#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 GarcĂ­a 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

Tansy Rayner Roberts – Love and Romanpunk

I’ve been wanting to read this ever since I heard it mentioned on the SF Squeecast. Oh, if only those guys knew how many recommendations of theirs I went out and bought. Seriously, I’m super sad the Squeecast is on hiatus for now. I hope they come back some day with more books and author guests and lots of squeeing.

love and romanpunkLOVE AND ROMANPUNK
by Tansy Rayner Roberts

Published by: Twelfth Planet Press, 2011
Ebook: 105 pages
Short story collection
My rating: 7/10

First sentence: Let us begin with the issue of most interest to future historians: I did not poison my uncle and husband, the Emperor Claudius.

Thousands of years ago, Julia Agrippina wrote the true history of her family, the Caesars. The document was lost, or destroyed, almost immediately. (It included more monsters than you might think.)
Hundreds of years ago, Fanny and Mary ran away from London with a debauched poet and his sister. (If it was the poet you are thinking of, the story would have ended far more happily, and with fewer people having their throats bitten out.)
Sometime in the near future, a community will live in a replica Roman city built in the Australian bush. It’s a sight to behold. (Shame about the manticores.)
Further in the future, the last man who guards the secret history of the world will discover that the past has a way of coming around to bite you. (He didn’t even know she had a thing for pointy teeth.)
The world is in greater danger than you ever suspected. Women named Julia are stronger than they appear. Don’t let your little brother make out with silver-eyed blondes. Immortal heroes really don’t fancy teenage girls. When love dies, there’s still opera. Family is everything. Monsters are everywhere. Yes, you do have to wear the damned toga.
History is not what you think it is.

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This story collection contains four stories that are all connected to each other, more like a small mosaic novel than a regular author collection you might find elsewhere. This is a thing I like, as I have recently discovered through Angela Slatter’s books. However, reading Love and Romanpunk so soon after falling hard for another short story writer may have been bad for Tansy Rayner Roberts. Because as charming as her stories are, as cute as her ideas may be, they pale in comparison to Angela Slatter. But that’s just me.

In the first story, “Julia Agrippina’s Secret Family Bestiary”, we meet said Julia – one of many – and  encounter many Roman emperors. Julia tells the story of her family, of their demise, and how not all (or many) of their deaths can be attributed to such mundane means as poisons or old age. No, in fact, her family is haunted by mythological creatures. I find the idea of manticores, lamia, griffins, and harpies wonderful but in a short story, this was a bit much. This story disguised as a bestiary still tells a nice tale, but there was simply an overload of monsters and instead of being terrifying or even very interesting, it became ridiculous pretty quickly. Also, if you’re not too familiar with Roman history (most of what I know, I have learned from the TV show Rome), the names and relations can get seriously confusing because people are born and die rather quickly. Before you get to remember this guy’s name, he’s already dead or married his own niece, or poisoned his mother or whatever… This was my least favorite story of the bunch.

The second story focuses on one creature, the lamia, and features a poet, his mistress, his sister, and mistress’ sister. This is a vampire story, but a pretty good one. There is a nice twist about who the characters really are that I won’t spoil here, and I was surprised by my attachment to them at the end of the story. They’re not exactly supposed to be sympathetic, feeding on the blood of the innocent and all, but I kind of liked them anyway.

My favorite story by far was “The Patrician” which features an immortal monster-killer named Julius who hunts down the last of whatever monster species is still around. Coincidence throws him in the path of Clea, a young girl, who gets tangled up in his monster slaying. Throughout her life, they meet again and again, forming a special friendship that was beautifully described. The monsters fade into the background in this character-driven, almost philosophical piece, whose ending was both beautiful and a little heartbreaking.

The last story which gives the book part of its title, “Romanpunk”, was just pure fun. A man gets stuck on an airship at a party with his ex-girlfriend that he really, really, really wanted to avoid. She’s not your typical crazy ex-girlfriend, though. Nope, she wants immortality at any price. Enter more lamias, more monster-slaying, and a fair amount of sass. The story even features another Julia – and Julias are powerful in Tansy Rayner Roberts’ world.

I started out not liking this collection too much, then it kind of grew on me, and now thinking back on it, it’s actually quite lovely the way it moves through time, ties one story to the next, and doesn’t take itself too seriously. Apart from Julia Agrippina’s mess of a bestiary, all the stories had good pacing, intriguing characters, and a plot I was happy to follow along. Maybe a few more pages to flesh out certain parts wouldn’t have hurt but I’ll definitely try more books by Tansy Rayner Roberts. Aside from reading more short story collections than ever before, I also seem to be developing a thing for Australian authors.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

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Second opinions:

 

 

Angela Slatter – The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings

Well, this is how long I could keep away from Angela Slatter’s stories. A bit more than a week, which I used to order a paperback copy of Of Sorrow and Such… now that I’ve read The Bitterwood Bible – which is a sort of prequel collection to Sourdough – I am even more in love with Slatter’s style and ideas. I really hope that her Tor.com novella will expand her readership and get more of her stories into my hands.

bitterwood bibleTHE BITTERWOOD BIBLE AND OTHER RECOUNTINGS
by Angela Slatter

Published by: Tartarus Press, 2014
Ebook: 280 pages
Short story collection
Illustrated by:
Kathleen Jennings
My rating: 9,5/10

First sentence: The door is a rich red wood, heavily carved with improving scenes from the trials of Job.

Welcome back to the magic and pathos of Angela Slatter’s exquisitely imagined tales.
The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings returns to the world of Sourdough and Other Stories (Tartarus, 2010), introducing readers to the tales that came before. Stories where coffin-makers work hard to keep the dead beneath; where a plague maiden steals away the children of an ungrateful village; where poison girls are schooled in the art of assassination; where pirates disappear from the seas; where families and the ties that bind them can both ruin and resurrect and where books carry forth fairy tales, forbidden knowledge and dangerous secrets.
The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings is enhanced by eighty-six pen-and-ink illustrations by artist Kathleen Jennings.

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What is it about Angelas and fairy tales? In both forewords to Angela Slatter’s two collections, she is mentioned in one breath with that other famous Angela who did fairy tales her own way, Angela Carter. While I’d say Carter is a tad darker, I understand the comparison. But because of what this Angela (Slatter, that is) does – namely, connecting all of her short stories and using them to paint one large picture of a time and place – I must admit, I actually prefer her over Angela Carter.

bitterwood - badgersIn The Bitterwood Bible, we see what things were like before the events of Sourdough (reviewed here). Familiar names pop up, well-known settings are used, and one object that was almost a gimmick in Sourdough becomes quite important in these new stories. Since Slatter continues the trend of taking fairy tales and myth and folklore, and using them to build her own stories on top of them, I hardly need to say I loved this collection. But it was striking how much the author has developed, how much more crafty her tales are. What little critique I may have had for Sourdough can’t be repeated about Bitterwood. If there are twists to these new stories, such as in the first story “The coffin-maker’s daughter”, then these twists really hit home.

bitterwood - maiden in the iceI am absolutely in love with “The Maiden in the Ice” which, apart from being a wonderful story in and of itself, ties in nicely with the first story in Sourdough and made me immediately want to re-read it. I haven’t had the time yet but I believe that I will like that Sourdough story much more and see it in a very different light after reading “The Maiden in the Ice”.

Her perfume is earthly, rich and dark, like rotted roses; a sweetness at first, then a potency, then grown too strong, and finally the hint of decay as she moves past the folk in the streets, those in the markets.

If you didn’t think there could be a new and interesting way to update vampires, well, you are wrong! So wrong! Angela Slatter takes vampires and just… does strange and interesting things with them. Hers are neither only sexy and dark, nor purely tortured innocent-ish beings. They are a bit of everything and something different entirely. And they certainly don’t sparkle. I’d say the vampire craze is mostly over and lots of readers may even go out of their way to avoid vampire stories, but lend me a bit of your trust and just try this one. It’s really something else.

“St. Dymphna’s School” merges seamlessly from one type of tale – at least the type I expected it to be – into quite another. It follows a heroine both determined to do what she came for, (almost) no matter the cost, and yet compassionate and understanding that the people surrounding her shouldn’t be hurt just because they don’t help her achieve her goals. In this tale, another character makes a reappearance from Sourdough, or more accurately – an appearance after being mentioned in Sourdough.

bitterwood - st dymphnas kiss

I said above that Slatter isn’t quite as dark as Carter, but that doesn’t mean that these stories are for children or light-hearted. There is one story that  never explicitly mentions the terrible things that happen to its protagonist, but it will break your heart a hundred times over. Even stories with a quirkier, lighter tone manage to twist a knife in you at the end, leaving you filled with horror and shock.

“By the Weeping Gate” is the only story that’s a bit slow to start but it wouldn’t be in this collection if it didn’t deliver the same powerful punch at the end that Slatter’s other stories do. The last story in the collection presents almost a seamless sequel to “By the Weeping Gate” and not only ties these two stories together, but connects the entire book into one big whole beautiful thing.

If Sourdough was about the story of a place and the women living there over the course of several generations, then Bitterwood is about The Little Sisters of St. Florian, women who collect and preserve knowledge, who copy rare (and not so rare) books, some of them mundane, some dangerous, and what happens to their order. The recounting of their last days made me cry a little, as it combines powerful writing with a heart-wrenching story.

One last raving paragraph must go to illustrator Kathleen Jennings, whose work I knew from Catherynne Valente’s The Bread We Eat in Dreams. The style is immediately recognisable and her little drawings are full of detail (albeit a little small on an e-reader). She did excellent work, choosing what to depict – sometimes objects, sometimes animals, and sometimes the characters. I was always a bit giggly when I swiped to the next page and saw an illustration come up. Really wonderfully done!

The longer I read this book, the more superlative my exlamations about it became. From “Hey, I really like this” I went quickly to “This is amazeballs” straight on to “I fucking adore everything Angela Slatter writes!!!” – I gather from other people’s reviews that these are the natural stages of book love when reading Angela Slatter. I kept Of Sorrow and Such for last, because chronology, but you’ll probably be seeing a review of it in December, despite all my well-laid plans for reading exactly what’s on my challenge lists… sorry reading challenges.

Next year promises the publication of Slatter’s first novel Vigil. I don’t even know what it’s about. All I know is that I need it yesterday, and the sequel too!

MY RATING:  9,5/10 – Oh my God, so close to perfection!

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Second opinions
(because you know I’m not completely trustworthy when I adore a book this much – although it did win the World Fantasy Award. Just sayin’…)

 

Helen Oyeyemi – Mr. Fox

Even without certain campaigns, Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy, Snow, Bird never stood a chance of getting a Hugo Award or even a nomination. Nonetheless, I nominated it because I loved it so, so much and that’s what the Hugos are all about! After reading that book, I bought everything else I could find by Oyeyemi. This wasn’t as up my alley as Boy, Snow, Bird but Oyeyemi is still an author I want to follow very closely.

mr foxMR. FOX
by Helen Oyeyemi

Published by: Riverhead Books, 2011
Ebook: 336 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7/10

First sentence: Mary Foxe came by the other day – the last person on earth I was expecting to see.

Fairytale romances end with a wedding. The fairytales that don’t get more complicated. In this book, celebrated writer Mr. Fox can’t stop himself from killing off the heroines of his novels, and neither can his wife, Daphne. It’s not until Mary, his muse, comes to life and transforms him from author into subject that his story begins to unfold differently. Meanwhile, Daphne becomes convinced that her husband is having an affair, and finds her way into Mary and Mr. Fox’s game. And so Mr. Fox is offered a choice: Will it be a life with the girl of his dreams, or a life with an all-too-real woman who delights him more than he cares to admit?

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Mr. Fox is a writer whose imaginary muse Mary Foxe has qualms about the way he tends to kill off his female characters. In a game of story-telling, the two of them weave fairy tales, play with Bluebeard, and explore their relationship. Then Mr. Fox’ wife Daphne joins in and the relationships become more and more complicated.

You can read this book as a short story collection or a fix-up-novel but either way, it’s never quite clear which parts are reality, which are stories, if Mary is real or just a figment of Mr. Fox’ imagination. Some stories are clearly told by one of the protagonists, others could be attributed to any (or none) of them. This mosaic novel is fairly complex – it needed full concentration to follow the plot, if indeed you can call it plot. I enjoy a novel that challenges me but Mr. Fox gave me headaches. Despite the fixed points of St. John Fox, Mary, and Daphne, it was difficult to find a red thread to follow. This did in no way diminish the pleasure gained from reading each short story on its own merits.

Oyeyemi’s language did not disappoint. I knew I’d discovered a new favorite after reading Boy, Snow, Bird. A writer who can weave such beautiful sentences just couldn’t have written a bad book! The style is lyrical, yet on a sentence level not overly drawn out. The complexity of these stories stems more from my attempt to ground them in reality somehow, which I probably shouldn’t even have tried. There is a fairy tale feel to each story, whether it’s the more obviously fantastical ones in which foxes dress in human clothes, or the more realistic ones (without talking animals).

mr fox alternate coverThe most interesting aspect for me was Daphne’s involvement in the strange relationship between writer and muse. At first, she feels threatened by Mary’s presence (who cares if she’s real or imaginary?), and she worries about her marriage to Mr. Fox. Daphne was an intriguing character who didn’t shy away from examining her own motives for marrying Mr. Fox, the way their marriage has gone so far, and the way she sees other women. When Mary and Daphne meet, I expected what TV taught me to expect – namely that the two would fight or bitch or put each other down. What Helen Oyeyemi did instead was pure, refreshing amazingness! In fact, all relationships between the three protagonists take interesting turns and subvert tropes. Especially the ending was  delicious.

What I was missing a bit was the exploration of Mr. Fox’ tendency to kill his female characters. Mary wants him to question his own motives but I didn’t really see this idea developed much further. The problem is that I’m not sure if I simply misunderstood some of the stories, if my language skills let me down and I missed some subtle nuances, or if Oyeyemi really didn’t want to pursue the topic any further. It took me quite a while to read the novel so it’s probably I who is to blame.

All things considered, I still enjoyed the read and will definitely pick up the rest of Oyeyemi’s books. If the next novel is just slightly more straight forward, I’ll be one happy kitten.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

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Other reviews:

(note: It appears I’m not the only one confused by this book. Big sigh of relief.)

Theodora Goss – In the Forest of Forgetting

I came across Theodora Goss’ name via TV Tropes. Searching for “Mythpunk”, a term coined by Cat Valente (you can see where this is going, can’t you?), Goss was mentioned as a good example of mythpunk writers. It’s easy to see why I pounced on her books once I’d heard her mentioned in the same breath as my favorite writer and even recommended by her at one point. Pouncing was a good decision, I now have another favorite to add to my list!

in the forest of forgettingIN THE FOREST OF FORGETTING
by Theodora Goss

Published by: Prime Books, 2006
Hardcover: 284 pages
Short story collection
My rating: 9/10

First sentence: This rose has twelve petals.

A collection of sixteen postmodern gothic fairy tales from award-winning author Theodora Goss, first published in 2006 by Prime Books and finally made available as an ebook by Papaveria Press. These stories are a treasure for all of those who are already passionate about Theodora Goss’s work, as well as for those who have yet to discover it.

Theodora Goss’ first major short story collection showcases such stories as “The Rose in Twelve Petals,” “The Rapid Advance of Sorrow,” “Lily, With Clouds,” “In the Forest of Forgetting,” “Sleeping With Bears” and many more. Also includes an introduction by Terri Windling and cover by Virginia Lee.

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I should have seen this coming but I am utterly, utterly in love. Theodora Goss is my new writer crush and this collection more than impressed me. I expected mostly fairy tales and mythology played with in interesting ways, and I did get that. But there is so much more to be found here. What struck me most was the stories’ readability. Unlike Valente’s prose, Goss writes almost as if she were sitting across from you, telling you these stories out loud. I planned to read a story or two per night and that worked for the first two days. After that, I ate up the rest of the collection in one sitting.

In the Forest of Forgetting-Tangerine-lilac.inddThe first story, “The Rose in Twelve Petals”, does exactly what it says on the tin. It plays with fairy tale tropes but, while enjoyable, didn’t surprise or overwhelm me. Except then Goss takes on cancer as a subject, and communism, and racism. Don’t think for a second that any of these heavy topics are used like a hammer or for preaching, no, they are gently played with. Goss wraps heavy themes in light words and lets her readers make up their own minds about what it all means. Both “Lily, With Clouds” and “In the Forest of Forgetting” were powerful yet very different stories about cancer, although the first one is much more about ignorant, arrogant sisters with no room for imagination. It’s also about art and how it can change a person’s life. I adored these stories so, so much.

But then “Miss Emily Gray” came along and completely swept me off my feet. Its teenage protagonist gets a little more than she hoped for – for a long time, you can’t be sure if her father’s new wife is an evil stepmother, a wicked witch, or a misunderstood lady. But it is a lot of fun finding out. I also think, Goss writes teenagers extremely well.

“Look at Alice, and Ozma. Literature, at least imaginative literature, is ruled by adolescent girls.”

Until I let Google enlighten me, I didn’t know that Theodora Goss is a Hungarian American writer – but I might as well have guessed. There are several stories that are set in Hungary or feature Hungarians (sometimes Hungarians living elsewhere) and that convey a real sense of place without long lectures or exposition. With that come references, some more obvious than others, to the Soviet Union and Communism’s effect on freedom in general and art in particular. Sometimes, it’s just a throwaway line that sets the scene, sometimes we get a fuller image of how artists were restrained in their creativity. These snippets all paint a full and bright picture – which is why this book counts as a stop on my literary world trip.

I am haunted by ghosts, invisible, impalpable: the ghosts of silver spoons and margarine tubs, the smell of paprikás cooking on Sunday afternoons. The ghost of a country.

However, this is only a small part of the collection’s diversity. One story,  “A Statement in the Case”, is a statement given to the police about a rather mysterious death, we discover distant memories of a dying ballerina in “Death Comes for Ervina”, and there is a recurring character in several stories who I suspect may not be entirely human…

As much as I loved the stories that explore culture, art, death, and cancer, it will always be one particular kind that speaks to me most: the one about the other world, existing just next to ours. In “Pip and the Fairies“, Philippa, the heroine in her mother’s childrens’ book series, returns to her childhood home after many years of being a rich and successful actress. She remembers what inspired her mother to come up with “Pip” and her trips to fairyland – or was it the other way around? Did her mother’s books create her memories? We can’t know for sure but whether it’s all pretend or real magic, it’s wonderful to read.

This is the sort of thing people like: the implication that, despite their minivans and microwaves, if they found the door in the wall, they too could enter fairyland.

The collection ends with a beautiful tale about teenage girlfriends who decide one day to become witches and take lessons with Miss Gray. Their adventures tie together some of the previous stories, but can also be read on their own. Considering that these stories all somehow fit together, I’m sure I missed at least half the connections and clues, reading a story here and there, without giving much thought to the bigger picture. But that just makes me look forward to my first re-read even more. Theodora Goss lets you travel across borders, both real and imaginary, and leads you through story after story in a light, conversational tone. She is like Cat Valente’s less flowery sister. I’ll see you after I’ve bought her entire backlist of books.

MY RATING: 9/10  – Close to perfection!

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