s to hoping!

MY RATING: 6/10 – Good

Make sure to check out the other stops on the Steel Prince blog tour:

Epic bunnies: Richard Adams – Watership Down

When the TV show LOST was all the rage, I made plans to read all the books Sawyer read, among which was Watership Down. After about 50 pages, I gave up, unable to dive into the minds of rabbits and go with them on their long journey. I thought this simply wasn’t for me. I found it silly and a bit boring and abandoned the book. Until, last year, I picked it up again (because I’m nice to my books like that) and finished it in a couple of days. I still can’t explain why, but let this be a lesson to me, that sometimes, you just need to wait for the right time to read a particular book. I’m certainly glad I read this one!

WATERSHIP DOWN
by Richard Adams

Published by: Avon Books, 1972
Paperback: 478 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence: The primroses were over.

Set in England’s Downs, a once idyllic rural landscape, this stirring tale of adventure, courage and survival follows a band of very special creatures on their flight from the intrusion of man and the certain destruction of their home. Led by a stouthearted pair of friends, they journey forth from their native Sandleford Warren through the harrowing trials posed by predators and adversaries, to a mysterious promised land and a more perfect society.

When Fiver, smaller than most other rabbits and not taken seriously by them, shares a vision of their home’s destruction, only Hazel believes him. Fiver says they need to get away from the warren and find a new home if they want to survive because Something Terrible Will Happen. Although Hazel is a respected rabbit, only a small group join these two on their journey into unknown lands – and so begins the rather epic tale of Watership Down.

As someone who has never seent he movie as a kid (from what I hear, my parents spared me enormous childhood trauma), I had no idea where these rabbits wanted to go but I was game to follow them. Not only did I immediately enjoy the mythology and language that Adams has built around his furry protagonists, but I also found I liked their characters. They may be rabbits and as such rather similar, but each of them is also a distinct person. Impulsive and sometimes aggressive Bigwig (he was my favorite), calm and clever Hazel, tormented Fiver who shows such bravery event hough he thinks he’s a coward – they grew on me in a kind of sneaky way and it was only when they were in danger (which happens a lot, to be fair) that I realised how much I wanted them to be okay and reach this new home they’re dreaming of.

Their journey is a truly epic one. It leads them to other warrens, has them face dangerous animals – it’s not easy being a rabbit and as such prey for most other creatures you encounter – and also to political and social problems. How do you start a new warren without female rabbits? How do you trick a cat? How do you save your friends who have been captured by a superbly evil rabbit who is one of the best villains I’ve ever read about, never mind his furry face. How do you cross a river, for that matter? Find food and shelter? Richard Adams must truly love rabbits because I don’t think I know any other book with an animal character where I felt so much like the creature I was reading about.

I also loved that while these rabbits were clearly rabbits and don’t act rationally a lot of the time (or what humans would consider rational, at least), they also have a social structure and a group dynamic that is just as frail as in a human group. Decisions about who gets to be the leader and whether to take a peaceful or an aggressive approach must be made and they are often discussed among the rabbits. I thought this was especially well done in a scene where one rabbit gets caught in a snare. By trying to pull on it, it only gets drawn tighter, but rabbit instinct dictates that the rabbit must get away so he pulls and pulls. But these aren’t just any old rabbits, so the others come to help and fight their natural instincts to help each other and to trick humans and larger animals alike.

I will never understand why I couldn’t finish the book on my first try because I breezed through it so effortlessly the second time around. This was a truly enjoyable read, particularly because of the mythology about El-Ahrairah and how rabbits came to be what they are. The effort Richard Adams put into this is astounding and I am so, so glad I gave this book another chance. Because it turned out to be a lighter Lord of the Rings with rabbits and who’d want to miss that?

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very, very good!

Overhyped but a lot of fun: Rebecca Roanhorse – Trail of Lightning

Ah, here it is again. The dreaded post-hype disappointment of what is generally a very good book. Roanhorse’s debut novel has been one of the buzziest publications of 2018, so despite my dislike for Urban Fantasy, I decided to give it a go. I was well entertained and would sum this up as “a lot of fun” but I don’t really understand what the hype is about or why it’s supposed to be such a groundbreaking work of fiction.

TRAIL OF LIGHTNING
by Rebecca Roanhorse

Published by: Saga Press, 2018
Ebook: 287 pages
Series: The Sixth World #1
My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence: The monster has been here.

While most of the world has drowned beneath the sudden rising waters of a climate apocalypse, Dinétah (formerly the Navajo reservation) has been reborn. The gods and heroes of legend walk the land, but so do monsters.
Maggie Hoskie is a Dinétah monster hunter, a supernaturally gifted killer. When a small town needs help finding a missing girl, Maggie is their last—and best—hope. But what Maggie uncovers about the monster is much larger and more terrifying than anything she could imagine.
Maggie reluctantly enlists the aid of Kai Arviso, an unconventional medicine man, and together they travel to the rez to unravel clues from ancient legends, trade favors with tricksters, and battle dark witchcraft in a patchwork world of deteriorating technology.
As Maggie discovers the truth behind the disappearances, she will have to confront her past—if she wants to survive.
Welcome to the Sixth World.

Maggie Hoskie is, apart from her cultural heritage, your average Urban Fantasy heroine. Instead of the depressed, alcoholic and antisocial private detective, you get a depressed, antisocial monsterhunter with superpowers. She’s not the sassy kind of UF heroine that permeates so many werewolf-and-vampire stories, but I still didn’t find her to be very interesting as a character. Dealing with the consequences of her powers and things that happened in her past makes her multi-layered, sure, but again, nothing I haven’t seen before. Doesn’t every Urban Fantasy heroine have demons in her past, people she’d like to forget, or people she’d like to meet again? It’s no less intriguing for having done a million times before, but it has been done a million times before.

So while I didn’t dislike Maggie, I also didn’t particularly like her. She is stubborn to a fault, she is smart, but sometimes overestimates her own cleverness, she mistrusts everyone (which is not a bad thing given her occupation). She doesn’t let anyone get close to her but at the same time yearns for family and a place to belong. I may not have liked her all that much, but she did make for a compelling main character and I’d much rather have someone like her than a Mary Sue. All this  is quite different from how I felt about Kai, the mysterious, handsome medicine man who travels with her. Again, it’s obvious from the start that he is the main romantic interest. These two are thrown together by circumstance, have to work closely with each other and that means going into dangerous situations, saving each others lives and – naturally – growing closer. Again, I have nothing against that and I adored Kai whose sense of humor brought some light into this rather dark story. But it is still just a tired old trope – a well-done way, absolutely, but nothing new.

The writing was good, but  nothing groundbreaking (you see a pattern yet?). The exact same goes for the plot. Everything needed for a fun romp is there. The characters are fleshed-out enough to care about them, the pacing is on point, the things that happen are thrilling and keep you turning pages, the fights had me at the edge of my seat. But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s basically Buffy in a cool new setting with cool new monsters. There’s even a plot twist at the end (which I found to be quite well done) and then a bit of a cliffhanger (which I didn’t like so much).

Now the world-building is where it’s at, as it is the only aspect of this book that I found to be truly fresh and original. Based on Native American mythology, you get to read about monsters you (probably) haven’t read about before. No werewolves or vampires in sight! In fact, because the Big Water has destroyed most of the US, Navajo culture is now dominant, so every person Maggie and Kai meet, every place they visit, has a distinctive flair to it that was incredible fun to explore. There is still so much to discover because although the groundwork has been laid – the Big Water destroyed most of the US, Dinétah rose and with it, its gods and monsters, resources are scarce, it’s all very Mad Max: Fury Road but different enough to be exciting! We know some people are born with clan powers which can be anything from mind reading to super strength, we know there are witches and immortals… Roanhorse gave me just enough to always make me want more but she also always gave me the feeling that, yes, there is more and she knows it. Whether that’s true or not, it feels like the author has her world fully planned out, like she has a bigger plan that she’s following with the series. Dinétah is definitely a world I want to see more of, so despite disagreeing with the hype, I will probably read the sequel.

I realize I made this sound worse than it is. I’m nitpicking because I tried really hard to understand the hype and simply can’t. Apart from the setting and the characters, I found nothing in this book to be new or groundbreaking. But reading it was actually a lot of fun. You can breeze right through it, be thoroughly entertained, and then want more of the same. I wouldn’t put it on an awards ballot but I would put it into my friends’ hands. Because who doesn’t like a fun thrill ride through a post-apocalyptic world, hunting monsters and discovering mysteries?

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very good!

More than Nigerian Harry Potter: Nnedi Okorafor – Akata Witch

I chose the rather provocative title for this post on purpose. On the one hand, Harry Potter draws attention and I definitely want lots of people to pay attention to this book. On the other hand, Nnedi Okorafor managed to get a sort of Harry Potter vibe in this book, all while writing something completely original and her own. I read the sequel right after this book which is really something, considering how many book series I’ve started and not finished…

AKATA WITCH
by Nnedi Okorafor

Published by: Viking Children’s, 2011
Paperback: 349 pages
Series: Akata Witch #1
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: The moment Sunny walked into the schoolyard, people started
pointing.

Sunny Nwazue lives in Nigeria, but she was born in New York City. Her features are West African, but she’s albino. She’s a terrific athlete, but can’t go out into the sun to play soccer. There seems to be no place where she fits in. And then she discovers something amazing—she is a “free agent” with latent magical power. And she has a lot of catching up to do.

Soon she’s part of a quartet of magic students, studying the visible and invisible, learning to change reality. But just as she’s finding her footing, Sunny and her friends are asked by the magical authorities to help track down a career criminal who knows magic, too. Will their training be enough to help them against a threat whose powers greatly outnumber theirs?

In many ways, Akata Witch is similar to Harry Potter. A young girl finds out she belongs to a hidden, magical world. She makes friends, learns about her new powers, all while taking down evil. If that were all this story was then it would still be a great story – but it so, so much more than that. The plot is just the surface layer. It keeps things moving, it keeps up the pace and makes the pages fly as you read. But it’s not why I fell so hard for this book.

Sunny Nwazue is an outsider wherever she goes. With her West African features, she looks like her Nigerian friends, But she’s albino, so her skin is white, her hair is blonde, and she can’t go in the sun because her skin burns too easily. Also, children are cruel, and because Sunny looks different from the others, she doesn’t quite fit in. Until she meets Orlu, Chichi, and Sasha – a delightfully diverse mix of friends who all happen to be Leopard People. Leopard People is what magical folks are called in this story, while us muggles (sorry) are called lambs. However, even as a Leopard Person, Sunny is slightly special in that her magic jumped a generation and her parents are both non-magical. This makes her a “free agent” – basically someone with magic abilities who wasn’t taught from early childhood and now has to catch up on all the knowledge her friends already possess.

I could tell you all the little details of Okorafor’s magical world of Leopard People but I don’t want to take that experience away from anyone. The comparison to Harry Potter may not be entirely fair, but as I mentioned before, it is more the feeling rather than the ideas themselves that reminded me of that beloved childhood series. And if you loved the details in Harry Potter, you are sure to love these as well. The magic world is entirely different from anything I’ve read before, infused with West African mythology, with masquerades and a magical currency, with books written by and about Leopard People. It is simply delightful to discover all of this with Sunny.
My heart was especially taken with the book Sunny is given – “Fast Facts for Free Agents”  – of which a part is quoted at the end of each chapter. The narration of that fictional book was a joy to read. It is not written so much as a helpful guide (or at least not only as a helpful guide) but it has a sassy, snappy tone that made me giggle every time it came up. It also helped to flesh out the Leopard world through lore.

Another standout part were the characters. Sunny may feel like an outsider but she doesn’t wallow in self-pity, she simply takes things as they are and tries to make the best of them. When she discovers her magical abilities, she reacts very much as one would expect her to. She is bewildered and excited, eager to learn but scared to make mistakes. She is happy to finally have a place where she belongs and people who are true friends but the magical world is daunting and large and she knows almost nothing about it. In short, Sunny was easy to love.

Equally as wonderful were Sunny’s friends. Orlu, who is kind of the responsible father figure of the quartet, Chici, the excitable, talkative girl, and Sasha, who is American like Sunny. I read this book but I listened to the audiobook of the sequel, so let me tell you that the narrator does a phenomenal job of giving each character their own voice and personality. I highly recommend going for the audiobook with this duology. For the accents, for the wonderful narration of “Fast Facts for Free Agents” and for the different voices given to the characters.

Another thing I loved was the message of this book. Leopard People are often people who are considered to have “flaws” in the Lamb world. Sunny’s albinism may give her a disadvantage in our world, but in the Leopard world, it can be a strength. The same goes for people with ADHD or dyslexia, for example. Leopard society teaches you to embrace those perceived flaws because they are what makes you you. Even if the young people who read this book don’t find themselves as part of a hidden magical society, the book sends a beautiful message. Love yourself, love your flaws, don’t let the bullies get you down!

As for the plot, most of it is obivously Sunny learning about Leopard People and finding her place in this new world. But because there has to be something evil to defeat – and it wouldn’t be such a great story if there wasn’t – there is Black Hat Otokoto, a serial killer who has been roaming the area. I don’t think it’s a spoiler if I tell you that Sunny and her friends will have to use everything they have learned to defeat him.

I really hope my comparisons to Harry Potter don’t put anyone off this book but rather make you want to pick it up. Because although there are similarities (and let’s face it, there are many other books that share the same aspects of “normal” person discovers they belong to a secret magical world), this book stands very well on its own, it has so much to say, and it is a wonderful exploration of an underrepresented kind of fantasy. Set in Nigeria, based on African mythology, this book feels like a fresh wind in the mass of YA fantasies.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

Beauty and the Really Nice Beast: Brigid Kemmerer – A Curse so Dark and Lonely

Oh, how wonderful is the sense of relief when you fear that you are stumbling into a sterotype-laden YA insta-romance and it turns out you discovered something beautiful and original. Brigid Kemmerer’s retelling of Beauty and the Beast may not be perfect, but it did a great job at subverting most of the tropes that retellings and YA romances tend to use.

A CURSE SO DARK AND LONELY
by Brigid Kemmerer

Published by: Bloomsbury YA, 2019
Hardcover: 496 pages
Series: A Curse so Dark and Lonely #1
My rating: 7/10

First sentence: There is blood under my fingernails.

Fall in love, break the curse. 
It once seemed so easy to Prince Rhen, the heir to Emberfall. Cursed by a powerful enchantress to repeat the autumn of his eighteenth year over and over, he knew he could be saved if a girl fell for him. But that was before he learned that at the end of each autumn, he would turn into a vicious beast hell-bent on destruction. That was before he destroyed his castle, his family, and every last shred of hope.
Nothing has ever been easy for Harper Lacy. With her father long gone, her mother dying, and her brother barely holding their family together while constantly underestimating her because of her cerebral palsy, she learned to be tough enough to survive. But when she tries to save someone else on the streets of Washington, DC, she’s instead somehow sucked into Rhen’s cursed world.

Break the curse, save the kingdom. 
A prince? A monster? A curse? Harper doesn’t know where she is or what to believe. But as she spends time with Rhen in this enchanted land, she begins to understand what’s at stake. And as Rhen realizes Harper is not just another girl to charm, his hope comes flooding back. But powerful forces are standing against Emberfall . . . and it will take more than a broken curse to save Harper, Rhen, and his people from utter ruin.

This could have gone so very wrong. It could have been just another tale of a pretty girl and an arrogant prince who is reformed by her love, set in a shiny castle with or without magical servants. And while A Curse so Dark and Lonely ticks all the boxes it needs to be a retelling of Beauty and the Beast, it has such a nice layer of originality to it. And, most important, it has characters that stand out, that aren’t just cardboard cutouts saying “prince” and “beauty”.

Harper lives in DC and is snatched away by a strange man who wanted to kidnap another girl, but Harper intervened and now she’s the lucky gal who gets to find out there are other worlds than hers. She arrives at the castle, is introduced to Prince Rhen and his loyal guardsman Grey, and she also learns pretty soon what is going on. There is a curse on Rhen – one of the things I liked most in this book! – that makes him relive the same season until he manages to fall in love with a girl and have her return that love. There is a Groundhog Day vibe about Rhen, the total despair of having tried everything, having killed himself in numerous ways, only to wake up to the same hell again and again. I thought as curses go, this one is much more terrifying than the original, because it makes Rhen hope over and over again that this time, really this time will be different and he’ll break the curse. He gets no closure, no way to accept that he’ll live as a beast and come to terms with it. He can’t even kill himself to end it all.

I loved Rhen as a character, even more than I loved Harper. The one thing that annoyed the shit out of me though was that Harper is the perfect cliché of the “special girl” who is “not like the others”. I mean COME ON! Rhen has tried his luck breaking the curse with over 300 girls, yet Harper is the only one to stand out? Not only is it highly unlikely that she is the very first to talk back, try to escape, want to go home and nothing to do with him and his castle – but what bothered me even more was that those “other girls” are presented as somehow less worthy or valuable because they enjoyed dressing up in the beautiful gowns provided by the castle, or eating the delicious food. I don’t believe for a second that 300 girls taken from our modern world would all just sit down meekly and play dress-up all day and even if they did, that doesn’t make them in any way less than Harper. Liking stereotypically girly things is not bad! Stop writing fiction where only girls who are “not like the others” are the good ones who get the fairy tale ending.
To me, Haper’s actions were not special at all – they were relatable! Sure, she may be braver than your average girl and that’s great, but what she does or plans to do is not special at all, it’s logical and understandable.

Let’s stick with Harper for a moment and the other things I enjoyed about this book. The pros far outweigh the cons for me, so I am willing to forgive the author for putting down girly girls. Harper is also a wonderfully proactive protagonist. Instead of sitting around waiting for Rhen to dictated her day, she gets up and gets shit done! It may not always be the right shit or even smart shit but at least she does stuff. Harper is the kind of girl who may think to herself while she’s stuck in this magical world, she may as well make herself useful and spend her day doing good and learning things. She also finds out very soon what Rhen has to do to break the curse (because it’s never a big secret) and although she’s convinced it’s not going to happen because she finds Rhen arrogant, she is aware of it.

This supposed arrogance that Harper always sees in Rhen was another thing I didn’t quite get. There is no moment where he comes across as anything but kind and worried for his people, maybe a bit reserved and careful with strangers, but never ever arrogant or mean. I fear that the writing is to blame for this disconnect between what is said and what is shown in the story. The writing in general  was simplistic and at times annoyingly repetitive. I stopped counting the moments when characters were “just a breath away from touching” or when Rhen put a strand of loose hair behind Harper’s ear. I have nothing against these moments, against the tension they create, but using the exact same words to describe them makes them feel a lot less special.
And again, the writer does a good job showing us what happens and what the characters feel. But somehow, the characters themselves tell us things are totally different from what we just read ourselves. There is no reason for Harper to dislike Rhen at all other than that it’s convenient for a Beauty and the Beast kind of plot.

Another bonus point for this book: Harper has cerebral palsy and for me, this was the first time reading about a character like her. As Harper states herself, she is rather lucky and her life isn’t too restricted. Other people with cerebral palsy can have difficulty talking or suffer  involuntary muscle contractions, yet others can live without much restriction and simply have a limb or two that doesn’t grow the way it should. Harper falls into the latter category. She walks with a bit of a limp because one of her legs is affected.
I was unsure for the longest time on how I felt about this. On the one hand, I would have liked to read about a heroine with a disability that actually prevents her from doing a lot of things we able-bodied people take for granted. Because there aren’t enough protagonists like that and because I’d really like to learn more about it and put myself in someone else’s shoes through fiction. So giving Harper nothing but a slight limp felt like a cop-out. On the other hand, who the hell am I to say how disabled the disabled protagonist is supposed to be? And I definitely think it is better to include a disabled heroine like Harper  than not to write about disability at all.
So, after stewing over this for a while, I am really happy that I got to read about a girl with cerebral palsy. Especially because Harper doesn’t let it hold her back. She climbs things, she rides horses, she runs when she thinks she needs to – never once thinking that there is anything she can’t do because of her leg. Her agency is a delight to read and I wish more YA protagonists were like her!

The plot was quite enjoyable, mostly due to Harper taking action, although I felt that certain things at the end were a little convenient. I can’t say anything withouth spoiling but there was one instance where the author took the easy way out because anything else would have been really difficult to write (I get it, I wouldn’t want to have to think my way out of this), but it still felt reather cheap. As for the plot twist – it definitely came as a surprise but it felt very much like a quick way to set up a series rather than telling a standalone story. I have no idea if Brigid Kemmerer already has a plan as to where the series is going. If she does, I’ll be happy to follow her characters and find out what’s in store for them (I have grown quite fond of Harper, Rhen and Grey), but if there is no plan other than “write a sequel” I worry that the next book won’t be anywhere near as good as this one was.

There’s only one way to find out, so I’ll definitely be reading A Heart so Fierce and Broken (set to release in early 2020). Despite my nitpicks, this book was a lot of fun to read, the romance worked pretty well and I’m just so happy to have a protagonist with agency and a cast of characters with personality for a change. Well done.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

Great but not perfect: Naomi Novik – Spinning Silver

Like many other readers, I adored Naomi Novik’s first foray into fairy tale territory in the shape of her novel Uprooted. While not an actual sequel, Spinning Silver is the spiritual successor to that book and so had quite a lot to live up to. It wasn’t as amazing as Uprooted and there were some problems for me that could easily have been fixed, but it was still a great book overall. Not-so-good for Naomi Novik still means worlds above many other authors, after all.

SPINNING SILVER
by Naomi Novik

Published by: Del Rey, 2018
Hardcover: 466 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence: The real story isn’t half as pretty as the one you’ve heard.

Miryem is the daughter and granddaughter of moneylenders, but her father’s inability to collect his debts has left his family on the edge of poverty—until Miryem takes matters into her own hands. Hardening her heart, the young woman sets out to claim what is owed and soon gains a reputation for being able to turn silver into gold.
When an ill-advised boast draws the attention of the king of the Staryk—grim fey creatures who seem more ice than flesh—Miryem’s fate, and that of two kingdoms, will be forever altered. Set an impossible challenge by the nameless king, Miryem unwittingly spins a web that draws in a peasant girl, Wanda, and the unhappy daughter of a local lord who plots to wed his child to the dashing young tsar.
But Tsar Mirnatius is not what he seems. And the secret he hides threatens to consume the lands of humans and Staryk alike. Torn between deadly choices, Miryem and her two unlikely allies embark on a desperate quest that will take them to the limits of sacrifice, power, and love.
Channeling the vibrant heart of myth and fairy tale, Spinning Silver weaves a multilayered, magical tapestry that readers will want to return to again and again.

If you’ve read the short story of the same name, collected in The Starlit Wood, then you’ll know exactly how this novel begins. Miryem, the daughter of a rather useless moneylender, takes matters into her own hands. After all, her father may be very good at lending money, but he is rubbish at collecting it – which leaves him and his family in poverty while others thrive with the money he lent them. Miryem will not stand for this unfairness, especially since her mother has taken sick. The way she hardens her heart to the people who owe her father money, the way she gets better and better at her job, it was just so incredibly fun to read. Because you know, as the reader, that although Miryem grows cold and hard, she is still a loving person.

The character I liked even better – although she was completely unnecessary for the entire plot – was Wanda though. She lives with her brothers and their abusive father who, as so many do, owes Miryem’s father money. Wanda sees her chance to get away from her father and starts working for Miryem. She even manages to save up some money for herself without letting her father know. This first act of friendship between Wanda and Miryem (who understands quite well what is going on but doesn’t always say so) made me think this book could actually be as good as Uprooted.

However, there is a third protagonist, Irina, who is also set on her path by her father’s actions. Come to think of it, every one of these girls has to fix things their fathers have broken. Miryem needs to do her father’s job properly, Wanda needs to work to pay her father’s debts, and Irina… well Irina needs to marry the tsar, a man who terrifies her and who may be way more than just an arrogant man – because of her father’s greed.  I liked all three of these girls very, very much. They are quite different but they share resolve and cleverness, something I appreciate much more in a protagonist than pretty looks. None of them are fooled by magic or tricks, and while they may not immediately find a way out of their predicaments, they at least work out a plan and fight for what’s important.

As it turns out, this important thing may be way more than just their individual freedoms. Miryem – who accidentally entered into a bargain with this world’s Rumpelstistkin, a Staryk, a creature of winter and cold, wants to return to the human world. Wanda wants to be free of her father and live a normal life with her brothers, Irina wants to survive whatever lives inside the tsar. Irina and Miryem have to work together to – drumroll – probably save the entire world. What started as a clever retelling of Rumpelstiltskin turns into an epic battle of fire and ice, evil and probably-mostly-evil. It was awesome and the way things are resolved made me cheer!

What I didn’t like and what really diminished the entire story for me were the randomly added viewpoint characters. It starts out with Miryem, Wanda, and Irina alternating chapters. Then suddenly, Irina’s old maid has a viewpoint, Wanda’s brother gets one, but in the middle of chapters so you often don’t know whose head you’re in. These added perspectives unfortunately don’t do anything to further the story and these characters (except maybe Wanda’s brother) are so unimportant that adding their view doesn’t make sense. It really took me out of the book a lot of times and made me almost angry. I don’t care what Irina’s nurse thinks and does – the action is somewhere else, the characters I care for are somewhere else. Get back to Irina and Miryem already!

Another thing I’m unsure about was the romances. There are several, yes, and I kind of really liked one of them (not telling which, though) but I’m unsure about the other. Both relationships start out rather abusive or at least unfriendly. While I could see a slow coming together and growing to know each other with one pair of characters, I felt that the other pair just stayed together for convenience. Don’t get me wrong, I really liked the ending, but I’m just not sure if I should like it.

All things considered, this was a very good book that shows the strength of women fixing problems men created, that puts female friendships front and center, and that has a wonderful layer of epic fantasy world building that I didn’t expect. I hope there will be more fairy tale retellings by Naomi Novik, even though I didn’t love this as much as Uprooted.

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very, very good

What an ending! Leigh Bardugo – Ruin and Rising

I may not have liked Shadow and Bone very much, but I loved Siege and Storm and where the story was going. Finishing this trilogy can not have been easy for the author because the whole story could fail with a botched ending. Happily, Leigh Bardugo managed to write a fantastic end to a great trilogy. Spoilers for Shadow and Bone and Siege and Storm below!

RUIN AND RISING
by Leigh Bardugo

Published by: Henry Holt,  2014
Hardcover: 422 pages
Series: The Grisha #3
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: The monster’s name was Izumrud, the great worm, and there were those who claimed he had made the tunnels that ran beneath Ravka. 

The capital has fallen.
The Darkling rules Ravka from his shadow throne.
Now the nation’s fate rests with a broken Sun Summoner, a disgraced tracker, and the shattered remnants of a once-great magical army.
Deep in an ancient network of tunnels and caverns, a weakened Alina must submit to the dubious protection of the Apparat and the zealots who worship her as a Saint. Yet her plans lie elsewhere, with the hunt for the elusive firebird and the hope that an outlaw prince still survives.
Alina will have to forge new alliances and put aside old rivalries as she and Mal race to find the last of Morozova’s amplifiers. But as she begins to unravel the Darkling’s secrets, she reveals a past that will forever alter her understanding of the bond they share and the power she wields. The firebird is the one thing that stands between Ravka and destruction—and claiming it could cost Alina the very future she’s fighting for.

It is such a pleasure to see an author grow better and better with every book. The Grisha Trilogy really improved with every instalment so it’s no surprise that I thought this third book was the best of them – and it even managed to nail the ending which I was quite  worried about.

The way Siege and Storm ends makes you think you’re in for a stereotypical quest story in the final book. Alina, Mal, and a handful of others need to seek out the firebird to get the third amplifier so Alina can be strong enough to finally defeat the Darkling. I have  nothing against quest fantasies but I won’t lie – I really liked how this turned out to be something quite different.

The country is at war, the Darkling holds the capital, the Grisha are gravely diminished – basically, everything is falling apart and there is very little hope that there will be peace anytime soon. Yet Alina battles on because there isn’t much else she can do, and since she has grown so much since the beginning of this story, there is no way she’ll just lie down and wait for the end without a proper fight. Her character growth was one of the most fascinating things about this trilogy. From a shy, somewhat naive young girl, she grows into herself. Although she may not enjoy the attention she’s getting and the cult that has formed around her alleged sainthood, she knows that she holds great power and that the fate of her country and the people she loves lies in her hands, at least to some degree. That’s quite a burden for a young woman, especially when all she really wants is to snuggle up with Mal and live a quiet life out of the spotlight.

Speaking of Mal: He grew on me so much during this book. In Siege and Storm, he already showed his personality (while I think in the first book he was rather cardboard), but here he rises to new heights and makes the reader see what Alina sees in him. That guy is a hero if there ever was one! The same goes for the other side characters. Genya and David, Tamar and Tolya, even Zoya who started out as nothing but a mean girl in the Little Palace. Each and every one of them got to show off their talents, their loyalty, and their importance to the story. They aren’t just window dressing, they are vital parts of every plan – and in case you forgot, that plan is about saving the world. So no pressure.

These are my gorgous hardback editions that now live happily on my shelves next to Maggie Stiefvater. 🙂

My favorite side character – and no doubt many other readers’ as well – is definitely Nikolai Lantsov. You just have to love his cocky, funny way, especially in a story about such dark themes. He is a ray of sunshine in a world filled with darkness and pain. I don’t know if he started out simply as comic relief (a job he does so, so well) but it is always clear that there is much more to him than charm and beauty. And let’s just say he goes through some crazy scary stuff in this book that I was not sure he’d ever get out of. Or if he did, he wouldn’t be the same as before.  All the more delight for fans like me that he now gets his very own duology, starting with King of Scars. YAY!

As mentioned before, the plot may begin as a not-so-simple quest that takes a surprising and heartbreaking turn. But underlying it all is an undercurrent of politics and big Life Questions. Nikolai is now successor to the throne of Ravka and with that come a lot of new questions and responsibilities, only one of which is that he needs to think about getting married and producing heirs. Because royalty. Alina understands more and more that, while she may love Mal and only think about Nikolai as a friend, a political union between the Sun Summoner and the next king of Ravka makes so much sense. In the quieter moments of the novel, when nothing explodes for a while and nobody’s life is in immediate danger, it is these questions that make  the story so damn enjoyable.

Without giving too much away, I need to talk about the ending for a bit. I was so sure I had it all figured out and I prepared myself mentally for something very, very bittersweet. In a story about war, even if the big things work out the way they were planned, you know it’s not going to be all wonderful. People die, friends are lost, lives are forever altered by the big gaping hole of losing your home or your family. But even if you get into this story fully convinced that, in the end, good will win (however you define good) and the Darkling will be defeated, there will be surprises in store for you. I may actually have misled myself a bit because I read the Six of Crows duology before this and I maaaay have come across a something spoilery. But even that didn’t rui the ending for me because Leigh Bardugo is a genius and I am now her fan forever.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

A hot mess: Natasha Ngan – Girls of Paper and Fire

Ah, the dreaded disappointment of an over-hyped book that simply does not deliver. This book promised so, so much! Starting from that gorgeous cover, there was supposed to be a slow-burn lesbian romance, a rich world inspired by Malaysia, plus magic and a suspenseful plot. It’s actually quite amazing that none of those promises were kept and the writing was… let’s say sub-par as well.

GIRLS OF PAPER AND FIRE
by Natasha Ngan

Published by: Jimmy Patterson Books, 2018
Hardcover: 400 pages
Series: Girls of Paper and Fire #1
My rating: 3/10

First sentence: There is a tradition in our kingdom, one all castes of demon and human follow. 

Each year, eight beautiful girls are chosen as Paper Girls to serve the king. It’s the highest honor they could hope for…and the most cruel.
But this year, there’s a ninth girl. And instead of paper, she’s made of fire.
In this lush fantasy, Lei is a member of the Paper caste, the lowest and most oppressed class in Ikhara. She lives in a remote village with her father, where the decade-old trauma of watching her mother snatched by royal guards still haunts her. Now, the guards are back, and this time it’s Lei they’re after–the girl whose golden eyes have piqued the king’s interest.
Over weeks of training in the opulent but stifling palace, Lei and eight other girls learn the skills and charm that befit being a king’s consort. But Lei isn’t content to watch her fate consume her. Instead, she does the unthinkable–she falls in love. Her forbidden romance becomes enmeshed with an explosive plot that threatens the very foundation of Ikhara, and Lei, still the wide-eyed country girl at heart, must decide just how far she’s willing to go for justice and revenge.
TW: violence and sexual abuse.

It’s been a while since I’ve been so very disappointed in a book! It started out quite well with an introduction to the world and its underlying mythology out of which the castes were born. There’s not much information but it makes you want to find out more an really dive into the story.
I don’t quite know where to start with why this book failed so badly for me, so I’ll just tell you in no particular order the problems I had while reading.

Let’s start with Lei, the main character who has golden eyes (which, like, makes her super special but not really). Rarely have I encountered such a bland, boring, hypocrictical, idiotically stupid protagonist. I’ll forgive a bit of naivete but by the end, I was so disgusted with Lei’s behaviour that – even had she single-handedly saved the world I wouldn’t have cared for her. She arrives at Court as the ninth chosen concubine to the Demon King – a fate she naturally and understandably despises. She is terrified of being called to the king’s bedchamber and constantly thinks that she wants to defy him. But unfortunately, Lei is all talk (or rather thought) and no action. She is super clumsy in her classes – which I guess is supposed to be endearing but really isn’t – but her only defiance is in really stupid ways. If you want to fight what’s happening, don’t be an idiot about it!
But what bothered me even more is that she has no personality. She constantly thinks she wants freedom in very grand thoughts and flowery sentences that want to be quoted so badly but aren’t really all that quotable. But that word “freedom” has no meaning other than “not being a Paper Girl” to her. Lei has no hopes or dreams. She misses her family, sure, but there is nothing that she dreams of, nothing she wants to do with her freedom should she ever get it. Why should I root for someone who doesn’t even root for herself? Who has no hopes, no dreams, not even a freaking hobby?! Lei is all wannabe Braveheart speeches and no substance.

As for the caste system, of which Paper caste is the lowest and the one Lei belongs to –  you could replace Natasha Ngan’s idea with any other three castes. The different appearances of the castes has no impact on anything. The fact that the Steel and Moon castes have animal features (some of which are terribly described and make no sense, btw) has no bearing on the plot or the world or anything at all. So why add such a feature when the entire world and story would have been the same if all people looked human? I had a lot of trouble imagining some of the characters. The Paper girls have a teacher, for example, who is part hawk. There is a lot of talk about her “beaky nose” but I still don’t know if it was an actual beak or just a slightly crooked human nose. Other demons have fur all over their body while yet others only have hooves or horns growing out of their head. There is no consistency and the descriptions are simply not good enough to get any clear image of what anyone looks like.

Which leads me to the writing in general. It became more and more unbearable the further I read. Words and phrases are constantly repeated! It felt like the author only ever thought up one way to describe a certain thing (a dress, a building , someone’s hair, etc.) and kept using that one over and over. The way Lei remembers things other characters said to her reminded me of a high schooler trying to reach a specific word count for an essay and using repetition as as filler. I swear I read the same two lines – a general threatening Lei’s family if she didn’t cooperate and become a Paper girl – twenty times! It was jarring to say the least. Readers usually don’t forget a line of dialogue from three pages ago, you don’t have to repeat it word by word to make sure we still know…

Even had the descriptions not been as repetitive, they were still not enough for me to create the lush world that was promised. Mostly, we get descriptions of clothing items and a bit about the court and all its splendor. But throwing in a few Malaysian-inspired words does not make for rich world-building. I have finished this book and still have no idea what it’s like to live there. There is barely any mention of the culture, of traditions, of the mythology that was hinted at so nicely in the beginning. The few times that information is given about the wider world, it comes out of nowhere, just in time when the plot needs it. This complete lack of foreshadowing makes this book read like a first draft rather than an edited, finished novel.

This review is already getting long, but we haven’t even talked about the romance. Oh boy, the romance. There is nothing slow-burn about it. Lei simply sees one of the other Paper Girls and thinks she is super beautiful and cat-like. Wren, the girl in question, also happens to be the best in all the classes and sometimes gives Lei long looks. And then, boom, they’re madly in love. Like I-will-die-for-you-love! That’s it. They barely have any conversations and when they do, the stilted dialogue makes sure the reader feels as uncomfortable as possible. I swear, if you read those lines out loud, you wouldn’t be able to stop laughing, it sounds so unnatural. It feels especially awkward when two girls swear eternal love for each other but haven’t even done small talk. Like what’s their last name? Their favorite food? What did they do before becoming Paper girls… Ah, I guess that’s not important, just as long as they will die for each other!

I do have to say that Wren, at least, was an interesting character! For the first third or so of the story, a mystery surrounds her and she has agency, other than  Lei. That mystery is revealed incredibly out of the blue, like the author made it up on the spot (see lack of foreshadowing). As for the other Paper girls, they are cardboard cutouts with a single attribute attached to them. There are the twins, the nice but naive girl whom Lei befriends, and others that you never get to know but are supposed to care for when bad stuff happens to them. Blue is the stereotypical mean girl with not a single shade of grey to her.
Now Blue’s character just made me sad, because it had so much potential. If this is supposed to be a feminist story, about girls sticking together, about women helping women, then the mean girl should at least have more than one layer. She gets this really interesting backstory that made me want read about her rather than Lei, but behaves only within the limited frame of “bitch”. If she does or says anything at all, it is mean and it harms Lei. It would have been so nice to see the girl that gives the others a hard time come around when it’s important. But sadly, no.
Even the king is just evil personified with no depth whatsoever.

Another thing that drove me up the wall was how stupid most of the characters behaved. So Lei learns a secret, one that must be kept at all cost! And what does she do? First of all, she talks with Wren out in the open, at the Paper court where she has no idea if anyone can hear her. And she doesn’t even talk in code, they spell out their plan clear as day. Secondly, Lei feels super superior for knowing this secret and honestly drops hints of “I know something you don’t” to her maidservant – a girl who is absolutely loyal to the king and the court and the whole Paper girl thing. I wanted to slap everyone in this book at least once. I’m okay with characters making mistakes, but being consistently stupid is not okay.

The next point is difficult for me to talk about because I have no personal experience with nor do I know anyone who has experienced sexual assault. I have, however, just recently read a book that dealt with this topic in an amazing manner (Deerskin by Robin McKinley – highly recommended!) and I was surprised with how different these two authors’ approaches were. Lei goes through something terrible, something unimaginable! And while there are some repercussions in the form of nightmares, that’s all there is. This thing that happened to her simply doesn’t come up anymore after that. She has a few nights of bad dreams and then – nothing.  I understand that everyone deals with grief differently, everyone has their own way of coping with things, but the complete lack of even mentioning this horrible thing felt off, especially because this is a first person narrative and we are constantly in the protagonist’s head.
What really bothered me though was how the story completely ignored the other Paper girls’ experiences. Except for Aoki, none of the others even gets acknowledged! Even worse, Lei gets called so very brave for refusing the demon king, for running away the first time he called her to his bed – BUT WHAT ABOUT THE OTHERS? Are they cowards for enduring, for doing the terrible things expected of them to protect their families just as Lei wants to protect hers? Again, I have no experience and am going simply by gut feeling here, but this made me extremely uncomfortable throughout the whole book. I wanted to hear the other girls’ stories so badly, for them to get a voice too.

That leaves me only with the plot. While it hits the ground running, once Lei arrives at court, nothing much happens. Lei gets dressed up nicely, goes to her classes where she learns to dance and behave like a proper lady or whatever, stares at Wren, and dreams about that elusive freedom which she wouldn’t even know what to do with. On the rare occasion something does happen to further the plot, it’s like a slap. It comes out of nowhere and leaves you slightly befuddled. As the world doesn’t make sense and we never get any explanation of how it works (why is there a king, how does he rule, what does that entail), you can never know what to hope for. Would the country be better off without the king or would a new one simply replace him even if there is no official heir – other than being a disgusting rapist, we don’t know much about him – or is there a sort of rebellion wishing for a democratic government? Why are there raids on villages, what does the king get out of it? What about the magic that is sometimes mentioned and then completely ignored again? As you see, it’s all really messy and incoherent.
Either way, at the end, a lot of things happen very quickly, and almost none of them make sense. On the one hand, the ending makes me very curious how the author will continue this story and it can only get better. But on the other hand (that’s a gigantic other hand), I really don’t want to do this to myself for another 400 pages, even if it does get a little better.

I was promised a stereotype-smashing, feminist, LGBT romance in a lush setting with an explosive plot (literally all phrases I got from blurbs of this book). Promises were broken. This series ends here, for me.

MY RATING: 3/10 (for the okaybeginning)

Leigh Bardugo – Siege and Storm

Don’t you just love it when writers get better with every book? I didn’t love the first book in The Grisha Trilogy, Shadow and Bone, but it had potential and I was really interested in the world Barduga had created. So, after a long wait, I picked up this second part and completely fell into it. Seriously, I read Ruin and Rising right afterward and the Grisha short story collection The Language of Thorns somewhere in between. Spoilers for Shadow and Bone below!

SIEGE AND STORM
by Leigh Bardugo

Published by: Henry Holt, 2013
Hardcover: 435 pages
Series: The Grisha #2
My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence: Two weeks we’d been in Cofton, and I was still getting lost.

Darkness never dies.
Hunted across the True Sea, haunted by the lives she took on the Fold, Alina must try to make a life with Mal in an unfamiliar land. She finds starting new is not easy while keeping her identity as the Sun Summoner a secret. She can’t outrun her past or her destiny for long.
The Darkling has emerged from the Shadow Fold with a terrifying new power and a dangerous plan that will test the very boundaries of the natural world. With the help of a notorious privateer, Alina returns to the country she abandoned, determined to fight the forces gathering against Ravka. But as her power grows, Alina slips deeper into the Darkling’s game of forbidden magic, and farther away from Mal. Somehow, she will have to choose between her country, her power, and the love she always thought would guide her–or risk losing everything to the oncoming storm.

Alina and Mal have managed to escape the Darkling and leave their country of Ravka behind. Trying to save up some money to make a new life for themselves, their plans are destroyed and they are captured, the Darkling’s prisoners once again. On the way back to Ravka and to whichever terrible plans the Darkling has for Alina, they get to know Sturmhond, a notorious pirate, I mean privateer. If Alina wants to bring safety to her country once more, to destroy the Fold, to defeat the Darkling, she has to take on a completely new role. Command the Second Army, grow into her power, and maybe even make a political match to give the people of her home country hope.

Second books in trilogies are often treated unfairly, I think. Sure, they often only serve to set up the big finale, but sometimes, they do much more than that. Siege and Storm, for instance, introduces one of the best characters in the entire series, the pirate Sturmhon! His charm is infectious, and Leigh Bardugo shows off just how well she can write funny dialogue. Because Sturmhond is also kind of unbearable (in addition to being charming), there is a lot of quippy banter and clever backs and forths. Given the dire situation – the country is at war, the Darkling has new ideas on how to take over and probably hurt or kill a lot of people in the process, and the people are divided – a little bit of comic relief is more than necessary. I think the author found a really good balance between serious and fun in this novel.

This is also the book that finally shows Alina isn’t just a grey little mouse who lets herself being pushed around. Sure, there are still times (lots of them) where she is out of control, where the Darkling uses her weaknesses against her to control her next move, but she visibly grows over the course of the story. By the end of this book, you won’t recognise the girl she was before. In essence, she is still herself and still longs for the same simple things, but she has grown up enough to understand that those simple things are less and less likely to happen, that she has to make sacrifices if she wants to save her country. I really felt for Alina in this book. She has to make some tough decisions and face some ugly truths and although she manages it all, she is very changed by the end.

Another strength of this book was the development of Mal and Alina’s relationship. Just like Alina has to figure out her place in the world, especially because she is the Sun Summoner, Mal has to figure out his place in her life, which is just as hard. For me, Mal only really became a character in this book. In the first part, we only learn from Alina how wonderful he is and how everybody loves him and he has an easy way with people and blablabla. Here, we actually get to see it, to understand why people are drawn to him and want to be his friends. It made me like both Alina and Mal more and made it even harder to read about them growing apart because they both know (or think they know) it’s better for everyone. As of writing this, I don’t know how the story ends, but I hope so very much that they will somehow find a way to be together.

As for the plot, ther are parts that are slow moving. Alina arrives back in Ravka at court and has to deal with politics and a new situation plus some new Grisha powers. There are plans for war and discussions with royalty and it’s not exactly action-packed. But these parts are the ones that show off Alina’s growth so beautifully, so I didn’t find them the least bit boring. Plus, at the end the book really picks up the pace again and a lot of things happen! There are betrayals and broken hearts and mysteries yet unsolved and new players in the game of power. So basically everything that makes a story great.

If (like me) you didn’t really get what everyone was so excited about after the first book of this series, then do yourself a favor and just read on. I am almost done with the third book and I can already say, it’s even better than this one. I have grown to care for these characters and for Ravka, and by now I’d even call myself a Leigh Bardugo fan.

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very, very good!

The Grishaverse:

  1. Shadow and Bone
  2. Siege and Storm
  3. Ruin and Rising