A Frogged Up Fairy Tale: Nancy Springer – Fair Peril

I bought this book when I saw that it was nominated for a Mythopoeic Award – an award that picks books just to my liking. Sometimes, I prefer the nominees to the winners, but in general, it’s a literary award I trust. Well, I was bound to come across a not-so-good book eventually and it appears that Nancy Springer’s “feminist” retelling of the Frog Prince was it.

FAIR PERIL
by Nancy Springer

Published by: Avon Books, 1996
Ebook: 246 pages
Standalone
My rating: 4/10

First sentence: “Once upon a time there was a middle-aged woman,” Buffy Murphy declaimed to the trees, “whose slime-loving, shigella-kissing, bung hole of a husband dumped her themonth after their twentieth wedding anniversary.”

Divorced, overweight Buffy Murphy is not a happy camper. One April afternoon, she walks into the woods . . . and meets a talking bullfrog. He asks her to kiss him so he can transform back into his princely self. This being modern-day Pennsylvania, Buffy figures she’s better off with a talking amphibian than a cheating husband, so she takes him home. The fun really starts when her rebellious teenage daughter, Emily, kisses him.
Suddenly, Emily and her handsome prince have vanished into the land of Fair Peril, an enchanted realm that can only be accessed through a portal in the local mall. Aided by a gay librarian named LeeVon and hindered by her fairy-godmother-in-law, Fay, Buffy shuttles back and forth between the real world and Fair Peril. Does Emily really want to be rescued, or does she just need someone to love her? It’s up to Buffy to figure out the key to reclaiming her daughter—and maybe herself, as well.

Buffy is a middle-aged woman who has just been left by her husband of 20 years because he found someone younger and prettier. So Buffy is bitter. Very bitter. So bitter, in fact, that I disliked her from the first moment. When she comes across a talking frog, she is only about half as shocked as she should be and takes it home. This enchanted frog, Prince Adamus, wants her to kiss him so he can become human again. But Buffy won’t hear of it. Instead, she prefers to continue wallowing in self-pity, shoving unhealthy crap into herself, complaining that she got fat  (reading about her eating habits, I wonder how that happened), and hating men.

Although the embittered comments become less frequent as the book progresses, I found it really horrible just how man-hating this story started out. According to Buffy, pretty much all men are the same. The way she thinks of them, they are less than human, they all act only on their urges, women are prized objects (also not humans) to them, and her husband left her only because she got fat and had a mind of her own… Honestly, if Buffy’s personality was the way it was described in this book during her marriage, I can’t even fault the guy for leaving. Holy shit, I wouldn’t want to live with someone that toxic and negative.

My reading of this story is that Buffy is an overdrawn character on purpose. Because all the other characters, without exception, are also overdrawn bad stereotypes. Buffy’s ex-husband is a despicable low-life whose only reaction to his daughter missing (with an older boy, no less) is “well, I like them young, too”. Emily, the daughter in question is shown as a vapid young thing who cares only about shopping and looking pretty. Prince Adamus has slightly more personality. Of course, he is an arrogant fairy tale prince who also thinks he is entitled to any woman’s love just because. Oh yeah, and let’s not forget the new trophy wife. She is young and pretty and only married the guy for his money. She even says that outright at one point.

The only character I really liked was Buffy’s gay friend LeeVon. Not only was he kind and multi-layered and simply a good friend, he also developed throughout the story, even though he’s not the main chracter. To be fair, Emily also shows that there’s more to her than a credit card and fashion style, but not much more. While Buffy definitely grows into a slightly more bearable person by the end, I never really liked her. People who are hateful and bitter because their own actions have consequencees they don’t like are just not my cup of tea. I know such people exist in real life and I’m sure they don’t have it easy, but they are not the sort of people I surround myself with if I can help it.

So despite disliking almost all the characters, I wanted to know what happened. I wanted to see how Nancy Springer tackles the Frog Prince fairy tale. About halfway through the book is where it gets really magical. Buffy, Emily, LeeVon and occasionally even Buffy’s ex-husband Prentis enter the realm of Fair Peril, a world that exists side by side with ours but definitely doesn’t adhere to our rules of physics (or any other rules). I quite liked how Fair Peril and our world overlapped, I liked the feeling that magic was wild and didn’t follow rules. So no magic system, nothing that you can make sense of, just untamed imagination.

The writing style was sadly also not for me. The author sometimes described things, then turned Buffy’s inner dialogue into weird rhymes or lines that could have been lifted out of nursery songs… it felt strangely childish and out of place and made Buffy seem like a really silly person even though I think I was supposed to take her seriously. I also found the reactions to a talking frog (at a certain point a very oversized frog) incredibly weird. Emily is shocked when she first sees Adamus and hears him talk – so far, so understandable. But she gets over that impossibility really quickly and just goes with it. Other characters who eventually meet a frog, talking, oversized, sometimes even clothed, also react way too mildly for my taste. On the other hand, Buffy lands herself in an institution for (dumb that she is) telling a police officer that she is looking for her talking frog who is a prince in disguise…
Add to the list of things that don’t make sense Emily’s age. I think she is described as being 16-ish. A teenager with her own car has to be at least 16, but then she has a birthday party where she behaves more like a 10-year-old. But her behaviour changes so drastically with every scene she’s in that it was impossible to place her, age-wise. That kind of ruins the growth she goes through because I never had a clear image of who she was before.

This was supposed to be a feminist retelling of a fairy tale but not only did I hate all the women and most men in this story, I don’t think it’s a feminist thing to paint all people of a certain gender as their worst stereotype. It also didn’t help that Buffy clearly hated herself as much as she hated men. I don’t know how many times she mentioned how fat she was, how “unlovely” her legs were, how her outfits are shit, how she looks bad, etc. etc. Having low self-confidence is one thing, but constantly putting yourself down for things you can easily change (don’t like your legs unshaved? Go shave them! Want to lose a little bit of weight? Try not eating three microwaved, fatty meals every day! Hate your clothes? Go get yourself something that makes you feel pretty, for gods sake!). Buffy is in this spiral of self-hate and generally despises her situation but she’s not willing to do anything to better her situation. It’s like needing to pee but not being willing to get up and go to the bathroom, instead just sitting there, whining to everyone that you really have to pee and how unfair the world is for not beaming you to a toilet… That’s a stupid analogy, but I hope you know what I mean.

The story itself does get better in the second half and the ending is even halfway decent, putting more focus on the mother-daughter relationship than on kissing frogs or hating men. But I have to say, this really put me off picking up other books by Nancy Springer. I give every author at least a second chance, but judging by this book, Springer’s chance will not come any time soon.

MY RATING: 4/10 – Pretty bad

Disturbing Poetry: Maryse Meijer – Northwood

Here’s one of those books that seemed to scream my name. Sold as “part fairy tale, part horror story” would have been enough, but the story of a love affair gone bad and a woman dealing with the aftermath was what sold it. It’s also a nicely short work that fits really well into my reading challenge and readathon plans. 🙂

NORTHWOOD: A NOVELLA
by Maryse Meijer

Published by: Black Balloon Publishing, 2018
Ebook: 128 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7/10

First sentence: I don’t want you anymore.

Part fairy tale, part horror story, Northwood is a genre-breaking novella told in short, brilliant, beautifully strange passages. The narrator, a young woman, has fled to the forest to pursue her artwork in isolation. While there, she falls in love with a married man she meets at a country dance. The man is violent, their affair even more so. As she struggles to free herself, she questions the difference between desire and obsession—and the brutal nature of intimacy. Packaged with illustrations by famed English artist Rufus Newell and inventive, white-on-black text treatments by award-winning designer Jonathan Yamakami, Northwood is a work of art as well as a literary marvel.

Okay, let me tell it to you true. When I opened this book, my very first thought was “Oh man, is this all in verse?”. And it’s not that I don’t like poetry in general, I just didn’t expect this book, which is called Nortwood: A Novella to be told in verse. So I went into it with a bit of discomfort, because I’m just not a fan of free verse and I don’t think the way the letters are arranged on the page can make up for any lack of talent. It’s an unnecessary flourish that mostly feels pretentious to me. All the more impressive, then, that this book turned my opinion right around.

While the style didn’t really gel with me (not even by the end), it also didn’t get in the way of the storytelling. And boy, what a story Meijer has to tell! You wouldn’t think a book this slim, and told in verse, could pack such a punch, but I had to put it down several times and watch cute animal videos on Youtube because it was just so tough to read and some chapters really got to me.

So what’s this about? A young woman goes to live in a hut in the wood to escape city life and focus on her art. There, she meets an older married man, begins an affair with him that includes a lot of violence (some or even most of it consensual? It’s kind of hard to tell). When the affair ends and she goes back to the city, she can’t let go and her obsession with him grows ever stronger. And thus Meijer takes us down a terrifying spiral with her protagonist, told in so few words, but so powerful that I couldn’t finish the book in one sitting. Even though at that page count, and with the way poetry is just quick to read, I should have been able to easily.

Poetry, much like visual arts, is very much a matter of taste. There are few poets that I like but those few, I love. Even with poetry that’s  not up my alley, I can often appreciate it for what it does, understand the work that went into it and see what the author is doing. When it gets too transparent, however, I get annoyed. Mariyse Meijer writes her poems as chapters, some of which are very different from others. The ones I disliked the most where the “artistically arranged” ones, where the font crawls across the page, where you definitely don’t get anything resembling a sentence, rather snippets of half-sentences. That just doesn’t work for me, so those chapters left me cold.

But the slightly longer chapters, the ones that still don’t have complete sentences (because, hey, it’s poetry) but that tell a story, those were pretty amazing. Without me even noticing, I slipped into the story and watched with horror how the protagonist became more and more unhinged. Sometimes crude words are thrown into the otherwise rather… well, poetic verses, probably for shock value. Well, they did shock me but they also jarred me out of the narrative because they didn’t feel like they belong. I’m not sure that was the intended purpose but it definitely had an effect.

I felt the ending was also a bit of a letdown. I wasn’t really expecting anything – it could have gone either way. With our protagonist ruining her own life completely because of her unhealthy obsession, with her getting out of it, experiencing a rebirth of sorts. There were so many more possibilites, but the ending the author chose wasn’t really satisfying to me. This book built up so much emotion that the actual ending fell rather flat. But still, I am impressed that a book which I approched with a certain degree of prejudice managed to grab me the way it did and make me deeply, deeply uncomfortable.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

 

The Humans Are the Monsters: Sam J. Miller – Destroy All Monsters

Sam J. Miller has done it again. I read his YA novel The Art of Starving last year on a Greek beach and loved every page. Then I went on to his adult, Nebula-nominated work Blackfish City, which also blew me away. So it’s no wonder that I’m back for more Miller goodness, and it’s also no wonder that he has delivered a fantastic, heart-wrenching piece of fiction yet again. Just like the last time I reviewed a Sam J. Miller book, I have such a hard time because there is so much going on in his books, so many layers, so many details. I promise you I’ll do my very best not to drift off into fangirl mode.

DESTROY ALL MONSTERS
by Sam J. Miller

Published by: Harper Teen, 2019
Ebook: 400 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: “He’s sleeping on the front porch again,” my mom said, her voice sounding sad the way only Solomon can make it.

A crucial, genre-bending tale, equal parts Ned Vizzini and Patrick Ness, about the life-saving power of friendship.
Solomon and Ash both experienced a traumatic event when they were twelve.
Ash lost all memory of that event when she fell from Solomon’s treehouse. Since then, Solomon has retreated further and further into a world he seems to have created in his own mind. One that insulates him from reality, but crawls with foes and monsters . . . in both animal and human form.
As Solomon slips further into the place he calls Darkside, Ash realizes her only chance to free her best friend from his pain is to recall exactly what happened that day in his backyard and face the truth — together.
Fearless and profound, Sam J. Miller’s follow up to his award-winning debut novel, The Art of Starving, spins an intimate and impactful tale that will linger with readers.

This is the kind of dual POV story where you get two really different perspectives of the same plot. Ash is a young girl who lives with depression (a little better now, thanks to medication) and finds solace in her photography. For a school photography project, she wants to do something big, something meaningful. She just hasn’t found what it is yet.
Her best friend Solomon is a more tragic figure. Nobody knows quite where he lives now. After his mother was arrested, Solomon ran away from his stepfather’s and stepbrother’s house. Solomon also quite literally lives in his own world, a magical world where he rides an allosaurus, where groups of people can wield magic, where danger lurks around every corner.
When they were twelve years old, something happened in Ash and Solomon’s lives – something they have no memory of but whatever it was, it seems to have set off both their mental disorders. Ash became depressed, Solomon started living in Darkside. But now that Child Protective Services are looking for Solomon, Ash knows she has to remember what happened in order to save her friend.

This is such a magnificent story, both for its plot and characters, and for the way it’s told. In alternating chapters, we get Ash and Solomon’s perspectives. But seeing how Solmon lives in Darkside, not a small American town, we also get the story of two worlds. There are a lot of parallels in these worlds, but they don’t overlap exactly.
In Ash’s world, ugly things start happening. Someone spray paints swastikas on a Jewish girl’s house, there are menacing graffitis everywhere, people’s property is destroyed, and it appears that the High School football team knows what’s going on.
In Solomon’s Darkside, tensions between Othersiders (those who have magic abilities) and non-magical residents boil over. Othersiders are threatened, even hurt, in the streets. People want them gone for the alleged threat of their magic, and reading this felt very much like reading about a race war about to happen. For Solomon, no place is safe, but what’s worse, no place for Princess Ash (currently in hiding) is safe either and he has made it his life’s goal to protect her.

I loved this book from the very first chapter. Diving into Solomon’s mind for the first time was a bit of a shock because I didn’t know what to expect and I kept looking for exact parallels between his world and Ash’s all the time. Word of advice: Don’t. There are certain characters that live in both their worlds and certain plot elements that are very similar but there are characters exclusive to Solomon’s world as well. Other characters, such as Solomon’s stepbrother Connor, is a teenager in the real world but only six years old in Solomon’s Darkside. Once you’ve read this story, some of things in Darkside make more sense, but don’t expect all of them to be explained. I mean, it’s a fantasy world, there are whales in the sky and people riding dinosaurs!

But what was really interesting was how the two protagonists perceived each other. Ash may have depression in real life but her medication is helping and she is a functioning human being who has friends and schoolwork and a hobby. In Solomon’s eyes, however, Ash has been under a spell that leaves her unable to use her powers and mostly catatonic. It doesn’t take a genius to see that this is how Ash’s depression manifests in Solomon’s world, but despite being quite obvious, I found it really well done. Solomon himself works just fine in his world but is seen as nothing but a weirdo in our world. People either pity him or look down on him, but other than Ash, not many actually care for him. Because a six-foot guy who says he rides around on a dinosaur… not what  our world would call healthy.

As tensions in both worlds grow ever stronger – more vandalism, more hate crimes, more uprisings in Darkside asking the Queen to banish all Othersiders – Ash suddenly grows closer to Solomon’s world than before. Although only through her camera lens, she can see what he sees. And she intends to use this power to uncover the truth about the football team, whom she’s sure is behind the vile attacks. Solomon, in the meantime, is getting through to Princess Ash more and more. She is coming out of her stupor and seems to slowly figure out how to use her powers.

There is so much to love about this book and although it feels like I’ve told you half the plot, trust me, it’s only the tip of the iceberg. Not only are all the characters really well done but the writing is just the way I’ve come to love from Sam J. Miller. Not the same as in his previous books but with the same beautiful flow that lets you eat up chapter after chapter without noticing that you’re reading. I also have to mention how refreshing it was to read a YA book with good parents. Ash is a fantastic protagonist because she realizes that she’s not living in a story and therefore, may need help from others. She goes to her parents – and they listen! And they help! It was possibly the most wonderful scene of the entire book.

I do have to say that the event that both Ash and Solomon can’t remember became fairly obvious after a certain point. That doesn’t make it any less horrible or any less impactful on their lives. But it also raises the question of whether people are just born bad or become that way (and if so, why?). While Solomon stands up bravely for what he believes in Darkside, Ash cleverly does the same in our world. She is such a smart character and I can’t tell you enough how much I loved that. I can’t abide naive or stupid protagonists, so Ash being smart about her problems, asking for help when she knows she can’t do everything alone, and believing that people make a choice to be good or evil (or something in between) – it was a joy!

The only thing that was a tiny letdown for me was the ending. Although things are mostly resolved, questions answered, and Ash and Solomon’s friendship stronger than ever, I wasn’t quite sure I liked the bittersweet note of it. But – as with any Sam J. Miller book – this was quite a story and I may change my opinion on the ending as I think it over. And belive me, this book will stick with me for quite a while.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent

 

Reading the Lodestars: Not-A-Hugo for Best YA Novel

I’m still reading the nominated works for this year’s Hugo Awards. It’s just that challenges and readathons took preference recently. I won’t be able to finish all the books I intended to read in time but then again, I knew that going in. I have read all of the Lodestar nominees except for one. My top spot was clear very early on and hasn’t changed after catching up on the other nominees.

The Nominees for the Lodestar Award

  1. Rachel Hartman – Tess of the Road
  2. Holly Black – The Cruel Prince
  3. Justina Ireland – Dread Nation
  4. Tomi Adeyemi – Children of Blood and Bone
  5. Peadar O’Guilín – The Invasion
  6. Dhonielle Clayton – The Belles

My top pick by a large margin is Tess of the Road by Rachel Hartman. It’s a very special kind of book that takes the reader on a journey both literally with its protagonist and figuratively, while reading. Although it’s a quiet book that focuses on character growth, there’s always something happening. I grew to love Tess fiercely and I also found myself caring for the people she met on her journey. Hartman’s world building is intriguing and as someone who hasn’t read the Seraphina books, made me want to go out and read everything she’s written. The writing is beautiful, the message is amazing, this was really a wonderful book that I can’t recommend enough.

The only bookI had already read when the nominees were announced was The Cruel Prince by Holly Black. I liked that book, especially the way its characters were definitely not black or white, and the world building and complex political intrigues felt like Holly Black trusted her young readers to be smart enough to get it – I always appreciate authors who write YA as if their readers had a brain. 🙂 The only thing it was missing was a plot that could hook me throughout. It was a good book and I’ll continue the series, it just felt like this book mostly set up everything for the rest of the series. That ending, however, had one of the most twisty twists that truly surprised me. And because it’s a book that I have kept thinking about ever since reading it (right when it came out), it gets the second place on my ballot.

The next two books may yet switch places on my ballot because they were both good but not great, they both had certain things really going for them, but others that I felt needed a lot more work. For the moment, my number three is Justina Ireland’s Dread Nation. When I think about this book, the first thing that comes to mind is the voice of its wonderful protagonist. She’s a cheeky one, I love how she tells her story, and that made the entire book a joy, even when the plot kind of meandered. Which is also the novel’s biggest flaw. Former slaves, now sort-of-freed (but not really because people are assholes), are trained to fight against the zombie hordes that started rising up during the Civil War. The plot starts one way and made me expect certain things, but then stayed kind of put and focused on a small side quest. I assume, the bigger plot will be the story of the entire series and I’ll probably read the second part to see if I’m right.

My number four is probably lots of people’s number one. Whether it was the massive hype that biased my expectations or the gorgeous cover (I won’t pretend I’m immune), Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone was a bit of a letdown. It was truly a fun ride, a great adventure story with some interesting world building and particularly cool magic, but the story was just so predictable. As soon as the group arrived at a new place, I knew where it was going. And inevitably, the plot did go that way. The same goes for the romances. They were very obvious from the start and while that’s not a bad thing (because they were very well done), I was hoping for something a little more original. With all the rave reviews out there, I thought this would have a plot twist or two, would surprise me. But except for the very ending, I kind of knew the entire story before it happened. It was fun enough, however, for me to continue the series.

The only book I didn’t get to yet, but hopefully will before voting ends, is The Invasion by Peadar O’Guilín. I did read the first part of this duology, so I have some idea of the author’s style and world building. I liked The Call well enough. Mostly, it kept me reading for the sheer horror of what’s happening in this version of Ireland. Sometime during your teenage years, you will be whisked away to the Grey Land (a dark sort of Fairyland) where you’ll have to survive for 24 hours – only a few minutes in our world – or be killed by the fairies hunting you. Even the people who do come back alive are changed, physically and psychologically. It was a thrilling book that could have used a few more pages spent on character development, in my opinion.

My least favorite of the bunch was The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton. Here, the supposed plot twists were even more obvious than in Adeyemi’s novel. But it also didn’t have much else going for it. The writing itself was okay, it was a quick read, but I thought the villain was over-the-top, and the story didn’t manage to get me interested. My biggest pet peeve was probably the world building because I’m generally willing to suspend my disbelief (I read mostly fantasy, so obviously) but this world just didn’t make sense. Sure, the protagonist is a Belle and so only sees a certain part of her world that has to do exclusively with beauty and appearance and royalty. But nowhere is it mentioned how this society would even work and I kept asking myself very often where food comes from, how poor people live, and so on. It was not a bad book but it wasn’t a very good one either.

So this is the current state of my Lodestar ballot. Depending on how good The Invasion is, places may change yet. The last category I’m tackling (and won’t finish) is the Best Series nominees. There will be one series of which I haven’t read a single book, but with the others, I have at least read one book or novella. I honestly don’t think that’s enough to form a proper opinion on the entire series, but  it’s the only thing I have to go on. And I have the suspicion that if The Laundry Files or the October Daye series don’t win this year, they will be back next year. At least I’ll have a head start for then.

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!

Wonderland Without the Wonder: Colleen Oakes – Queen of Hearts

I love Alice in Wonderland but, strangely, I haven’t read a lot of retellings set in Wonderland. I really enjoyed Marissa Meyer’s Heartless but that’s the only one I can think of. So it was about time to take a trip to Wonderland and see what Colleen Oakes came up with for the Queen of Hearts’ origin story. While the author may have had many ideas, the execution was sadly lacking. In fact, this entire book turned out to be rather a mess.

QUEEN OF HEARTS
by Colleen Oakes

Published by: Harper Teen, 2014
Ebook: 319 pages
Series: Queen of Hearts Saga #1
My rating: 4,5/10

First sentence: “Get up, get up, you’re late!”

Only queens with hearts can bleed.
This is not the story of the Wonderland we know. Alice has not fallen down a rabbit hole. There is no all-knowing cat with a taunting smile. This is a Wonderland where beneath each smile lies a secret, each tart comes with a demand, and only prisoners tell the truth.
Dinah is the princess who will one day reign over Wonderland. She has not yet seen the dark depths of her kingdom; she longs only for her father’s approval and a future with the boy she loves. But when a betrayal breaks her heart and threatens her throne, she is launched into Wonderland’s dangerous political game. Dinah must stay one step ahead of her cunning enemies or she’ll lose not just the crown but her head.
Evil is brewing in Wonderland and maybe, most frighteningly, in Dinah herself.
This is not a story of happily ever after.
This is the story of the Queen of Hearts.

Sometimes when I rate a book badly, it’s because it made me angry. This is not the case here. In fact, this book left me completely emotionless and that’s almost worse. What a convoluted, incoherent jumble of ideas and plot strings, written as if for a 5-year-old, with the flattest, most one-dimensional characters ever. And yet… I don’t even care. Nothing about this book made me care, nothing made me feel anything, the most emotion it got out of me was an eye roll. But let’s start at the beginning.

Dinah is the Princess of Hearts, soon old enough to be coronated and rule alongside her father. Her father, the current King of Hearts, is not really a character, he is just an angry ball of shouting and violence. He has no personality, there is no reason for his behaviour, he simply hates Dinah and screams a lot. But at the start of this book, he brings a new member into the family. His illegitimate daughter Vittiore, half-sister to Dinah. This could have gone in such an interesting direction. Dinah is naturally shocked at the revelation of even having a half-sister, of realising her father betrayed her (now dead) mother with another woman, of having to welcome the result of that betrayal into her family. But let me tell you this: Vittiore doesn’t show up again in that book until almost to the end… So much for that.

Dinah is also in love with one of the servants of the palace, Wardley. They are already best friends, and from what can be gleaned from the writing, they are both in love with each other but haven’t admitted it yet. While I absolutely don’t think every YA book needs a romantic sub-plot, it would have been lovely to get one here. But no, the lovers are already established, even though they are only friends for the moment. The only reason I mention this is because this book has so very little plot that a romance would at least have given me something. Oh well.

The actual plot starts pretty late into the book, what with establishing all these potential sub-plots first that go nowhere, with a secret message that tells Dinah to find a certain woman. This woman, it turns out, is a prisoner in the Black Towers, and this was the only halfway interesting thing in this entire story. Dinah and Wardley have to devise a plan to get into the Black Towers, find this Faina Baker and learn what she knows, and get back out alive. That part would actually have been exciting to read, but this is where the over-simplified writing cuts in.

The author never shows us, always tells. And even when she tries to let her characters and their actions speak for themselves, she hurries to clarify afterward, in case us readers didn’t get it. It made me feel incredibly patronised, like Colleen Oakes doesn’t trust her readers to have some degree of intellect. Take this for example (emphasis mine):

“Don’t look down,” he instructed Dinah. She did, her eyes following a crooked crack in the ice. Buried up to tis waist, frozen forever, was a skeleton. Its bony fingers dug into the ice, the claw marks inches deep. The scream on its face was etched there for eternity, the jawbone hanging grotesquely from its hinge.
Dinah gave a shudder. “Was that…?”
Wardley pressed his body against the wall. “Done on purpose? Yes. I told you the Black Towers were a brutal place. Club Cards find many ways of extracting informtation, mostly by torture.

Why, thank you, dear Wardley, for clarifying to us dumb readers that Wonderland prison guards use torture on their prisoners to extract information. The skeleton and the hint of “having many ways to extract information” really weren’t enough for us to get it. I don’t know if other readers are as bothered by this as me, but this was not the only time the author talked down to her readers. It happens over and over and over.

And much in the same vein, all the “secrets” and potential plot twists are painfully obvious. It’s not only apparent who Faina Baker is once Dinah and Wardley talk to her, it’s also clear from the very beginning who’s pulling the strings behind all the other things that happen at the palace. Speaking of which… everything that does happen is so wildly unconnected and makes so little sense that I asked myself more and more why I was reading this. I didn’t care about the characters, or I didn’t get to know the ones properly that could have been interesting (Vittiore, Dinah’s mad hatter brother Charles) and the story goes absolutely nowhere.

When I say nowhere, I mean that quite literally. Because this book also doesn’t have an ending. It is not part one of a trilogy, it is part one of a novel that has simply been split into three physical books. But as there was very little plot in this one, the characters are idiots and the writing is for idiots, I will not be finding out how things continue for Dinah. The few nice ideas simply weren’t enough to convince me, and there was very little Wonderland feeling about this book. It was rather an original fantasy novel with names and places taken from Lewis Carroll. Again, I didn’t hate this book. It had too little substance for that.

MY RATING: 4,5/10 – Not good

Fairy Hunger Games: Peadar O’Guilin – The Call

As premises go, this one’s got me hooked immediately. An alternate Ireland where all teenagers eventually receive The Call – which means they are transported to the Grey Land, the fairy realm if you like. Except the fairies there are bloodthirsty, horrible creatures, who hunt the humans down, torture them, turn them into strange creatures, and generally have a good laugh at their suffering. So yeah, that premise reminded me a lot of how I felt when I first heard about The Hunger Games and Battle Royale. Now all that was left to do for this book was stick the execution.

THE CALL
by Peadar O’Guilin

Published by: Scholastic, 2016
eBook: 320 pages
Series: Grey Land #1
My rating: 6,5/10

First sentence: On her tenth birthday Nessa overhears an argument in her parents’ bedroom.

3 minutes and 4 seconds. The length of time every teenager is ‘Called’, from the moment they vanish to the moment they reappear. 9 out of 10 children return dead. Even the survivors are changed. The nation must survive. Nessa, Megan and Anto are at a training school – to give them some chance to fight back. Their enemy is brutal and unforgiving. But Nessa is determined to come back alive. Determined to prove that her polio-twisted legs won’t get her killed. But her enemies don’t just live in the Grey Land. There are people closer to home who will go to any length to see her, and the nation, fail…

Nessa has known about The Call for a while. She goes to school – which, considering the situation Ireland has been in for the last decades, isn’t like regular school. Nor does it have the charms of Hogwarts. The kids there are taught to fight, to run, to track and keep from being followed. The methods are sometimes brutal, like leaving first years naked in the woods in the middle of the night, terrified and with no idea what’s going on. But nothing could be as bad as what’s actually going to happen to these kids. For when they receive The Call, when they are transported to the Grey Land, naked and with no supplies, they will need all the skills they can gather to survive. They may only have to last 24 hours in the Grey land, but a mere one in ten manages to come back alive. And even then, they are usually changed severely. If not physically, then definitely psychologically. The survivors are celebrated but they rarely join in the happiness.

With an idea like that, you know you’re in for something grim, maybe even gorey. The chances of survival are slim but Nessa has the additional challenge of misformed legs from the polio she had as a child. She makes up for her lack of speed with strength, especially in her arms. And although she realises that the fact that she just can’t run like the other kids makes her even less likely to survive, she works around that. By making herself crutches from tree branches, and by using the expertly! What Nessa also does to survive the inevitable Call is close herself off from all feelings. That may be quite sensible and mature, but it also made her a very hard character to like. Through her POV, we know that although she fights against them, she does have feelings for her best friend Megan and for Anto, one of the boys in her school. But the way she acts is cold and so I had a hard time identifying with her as the protagonist.

The story is told through multiple POVs, sometimes recurring, sometimes a character we only meet once. I found this added much needed layers to some of the side characters, but the one who stood out the most was Conor, the school bully. He likes to think of himself as a king, and his cronies are the Knights of his Round Table. He looks down on Nessa – calling her Clip! Clop! – and others who show any kind of physical weakness in his eyes.

If you expect this book to be mostly about Nessa surviving the Grey Land, think again. The bulk of the story takes place at school, showing the reader what life there is like, what kind of punishment the kids face if they misbehave (it’s called The Cage… you can imagine it’s not nice) and what their lessons look like. Some of Nessa’s school mates receive the Call during this story and when they do, we jump into their point of view and live through that nightmare with them. And trust me, it’s always a nightmare!

But I also had a big problem with these trips to the Grey Land. The kids are only gone from the real world for three minutes and four seconds, but there, they have to last an entire 24 hours. We, as the readers, go with them to the Grey Land and while many of them die there, there are survivors. And in no way did I believe for a second that the plot we got to read could have stretched out an entire day. Sure, there are passages where we’re told the teenager in question is running for a long time. But not 20 hours long! The chapters are very short which makes for a thrilling, entertaining read, but I couldn’t suspend my disbelief enough to actually buy that the time certain characters spent in the Grey Land were 24 hours.

The second big plot point happens in the real world. Strange things happen at school and in the surrounding woods, a different school is wiped out entirely, which suggests the work of Sidhe spies. So in addition to Nessa’s already cold personality, she can’t know whom to trust or who might be a fairy in disguise, trying to kill all the teenagers before they even make it to the Grey Land and have a chance to come back.

I found the plot as such really interesting and I loved the idea – dark as it is – of the Call itself. There are some truly gruesome things that happen to teenagers, both the ones that return alive and the ones who only come back as corpses. The Grey Land and the mythology that goes with it was also intriguing and I look forward to learning more about it in the second book. But I couldn’t help but feel that this story could have used another 100 pages for character development. While Nessa’s class mates all have names and some get one characteristic, they all remain quite bland, like cardboard cutouts. Even Nessa herself doesn’t feel like a real fleshed-out person. So when bad things happen to these kids, I was shocked and felt they were tragic, but more in a bystander kind of way. Like when you hear someone had a terrible accident and you feel for them, but in a distant way. What I wanted was to care enough for the characters that I would really, really feel it when one of them dies. That didn’t happen.

As this was also one of the quickest reads and there wasn’t a single boring moment, I can recommend the book. Just don’t expect a lot of depth. But I will check out the sequel (which is also the last part) to see if I’ll finally get that character development and if a satisfying conclusion can be found in the war between the humans of Ireland and the Sidhe.

MY RATING: 6,5/10 – Quite good

Eurovision in Space: Catherynne M. Valente – Space Opera

I read this book in July 2018 and I adored every page. But – as with many of Cat Valente’s books – I find it very difficult to write a coherent review. Some of my Valente reviews are gushing, fangirly, quote-filled posts that I hope will convince some people to pick up her books. But I would understand if you guys just think: “That girl is crazy, but good for her for liking this book, I guess.” and moving on with your lives. With Space Opera, Valente garnered a much-deserved Hugo Award nomination (although I’ll repeat what I’ve said many times before: She should have been nominated and won for her novel Radiance!), so I’m giving this reviewing thing another try.

SPACE OPERA
by Catherynne M. Valente

Published by: Saga Press, 2018
Hardcover: 294 pages
Standalone
My rating: 9/10

First sentence: Once upon a time on a small, watery, excitable planet called Earth, in a small, watery, excitable country called Italy, a soft-spoken, rather nice-looking gentleman by the name of Enrico Fermi was born into a family so overprotective that he felt compelled to invent the atomic bomb.

A century ago, the Sentience Wars tore the galaxy apart and nearly ended the entire concept of intelligent space-faring life. In the aftermath, a curious tradition was invented—something to cheer up everyone who was left and bring the shattered worlds together in the spirit of peace, unity, and understanding.
Once every cycle, the civilizations gather for the Metagalactic Grand Prix—part gladiatorial contest, part beauty pageant, part concert extravaganza, and part continuation of the wars of the past. Instead of competing in orbital combat, the powerful species that survived face off in a competition of song, dance, or whatever can be physically performed in an intergalactic talent show. The stakes are high for this new game, and everyone is forced to compete.
This year, though, humankind has discovered the enormous universe. And while they expected to discover a grand drama of diplomacy, gunships, wormholes, and stoic councils of aliens, they have instead found glitter, lipstick, and electric guitars. Mankind will not get to fight for its destiny—they must sing.
A band of human musicians, dancers, and roadies have been chosen to represent Earth on the greatest stage in the galaxy. And the fate of their species lies in their ability to rock.

Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes are a has-been glam rock band, currently in sort-of-retirement. But when alien life pops up on Earth – all over the place, all at once, I might add – and informs us that we have to compete in an intergalactic music competition to prove our sentience and, therefore, our right to continue living on as a species, Decibel is ripped right out of his stupor and has to make music again.

There is a reason why this book has been compared to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and that reason is very simple (and if you read the first sentence above, you’ll know it). The style is similar, it has a silliness to it that will remind anyone of Douglas Adams’ hilarious trilogy of five, and it is filled to the brim with ideas, with original alien species, with deep thoughts about life and what makes humanity worthy of living. But like any comparison, it’s not exactly the same. Any book by Cat Valente will feature her signature style, although I admit she departed quite far from it for this novel. But you’ll still get flowery descriptions, long sentences,  clever inside jokes, and references to real-world things. Except, you know, with a wink and a smile.

Do not expect a very plot-heavy book. Stuff happens at the beginning and at the end. In the middle, the time where Decibel and the Absolute Zeroes prepare their intergalactic musical number, is spent mostly with character development, world-building, and ruminations about what makes life worthwhile. That could go either way for you, but I personally loved it. I don’t need big epic things to happen on every page, or at least not in every book I read. Discovering all the crazy aliens Valente came up with felt pretty epic to me. While some of them are just weird creatures – like giant, talking flamingoes – others are not corporeal at all. I don’t want to spoil the fun for you, but rest assured that there are a lot of aliens to be discovered  and that some of them are absolutely hilarious, especially if you remember Microsoft Word from The Olden Days. 😉

But despite the humor, this book also has depth. Decibel Jones is a Bowie-esque has-been rock star and that alone would make him an interesting enough character study. But the band is missing a member and figuring out what exactly happened and why is a nice sub-plot to the main story that may help readers who want more plot get over that rather quiet middle part. I  loved getting to know Decibel and slowly finding out why there is so much tension between the band members and what went wrong in their past.

As this is marketed as “Eurovision in Space”, you can be sure that there will be an epic competition of music (in its broadest definition) at the end. If you go in knowing that the song contest only happens at the very end of the book, maybe I can keep you from being disappointed. The way I read this book, I loved the journey to the ultimate plot climax as much as the ending itself. Even if I hadn’t, the ending would make it all worthwhile.

Because it is nominated for a Hugo Award for Best Novel, let me say that it’s at the top of my ballot (I know, shocking, right?). I don’t think it will win because as with any humorous book (especially humorous science fiction or fantasy), it’s polarising. People either love it or bounce off it hard. And I get it. I came to this book totally biased because Cat Valente is my favorite author of all time. All I can do is recommend it to you and give you a heads-up of what to expect. If you’re in the mood for something funny but with depth, a wild ride through space (with red pandas!) or if you liked the “SHOW ME WHAT YOU GOOOOOT” episode of Rick and Morty, then you should give Space Opera  a shot. And then, of course, go on to read everything else by Cat Valente.

MY RATING: 9/10 – Nearly perfect!

Murder at Magic School: Sarah Gailey – Magic for Liars

There were so many buzz words in this book’s description that I knew I would read it soon after publication. Magic school, twins where one got all the magic and the other – though non-magical – became a private investigator, teenagers who are murder suspects. I mean, it sounded like the perfect mash-up of tropes and genres. And guess what! It delivered everything I had hoped for plus a little more.

MAGIC FOR LIARS
by Sarah Gailey

Published by: Tor, 2019
eBook: 336 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8,5/10

First sentence: The library at Osthorne Academy for Young Mages was silent save for the whisper of the books in the Theoretical Magic section.

Ivy Gamble has never wanted to be magic. She is perfectly happy with her life—she has an almost-sustainable career as a private investigator, and an empty apartment, and a slight drinking problem. It’s a great life and she doesn’t wish she was like her estranged sister, the magically gifted professor Tabitha.
But when Ivy is hired to investigate the gruesome murder of a faculty member at Tabitha’s private academy, the stalwart detective starts to lose herself in the case, the life she could have had, and the answer to the mystery that seems just out of her reach.

Ivy Gamble is a PI with a pretty cliché life. She drinks too much, she discovers cheating wives and husbands, insurance fraud, the works. She’s lonely and she’s a little bitter. And then she gets robbed and her arm slashed open with a knife. As if that wasn’t enough for one evening, a new client walks into her office – the headmaster at the magic school where Ivy’s twin sister teaches – and offers her a job. A murder investigation, to be precise. And thus starts the kick-ass plot of this fantastic book!

It may be because I’m still waiting for that damn Hogwarts letter to arrive (at the ripe age of 33, mind you) but I immediately empathised with Ivy. Twin sisters, where one has magical abilities, gets to go to Osthorn Academy for Young Mages, and the other is… well, ordinary, and has to stick around to watch her mother die of cancer and her father psychologically wither away after her passing. No wonder she’s bitter, no wonder she’s got issues. I mean, who wouldn’t? But right from the start, Sarah Gailey also shows us that deep down, Ivy is a good person at heart. Her job may not exactly make her happy, but she is willing to do good. She wants to solve this murder case, although the magical authorities decided it was an accident.

Once Ivy arrives at Osthorne Academy, checks out the murder scene (a teacher cut exactly in half), and gets an apartment to stay at during the investigation, the subplots start. At a school for young mages, you naturally get teenage drama. Just with a little extra magic. There is the Queen Bee of the mean girls, there’s the weirdo kid who thinks he’s the Chosen One, there’s a decidedly sexy and friendly male teacher who keeps flirting with Ivy, there’s the headmaster’s secretary who is way overqualified for her job, and there are secrets. Secrets within secrets within secrets.

This book is essentially a murder mystery and it does the whole investigation thing so well that I would have been happy if that had been all. But Sarah Gailey adds many layers of depth to her characters and the story itself. Not only did she keep me on my toes trying to guess who the murder was and what their motive could have been (I had about 1000 theories, all of them wrong), but she also confronts her main character with her estranged twin sister and that’s a whole new can of worms. The reasons for their estrangement, for the alternating Christmases with dad, are more than just “you got all the magic and I got nothing”. Figuring out how these two women, who were quite close as girls, grew so far apart, was really exciting and at times emotionally difficult to read.

Ivy was a brilliant character throughout. Not only is she great at her job – baiting the people she interviews with just the right verbal cues to tell her what she needs to know, understanding when someone’s lying, and so on – but she’s also got so much depth. At first, you may think of her only as the non-magical half of the twins, but the more you read, the more obvious it becomes that regardless of magical abilities, Ivy has some problems to deal with. Her loneliness, her non-existent love life, her drinking, her bitter cynisism… but none of these things make her unlikeable and that’s what I found so fascinating. I kept rooting for her, I wanted her to make friends, to fall in love, to be happy!

Then there are the students and the teachers of Osthorne. Gailey focuses on a select few but they each felt like proper, real people. Sometimes, it was hard to understand why they did the things they did, what secrets they were really hiding. Is it just teenage drama like who’s going to magic prom with whom, or is there something more beneath the surface (spoiler alert: there’s totally more beneath the surface). The characters are all beautifully drawn and every time Ivy interviewed or talked to one of them, I caught myself trying to catch them in a lie – as if they were actual people talking to me and I could see in their eyes whether they were telling the truth.

Even the romance sub plot was well done. Granted, I was suspicious of everyone in this book, so I kept silently urging Ivy to be careful, not to let any information slip, no matter how hot the guy may be. But murder investigation and potential danger aside, I really liked how the relationships were handled in this book. Both between Ivy and Rahul and between Ivy and her sister Tabitha. In fact, Ivy’s and Tabitha’s relationship may have been the best part.

I love when an author makes me guess and theorize until the very end of a book and Sarah Gailey totally pulled that off. As I mentioned, all my theories (some of them crazy enough that they might just have worked) turned out to be wrong in the end. The realization only hit me when Ivy figured out the solution herself. It’s nice to spend 300 pages incorrectly guessing and to truly be surprised in the end. The ending, including the solution to the murder case, was also incredibly good. Ivy has grown as a person, all questions are answered, and although one thing is left open, the book closes on a note of hope.

MY RATING: 8,5/10 – Damn excellent!

Second opinions:

 

Reading the Hugos: Best Novel

What a ballot! When the nominees were announced, I had already read four of the six nominated novels and I thought I was doomed. How was I supposed to choose my favorites among these excellent books? Couldn’t there at least be two or three that weren’t as good? Well, I’m all caught up and while the ballot is still filled with fantastic books, at least I know somewhat how to arrange my list now.

The nominees for Best Novel

  1. Catherynne M. Valente – Space Opera
  2. Naomi Novik – Spinning Silver
  3. Yoon Ha Lee – Revenant Gun
  4. Mary Robinette Kowal – The Calculating Stars
  5. Rebecca Roanhorse – Trail of Lightning
  6. Becky Chambers – Record of a Spaceborn Few

At this moment, I’m certain about my number one spot and the bottom two spots. But the three books in between could switch places a hundred times before the voting period ends. Because I just don’t know! They are incredibly difficult  to compare, they did such different things, they were all brilliant, and I really don’t know at this point what my final ballot will look like.

Cat Valente’s Space Opera is my number one for several reasons. First, I have adored Valente’s writing for years, she has never let me down, and while I think she should have won a Hugo already for Radiance, I believe this book is just as deserving. Humorous science fiction is rarely taken into consideration for awards so I don’t believe it will win. But when you pick up a book that everybody has compared to Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy and it doesn’t let you down? That’s already a winner for me. I mean, who could stand up to that comparison and come out not just with “yeah it was okay” but with a nominateion for a Hugo Award?  Valente not only made me laugh out loud with the premise – Eurovision In Space – and the hilarious invasion scene as well as many silly moments, she also showed her originality with the alien species she invented. And, most of all, the story is full of heart and a deep love of humanity, warts and all. I can’t remember the last time a book made me laugh and feel all warm and fuzzy inside like this. If Redshirts can win, than Space Opera should have a chance as well! I sincerely hope it does.

Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver was a beautiful book. It suffered from too many unorganized POV characters and it wasn’t quite as good as Uprooted but that’s about all the negative things I can say about it now. I adore fairy tale retellings (as you may have guessed if you stop by here occasionally), so I’m putting it in second place for now. Novik turned a Rumpelstiltskin retelling into an epic fantasy, which is already a feat, but she also created memorable characters and great romances – I know many people didn’t like them, but I stand by my minority opinion.

Yoon Ha Lee’s Revenant Gun concludes the Machineries of War series. In order to read this, I had to first catch up on the second volume, which suffered from middle-book-syndrome a lot. This, however, was a worthy and exciting finale to an epic series. It started with a bang, made me think I knew where it was going, turned the other way, then swerved around yet again. It was clever, had great characters (Jedao must be one of my top ten characters ever!) and a satisfying ending. Seriously well done. I can’t wait for whatever Yoon Ha Lee publishes next.

Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Calculating Stars is easily the best novel of hers I’ve read. It was thrilling, despite being so character-focused and lacking in space battles. It made me uncomfortable and excitied and angry all at the same time. I loved that the protagonist lived in a stable, happy marriage, I loved how the book dealt with mental health issues. There were so many things I loved about it. And seeing how it won a Nebula Award, I wasn’t the only one. As I’m having such a hard time ranking these books, I’m going to use that win as an excuse to rank it a bit lower. It’s already won an award, after all, and while there have been several books that won both Hugo and Nebal awards in the same year, I didn’t think this book was quite amazing enough for that.

Rebecca Roanhorse’s Trail of Lightning was on the bottom spot of my ballot for a long time. Not because it’s bad but because it was too ordinary for an award. A fun Urban Fantasy story in an original setting may be entertaining to read, and I did enjoy how Native American mythology gets woven into the plot, but I still don’t think this book deserves an award. Many, many other books are published every year that do the same thing: sassy, kick-ass heroine solves mystery while working through her dark past, meeting potential love interest, betrayal, battles, magic, etc. etc. Neither the writing nor the characters were good enough for me to want to give this an award.

However, Becky Chambers’ Record of a Spaceborn Few, which I expected to love, goes even below that (for now). In reality, this book was better written than Trail of Lightning, but it had absolutely no plot for such a long time that I kept asking myself why I was even reading it. It’s the equivalent of a married couple discussing who’s going to do the dishes tonight… except in space. For a few hundred pages! Although once the plot does start (very late in the novel), the book becomes really, really good, by then I was too fed up already with the hours I’ve spent reading about nothing (in space).

So this is it, my Best Novel ballot. I may yet switch the bottom two novels around, depending on how my feelings change in the next month or so. I may also change my mind about my slots 2 through 4, but for now, I’m okay with the way I ranked these books.

I’m sure everyone has their own way of deciding how to rank a certain book. As I’m not a professional critic, all I have to go on is my own enjoyment of any given book. And – as was the case here – if I enjoyed many of the books, I try and find other criteria such as originality, writing style, potential for rereading, etc. For example, I’ll probably never reread The Calculating Stars because although it was a very good book, it was not exactly a fun book, but I may give Spinning Silver another go and I will most definitely reread Space Opera someday. It’s a total comfort read.

How about you guys? Are you voting for the Hugos this year? Do you agree/disagree with my list? Let me hear your thoughts in the comments! 🙂