A Quick Update: Current Reads and Spooky Books for Autum

Hello, faithful followers and readers of this blog (and also people who just stumbled onto this page by accident). I have been so good with posting regularly this year, but after two crazy reading months, I have hit… not quite a slump, but definitely a time where I’m going a little easier on myself.

Lately, I had a lot of other things to do that put my reading plans in the background. Friends got married, others celebrated their birthdays, I went on a trip to Paris and Disneyland (it was amazing!), my sister got engaged and I will be her maid of honor (yay!) – so there has just been a lot on my plate. All of these things are wonderful and I don’t regret spending my time with friends and family but that’s why I haven’t been posting as regularly lately. I haven’t stopped reading altogether of course. Here’s what I’ve been up to plus some more books I want to start soon.

Current reads

Unfortunately, two of my current reads are books with a massive hype, and so far, neither can quite live up to what was promised. The first was one of my most anticipated publications of the year, The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow. I loved, loved, loved her Hugo-winning short story and I really like Alix’s online presence in general. The way her book was hyped once it hit the shelves made me expect a new favorite. The language is gorgeous, no doubt, but I can’t help feeling like I see through it, if you know what I mean. There are beautiful descriptions, lush prose, but every pretty line I read, I keep thinking: I see what the author is trying to do. It’s still beautiful but it just doesn’t feel as organic as, say, Cat Valente’s style. The plot itself is also a bit of a disappointment. Of course I knew we wouldn’t actually step through ten thousand doors with the protagonist, but the plot and the characters all feel kind of distant to me. I have put the book aside for now and I hope I’ll enjoy it more when I go back to it.

The second overhyped book – for which I still have hope, however – is Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir. This is another book where people seem to love the idea of the plot more than the actual thing. I admit “lesbian necromancers in space” does sound pretty awesome! Last week, I hit the 40% mark and FINALLY, the plot is kicking off. The entire first third of the book was thin world building and no plot to speak of. What kept me going was the protagonist Gideon, who was fun to follow from the start. Now that I can finally see what the story might actually be about, I am quite eager to keep reading. I hope all the reviewers were right and the story gets going in the second half.

My third book is quite nice so far, but also not as gripping as I’d like. Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Gods of Jade and Shadow reads way more like a YA book than I expected. I don’t know if I just missed the info that it was a YA book or if it’s simply the writing style, but while I like the protagonist and the plot so far, I haven’t been hooked yet. The plot seems quite simplistic but I think it could turn out to be a lot of fun. I definitely enjoy the setting and the fact that this book involves mythology you don’t see too often. Greek, Norse, and Egyptian gods are well-represented in SFF fiction, but Aztec or Native American myths aren’t something I’ve come across that often.

For the 2019 Retellings Reading Challenge I am reading Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust and this is also pretty good but missing something to totally grab me and make me want to drop everything to go read. It’s a Snow White retelling, all the main characters are women so far, and there is a kind of magic involved that makes me very curious where the tale is going. The evil stepmother doesn’t seem quite evil (manipulative, sure, but her reasons are understandable) and Snow White appears to be developing a crush on a female friend. I am having a lot of fun with this retelling so far and I look forward to finding out if poisoned apples make an appearance.

And, because it was recommended to me in the comments, I finally started reading The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley. This also fits into my 2019 Retellings Challenge for the prompt “read a book longer than 500 pages” – at over 900 pages, it’s a chunky tome!
I had no idea I was in the right mood for it, but this is the book I’m currently enjoying the most, even though the plot is slow-moving so far. I just really enjoy the atmosphere and the conflict between old faith and Christianity. I also believe I’ve never a King Arthur retelling… ever. So the book has that going for it as well. The fact that it’s misty outside and this goes perfectly well with the book is just an added bonus. 🙂

 

A Spooky Mini-TBR

Because it’s October and today is particularly foggy here in Vienna, I want to read something spooky before the month is over. With the books listed above I technically have enough on my plate, but I so want to read these two creepy books:

Shirley Jackson – The Lottery and Other Stories
I loved We Have Always Lived in the Castle to pieces! And The Haunting of Hill House gave me serious nightmares. While it may not be great for my sleep, I have heard that “The Lottery” is supposed to be the best thing Jackson has ever written. So even if I don’t read the entire collection, I definitely want to tackle that story.

Helen Oyeyemi – White is for Witching
It’s right there in the title. Helen Oyeyemi has a particular writing style that I just enjoy. I’m sure she isn’t everyone’s cup of tea but there’s no denying that she is a master of creating atmosphere, so I can’t wait to see how she tells a haunted house story with witches.

 

And once October is over, I move straight into the Triwizard Tournament Readathon! I cannot wait to see which prompts I have to fulfill and whether I stick to my TBR.

A Slow-ish Return to the Grishaverse: Leigh Bardugo – King of Scars

We’re back in the Grishaverse with a new duology and one gorgeous cover! I’ll keep this review spoiler-free. However, reading even the synopsis of this book gives you a mild spoiler for the Grisha Trilogy, because you’ll know of one character who survives those books. I don’t think it’s a bad spoiler, but if you haven’t read The Grisha Trilogy, I recommend you start there. I wasn’t a huge fan of the first book but they get better and better and totally sucked me into their world.

KING OF SCARS
by Leigh Bardugo

Published by: Imprint, 2019
Hardcover: 514 pages
Series: The Nikolai Duology #1,
The Grishaverse #6
My rating: 6,5/10

First line: Dima heard the barn doors slam before anyone else did.

Synopsis: Nikolai Lantsov has always had a gift for the impossible. No one knows what he endured in his country’s bloody civil war—and he intends to keep it that way. Now, as enemies gather at his weakened borders, the young king must find a way to refill Ravka’s coffers, forge new alliances, and stop a rising threat to the once-great Grisha Army.
Yet with every day a dark magic within him grows stronger, threatening to destroy all he has built. With the help of a young monk and a legendary Grisha Squaller, Nikolai will journey to the places in Ravka where the deepest magic survives to vanquish the terrible legacy inside him. He will risk everything to save his country and himself. But some secrets aren’t meant to stay buried—and some wounds aren’t meant to heal.

When I heard there would be a new duology set in the Grishaverse, starring none other than my favorite side character from the original trilogy, let’s just say I got pretty excited! Then I read some early reviews which all agreed that the book started slowly – I’m fine with that, give me the slow burn, ease me back into the world, remind me of all the cool stuff that happened before. I value those reviews greatly, because they also warned me that we follow two almost entirely separate storylines and knowing what to expect can help a lot when reading such a buzzed about book. I am currently reading another book that got nothing but rave reviews and halfway through I’m already kind of disappointed, simply because my expectations were too high… So, knowing what you’re getting yourself into is a good thing.

We’re back in Ravka, Nikolai Lantsov is the new King and he’s doing his very best to rule fairly, to restore order to the kingdom, and you know… to keep that monster that’s still inside him in check somehow. With Zoya, Genya, Tolya, and Tamar at his side, he’s got a great supporting crew but  the Darkling’s legacy is not so easy to deal with. On the one hand, Nikolai has episodes when the monster gets through and wreaks havoc. He has no control, he has to be tied to his bed, and he has to keep this problem secret from the public. After all, what would the people say to a king who turns into a monster every so often? When he hears of a potential cure, it’s clear he now has a quest to go on. Adventure ensues.

What I loved the most about this storyline and its central characters was the dynamic between Nikolai and Zoya. She may not have been a very nice character in the Grisha Trilogy, but being overly ambitious doesn’t make her a bad person. She’s easily one of the most interesting people in the Grishaverse and now that she got her own POV chapters, she really grew on me. The banter between her and Nikolai was great fun to read, although I did feel that Nikolai has lost a bit of his rogue-ish charms. Which makes complete sense if you think about what he’s going through. He is now ruler of his country – a burden that surely weighs on him – and he constantly has to worry that, in monster-form, he will do something unforgivable. The cocky, slightly arrogant Nikolai is still there, he’s just tuned it down a bit.

Meanwhile in Fjerda, Nina is back from Ketterdam. She is dealing with her own problems and while they are very different from Nikolai’s, they are no less grave. If you’ve read the Six of Crows duology, you know exactly what I’m talking about, but I’ll keep it spoiler free for those of you haven’t had the pleasure of reading these two remarkable books. Nina is not the same person she was, both physically and mentally. Even her powers have changed and with them, Nina’s reason to even go on. Her story leads her through Fjerda, hiding the fact that she’s Grisha, trying to save others from prosecution. She makes new friends on the way, discovers secrets that could have devastating consequences for all of Ravka and is basically saving the world all over again.

I do have to say that Nina’s story took me a long time to get into. Both plot strings start out slowly, but with Nikolai and Zoya, at least you get the quippy banter and the tension between the two. Nina is mostly depressed (understandably so) and there is definitely a new aggressive streak to her character. As bad as I feel about saying it, I didn’t like her all that much in this book. Similar to the way Nina herself was kind of lost in the world, I felt lost in her story. It took a long time for any kind of red thread to appear that I could follow plot-wise. If there had been a lot of character development in the meantime, that would have been okay, but with Nina stagnant in her grief and no plot to speak of, her chapters were the ones I had to push myself to continue.

This wouldn’t be a Grisha novel if things didn’t pick up speed eventually. And trust me, big things happen at the end. There were a few revelations, some of which promise great political intrigue to come in the second book, and others that felt rather cheap. I can’t tell you why without spoiling it but I hope we’ll find out more in the next volume. I also hope that the new Big Bad is not who I think it is.

One more thing I have to mention is a couple of side characters: Isaak, one of the royal guards, and Princess Ehri, one of Nikolai’s potential suitors – he needs a queen, after all. Through circumstance, these two characters are thrown together in what almost turns into a Shakespearean comedy of errors (minus the comedy), but they grew on me really quickly. Compared to the other characters, they are definitely less important, but I loved meeting some new people, especially ones as interesting as these two. Their story line seemed to go one way but it, too, has a few surprises in store.

All things considered, I’m rating this book somewhere in the okay to good range. It won’t make much sense to read it if you haven’t read any Grisha books before and if you have, you’ll probably push though the boring bits, just the way I did, because you know it’ll be worth it. Well, this was a good book, but both the pacing and the plot could have used some serious work. It takes a long time to get started in the first place and then doesn’t seem to know quite where to go. I will definitely read the sequel because Leigh Bardugo is great at sequels (and endings!) but this book was only okay.

MY RATING: 6,5/10 – Good

2019 Retellings Challenge – Third Quarter Update

Holy smokes, where have all these months disappeared to? I could swear it was July a week ago, but here we are, at the beginning of October (speaking of which, I have to find me some witchy reads for Halloween). The summer months have probably been my best reading months in years, if not ever! I participated in the NEWTs Readathon which meant I first had to catch up on the OWLs readathon. Both of these were crazy months where I got a lot of reading done. I’m happy to announce that among the many books I read were also a few retellings.

What I’ve Read

The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker was one of the group reads for this readathon and I absolutely loved it! From the very beginning, this quiet tale of a Golem and a Jinni grabbed me. I enjoyed following them as they found their footing in a new world, within new cultures, and as they became friends. But while this is mostly a quiet story with lots of focus on characters, there is quite an epic ending. I cannot recommend this enough. The language is beautiful, the characters are so engaging, and the story itself had me close to tears several times.

Helen Oyeyemi’s Gingerbread was quite a different experience. It may not be a precise retelling of Hansel and Gretel, but it uses many of the fairy tale’s motifs. Gingerbread is the most obvious ones, but there are also breadcrumbs, houses in forests, and friendships that last through the ages. Most of all, it is the story of a mother and daughter, of how the mother grew to be who she is, why the daughter has turned into who she is and how their past connects them as much as their present. The family relations in this tale get surprisingly complex, but once I found my way into this rather strange story, I was enjoying myself a lot. This will not be everybody’s cup of tea. If you like magical realism (randomly talking dolls, anyone?) then definitely try it, though.

I also finally read The Gospel of Loki by Joanne M. Harris. It was pretty much exactly what I had hoped for, expect shorter and with less depth. We follow the story of Loki, from his brith as an Asgardian god to his demise – all narrated by himself, in the arrogant, hilarious manner you’d expect. I loved the narration, the silly nicknames he gave the other gods, the tricks he played on them and especially his relationship with Thor. In fact, I loved it so much that I would have liked more of the same. More chapters of Loki’s exploits, his travels with Thor, his trickery and cleverness. But Harris tells a proper story that leads straight to the end of Asgard. From a proper critic’s standpoint I would probably command her for writing a proper beginning and end, but as I read this simply for enjoyment, I felt a little let down by how things ended. Not that it came as a surprise but it was slightly anticlimactic. However, I will very likely pick up the sequel.

I also read The Ice Puzzle by Catherynne M. Valente – a retelling or reimagining of The Snow Queen from the point of view of different cultures. As this is one of Valente’s earlier works, it pretty much has no plot but tons of gorgeous language and beautiful imagery. This novella was like falling into a dream. Things don’t always make sense, you don’t know who all of the characters are, but you just roll with it. And what unfolds is snippets of a Snow Queen, of a young girl trying to save a boy, of mirror shards and pieces of ice stuck in an eye. I didn’t love this as much as I do Valente’s other work, but it was definitely a new kind of retelling for me.

I finally finished The Winternight Trilogy with Katherine Arden’s The Winter of the Witch. This was a great book but unfortunately, I started reading it at a bad time. You have to be in the right mood for this in order to fully appreciate it. I put the book away for several months and when I picked it back up, I was exactly as excited as I should have been from the start. It is the conclusion to Vasya’s story. It brings together the elements from the first and second book beautifully and even mixes a lot of real historical events and people into Vasya’s fictional story. Once I got into the atmosphere  of this book again, I loved every page. The Bear and the Nightingale is still my favorite of the trilogy but this was definitely a worthy ending.

Lisa Goldstein’s The Uncertain Places landed on my TBR pile because it won a Mythopoeic Award – a goldmine for retellings of myths, fairytales, and altogether books that I like. Reading it was a strange experience. While I read it, I was quite engaged, I wanted to know what happened and I wanted the characters to figure out how to break the fairy curse at the heart of this story. But whenever I put the book down, I didn’t really want to pick it back up again. I also felt that the most interesting characters weren’t featured enough. Instead, the story is told from one POV, and he was one of the least interesting people in this book. It was a fun read with many nods to fairy tales and fairies in general, but now that I’ve thought about it for a while, I’d rate it only okay.

My favorite retelling of the last few months and probably the whole year was Echo North by Joanna Ruth Meyer. It retells East of the Sun and West of the Moon with a few changes and one mind-blowing twist. Instead of a polar bear, Echo, our protagonist, has to live with a white wolf in an enchanted castle. The castle itself feels like a character – there are so many rooms to discover and so much magic hidden inside of it. And it has a library… a magical library. Need I say more? I also loved that this story manages to take the heroine’s really, really stupid decision from the original fairy tale and make it feel sensible. The villain was fantastic, the last third of the book went by in a blur of action and adventure, and because I was rooting so much for Echo, that twist at the end completely wrecked me. I’m not ging to say any more about it, just please pick up this book if you like fairy tale retellings. It is a true gem!

And another highly recommended book, this time for graphic novel fans: Neil Gaiman & Colleen Doran – Snow, Glass, Apples. This is Snow White from the stepmother’s perspective, except Snow White isn’t the fairy tale princess we know. Without spoiling, I’ll only say that the roles of villain and heroine are flipped in a very original way. It has all the things you know from the original tale – poisoned apples, mirrors, skin as white as snow – but the way Gaiman turned the story on its head, nothing should work but everything does. All the beats of the original tale fit perfectly into this new version. This is a short comic book but it’s also surprisingly dark. The artwork is gorgeous (if you’re into the style, obviously) and had me so impressed I read the book two times in a row.

Reading plans for the next months

  • Silvia Moreno-Garcia – Gods of Jade and Shadow
    Although this doesn’t fit into any of the slots left on my bingo card, I have started this story featuring Aztect gods. I have been buying Moreno-García’s book for a while, but this is the first one I’m finally going to pick up.
  • Alexa Donne – Brightly Burning
    This is a Jane Eyre retelling set in space. Since I’ve already read The Lunar Chronicles, my options for this bingo slot are slim, but I quite look forward to this. I haven’t read Jane Eyre in a while so I’m quite interested in how this author deals with the story and makes it work in a futuristic setting.
  • Anna-Marie McLemore – Blanca & Roja
    I’ve been meaning to read this for a while now. A retelling of Snow White and Rose Red plus Swan Lake sounds too good to miss. Since it features sisters – with all the love and rivalry that comes with it – I am even more intrigued. And I’ve also never read anything by McLemore but she keeps being recommended, so it’s about time I found out if I like her writing.

General Thoughts

I did not realise I’d read that many retellings. To be honest, I didn’t focus on this challenge at all during the last three months, so it’s a bit of a surprise to me how many retellings crept into my reading. With The Golem and the Jinni I got my first bingo on the Bingo Card, but I’m still planning to fill the entire card so there are still some books left for me to discover. The prompts are getting harder and harder to fulfill. While I do own some books that fit into the remaining categories, I’m not particularly in the mood for some of them at the moment. We’ll see how it goes but I am more motivated than ever to actually pull off my crazy plan.

In all honesty, at the beginning of the year, I thought my goal of reading books for all the prompts was way too ambitious but I like big goals. 🙂 I would have been fine with a single bingo, but now that I’m this close to finishing the entire card, there’s no way I’m stopping.

How’s your reading going? Are you (still) participating in this challenge? Which books can you recommend for my missing bingo slots – I’d really appreciate your recommendations!

The Grand Finale: Katherine Arden – The Winter of the Witch

Sometimes, it’s important to read a book at the right time. I started this at a bad time, which is why I put it aside halfway through, only to rush through the ending last week. The lesson I learned from this is that, no matter how much you loved the first books in a trilogy and how much you trust an author, forcing yourself to pick up a book when you’re just not in the mood is a bad thing. Even if that means reading a book months after publication, after everyone else has already learned how the story ends.

THE WINTER OF THE WITCH
by Katherine Arden

Published by: Del Rey, 2019
Hardcover: 372 pages
Series: The Winternight Trilogy #3
My rating: 8/10

First line: Dust at the end of winter, and two men crossed the dooryard of a palace scarred by fire.

Following their adventures in The Bear and the Nightingale and The Girl in the Tower, Vasya and Morozko return in this stunning conclusion to the bestselling Winternight Trilogy, battling enemies mortal and magical to save both Russias, the seen and the unseen.
Reviewers called Katherine Arden’s novels The Bear and the Nightingale and The Girl in the Tower “lyrical,” “emotionally stirring,” and “utterly bewitching.” The Winternight Trilogy introduced an unforgettable heroine, Vasilisa Petrovna, a girl determined to forge her own path in a world that would rather lock her away. Her gifts and her courage have drawn the attention of Morozko, the winter-king, but it is too soon to know if this connection will prove a blessing or a curse.
Now Moscow has been struck by disaster. Its people are searching for answers—and for someone to blame. Vasya finds herself alone, beset on all sides. The Grand Prince is in a rage, choosing allies that will lead him on a path to war and ruin. A wicked demon returns, stronger than ever and determined to spread chaos. Caught at the center of the conflict is Vasya, who finds the fate of two worlds resting on her shoulders. Her destiny uncertain, Vasya will uncover surprising truths about herself and her history as she desperately tries to save Russia, Morozko, and the magical world she treasures. But she may not be able to save them all.

The Winter of the Witch picks up pretty seamlessly after the events of The Girl in the Tower. As the world is already established and the characters well-known, the readers are thrown straight into action with Vasya running for her life. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that she escapes that first attempt on her life (otherwise, what would the other 250 pages be about?), but Vasya’s road takes her to decidedly new places that may have their roots in Rus but definitely aren’t to be found on any map. This book also delivers one of the hardes blows right at the start. Maybe that was part of why I had to put it away for a while, because let me tell you, I could not handle what happened. I’ll have to be this vague for fear of spoiling it for you but be prepared for heartbreak and have tissues ready when you read this!

I loved how Katherine Arden not only brought together the first two books of this trilogy but also incorporated other Russian myths such as Baba Yaga or the Firebird. All of these elements are there in Vasya’s story but they make perfect sense for her tale, not simply as cameo appearances from other fairy tales. As Vasya learns to walk the Midnight Road, she tries her best to save her family, her country, and the chyerti from invading Tatars, invading Christianity, and from the rage of the chaos spirit Medved  – he’s the bear we met in the first book, remember?

This volume also progresses Vasya’s relationship to Morozko, the winter-king. Being a fangirl as I am, I had long hoped for a romance to develop between these two, but as this story went along, I felt that Vasya’s fate was bigger than that. Her whole point is to not be bound to a man or have her life dictated by one. Which doesn’t mean she’s immune to hormones or the wish to have a partner. But Arden did a great job in making clear that Vasya’s purpose in this story is so much bigger than her finding a man – even a magical one – but rather, you know, saving the world and stuff.

Mostly, what this book does is turn the intial conflict of The Bear and the Nightingcale up to eleven, add an invading force of Tatars to the mix, tensions in the world of the chyerti, and what you get is an epic tale with Vasilisa Petrovna at the center. I cannot say how much I loved her character development, not only because she is finding her place in the world, learning what she has to do in order to save her people, and discovering some long-hidden truths about her heritage. But also because she finds out she has a dark side. Vasya isn’t pure good – she would be a boring character if that was the case – but she is aware of this fact and so she also knows that any pleasure she takes in others’ pain takes her closer to someone she doesn’t want to be. She is constantly walking a knife’s edge between good and evil (if you want to call it that) and she is desperately trying to keep the chyerti alive while also feeling compassion for those who follow the Christian faith.

It’s hard to say much more without spoiling the plot, but let me leave you with a few thoughts on the ending. Rus is looking to fight a battle with the odds stacked very much against it; Vasya wants to find a way for the old faith and the new to live alongside each other, which is also not looking too good. Medved is spreading chaos (and zombies/vampires… did I mention those?), Konstantin is spreading lies, Morozko is a creature of winter and so no great help during summer. So things look pretty grim all around. And I’m not saying everything will turn out alright because that would also be boring. But Katherine Arden stuck the ending on a perfect, bittersweet note, adding one little extra that made my heart soar with joy.

Having read these books in the year they came out, I wonder what it would be like to devour them one right after the other. Maybe one day I’ll make myself do a Winternight readathon and dive into the gorgeous, mythical world that Katherine Arden has created, inspired by Medieval Russia, but filled with original ideas and the best characters a reader can hope for.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent

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

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

SNOW, GLASS, APPLES
by Neil Gaiman and Colleen Doran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY RATING: 8,5/10 – Pretty amazing!

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

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

General Thoughts

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

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

Quidditch and House CUP

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

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

CONGRATULATIONS TO HUFFLEPUFF FOR WINNING THE HOUSE CUP!

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

CLASS

Grade achieved

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

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

Total books read 22
Total pages read 6148
NEWTs achieved 10

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

The Diplomas

Hogwarts Teacher:

Writer/Journalist:

The Books

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


Ancient Runes – Acceptable

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


Ancient Runes – Exceeds Expectations

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


Arithmancy – Acceptable

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


Astronomy – Acceptable

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


Care of Magical Creatures – Acceptable

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


Care of Magical Creatures – Exceeds Expectations

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


Charms – Acceptable

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


Charms – Exceeds Expectations

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


Charms – Outstanding

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


Defence Against the Dark Arts – Acceptable

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


Defence Against the Dark Arts – Exceeds Expectations

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


Defence Against the Dark Arts – Outstanding

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


Herbology – Acceptable

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


History of Magic – Acceptable

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


History of Magic – Exceeds Expectations

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


History of Magic – Outstanding

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


Muggle Studies – Acceptable

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


Muggle Studies – Exceeds Expectations

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


Muggle Studies – Outstanding

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


Potions – Acceptable

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


Potions – Exceeds Expectations

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


Transfiguration – Acceptable

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


Final Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

THE RAVEN AND THE REINDEER
by T. Kingfisher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very good!

 

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

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

THE UNCERTAIN PLACES
by Lisa Goldstein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY RATING: 6,5/10 – Good

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

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

STRANGE THE DREAMER
by Laini Taylor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY RATING: 9/10 – Nearly perfect!

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

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

A WIZARD OF EARTHSEA
by Ursula K. LeGuin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY RATING: 6/10 – Good