The Road is the Destination: Rachel Hartman – Tess of the Road

In my quest to read as many Hugo (or in this case, Lodestar) nominated books as I possibly can, I jumped head first into the new-ish YA category with the book I had heard the most about. Opinions seem to go in opposite directions. Either people loved the book or they hated it so much they didn’t even finish. As I happen to like quieter, character-focused books, I was intrigued and quite sure this would be my cup of tea.

TESS OF THE ROAD
by Rachel Hartman

Published by: Random House, 2018
Ebook: 544 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8,5/10

First sentence: When Tessie Dombegh was six and still irrepressible, she married her twin sister, Jeanne, in the courtyard of their childhood home.

In the medieval kingdom of Goredd, women are expected to be ladies, men are their protectors, and dragons can be whomever they choose. Tess is none of these things. Tess is. . . different. She speaks out of turn, has wild ideas, and can’t seem to keep out of trouble. Then Tess goes too far. What she’s done is so disgraceful, she can’t even allow herself to think of it. Unfortunately, the past cannot be ignored. So Tess’s family decide the only path for her is a nunnery.
But on the day she is to join the nuns, Tess chooses a different path for herself. She cuts her hair, pulls on her boots, and sets out on a journey. She’s not running away, she’s running towards something. What that something is, she doesn’t know. Tess just knows that the open road is a map to somewhere else–a life where she might belong.
Returning to the spellbinding world of the Southlands she created in the award-winning, New York Times bestselling novel Seraphina, Rachel Hartman explores self-reliance and redemption in this wholly original fantasy.

Tess Dombegh is lady-in-waiting to her twin sister, so the latter can find a suitable husband at court, even though Tess is the older twin. The Dombegh family keeps that fact a secret, however, because, there is something in Tess’ past that would disgrace them all. Once Jeanne, the younger twin, is married, there are few options for Tess and neither of them appeals much to her. So she does what any spirited young woman in her place would do – she runs away from home on a quest to… nothing in particular, but really everything, as it turns out.

It is so easy to fall into this book, to get sucked into life at court, the dynamic between Tess and the rest of her family, but the first few chapters are a little deceptive. They are fast-moving, include lots of dialogue, and introduce Tess to the readers. So far, so good. Except the rest of the book continues in a very different tone. I personally loved it but I can see how other readers may feel cheated out of the quippy relationship drama they may have come to expect from the beginning. But the bulk of the novel is really what it says on the tin. It’s Tess. On the Road. She and her childhood best friend – a quigutl (lizard-like people) named Pathka – walk along together, finding ways to feed themselves (stealing, doing chores for dinner, even proper jobs), and they meet new people.

There are so many layers to this book and so much to love about it, I hardly know where to start. As she’s the heart of the tale and also in the title, I’ll go with Tess herself. It is very clear that something inside Tess is broken. She is bitter, she constantly hears her mother’s reprimanding voice in her head, she feels like a failure and a bad person, like she is unworthy of love. I don’t want to spoil what her big secret is, even though most of it comes out pretty soon in the book. Tess learning to live with her past and making the best of who she has become is really what this is all about.
Pathka, her best friend, has his own quest to follow and while it starts as a red herring, it also becomes much more important than expected. Pathka wants to find the mythical World Serpents, giant creatures said to roam underground caverns. But as they are only legends, Tess assumes, Pathka is on an equally spiritual journey as herself.

Like any good road trip story, there is a variety of people to be met, helped, escape from, and befriend. Rachel Hartman really showed her skill here, because  this could have felt episodic quickly. Tess walks, gets to a town/farmhouse/quarry/whatever, meets some people and interacts with them, then walks on. But it never did feel episodic, quite the opposite. The characters our two wanderers meet are quite diverse. Whether it’s a senile old man in the clutches of two villains, an order of nuns, a group of roadworkers, a proper prostitute (who makes Tess blush furiously!), a girl in need of rescue, monks protecting an ancient secret, or old friends… there are many stories contained within this larger one. And every story both teaches Tess something abut the world and about herself. The nagging voice in her head grows quieter, she stands taller, she slowly learns who she is.

I can’t express how touching certain moments of this book were. Although Tess is definitely not interested in romance, there is so much love in this story. Love between sisters – real love, that includes ugly fights – or love between friends like her and Pathka. Love for stories and adventure, and above all love for the Road and a desire to see what else the world has to offer. Not only Tess showed kindness to strangers, but strangers showed her kindness as well, and these seemingly random acts of humanity always make me a bit weepy. Yes, there are people who do bad things (whether that makes them bad people per se is up for anyone to decide), but there are also good people who will stand up for others and help those who need it.

If I haven’t made it clear enough yet, this was a fantastic book. I wasn’t a fan of the quigutl language – even as a German speaker, there were too many consonants in a row for my taste – but I did like the world building, especially the variety of Saints and their (sometimes crazy) teachings. Seeing the household Tess grew up in makes it much more understandable why she feels the way she does. If you’re taught all women are good for is suffering and doing their duty, then enjoying even the littlest thing makes you feel guilty. Tess has even bigger problems because according to her mother’s favored Saint, Tess is basically going straight to hell.

One thing I found quite curious while reading was how, whenever I put the book away, I wasn’t at all giddy to pick it up again. It’s not the kind of book that makes you want to know What Happens Next, it’s more a book that makes you think and thinking is best done while not reading a story. When I would pick it up again, I was hooked immediately every time and couldn’t quite understand why I wasn’t more excited to continue reading. So that’s not a bad thing, just something I found curious and more about myself than the book. The only negative thing I could say about this book is that some of the flashbacks didn’t feel  quite right. Tess and Will’s prank on a fellow student, for example, felt weird and like it didn’t quite fit in with the rest of the story. I would have preferred some other anectode of Tess’ former life, but that’s really nitpicky of me and shouldn’t keep you from reading this book.

The ending was the one thing that could have ruined it. You’ll have guessed from my rating that it didn’t. Indeed, Hartman managed to find the perfect bittersweet spot (more on the sweet than the bitter side) that hit all the right notes and ended this story the exact way it should: with a beginning.

MY RATING: 8,5/10 – DAMN EXCELLENT!

Advertisements

Djinn and Court Intrigue: S. A. Chakraborty – The City of Brass

The internet has been abuzz with this book ever since it came out and I had no particular reason to wait this long to finally read it. What gave me the final push was Chakraborty’s nomination for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. I’m glad I read this even though my plans to read all the Hugo nominations are getting overthrown now. Because before I can ready anything else, I need to get my hands on the sequel.

THE CITY OF BRASS
by S. A. Chakraborty

Published by: Harper Voyager, 2017
eBook: 534
Series: The Daevabad Trilogy #1
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: He was an easy mark.

Nahri has never believed in magic. Certainly, she has power; on the streets of 18th century Cairo, she’s a con woman of unsurpassed talent. But she knows better than anyone that the trade she uses to get by—palm readings, zars, healings—are all tricks, sleights of hand, learned skills; a means to the delightful end of swindling Ottoman nobles.
But when Nahri accidentally summons an equally sly, darkly mysterious djinn warrior to her side during one of her cons, she’s forced to accept that the magical world she thought only existed in childhood stories is real. For the warrior tells her a new tale: across hot, windswept sands teeming with creatures of fire, and rivers where the mythical marid sleep; past ruins of once-magnificent human metropolises, and mountains where the circling hawks are not what they seem, lies Daevabad, the legendary city of brass, a city to which Nahri is irrevocably bound.
In that city, behind gilded brass walls laced with enchantments, behind the six gates of the six djinn tribes, old resentments are simmering. And when Nahri decides to enter this world, she learns that true power is fierce and brutal. That magic cannot shield her from the dangerous web of court politics. That even the cleverest of schemes can have deadly consequences.
After all, there is a reason they say be careful what you wish for…

Nahri is a con-artist, swindeling the gullible people of Cairo out of their money by working with her friend, an apothecary, and by performing magical rites said to expel djinn from people who have been possessed. When one such rite goes kind of wrong and Nahri actually summons something, she has to learn about a world she has never believed in. One people with djinn and flying bird-men and dangerous marids.

It turns out, djinn are real and they have quite complicated politics of their own. We learn about these politics on the one hand through the second protagonist Ali, who lives in Daevabad, the City of Brass (also in case you haven’t guessed it: a city of djinn). As the second son to the king, he will not inherit the throne, but he is the head of the military and sworn to protect his older brother, and serve him one day when he ascends the throne.

Nahri and her freshly-summoned (and more than a bit grumpy about it) daeva “friend” Dara spend a large part of the novel fleeing from the ifrit, fire beings who want to kill Nahri because she appears to be the last heir of the Nahids – a tribe of djinn thought to be eradicated in the war 1400 years ago. You can already see, things get a bit complicated. Not only does djinn history from centuries ago still feature prominently in current affairs, Nahri is just as clueless as the reader in everything to do with djinn (or daeva, if you’re talking about purebloods), but she is apparently super important and has all that duty crash down upon her.

I have to say, reading this was quite an adventure. I fell into the world easily, the pages flew by without me noticing, but the reason it was so compelling kept changing. At first, I just wanted to know what the hell was going on – much like Nahri – and make sure this protagonist that I liked survived long enough to reach Daevabad. Then it becomes clear that Dara has secrets. Lots and lots of secrets, most of them not pleasant, some of them truly dark, and he probably has some more that we haven’t learned about by the end of this book.

Ali’s story line annoyed me at first, because without any knowledge of Daevabad politics, it was hard to know who to root for. Ali was a protagonist so surely he’s a good guy, right? Well… let’s just say the author did a great job of throwing her readers into a world and letting them figure out for themselves who’s good and who’s bad and – much more commonly – who’s somwhere in between. Ali himself is a difficult character but his story line definitely grew on me. The tensions in Daevabad are many. On the one hand, pure blooded daeva are secretly or not-so-secretly unhappy about the ruling family. They also don’t much like shafits – djinn who come from mixed djinn and human parents – and the shafit, in return, feel like they are treated badly, their living conditions are terrible, their children are being kidnapped and nothing much is done about it. Daevabad may be described as a bustling city with a varied population, but learning about it while reading made it clear that underneath the surface, there is as much going on as on it.

The one thing I’m on the fence about is the love story. I quite like the pairing that came up but I felt the author couldn’t decide whether she should show us how the two characters felt for each other or simply tell us. We are definitely told too often how Nahri grows all warm at the sight of a certain, handsome guy, but then again, there are also beautiful moments that don’t require words, that simply show how these two are drawn to each other. I’m totally here for the romance, I just think it could have been done better.

As for the ending: Are you kidding me?! I thought I had some things figured out, I thought I knew after 500 pages what was in store for me, vaguely knew where the story was going – nope. I didn’t. What’s more, while the ending was good and does end the story on a somewhat satisfying note, there is no way I can wait long to read the sequel. I need more of Chakraborty’s ideas, more Daevabad, I want to learn about all the different types of djinn, pure blooded or shafit. I want to know about Nahri’s parents, about her past and her future. In short, the author’s got me hooked and I can’t wait to read more by her.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent

Hook’s Point of View: Brianna R. Shrum – Never Never

As someone who loves retellings and adores Peter Pan, it was time to try a new-to-me author who tackled the classic story of the boy who would never grow up. I haven’t read a lot of retellings from the point of view of the villain, but because Hook is enigmatic and wonderful and full of layers, I was quite curious to see how Shrum would tell his story.

NEVER NEVER
by Brianna R. Shrum

Published by: Spencer Hill Press, 2015
Paperback: 356 pages
Standalone
My rating: 6,5/10

First sentence: All children, except one, wish to stay young.

James Hook is a child who only wants to grow up. When he meets Peter Pan, a boy who loves to pretend and is intent on never becoming a man, James decides he could try being a child – at least briefly. James joins Peter Pan on a holiday to Neverland, a place of adventure created by children’s dreams, but Neverland is not for the faint of heart. Soon James finds himself longing for home, determined that he is destined to be a man. But Peter refuses to take him back, leaving James trapped in a world just beyond the one he loves. A world where children are to never grow up. But grow up he does. And thus begins the epic adventure of a Lost Boy and a Pirate. This story isn’t about Peter Pan; it’s about the boy whose life he stole. It’s about a man in a world that hates men. It’s about the feared Captain James Hook and his passionate quest to kill the Pan, an impossible feat in a magical land where everyone loves Peter Pan. Except one.

We all know Hook, the infamous pirate captain who lost his right hand to Peter Pan, who in turn fed it to the ever-ticking crocodile. We know Tiger Lily and the Lost Boys, the splendors of Neverland and the magic of fairy dust. But when this story begins, James Hook is a regular boy living in London, dreaming of being a famous pirate captain, but quite focused on making his father proud and showing good form. Getting into a good school, excelling at his tasks, putting serious effort into Growing Up. Until he meets Pan in Kensington Gardens one day…

Peter swiftly spirits Hook away to Neverland where he lives as a Lost Boy for a while. Although James is sceptical from the very beginning of Peter’s games and eating nothing but make-believe food, he goes along with it because he senses the darkness in Pan, the danger that lies in wait for him should he break Peter’s cardinal rule: Never Grow Up!

I thought Shrum’s choice to do a few time jumps was a great way to tell the story. James inevitably does grow up a bit because he simply isn’t the type to stay a boy forever, and of course he ends up captaining his very own pirate vessel. He also feels drawn to Tiger Lily, at first a little girl but soon a young woman who may develop more adult feelings as well.

While the writing is engaging throughout the novel, there is little to no plot for at least two thirds of it. Hook mostly struggles with the fact that he doesn’t know how to leave Neverland without Pan – and Pan refuses to help Hook in any way because, well, he’s growing up. The idea of Pan being anything but innocent is not new, so I didn’t find this fact to be very interesting. It’s clear that Peter has a dark side  (Peter is mostly dark side, if you ask me) so that isn’t enough to keep me interested as a reader. And Hook’s pain at realizing he may never see his family again because he is stuck in Neverland was not enough to keep me interested for long.

For quite some time, Hook does pretty much nothing. There are many moments where it is shown that he has responsibilities as a captain, that he should command his people, that they should do something. And they do a little. Some ransacking here, some conquering of other pirate ships there, a quick stop at a nearby port of Neverland… but honestly, it never becomes clear what these pirates do all day. And I wouldn’t have minded so much because that’s just a fact of Neverland – stuff doesn’t happen unless Peter is there – but  the author specifically made Starkey, Hook’s first mate, remind Hook of his duties all the time. When the pirates still didn’t really do much and Hook didn’t interact with them a lot, it began to bother me.

Eventually, the plot does get going and a romance evolves. I thought it was quite nicely done, especially with the tone of the novel shifting from childlike fairy tale to a more grown-up style. Both James and Tiger Lily felt like surprisingly mature people, considering they are still quite young and don’t have any experience other than life in Neverland – which is not exactly the place you look to for advice on how to be a grown-up. But I liked both of them as characters, even though Hook was dreadfully inactive after his first attempts at escaping Neverland were thwarted.

I was surprised at how little this story overlaps with the original Peter Pan. Sure, all the characters are there and even Wendy and her brothers show up at the end, but other than that, there aren’t any recognizable events from Hook’s point of view. It’s a different story that only melds with the original Peter Pan at the very end. The ending in general was completely different from the rest of the book. Not only does the author rush through events at high speed, but certain characters also change personality really quickly. Tiger Lily, that amazing girl with a mind of her own, suddenly does a 180 and turns from a clever young woman into an intolerably stupid girl. Hook’s development into the villain we all know is more gradual and therefore more believable.

All things considered, this was an okay retelling with a lot of focus on character rather than plot. Few elements of the original Peter Pan are there, but I did like the one scene that was taken from the book and twisted to fit this version of events. Not my favorite retelling, not groundbreaking in any way, but not a bad book.

MY RATING: 6,5/10 – Good

My thoughts on the Hugo Award Finalists 2019

I AM SO EXCITED!!!! Every year, when the Hugo Award finalists are announced, I get all giddy and excited to see what I’ve already read and what I have to catch up on. Ever since I started voting in the awards myself, I have seen a mix of books I loved, books I didn’t much care for and books I hadn’t even had on my radar. This year looks absolutely fantastic and I already have no idea how I’m going to rank these books on my ballot…

Here are my thoughts on some of the categories.

Best Novel

I have read four out of the six nominees, which is much more than I’d ever read when the finalists were announced. I read the first book in both Yoon Ha Lee‘s trilogy and Becky Chambers‘ series and I loved both of them. So it’s time to catch up. As I heard the nominated Chambers book is only loosely tied to the first two books, I’ll probably leave out the second one and go straight to Record of a Spaceborn Few. Chambers’ feel-good characters and optimistic style make me really look forward to the experience. I will also read Raven Stratagem and Revenant Gun because if they’re anything as good as the first novel, I want to know. Even though it will make ranking these books even more difficult.

As for the books I’ve already read: I am beyond happy that Cat Valente’s excellent, heart-warming, and hilarious Space Opera made the cut. It was quite a departure from what Valente usually writes, although she does stay true to her style, even if it’s tuned down a bit. I am in no way surprised this book pleased so many people. It is highly original, super funny (I’m still giggling about the alien “invasion” chapter) and full of love and hope and all things good.
The Calculating Stars was a surprise hit for me. I didn’t really expect to like it all that much, and it was definitely not a comfortable book to read, but it no doubt deserves to be on this list. It had great characters, a super interesting setting (alternate 1950ies and 60ies) and dealt with so many themes that make the story exciting even without space battles. Sexism, racism, anti-semitism, mental health issues – it’s all there but it doesn’t bog the story down and it all feels so organic. Which is probably why reading this book was so uncomfortable.
I adored Naomi Novik’s Uprooted and that is why I wasn’t quite so in love with Spinning Silver. That may be slightly unfair because this is a fantastic book with minor structural problems, but it simply can’t  keep up with its predecessor. I loved the protagonists, the love stories, the fairy tale feel of it, but the POV changes (and randomly added POV characters) diminished my reading pleasure quite a bit. And with an author that excellent, I have to nitpick like this.
Now for my slightly more unpopular opion. Trail of Lightning was a lot of fun. I am already looking forward to reading the sequel, but I don’t think that this book is worthy of an award. The only thing that made it stand out for me was the setting and mythology – using Native American myths as a basis is something new to me and I found it refreshing and exciting. But the plot and the characters were very generic. It’s like reading a cozy mystery. You know what you’re going to get and you’re totally happy with that. But I personally wouldn’t throw an award at this book.

Best Novella

  • Martha Wells – Artificial Condition
  • Seanan McGuire – Beneath the Sugar Sky
  • Nnedi Okorafor – Binti: The Night Masquerade
  • P. Djèlí Clark – The Black God’s Drums
  • Kelly Robson – Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach
  • Aliette de Bodard – The Tea Master and the Detective

I’ve read only two of these novellas. Artificial Condition is at the top of my list at this moment. While I loved the first two Binti novellas, I thought the third one was the weakest in the triloy and therefore didn’t nominate it. It was a nice ending to the story but nowhere near as good as the first two books.
As for Seanon McGuires series, I’ve read the two previous instalments. I really disliked the first book, Every Heart a Doorway, but felt the second one, Down Among the Sticks and Bones, told a much stronger and engaging story. So I’m curious to see what the third one holds in store.

I’ve heard of the other three books but don’t know any of them yet. The first to catch up on will probably be The Black God’s Drums, simply because I like the sound of it most.

The Lodestar Award for Best Young Adult Book

  • Dhonielle Clayton – The Belles
  • Tomi Adeyemi – Children of Blood and Bone
  • Holly Black – The Cruel Prince
  • Justina Ireland – Dread Nation
  • Peadar O’Guilin – The Invasion
  • Rachel Hartman – Tess of the Road

I have read a whopping single book of this list. The Cruel Prince was quite good and I will read the sequels, but I get the distinct feeling that I will prefer some of the other nominees. I’m currently reading Tess of the Road and (at about 10%) I already know I love this story! Children of Blood and Bone has been on my TBR ever since it came out but since then, I have read some really scathing reviews that make me a little hesitant to finally pick the book up. As a good voter, I will definitely read it, but my high expectations have been lowered considerably. I once read a teaser excerpt of Peadar O’Guilin’s book The Calling – to which The Invasion is the sequel – and remember liking it. I hope I’ll find the time to read both books before voting ends.
As for Dread Nation and The Belles, neither book really spoke to me when it came out but I trust my fellow nominators and will check them both out. A great book you didn’t expect is always a good thing.

The John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer

  • Katherine Arden 
  • S.A. Chakraborty 
  • R.F. Kuang 
  • Jeannette Ng
  • Vina Jie-Min Prasad
  • Rivers Solomon

KATHERINE ARDEN!!! Ahem… So, you may have guessed who I’ll be voting for. I nominated Arden because she absolutely blew me away with The Bear and the Nightingale and The Girl in the Tower. With one book, she became an author whose books I’ll buy witout looking at the synopsis and that’s saying something.
I was also really impressed with R. F. Kuang‘s novel The Poppy War, so she’ll be high on my list as well. My current read is The City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty and I’m loving it so far. Which only makes my decision harder.
I have Jeannette Ng’Under the Pendulum Sun and Rivers Solomon‘s An Unkindness of Ghosts on my TBR and look forward to reading them. Vina Jie-Min Prasad is the only author of whom I’ve heard nothing before, probably because (as far as a quick interwebs search goes) she writes mostly short fiction and I’m always behind on short fition.

Best Series

  • The Centenal Cycle by Malka Older
  • The Laundry Files by Charles Stross
  • Machineries of Empire by Yoon Ha Lee
  • The October Daye Series by Seanan McGuire
  • The Universe of Xuya by Aliette de Bodard
  • Wayfarers by Becky Chambers

This is the category that I find the most daunting because if you’re not already familiar with a series, that means a lot of reading! I have read the first books in the Machineries of Empire series and Wayfarers but since books in both of these series are also nominated for Best Novel, I will read the sequel(s) as well.
Malka Older’s Centenal Cycle is the next series I’ll tackle after that because I’ve been dying to read Infomocracy anyway. I don’t know how long the first October Daye book has been on my TBR and I’m not sure I’ll manage to read much more than that first book. The Laundry Files have also been on my radar for a while but the only book I’ve read from that series was the novella Equoid which was excellent (book #2.9 according to Goodreads). So I’ll probably also give the first in the series a try. For the Xuya Universe, I’ll kill two birds with one stone by reading the nominated novella The Tea Master and the Detective.

I do follow the other categories, I’ll listen to the nominated podcasts and already watched (almost) all of the movies, but I don’t have that much to say about them. The long fiction categories are the ones that have my heart so I’ll spend my time reading as much of them as I can. But I have to say, this year looks absolutely spectacular in terms of what got nominated. If the books I haven’t read yet are as good as the ones I have, choosing favorites will be difficult. Once I’m all caught up, I may do another post with my ranking. Whether you guys are also voting in the Hugos or not, rest assured that the nominees are an excellent source for recommended reads.

Susan Dennard – Sightwitch

And I’m back with more Witchlands. The next instalment in the series just came out, so I didn’t want to read it right away (makes the wait for the next book shorter). But thankfully, there is this prequel-novella (200 pages still counts as a novella?) about side-character Ryber.

SIGHTWITCH
by Susan Dennard

Published by: Tor Teen, 2018
Ebook: 224 pages
Series: The Witchlands #2.5
My rating: 6,5/10

First sentence: You don’t remember me, do you, Kullen?

Before Safi and Iseult battled a Bloodwitch…
Before Merik returned from the dead…
Ryber Fortiza was a Sightwitch Sister at a secluded convent, waiting to be called by her goddess into the depths of the mountain. There she would receive the gift of foretelling. But when that call never comes, Ryber finds herself the only Sister without the Sight.
Years pass and Ryber’s misfit pain becomes a dull ache, until one day, Sisters who already possess the Sight are summoned into the mountain, never to return. Soon enough, Ryber is the only Sister left. Now, it is up to her to save her Sisters, though she does not have the Sight—and though she does not know what might await her inside the mountain.
On her journey underground, she encounters a young captain named Kullen Ikray, who has no memory of who he is or how he got there. Together, the two journey ever deeper in search of answers, their road filled with horrors, and what they find at the end of that road will alter the fate of the Witchlands forever.
Set a year before TruthwitchSightwitch is a companion novella that also serves as a set up to Bloodwitch, as well as an expansion of the Witchlands world.

Although this is technically a prequel (#0.5 of the Witchlands, if you will), and you can read it without having read any of the other books in the series, I think it is better to read it after Windwitch. Certain things that happen in this novella could spoil the second book otherwise. So, if you’ve read the first two Witchlands novels, you have already met Ryber Fortiza on Prince Merik’s crew and you know she and Merik’s Threadbrother Kullen are together.

Here, we meet a much younger Ryber during her time with the Sightwitches, waiting to be summoned herself and gain the power of Sight – remembering everything immediately, seeing the future, preserving memories from the dead. Year after year, young Sightwitch Sisters are summoned into the mountain to converse with the Goddess Sirmaya. Except Ryber. Yet she doesn’t give up, she follows every rule and is a model student, hoping that her devotion will get her summoned eventually.

It’s a great set-up for a story and one that made me sympathise with Ryber immediately. Nobody likes being the one left behind. And as Ryber watches her friends, especially her Threadsister Tanzi, summoned, with herself  still left Sightless, she becomes more and more desperate. When all Sightwitch Sisters are summoned, leaving Ryber completely alone, she knows that following the rules isn’t an option anymore. If she doesn’t take matters into her own hands, none of the Sightwitches might ever return. An no rulebook is worth that!

It was really nice that this shorter book finally explained the magic in a bit more detail. Sure, we focus on Sightwitches here, completely ignoring all the other magic out there, but the system seemed beautifully thought out and even based on a sort of common mythology. I guess that mythology and ancient history will be quite important for the series in general. We learn how people in the Witchlands came to possess magic in the first place and the events that led to this change. I found all of that incredibly interesting, not just because it’s a great story in itself but also because it gives the world so much more depth than it had with just the two main books in the series.

But this book isn’t only about Ryber and her journey into the mountain to save the other Sightsisters. We jump back in time to another Sightwitch’s life – in fact, we jump straight  into Eridysi’s journals and learn what was going on a thousand years before Ryber. I also really liked Eridysi as a character and found her story almost more intriguing than Ryber’s. But – you may have guessed – the two stories aren’t just there by happenstance, they do connect in the end.

Ryber’s trip into the mountain was probably the most annoying part of the book. She meets Kullen (no spoiler, it’s literally on the first page) and while they don’t exactly hit it off, they form an alliance of sorts to try and get out of the crazy mountain alive. Why crazy, you ask? Well, there’s all sorts of monster and weird rooms and other stuff that wants to kill you down there. Fun to read, for sure, but I was way more interested in the background stories. Fleshing out the story of the Paladins and how they died many, many years ago. How magic came to the Witchlands, what kind of doors Eridysi was trying to build and whether she ever succeeded.

In the end, things connect really well, and many questions were answered. Although even more appeared, especially when it comes to Kullen and certain events from Windwitch. This book also doesn’t continue seamlessly into Truthwitch so I’m left wanting to know how Ryber got from the end of this book to where she is when we first meet her on Merik’s ship. But all things considered, this was a nice shorter trip into the Witchlands and I recommend this book to anyone who wants to read the series. Sometimes, you can leave out the bonus novellas or short stories that come with book series, but this one just feels important to the overall world.

MY RATING: 6,5/10 – Very good

Susan Dennard – Windwitch

After the happy surprise that was Truthwitch, I decided to continue Susan Dennard’s Witchlands series and see where she takes her characters and what else I can learn about this world. Unfortunately, there were a lot of things wrong with this sequel, but not enough to deter me completely from the series. I have high hopes for the next instalment and I’m already reading the (so far really great) prequel Sightwitch.

WINDWITCH
by Susan Dennard

Published by: Tor, 2017
Ebook: 384 pages
Series: The Witchlands #2
My rating: 6,5/10

First sentence:  Blood on the floor.

Sometimes our enemies are also our only allies…
After an explosion destroys his ship, the world believes Prince Merik, Windwitch, is dead. Scarred yet alive, Merik is determined to prove his sister’s treachery. Upon reaching the royal capital, crowded with refugees, he haunts the streets, fighting for the weak—which leads to whispers of a disfigured demigod, the Fury, who brings justice to the oppressed.
When the Bloodwitch Aeduan discovers a bounty on Iseult, he makes sure to be the first to find her—yet in a surprise twist, Iseult offers him a deal. She will return money stolen from him, if he locates Safi. Now they must work together to cross the Witchlands, while constantly wondering, who will betray whom first?
After a surprise attack and shipwreck, Safi and the Empress of Marstok barely escape with their lives. Alone in a land of pirates, every moment balances on a knife’s edge—especially when the pirates’ next move could unleash war upon the Witchlands.

Well, if ever there was a book that started with a bang, this is it! When I started reading, I thought for a little while that I had skipped a volume or missed a chapter because boy, stuff goes down right away! Prince Merik escaped from his exploding ship and now lives in hiding, scarred, hurt, and somewhat depressed at the state of his home country and himself. He misses his Threadbrother, he has no plan on what to do next, and he can’t stop thinking about Safiya fon Hasstrel…

Meanwhile, Safi and Iseult – separated as per the end of book one – don’t have it much easier. Iseult desperately tries to find Safi again and stumbles across Bloodwitch Aeduan – my (and probably most other readers’) favorite character. Safi starts out much like Merik, with a shipwreck and on the run. So the stakes are high right from the start, there is lots of interesting conflict  and character development to come, and I sank into this book smiling smugly, knowing I had chosen wisely.

And to be fair, the book does deliver a lot of these early promises. But it also has a lot of problems. Let’s start with the good stuff. I enjoyed, more than anything else, Iseult’s character development, the things that are revealed in her storyline, and above all her relationship with Aeduan. These two are thrown together by fate and continue their journey side by side for a while to mutual benefit. But as you can imagine, a sort of friendship does form, although one expressed through grunts and constantly saving each others lives rather than through actual spoken words. I loved every second of Iseult and Aeduan, especially because we get to read both their POVs and see how they’re both unsure they can trust the other person but they also both want the other person to stay alive.

Merik’s storyline was also not bad, although it had major parts that were too drawn out and quite frankly boring. He returns to his home unrecognizably scarred and while he enjoys this new anonymity, he still wants to save his kingdom. We also finally get to know Merik’s sister, Vivia, and let’s just say, there is more to her than meets the eye. I should say more than Merik has led us to believe so far. Because we get to see this ruthless, bloodthirsty and power-hungry character through her own POV chapters, she feels much more three-dimensional, much more multi-layered and although I can’t say I liked her (at least not at first), there is no denying that she was interesting as hell to read about!

Safi’s story was actually the weakest of them all. There were more things I disliked about her story than things I liked. First of all was the fact that her and  Vaness get throwin into situations involving other nations, bands of pirates, weird magic-resistant guys, and yet more groups of people who we may have heard of before but I just found it all very confusing and had a difficult time keeping all the new characters and factions straight. There is not enough explanation, not enough time to understand the world-building properly to get into the whole “which faction is betraying with other faction” thing.
Even worse though was Safi’s fickleness when it comes to the romance. I really liked her tense relationship with Merik in the first book and I wanted these two to find each other again. But Safi wastes no time being attracted to other men. Of course I know this happens, particularly with a teenager like Safi, but I felt disappointed in her nonetheless.

The middle part of the book is a bit of a drag all-round, with quick POV changes but very little happening to push the plot forward in each of the story lines. I felt like Iseult and Aeduan walked around for ages without getting any further, I felt Merik hid in the shadows without any plan of what to do, just sulking around, and Safi and Vaness stumbled from one kind of capture into the next – all without moving anything truly forward. But the last third of the book made up for the middle slog.

What really, really bothered me, especially toward the end, was the extremely quick jumps between characters. As soon as I got into a scene, felt comfortable with one character’s story line again, something shocking happens and it’s over – we jump to the next character. And then the same thing happens over again. And again. And again. It’s thrilling, no doubt, reading nothing but cliffhangers for about a hundred pages, but it never allowed me to fully engage with any one character or their story because I was constantly being ripped out of it again. I think putting the individual character sequences together differently would have greatly improved the book. But hey, that’s just me.

Despite the annoying POV jumps, the ending was quite epic. There were several revelations that open the world up even more and give plenty of room for the sequels. I would have liked to learn a bit more about the parts of the world that have already been established, as well as about the magic, but if the author decided to keep that for the upcoming books, I’m okay with that. This may have been a very flawed book that would have benefited off some better editing, but I’m still invested in the Witchlands and its characters. I can’t wait to finish the prequel Sightwitch and then dive straight into the newly-released Bloodwitch. Because, come on, it has to be focused on Aeduan and Aeduan is the best!

MY RATING: 6,5/10 – Pretty good

2019 Retellings Challenge – First Quarter Update

The first quarter of the year is almost over (how did that happen?), so it’s time for a little update on my reading challenges. I think I’ve been doing pretty well, especially with the Retellings Challenge which is the most dear to me because my TBR is overflowing with retellings and I really need to catch up!

What I’ve read

My retellings have been everything from mind-blowingly good (The Scorpio Races and The Language of Thorns) to still very good (Trail of Lightning and A Curse so Dark and Lonely) to meh (In the Vanisher’s Palace and Pride) to complete failure (Girls of Paper and Fire). Although, that’s a very mixed outcome, I am quite pleased all things considered.

The Scorpio Races took a while to get started for me, but boy did it grab my heart at the end. I cried, people! The Language of Thorns satisfied both my need for more Grishaverse as well as my love for fairy tales. Trail of Lightning was a fun post-apocalyptic Urban Fantasy romp in a unique setting and A Curse so Dark and Lonely caught me with its kick-ass active protagonist and its clever use of the Beauty and the Beast tropes.

In case you want to read my less favorable reviews, here’s Pride and here’s the complete trainwreck that was Girls of Paper and Fire.

My retellings reading plan

I don’t have any fixed plans on what to read next because I like to see where my mood takes me, but there are a few books that definitely have to happen soon.

  • Surprise Peter Pan retelling (depends on which book wins the poll for the April group read on Goodreads)
  • Katherine Arden – The Winter of the Witch
  • Madeline Miller – Circe
  • Rosamunde Hodge – Bright Smoke, Cold Fire

I’m really looking forward to the Peter Pan retelling, no matter which book wins. All the nominated books sound amazing, so I’ll be happy with whatever gets the most votes (except for Alias Hook which I’ve already read). Madeline Miller’s Song of Achilles was really beautiful, so I’m making her my choice for Greek myth retelling, Rosamunde Hodge is also one of my favorite retellings authors and I’m curious to see what her version of Romeo and Juliet looks like. And Katherine Arden has stolen my reader’s heart with her Winternight Trilogy, so finding out how the story ends is bittersweet. I really want to know what happens but I don’t look forward to not having any of her books left to read.

General Thoughts on the Challenge

I’ve been loving this challenge so far. I did notice that, after reading a lot of retellings I felt a need for something else. So I spent March reading mostly other books, catching up on some series, even reading something that isn’t SFF (Anne of Green Gables – it’s adorable!) but by now, I’m really back in the mood for more retellings. Since I always read more than one book at a time, I may try pairing a retelling with a new release – there are so many new books this year that sound absolutely amazing.

If you’re doing this challenge as well, how is it going for you? Have you discovered a hidden gem like I did with The Scorpio Races? Have you been disappointed in an over-hyped book? Let me know in the comments and if you participate in the challenge, make sure to link up at Cornerfolds.

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!

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!