Magical Immigrants: Helene Wecker – The Golem and the Jinni

Sometimes I’m a bit slower than the rest of the world to discover great books. The Golem and the Jinni had been on my radar since it was first published and then it even went on to win a Mythopoeic Award (along with many other award nominations), which I follow closely because the nominees are usually books I end up loving. Thanks to the Retellings Reading Challenge I finally picked this one up and it was everything I had hoped.

THE GOLEM AND THE JINNI
by Helene Wecker

Published by: Harper, 2013
Hardcover: 486 pages
Series: The Golem and the Jinni #1
My rating: 9/10

First sentence: The Golem’s life began in the hold of a steamship.

In The Golem and the Jinni, a chance meeting between mythical beings takes readers on a dazzling journey through cultures in turn-of-the-century New York.
Chava is a golem, a creature made of clay, brought to life by a disgraced rabbi who dabbles in dark Kabbalistic magic and dies at sea on the voyage from Poland. Chava is unmoored and adrift as the ship arrives in New York harbor in 1899.
Ahmad is a jinni, a being of fire born in the ancient Syrian desert, trapped in an old copper flask, and released in New York City, though still not entirely free.
Ahmad and Chava become unlikely friends and soul mates with a mystical connection. Marvelous and compulsively readable, Helene Wecker’s debut novel The Golem and the Jinni weaves strands of Yiddish and Middle Eastern literature, historical fiction and magical fable, into a wondrously inventive and unforgettable tale.

The story begins with the creation of the Golem, initially thought up to be a companion to a carpenter moving to New York. He wakes up the Golem on the ship (although he wasn’t supposed to), and promptly dies, leaving the Golem without a master, without a purpose, stranded in a new world, with not a single friend to guide her. She may look like a human woman, but she is a newborn Golem with no idea how human society works.

Almost at the same time, Arbeely, a tinsmith in Little Syria, is brought an old copper flask to fix, out of which emerges a Jinni. The Jinni has been imprisoned in the flask for ages, is bound into human form by an iron clasp around his harm, and battles against the loss of his magic, his life in the desert, and the world he has now been thrown into.

You can see, the idea and the characters alone are intriguing enough for a novel. The Golem, later called Chava by a kind rabbi who knows her for what she is and takes her in, and the Jinni, named Ahmad by his now-employer Arbeely, are living through a special kind of hell. Because Chava has no master, whose thoughts she can hear and obey, she now hears everyone’s thoughts, their dreams and desires, their anger and frustration – naturally, that gets overwhelming fast. And as is her nature, she wishes to fulfill those needs, to grant those wishes, not knowing that it’s not always possible. Ahmad, in the meantime, finds some solace in the metalwork he does for Arbeely. With the use of his (quite magical) hands, he forms metal the way no human could. They get by, in a way. But they are both without direction, without purpose.

At first, this book is just magical. Two mythical beings, trying to hide their true selves from humanity, trying to make a living, to find a reason to live in their new society, was just beautiful to read. Once Chava and Ahmad meet and form a tender sort of friendship, things get even better. The dynamic between these two very different beings was bound to be tense. Chava, built to be obedient, to always behave properly, and Ahmad, impulsive like the fire he is made of, thinking more of his own pleasure than other people’s feelings. Don’t expect quippy banter like you’d find in a YA romance novel, but rather deep conversations about important Life Stuff – but with a hint of banter. Everything I like about bickering couples (although Chava and Ahmad are friends, not lovers) is there, it’s just more subtle, and therefore maybe more powerful.

But there is even more to this book, simply on a plot basis. Ahmad does not remember how he came to be bound in his flask. In flashbacks, we find out exactly how that came to be. His life in his glass palace in the desert, his meeting with a group of humans, and ultimately his capture. Chava’s creation is clear from the start, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have repercussions. Her creator, Yehuda Schaalman, meddles in dark forces (otherwise how could he have created a Golem so life-like as to pass for a human woman?) and gets it into his head to search for the power of immortality. The synopsis is wrong, by the way. Chava’s master dies at sea, her creator remains alive and kicking in Poland! Until, that is, he decides to follow his creation to America.

Although I would describe this as a quiet sort of book, a lot of things do happen, and there’s even an epic showdown at the very end. Whether it was descriptions of Chava’s work at the bakery, Ahmad’s romantic escapades, or their nighttime walks together, it always felt like something was going on. So this is the sort of quiet book that doesn’t have loud action on every page but feels like it nonetheless.  I can’t even tell you what I loved best about it. The Golem and the Jinni became very dear characters in a short amount of time, but so did the humans that surrounded them. These side characters don’t simply remain on the sidelines, their stories get told too, and they are sometimes more tragic and more beautiful than the Golem’s or the Jinni’s. Helene Wecker has built a whole little world, peopled with believable, sympathetic characters, that I didn’t want to let go of.

And I haven’t even mentioned the setting. We’re at the turn of the century (1890ies-ish) and while Chava is taken into the Jewish community by Rabbi Meyer, Ahmad lives in Little Syria. As I said, some side characters have their story told, but even the ones that don’t help to create a vivid, culturally diverse setting that felt vibrantly alive. Simply reading about neighborly interactions between the habitants of Little Syria brought a smile to my face. They may not be family by blood, but these people look out for each other. Similarly, although culturally different of course, the Jewish community that Chava moves within sticks together and wants the best for its people. Chava’s workplace becomes a whole little family of itself, and Chava, although she is seen as strange by many, is welcomed into it. Again, what a joy to read!

The writing is just exquisite. It isn’t particularly flowery or particularly stark, it’s just always right for the part of the story it’s telling. When things get rushed, the writing adapts, when there’s a quiet character moment, there is more description, when the protagonists experience happiness, the writing feels happier (if that makes sense). When we’re in Chava’s head, different things are in focus than when we’re in Ahmad’s head. I don’t know how to describe it other than always just right. And although I didn’t think this book would have an ending as thrilling as this, even then Wecker managed to seamlessly carry us readers into the action-packed scenes that make up the finale. I may have shed a tear or two…

This book was an absolute pleasure to read, from the very first page to the very last. So you can imagine I am more than thrilled that a sequel of sorts is in the works. Whatever Helene Wecker decides to write next, I’ll be there for it!

MY RATING: 9/10 – Nearly perfect!

Zombies vs. Ex-Slaves: Justina Ireland: Dread Nation

While this year’s Hugo shortlist in general is fantastic, the still pretty new YA category – the Lodestar Award, and Not-A-Hugo – is more of a mixed bag. Which is not a bad thing, to be honest. It makes ranking these six novels much easier.

DREAD NATION
by Justina Ireland

Published by: Balzer + Bray, 2018
eBook: 455 pages
Series: Dread Nation #1
My rating: 7/10

First sentence: The day I came squealing and squalling into the world was the first time someone tried to kill me.

Jane McKeene was born two days before the dead began to walk the battlefields of Gettysburg and Chancellorsville—derailing the War Between the States and changing America forever. In this new nation, safety for all depends on the work of a few, and laws like the Native and Negro Reeducation Act require certain children attend combat schools to learn to put down the dead. But there are also opportunities—and Jane is studying to become an Attendant, trained in both weaponry and etiquette to protect the well-to-do. It’s a chance for a better life for Negro girls like Jane. After all, not even being the daughter of a wealthy white Southern woman could save her from society’s expectations.
But that’s not a life Jane wants. Almost finished with her education at Miss Preston’s School of Combat in Baltimore, Jane is set on returning to her Kentucky home and doesn’t pay much mind to the politics of the eastern cities, with their talk of returning America to the glory of its days before the dead rose. But when families around Baltimore County begin to go missing, Jane is caught in the middle of a conspiracy, one that finds her in a desperate fight for her life against some powerful enemies. And the restless dead, it would seem, are the least of her problems.

I absolutely loved the voice of this book – which is the voice of its protagonist Jane McKeene – from the very first moment. She is sharp, she is no-nonsense, she lies a lot but at least she lets us readers in on her lies, she cares deeply about her family and friends, and she wants to do what is right. With that as a basis, very little could go wrong for me. And Dread Nation did in fact keep me entertained until the end, even though I felt the plot started meandering a bit at a certain point and the book left  too much open for the sequel(s).

The premise of this story  may sound cool, but if you’re tired of zombies (like me), you may have stayed away from Dread Nation so far (like me). In this alternate version of America, the War Between the States was interrupted by the dead rising. So people put down their arms against each other and instead decided to take up arms against the common threat. As for the slaves, they are technically freed, but not really because while they’re not considered anyone’s property anymore, they don’t have a lot choice in life. Jane is training to become an Attendant: a fighter of the dead to protect the living – but with manners. That’s the only “promotion” a black girl can hope for, to become a bodyguard for white people, rather than being sent to fight a whole army of zombies. So let’s just say, while slavery as it used to be no longer exists,  black people’s lives haven’t really much improved.

Jane simply wants to finish her studies and return home to her mother and aunt, but Things get in the way. Local families go missing, Jane’s friend and former lover Red Jack turns up again, and Jane gets stuck in stupidly dangerous situations with her most detested fellow student, Katherine. Jane resents  Katherine because she  is gorgeous and can pass for white. But these two girls are stuck together for quite an adventure. I loved their dynamic, I loved how they turned from frenemies into friends, especially how Jane started rethinking her prejudice against Katherine. Another big plus was the backstory we learn slowly through letters sent from Jane to her mother. For the most part of the book, this is a one-sided correspondence, but these brief interludes between chapters show more of Jane’s character than some of the chapters themselves. There is also more to Jane’s past than we get to see at first but I wasn’t a big fan of that plot twist and I won’t reveal it here because spoilers. Let’s just say that I loved Jane regardless of her past, because she is a badass with a good heart.

The world building really has potention. I didn’t find the premise hugely original (pairing zombies with whatever has been done too many times), but Justina Ireland really made something of it. We don’t just get to see how people defend themselves against the dead already risen, but scholars do experiments in order to figure out how to cure the plague, or how to vaccinate the living against it – I definitely got the sense that more is happening in this world than we got to see through Jane’s eyes. And that fleshed-out feeling, that sense that the world is bigger and just organic, is a sign of good writing to me.

The weakest part of this was definitely the plot. While it started really well and I could have read an entire novel set in the Miss Preson’s school, Jane sets out on an adventure. At one point, I thought it would take her many places, but then the friends kind of stay put in this one place. The villain was obivous, the conspiracy was also pretty easy to guess, and most situations that put the protagonists in danger felt like in a kid’s movie, where you just know everyone will be fine in the end. I’m not saying I was right about this but while reading, I definitely wasn’t worried about Jane, Katherine, or Red Jack.

I probably won’t jump on the sequel the moment it comes out, but I can definitely see myself reading more of Justina Ireland’s books. Especially if they’re told by Jane McKeene.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Quite good

Women Are More Than Wives and Witches: Madeline Miller – Circe

I was worried that Madeline Miller couldn’t possible write another retelling of a Greek myth that was as wonderful as The Song of Achilles. In this book, Circe gets to tell her own story and paints a rather different picture than the one I had – which, to be honest, was only that she was that witch who turned men into pigs when Odysseus landed on her island after the war of Troy. But boy, is there more to her story!

CIRCE
by Madeline Miller

Published by: Little, Brown and Company, 2018
eBook: 393 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.

In the house of Helios, god of the sun and mightiest of the Titans, a daughter is born. But Circe is a strange child—not powerful, like her father, nor viciously alluring like her mother. Turning to the world of mortals for companionship, she discovers that she does possess power—the power of witchcraft, which can transform rivals into monsters and menace the gods themselves.
Threatened, Zeus banishes her to a deserted island, where she hones her occult craft, tames wild beasts and crosses paths with many of the most famous figures in all of mythology, including the Minotaur, Daedalus and his doomed son Icarus, the murderous Medea, and, of course, wily Odysseus.
But there is danger, too, for a woman who stands alone, and Circe unwittingly draws the wrath of both men and gods, ultimately finding herself pitted against one of the most terrifying and vengeful of the Olympians. To protect what she loves most, Circe must summon all her strength and choose, once and for all, whether she belongs with the gods she is born from, or the mortals she has come to love.

Let me say right away that if you don’t much like the beginning of this book – don’t give up! The story is narrated by Circe herself and begins with her early life as a child of Helios in the Titan’s Hall. Her life isn’t exactly nice at first. She is bullied and ridiculed by her siblings for her strange voice and her plain looks, she can’t for the life of her make her parents proud, and she seems to stay constantly in the shadows. Until she finds out that there is magic in her and that she has the power to change things. After she changes a human sailor whom she has fallen in love with, into a god, she goes further and uses her gift with magical plants to change the Mean Girl into a monster.

And so begins her exile. Helios, in rare agreement with Zeus, decides to banish his witchy daughter to the island of Aiaia. Now I expected a long and boring exile because as I metioned, my prior knowledge of Circe was that Odysseus met her after Troy… I didn’t know if she came up in any other Greek heroes’ stories. But whether it’s part of the actual myths or whether Miller simply decided to give Circe more to do, there was definitely enough adventure to keep me intrigued.

Yes, for a long time, Circe is still only a side character who witnesses great things from afar. But reading about the birth of the Minotaur, meeting Daedalus, and of course later on Odysseus and his men, never felt boring. Instead, I was excited to see these other characters portrayed so differently from what I’d read many years ago in books of mythology. Although they may only be side characters in Circe’s story, they all felt fleshed-out, like real people, and that was enough for me, even if we didn’t follow their adventures in this story.

Odysseus does of course eventually show up on Aiaia’s shores and he convinces Circe to turn his newly pig-shaped men back into humans. As for what happens after that – it was easily the best part of the novel so I’m not giving anything away. You should all have the pleasure of finding it out for yourselves. Only let me say that the ending was a rare kind of perfection that made me close the book with a content smile.

This is sold as a feminist retelling of a Greek myth and while it takes a while to become apparent, it definitely is. The women in this book – Circe, Medea, Penelope, Scylla, Pasiphae – may not all be likable (in fact, some are quite horrible), but they are all so much more than someone’s wife, some monster, some witch who is only there to further the plot of the great adventurers. Here, they have agency, they make choices for their own reasons, whether honorable or not. And I loved, loved, loved the friendship that grows toward the end of the book between two women. It was unexpected but I cherished it all the more for that.

The only thing I disliked was the beginning. I understand why it was the way it was, but reading about Circe’s bleak early life with almost nobody to hold onto, to call a friend, with nothing to do but watch gods and nymphs be gods and nymphs (and let me tell you, that gets tired quickly!) – it just wasn’t fun. Her coming into her own, finding out who she is, takes some time, but the journey is all the more rewarding for her sad beginnings.
All things considered, I loved this book to pieces, and I can’t wait for whatever myth Madeline Miller tackles next.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

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

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

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

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

THE FIVE DAUGHTERS OF THE MOON
by Leena Likitalo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY RATING: 6,5/10 – Quite good

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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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