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

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

THE CITY OF BRASS
by S. A. Chakraborty

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

First sentence: He was an easy mark.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent

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Mary Robinette Kowal – The Calculating Stars

I didn’t think I’d enjoy this book as much as I did. From the description, it sounded like a quiet kind of story, one that is more about the people in the background of cool science fictional stuff, rather than the heroes who actually go on adventures. What I learned is that “hero” is subjective and Elma and her friends turned out to be my personal beloved heroines by the time I was finished with this book. It’s also my favorite of Kowal’s books so far and I can’t wait to read the sequel.

THE CALCULATING STARS
by Mary Robinette Kowal

Published by: Tor, 2018
Ebook: 431 pages
Series: Lady Astronaut #1
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: Do you remember where you were when the Meteor hit?

On a cold spring night in 1952, a huge meteorite fell to earth and obliterated much of the east coast of the United States, including Washington D.C. The ensuing climate cataclysm will soon render the earth inhospitable for humanity, as the last such meteorite did for the dinosaurs. This looming threat calls for a radically accelerated effort to colonize space, and requires a much larger share of humanity to take part in the process.
Elma York’s experience as a WASP pilot and mathematician earns her a place in the International Aerospace Coalition’s attempts to put man on the moon, as a calculator. But with so many skilled and experienced women pilots and scientists involved with the program, it doesn’t take long before Elma begins to wonder why they can’t go into space, too.
Elma’s drive to become the first Lady Astronaut is so strong that even the most dearly held conventions of society may not stand a chance against her.

When a meteor hits the planet, Elma and her husband don’t suspect just what an impact this event will have on their lives and the lives of every other human on Earth. They “only” think about the family members they have suddenly lost and wonder how their lives are supposed to continue after this. These first chapters were really hard to read, which is in large part due to Elma’s voice. Mary Robinette Kowal writes as if Elma were really talking to us, telling her story to a friend. There is an immediacy to the text that makes you like Elma from the first moment, so her losing almost her entire family at once hit me pretty hard even though they were characters we hand’t even met.

It doesn’t take long, however, for Elma to figure out just what devastating effects the meteor will have on the Earth as a whole. Apart from waves of refugees, people who have lost everything, food shortages and devastation along the coast, the future doesn’t look much brighter. The threat of climate change in this novel feels all too familiar. Elma explains beautifully how, in the next few years, things may look okay, but the Earth is going to be uninhabitable within decades. The voices of “What global warming? It’s snowing today” made me just as angry in this book as they do in real life.

But Elma and her husband Nathaniel pick up the pieces of their lives and make the best of it with the skills they have. They both happen to have PhDs, so they can both do their part to pave the way to space for all mankind. And this is where the setting really shines – if you can say that. The book starts in the 50ies and although it is made clear from the start that women have been pilots in the war, and that there are numerous competent women mathematicians (as well as other professions), they are treated anything but equal. Don’t even mention black people!

This unfair treatment made me so angry while I read but it also made one hell of a story! Elma faces a ton of situations in which things are presumed about her because she is a woman, in which she deals with stereotypes about Jews, in which her competence is questioned based on nothing but her gender. She herself messes up lots of times with her black friends. She makes mistakes, assuming things because of their skin color or simply forgetting that – hey, black people are also around! This actually made Elma even more likeable. She never has bad intentions, she is simply learning something that is new to her and that means making mistakes. I have been in situations where my own ignorance made me say something stupid, as I suspect many other readers have. You may not intend to be mean but words have consequences, whether you meant well or not. Making mistakes is part of it and we can all count ourselves lucky if we have friends like Elma’s who let us know when we said something idiotic.  Watching Elma learn these things, watching how her world and circle of friends grew richer through it, was almost as beautiful as seeing how humanity first ventures into space.

There were so many more things I loved about this book. Elma’s relationship with Nathaniel was simply beautiful. Here are two people with understanding for each other and each other’s flaws. Elma deals with crippling anxiety whenever she has to speak in front of a crowd or reporters or generally is the center of attention. I can relate so well! And so, it appears, can her husband although he doesn’t suffer from anxiety. It was just so lovely to see this married couple be there for each other, give each other space when needed, and talk things over without any drama. Also, it’s just refreshing to have a protagonist with a solid, loving relationship rather than adding some forced tension by throwing in a love triangle/divorce/cheating husband/whatever. Nathaniel is Elma’s safe haven and that’s something I suspect many people aspire to so it was really nice reading about it.

But not all people respect Elma and the other women the way Nathaniel does. They way the women in this story are treated when they want to join the male astronauts made me furious (yet again). Proven facts are simply ignored – such as women having an easier time dealing with G-forces – and instead it is taken as a universal truth that women are weaker and space “just isn’t for them”. They’re good enough to do all the calculations for the big boy astronauts but actually give them a chance to go into space themselves? What would people think? A lot of this book shows the narrow bridge women have to walk if they want to achieve anything. Be too demanding, you’re hysterical. Stay quiet in the background and let your work shine for you, you’ll be ignored or erased. So finding the right balance between making yourself heard but not so loudly that powerful men can call you hysterical is what Elma had to learn. It means staying quiet when you know how to solve a problem, it means being five times as good as a man when applying for a job, it means letting others ridicule you and smiling about it. As angry as this book made me, it also made me really happy to watch Elma persist and never give up on her dream.

This is also a book that shows female friendships, not in some way where everything is always peachy and nobody ever fights, but in a realistic way. These diverse women are kind of in the same spot – although one has to mention that Elma’s black and Asian friends are even more excluded than the others – so they stick together. Not all women in this book are perfect angels, they each have a personality and some of them are not nice people at all. But the general message that women can be friends, even when they’re competition (like for a spot on a space ship, say) is one I wholeheartedly agree with.

Mary Robinette Kowal has managed to write a book that works really well on so many layers. It explores women’s roles in what to this day is stereotypically “a man’s job”, it explores racism and antisemitism, grief and love, mental illness and dealing with pressure. It is peopled with excellent characters whom I grew to love without even noticing. The story is riveting although this is by no means what I’d call an action story. I have very little to nitpick, except maybe that I found Elma and Nathaniel’s dialogue that lead up to them having sex a bit cringeworthy (rocket ready to launch… ahem). But that’s a super minor complaint and also a question of taste rather than writing quality. I loved this book and will definitely check out the sequel to see what heppens with Elma, Helen, Ida, and all the others.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent

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

Second opinions:

Mackenzi Lee – The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue

With a cover and synopsis like that, who could resist this book? I personally was hoping for some fun, light entertainment with a little bit of romance and a lot of bickering. Plus an epic road trip through Europe. While I didn’t enjoy the second half of the book as much as the beginning, it still delivered on most of those points and had me giggling for a few hours.

THE GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE TO VICE AND VIRTUE
by Mackenzi Lee

Published by: Katherine Tegen Books, 2017
Hardcover: 513 pages
Series: Guide #1
My rating: 7/10

First sentence: On the morning we are to leave for our Grand Tour of the Continent, I wake in bed beside Percy.

Henry “Monty” Montague was born and bred to be a gentleman, but he was never one to be tamed. The finest boarding schools in England and the constant disapproval of his father haven’t been able to curb any of his roguish passions—not for gambling halls, late nights spent with a bottle of spirits, or waking up in the arms of women or men.
But as Monty embarks on his Grand Tour of Europe, his quest for a life filled with pleasure and vice is in danger of coming to an end. Not only does his father expect him to take over the family’s estate upon his return, but Monty is also nursing an impossible crush on his best friend and traveling companion, Percy.
Still it isn’t in Monty’s nature to give up. Even with his younger sister, Felicity, in tow, he vows to make this yearlong escapade one last hedonistic hurrah and flirt with Percy from Paris to Rome. But when one of Monty’s reckless decisions turns their trip abroad into a harrowing manhunt that spans across Europe, it calls into question everything he knows, including his relationship with the boy he adores.

Henry “Monty” Montague is a scoundrel who gets into trouble very easily but has a lot more difficulty getting back out again. His relationship with his father is strained, to say the least. As a bisexual young man in the 18th century, his escapades – be they with young men or women – are not something his father approves of, especially since he was to inherit the estate. Until the baby brother came along, that is. Now Monty has one last chance to prove he can be a responsible adult – a Grand Tour of Europe with his best friend Percy and, much to their dismay, a chaperone who is to show them the wonders of all the greatest cities on the continent.

It’s hard to dislike Monty, despite his really being an irresponsible, ungrateful young rake. He cares about very little in the world (mostly himself, his secret love Percy, and copious amounts of alcohol), but you can tell right from the start that he has a good heart and just needs to grow up a bit. The Tour seems just the right time for that. While things start out pretty much as planned (by his father, that is), Monty gets into deep trouble pretty soon. He, Percy, and Monty’s sister Felicity don’t even reach the halfway point of their journey when they are set upon by highwaymen, have to flee, discover truths about each other that they didn’t even suspect, and must work together as a team to get out of this adventure alive!

We’re not courting trouble. Flirting with it at most.

This book had everything I had hoped for at the beginning. Quippy banter, a budding romance between Monty and Percy, lots of fun adventures and not-so-fun danger. Things dragged a bit when the group reached Spain and begin an entirely new adventure, but because the characters were so lovely, I didn’t mind too much. Percy’s being dark-skinned may not be an issue for Monty or Felicity, but 18th century Europe has other ideas and it is frequently shown that even though he is an English gentleman, Percy faces a lot of challenges because of the color of his skin. Felicity, in turn, is sent to an finishing school from where she is supposed to emerge a skilled young lady. Skilled, that is, in the arts of singing, stitching, and other stuff she doesn’t have the least interest in. Monty is just Monty, wanting to drink and party and sleep with beautiful people. In the beginning, at least.

When someone close to him is revelealed to suffer from a disability, Monty’s thinking slowly changes. He realises what’s important in life, and who he wishes to be loyal to. As light as it may be, as funny as his scrapes are, this is truly Monty’s coming-of-age story and he doesn’t grow up all at once. It’s a slow process with more mistakes to make and misunderstandings to clear up. But I was very happy to see that, by the end, Monty had indeed grown. He’ll perhaps never be a gentleman of utmost perfection but he learns to do the right thing, and to consider the feelings of others – especially those he loves.

While the writing in this book wasn’t very special, I adored the dialogues and the more romantic scenes. Monty and Percy have a particular relationship that makes it maybe even harder to start something more than friendship than if they had serendipitously met on Monty’s Tour. Having grown up together, often sleeping in the same bed, sharing almost everything with each other, there is already so much intimacy between them, that it seems like such a small step to just fall in love. Mackenzi Lee did a beautiful job of letting these two find their way to each other slowly, through many obstacles, and start something more substantial than one of Monty’s flings.

All in all, I really enjoyed this book and I am so excited that there will be a second part following Felicity’s further adventures. She started out as an annoying side character but grew on me so much that I consider her as one of the gang. By the end, she is probably the most kick-ass of the trio (Hermione, anyone?).

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

Second opinions:

#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

Second opinions:

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Madeline Miller – The Song of Achilles

Like a lot of people, I’ve never read the Iliad. I know the basic story from school and those Greek Myths CDs I had as a kid, but I’ve always lacked the gumption to actually pick up a copy and read the whole damn thing. But you don’t really need to know anything about the Iliad to enjoy The Song of Achilles – in fact, this made me want to go straight back to those Greek stories and I may just pick up Summer of the Mariposas by Guadalupe García McCall soon, which retells the Odyssey.

THE SONG OF ACHILLES
by Madeline Miller

Published by: Harper Collins, 2011
Ebook: 416 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: My father was a king and the son of kings. He was a short man, as most of us were, and built like a bull, all shoulders.

The legend begins…

Greece in the age of heroes. Patroclus, an awkward young prince, has been exiled to the kingdom of Phthia to be raised in the shadow of King Peleus and his golden son, Achilles. “The best of all the Greeks”—strong, beautiful, and the child of a goddess—Achilles is everything the shamed Patroclus is not. Yet despite their differences, the boys become steadfast companions. Their bond deepens as they grow into young men and become skilled in the arts of war and medicine—much to the displeasure and the fury of Achilles’ mother, Thetis, a cruel sea goddess with a hatred of mortals.
When word comes that Helen of Sparta has been kidnapped, the men of Greece, bound by blood and oath, must lay siege to Troy in her name. Seduced by the promise of a glorious destiny, Achilles joins their cause, and torn between love and fear for his friend, Patroclus follows. Little do they know that the Fates will test them both as never before and demand a terrible sacrifice.

The Song of Achilles is told by Patroclus and follows him from childhood to the battle of Troy. Patroclus is a prince who is exiled after an accident that kills another boy, so he loses his name and princedom, and he also has trouble coming to terms with the other boy’s death. He also meets Achilles, famed to become aristos achaion, the Best of the Greeks, a hero and the son of a goddess. A connection starts blooming between these unlikely friends that soon turns into more.

This is definitely one of those slow burning books, where for long stretches at a time, nothing much seems to happen, especially if you expect epic battles. But the way it focuses on characters and the relationship between Achilles and Patroculs kept me entertained for the full 400 pages without a problem. Madeline Miller writes beautifully, letting her characters’ actions speak for them. I loved it so very much when Patroclus looked at Achilles and described him in his mind – without getting cheesy or overly descriptive of his body parts, he paints the picture of a god and makes it all the easier to understand why he loves him.

I can smell him. The oils that he uses on his feet, pomegranate and sandawood; the salt of clean sweat; the hyacinths we had walked thorugh, their scent crushed against our ankles. Beneath it all his own smell, the one I go to sleep with, the one I wake up to.

Apart from the wonderfully done romance, I was also intrigued by the setting and society in this book. Having next to no experience with stories of Ancient Greece that aren’t specifically about the gods, I was quite surprised at certain aspects. There are a ton of princes, bringing shame to your family is the worst, gods can be appeased with sacrifice… While I expected all of this to some degree, the way Miller incorporated these things into the story felt organic and natural, like it’s just part of these guys’ lives.

Another highlight was definitely Odysseus, the sly man. He may only show up a couple of times before he joins in the war on Troy, but I swear he steals every scene he is in. Despite being a side character in this particular story, he has the air of a protagonist and you can tell – even if you don’t know about the Odyssey – that this guy is going to go down in history as a legend. Whenever he showed up, I started smiling and waiting to see what he would come up with next.
Similarly interesting was Achilles’ relationship to his mother, Thetis, and her as a character in general. She never makes a secret of her dislike for Patroclus, and Achilles stands between them, silently but certain of his choices. See, this is what I meant when I said it’s a slow-moving book. The interesting bits aren’t so much in the action scenes (although there are some of those at the end in the battle of Troy) but in the little moments between characters, in what they don’t say, but what their body language conveys. Making body language come to life in a novel is no small feat but I saw every scene so vividly before me that I caught myself speculating on why somebody’s shoulders slumped at a particular moment, or why Achilles stands so tall and proud.

I did feel that the last part of the book dragged a bit with the Trojan war going on what felt like forever. Since Patroclus is not much of a fighter, he spends the days at camp and develops a beautiful relationship with Briseis, a woman taken as spoils of war (yeah… that was a punch in the face, women being handed around literally as prizes). It’s not that stuff doesn’t happen, it’s just that Patroclus is best when Achilles is around, and Achilles is kept grounded by Patroclus. They are such a beautiful couple, in every way imaginable, that I already felt sad long before Achilles’ prophecied death.

The very end held a few surprises in store, which is all I’m going to say on that matter. But after following these two men through most of their childhood into adulthood, I closed the book with a feeling of deep satisfaction and some warm fuzzies in my stomach. This is a beautiful story and I see why it has won all sorts of acclaim when it came out. I will not soon forget Achilles and Patroclus, and no matter how many retellings of the Iliad I read or see, they will always be a couple in my mind.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent

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My First Favorite of the Year: Katherine Arden – The Bear and the Nightingale

I was incredibly worried I wouldn’t like this book. Everything about it seemed to scream my name and I was excited for it months before its publication. The cover was gorgeous (I have the US cover, although I like the UK version as well), the description sounded perfect, the early reviews and blurbs made me expect a magical realist tale of medieval Russia, with a strong-minded protagonist, Russian folklore, and beautiful prose. And – for once – the hype was completely justified and I got exactly what I wanted.

bear-and-the-nightingaleTHE BEAR AND THE NIGHTINGALE
by Katherine Arden

Published by: Del Rey, 2017
Hardback: 322 pages
Series: The Bear and the Nightingale #1
My rating: 9/10

First sentence: It was late winter in northern Rus’, the air sullen with wet that was neither rain nor snow.

At the edge of the Russian wilderness, winter lasts most of the year and the snowdrifts grow taller than houses. But Vasilisa doesn’t mind—she spends the winter nights huddled around the embers of a fire with her beloved siblings, listening to her nurse’s fairy tales. Above all, she loves the chilling story of Frost, the blue-eyed winter demon, who appears in the frigid night to claim unwary souls. Wise Russians fear him, her nurse says, and honor the spirits of house and yard and forest that protect their homes from evil.
After Vasilisa’s mother dies, her father goes to Moscow and brings home a new wife. Fiercely devout, city-bred, Vasilisa’s new stepmother forbids her family from honoring the household spirits. The family acquiesces, but Vasilisa is frightened, sensing that more hinges upon their rituals than anyone knows.
And indeed, crops begin to fail, evil creatures of the forest creep nearer, and misfortune stalks the village. All the while, Vasilisa’s stepmother grows ever harsher in her determination to groom her rebellious stepdaughter for either marriage or confinement in a convent.
As danger circles, Vasilisa must defy even the people she loves and call on dangerous gifts she has long concealed—this, in order to protect her family from a threat that seems to have stepped from her nurse’s most frightening tales.

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Elle Katherine White – Heartstone

Despite utterly disliking Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which I found silly, unfunny, and unoriginal, I had high hopes for this new take on the Jane Austen classic, featuring mythical creatures and a dragon rider Darcy. As a retelling, it wasn’t great, but at the end, the author’s original ideas took center stage and turned this into a quite pleasant reading experience.

heartstoneHEARTSTONE
by Elle Katherine White

Published by: Harper Voyager, 2017
Ebook: 352 pages
Standalone
My rating: 6/10

First sentence: I’d never seen an angry hobgoblin before.

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Sabaa Tahir – An Ember in the Ashes

Ah what the hell, I’m only a year late. Actually, I tried to read this book during my last holiday (during June 2015) where the temperature – if not the tropical climate – would have been wonderfully fitting. But, as things go, I put the book away after a few chapters because I just wasn’t in the mood. Now that I read it, however, I have no idea how I managed to find a spot – ANY spot – in this book where I would put it down. It is one of the most page-turny books I’ve read this year.

an-ember-in-the-ashesAN EMBER IN THE ASHES
by Sabaa Tahir

Published by: Razorbill, 2015
Ebook: 453 pages
Series: An Ember in the Ashes #1
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: My big brother reaches home in the dark hours before dawn, when even ghosts take their rest.

Laia is a slave.
Elias is a soldier.
Neither is free.

Under the Martial Empire, defiance is met with death. Those who do not vow their blood and bodies to the Emperor risk the execution of their loved ones and the destruction of all they hold dear.
It is in this brutal world, inspired by ancient Rome, that Laia lives with her grandparents and older brother. The family ekes out an existence in the Empire’s impoverished backstreets. They do not challenge the Empire. They’ve seen what happens to those who do.
But when Laia’s brother is arrested for treason, Laia is forced to make a decision. In exchange for help from rebels who promise to rescue her brother, she will risk her life to spy for them from within the Empire’s greatest military academy.
There, Laia meets Elias, the school’s finest soldier—and secretly, its most unwilling. Elias wants only to be free of the tyranny he’s being trained to enforce. He and Laia will soon realize that their destinies are intertwined—and that their choices will change the fate of the Empire itself.

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Oh my glob, this was SO EXCITING. Like, good for raising your blood pressure exciting. But also keeping you up way past your bedtime and then showing up to work like a corpse the next day exciting. But I swear, every night spent reading this rather than getting some much-needed sleep was totally worth it. So if you pick this up, be warned what the effects will be. Okay, now that’s out of the way, let’s get to the bones of it.

The beginning of the book sets the tone for the rest of the story and it was much, much darker than I expected. As this happens in the very first chapter, it’s no spoiler if I say that… well, people are brutally murdered, a family destroyed, and a girl traumatised right at the beginning. And holy shit, I think I stopped breathing for a while when I read this. The protagonist Laia tells of these horrible events and then takes her chance to flee, to save herself from the same fate. Her brother, although still alive, is apprehended by a Mask (a super creepy military ninja police dude… more on them later). Her “cowardice” haunts her and she resolves to save her brother. That beginning already, despite being truly terrifying, was such a breath of fresh air in a YA book. Not only does the protagonist lose almost everything right in the beginning, but she runs away. She is no magical brave super-powered woman who can mysteriously kick people’s asses and save the day. She is a scared girl who wants to survive. So yeah, I loved Laia.

In alternating chapters, another person tells their story. Elias, almost finished with his training to become of those dreaded Masks, wants out of his life. Since he was six, it has been spent at Blackcliff Academy, where children are brutally trained to become amazing warriors and cruel enforcers of the Emperor’s rule. Oh yeah, I forgot, all of this takes place in a sort of alternate Roman Empire. I adored the names – Elias Veturius, Helen Aquilla – they gloriously melt on your tongue. Anyway, Elias plans to desert, being rather sick of a life watching his friends be flayed, beaten to death, “weeded out” during training for being too weak… so you see, more horrors coming your way.

The plot really kicks off when Laia starts working for the Resistance (because every evil Empire needs a Resistance) in exchange for them saving her brother from prison. She enters Blackcliff Academy as a slave girl, spying on the most feared woman in the entire Empire – the Commandant. This woman was straight up evil! She was responsible for the heart-stopping excitement I felt while reading this book. When Laia risked something, and spying is in and of itself a risk, I was truly afraid she would get caught and punished for it. And punishment by the Commandant might invole anything from a simple flogging, to losing a limb or eye, to being carved up like a ham. Talk about a great villain!

But that’s all I’ll say about the plot because otherwise I’ll just retell the entire book right here. There were things I truly loved about An Ember in the Ashes, and others that felt old and tired. Let’s start with the good stuff: the friendships. Elias and Helene have been best friends forever, and although growing past puberty and graduating from Blackcliff have changed their relationship, I loved how loyal these two were to each other. Things get pretty rocky along the way, and even though not everything turns out alright, I really appreciated the friendship between these two. Not as much as I appreciated the friendship between Laia and her fellow slave-girl Izzi, though. Reading Laia’s perspective, I immediately cast myself in her role, trying to think like a spy, suspicious of everyone and everything. But a true and wonderful friendship evolves out of shared fear and pain and the one thing that keeps them all going: hope.

Sabaa Tahir drifted into trope territory when it came to the romance(s). I knew and actually hoped for a budding romance between Elias and Laia, but to make things interesting (I guess), their feelings for each other are complicated by what turned out to be a love… square. Love triangles are old and boring and usually resolved really badly. Here, each of the protagonists has a second potential love interest. That would have been a-okay if the descriptions of their feelings and reactions to each other weren’t all exactly the same. To me, this read very much like Laia just gets excited when she sees dude A and gets excited when she sees dude B. Elias was a bit better as his reactions to his two girls differed slightly, if only because there was more backstory there. That’s all I can say without spoiling, but although I liked the descriptions of these new (to them) feelings, the secondary love interests seemed totally forced and unnecessary.

Back to stuff I liked: The world-building and magic. Yes, there’s magic, if not exactly front and center. The Roman Empire thing is a great idea, simply because it isn’t medieval England. But Blackcliff has a lot more to offer in terms of imagery and internal workings. The Masks, for example, are called Masks because they wear masks (duh). But masks that meld to their face and eventually can’t be taken off. So there’s a bunch of people running around with silver faces – that is super creepy! But the way Blackcliff works and trains its soldiers, is also intriguing. Terrible, yes, but amazing to read about. The Augurs, and the various mythical creatures that crop up every now and then, are a whole different story and I can’t wait to find out more about that part of the world in the sequel.

Another thing I didn’t like was that so many chapters ended in cliffhangers. It’s a cheap trick that reminds me of Dan Brown. Yeah, sure it worked, it kept me reading for hours and hours on end, but it also got annoying pretty quickly. I know I’m being manipulated, book, it’s fine, you can give me one chapter to breathe and get a coffee or have a toilet break.

And last, but definitely not least, my favorite part about this book was Laia’s character development. Awakening sexuality aside, it was fascinating to watch that scared, naive little girl grow up and realize just how strong she is. By the end of the book she’s still scared, don’t get me wrong (and I wouldn’t like her otherwise) but she has learned to use her fear, to work through it, to do the right thing anyway. She was incredibly naive and gullible at first, but grew more aware of her surroundings and the way people can manipulate and lie to each other. Way to go, girl!

This has turned into a very long review, although I left so many details out – that should tell you that these 450 pages really have some meat to them and aren’t just descriptions of how pretty people are (still looking at you, Sarah J. Maas). I loved the reading experience and would recommend this to anyone in a reading slump. And make sure you have the sequel ready because I’m throwing all my reading plans overboard to dive right in.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

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Click image for a cool article on the creation of this map of Blackcliff Academy

Click image for a cool article on the creation of this map of Blackcliff Academy

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Barnes, Heartfield, Meadows, Newman, Tchaikovsky – Monstrous Little Voices

This was a total fluke. I stumbled across this collection on NetGalley and was struck by the cover. It’s not exactly my kind of art but it definitely drew me in and made me check out the description. Which in turn made me request the book because Shakespeare and fantasy, plus some highly exciting authors. And here we are, me plus one Shakespearean fantasy collection, although not as in love with the book as I could have been.

monstrous little voices

MONSTROUS LITTLE VOICES: New Tales from Shakespeare’s Fantasy World
by Foz Meadows, Adrian Tchaikovsky, Jonathan Barnes, Kate Heartfield, Emma Newman

Published by: Abaddon Books, March 2016
Ebook: 240 pages
Short fiction collection
My rating: 6,5/10

First sentence: “He makes you sleep, you know,” said Ariel, then.

Mischief, Magic, Love and War.
It is the Year of Our Lord 1601. The Tuscan War rages across the world, and every lord from Navarre to Illyria is embroiled in the fray. Cannon roar, pikemen clash, and witches stalk the night; even the fairy courts stand on the verge of chaos.
Five stories come together at the end of the war: that of bold Miranda and sly Puck; of wise Pomona and her prisoner Vertumnus; of gentle Lucia and the shade of Prospero; of noble Don Pedro and powerful Helena; and of Anne, a glovemaker’s wife. On these lovers and heroes the world itself may depend.
These are the stories Shakespeare never told. Five of the most exciting names in genre fiction today – Jonathan Barnes, Adrian Tchaikovsky, Emma Newman, Foz Meadows and Kate Heartfield – delve into the world the poet created to weave together a story of courage, transformation and magic.
Including an afterword by Dr. John Lavagnino, The London Shakespeare Centre, King’s College London.

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Coral Bones by Foz Meadows

coral bonesI have been a big fan of Foz’ online writings, so naturally I was more than excited to see her fiction. Playing with Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Meadows imagines Miranda’s life after the play. Ariel is there, Puck is there, what more do you really need? Oh, you’re looking for a subversive tale that spins Shakespeare’s play around and looks at the story from a different perspective? Well, Foz Meadows got you covered. In beautiful language and with a tone as dark as it is whimsical, hers is the opening novella in this collection. It not only asks “what happened after” but also takes into account questions of gender identity, destiny, and – you know – fairies. I thought that it got a little heavy-handed at the end, but overall, this was a great opening story that made me curious for more of Meadows’ fiction. 6,5/10

The Course of True Love by Kate Heartfield

course of true loveThis was an adorable, well-structured story. Divided into acts, it has everything you’d hope for. An old lady protagonist, Pomona, rescuing a bewitched fairy from an enchanted garden. Feuds between kingdoms, Oberon and Titania preparing for war, magic, and of course romance.
I really liked how this has the appearance of a fluffy story when it really examined much deeper themes. The course of true love may not run smooth and it may also not always hit the young, pretty people of the world. This is about identity and belonging with someone, about keeping long-ago promises and finding your place. Queen Mab makes an appearance, and many other Shakespeare characters are mentioned, but I just felt this was a wonderful standalone story regardless of the Shakespeare connection. I had never read anything by Kate Heartfield before but I definitely will after this. 7/10

The Unkindest Cut by Emma Newman

unkindest cutThis story plays with destiny and whether anyone can really defy it, a trope a really love. Self-fulfilling prophecies, fulfilling it by trying to evade it, and so on – it’s something I can’t resist in any kind of fiction, so naturally I was quickly hooked. Lucia de Medici is destined to marry her beloved, which makes her happy not only because she is very much in love but because their wedding is meant to end a long war. But as she follows the instructions that will lead to her destiny’s fulfillment, she has to learn that not all visions are equal, that not every sybil is to be trusted. Things much bigger than her love-sick heart are at stake. Add a dash of Prospero, clever intrigues, and a likable heroine and you have a solid story that doesn’t shy away from putting characters through a lot. 6/10

Even in the Cannon’s Mouth by Adrian Tchaikovsky

even in the cannons mouthMy least favorite story of the bunch, this felt convoluted and overloaded, especially in this medium. As a novel, this might have been great, but for short fiction, there was too much going on. Several of Shakespeare’s characers feature here, some in surprising roles, others very much like themselves, only turned up to eleven. I loved that when people say Macbeth’s name, bad stuff actually happens, which is why he is called The Scot. And the very same Scot, creepy as he may be in his original play, has grown seriously dark in Tchaikovsky’s story. The plot  itself was difficult to follow, had no real red thread to follow, and its characters were mostly let-downs. Which may well be due to my lack of intimate knowledge of Shakespeare.   4/10

On the Twelfth Night by Jonathan Barnes

on the twelfth nightThis was my favorite story in the collection! In twelve chapters, one for each night, Jonathan Barnes tells a story in second person singular, with “you” being Shakespeare’s wife Anne. But something is not quite right. Even with limited knowledge of Shakespeare’s life, certain things just feel off and not like we learned in school at all. Everything makes sense after a while, though, and it is this unravelling of the truth that was part of the fun.
What I loved the most, though, is that this was the only story that truly felt like “Shakespeare meets fantasy”. Granted, fairies and magical knives feature in most of the stories, but this brings a real speculative element into the mix, one dealt with wonderfully and with emotional impact. The story is well-executed, I found myself caring greatly for the characters, and I loved the ending. 7,5/10

All things considered, this was a good collection, though not an overwhelming one. All the stories are connected to each other but these connections weren’t close enough to really give the sense of a bigger hole. I’m also a bit disappointed that almost all stories merely took Shakespeare characters or stories and spun the tale on, instead of adding something of their own to it. I don’t know what limits the authors were given for this collection and since all tales are connected, I suppose the writers may not have had too much freedom to write what they want. Except for the Tchaikovsky story, which I just didn’t click with, all tales were fun to read, but I’d recommend them more to Shakespeare fans than SFF readers. Had I been more familiar with all the plays alluded to or used here, I probably would have enjoyed the collection more.

MY RATING: 6,5/10 – Pretty good