Disappointing and messy: Tamsyn Muir – Gideon the Ninth

Well, I’m glad that’s over. It doesn’t happen too often that a book I am extremely excited for turns out to be this disappointing. Is it me? I mean, everybody on the internet seems to love this book, including lots of people whose opinion I trust. And “lesbian necromancers in space” sounds super cool. And that cover is amazeballs! So why was this book such a mess? I’m going to try and explain why it didn’t work for me but, honestly, I just wish I could understand why so many other people love this so much.

GIDEON THE NINTH
by Tamsyn Muir

Published by: Tor.com, 2019
Ebook: 448 pages
Series: The Locked Tomb #1
My rating: 5/10

First line: In the myriadic year o our Lord – the ten thousandth year of the King Undying, the kindly Prince of Death! – Gideon Nav packed her sword, her shoes, and her dirty magazines, and she escaped from the House of the Ninth.

Gideon the Ninth is the most fun you’ll ever have with a skeleton.
The Emperor needs necromancers.
The Ninth Necromancer needs a swordswoman.
Gideon has a sword, some dirty magazines, and no more time for undead bullshit.
Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth unveils a solar system of swordplay, cut-throat politics, and lesbian necromancers. Her characters leap off the page, as skillfully animated as necromantic skeletons. The result is a heart-pounding epic science fantasy.
Brought up by unfriendly, ossifying nuns, ancient retainers, and countless skeletons, Gideon is ready to abandon a life of servitude and an afterlife as a reanimated corpse. She packs up her sword, her shoes, and her dirty magazines, and prepares to launch her daring escape. But her childhood nemesis won’t set her free without a service.
Harrowhark Nonagesimus, Reverend Daughter of the Ninth House and bone witch extraordinaire, has been summoned into action. The Emperor has invited the heirs to each of his loyal Houses to a deadly trial of wits and skill. If Harrowhark succeeds she will become an immortal, all-powerful servant of the Resurrection, but no necromancer can ascend without their cavalier. Without Gideon’s sword, Harrow will fail, and the Ninth House will die.
Of course, some things are better left dead.

Where do I start… I supposed I’ll do it the same way Tamsyn Muir did: with the Ninth House and its current resident, swordswoman and frequent user of curse-words Gideon. We are introduced to Gideon and her home planet without being given any real information. Gideon is there, but she wants to get away because  everything sucks. Skeletons walk around and do chores, nuns pray to some god or whatever, and I still don’t really know what Gideon (or anyone else, for that matter) does all day. But things are bad so Gideon has divised a plan to escape – which is promptly foiled by her arch-enemy and only other teenager on the planet Harrowhark Nonagesimus. It’s difficult to learn anything useful about either the world or the characters in those few introductory chapters, but from what I gathered, Gideon hates Harrow with the heat of a thousand suns because Harrow has been torturing her psychologically since forever.

Then an invitation from the Emperor to the heirs of all Houses plus their cavaliers arrives. Cavaliers are something like bodyguarding, sword-fighting, sworn servants of the princes and princesses of the Nine Houses. Because reasons, Harrow takes Gideon on this trip to the First House because the challenge that awaits them there promises Lyctorhood – in essence, it makes you immortal and grants you great power and such. This is also not explained properly. But I guess the stakes don’t matter even if I’m supposed to root for these characters.

All of this is pretty boring. I know that’s not a great thing to say in a review, but the world-building is pretty much non-existant at this point, so all I did for the first chapters was try to find my footing, find something to hold on to, understand anything about this world. Alas, I didn’t. That may well be my own fault. Maybe I’m just too dumb to get it. But another book came to mind that throws readers into a similarly not-explained world. Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee also doesn’t bother to explain anything in the first chapters, but the big difference is that in that book, things become clearer as you read along. You figure out the characteristics of the different factions in that story, you get to know the characters and learn to care for them. All of that was missing from Gideon the Ninth. The only thing I mildly cared about was Gideon because she seemed like a bad-ass with a foul mouth and I have a soft spot for that kind of character.

The plot starts around the 40% mark of this book. Considering that the first 40% were neither used for world-building nor introducing the many characters properly, I’m surprised I even got this far. Because let me tell you: there are quite a few characters and it’s more than tough keeping them apart. Everyone has a first and last name, some also have nicknames, sometimes they’re referred to only by their title and/or House – and none of them have much personality. When all the necromancers and cavaliers from the Houses get together to compete to become Lyctors, I had no idea in any given converesation who was talking. I know there were a couple of teenagers, one super amazing swordfighter, and the others are just a blurry mix of names and titles. It also has no real impact on the plot who is who. Even the glossary at the beginning didn’t help and I didn’t want to flip back and forth on every single page to figure out which House Camilla belonged to or whether the teenagers were from the Third of Fourth House. The only character who is fleshed out a little bit is Dulcinea (don’t ask me which House) because Gideon spends some time with her and we actually get to see who she is for a bit. Then the deaths start.

This was the point where I hoped I would finally get on the hype train and understand all the rave reviews about crazy twists and lesbian necramancers and such. And I admit, what followed had its moments. There were certain tasks that Harrow and Gideon had to perform pursuing Harrow’s goal of becoming immortal and saving her House, and during those chapters, I really was at the edge of my seat. They also showed a bit more of what the necromancers in this world can even do. I was excited to finally learn more, Harrow grew on me because she is just really good at what she does, and Gideon surprised me. She had started out as this unfeeling, even ruthless character. Turns out, everything she does is pretty meek and nice. Sure, she curses a lot and she doesn’t flinch away from a fight but her behaviour generally is always kind and full of empathy. I liked her more for it but I was pretty confused why she was shown in such a different light in the first chapters.

But the plot – even though it had finally kicked off – doesn’t really know what it wants to be. Is it the story of a competetion in a labyrinthine place where people have to perform ridiculous and dangerous tasks? Is it a murder mystery? The thing is, as a genre-mashup it could have really worked, but every other chapter felt like the author didn’t know herself where she was going. The competition, the secret rooms, the challenges, were just completely dropped from the plot after a while. And while the murders are certainly mysterious, this is also not the kind of story where anyone goes investigating. People just sit around, duel a bit for no sensible reason, and wait for the next murder to happen.

My theories as to why this book didn’t work for me but did for so many others is that its focus is more on aesthetics than content. The way Gideon and Harrow are described, their face-paint for example, would make an excellent look for a movie. But looks alone aren’t enough to make me like a book. It turns out I like the idea of this book more than the book itself. Maybe that’s why I’m so very disappointed – because the book promised me something (lesbian necromancers in space) and not only didn’t deliver but delivered something completely different which also could have been cool but was just badly executed. The lesbian aspect was there only in Gideon leering after every other woman and I had kind of hoped for a little romance. No such luck. Space doesn’t really feature either. We’re told they hop on a spacecraft to get to this other planet and each House has its own planet apparently, but the plot takes place in very gothic settings that don’t work at all with the idea of an spacefaring people. If they can travel thorugh space, why would they live the way they do? In dirty ruinous buildings with no amenities? It just makes no sense and we are given no explanation. For anything. Ever!

I don’t want to say anything more about the plot, only that it meanders from beginning to end. Between the thrilling bits I mentioned, you get more of the same boring nothingness as before. By the end, I was incredibly disappointed with the weak world-building. It is so thin that I wonder how the author managed to fill 400 pages with so much nothing. The ending does hold a couple of twists, but because Tamsyn Muir didn’t manage to make me care for any of the side characters (even the ones I could tell apart), I wasn’t really all that shocked. I just didn’t care. The very, very end does set up an interesting premise for the next book but if the writing and world-building don’t get better, I will stay far away from this.

For the handful of chapters and scenes that were truly exciting, and for Gideon’s snark, I’m giving this book 5 out of 10 points. But really, although I finished it only yesterday, I have already forgotten so much about it and I don’t even care. Every aspect of this was lacking: the world-building, the characterization, the plot (oh god, the plot), and the writing itself (if I had to read the word “myriad” one more time I would have screamed)… I don’t understand the hype. I really wish I did.

MY RATING: 5/10 – Okay

 

A Quick Update: Current Reads and Spooky Books for Autum

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

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

Current reads

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

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

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

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

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

 

A Spooky Mini-TBR

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

KING OF SCARS
by Leigh Bardugo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY RATING: 6,5/10 – Good

2019 Retellings Challenge – Third Quarter Update

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

What I’ve Read

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reading plans for the next months

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

General Thoughts

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

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

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

A Forever War: Kameron Hurley – The Light Brigade

It’s been a long time since I read Heinlein’s Starship Troopers but I remember being really impressed at the time. Now this book here is like an answer or maybe more a story in dialogue with the classic Heinlein novel. But then Kameron Hurley also adds multiple layers to her military science fiction story and tries her hardest to break her readers’ brains, in the best of ways. So in short: This was a pleasure and one of my top reads of the year so far!

THE LIGHT BRIGADE
by Kameron Hurley

Published by: Saga Press, 2019
Ebook: 368 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8,5/10

First line: They said the war would turn us into light.

The Light Brigade: it’s what soldiers fighting the war against Mars call the ones who come back…different. Grunts in the corporate corps get busted down into light to travel to and from interplanetary battlefronts. Everyone is changed by what the corps must do in order to break them down into light. Those who survive learn to stick to the mission brief—no matter what actually happens during combat.
Dietz, a fresh recruit in the infantry, begins to experience combat drops that don’t sync up with the platoon’s. And Dietz’s bad drops tell a story of the war that’s not at all what the corporate brass want the soldiers to think is going on.
Is Dietz really experiencing the war differently, or is it combat madness? Trying to untangle memory from mission brief and survive with sanity intact, Dietz is ready to become a hero—or maybe a villain; in war it’s hard to tell the difference.
A worthy successor to classic stories like Downbelow Station, Starship Troopers, and The Forever War, The Light Brigade is award-winning author Kameron Hurley’s gritty time-bending take on the future of war.

This story begins in the same spirit and with many nods to Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. Dietz, a young person joining the military to fight against Mars, goes through boot camp training. I will say right away that Dietz’s gender remains unknown throughout the novel. That was the first thing that caught my interest. With a platoon composed of all genders, I kept trying to guess whether Dietz was a man or a women or non-binary, only to find out soon enough that it really didn’t matter and had no impact on the story. So I let it go and simply let the story sweep me away.

The weeks of boot camp are as grueling as you’d expect. They are well written, made me cringe several times, and also do most of the groundwork for Hurley’s world building. We find out why this future version of Earth is at war with Mars. Mainly because Martians blew up part of the moon. And, oh yeah, they zipped a ton of people into nothing, leaving only devastation and grieving friends and family behind. So of course there has to be a war. This future is also not run by governments the way we know them, but by corporations (which, to be honest, isn’t much different from our governments but at least we keep up the pretense…). And people are far from equal. Much like in Heinlein’s story, in Kameron Hurley’s future, a person can earn citizenship through military service. Which would get you voting rights, access to better health care and so on – things any human being should have a right to, but it’s the future and it’s grim.

I have covered only the first few chapters of this book and you see that there’s already so much to discover! Once training is done, it’s time for Dietz to take on their first actual mission. In order to get to Mars – or wherever the next battle is supposed to happen – the soldiers are turned into atoms and sent there as beams of light. So far, so cool. Except Dietz’s very first drop is… weird. Everybody keeps telling them to stick to the mission brief but what if the mission brief is something completely different than the situation you currently find yourself in? It’s not a spoiler to say that this is exactly what happens to Dietz. Again and again. Dietz is sent on one mission, finds themselves somehow in the middle of a completely different one, returns home to find friends missing, is interrogated by a psychiatrist who also seems to know more than she lets on, and things generally don’t make any sense.

It is exactly this mystery that makes this book so enticing. Sure, the mission drops themselves are fun to read too, and they definitely help you figuring out the larger secret. These missions also make Dietz question more and more who they are really fighting against and for whom they are really fighting. If you like reading something that introduces a world only to turn it upside down, twist it around, and put it back together in a new way, then this is for you. I loved looking for snippets of information, for little hints here and there to find out what the hell was going on. I am also glad I didn’t figure it all out for myself (because that would be boring), but there are enough hints to at least point you in the right direction. For someone like me, who loves a good riddle or puzzle, this was enormous fun.

But that’s just the plot part of the book. There is yet more here hidden underneath the surface. While Dietz is almost the only character whose personality we really get to know – due to others dying during the war, disappearing, or simply not being prominent enough characters – Hurley paints a pretty clear picture of the world. Everything may be shit for most of Earth’s population, but apparently one’s sexual preferences aren’t interesting anymore. It is so refreshing to read a book where people can just be together or make out or have sex, no matter their gender identities. Dietz has sex with at least one man and one woman throughout this novel. There are married people in this book who sleep with people of a different gender than their marriage partner. Everyone seems to be just who they are, nobody seems to care, and it was just so damn nice to read about a world where that’s possible.

I won’t say any more about the plot because it really is worth discovering for yourselves. The ending, however, was amazing. All the puzzle pieces fall together, things from the very beginning of the book suddenly make sense and gain a significance you didn’t know they had. The interview scenes that are strewn between regular chapters also take on a different light. So although I am usually very focused on characters and this book really only had one well-developed character, I enjoyed this immensely and recommend it to everyone who can get their hands on a copy.

MY RATING: 8,5/10 – Damn excellent!

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

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

THE WINTER OF THE WITCH
by Katherine Arden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent

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

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

SNOW, GLASS, APPLES
by Neil Gaiman and Colleen Doran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY RATING: 8,5/10 – Pretty amazing!

A Good Trilogy-Ending: Amie Kaufman & Jay Kristoff – Obsidio

After reading Gemina a few weeks ago, I couldn’t wait to find out how this series ended, even though I planned to wait a little. As expected, this final volume brings together the larger story of the previous two books, plus adding a set of new characters and their story. I believe adding a third romantic couple to the mix was a mistake that overloaded an already big book. Also, beware of massive spoilers for Illuminae and Gemina below!

OBSIDIO
by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

Published by: Knopf, 2018
Ebook: 618 pages
Series: The Illuminae Files #3
My rating: 6,5/10

First line: Crowhurst, G: Perhaps we should get proceedings under way?

Kady, Ezra, Hanna, and Nik narrowly escaped with their lives from the attacks on Heimdall station and now find themselves crammed with 2,000 refugees on the container ship, Mao. With the jump station destroyed and their resources scarce, the only option is to return to Kerenza—but who knows what they’ll find seven months after the invasion?
Meanwhile, Kady’s cousin, Asha, survived the initial BeiTech assault and has joined Kerenza’s ragtag underground resistance. When Rhys—an old flame from Asha’s past—reappears on Kerenza, the two find themselves on opposite sides of the conflict.
With time running out, a final battle will be waged on land and in space, heroes will fall, and hearts will be broken.

This book picks up pretty seamlessly after the ending of Gemina, but in addition to characters that are already known – Kady and Ezra, Nik and Hannah, plus the various side characters – there are two new protagonists in town. Asha Grant, Kady’s cousin, remained on Kerenza IV after the attack and through her eyes, we learn not only that there are still people alive out there, but also what their lives have been like during the last seven months. Let me sum it up for you, it wasn’t pretty. Asha’s romantic interest and our second protagonist is Rhys, a tech specialist working for BeiTech.

The set up for this third galactic romance is pretty amazing, but unfortunately the execution felt very lackluster. As if the authors thought they had to include another romance but didn’t really feel it. And that’s exactly how I felt while reading it. We are introduced to both characters and I liked them well enough. Their romantic backstory, however, was told carelessly in one small chapter – it was definitely not enough to get me invested in their romance at all. Plus, their previous time as a couple and the way they broke up, felt kind of ridiculous, like there had to be some drama and this was the desperate attempt to create it. I found it all really silly, despite liking the characters as such.

But we also follow characters who are old friends by now. Naturally, I needed to know how Kady, Ezra, Hannah, Nik, and AIDAN (let’s not forget AIDAN!) are doing. These kids have their hands full yet again. On the one hand, their united fleet encompasses way more people than their ship can handle – so yay, certain death by oxygen deprevation – they also need some sort of plan on how to move forward. Do they go back to Kerenza in the hopes of using the mobile jump station there? Do they run the other way, knowing that they’re probably all going to die before they find any help? As if that weren’t enough, the situation on the ship gets even worse by overcrowding, uprisings, civilians who are unhappy with command, and… oh yeah, did I mention AIDAN is still there and still as unstable as ever?

While the plot is just as exciting as it was in the first two books, this one suffered from overcrowding in more than one way. Before, there were only two main characters plus a few side characters on which we could concentrate. Following their lives, the ordeals they went through, made for a perfectly thrilling sci-fi adventure. Now we have not two, not four, but six protagonists and all the side characters that surround them, and there was simply not enough time to focus properly on any of them. With Kady/Ezra and Hannah/Nik, that wasn’t so bad because we already knew them. But Asha and Rhys definitely suffered as characters and especially as a couple because there wasn’t enough time spent on their characters or their development. So the emotional impact of their stories remained rather low for me.

The other characters also don’t really get to shine. This book made it even more obvious to me how similar all of them are. Kady, Hannah, and Asha could totally be interchanged – the only things that set them apart are their various specialties. Kady, the computer mastermind, Hannah, the martial arts tactician, and Asha, the nursing intern with a dark-ish backstory… but other than that, they are exactly the same person. They have the same sense of humor, the same desperate need to do the right thing and to save people. I understand why the authors did it that way – these characters are easy to follow, their motives always good, and they kick serious ass. But when you put them all into the same book, this lazy writing becomes more obvious and actually disrupting. You should be able to recognise a character from what they’re saying without needing the “he said”, “she said”. Here, I frequently had to check which characters was talking because they were all so similar that you couldn’t tell otherwise.

That may all sound like I didn’t enjoy the book but the truth is, I read it just as quickly as the others because the writing style works really well. We are still getting transcribed camera footage (and we find out who transcribed it!), chat messages, radio communications, and written letters. It makes for a fast-paced novel without a single boring page and I enjoyed reading this very much. It was mostly afterwards, when I thought about why I liked the book, that I realised how certain aspects of it aren’t all that well done. And it’s not like this third book provided some vital information to bring down BeiTech – Illuminae and Gemina already did enough of that. This was simply the book that puts it all together and gets us the conclusion we have been waiting for.

One more thing I have to mention is AIDAN. That crazy computer is probably the best developed character in this series. He is both very simple in that he adheres to the rules programmed into him, and at the same time incredibly complex because he has learned to interpret and re-interpret these rules. However you describe him, I have grown to love that AI over the course of these novels and I liked how his story line was ended. All things considered, this was another fun novel from a great author duo.

MY RATING: 6,5/10 – Quite good

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

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

General Thoughts

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

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

Quidditch and House CUP

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

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

CONGRATULATIONS TO HUFFLEPUFF FOR WINNING THE HOUSE CUP!

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

CLASS

Grade achieved

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

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

Total books read 22
Total pages read 6148
NEWTs achieved 10

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

The Diplomas

Hogwarts Teacher:

Writer/Journalist:

The Books

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


Ancient Runes – Acceptable

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


Ancient Runes – Exceeds Expectations

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


Arithmancy – Acceptable

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


Astronomy – Acceptable

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


Care of Magical Creatures – Acceptable

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


Care of Magical Creatures – Exceeds Expectations

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


Charms – Acceptable

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


Charms – Exceeds Expectations

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


Charms – Outstanding

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


Defence Against the Dark Arts – Acceptable

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


Defence Against the Dark Arts – Exceeds Expectations

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


Defence Against the Dark Arts – Outstanding

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


Herbology – Acceptable

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


History of Magic – Acceptable

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


History of Magic – Exceeds Expectations

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


History of Magic – Outstanding

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


Muggle Studies – Acceptable

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


Muggle Studies – Exceeds Expectations

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


Muggle Studies – Outstanding

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


Potions – Acceptable

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


Potions – Exceeds Expectations

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


Transfiguration – Acceptable

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


Final Thoughts

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

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

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

Hopeful Space Exploration: Becky Chambers – To Be Taught, If Fortunate

I have read two of Becky Chambers’ Wayfarer books – The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet and Record of a Spaceborn Few – one of which I loved and one of which bored me for two thirds only to deliver a great ending. So while the author has been somewhat hit-or-miss for me, there is no denying that her hopeful outlook on a science-fictional future is lovely to read and a welcome change from the darker fantasy books out there.

TO BE TAUGHT, IF FORTUNATE
by  Becky Chambers

Published by: Hodder & Stoughton, 2019
Ebook: 144 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7,5/10

First line: If you read nothing else we’ve sent home, please at least read this.

In her new novella, Sunday Times best-selling author Becky Chambers imagines a future in which, instead of terraforming planets to sustain human life, explorers of the solar system instead transform themselves.
Adriane is one such explorer. As an astronaut on an extrasolar research vessel, she and her fellow crewmates sleep between worlds and wake up each time with different features. Her experience is one of fluid body and stable mind and of a unique perspective on the passage of time. Back on Earth, society changes dramatically from decade to decade, as it always does.
Ariadne may awaken to find that support for space exploration back home has waned, or that her country of birth no longer exists, or that a cult has arisen around their cosmic findings, only to dissolve once more by the next waking. But the moods of Earth have little bearing on their mission: to explore, to study, and to send their learnings home.
Carrying all the trademarks of her other beloved works, including brilliant writing, fantastic world-building and exceptional, diverse characters, Becky’s first audiobook outside of the Wayfarers series is sure to capture the imagination of listeners all over the world.

Ariadne is part of a four people crew who is out to explore the universe. Well, parts of it at least. Ari tells her story in first person, documenting everything from waking up from torpor as they arrive at their first planet, to what they find there. Becky Chambers managed to create a believable world with a surprising amount of things to discover, considering how slim this book is.

To make up for lower or higher gravity – depending on the planet – the crew adapts their own bodies to work well in their current environment. So waking up after torpor is, first of all, checking out how your own body has changed. Although that’s only a small part of this book, I found it fascinating. Ariadne may be a pretty regular looking woman on one planet only to wake up super buff on the next. And that doesn’t even take into consideration all the things that change inside her body. We get to know her and her crew mates as much by watching their reactions to their changed bodies as through their actions and dialogue. And they are a lovable bunch!

As the chapter headings will tell you, each one deals with a different planet and I found the exploration of those planets almost as exciting as the crew. They are a group of passionate scientists who clearly adore what they do. Imagine them jumping around in circles like kids when they discover signs of life, or spending hours upon hours looking through microscopes, checking and re-checking data collected from the atmosphere, or simply cleaning and maintaining their tools. These things may sound boring but Ariadne’s voice talks about these things with so much love that you can’t help but get swept up in it.

The plot doesn’t seem to be very surprising or exciting at first. The astronauts go and look at planets, and sure, they discover interesting things there. But because their mission is to visit a number of planets, further study will have to wait for the next crew. They do get updates from Earth every so often – updates which are seriously delayed of course, so the “news” our group receives are always several years outdated because sending information that far into space takes time. Finding out many years after it happened that your hometown has been destroyed, however, does not make the impact any less  hurtful. When messages from Earth stop arriving altogether, the crew knows something is wrong. Although whether it’s that funding for their mission has stopped or something worse has happened, they have no way of finding out.

The planets visited during this story vary greatly and made for a great reading experience. They start out on an ice planet, covered entirely in clear, frozen water. Some of their galactic stops offer a rich environment with plenty for our scientists to discover and study. Some are great, others not so much. One planet in particular was a complete horror show and Chambers deftly conveys the feelings Ariadne must have had during her experience. Things don’t always go smoothly, either, and while the personal relationship between the two men and two women are beautiful, certain situations put a strain on them. I can’t tell you much more without spoiling things and because this book is so thin, almost everything I do tell you is spoilery.

One last thing I need to mention is the ending. At a certan point, you can kind of see where the story is going. Knowing the characters, there are only so many options they would be willing to pursue. Becky Chambers is known for her optimistic, even utopian fiction about alien cultures living together, where everybody is just so damn nice and respectful all the time. While that may be a much needed change from the many grimdark novels of the last decade, it can also feel a little too cheesy, too happy to be believable. The characters in this book also get along beautifully and are almost too perfect to be credible humans (come on, nobody is resistant to mood swings or lashing out unintentionally towards others) – but the ending of this story managed that fine balance between optimistic and realistic. It is the only conclusion to our heroes’ journey that makes sense and it left me with a bittersweet feeling and the knowledge that I’d just read a really good book.

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very good!