A Shallow but Fun Teen Romance: Kiersten White – The Chaos of Stars

I was so excited when the book of the month for the 2019 Retelling Challenge ended up being one about Egyption mythology. I had a particularly hard time finding a book for that prompt, not because there aren’t any SFF novels out there, but because none of them interested me very much. But this sounded really interesting. A daughter of Isis and Osiris but in contemporary times? Sign me up.

THE CHAOS OF STARS
by Kiersten White

Published by: Harper Teen, 2013
Ebook: 213 pages
Standalone
My rating: 4,5/10

First line: When I was a little girl, I still believed I was part of the world’s secret magic.

Isadora’s family is seriously screwed up—which comes with the territory when you’re the human daughter of the ancient Egyptian gods Isis and Osiris. Isadora is tired of living with crazy relatives who think she’s only worthy of a passing glance—so when she gets the chance to move to California with her brother, she jumps on it. But her new life comes with plenty of its own dramatic—and dangerous—complications . . . and Isadora quickly learns there’s no such thing as a clean break from family.

This book started out so well. Isadora lives with her family of deities and all the weirdness that comes with that. Being the daughter of Isis and her reanimated husband Osiris isn’t easy, especially if you’re a teenager full of crazy hormones. But the biggest conflict of this story – and the most interesting thing about it – is the fact that Isadora doesn’t feel loved by her mother. You see, Isis has a new baby every twenty years (being immortal makes that pretty easy) and Isadora suspects that Isis does this simply so she can have one more person every twenty years to worship her and thus keep her alive and well. Being sixteen is hard enough as it is, but feeling like just another girl in a sea of worshippers just sucks! So Isadora wants to be away from home for a while and takes a flight from Egypt to San Diego, where her half-brother Sirus lives.

And this is where the story happens, which has next to nothing to do with Egyption gods. Isadora is forced to take a job at a museum where she is promptly allowed to turn her interior design hobby into actual work. Because sure, I guess lots of museums let 16-year-olds design a room filled with priceless artifacts. Isadora also becomes friends with her co-worker Tyler and, through her, meets the incredibly gorgeous Ry. Teen romance ensues.

If I’m honest, this book really wasn’t very good. I can (and will) tell you all the things that make it a shallow, silly, meaningless story, but I want to tell you first that despite its many flaws, I quite enjoyed it. I’m just getting out of a reading slump – induced by books that were not as advertised and bored me to death – so this quick read about nothing much at all was just what I needed. The pages flew by, I never had to think very hard, the entire story was obvious and predictable from the start, but sometimes this is the perfect book!

So, on the things that worked and didn’t work for me. I really liked the idea of Egyptian gods living in our times and being… well, strange. We see glimpses of Isadora’s family in the beginning of the book, but we never really get to know them. There are short retellings of Egyptian myths at the beginning of each chapter but come on, I don’t want two paragraphs about the old myths if I can have the actual gods as characters in this story. The only interesting thing that sets Isadora apart from regular people is that she speaks all languages. Otherwise, she is a pretty standard YA protagonist, if a bit pale.

The side character fare even worse. Tyler is basically just a bubbly girl with no other personality traits whatsoever. Ry writes poetry and has pretty blue eyes. And is obviously crushing on Isadora (as is everyone else, by the way, because our heroine, despite being completely ordinary, is soooooo special). Isadora’s half-brother Sirus and his wife Deena don’t get much to say or do either. They are background decoration for a story that is already very thin.

The story – and by that I mean what you actually get to read about when you pick up this book – is about things like Isadora drinking slushies with Ry, Isadora being cynical about her mom, who has never, in this book, shown a single time that she doesn’t absolutely love her daughter. Oh yeah, and Isadora thinking love is a waste because we’re all going to die one day. I was sympathetic to her for a long time, but that is just the stupidest thing to believe and made me seriously doubt her intelligence.
Whenever the plot calls for something, it’s there. There is so much handwavium in this book, it reads more like something an actual teenager produced. Isadora is unfamiliar with a lot of American customs and societal norms (slushies) but has no problem using a cell phone and never even mentions that there may be other things her sheltered life among gods may not have taught her. We are also told all of these things, rather than being shown. We are told Isadora loves interior design and is obsessed with the constellation of Orion – we aren’t told why, so any impact these “obsessions” have falls completely flat.

There is also a sub-plot that is obvious from the start. When someone breaks in to Sirus’ house and steals only some protective amulets Isadora got from her mother, Isador gets scared for a while, but conveniently forgets about it when the plot calls for other thoughts (such as mooning at Ry’s blue eyes). Other things happen that make the culprit even more obvious but Isador – with all her supposed smarts – doesn’t get with the program. It’s like growing up with gods wiped out her brain cells and she behaves like a cardboard American teenager.

What I did like about the book, and what would have made for a much better story if the author had focused on this instead of a cheesy romance, was the mother daughter relationship between Isis and Isadora. The child feels unloved, the mother does everything in her power to protect her daughter, and yet somehow these two can’t just get together and work out their problems. The resolution of that plot string was also visible from miles away but I found it quite lovely, nonetheless.

I also enjoyed the tone of the narration. Again, it’s pretty standard. A snarky teen heroine narrates (why in present tense, though?) her story and adds all sorts of commentary about her weird family. There is a surprising amount of room descriptions (interior design is Isadora’s thing, remember) and certain passages feel almost like we’re actually reading Isadora’s thoughts. She interrupts herself, catches herself mid-thought, and so on. Nothing about this style is original and the language itself is very basic because… well, people don’t think like a thesaurus, right? But the bottom line is, it was fun to read this story from Isadora’s point of view, even though she can be incredibly thick at times.

So all things considered, this is actually a pretty bad book. It has no depth, no characterization, the mythology is window dressing at best and has no impact on the plot (serioiusly, everything could have worked without magic or deities as well), and the romance wasn’t particularly swoon-worthy either. It was… nice, I guess. Again, I absolutely enjoyed racing through this book, it was like a holiday for my brain, and I’d recommend it to people who don’t usually read much or simply need a break from heavier fiction. But while this book came to me at exactly the right time, I still can’t give it a high rating. I will probably check out one more Kiersten White book because I hope her writing has improved over the years. If it hasn’t, that’s one author I can check off my list. Too fluffy, not enough substance.

MY RATING: 4,5/10 – Kind of bad

Fairy Politics and Forbidden Romance: Holly Black – The Wicked King

Unlike most other people, I did not love The Cruel Prince unconditionally. It was a fun read that offered a refreshingly complex story for a YA book. But apart from the twist at the end, it wasn’t the kind of book that made me go: I need the second one NOW! “Now” has arrived, however, and after reading this sequel, I am definitely among the people who are screaming for the third book. What an exciting ride this was! Spoilers for The Cruel Prince below!!

THE WICKED KING
by Holly Black

Published by: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2019
Hardcover: 336 pages
Audiobook: 10 hours 20 minutes
Series: The Folk of the Air #2
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: Jude lifted the heavy practice sword, moving into the first stance – readiness.

You must be strong enough to strike and strike and strike again without tiring.
The first lesson is to make yourself strong.
After the jaw-dropping revelation that Oak is the heir to Faerie, Jude must keep her younger brother safe. To do so, she has bound the wicked king, Cardan, to her, and made herself the power behind the throne. Navigating the constantly shifting political alliances of Faerie would be difficult enough if Cardan were easy to control. But he does everything in his power to humiliate and undermine her even as his fascination with her remains undiminished.
When it becomes all too clear that someone close to Jude means to betray her, threatening her own life and the lives of everyone she loves, Jude must uncover the traitor and fight her own complicated feelings for Cardan to maintain control as a mortal in a Faerie world.

At the end of The Cruel Prince, Jude had maneuvered herself into a precarious position. Yes, she wields incredible power, but that power is bound to run out. Over five months have passed when we rejoin Jude and Cardan at the Faerie Court and their relationship is… strained. Add to that the fact that Orla, the Queen of the Undersea, made a pact with the previous High King and now kind of considers that pact void – because reasons.

The shift in power dynamics between Jude and Cardan makes for excellent drama. Even if there hadn’t been a plot that includes the threat of war with the Undersea, Jude’s relationship with her sister, and her hiding that she is literally pulling the High King’s strings, this would have been enough to keep me entertained. As unhealthy and problematic as it might be, the tension between Jude and Cardan was also so damn sexy. I know I’m bad for liking them, but I just can’t help it. 🙂

I really don’t want to talk too much about the plot because, much like in the first book, there are plenty of things to discover. Jude is warned that someone close to her is a traitor, she meets new characters that reveal interesting things about the people she knows, she learns more of Cardan’s past… And all the while, she is worried about Oak, her sister is preparing to get married, and the Shadow Court is still doing its thing but we get way more insight into everything. Generally, it felt like Black used this second volume to expand her world, to give us a better idea how everything works and how the various political factions influence each other.

Jude is trying to juggle all the players on her Faerie chess board and, naturally, gets herself into the occasional super dangerous situation. This is not an action-packed book but when things get tricky for our protagonist, it’s impossible to put down. There was one chapter in particular that had me at the edge of my seat, filled with worry for Jude, and for the fate of Faerie in general. And apart from that, every scene between Jude and Cardan was just so loaded with tension, unspoken feelings, held-back desires, and struggles for power that I just couldn’t stop reading. Cardan also grew as a character which made it much easier for me to understand how Jude feels about him. In the first book – no matter how the ending tries to justify it – he was just an asshole. A cruel, heartless bastard who enjoys the pain of others. But here, we discover that there’s more to him than we first thought. He may still be a jerk most of the time, but he also has moments that show that there is definitely good in him.

For the middle book of a trilogy, this was truly a stunning novel. Most middle books don’t really do much to further the plot but rather set up the grand finale. That is the case here, too, but the book would also work really well as a standalone. It has its own story arc that would work well by itself, but of course, it also furthers the greater conflict of the succession to the Court, of Jude coming into her own and finding who she wants to be.

Without spoilers, let me tell you that the ending was again mind-blowing! Holly Black makes you feel that you kind of know what’s going to happen, then turns everything on its head. And then she puts an unexpected knife into her readers’ hearts and twists it around, because she can. I have come to believe that she is an evil genius who enjoys toying with her readers – and I am absolutely loving it! Now I feel that I am truly a part of all the other fans who are eagerly awaiting the publication of The Queen of Nothing (a title that makes so much sense now).

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

Beauty and the Really Nice Beast: Brigid Kemmerer – A Curse so Dark and Lonely

Oh, how wonderful is the sense of relief when you fear that you are stumbling into a sterotype-laden YA insta-romance and it turns out you discovered something beautiful and original. Brigid Kemmerer’s retelling of Beauty and the Beast may not be perfect, but it did a great job at subverting most of the tropes that retellings and YA romances tend to use.

A CURSE SO DARK AND LONELY
by Brigid Kemmerer

Published by: Bloomsbury YA, 2019
Hardcover: 496 pages
Series: A Curse so Dark and Lonely #1
My rating: 7/10

First sentence: There is blood under my fingernails.

Fall in love, break the curse. 
It once seemed so easy to Prince Rhen, the heir to Emberfall. Cursed by a powerful enchantress to repeat the autumn of his eighteenth year over and over, he knew he could be saved if a girl fell for him. But that was before he learned that at the end of each autumn, he would turn into a vicious beast hell-bent on destruction. That was before he destroyed his castle, his family, and every last shred of hope.
Nothing has ever been easy for Harper Lacy. With her father long gone, her mother dying, and her brother barely holding their family together while constantly underestimating her because of her cerebral palsy, she learned to be tough enough to survive. But when she tries to save someone else on the streets of Washington, DC, she’s instead somehow sucked into Rhen’s cursed world.

Break the curse, save the kingdom. 
A prince? A monster? A curse? Harper doesn’t know where she is or what to believe. But as she spends time with Rhen in this enchanted land, she begins to understand what’s at stake. And as Rhen realizes Harper is not just another girl to charm, his hope comes flooding back. But powerful forces are standing against Emberfall . . . and it will take more than a broken curse to save Harper, Rhen, and his people from utter ruin.

This could have gone so very wrong. It could have been just another tale of a pretty girl and an arrogant prince who is reformed by her love, set in a shiny castle with or without magical servants. And while A Curse so Dark and Lonely ticks all the boxes it needs to be a retelling of Beauty and the Beast, it has such a nice layer of originality to it. And, most important, it has characters that stand out, that aren’t just cardboard cutouts saying “prince” and “beauty”.

Harper lives in DC and is snatched away by a strange man who wanted to kidnap another girl, but Harper intervened and now she’s the lucky gal who gets to find out there are other worlds than hers. She arrives at the castle, is introduced to Prince Rhen and his loyal guardsman Grey, and she also learns pretty soon what is going on. There is a curse on Rhen – one of the things I liked most in this book! – that makes him relive the same season until he manages to fall in love with a girl and have her return that love. There is a Groundhog Day vibe about Rhen, the total despair of having tried everything, having killed himself in numerous ways, only to wake up to the same hell again and again. I thought as curses go, this one is much more terrifying than the original, because it makes Rhen hope over and over again that this time, really this time will be different and he’ll break the curse. He gets no closure, no way to accept that he’ll live as a beast and come to terms with it. He can’t even kill himself to end it all.

I loved Rhen as a character, even more than I loved Harper. The one thing that annoyed the shit out of me though was that Harper is the perfect cliché of the “special girl” who is “not like the others”. I mean COME ON! Rhen has tried his luck breaking the curse with over 300 girls, yet Harper is the only one to stand out? Not only is it highly unlikely that she is the very first to talk back, try to escape, want to go home and nothing to do with him and his castle – but what bothered me even more was that those “other girls” are presented as somehow less worthy or valuable because they enjoyed dressing up in the beautiful gowns provided by the castle, or eating the delicious food. I don’t believe for a second that 300 girls taken from our modern world would all just sit down meekly and play dress-up all day and even if they did, that doesn’t make them in any way less than Harper. Liking stereotypically girly things is not bad! Stop writing fiction where only girls who are “not like the others” are the good ones who get the fairy tale ending.
To me, Haper’s actions were not special at all – they were relatable! Sure, she may be braver than your average girl and that’s great, but what she does or plans to do is not special at all, it’s logical and understandable.

Let’s stick with Harper for a moment and the other things I enjoyed about this book. The pros far outweigh the cons for me, so I am willing to forgive the author for putting down girly girls. Harper is also a wonderfully proactive protagonist. Instead of sitting around waiting for Rhen to dictated her day, she gets up and gets shit done! It may not always be the right shit or even smart shit but at least she does stuff. Harper is the kind of girl who may think to herself while she’s stuck in this magical world, she may as well make herself useful and spend her day doing good and learning things. She also finds out very soon what Rhen has to do to break the curse (because it’s never a big secret) and although she’s convinced it’s not going to happen because she finds Rhen arrogant, she is aware of it.

This supposed arrogance that Harper always sees in Rhen was another thing I didn’t quite get. There is no moment where he comes across as anything but kind and worried for his people, maybe a bit reserved and careful with strangers, but never ever arrogant or mean. I fear that the writing is to blame for this disconnect between what is said and what is shown in the story. The writing in general  was simplistic and at times annoyingly repetitive. I stopped counting the moments when characters were “just a breath away from touching” or when Rhen put a strand of loose hair behind Harper’s ear. I have nothing against these moments, against the tension they create, but using the exact same words to describe them makes them feel a lot less special.
And again, the writer does a good job showing us what happens and what the characters feel. But somehow, the characters themselves tell us things are totally different from what we just read ourselves. There is no reason for Harper to dislike Rhen at all other than that it’s convenient for a Beauty and the Beast kind of plot.

Another bonus point for this book: Harper has cerebral palsy and for me, this was the first time reading about a character like her. As Harper states herself, she is rather lucky and her life isn’t too restricted. Other people with cerebral palsy can have difficulty talking or suffer  involuntary muscle contractions, yet others can live without much restriction and simply have a limb or two that doesn’t grow the way it should. Harper falls into the latter category. She walks with a bit of a limp because one of her legs is affected.
I was unsure for the longest time on how I felt about this. On the one hand, I would have liked to read about a heroine with a disability that actually prevents her from doing a lot of things we able-bodied people take for granted. Because there aren’t enough protagonists like that and because I’d really like to learn more about it and put myself in someone else’s shoes through fiction. So giving Harper nothing but a slight limp felt like a cop-out. On the other hand, who the hell am I to say how disabled the disabled protagonist is supposed to be? And I definitely think it is better to include a disabled heroine like Harper  than not to write about disability at all.
So, after stewing over this for a while, I am really happy that I got to read about a girl with cerebral palsy. Especially because Harper doesn’t let it hold her back. She climbs things, she rides horses, she runs when she thinks she needs to – never once thinking that there is anything she can’t do because of her leg. Her agency is a delight to read and I wish more YA protagonists were like her!

The plot was quite enjoyable, mostly due to Harper taking action, although I felt that certain things at the end were a little convenient. I can’t say anything withouth spoiling but there was one instance where the author took the easy way out because anything else would have been really difficult to write (I get it, I wouldn’t want to have to think my way out of this), but it still felt reather cheap. As for the plot twist – it definitely came as a surprise but it felt very much like a quick way to set up a series rather than telling a standalone story. I have no idea if Brigid Kemmerer already has a plan as to where the series is going. If she does, I’ll be happy to follow her characters and find out what’s in store for them (I have grown quite fond of Harper, Rhen and Grey), but if there is no plan other than “write a sequel” I worry that the next book won’t be anywhere near as good as this one was.

There’s only one way to find out, so I’ll definitely be reading A Heart so Fierce and Broken (set to release in early 2020). Despite my nitpicks, this book was a lot of fun to read, the romance worked pretty well and I’m just so happy to have a protagonist with agency and a cast of characters with personality for a change. Well done.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

A modern Pride and Prejudice: Ibi Zoboi – Pride

I am easy to bait when it comes to P&P retellings but I also approach every retelling very carefully. Not only because Pride and Prejudice is one of my all-time favorite books but also because it’s very, very hard to translate into a different era. Different settings, fantasy worlds – that could all work, but setting a story for which societal norms (and restrictions for women) are so vital in a modern period is a really difficult feat. I’m so happy Ibi Zoboi managed to do that really well, even if I didn’t love everything about this book.

PRIDE
by Ibi Zoboi

Published: Balzer + Bray, 2018
eBook: 304 pages
Standalone
My rating: 6,5/10

First sentence:  It’s a truth universally acknowledged that when rich people move into the hood, where it’s a little bit broken and a little bit forgotten, the first thing they want to do is clean it up.

Zuri Benitez has pride. Brooklyn pride, family pride, and pride in her Afro-Latino roots. But pride might not be enough to save her rapidly gentrifying neighborhood from becoming unrecognizable.
When the wealthy Darcy family moves in across the street, Zuri wants nothing to do with their two teenage sons, even as her older sister, Janae, starts to fall for the charming Ainsley. She especially can’t stand the judgmental and arrogant Darius. Yet as Zuri and Darius are forced to find common ground, their initial dislike shifts into an unexpected understanding.
But with four wild sisters pulling her in different directions, cute boy Warren vying for her attention, and college applications hovering on the horizon, Zuri fights to find her place in Bushwick’s changing landscape, or lose it all.

Zuri Benitez lives in Bushwick, Brooklyn, and her neighbourhood is her entire pride. She wants things to remain just as they are, to hang out with the people from her block, to eat her mother’s traditional food, to enjoy the block parties and to play basketball with her friends. Already, things are changing because her elder sister Janae spent her first year off in college, and Zuri is applying to colleges as well. She really doesn’t want to let go of the world she knows and she has no interest in the wider world. When the Darcys – a wealthy black family – move into the mansion across the street, Zuri sees them as even more of a threat to her home. So she is determined not to like them, even before she knows anything about them.

Setting Pride and Prejudice in modern Brooklyn was the one thing Ibi Zoboi did really – and I mean really – well. All the groundwork is there. Ainsley and Darius are brothers (so you get two Darcys), the big reveal about Warren (Wickham) was really well done, and I enjoyed how Zuri and Darius slowly get to like each other more over the course of the story. All of this could have gone so very wrong. Pride and Prejudice, after all, is based on the fact that women of a certain status don’t work, so sometimes their only option for a safe life is to marry rich. Here, the stakes are obviously not as high – this is about finding a nice boyfriend and if it didn’t work out for the Benitez sisters, their lives and livelihood wouldn’t literally be threatened. Their lives also don’t magically become easier by having a rich boyfriend.

The one thing that I imagine is the hardest to retell is the scandalous reveal of a Wickham/Warren’s character. It was such a horrible thing in the original Pride and Prejudice because society was very different. For an unmarried couple to be together without a chaperone could have dire consequences for the entire family. Obviously, this wouldn’t work today. So Ibi Zoboi had to think of something that would also mean a threat to a young woman’s reputation, and she did it! She found a way. Again, the repercussions are mild compared to 19th century England, but it worked beautifully. It showed Warren for the prick he is and it showed the negative impact of his actions on a young woman’s life. I thought this was rather cleverly done and almost cheered when I read that part (not cheered because of what happened, obviously, but because I wanted to applaud the author).

Now my biggest problem with this book – and sadly one that drags my rating down a lot – is that I really didn’t like Zuri. She has none of the qualities that make Lizzie Bennet so likable. Sure, for the story to work, Zuri has to be prejudiced, but I hated how she was so completely narrow-minded about everything. It was like everything she didn’t know was automatically bad, and everything that didn’t fit her narrow idea of her perfect neighbourhood, wasn’t worth her time. Of course it made the story work but it also made her a character I didn’t want to root for. Zuri doesn’t just worry that people who are different will change her world, but she immediately judges others based on their clothing style or because they use proper grammar. If they’re not black enough in her opinion, then she doesn’t like them and doesn’t even give them a chance to prove that they’re nice people despite not looking or talking the way she wants them to.

The other characters were all rather flat. Each of them gets one characteristic and that’s it. Zuri’s younger sisters Layla and Kayla are boy-crazy, Marisol is all about money (an interesting change to stuck-up Mary in the original), and Janae is nice. Ainsley doesn’t have much personality at all and Warren is simply Zuri’s perfect “boy from the hood” without any depth. I did like Darius who at least shows different sides of his character at different points in the story. But even then, Zuri is suddenly pissed that he’s not exactly how she pinned him down, but actually has layers and doesn’t always behave the same. I mean, who behaves the same when visiting their grandma as opposed to a teen party? I thought it was nice seeing some depth in Darius’ character but Zuri, narrow-minded and closed-off to everything new as she is, didn’t.

Another thing I enjoyed was the added cultural aspect. Zuri’s block is like a big family, comprised of people from different places with different cultures and traditions. Zuri’s relationship to Madrina – a sort of surrogate superstitous grandmother who Zuri goes to for advice – was lovely and added an original layer to this retelling. I actually would have loved to see more of that, to understand why Zuri holds on so desperately to her home and doesn’t want it to change in any way.

The writing wasn’t my case at all. There were so many instances in which we are told why Zuri loves her block so much – the block parties, the way she talks with other residents, how everyone dresses, etc. – but are rarely shown. The prose itself is simple, without flourishes or anything particularly noteworthy. I also had some trouble with the dialogue which switches back and forth between Zuri’s preferred slang, something she uses to gauge in other people to see if they’re “hood” enough, and regular English. While it’s clear that the Darcys don’t use slang to set them apart culturally from Zuri and her hood, I didn’t quite understand why Zuri and her family aren’t consistent in the way they speak.

Zuri is also a poet and the story is interspersed with her poetry about life in Bushwick, the new rich kids moving in next door, dealing with change, and everything else that this book is about. I’m sad to say I wasn’t a big fan of the poetry itself. Poetry is very hit or miss for me anyway and that is no fault of the author! I usually can’t put my finger on why I like a particular poem and not another, it’s just a gut feeling for me. In this case, I didn’t really like any of Zuri’s poems. They had no emotional impact on me but, but because they are all short, they also didn’t bother me all that much.

As for the ending (if you know Pride and Prejudice, you’ll know at least one aspect of it), I found it a little weird and out of the blue. It may be clear from the beginning that, no matter how she fights it, Zuri will have to deal with change sooner or later. She does want to go to college and that means leaving her home behind at least for most of the year. But the way the story actually ends bummed me out a little. It wasn’t a bad ending at all, I just found it surprising and didn’t get enough time to process it until the book was just over.
So, the good and the not-so-good balance each other out. I definitely enjoyed reading this but it wasn’t groundbreaking or something I’d recommend to everyone. For fans of Jane Austen who want to see a beloved story set in modern Brooklyn, this is a fun story. For people looking for a good romance with multi-layered characters… not so much.

MY RATING: 6,5/10 – Good

Leigh Bardugo – Siege and Storm

Don’t you just love it when writers get better with every book? I didn’t love the first book in The Grisha Trilogy, Shadow and Bone, but it had potential and I was really interested in the world Barduga had created. So, after a long wait, I picked up this second part and completely fell into it. Seriously, I read Ruin and Rising right afterward and the Grisha short story collection The Language of Thorns somewhere in between. Spoilers for Shadow and Bone below!

SIEGE AND STORM
by Leigh Bardugo

Published by: Henry Holt, 2013
Hardcover: 435 pages
Series: The Grisha #2
My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence: Two weeks we’d been in Cofton, and I was still getting lost.

Darkness never dies.
Hunted across the True Sea, haunted by the lives she took on the Fold, Alina must try to make a life with Mal in an unfamiliar land. She finds starting new is not easy while keeping her identity as the Sun Summoner a secret. She can’t outrun her past or her destiny for long.
The Darkling has emerged from the Shadow Fold with a terrifying new power and a dangerous plan that will test the very boundaries of the natural world. With the help of a notorious privateer, Alina returns to the country she abandoned, determined to fight the forces gathering against Ravka. But as her power grows, Alina slips deeper into the Darkling’s game of forbidden magic, and farther away from Mal. Somehow, she will have to choose between her country, her power, and the love she always thought would guide her–or risk losing everything to the oncoming storm.

Alina and Mal have managed to escape the Darkling and leave their country of Ravka behind. Trying to save up some money to make a new life for themselves, their plans are destroyed and they are captured, the Darkling’s prisoners once again. On the way back to Ravka and to whichever terrible plans the Darkling has for Alina, they get to know Sturmhond, a notorious pirate, I mean privateer. If Alina wants to bring safety to her country once more, to destroy the Fold, to defeat the Darkling, she has to take on a completely new role. Command the Second Army, grow into her power, and maybe even make a political match to give the people of her home country hope.

Second books in trilogies are often treated unfairly, I think. Sure, they often only serve to set up the big finale, but sometimes, they do much more than that. Siege and Storm, for instance, introduces one of the best characters in the entire series, the pirate Sturmhon! His charm is infectious, and Leigh Bardugo shows off just how well she can write funny dialogue. Because Sturmhond is also kind of unbearable (in addition to being charming), there is a lot of quippy banter and clever backs and forths. Given the dire situation – the country is at war, the Darkling has new ideas on how to take over and probably hurt or kill a lot of people in the process, and the people are divided – a little bit of comic relief is more than necessary. I think the author found a really good balance between serious and fun in this novel.

This is also the book that finally shows Alina isn’t just a grey little mouse who lets herself being pushed around. Sure, there are still times (lots of them) where she is out of control, where the Darkling uses her weaknesses against her to control her next move, but she visibly grows over the course of the story. By the end of this book, you won’t recognise the girl she was before. In essence, she is still herself and still longs for the same simple things, but she has grown up enough to understand that those simple things are less and less likely to happen, that she has to make sacrifices if she wants to save her country. I really felt for Alina in this book. She has to make some tough decisions and face some ugly truths and although she manages it all, she is very changed by the end.

Another strength of this book was the development of Mal and Alina’s relationship. Just like Alina has to figure out her place in the world, especially because she is the Sun Summoner, Mal has to figure out his place in her life, which is just as hard. For me, Mal only really became a character in this book. In the first part, we only learn from Alina how wonderful he is and how everybody loves him and he has an easy way with people and blablabla. Here, we actually get to see it, to understand why people are drawn to him and want to be his friends. It made me like both Alina and Mal more and made it even harder to read about them growing apart because they both know (or think they know) it’s better for everyone. As of writing this, I don’t know how the story ends, but I hope so very much that they will somehow find a way to be together.

As for the plot, ther are parts that are slow moving. Alina arrives back in Ravka at court and has to deal with politics and a new situation plus some new Grisha powers. There are plans for war and discussions with royalty and it’s not exactly action-packed. But these parts are the ones that show off Alina’s growth so beautifully, so I didn’t find them the least bit boring. Plus, at the end the book really picks up the pace again and a lot of things happen! There are betrayals and broken hearts and mysteries yet unsolved and new players in the game of power. So basically everything that makes a story great.

If (like me) you didn’t really get what everyone was so excited about after the first book of this series, then do yourself a favor and just read on. I am almost done with the third book and I can already say, it’s even better than this one. I have grown to care for these characters and for Ravka, and by now I’d even call myself a Leigh Bardugo fan.

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very, very good!

The Grishaverse:

  1. Shadow and Bone
  2. Siege and Storm
  3. Ruin and Rising

 

Terrifying and beautiful: Maggie Stiefvater – The Scorpio Races

It’s been a long time that I felt like this after a book. The immediate need to tell everyone about it and how wonderful it was overwhelmed me so I texted my sister last night that she had to read this book as well. And so should you! The Scorpio Races might give you a major book hangover but it is so damn good you won’t even mind.

THE SCORPIO RACES
by Maggie Stiefvater

Published by: Scholastic, 2011
Ebook: 447 pages
Standalone
My rating: 9/10

First sentence: It is the first day of November and so, today, someone will die.

It happens at the start of every November: the Scorpio Races. Riders attempt to keep hold of their water horses long enough to make it to the finish line. Some riders live. Others die.
At age nineteen, Sean Kendrick is the returning champion. He is a young man of few words, and if he has any fears, he keeps them buried deep, where no one else can see them.
Puck Connolly is different. She never meant to ride in the Scorpio Races. But fate hasn’t given her much of a chance. So she enters the competition — the first girl ever to do so. She is in no way prepared for what is going to happen.

I picked this up because I loved The Raven Cycle and trust Maggie Stiefvater as a writer enough to just buy her books without really checking what they’re about. I knew it was about horses – every cover of every edition lets you know that – but when I found out that it’s about water horses and that water horses are terrifying, flesh-eating beasts that come out of the ocean and want to eat you, I was a little on the fence. But not for long.

Kate “Puck” Connolly has lived on the island of Thisby her entire life. When her parents died, leaving her and her two brothers behind, it became hard to make ends meet, but Puck loves her island home more than anything and will do whatever it takes to keep the small family together. Which is why she enters the Scorpio Races, a yearly event promising lots of money to the winner, and lots of death all around. What’s more, Puck intends to enter with her regular island horse, Dove, when everyone else will be riding a water horse – much taller, stronger, and faster than any regular horse could hope to be. But also much more drawn to the ocean from which they came, much less easy to control, much more bloodthirsty…

Sean Kendrick knows water horses, none better than his-but-not-really-his Corr. As the reigning champion of the Scorpio Races, he and his water horse Corr have built up a relationship and Sean a reputation. While he works with horses everyday, he works for the rich yard owner Benjamin Malvern and yearns for freedom. He may not say much but Sean is one of those characters that show off Maggie Stiefvater’s writing gift so well – the quiet ones, the ones that speak more with glances, with body language, with actions, than with words, but manage to say so much anyway.

It took me a while to get into this book. The idea of killer horses seemed a little far-fetched even though I had read the myth of the kelpie before (another killer horse that drags you under the water to drown and possibly eat you). As someone with no experience of horses whatsoever (because sadly, allergies), I had this idea in my brain that they are mostly flighty, shy, scared creatures – so imagining one grinning at you with bloody teeth and actually wanting to bite your neck with them took a bit of imagination. But once I was there, I was all in.

For a book with relatively little plot, this was really a riveting ride. I don’t think I blinked once throughout the second half of the book. I did not put it down, I may have stopped breathing every once in a while. Yeah, very little happens – Puck enters the races, trains for them, meets Sean, he trains as well, they run in the races… – but SO MUCH HAPPENS!! Their character development, not just as individuals but with each oather and with their horses is why I couldn’t put the book down. As much as with an action-packed thriller, I wanted to know what happens next. The stakes are immensely high for both Puck and Sean, they both have really good reasons to want to win, but they also come to care for each other in the process.

The more I read, the more I learned about the (fictional quasi-Irish) island of Thisby, its people, its customs, its problems and its beauties. I learned to love it almost the way Puck and Sean do, despite the terror horses coming onto shore every year, killing livestock, killing people, sometimes letting themselves be caught and trained, only to be raced in the Scorpio Races. It’s a magical place, although the only true fantasy element of this story is the fact that horses want to eat your face – so if you like magical realism, stories that could be real except for one tiny, little, magical detail, then you will like this.  The Scorpio Races themselves are the climax of the book and I don’t think I have ever nor will I ever again read about a horse race as exciting as this.

Many books have good endings, some even great ones. But it is a rare book that delivers such an emotional punch with the very last line, where the last line matters. I was absolutely devastated when I got to the ending. The entire tone of the book sets you up for a bittersweet one – you know you’re not going to get a fairy tale ending, where everyone is happy and everything turns out perfect, and that wouldn’t feel sincere after a tale like this. But Maggie Stiefvater truly hit the sweet spot with her ending of choice. I couldn’t think of a better suited one – or one that rattles my heart more.

MY RATING: 9/10 – Close to perfection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

Second opinions:

Sad but beautiful: Adam Silvera – They Both Die at the End

I suppose everybody has their own coping mechanisms when it comes to loss and grief. That reading is one of mine may not be a surprise but I was myself a little weirded out by the fact that I found myself actively looking for books about death or people dying. Having already read The Fault in Our Stars, this one came to mind because everybody was talking about it and I really liked the cover. So, I tackled this adventure (if you want to call it that) and I got pretty much exactly what I expected. And for what it’s worth, it helped.

THEY BOTH DIE AT THE END
by Adam Silvera

Published by: Harper Teen, 2017
Ebook: 384 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: Death-Cast is calling with the warning of a lifetime—I’m going to die today.

On September 5, a little after midnight, Death-Cast calls Mateo Torrez and Rufus Emeterio to give them some bad news: They’re going to die today. Mateo and Rufus are total strangers, but, for different reasons, they’re both looking to make a new friend on their End Day. The good news: There’s an app for that. It’s called the Last Friend, and through it, Rufus and Mateo are about to meet up for one last great adventure and to live a lifetime in a single day.

Mateo Torrez gets the dreaded call that everybody will get some day. He knows from the ring tone that Death-Cast is on the line, informing him that he has less than 24 hours to live. Death-Cast knows when people die. They don’t know how or when exactly, but within a 24-hour-frame, they know and let you know so you can make arrangements.

The synopsis (and title!) should have prepared me for at least some of what was to come but those very first pages already hit me in the guts hard. Many people don’t know when they die and they won’t be informed in a timely manner so they can say their goodbyes, maybe write a will, or give away their beloved dog to someone they trust. But with my own recent loss, it went somewhat similar. Doctors informed us my grandmother had “not much time left” – without science-fictional/magical companies – which are never explained, btw – that’s as close as we get in the real world. Everybody got to say their goodbyes, talk about what was going to happen after she was gone, she got to give away her stuff to her preferred people.
And just a few weeks later, I find myself reading about someone, an 18-year-old kid, with his dad in a coma and his mother long dead, in the same situation my grandmother was. Except he didn’t have a lifetime of memories to look back on. In fact, Mateo is such an anxious teenager that he didn’t leave the house much and lived more through internet forums, games, and books than through his own experiences. As a fanatic reader and a big fan of the couch myself, I can relate.

The other of the titular “both” is Rufus Emeterio, and his entrance into this story is a little misleading as to his character. He is in the process of beating his ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend to a pulp when his own phone rings with that terrible, dreaded ring tone. Recently orphaned himself, he only has his found family – consisting of his best friends and ex-girlfriend – to say goodbye to, but even that goes wrong. Rufus may be way more outgoing and open than Mateo, but the loss of his parents and sister left deep scars and changed who he was in a matter of heartbeats. Discovering who these boys were and what made them tick was the one part of the book that could be called fun, although the dark cloud of their impending death hangs over everything.

In a world where some big company knows when everybody dies, there is also an app for Deckers (people who already got the call) to make their last day count. The Last Friend App is supposed to connect people, have a last adventure, have a last night of wild sex, do whatever they please so they don’t have to be alone in their final hours. I kind of loved how touching this idea was, and how it uses technology for something good. But Adam Silvera has been on the actual internet and gives us glorious examples of all the messed up shit that can be found literally everywhere. When Mateo first tries the app, he gets messages that range from careless and insulting to immoral and disgusting. People looking to score cheap furniture from the soon-to-be-dead, others looking for sex without consequences, some looking to sell drugs, and yet others that just seem to be intrigued by the idea of chatting to people who are about to die – it’s all there and it’s all sickening.

But, as the cover suggests, Mateo and Rufus do connect via the app and, after getting to know each other a little and checking off Mateo’s to do list, they actually become friends. Mateo’s goodbye from his best friend Lidia and her daughter Penny made me cry more than anything else in this book. While Rufus tells his friends immediately that he is going to die and wants a funeral (while he’s still here) with eulogies and goodbyes and everything, Mateo keeps it secret, not wanting to burden Lidia or ruin their last day together. But that’s the thing about people who truly love you: they know when something’s wrong.

I won’t go into the details of what Mateo and Rufus do on their last day because the things themselves are actually meaningless. Sure, there’s a little VR adventure, going out of their comfort zones in different ways, opening up about their secrets, and talking about their lives and the ones they’ll leave behind. What really matters – and we all know this already, deep down – is the people you love. Thinking about death and dying, I mean really thinking about it, is hard enough, but doing it when you’re only 17 or 18 is just heartbreaking. Five stages of grief aside, it just feels so unfair! There wasn’t enough time to experience so many things. And I don’t mean big stuff like travel the world or see your grandkids grow up. Even little things like fall in love for the first time, get your first kiss, graduate from school, have sex. Plus, all of the more individual stuff, no matter how silly. If I died tomorrow, I would never find out how A Song of Ice and Fire Ends which may well be the least of my worries, but still!

It’s a bit slow to start but once the book finds its footing, it is a powerful story that hurts a little more with every new chapter. Apart from Rufus and Mateo’s point of view chapters, we get others from side characters. People the two boys meet on the street, their friends, people who work at Death-Cast… They are short chapters, but they flesh out the world a bit and remind us that Rufus and Mateo aren’t the only ones in it and not the only ones suffering. Many others got the call the same night they did, and someone had to make those calls. Famous people die too. Money does not equal happiness. People react very differently to finding out they’re about to die… Lots of small in-between chapters make this novel more accomplished, more than “just” the story of two teenagers who are about to die. They also give more meaning to Rufus and Mateo’s last day because they show that little things have an impact on others, whether it’s giving money to a beggar, smiling at someone on public transport, or any of a million other tiny things you might do without even noticing.

I half-expected this book to be cheap, to use teenage death, which is obviously a big tear-jerker, as a selling point. But I doubt that the author intended that because of how delicately he handles the topic. The boys’ last day doesn’t go perfect. They don’t get to do all they wanted to. They get to do some of it. They even get to experience new things, discover something about themselves, grow so much in such a small amount of time. And the more I read about them, the more I found myself hoping (just like they did themselves) that the title was just there to mislead us readers. They were going to make it, somehow. Death-Cast made a mistake, they can change their apparently pre-destined fate. And I won’t tell you what does happen at the end, whether the title is true or a lie, because I think that little bit of uncertainty, that sliver of hope, is not only what made this story richer. It’s also what keeps us going every day.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

Second opinions:

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Maggie Stiefvater – The Raven King

This is it, guys. I know all of you have probably read this book ages ago when it came out but I’ve been drawing it out. Ending a book series is always hard, but when the ending seems to be pre-determined from the very first chapter of the first book, that makes it even harder. But, as I can’t keep away from Ronan and the other Raven boys, I did eventually read the book. I may not have loved it as much as The Dream Thieves (do I ever love anything as much as The Dream Thieves?), but it is a worthy and beautiful ending to a truly amazing YA series.

raven king

THE RAVEN KING
by Maggie Stiefvater

Published by: Scholastic Press, 2016
Hardcover: 439 pages
Series: The Raven Cycle #4
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: Richard Gansey III had forgotten how many times he had been told he was destined for greatness.

Nothing living is safe. Nothing dead is to be trusted.
For years, Gansey has been on a quest to find a lost king. One by one, he’s drawn others into this quest: Ronan, who steals from dreams; Adam, whose life is no longer his own; Noah, whose life is no longer a lie; and Blue, who loves Gansey… and is certain she is destined to kill him.
Now the endgame has begun. Dreams and nightmares are converging. Love and loss are inseparable. And the quest refuses to be pinned to a path.

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Don’t be me. Don’t try and draw out this book just to make it last longer. First, you will fail anyway because this book refuses to be put down, and secondly, it takes away from the emotional punch when you do force yourself to put it away. Because guys, this is it. This is the end. And it is an amazing, perfect ending to a brilliant series that defies all the tropes of YA books. As a long-time YA avoider, I can only say that – like probably any genre or type of literature – there are bad books and there are good books. And then there are gems like this series. Don’t condemn an entire section of the book store just because you had one (or ten) bad experience.

Just like us, the characters in this story know that the end is coming. At least the end of something, of their search for Glendower, their quest, their big destiny. Blue and Gansey continue to be a lovely couple, despite their difficulties (no kissing, remember), but it was – again – Ronan who got all my attention. I’ve been in love with this guy since day one, but in The Dream Thieves, seeds for a romance started growing that I’d hoped so very much would work out. Having just read Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, I know that not all authors are willing to go with their characters’ “organic” love interest (if you’ve read the play too, you’ll know what I mean), but Maggie Stiefvater is amazing and just lets her characters be who they are. Whew, writing this without spoilers is becoming more and more of a tightrope act and if you haven’t read this series at all, I won’t make much sense. Also if you haven’t read this series, what are you doing here? Go read The Raven Boys!

Having established a larger cast throughout the previous three books, I found that some characters were left behind a little or didn’t get as much attention as I’d have liked. The inclusion of the fairly newish Henry Cheng felt forced, although I did end up liking him a lot. I don’t really see why, if he was essential, he couldn’t be introduced earlier or at least more naturally. It almost read like he was added as an afterthought. So I’m not quite sure about him, especially as his presence takes precious page time away from Noah, or Ronan’s brothers, for example. There were some great moments involving Noah and Blue in the previous books, and that was completely missing here.

raven king wrap around

But let’s get down to what everybody’s been waiting for. The search for Glendower and – more importantly – Blue’s prophecy. No spoilers, I promise! Both plot strings reach a conclusion. I found both pretty satisfying, if you can say that when your heart has been ripped out a billion times along the way. But yes, of all the endings I could have imagined, Stiefvater deliverd one that both surprised me and didn’t make me mad. I honestly didn’t think that was possible.

However, with the subplots adding up throughout the series, something got lost as well. I believe The Raven Cycle reached its peak with The Dream Thieves, which had just enough going on to be fast paced but also put the right amount of focus on character development and the complex relationships between this group of young people. In The Raven King, with several threats raining down on these guys, and many other viewpoint characters who get their own chapters, there simply wasn’t much time for the quiet, more contemplative moments. Those are my favorite parts so I was sad to miss them. I would have gladly dropped some side characters – or at least chapters focusing on them – in favor of more Raven Boys and Blue.

Now I’m done bitching about this book not being exactly what I wanted it to be, let me repeat some things I’ve said about the other books in the series. Maggie Stiefvater is a wizard. She expresses more in one sentence than other writers do in entire books; her word choice is delicate and sometimes you only understand just how clever she is many chapters later. I can’t wait to re-read the Raven Cycle because I’m convinced this is the kind of story where re-reads pay off and let you see a whole different side of things.

The development these characters went through is honest and raw. They have each grown into themselves, they have sacrificed and learned, they have learned to deal with life when it doesn’t go their way (and when it does), and most of all they have all found each other. This chosen family with its many, many kinds and facets of love makes the Raven Cycle one of the best young adult book series I have ever read.

All things considered, I enjoyed The Raven King and how it toyed with my emotions. But most of all I liked it because it’s the final chapter in a bigger story that I ADORE. After all, it introduced me to the world of Aglionby sweaters and psychics, big flashy cars and sinister prophecies, ravens and trees that speak Latin. This series was my first foray into Maggie Stiefvater’s world but, boy, it won’t be my last. I’ll gladly let her break my heart over and over again.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent

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The Raven Cycle:
  1. The Raven Boys
  2. The Dream Thieves
  3. Blue Lily, Lily Blue
  4. The Raven King

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Zen Cho – The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo

I don’t remember how I stumbled upon this little book but the cover and premise both intrigued diversiverse3me enough to go buy it, no waiting on the wishlist required. And since it’s #Diversiverse time, this was the perfect moment to read the story – also, I’ve never read anything by a Malaysian author before and that needed to be remedied. Zen Cho’s story had some aspects that I loved and others that left me very disappointed.

perilous life of jade yeoTHE PERILOUS LIFE OF JADE YEO
by Zen Cho

Published by: self-published, 2012
Ebook: 81 pages
Standalaone novella
My rating: 6,5/10

First sentence: I had tea with the intolerable aunt today.

 

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For writer Jade Yeo, the Roaring Twenties are coming in with more of a purr – until she pillories London’s best-known author in a scathing review. Sebastian Hardie is tall, dark and handsome, and more intrigued than annoyed. But if Jade succumbs to temptation, she risks losing her hard-won freedom – and her best chance for love.

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Jade Yeo is a young Chinese woman, making her way in 1920s London by writing for a newspaper. She deals with her insufferable (and very rich) aunt and learns, for the first time, what it is like to fall in love and fall in lust.

Since it’s the first thing mentioned in the synposis, I need to adress the time and setting of this novella. The Roaring Twenties are somewhat of a buzz word that makes me happily buy a book. Except there isn’t really much roaring or twenties in The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo. Sure, the time period becomes somewhat apparent in how women are viewed by society, how Jade’s insufferable aunt things Jade should behave, what is considered proper and what makes a scandal. But for everything else that’s there, this could as easily have been set in the 1950s.

The story is set in London and as a Chinese woman, Jade has to deal with some degree of cultural misunderstanding and prejudice. I don’t know if it’s because of her practical, witty character that we don’t see much of it or because the author didn’t want to turn this novella into a novel, but I expected Jade’s life to be much, much harder. A young, unmarried woman whose proper name people can’t pronounce, whose family values are completely different from what she sees on an everyday basis… there should have been more problems for Jade than just paying the rent.

Taking into consideration, however, that the novella is written as Jade’s diary, she may just not be telling us everything there is to know. And  I must say that I adored her voice. She is a practical, surprisingly modern woman with a sense of humor and a hunger for life. When famous author Sebastian Hardie makes advances on her, she just goes with it. Because hey, adventure! She knows she isn’t in love but having an affair is just so damn interesting. The problems I had with the time and the setting are probably due to the fact, that Hardie – as well as his wife – are equally practical modern people. The arrangement that married couple has would be frowned upon by a lot of people, even by today’s standards. For clever, adventurous Jade to fall into the hands of such a freedom-loving couple is unlikely and lessens any drama there could have been given other circumstances.

But the writing and characterisation are spot on. Jade has something of a Jane Austen in her, with her clever observations, her quick comebacks, her overall view on humanity. She’s charming and funny and at the same time vulnerable and real. And she has fun with words which makes me love her infintely more.

A nice Indian servant gave me a drink (I wish I could have spoken to him). I skulked in a corner clutching it and trying as hard as I could to look inscrutable and aloof, but feeling scrutable and loof as anything.

This is a novella that basically reads itself. It happily goes along, without much risk for the protagonist or much impact. Jade may think she’s in trouble but that same trouble is resolved within a matter of a few pages. Zen Cho hints at some heavy subjects but because everything turns out well for our heroine, and everything is so easy, they are somewhat lessened. Come to a different country all aloneperilous life of jade yeo, having (and enjoying) sex as an unmarried woman,  and unwanted pregnancy are just a few things that feel like they were drizzled over the story to give it some depth. Except they don’t feel like issues because EVERYTHING FALLS INTO PLACE SO DAMN EASILY. As soon as a problem arises, somebody goes “Oh that? Don’t worry, here’s a neat little solution.”

At the very end, when Jade realises that she has fallen in love (rather predictably, one might add), that’s the only time where cultural differences really present obstacles. Of course Jade is determined to overcome them and make their love work somehow, but at least we get a glimpse of the difficulties they will face on the way to marital bliss. And even that discussion is over within minutes. But at the very least, there isn’t an immediate, pretty solution. They talk about the issues at hand and promise to find a way to make things work. But we, the readers, know it’s not going to be simple and it’s going to alienate people. Traditional, conservative families whose child wants to marry someone from a completely different culture, will be up in arms. They know this, we know this, and there’s no easy way out.

There were so many things I loved about this story, the protagonist’s voice the foremost among them. I can’t really say anything bad about it except that everything was too easy and happened too fast. A novel-length version of this story with some stakes for the characters would be perfect. If the solutions to Jade’s problems weren’t as quick to arrive, for example, that would have already made this more interesting. If her future hangs in the balance for a mere (short) chapter, I won’t get overly excited. If, however, her uncertainty and at some points, her helplessness were to last longer, that would make it memorable. That would make her little troubles real problems. I commend her for wanting to do everything herself and not relying on the help of others but again, help does come and it pretty much gets her out of any situation without much fuss.

This was only a nice and very quick read that keeps your heartrate at a steady level. No sizzling romance, no danger for our heroine, but a lot of interesting people with surprising views on love, sex, and culture. It’s a peasurable read but not one that will stay with me for long, I suspect. Who would have thought I’d ever say it but here it is: I need a little more drama in my fiction. If I don’t feel with the characters I’m not likely to remember their stories for long.

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