Excellent but kind of unfinished: Benjanun Sriduangkaew – Winterglass

I can’t resist a good fairy tale retelling, especially if it comes wrapped in a cover like this! And at 130 pages, this promised to be a quick read which is good to keep motivation for reading challenges up.

WINTERGLASS
by Benjanun Sridunagkaew

Published by: Apex Book Company, 2017
eBook: 130 pages
Standalone (?)
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: On the night of Nuawa’s execution, she saw the Winter Queen for the first time.

Winterglass is a sci-fantasy about one woman’s love for her homeland (Sirapirat) and her determination to defeat the Winter Queen who has overtaken the land.
The city-state Sirapirat once knew only warmth and monsoon. When the Winter Queen conquered it, she remade the land in her image, turning Sirapirat into a country of snow and unending frost. But an empire is not her only goal. In secret, she seeks the fragments of a mirror whose power will grant her deepest desire.
At her right hand is General Lussadh, who bears a mirror shard in her heart, as loyal to winter as she is plagued by her past as a traitor to her country. Tasked with locating other glass-bearers, she finds one in Nuawa, an insurgent who’s forged herself into a weapon that will strike down the queen.
To earn her place in the queen’s army, Nuawa must enter a deadly tournament where the losers’ souls are given in service to winter. To free Sirapirat, she is prepared to make sacrifices: those she loves, herself, and the complicated bond slowly forming between her and Lussadh.
If the splinter of glass in Nuawa’s heart doesn’t destroy her first.

This book was both a bit of a rush and a pleasure cruise. In the prologue alone, so many details are introduced that don’t make sense yet. The protagonist, Nuawa, just a little girl, is sent into an execution device called a ghost-kiln. But her mother – who is to be executed with her – gives her something to swallow, something sharp and icy, and Nuawa survives.

Nothing much makes sense at first, but throughout the story of (now grown-up) Nuawa, readers get to explore this strange science-fantasy world, in which human souls are used to generate power, where the Winter Queen has conquered formerly lush and warm places and turned them to ice, where nobody seems powerful enough to defeat her. And of course that is Nuawa’s goal. To kill the Winter Queen, who is not only responsible for turning her home into a cold place but for killing her mother as well. But Nuawa is the embodiment of patience. Many assassin’s have failed but Nuawa doesn’t plan to be one of them.

I found this a strange reading experience because it was at once a slow read, focused on character development, and at the same time things happend very quickly, rushing you through the plot to the end – which didn’t really feel like the end of the story, merely a first chapter of something bigger.

But let’s start with the story’s strong points. I loved the world building, maybe even because the reader gets thrown into it and we have to figure things out for ourselves. For Nuawa, having grown up in it, her world is self-explanatory. For us, there are many strange things and customs to discover. It’s a beautifully diverse world, filled with weird little details that enrich the story greatly. In a fight, Nuawa can slice through her oponent’s shadow, inflicting pain (and even death) on them. Sexuality seems very fluid, as well as gender identity – there is a variety of pronouns used for different characters. There are methods, appearing magical but presented as a sort of science, to protect your body against harm, and I found this all highly original and interesting. So discovering this world definitely whetted my appetite for more.

My favorite part, by far, were the characters. Although Nuawa is not exactly someone who warms the heart, her determination and strength mader her into an intriguing protagonist. She pursues her goal at any cost – there was one particularly harrowing scene which demonstrates just how far she will go. It sent shivers down my spain and made me question if I should even like Nuawa. Equally interesting was General Lussadh, the Winter Queen’s best soldier and lover. I could have read a whole book just about Lussadh!
When Nuawa and Lussadh meet, there is an instant spark – which is probably due to them both having one of the Queen’s mirror shards in them, but I like to believe that there’s also a bit of regular old attraction mixed into it. Either way, reading about these two not so different characters was the absolute best.

The story itself is pretty straight forward. Nuawa enters a tournament and wants to battle her way to the top, to become one of the Winter Queen’s soldiers. She hopes that getting close to the Queen, she will get a chance at killing her, ending her country’s enslavement to winter once and for all. And battle, she does! I will not go into detail here, but I found the fight scenes pretty awesome, especially because they show the science-fantasy quality of the book so well.

If you’ve read anything by Sriduangkaew, you know that she’s got a firm grip on language and knows how to use it to great effect. She describes scents and sounds so beautifully to make you feel like you’re there, at the place she’s talking about, standing just next to the protagonist. You can just fall into the story, which is no easy feat when the story is so short. To create a full world on such a little amount of pages is something few authors can do.

But the ending… if you can call it an ending. I do not know, at this point, if this novella is meant as the beginning of a trilogy or series but I sincerely hope so. There is a story arc here, without a cliffhanger. But the story is far from finished. Both Nuawa and Lussadh’s relationship  as well as Nuawa’s quest (and it is a quest!) simply stop at the end of this book, without even a hint of being resolved. My rating of this book depends a lot on whether it is the first part of a series or meant as a standalone. Reading this was pure pleasure but I just want more! If there is more, you can go ahead and add a full point to my rating.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent

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The fairy tale continues: Katherine Arden – The Girl in the Tower

The first complete book I read in 2018 (I did finish the last few chapters of Hogfather this year, but that doesn’t count) lets me begin this year with hope. Not that I expected anything less from Katherine Arden after the gorgeous The Bear and the Nightingale but middle books in a trilogy are usually a challenge for authors. How to keep the plot moving and characters developing without going too far, how to save enough story for the final instalment without making the second part boring? Well, Arden definitely has an answer to those questions and the answer is this book.

THE GIRL IN THE TOWER
by Katherine Arden

Published by: Del Rey, 2017
Hardback: 363 pages
Series: The Winternight Trilogy #2
My rating: 8,5/10

First sentence: A girl rode a bay horse through a forest late at night.

The magical adventure begun in The Bear and the Nightingale continues as brave Vasya, now a young woman, is forced to choose between marriage or life in a convent and instead flees her home—but soon finds herself called upon to help defend the city of Moscow when it comes under siege.

Orphaned and cast out as a witch by her village, Vasya’s options are few: resign herself to life in a convent, or allow her older sister to make her a match with a Moscovite prince. Both doom her to life in a tower, cut off from the vast world she longs to explore. So instead she chooses adventure, disguising herself as a boy and riding her horse into the woods. When a battle with some bandits who have been terrorizing the countryside earns her the admiration of the Grand Prince of Moscow, she must carefully guard the secret of her gender to remain in his good graces—even as she realizes his kingdom is under threat from mysterious forces only she will be able to stop.

The Girl in the Tower opens not long after The Bear and the Nightingale ends, although it immediately shows the readers more of the world and more of its characters. The attentive reader will remember that some of Vasya’s siblings were sent away or left their forest home to pursue other ways. Olga has become a princess and a mother, Sasha is a man of god. And Vasya… well, Vasya chose adventure over a confined life in a convent or in some minor lord’s bed. With her fantastic horse Solovey, she rides out into the world, without much of a plan but with fierce determination not to be caged.

The changing viewpoints of this book give a good picture of the state of affairs in Rus’ – taxes waiting to be collected, a looming war, bandits who leave villages burned down and steal Russian girls. As Vasya finds it makes things much, much simpler, she is dressed like a man with her long hair hidden away as she stumbles into all of this. As Vasilii Petrovich, she meets her siblings again and even gains favor with the Prince of Moscow. But navigating court is no easy feat even when you’re not trying to disguise your gender. Although it’s an old trope, it is one I can never get enough of. After all, who doesn’t love a good girl-disguised-as-a-boy story?

But although the trope has been used many times by many authors, in this particular setting, it becomes so much more obvious why Vasya would choose to do this. Okay, it kind of just happens because she’s practical and doesn’t like what the world holds in store for women, but once she arrives in Moscow, the differences between men and women are so stark that I wonder why not more women would pretend to be men, if only to have the simple freedom of stepping outside a building when they wished to see the sky.

In Moscow, Vasya also meets her niece, Marya, for the first time, and the connection between the two made me so very happy, despite all the danger that constantly surrounds them. As family reunions go, this was a bittersweet one but the love these siblings have for each other was tangible on every page. Never mind the secrets between them, the difference in  how they choose to live their lives (or the way they have to live the lives chosen for them, in Olga’s case), there is a true sense of family there, and the way Marya and Vasya strike up a friendship out of the blue made that all the clearer.

Morozko makes a few appearences as well, to my utter delight. I admit I have been hoping for a romantic development here and I am not ashamed of my fangirling! He still holds a lot of secrets that Vasya, and us poor readers, don’t quite know yet, but there are glimpses of humanity in this immortal being, as well as hints to the past and where Vasya’s family came from. Not all questions are answered – this is only book 2, after all – but there were enough hints for me to have closed to book satisfied. Morozko isn’t the only mythological creature in this book. Rest assured, there are domovoi and even more famous personalities to be met.

While this book was much more action-packed than the first, with a faster pace, more focus on politics and social structures, I still loved every bit of it. Arden’s style is as beautiful as ever and her characters as multi-faceted. I particularly enjoyed any description of Vasya riding or dealing with horses and literally any interaction between her and Morozko. Even without stating a thing outright, you can still read the characters’ emotions between the lines, in the description of their body language, a twitch or a sigh. It was just pure joy to read!

Katherine Arden has published her two novels at remarkable pace (two in one year!) and the next one is supposed to be published in August of this year. That’s really fast, especially considering the quality of these books. Whether the publication date is fixed or gets pushed back a litte, I have already pre-ordered my copy of The Winter of the Witch and am waiting more than eagerly to find out how this gorgeous story concludes.

MY RATING: 8,5/10

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Kerstin Gier – The Silver Trilogy (Silber)

In times of emotional turmoil, I turn to a certain type of book. Either it’s well-loved favorites like Harry Potter, or if I want something new, I go for books I know are easy to read, easy to stomach, definitely end well, and have plenty of silly drama about who goes to the prom with whom. Kerstin Gier delivers exactly that, and while her Silver trilogy is not nearly as good as the time travel books she wrote a while ago, they entertained and distracted me from life in just the right way.

THE SILVER TRILOGY (Dream a Little Dream, Dream On, Just Dreaming)
by Kerstin Gier

Published by: Fischer, 2013-2015
Hardcovers: 413, 416, 464 pages
Series: Silver #1-3
My rating: 6/10

First sentence: The dog was snuffling at my bag. 

Mysterious doors with lizard-head knobs. Talking stone statues. A crazy girl with a hatchet. Yes, Liv’s dreams have been pretty weird lately. Especially the one where she’s in a graveyard at night, watching four boys conduct dark magic rituals.

The strangest part is that Liv recognizes the boys in her dream. They’re classmates from her new school in London, the school where she’s starting over because her mom has moved them to a new country (again). But what’s really scaring Liv is that the dream boys seem to know things about her in real life, things they couldn’t possibly know–unless they actually are in her dreams? Luckily, Liv never could resist a good mystery, and all four of those boys are pretty cute…

Since I read all three books back to back, I decided to review them as one complete story instead of doing single reviews per volume.

Liv and her sister are used to moving around, living in all sorts of places of the world, but never living there for long. Moving, starting new schools, making and losing friends is nothing new to them. Until their mother promises to stay settled in a charming cottage in England where she can do her job at Oxford University and the girls can finally have a proper home. Except they never make it to that cottage. Instead Liv’s mother wants to move in with her new boyfriend and his two children. Additionally, weird stuff happens in Liv’s dreams. She recognises people from her school whose names she doesn’t even know, she learns things she never heard before in dreams, and they turn out to be facts… Things are definitely not quite right.

The strength of this story is definitely the family interactions and how the characters grow into their new home, which of course has very little to do with this being a fantasy story. More on that later. At first, Liv and her little sister Mia are strongly opposed to their new siblings. Grayson seems constantly preoccupied with his phone and Florence only remains posh and composed until she finds out she’ll have to give up some living space for the new girls’ nanny! Sure, all the characters are big walking, talking clichés but there is no doubt that the way they are pushed on each other makes them each grow and even come to care for each other. It may just be my current situation, but I almost teared up a little when these four behaved like proper siblings.

Initially, I was in it for the fantasy aspects, especially because they have to do with dreams. However, that part is never really developed and the plot strays and meanders and doesn’t ever quite find its footing. In the first book, Liv is trying to help out her new brother Grayson and his friends combat an evil demon whom they accidentally summoned last Halloween. Without spoiling anything, all I can say is that the second book revolves around something completely different and the fact that they can all control their dreams (to some degree) is more of an added superpower that doesn’t do all that much. In the third book, Kerstin Gier seems to have realised that the trilogy is only held together by the real-world teenage drama rather than her fantasy side plot, and tried to unify things a little. It didn’t really work out but at least the big bad of the third book is truly terrifying and made for some suspenseful moments.

This is also the story of Liv growing up, discovering first love, and making a home for herself. The romance was done pretty well (no love triangles, yay!) although some conflicts between the love birds seemed incredibly forced, just to get things moving a little. Again, in a different state of mind, my opinion of these books would probably be way harsher, but as a light read in between meatier books, this is just the thing to fall into.

There is also a sub-plot that’s basically Gossip Girl. Liv and Mia’s new school has someone called Secrecy who seems to know everything about everyone and posts embarrassing and hurtful things on her blog. She reveals secrets, discusses (in not very flattering ways) people’s clothing style or weight, even makes remarks about very personal or very painful things such as whether a couple has had sex yet (and if no, why not), or who someone is going to date next, now that their boyfriend died! Lifting the secret of who Secrecy is falls mostly into Mia’s care and while it is revealed, it only happens at the end of the last book.

Look, it’s no Ruby Red trilogy, but it is quite a bit of fun with hilariously overdrawn characters, some romance, and a lovely family. I liked it.

MY RATING: 6/10 – Good

I find it quite interesting how different the German and English covers are. The German ones seeme geared at a younger audience while the English ones can’t stop the girl-in-a-pretty-dress trope. I do like the keyhole though.

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#TheReadingQuest Review: Leena Likitalo – The Five Daughters of the Moon

I finished a book, you guys!!! I know, I know, for someone who writes a book review blog, this shouldn’t be a big accomplishment, but as I mentioned, I am going through some big stuff at the moment. I’m in the process of moving and anyone who has ever done that knows how much time and energy this can eat. I have barely any time to read and when I do catch some moments for myself, I mostly just need them to rest. But I finished a book! 🙂

THE FIVE DAUGHTERS OF THE MOON
by Leena Likitalo

Published by: Tor.com, 2017
Ebook: 256 pages
Series: The Waning Moon #1
My rating: 6,5/10

First sentence: “The Great Thinking Machine can answer every question,” Gagargi Prataslav says as he steps forth from the shadows cast by the huge machine.

Inspired by the 1917 Russian revolution and the last months of the Romanov sisters, The Five Daughters of the Moon by Leena Likitalo is a beautifully crafted historical fantasy with elements of technology fueled by evil magic.
The Crescent Empire teeters on the edge of a revolution, and the Five Daughters of the Moon are the ones to determine its future.
Alina, six, fears Gagargi Prataslav and his Great Thinking Machine. The gagargi claims that the machine can predict the future, but at a cost that no one seems to want to know.
Merile, eleven, cares only for her dogs, but she smells that something is afoul with the gagargi. By chance, she learns that the machine devours human souls for fuel, and yet no one believes her claim.
Sibilia, fifteen, has fallen in love for the first time in her life. She couldn’t care less about the unrests spreading through the countryside. Or the rumors about the gagargi and his machine.
Elise, sixteen, follows the captain of her heart to orphanages and workhouses. But soon she realizes that the unhappiness amongst her people runs much deeper that anyone could have ever predicted.
And Celestia, twenty-two, who will be the empress one day. Lately, she’s been drawn to the gagargi. But which one of them was the first to mention the idea of a coup?

Starting with the youngest of five sisters, Alina, the royal princesses tell this story in alternating chapters. There’s magic and revolution, conspiracy and secret romances, and five girls trying to survive in a world that is becoming more and more hostile to them.

There were some things I loved about this story, some that I thought were meh, and others that jarred me out of the reading experience. But let’s be positive and start with the good stuff. Considering that each girl only gets two chapters to tell, I was very happy that they each have their own voice. The differences in storytelling aren’t huge, but every sister brings her own personality into how she tells her part of the story and that is a feat all by itself. The smallest, Alina, is plagued by nightmares (or maybe visions?), a condition the court considers to be a sickness of sort, but us savvy fantasy readers recognise as a magical gift of sorts. Merile, whose most striking characteristic is her love for her two dogs, mostly shines when her sisters are the story teller. She has a quiet dignity about her, remarkable for her age. An 11-year-old who stays brave and strong to keep her little sister from being afraid is by default a character I love!
Sibile is pure teenager, dreaming of falling in love, of finally being considert an adult, and throwing tantrums that make it obvious how far from grown-up she still is. The two eldest sisters, Elise and Celestia, have clearly grown beyond that. Elise sees that the Empire can’t remain the way it is and she is trying to take steps to change things for the better. Celestia, in turn, is preparing for the role she was born for – to become the Crescent Empress, marry her father, the Moon, and rule the Empire some day.

Diminishing this tale a bit was how blatanly obvious the villain of the piece is from the very first page. Gagargi Prataslav is like the villain in a Disney movie. One look at him and you know he’s up to dark stuff. Yet somehow, the Crescent Empress doesn’t see it or doesn’t care – in fact, only the two younger girls have a proper sense of fear when it comes to this creepy, conniving man, which makes the rest of the family seem incredibly naive, if now downright stupid. However, the gagargi has some abilities that – while not surprising for a villain – are terrifying and difficult to fight. So despite being on the nose, at least he is an interesting evil to battle.

The one thing that really bothered me about this book was the language. Leena Likitalo is a Finnish writer who even talks about writing in English in her introduction/acknowledgement section. As someone who writes in a second language as well (although I only write reviews), I understand all too well how challenging it can be to find the right words to convey emotions. I commend Likitalo for a job well done, but there were frequent moments when things just felt off. The dialogue is often jarring, Sibilia’s diary entries felt strangely anachronistic (a princess of Revolutionary Russia saying things like “I kid you not” is just not right, even in a fantasy world), and Alina sounded too formal for a 5-year-old at times. It was many little things that added up to me just not liking the language of the book very much.

The plot also takes a while to get going. Because the antagonist is so obvious from the start, the story only really gets going with Celestia’s first chapter. This is where the interesting parts about magic and world building come in, when the story really gets going, when things happen.

Despite my misgivings, I quite enjoyed this book and I will read the sequel when I get my hands on it. Likitalo has created an intriguing world that offers many possibilities for a good story. This one doesn’t exactly end on a cliffhanger, but it’s definitely only half of a tale with no satisfying ending to it. Maybe, in the second book, there will be fewer language issues as well.

MY RATING: 6,5/10 – Quite good

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Brandon Sanderson – Words of Radiance

There’s a reason Sanderson’s books are sold as Epic Fantasy because when he wants to go epic, he goes EPIC. This is the second book in the Stormlight Archive so if you haven’t read the first, steer far away from anything below this introduction. There will, by necessity, be spoilers galore for the first book and even then it’s going to be hard talking about this series spoiler-free.

WORDS OF RADIANCE
by Brandon Sanderson

Published by: Tor, 2014
Hardcover: 1087 pages
Graphic Audio: ~ 37 hours
Series: The Stormlight Archive #2
My rating: 8,5/10

First sentence: Jasnah Kholin pretended to enjoy the party, giving no indication that she intended to have one of the guests killed.

Expected by his enemies to die the miserable death of a military slave, Kaladin survived to be given command of the royal bodyguards, a controversial first for a low-status “darkeyes.” Now he must protect the king and Dalinar from every common peril as well as the distinctly uncommon threat of the Assassin, all while secretly struggling to master remarkable new powers that are somehow linked to his honorspren, Syl.
The Assassin, Szeth, is active again, murdering rulers all over the world of Roshar, using his baffling powers to thwart every bodyguard and elude all pursuers. Among his prime targets is Highprince Dalinar, widely considered the power behind the Alethi throne. His leading role in the war would seem reason enough, but the Assassin’s master has much deeper motives.
Brilliant but troubled Shallan strives along a parallel path. Despite being broken in ways she refuses to acknowledge, she bears a terrible burden: to somehow prevent the return of the legendary Voidbringers and the civilization-ending Desolation that will follow. The secrets she needs can be found at the Shattered Plains, but just arriving there proves more difficult than she could have imagined.
Meanwhile, at the heart of the Shattered Plains, the Parshendi are making an epochal decision. Hard pressed by years of Alethi attacks, their numbers ever shrinking, they are convinced by their war leader, Eshonai, to risk everything on a desperate gamble with the very supernatural forces they once fled. The possible consequences for Parshendi and humans alike, indeed, for Roshar itself, are as dangerous as they are incalculable.

First of all: I have no idea how to review this book. There is so much going on, the universe expands, the characters grow into their powers, new storylines are introduced, and it’s all just SO MUCH. Which, I guess, is why this beast of a book is over 1000 pages long. But I’ll do my best in what will probably be an extremely vague review. Most importatly, I loved reading it and these 1000 pages felt like a mere 200.

If The Way of Kings was Kaladin’s book, this is clearly Shallan’s. The story continues seamlessly from where the first book left off, continues and (finally!) intertwines Kaladin, Shallan, and Dalinar’s tales, and answers some burning questions, while throwing up a whole bunch of new ones. Oh, and did I mention the epic battles, powerful magic, lovely bickering, and world-building? Well, you’ll get all of that too for the price of one book.

Having fallen in love with Graphic Audio a few years ago, I almost don’t want to consume Sanderson through any other medium anymore. I did buy a hardback of Words of Radiance (and  my copy of Oathbringer is pre-ordered of course), but the whopping 37 hours of Graphic Audio, what with all the voices I’ve gotten used to, the theme music and the sound spren make, I absolutely prefer having read this gigantic book to me. I can only continue to recommend these audiobooks!

But on to the actual story. It opens with a big smack in the face with a Jasnah flashback that (literally) opens whole new worlds for us readers to think about and consider. In the present, Shallan is trying to make it to the Shattered Plains, Kaladin is coming to terms with his powers and his new position under Dalinar, and Dalinar is still seeking to save the world somehow. From whatever it is that threatens it. From these starting points, so many things happen, I couldn’t possible sum them up but, to me, the magic system and the world building became much more clear in this book than in The Way of Kings. What at first appeared to be random or existed by evolution turns out to have more complex backgrounds and it was so much fun discovering how new information made events from the first book appear in a different light. We learn a lot about spren, about what is probably the Big Bad for our heroes to fight, about history and culture in Roshar… oh man, there is seriously so much to discover. I especially liked the interludes which usually have nothing to do with the main story but are put in as an added world-building bonus, if you like.

Without giving too much away, there are a few things I want to talk about. For me, even in the first book, when they hadn’t met yet, it was clear that Shallan and Kaladin would make a kick-ass couple. Having them finally meet and turn out to be MY FAVORITE  THING IN THE WORLD OF FICTION – a bickering couple that slowly builds respect for each other – was the best part of this book for me. Also, the fact that they both have powers that they are hiding from others makes for some hilarious scenes. In case it’s not obvious, I’m shipping these two hard! But it’s not only Shallan and Kaladin who grow as people and who show different facets of their characters. Adolin, whom I liked in the first book, but thought of as slightly childish, feels like a more rounded character, more grown-up, more focused on what’s important, and I have grown even fonder of Renarin, who is kind of the underdog of the Kholin family but who shows that he is just as important and strong (in his own way) as his brother.

Politically speaking, a lot of stuff happens in this book. Action-wise, a lot of stuff happens in this book. I couldn’t possibly go into detail about all of it, but let me say that Sanderson knows how to write battles! Whether it’s two Shardbearers going at each other, or entire armies clashing on the Shattered Plains, do not expect to remember to eat or go to the bathroom while you’re reading this book. Much like in the Mistborn series, the magic also feels very naturally a part of the fighting. When Sanderson writes about lashings or someone sucking in Stormlight, there is no need for long explanations on what that means, it’s just like someone saying “He picked up his sword”. The magic is an organic part of this fictional world and it just works. I still have a billion questions, especially considering the Cosmere, but man, that was an awesome book!

As I said, this was Shallan’s book, and just like we got Kaladin flashbacks in The Way of Kings, we get Shallan flashbacks in this one, fleshing out her past, her reasons for hunting down Jasnah Kholin, and more information about Shallan’s family. Some of these were not surprising, but there were a few revelations that I found quite chilling. And knowing what Shallan has gone through makes her character all the more impressive. The way Kaladin deals with grief (and he’s had his share of that!) is very different from how Shallan deals with hers, but I liked both of them better for it.

Now, after a bit of a book hangover, I am just super excited to see who the next book will focus on (I think it’s Dalinar) and how the new – huge – discoveries of this one will shape the world of Roshar. I could honestly just drown myself in this world and never come up for air. If you have a bit of time on your hands and want to truly immerse yourself in an epic fantasy world, trust the legions of Sanderson fans and give this series a try. The page count may seem daunting at first, but I’ll bet you’ll wish for even more pages as soon as you start reading. I certainly am.

MY RATING: 8,5/10 – EPIC!

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Eternally hopeful: Mishell Baker – Phantom Pains

It’s no secret that I usually steer away from Urban Fantasy. But that only means the type of Urban Fantasy with scantily clad women on the cover, usually looking over their shoulder, carrying some kind of weapon, and with the title written over their wrapped-in-leather butt. But Mishell Baker makes Urban Fantasy so much fun! Even with the most broken (literally) heroine you can imagine, The Arcadia Project series takes you on wild adventures and leaves you just hopeful of the future, whatever it may bring.

PHANTOM PAINS
by Mishell Baker

Published by: Saga Press, 2017
Ebook: 416 pages
Series: The Arcadia Project #2
My rating: 8,5/10

First sentence: Here’s the thing about PTSD: it doesn’t understand the rules.

Four months ago, Millie left the Arcadia Project after losing her partner Teo to the lethal magic of an Unseelie fey countess. Now, in a final visit to the scene of the crime, Millie and her former boss Caryl encounter Teo’s tormented ghost. But there’s one problem: according to Caryl, ghosts don’t exist.

Millie has a new life, a stressful job, and no time to get pulled back into the Project, but she agrees to tell her side of the ghost story to the agents from the Project’s National Headquarters. During her visit though, tragedy strikes when one of the agents is gruesomely murdered in a way only Caryl could have achieved. Millie knows Caryl is innocent, but the only way to save her from the Project’s severe, off-the-books justice is to find the mysterious culprits that can only be seen when they want to be seen. Millie must solve the mystery not only to save Caryl, but also to foil an insidious, arcane terrorist plot that would leave two worlds in ruins.

Millie Roper has a job, regular therapy sessions, and her life mostly under control. After her adventures with the Arcadia Project, a bit of routine seems like just the thing to make her forget what she’s seen, and who she’s lost. But – as stories go – she is dragged back into Arcadia business soon enough where she has to fix a whole new mess. And of course she wouldn’t be Millie if she didn’t add an extra layer of messiness to an already difficult situation. But that’s exactly what makes these books so much fun.

Phantom Pains picks up only a few months after the end of Borderline and while Millie is still struggling with her old demons and disablities (prosthetic legs, BPD, plus the newly-added PTSD), she is still the Millie I fell in love with. The hopeful one who knows herself all too well and doubts her every emotion, but believes in herself when it counts. She combines intelligence, humor, and pragmatism in the most sympathetic way and I hope I’ll get to read many more books featuring her. If more Urban Fantasy progatonists were like Millie, I’d actually read the damn things.

But Millie’s life has changed in another major way since we last saw her. She knows and is in contact with her Echo, Claybriar, and as much as I love their relationship, it is super complicated! If, after her suicide attempt, Millie hadn’t been put together with metal screws and plates, she wouldn’t be Ironbones – basically poison to the fey but also WHAT A COOL NAME. Touching Claybriar, which she desperately wants to do, hurts him and also makes his facade disappear, showing him for the faun he really is. To say that their relationship is interesting is a huge understatement. Add to that the fact that they both sleep with other people (non-romantically), plus Millie’s complex relationship with Caryl, and you’ve got the makings of a thrilling story, even without the added crazy magic.

This book advances a lot more than just Millie as a character, though. The entire world of the Arcadia Project opens up, introducing us to the head of the Project herself, as well as some very high up people from Arcadia. I had a blast getting to know these new characters and learning more about the world Baker has created. It’s always appreciated when it’s not just vampires and werewolves but anything else. And if that anything is internally consistent and has some sort of magic-logic to it, all the better.  There are also some huge revelations to do with this particular magic that turn the entire world upside down but which I can’t go into detail because spoilers. But let me tell you, I had a really stupid look on my face when I read that chapter, and I felt about as confused and lost as Millie did.

One thing about side characters: I absolutely loved loved loved Brand! If this book went my way, there would have been an additional 50 chapters, all involving Brand, preferably in combination with Tjuan. He added a weird but delightful sense of humor to the horrible things that were going on. You know, fate of the world at stake and all that, but at least I can laugh about and with Brand. Tjuan was already there in the first book but I really liked how we finally learn a bit more about him and how his character gets more depth. The same goes for Claybriar and Caryl. I don’t want to spoil anything here but even characters that don’t show up a lot feel like real people.

The diversity in this series is amazing! There’s Millie to start with, but everyone working for the Arcadia Project usually has some sort of disability or disorder. In addition, there is an Indian woman and a trans man, and (because I know someone is going to say it) it’s not ticking off diversity points from a list. It feels organic and normal and wonderful simply because the characters are all different, and all in different ways. Whether it’s a schizophrenic POC, or an Indian straight woman, or a bisexual woman with Borderline Personality Disorder, these feel like real people to me and I want to get to know every single one of them better. Even the dicks.

The plot was – just as I expected – always entertaining, never shying away from unexpected twists and turns, maybe even more action-packed than in the previous book without sacrificing character development. Pretty amazing, right? The ending was both great and terrifying, because I have no idea what’s going to happen in the next book, and (if you couldn’t tell already) I’ve come to really care about these characters. However, I am now in for the long haul, and hope that Mishell Baker gets the chance to write at least 10 more Arcadia books. Buy this book, people! You know you want to.

MY RATING: 8,5/10 – Damn excellent!

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Heidi Heilig – The Girl From Everywhere

If you want a really nice YA time travel novel with complex characters and beautiful relationships, look no further than this. I still have not completely healed my relationship to YA fiction with girl protagonists and inevitable love triangles, but that makes me all the happier when I find a good one among all the crap. And Heidi Heilig is definitely and author to watch!

THE GIRL FROM EVERYWHERE
by Heidi Heilig

Published by: Hot Key Books, 2016
Ebook: 469 pages
Series: The Girl From Everywhere #1
My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence: It was the kind of August day that hinted at monsoons, and the year was 1774, though not for very much longer.

Sixteen-year-old Nix Song is a time-traveller. She, her father and their crew of time refugees travel the world aboard the Temptation, a glorious pirate ship stuffed with treasures both typical and mythical. Old maps allow Nix and her father to navigate not just to distant lands, but distant times – although a map will only take you somewhere once. And Nix’s father is only interested in one time, and one place: Honolulu 1868. A time before Nix was born, and her mother was alive. Something that puts Nix’s existence rather dangerously in question…

Nix has grown used to her father’s obsession, but only because she’s convinced it can’t work. But then a map falls into her father’s lap that changes everything. And when Nix refuses to help, her father threatens to maroon Kashmir, her only friend (and perhaps, only love) in a time where Nix will never be able to find him. And if Nix has learned one thing, it’s that losing the person you love is a torment that no one can withstand. Nix must work out what she wants, who she is, and where she really belongs before time runs out on her forever.

When you life your life aboard a time-travelling pirate ship where your father can Navigate to (almost) any time and place if only he has the right map, things get pretty exciting. And Nix’s story starts off pretty exciting as well, in India, on a sort of side quest to complete the bigger mission of rescuing Nix’s mother from dying. In the past. 17 years in the past…

Right from the start, Heidi Heilig shows that she didn’t just have one neat idea and kind of wrote a novel around that. The characters are complex and their relationships not as simple as they may first appear. Nix and her father, Slate, have an especially difficult relationship. On the one hand, they are father and daughter and they love each other. On the other hand, Slate is absolutely obsessed with saving his love – without knowing what will happen to Nix if he changes the past that drastically. Will this Nix, the one we’re reading about, still exist, alongside a second baby-Nix? Will one Nix just disappear, having never existed? Will Nix be stuck in time somehow? And most importantly: Will Slate sacrifice his only daughter to save his wife?

You see, there’s a lot going on right from the start, and that’s just in addition to the action-packed, fast plot. Me being me, I am mostly drawn in by characters and language, and Heilig did an excellent job with that. Apart from Nix and Slate, I immediately fell in love with Kashmir, Nix’s crew mate and friend (and possibly more). There is tension between these two, there is flirting, a constant back and forth of bantering and sweet gestures. Needless to say, I was hooked and rooting for these two the entire time.

I’ll leave the morality for those that like the taste of it. I always preferred bread.

But please don’t think this is merely a romance set on a ship. Once the first missions are done, the crew sets course for Hawaii and most of the plot takes place there. And this is where both romance and politics comes into play. I loved how Heilig managed to convey the beauty of the islands and the brewing political tension without ever slowing down the plot or sacrificing character development. She effortlessly paints a picture of paradise, but a paradise that cannot possibly stay that idyllic forever.

We were sailing toward the edge of the map of Calcutta under a sky so starry it looked sugared; the night would never be as beautiful after the Industrial Revolution.

Time travel stories are always filled with problems because… well, time travel. Putting a new twist on it is important and I really enjoyed the idea of having to use maps – and very specific ones – to be able to travel through time at all. Some maps just don’t work, some maps aren’t authentic, and even when the map is fine, you still need a Navigator like Slate. The whole Navigation thing felt a little cheap once it is explained, but I had not trouble just rolling with it because by that time, I was so taken in by the characters that this was just a little detail that didn’t detract from an overall enjoyable novel.

It’s also refreshing to see a diverse cast of characters as the center of a story. Nix is biracial, her crew mate Bee is a lesbian who talks to her departed spouse and it’s the most heart-breaking and hopeful and lovely little detail in the book. Kashmir is Persian (and did I mention AMAZING?) and Slate is wonderful because he is so very flawed. I didn’t really connect with Rotgut but there’s always the sequel, and final novel in the duology, to look forward to.

This was such an enjoyable book. It feels like a light read and the pages just fly by. Without noticing, suddenly you’re done and you have that satisfying feeling of having just read a wonderful story. If you don’t like series, this book is pretty self-contained so don’t have to read the sequel. But seeing as how much I fell in love with the characters and how comforting this book was, I will totally get my hands on The Ship Beyond Time.

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Really good!

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Romance and cakes: Marissa Meyer – Heartless

I like Marissa Meyer’s books. There’s very little reason for me to like them, but I do anyway, because they are comfort reads, they have fluffy romances, they play with fairy tales, and they are simply fun. In her first book not set in the Lunar Chronicles universe, Marissa Meyer shows that she has grown as a writer and is not running out of ideas.

HEARTLESS
by Marissa Meyer

Published by: Feiwel & Friends, 2016
Hardcover: 453 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7/10

First sentence: Three luscious lemon tarts glistened up at Catherine.

Catherine may be one of the most desired girls in Wonderland and a favorite of the unmarried King, but her interests lie elsewhere. A talented baker, she wants to open a shop and create delectable pastries. But for her mother, such a goal is unthinkable for a woman who could be a queen.
At a royal ball where Cath is expected to receive the King’s marriage proposal, she meets handsome and mysterious Jest. For the first time, she feels the pull of true attraction. At the risk of offending the King and infuriating her parents, she and Jest enter into a secret courtship.
Cath is determined to choose her own destiny. But in a land thriving with magic, madness, and monsters, fate has other plans.

This is the story of how a lovely, ambitious young girl turned into the Queen of Hearts we all know from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and the very first thing I noticed and loved was that Catherine had hopes, and dreams, and agency! From the beginning, when Cath bakes a set of lemon tarts, we are shown that she loves baking and that she has plans to open her own bakery one day. She also has a best (female) friend! Be still, my heart, remember that there are good YA books out there and this is one of them.

Cath’s best friend is their family’s servant girl Mary Ann. While Cath is more of the creative, baking brain behind their shared plans, Mary Ann is good with numbers and approaches decisions logically – so she’s the business manager, if you like. Not only was it wonderful to see two girls being friends but to see them complement each other so beautifully in reaching their dream. Cath is also, however, the daughter of a Marquis and Marchioness, and thus spends a lot of her time at balls and tea parties thrown by the King of Hearts. Who has his eyes on her and might ruin her dream by asking her to marry him. Add to all that the new court Joker, and romance (and disaster) is bound to happen.

Many people have said that this book moves along more slowly than the Lunar Chronicles and that is true. But the slower pace only bothered me during the middle of the book. The beginning was wonderful because it set up the characters, who each have distinctive voices and mannerisms, and the world in which Cath lives. Sure, it’s Wondreland, but it’s not exactly the Wonderland we know. Marissa Meyer added a lot of little, original details that may remind you of Lewis Carroll’s novels, but give it a flavor of its own. Many well-known characters also make an appearance, and some of them get the chance to become quite three-dimensional. Thus, I suppose, the slower plot.

Hatta, this version’s Mad Hatter, quickly became a favorite of mine, although I also have a soft spot for Cheshire, who in turn has a soft spot for Cath’s baking. All the side characters who get to say a few words, had personality! As much as I loved The Lunar Chronicles, I can’t say that the characters were a strong point. In Heartless, however, they absolutely are. And while a lot of character development happens in the last quarter of the book, it does happen, and it is understandable why it happens.

With a villain’s origin story, it will always hinge on the reason they became evil. And the more I read about Catherine, the more I rooted for her and her dream bakery, the less I could imagine her turning into that dreadful Queen of Hearts who wants to chop everyone’s head off. I can’t tell you any details, but I really liked how things fell into place and turned Cath into an evil monarch. There is quite a lot of backstory to it all, and it involves many people other than Cath. There are some surprising revelations, and a few moments where you go “aaah, that’s why”. Cath’s transition happened maybe a bit too fast and I was devastated about her relationship with Mary Ann. But then, we always knew this wouldn’t be a book with a happy ending.

Because the middle really did drag along terribly, I am not completely in love with the book. But for a great beginning, strong characters, ideas worthy of Wonderland, a Poe-quoting raven, and a great way of turning a girl into a villain, I must give Marissa Meyer credit. She did a wonderful job with this and I hope she plans on revisiting more fairy tales. I know there are a lot of them already, but I’d love to see her origin story of Captain Hook.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

 

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Surprisingly wonderful: Laini Taylor – Lips Touch: Three Times

This was a second-chance read for me. Unlike everyone else in the world, I didn’t like Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone and it made me not want to read more books written by her. But I always give authors a second chance, especially if the book sounds intriguing enough. And now I am really confused because I loved this collection to pieces! I must give Daughter of Smoke and Bone another try, I guess. And pick up Strange the Dreamer of course.

LIPS TOUCH: THREE TIMES
by Laini Taylor

Published by: Arthur A. Levine Books, 2009
Hardcover: 266 pages
Story collection
My rating: 8,5/10

First sentence: There is a certain kind of girl the goblins crave.

Three tales of supernatural love, each pivoting on a kiss that is no mere kiss, but an action with profound consequences for the kissers’ souls:

Goblin Fruit
In Victorian times, goblin men had only to offer young girls sumptuous fruits to tempt them to sell their souls. But what does it take to tempt today’s savvy girls?

Spicy Little Curses
A demon and the ambassador to Hell tussle over the soul of a beautiful English girl in India. Matters become complicated when she falls in love and decides to test her curse.

Hatchling
Six days before Esme’s fourteenth birthday, her left eye turns from brown to blue. She little suspects what the change heralds, but her small safe life begins to unravel at once. What does the beautiful, fanged man want with her, and how is her fate connected to a mysterious race of demons?

Oh, how I loved everything about this collection! Each story sets its own tone, weaves its own type of magic, and crushes the heart as only a true fairy tale can. The connecting theme of kisses – or at least lips touching – runs through these tales, and it shows that a kiss isn’t always the same thing.

In Goblin Fruit, Laini Taylor revisits Christina Rossetti’s beautiful poem Goblin Market (of which I have a gorgeous edition here with an Arthur Rackham cover). The story begins with a sort of introduction into the tale we’re about to devour. And devour is the right word to describe what reading this felt like. The writing is beautiful – both like a fairy tale and very contemporary, but fusing the two effortlessly.

There is a certain kind of girl the goblins crave. You could walk across a high school campus and point them out: not her, not her, her. The pert, lovely ones with butterfly tattoos in secret places, sitting on their boyfriends’ laps? No, not them. The girls watching the lovely ones sitting on their boyfriends’ laps? Yes.
Them.
The goblins want girls who dream so hard about being pretty their yearning leaves a palpable trail, a scent goblins can follow like sharks on a soft bloom of blood. The girls with hungry eyes who pray each night to wake up as someone else. Urgent, unkissed, wishful girls.

Kizzy is just one such girl. Never the prettiest, living outside of town with her weird family, and definitely not on the school’s hottest boy’s radar. But Kizzy wants. And then Jack shows up and sweeps her off her feet, into the sort of fairy tale romance young girls dream of.

I adored this story for many reasons, and the writing is only one of them. But the way Laini Taylor managed to put teenage hopes and dreams into one character so realistically, it made me want to scream. YES! Yes, I felt like that. I’d hazard a guess that most girls reading this book weren’t the prettiest girl in their school/university/social circle, and that, yes, sometimes we resent ourselves for not being as (seemingly) perfect as that one girl who attracts all the men. In Kizzy, all of these feelings are present, but she never appears like a special snowflake kind of YA heroine. She doesn’t magically turn into a gorgeous babe, but – very naturally and understandable – she falls completely and utterly for the one (super handsome) boy who seems interested in her, who doesn’t even notice other girls. It’s a sort of teenage wish fulfillment story but, unlike some crap YA novels, it doesn’t end in a fairy tale wedding or some other bullshit.

Spicy Little Curses is set in India, where an English widow takes tea with a demon. If that wasn’t already cool enough, they have tea to discuss and trade souls. Estella wishes to save children from death by natural disaster, and Vasudev the demon just wants as many souls as he can get. So they discuss and they barter. And a curse is born.

At the British parties in Jaipur, gossip swirled wild on eddies of whiskeyed breath.

The story then focuses on the cursed child, a girl who was given the most beautiful voice in the world but anyone who hears it immediately falls down dead. Because Estella is no fool, she made sure the little girl wouldn’t kill everyone around her by crying. And Anamique grows up silent. There is a romance, there is more beautiful language, but most of all, there is a tortured young girl whose entire life is based on belief! Anamique restrains herself, she refuses her greatest pleasure – music – and grows up almost as an outcast. People think of her as a simpleton because she never speaks. The descriptions of her life were incredibly hard to read, because her desire to sing, to enjoy music through her voice, not just the piano, broke my heart.

But framing Anamique’s story is still the tale of Estella, by far the coolest and most bad-ass widow I’ve ever read about. There is a surprising amount of world building and great side characters, considering the story isn’t very long. There’s magic and demons, longing and love, and playing tricks on the devil, which is always fun.

Hatchling is the longest of the three tales in this collection, and while not my favorite still excellent. It’s about Mab and her daughter Esmé who are more than they appear at first glance. Teading this is a lot like a dream, or like following the White Rabbit into its burrow where you fall deeper and deeper into this other world, without really noticing the borders. The tale begins with with little Esmé’s eye turning from brown to blue, her mother panicking because of that, and fleeing from London with her daughter. But they are being followed by mysterious beings, one of whom may not be the enemy.

We later learn Mab’s story, why she is running away, why she is so fiercely protective of her daughter. And it’s a tale of terror, let me assure you. Mab grew up, we find out slowly and with much horror, among a group of immortal demons, the Druj. They are fascinated by children, not being able to reproduce themselves or, indeed, age. So the way Mab grew from a baby into a child into a young woman entertained the Druj queen for a while. And then, after an already terrifying childhood, things get worse.

Apart from Mab’s story, we also learn more about the Druj and their rituals, their magic, their shape-shifting from one of their own, Mihai. It is pretty clear from the start that Mihai is not quite like the others, but the way his story unfolds, bit by bit, sometimes hidden away, was just fascinating. While Esmé and Mab’s running away from the Druj hunters is a framing story, it also ends up bringing the three sub-plots together and making a beautiful whole.

I took a while to warm to this story, especially because the other two had set the bar so high, but when I did, I felt fully at home in the cold world of stone spires where the Druj live. The characters were fantastic, even the ones you would normally see as a villain in a fairy tale. Nobody is only what they seem, everyone has at least one more layer that we get to discover, and probably many more layers we don’t see. But they all felt like real people, even the Druj. My favorite part of this story was how Laini Taylor played with imagery and colors. The Druj’s icy blue eyes, Mab and Esmés red hair, the monsters’ pale arms… wolves, eyes, ravens, and cages. I absolutely loved this.

So, all things (and stories) considered, I have nothing to complain about. This book is beautifully written, with a nice design and lovely art, and a way of weaving myth and fairy tale into three very different settings and eras. All the while, Taylor offered up a riveting plot wrapped in exquisite language. Send more of this, and send tons of it!

MY RATING: 8,5 – Excellent!

Look at more gorgeous art by Jim di Bartolo;

 

 

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Tansy Rayner Roberts – Dance, Princes, Dance

After the delightful Glass Slipper Scandal, I wanted to know how the story continued ASAP. Luckily, Tansy Rayner Robert’s podcast series Sheep Might Fly has the entire second book in the Castle Charming series available (start here). Tansy reads the story herself and while she is not an audiobook narrator (there are chuckles, she sometimes has to repeat a sentence, and all the usual stuff that happens when normal people read out loud. It’s actually quite endearing), this was another nice entry in a cute book series.

GLASS SLIPPER SCANDAL
by Tansy Rayner Roberts

Published by: Tansy Rayner Roberts, 2017
Audio serial: 140-ish minutes
Series: Castle Charming #2
My rating: 6,5/10

First sentence: They called her Ziggy, or Zig.

Welcome back to Castle Charming. Winter is upon us, which means the annual tournament of Rookery is underway, a game that pits Royals against Hounds. Meanwhile, fairies steal castle residents away each night, and persons unknown have run up a mysterious bill for far too many dancing shoes. When you live in a fairy tale kingdom, you have to expect to rescue the occasional prince — but for Kai, Dennis and Ziyi, it’s becoming a habit. Can the boys stop pining after each other long enough to step up as heroes?

Tansy Rayner Roberts writes this series for her Patreon patrons and she mentioned in a few episodes of this audio serial that she is writing as she goes. That shows a little, unfortunately, but I also got the feeling that Roberts had certain ideas in place from the start that she wants to play with over the course of the entire series, however long it will turn out to be.

Dance, Princes, Dance mostly plays with the fairy tale The Twelve Dancing Princesses, but it also expands on the characters introduced in the first book. I mentioned in that review that I thought both Kai and Dennis were gay because they were clearly falling in love with each other. One of them, however, is bisexual and we learn a bit about their previous romantic interests – anyway, they still can’t keep their eyes off each other. There are some more romantic revelations in this part, which I liked, although at least one of them (Amira) felt a little forced and strangely out of place in the plot.

The plot itself is also quite jumbled, which I guess is the product of having to write a chapter for a deadline without having everything plotted well in advance. As with the first book, things happen very quickly, and there’s barely enough time to let important moments sink in. When Kai accidentally betrays somebody’s trust, for example. While there are scenes dealing with this situation, everything is over and resolved way too quickly and there’s just no time for getting into the book emotionally.

With the Twelve Dancing Princesses plotline, Tansy Rayner Roberts used the excellent (if slightly cheap) way of getting deeper into her characters’ heads. Being whisked away to a fairy ball every night and only being able to escape by speaking a truth is the perfect recipe for unearthing old secrets or certain thoughts that haven’t been spoken out loud yet. Obviously, every person involved in the fairy enchantment reveals something big about themselves. Some of these revelations didn’t come as a surprise (Kai and Dennis were so obvious), but others did and I appreciated that a lot.

The princes, who have been stand-ins for random celebrities who get into trouble, have personality now. And Prince Cyrus especially gained a lot of depth in this story. Other plot threads set up in Glass Slipper Scandal aren’t advanced here very much: Kai and the ink magic, the probability that Kai is the lost Prince Charming, the fairies and their involvement in people’s lives… but I guess we’ll learn more about these things in coming instalments.

I didn’t like this book as much as the first, but I will follow the series anyway because it is light, charming, and just fun.

MY RATING: 6,5/10 – Good

 

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